Building Your Writing Career

Many writers begin their writing journey and choose to focus on gaining the skills they need to become publishable. In fact, that becomes their sole focus. They don’t worry about learning how to sell their books. After all, you can’t sell a book that you haven’t written, right?

But what happens when you do sell a book and suddenly find that in addition to learning how to write, you now need to launch a career?

I’ve known many authors who have done just that. They focused on becoming writers and never learned the first thing about building a career. They’ve taken so little thought to the business side of writing that in some cases, they even managed to derail their career before it got started.

So, what are the first steps in building a career?

One of the first steps you need to take is to begin building “your list.” What is your list? It is a list of friends and fans and business associates who want to follow your career. These are people who will go out and buy your books. In fact, a good friend or fan will go out and buy your book on a certain day, a day that you ask them to buy it, in order to help launch your book on the bestseller lists.

Now, if you’re like me, you’ll think, “I don’t know anyone who would do that!” Well, you might be surprised at how many people would be willing to do that, if you just ask them to.

So, how do you ask? You send an invitation to people that you keep on an email list. This list is your most important business asset as a writer.

Who is on your list? How about this: look at your family first, not just your immediate family, but also your cousins, nephews, nieces, and even your crazy uncle. If you’re from a large family, getting the names and email addresses of these people can take some time. But it’s worthwhile. Family members are often eager to buy your books, tell friends what you’ve done, and so on. Even if they aren’t frequent readers, they’re likely to read your work.

Who else is on your list? How about your business associates at the place(s) that you’ve worked? How about old friends and classmates from school—from kindergarten on through college, and even people that you’ve taken seminars with?

Then go to your business associates—other writers, producers, editors, agents, and so on.

Next, look to fans. Now you might not have any fans yet. That’s okay. As a writer in training, you should set up a website and a Facebook page. On your website, you should try to capture the email addresses of people who visit. Simply promise them that when your next book or story comes out, you’ll let them know the details. Most people will be willing to join your list. You might think that as a new writer, no one will care. But people are curious, and you’ll find that you have people rooting for you early in your career.

As you speak at libraries, conventions, book signings, and so on, take that list with you, and see if you can make it grow!

How big does it need to be? Well, that’s a good question. A hundred people is a good start. If you can get a dozen or so people to buy and review your book the first week that it comes out, you’ll find that Amazon.com and Goodreads will begin to advertise it. Fifty people is even better, since Amazon’s algorithms kick in and they begin advertising it more broadly. If five hundred people review it quickly, it tells Amazon that you’ve got excellent sales velocity (that a lot of people are buying your book fast). These reviews don’t have to be five-star reviews. In fact, it is better if they’re not. You want honest reviews from people who have read your book, even if they didn’t like it. It tells the booksellers that you didn’t pay your reviewers or trade for reviews with other writers, that real people are reading your work.

So your goal is to attract attention quickly. In fact, if you want to become a New York Times bestseller, you need to get several thousand sales in your first week (about 5000 to 7000), and if you can keep it up for several weeks—say four—you’ll hit the monthly bestseller list.

What does that do for you? It puts your books into grocery stores and a lot of independent bookstores, so that suddenly your book is available in tens of thousands of locations rather than just the chain bookstores. And of course, as your books get wider distribution, more people see it and you sell a lot more copies. In fact, you can become a perennial bestseller if you attract enough fans, just as Stephen King or J.K. Rowling have done.

But what if you don’t build your list? It is possible that a few great reviews will help guide readers to your book, and advertisements in magazines will also help. And if people begin reading and talking about your novel, the “word of mouth” advertising is invaluable. The problem is, that word of mouth is also slow. If someone buys your book and doesn’t read it for a few weeks, by the time that she tells her friends about how great you are, your book might be out of print.

So as a writer you need to start thinking about how you can speed up the process. How do you get those great reviews and that word-of-mouth quickly? You begin by building your list.

My friend Richard Paul Evans has a story about a writer who failed to build his list. Richard went to do a book signing on the East Coast a couple of years ago and was excited to be signing right next to an author whose first novel was a blockbuster—one that stayed on the New York Times Bestseller list for more than a year. He’d sold millions of copies and had gotten emails from tens of thousands of fans. But when Richard got to the store, he found that his own fans were there but the new author had no one in his lines. His publisher had not advertised his second novel widely, and the author hadn’t kept a list of his fans, so he had failed to tell them about the signing. When Richard asked the author what had happened to his fans, the author said, “I guess that they didn’t get the memo.”

It’s your job to send out the memo. When you go to do a signing for a new book, you want to let your friends and fans know that you’re coming. If you go to an unfamiliar area, you might only have a few people show up, but those people are invaluable.

So here are your action items:

  • If you don’t have an author website, build one and begin talking about how you are chasing your dream of being a writer.
  • On that website, capture the email addresses of visitors.
  • Make a list of family members, friends, schoolmates, and business associates who might also be interested in your work.
  • When you speak at libraries or conventions, make sure that you add to your list every single time.
  • A week before your first novel comes out, email your fans and let them know. Then send a second notice on the day that it goes on sale.

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