How to Set Priorities as an Author
Setting Top Priorities
Proper prioritization is the single most significant factor distinguishing successful authors from their unsuccessful counterparts. Proper prioritization lies not just in giving writing precedence over other aspects of one's life (e.g. other hobbies or careers), but in prioritizing the actual publication of books over other aspects of writing (e.g. socializing with other writers, posting blog posts and updates via social media, reading about writing, organizing your collection of writing guides, agonizing over character names, etc.).
Your top priorities should be to:
- Create great books
- Get your work published so people can read it
- Gain more readers
Make a habit of asking yourself why you are working on something at any given moment. Will taking an online course on the history of prose help you create an even better book? Will reading another editorial on publishing get your books published? Will tweeting yet another link to your book on Amazon help you get more readers? If an action does not concretely aid your progress toward these goals, drop it.
Setting Tactical Priorities
Tactical priorities can be somewhat more difficult to establish (and will vary depending on your work and goals), however we have found a wide number of successful authors to consistently prioritize:
- Producing new work over promoting existing work
- Giving books away for free/cheap over charging high prices
- Establishing deep connections with readers over fighting against piracy
Marketing is important, however a prolific author is far more likely to gain traction than an author with just one really good book. You will be more likely to gain a loyal audience (and even drive sales) if you give some of your books away for free. And instead of fighting piracy (which is inevitable), you stand to gain much more from treating readers (even those who steal your books) as friends and allies rather than adversaries and thieves.
How to Write Successful Books
Throughout our research and interview process, the same tips on writing successful books came up over and over again:
- As you write, be mindful of the time complete strangers take to read your work (and do not waste it)
- Write the sort of book you, personally, would love to read
- Crate work that is unique and thought provoking
- Cut out everything that is not utterly essential
- Write books that spark online conversation (aka word-of-mouth marketing)
- Respond to readers' requests and suggestions (aka market demand)
Specifically with regard to nonfiction books:
- Provide a rich, engrossing narrative; set the scene for readers
- Give events more depth by providing insights from multiple perspectives
- Make people interesting and relatable by offering conjecture on motives and factors behind their personality and decisions
- For technical work, use metaphors and vivid, engaging examples
- For historical fiction, focus on famous figures and wars
- When choosing subjects and release dates, capitalize on anniversaries (e.g. a figure's X'th birthday, an event's Yth anniversary)
The Trick to Good Prose
While there is no magical elixir that will instantly make your writing better, the following tricks can make a significant difference:
- Drop the word "very" (and just use more appropriate words - e.g. "transporting" instead of "very moving" and "heartbreaking" instead of "very sad")
- Drop the word "that" (it is not so necessary as you might imagine)
- Drop adverbs (e.g. "I win!" he said proudly) and use descriptive verbs instead (e.g. "I win!" he crowed)
- Avoid cliches (here's a good explanation on the unfortunate use of cliches)
- If you do not fully understand a word, do not use it
Formulas Do Work... Use Them Responsibly
Though we respect writing as a craft, we must point out how successful formulaic writing can be. Should you want proof of our point, consider the 1969 book Naked Came the Stranger. The erotic romance novel, created by 24 journalists as a hoax deriding modern American literary culture, was deliberately designed to be terrible and formulaic. Alas, the book became a bestseller well before it was exposed as a joke.
We do not necessarily recommend creating horrible, formulaic books (unless that's your thing). It may, however, be worthwhile to learn about timeless tropes, plot devices, and scenarios that draw readers' attention. Sure, Stephanie Meyer might have used some cheap tricks... but so did Shakespeare.
Grow Through Experimentation
Though we have already mentioned FanFiction.net and sections of reddit like /r/ExplainLikeIAmA in previous lessons, they are worth bringing up again, as both channels are excellent means by which you can experiment with new concepts, characters, and styles as an author. The low-stakes experimentation offered through these sites (and a myriad of other online avenues) has the potential to keep your work fresh and pull you out of creative ruts.
Should you be concerned about your reputation as an author, simply pick up a nom de plume.
How to Improve Your Work
The top ways authors improve their work entail:
- Getting help from editors
- Getting insights form beta readers before publication
- Submitting work to publishers as a litmus test (even should you intend to self publish)
- Getting insights from readers and reviewers after publication (then updating published work and incorporating lessons learned into new work)
- Reading others' work in the same genre (perhaps a different niche); considering its strengths and weaknesses; adjusting your own work so that you utilize those strengths and avoid those weaknesses
The more serious you are about these processes, the better your work will become.
How to Publish Successfully
Nobody can call themselves an experienced publishing pro these days. Thanks to the rapidly-evolving publishing industry, even the most experienced artists have to learn as they go along. You must be willing to research and experiment.
Tricks to Submitting Manuscripts
You may have better odds of success when submitting manuscripts should you:
- Leverage your personal network: Ask your friends, colleagues, and family if they know anyone in publishing to whom you can be personally introduced
- Build your own success first: Many major publishers and literary agents will not be interested in working with you until you have built up a certain amount of independent success
- Start small: Submit short stories and articles to smaller publications to get on publishers' and agents' radar
- Establish a reputation as an expert: Prolifically publish articles related to your field of expertise or short stories related to your genre to establish a reputation for being the go-to person for that niche
Should You Sign a Deal with a Publisher...
