What to Prioritise for Long Term Success
As authors, we often talk about success in binary terms. We are bestsellers or starving artists. We write full-time or we work a day job. We’re critically acclaimed or unknown. But success in the arts doesn’t always work that way. Lots of bestselling authors maintain a day job to make ends meet. Others see critical success only to get forgotten when their “timeless masterpiece” gets buried beneath newer releases.
Authors reminisce about legendary months they experienced during the Kindle Gold Rush or when they released a novel that caught the retailer algorithms. They talk about it like a fish that got away. For years they made two or three figures a month then – out of nowhere – $40,000 in 30 days! Their income stayed high for a while, but the returns diminished to $2,000 a month after a year and newer books have never managed to replicate that lighting in a bottle.
Some do experience a stratospheric rise that keeps them in orbit forever. But many more shoot for the moon only to become a falling star. What worked last year didn’t work yesterday. You can never guarantee a perennial six-figure income. However, there are a few habits and principles you can focus on to increase your chances of growing your author business over the long term. Read on to see what you should prioritise for long-term success.
A Writing Habit
Would you be more likely to write if someone promised to pay you for every high-quality page you produced? The answer might seem like a no-brainer. After all, writers often only stop because they are disappointed by early results and believe that writing more won’t change anything. Giving up too early, they never learn that an author’s chance of success increases with every book launch. The work is frontloaded and payment is delayed, but growth isn’t linear for those who succeed; frequently it’s experienced as an exponential curve. As many authors’ backlists grow, the more they write, the better they get, the more readers they reach and the more they earn.
By building a daily writing habit, you will quickly see your backlist and earning potential grow. For example, if you started writing 1,000 words per day instead of committing to 3,000-word sessions or nothing, you will consistently write 7,000 words a week instead of 3,000 – 6,000 words, depending on how many high word count days you can manage. Over the course of a year, that means racking up a guaranteed 365,000 words instead of an unpredictable 156,000 – 312,000. With numbers like that, you could release an extra one to four books a year and generate a more stable long-term income thanks to the extra diversity.
Writing books can be gruelling, particularly when you begin publishing and face a series of learning curves. With so many moving parts, the process can be difficult to comprehend. In fact, many authors stop after a few releases because they don’t see the work getting easier. It’s a shame, though, because they could avoid this fate by incorporating systems into their workflows. That may sound corporate, but it doesn’t have to be. A simple “to-done” list can help. This is like a to-do list but it’s retrospective, including everything that had to be done to complete your last project, including all unexpected side-tasks that caused you to fall behind schedule. Compiling a to-done list:
a.) stops you forgetting any extra tasks so you can more effectively plan future project timescales, and
b.) makes outsourcing tasks easier by providing a handbook for assistants and freelancers.
You might also want to try spreadsheets, calendar reminders and templates for routine copywriting tasks, but they can be added later. Or not. Your systems can be as simple or as comprehensive as you want. The main reason for their existence is to make your job increasingly easier. Focus on creating them as soon as possible and they will save you a considerable amount of time and effort over the long term.
Systems are designed to make tasks faster or easier, but automation removes you from the equation altogether, allowing you more time to grow your business or enjoy life. One task you could automate is writing social media posts that keep your readers engaged. If, for example, you know you spend 10 minutes a day writing tweets for #MotivationMonday, #TuesdayTips, #HumpDay, #ThrowbackThursday, #FriYay, #SaturdayVibes and #SundayFunday then you know it costs you 70 minutes a week, part of which includes repeating the login process. However, you could compress that time into a single 30-minute timeslot by using a site like Hootsuite or Buffer to schedule all of those tweets.
Similarly, if you search certain keywords every week to stay updated on a topic, you could set up Google Alerts to receive emails with links to relevant articles, all in one place. Or you could avoid manually paying bills every month by establishing automatic bank payments. Perhaps you could install Dropbox to create continuous backups of your files, too. That way, you don’t have to do it yourself every month. There are plenty of ways to automate your business. Integrating a few can reduce your long-term workload and stress, making you more likely to be still in the industry a decade later.
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” In many ways, this ancient proverb is still valid today. Moreover, it marks the difference between traditional and indie publishing. Traditional break-out authors are often given their fish. Much of the systems and expertise that drive their success is done by someone at a publishing house. If that publisher rejects their next book, their career starves. Indie authors, meanwhile, teach themselves to fish and, as a result, some have grown massive fortunes that will feed their families forever.
The only recent development this proverb doesn’t factor in is the rapid evolution of modern publishing. As technology changes, what works today might not work in a year. Millions have access to the same information so the only way to ensure longevity is not solely to teach yourself how to fish, but also to break down the fundamentals of hunting so that you can seek out new food sources whenever a particular breed is fished to extinction. That means being curious about all things publishing, from marketing innovations to new genres and new IP opportunities. Nowadays, a specialised hunter can make a killing for a while, but it is only those who adapt who can guarantee a food source for the rest of their lives.
There are easier ways to make a living than writing books. Squeezed at all ends, the publishing industry has small profit margins per unit, tight deadlines and a constant need for reinvention. The vast majority of authors have to work hard to stay successful so, if you don’t love it, why stay? That’s the question many writers face after years of grinding to become a bestseller. Even if you do love it, there is still a limit on how much you will want to work. After all, everyone needs some work-life balance.
Keep this in mind because, if you plan to play the game long term, you need to make your happiness a priority. That means not climbing the mountain at all costs. Sure, if you want to make rapid early progress, being single-minded can make that happen. But, as the proverb says, if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together. Always remember why you’re writing because that will keep you on track.
Do you pursue writing so you can spend less time in a corporate office and more with your family? Think about that when considering how many speaking gigs you should accept in a month. Did you start simply because you loved creating and talking about fantasy worlds, not because you hated your day job? If that’s the case, you might want to re-join the workforce and write in your free time so you don’t have to make artistic compromises to pay the bills. Focus on working in a way that doesn’t cost you your happiness and, ultimately, that will keep you dedicated to your dream and stop it morphing into a nightmare.
Being an author isn’t easy but, if you focus on positive habits, systems, automations, education and happiness, you will be far more likely to survive in the world of publishing. Start implementing all of these principles now and you will one day look back on your long writing career with fondness and pride, knowing that the rewards were worth the hard work.
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