Both of those feel like an eon ago.
I’m still learning lessons about how to be a “career” author and not just in that frenetic state that accompanies the release of your first (or second or even third) novel.
My husband and I discussed early on that having an author career is like a small business, and for every small business there are three critical stages: Getting Launched, Scaling Up, Staying Competitive.
Debut Author (Getting Launched)
The experience of your first novel depends somewhat on the path you take, but all first-novel releases come with bouts of hysteria, depression, and nausea (this publishing thing is not for the weak-of-stomach). The pre-release mania (OMG I’m publishing a book!!), terror (OMG everyone will hate it!), and mania again (OMG a reviewer loved it!). Before, during, and after release, there’s this frantic feeling where you wake up in the middle of the night convinced you forgot some vital piece of marketing, like mailing bookmarks to your High School English teacher, that will doom, doom, DOOM your book to obscure-land and the Millions Mark on Amazon Rankings. Once you’ve launched, there’s the obsessive checking of sales, rankings, reviews, etc. It’s a wonder that any of us write a second book.
But then we do. And it starts all over again.
This Getting Launched phase is all about learning the ropes of your business of writing and publishing; learning the ins and outs of Amazon and Kobo and B and N; figuring out how to market, what works and what doesn’t (for you). But there comes a time when you need to Scale Up – you’ve written more than one novel, you plan to write a whole lot more, and you’ve got the basics down.
Career Author (Scaling Up)
You have to go through the Debut stage – everyone does. It’s comprised of the hard lessons learned that allow you the perspective of the Career stage. So don’t fret if you’re still frantic and manic and nauseous (especially nauseous). It wasn’t until I reached the release of my fourth novel, that I came close to being able to launch without the use of Tums as a counter measure. I didn’t reach the Zen level until my 17th title, somewhere well into the frenetic publishing of my serial. There are still days when the terror strikes, or the mania, but for the most part, they are quickly tempered with the knowledge that I’m doing a job I love like no other. When I release a book now, I know I’ve done my part. I’ve told the story I wanted to tell. It’s time to release it into the world and let the readers decide what they think of it.
By the time it’s in their hands, I’m already writing the next book.
However, being a Career Author means more than just writing the next book…
Check Your Sales Less Often
I’m obsessive with numbers to begin with, plus I’m an engineer/scientist. It’s really hopeless with me and numbers. In the beginning, I tracked all my sales on all channels every morning, making graphs and trying to understand trends. And to be fair, I learned an IMMENSE amount from that data collection. But after a year of publishing and putting out five titles in that time (novels and shorts), it was just taking too much time. Now I only record my sales once a month (maybe a couple times a month, if I can’t resist) (see Yellow-Spotted Sales-Checking Fever). This way, I keep a broader view of how the books are faring, plus longer term trends in sales and income. Mostly I try not to think about sales and just write.
Have a Production Schedule; Be Flexible
Write More; Promote Less
All my obsessive data collection clearly shows: the best marketing is the release of another book. There’s not even a question about it. When I hear some authors say they want to focus more on writing and less on marketing, I say DO IT. Writing more, writing better, improving craft, experimenting with different genres… basically all the things writers LOVE TO DO are also the secret to success in this business. Make time for your creativity, protect it, nurture it, build it, sustain it: these are the most important things you can do with your time.
When a business scales up, it needs to have a plan (maybe even a Five Year Plan). Many Mom-n-Pop stores never manage to expand beyond the first store, because they don’t manage inventory or people well enough, or they expand too quickly. They can’t keep up with demand, or they over-commit and can’t deliver. As a writer, your commodity is your writing talent. You have to nurture it and grow your backlist in a way that is sustainable for you. Maybe you want to publish two books a year (or one or three). Maybe you want to experiment with novellas or serials or different genres. You can’t reach your goals if you burn out with the marketing or publishing process (or even the writing process). Make sure you have a balance that includes regenerative time, building your Productive Capacity, as well as your Production.
Example: Right now I’m finishing up this Guide. I have to finish edits for Third Daughter, and figure out what I’m doing with my middle grade fantasy. Oh, and I have a Christmas novella I want to write, and a novel (that I haven’t started) due to my freelance developmental editor in two-and-a-half months (Ha! That one makes me just laugh, but I keep telling myself it’s going to happen). That’s a lot of projects and ambition in one tidy paragraph. But I’m still leaving time to attend a screenwriting class once a month, as well as attending a four-day intensive craft workshop in two months. Because those things are extremely valuable to my long-term creativity, and my creative mojo is my career. I have to care for it. I’m also saving time to hug my kid when he has bus trauma on the way home from school and make sure I get some sleep (at some point).
I’m just entering the Staying Competitive stage, where career authors need to make sure they stay fresh, stay innovative, continue to please their fans. I’m figuring out which direction to go with future works to build on my current fanbase, keep them happy, but also branch out and try new things. Some authors will stagnate, relying on the same tropes over and over, losing readers to predictability. Some will simply run out of steam or new ideas. Even before I have a huge backlist to compete with, I’m proactively feeding my creative side to keep any of that from happening. I truly believe I’m just getting started, and that my best books are ahead of me.
Writing is a journey. Be brave. Be bold. Strive for balance. And keep marching, my friends.