When your manuscript is finally accepted by a publisher, keep your options open. Beware of draconian stipulations within your contract. Negotiate. If a publisher is unwilling to change restrictive clauses, work around them or drop the contract.
You can, for example, work around a publisher's demand for exclusive rights to your name by publishing that book under a pen name. But if there is no way to maintain your integrity as an author while still signing the contract, walk away. You have too many opportunities as a self-published author to feel that traditional publishing is your only option.
How to Approach Pricing Your Work
These days, authors who adopt a "the more you give away, the better you do" philosophy tend to do better than those who fixate on charing for everything.
This philosophy typically manifests itself in one of the following approaches:
- Offering a free ebook in exchange for a reader's email address
- Offering the first book in a series for free as an ebook
- Offering free downloads of a book on a periodic basis using services like KDP Select
- Giving an ebook a Creative Commons license, which enables others to redistribute it and make new versions
In most cases, print versions of a free book can also be purchased. In some cases, authors charge moderate prices for ebooks through major sales channels, but offer free downloads on their personal websites. To see how Creative Commons licenses might be used with books, check out Cory Doctorow's work.
The Benefits of Giving Your Work Away for Free
- More readership (hence more word-of-mouth marketing)
- More favorable reviews (especially if you encourage people to leave reviews on the same page through which they download your ebook)
- More print publication sales (from those who start a free ebook, love it, and want a print copy, as those who find the book thanks to word-of-mouth promotion and favorable reviews)
- The opportunity to establish deeper relationships with readers (should you obtain their emails in exchange for one of your free books)
- Heightened interest in your other work and projects (other books you have written, services you provide as a consultant, products you sell, etc.)
How to Market Your Work
Properly Positioning Your Work
Before you can develop an effective marketing campaign, you must understand the audience to whom your work will be marketed.
Start by asking yourself some questions:
- Who is your target audience? Is it comprised of young adults? Middle-aged software engineers? Linguistics enthusiasts? History nuts?
- Where does this target audience hang out online?
- How would they be most likely to discover your book by chance?
- Should members of your target audience be actively looking for a book like yours, where would their searches start?
With these answers in mind, you will be better equipped to reach out to readers and properly position your work. Be sure to add proper metadata to your ebook and organize it within appropriate categories when selling through major sites such as Amazon.com. Proper tagging and categorization can make the difference between wild success and depressing obscurity.
Establishing Relationships with Influential People
When your book goes live, reach out to bloggers, influential people online, and fellow authors within your genre. Most individuals can be reached via Facebook, Twitter, or personal websites, so be sure to have complete, polished profiles on all major platforms and be ready to use them for communication.
Messages to bloggers, influencers, and authors should be succinct and clear. Utilize message templates to save time. Rather than copy and paste the same form message for every person you contact, modify each missive to include an original paragraph explaining why you are reaching out to that person in particular (e.g. "For quite some time, I have enjoyed your book reviews on Young Adult novels- your posts on the Divergent series have been brilliant. I frequently reference your blog when deciding what to read next.").
Offer potential reviewers free copies should they be interested in reviewing your book. Suggest to fellow authors within your genre that you cross promote each other's books if you think your readers don't presently overlap and would appreciate the new book suggestion. Whenever possible, meet those important to your target market in person to establish an even stronger relationship.
Connecting with Readers via Social Media
Many of today's top authors are very open and accessible via social media. Rather than regarding popular platforms as tools to drive sales, savvy writers leverage them to garner feedback, respond to readers' questions, establish personal ties with their audiences, join in on book club meetings, and provide behind-the-scenes peeks.
For reminders of how authors commonly use major social media sites, return to our lesson on key platforms for authors. When developing your own tactics and strategies, be prepared to adapt quickly. Social media platforms and audience preferences evolve quickly; methods that might be effective today may be useless six months hence.
Building Your Presence with Online Content
You will have an easier time marketing your books and gaining readers if you broaden your presence and publish as much content as possible.
In addition to publishing prolifically, consider:
- Starting a personal blog
- Organizing interviews with other authors
- Submitting guest posts to well-read blogs
- Submitting articles or short stories to popular digital publications
- Publishing recorded Google+ Hangouts or talks you give as an author on YouTube
When publishing online, understand how to make your content likely to be discovered through search engines. Should you publish through a blog or social media page to which others may submit comments, be sure to have a sound comment moderation policy in place. If you publish under a pseudonym and it is important that you maintain conceal your real-world identity, review our guide to publishing anonymously.
Running Special Promotions for Your New Book
Popular online book promotions include:
- Offering your book for free for a certain period of time (or until it gains traction)
- Releasing a free audiobook version of your book
- Offering signed copies of your printed book to the first 1,000 buyers
- Running contests associated with your book
- Offering daily/weekly/monthly book giveaways via social media
Like signed copies of a book, contests and social media-based giveaways are only effective if you have a built-in audience. If you have yet to build a following or reputation, consider one of the first two alternatives. We have yet to discover a case in which authors have found significant success by running online ad campaigns.
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