Building Your Writing Career

From Dave Farland:

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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.”

Link to the rest at Dave Farland and thanks to Alexis for the tip.

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14 thoughts on “Building Your Writing Career”

  1. “Family members are often eager to buy your books, tell friends what you’ve done, and so on.”

    *Please* will this awful, awful idea just die already. Sure, some writers have supportive families. But loads of writers don’t. Sometimes they even have the opposite: families who will go to some great effort to discourage them from writing, because they don’t see writing as a “real job” and are convinced anyone who tries to make it a career is automatically headed for failure and ruin.

    A writer exposing their finished work to such a group of family members is asking for a lot of heartache, discouraging, and browbeating. An emerging writer doesn’t need that on top of all the rejection they’re probably going to encounter.

    I read an anecdote — I think it was in Caroline See’s book on writing — about the parents of an undergraduate she was teaching coming to see her. The student was one of the best writers in her class, and had discussed giving writing a serious go as a career move with his parents.

    The parents were there to ask the writing professor for her help in discouraging the student — by any means possible, including artificially lowering his mark.

    Then there are all the spouses/romantic partners who have gone out of their way to discourage writing. There could be several blog posts about that.

    IMHO, better advice is to seek out supporters, and don’t be afraid to tell them when you’ve finished something. That’s your real list. It might have relatives on it — but it might not. And that’s okay.

    • I would also generally advise not asking your “crazy uncle” for help with your writing career. Unless they’re a rich crazy uncle. Then by all means.

      • That’s assuming that your relatives read your genre. I write in a couple genres and I know some of my relatives won’t be interested in certain ones. It’s fun when I hear from them that they read my books, but I never push them.

        I have a cousin that’s a cop who I consulted for a mystery, a nephew who’s a recovering addict that I consulted for a character that was recovering and a sister who is a nurse that I ask medical questions. Of course, they all get free copies and if they enjoy the book I know I did it right.

  2. What I’ve heard about relatives buying your book is that they won’t. They will all expect free copies, as will your friends, if any of them have any interest at all. Work places usually don’t allow solicitation on premises, and co workers are likely to start avoiding you outside of work if you are known to act like you’re pushing Amway. Just don’t.

  3. A lot of this advice is rubbish. The previous two commenters have already shot down the family argument. We all know that’s a terrible strategy.

    Friends aren’t much different. Most of the time they don’t care. Oh, perhaps a couple times a year, but if you’re cranking ’em out every month the friends will get tired of that real quick.

    Coworkers? Boy, that’s about as stupid as the friends/family argument.

    Besides that, I don’t see a lot of advice on how to actually build a list.

    The comments on yesterday’s post from the woman that did a $25 giveaway was better advice than what this guy’s offering.

  4. Yeah, the old “friends, family and coworkers will buy your books” thing. Maybe some rare person knows people like that. Along those lines, I used to be awestruck by those in the crafts world who “just took some things to work, sold it all” to start their crafting careers.

    Your “list” is the people who do buy your books. They are like precious stones, like gold. They should be treasured and appreciated. But don’t torture the people you know into buying your books, or worse yet, feeling like they have to lie about doing it.

  5. The only reason I even told “family and friends” about my Indy publishing was to try and get them to start Indy publishing as well. I gave them copies of _The Weekend Novelist_, sent links about TPV and Dean’s blog, all to no avail.

    I publish under multiple pen names to avoid those same “family and friends” from finding my books online and leaving bizarre comments or starting “flame wars” with other commenters. Anyone else remember the bizarre flame wars that Anne Rice started on Amazon. Yikes! That’s what would happen if they knew.

    I tell people, “The books will find you. You won’t find the books.” and that is literal fact.

  6. What is this “magazine” thing he speaks of? And “out of print?” Is the article a reprint from 1995?

    Oh, right. Tradpub.

  7. This is solid advice for tradpub. If it is imperative that you sell thousands of copies in the first week of your debut novel, then capturing email addresses early is nearly a requirement. He’s also right that word of mouth is slow if the fan base isn’t too big. And success begets success: if a book sells better than expected initially, then it may become a bestseller, and if it becomes a bestseller, then booksellers take notice and stock more of them, which means more people end up seeing the cover. . . . (He mentions this in the full article.)

    On the other hand, it’s a bit sad to have such high expectations for a first book. What happens if you do everything right but the sales aren’t to the publisher’s expectations? Does the scrappy author get a second chance? Too many hoops to jump through for a maybe. Writers can publish the next book easily nowadays.

  8. There’s another problem for Amazon-centric indies to consider: you want your first few dozen customers to be squarely in your target audience so that the algorithm starts showing it to people who will actually buy it and enjoy it, not a random assortment of uncles and coworkers who have entirely different purchase histories.

  9. Although it may seem like old advice it is still applicable today. Building a list of readers will take time, no doubt about it, and if you write in different genres the list may be in smaller segments. But being able to spread the news about your new book to a few people is better than no news to no one.
    As far as relatives and friends buying your book is too little to make a difference in the long run. The only time it could make a difference is for the first book when no one knows about you or your book. Soon after that you’ll realize that you’re in the business of selling many, many books for a few dollars to many people that don’t know you. So friends and relatives are OK to rely on in the beginning, even if you have to buy your book for them. A sale is a sale, and gifting your book to people you know won’t bankrupt you, and won’t make you rich. But at least you can claim the sales and you have someone to lean on for an “honest-five-star review. ;o)
    A list for fewer than one thousand names won’t make a difference when you release a new book. Sure you’ll sell some, but hardly a bonanza. On the other hand why not offer a new release for free for the readers on your mailing list, with the caveat that you’d like an honest, but fair review. I stopped giving free eBooks to strangers on Amazon because free eBooks have no value to readers and are never read. But I don’t mind gifting my eBooks to readers on my list. Quick boost in sales and some reviews would follow. You’ll spend little money (99 cents per eBook) but this is a marketing expense for your eBook.
    So, yes, mailing list would be good for a writer.

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