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The entrepreneurial skills of the self-published author

This article was originally conceived as a guest post for Rachel Abbott's website where budding and experienced authors alike can find some fantastic tips on writing and publishing:

Writing a best seller is easy, isn’t it? It’s just a process of stringing together 100,000 words in the correct order.

If it’s good enough, getting the book to sell is then a no-brainer, of course. From your very first reader, word of mouth will simply take control and spiral outwards across the globe. Within weeks your book will be topping the charts, have been translated into several languages and you’ll have received several offers for film rights from big Hollywood studios.

Ok, so maybe as a newbie with no writing or publishing experience, I wasn’t so naïve as to believe it would be quite that easy, but I’d no idea just how hard it is to get noticed in today’s market. And it’s not just the size and competitiveness of the market that I underestimated. More importantly, and as I’ve increasingly found, it was my misplaced perception of what it actually is that makes a successful writer.

If Alan Sugar wants a real apprentice, with entrepreneurial skills in sales and management that would help drive forward any business, I would advise him to take a long, hard look at the crop of top self-published writers.

I’ve only been writing for a relatively short period of time, so I really can’t comment on how the market used to be, before the recent proliferation of e-books and self-publishing which have transformed the publishing landscape forever. And for the better I would add. It’s great that so many people can get their work onto a global platform so easily nowadays, and for the reader there’s never been so much choice at such cheap prices. The hard part for the writer is finding a way to actually make a living from it. I have an outdated and possibly entirely erroneous impression of what a writer used to be. It’s an introvert, someone who shuts themselves off from the world for days, weeks or months on end while they slowly craft away at perfecting their manuscript. When it’s done they post it off to a publisher. The publisher sends them a big advance and takes care of everything else. The only skills required for the author were that they could construct the novel – which is no easy feat – and manage to make it out from their reclusive abode to the nearest post office.

Perhaps the world never really was like that. Either way, I’d no idea quite how much different from that perception it would be.

There’s a great quote by Richard Bach: "A professional writer is an amateur who didn't quit". I don’t know the full context of the quote but for me it fits perfectly the world of the self-published writer. We are the creators of our own success – nobody else is going to do it for us. As a self-published author, I don’t see myself as a writer. I see myself as an entrepreneur. I’m running a business. I’ve invested my own money into this venture, much like someone would if they were opening a shop or a restaurant or any other small enterprise, and I’m working day and night to generate a return on my money and make this a successful career.

A typical working week for me currently involves no more than a couple of days writing and many more hours and days on the myriad other tasks that are needed. When you look at the most successful self-published writers out there, you see similar traits in them all. First and foremost they’re writers, and of course none of us would do this if we didn’t have a love and thirst for writing. But we’re all also business people. It’s no surprise therefore that many of the most successful authors come from successful jobs in business. There are many transferable skills.

I’ve worked for a global accounting firm for thirteen years, carrying out global fraud investigations. Managing project teams of up to 50 people at a time, often in multiple countries simultaneously, I’ve steadily honed my project management skills, my client relationship skills, not to mention my marketing skills required to actually win the work in the first place. It’s these same set of skills that I’m now using for my book projects and it’s a similar story for many other writers too.

To put this into context, a book project takes me around 24 months from conception to publication. In that time I need to draft the book. I then need to edit it at least a couple of times. I then send it to a professional editor for development. When it’s returned I edit it again. It then goes for copy-editing. I then edit it again. When I’m finally happy, it then goes for proofreading and typesetting.

That’s just the writing part.

At the same time I need to organise cover design, printing, publication and develop the launch strategy. Sure, I use professionals to help me with many elements, but it’s me at the centre organising it all - which as a control freak is exactly where I want to be. I also manage my own website, blog, twitter and facebook profiles as well as doing interviews, guest blogs, attending book fairs and literary festivals and organising promotions for my previous releases. And I’m managing multiple book projects at any one time. My second book, Rise of the Enemy, was released recently, but by the point of publication I’d already got the third book sitting with the editor for development, had nearly completed an initial draft of the fourth, and had developed a concept for the fifth - making sure I have a steady pipeline of future releases. It’s a never ending cycle of work that takes a lot of organisation.

But it works. I can see tangible results from every piece of effort that I’ve put into the process and that’s what makes it all worth it. And through our collective hard work, self-published authors are slowly making a splash in the wider publishing market.

We’ve already made our voices heard in the e-book arena, there’s no doubt about that. Just look at the well-known success stories such as E.L James, author of the Fifty Shades phenomenon, who started out writing fan fiction, and Rachel Abbott whose e-book sales have topped 1 million. There are many more less-known self-published writers too, steadily beavering away making a career for themselves.

Next up for us is the paperback market. It’s still dominated by the big publishers with a confusing network of distributers and sales agents meaning that it’s historically been virtually impossible for a self-published writer to achieve widespread distribution. Only a handful of Waterstones stores ever stocked my first book and they didn’t re-stock when those were sold. It’s frustrating but the sales and distribution processes in place for the high street retailers are too well-engrained to break into easily.

Don’t write us off just yet, though. When it comes to selling, we’ve already shown we can do it. It was great to see a recent article about self-published author Piers Alexander, who made a breakthrough by generating a 9,000 book order with WH Smith Travel. How did he do it? Like any good salesman it was through no small amount of hard work and ultimately through making contact with the right person at the right time. Trade buyers may find it easy to work with the big publishers but it’s down to the self-published authors to change the perception that their books are niche and not scalable and to get the right product into the hands of the right people. Alexander’s success of a 9,000 book order may seem like small numbers in the grand scheme of the paperback market, but it’s a huge stepping stone for self-published authors. Now that the seal has been broken, expect more of this in the future. There’s another quote I love, this one from the late, great Steve Jobs: “I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.” As far as the publishing market goes, the self-published author is the most dogged, determined entrepreneur of the lot.

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