They say timing is everything, and I think perhaps I might have hit the right time and the right place to achieve my goal of becoming a published fiction author. Five years ago, the talk among the online fanfiction community was about those who had tried and failed to get original stories published. You had to write a full manuscript, then submit and hope… Hope that you got lucky, that your first three chapters were the whiz-bang! some editor or agent was looking for. The future looked bleak if getting published was the dream.
But message boards gave way to social networks, and just as quickly social networks spawned quick-burst conversations of 140-characters-or-fewer. You could tweet or update Facebook to tell people that you’d blogged or posted new fanfic, and sometimes people would stop and take notice. One thing leads to another, you’ve made the right contact, score!
Amid all the bloggers and tweets, a group of established novelists (for more information check out www.stormwolf.com and www.kriswrites.com) has been enlightening the weary dreamers that they too could get published – that in the new world of ebooks you don’t need an agent or a publishing house, just a manuscript cleaned up and ready to upload into any number of ebook vendors.
Now this sounds great – in theory. Literally anyone can write a book. (In fact there are books now on how to write steal other people’s work, compile it into a book piece of garbage in a day or less, and publish it to Kindle to make a few quick bucks before you get caught.) With a little know-how and some gumption, it’s possible to get the story buzzing around in your head retailed online right alongside such literary giants as James Patterson and Stephen King. Even if you’re a fantastic writer, the trick is getting recognized among all the standouts. James Patterson and Stephen King may be skilled writers, but they’re accomplished at something else, too – branding themselves.
Having spent almost two decades in the corporate grind as a transportation design engineer, I did pick up a thing or two about marketing and business development. Applying that knowledge while watching the successful authors ply their wares, I started to notice the business acumen that sets them apart.
I’m not going to try to lay it all out in one post, but if you’re interested in improving an existing business or even starting a new business, I’m going to talk about some of the techniques I have used to become a successful engineer, and then how I plan on applying them to my new passion – getting my first book published and topping that off with successful sales.
To break the discussion down into manageable bits, I’ve decided to focus on the five questions we must all ask ourselves as business people – Who? What? When? Where? and How? I’ll start with the one I believe is critical in initiating the process of forming or reassessing a business.
What are you going to sell?: Are you selling novels, short stories, or screenplays? T-shirts? Jewelry? Or your knowledge and expertise in building roads and bridges?
As a transportation engineer, the system of winning jobs is designed to level the playing field, not always in ways that are efficient or equitable, but it’s no different anywhere else. When an engineering firm goes after a job, they are given only a vague Request for Proposal (RFP). It’s then up to the applicants to determine all the elements that will be necessary for design and ultimately to construct the final product, and to rise above the other contenders with exceptional value for delivering both to the client.
Novels can be approached in much the same way. The Request for Proposals from the masses can seem mind-numbingly vague. “We want good books!” (“But maybe don’t charge us so much!”) “We want strong female characters!” Not to mention the ways in which the demands of the fiction consumer market can be fickle, if not downright self-contradictory at times.
As an author it’s no different, really. You have to do your research, like an engineering firm would, and dig deeper into vagaries of what people truly want from their reading pleasure. How do I do this? I look at message boards, read best-selling novels, pay attention to pop-culture trends, and anything else I can think of that will tell me what’s selling to whom and why.
After an engineering team has gathered all their data for a RFP, they then have to sit down and figure out exactly what it will take to do the job. In some cases, the team will go so far as to design the project to the 30-percent-complete phase and initiate discussions with interest groups or government agencies that might be affected by the proposed work. Writing a novel is just as intricate of a process. You have to do your pre-work; 30-percent-complete equates to a strong story outline that allows me as the author to see everything I’ll need for the project. This is gut-check time as well, to determine if the entire skillset is readily available to get the job done.
So just as an engineering firm has to do a lot of preparation before bidding on a job to try to get the potential client to hire them, at the earliest stages in the process of writing for publication it’s imperative for the author to sit down, look at what they’ve got, and determine if the product – say, the novel – fulfills the potential market’s needs. Will someone buy this and be satisfied they spent their money wisely?
What is my vision?: Determining the product is actually easier than the next step: defining the vision. As a prospective author I asked myself the same questions I ask as an engineer. What do I want my products to say about me? Working for a big corporation, they tend to take that piece of the puzzle and do all the hard work for you. Corporate visions are generally pared down to four or five pillars – something like Excellence in Knowledge, Understanding Customer Needs, Innovation, Employee Respect, and Quality. These aren’t the same things as goals, by the way; I’ll discuss those later. But I have learned that having a vision is essential to helping keep your business on track. Transferring this idea to creating a novel, an appropriate vision might run something like – Fan Service, Excellence in Storytelling, and Quality Production Values.
Some day, if you have a chance to wander through a bookstore, find a few Robert Jordan or Nicolas Sparks books. Pick one or two up and skim them. And ask yourself if the author’s vision for his (or her) product is clear to you? Many people reading this blog are Star Wars books fans; do the same with the last eight Fate of the Jedi books. Visually, do you see a vision on the covers? Within the pages, does the story express a vision for Star Wars in the flagship EU? Then ponder how vision relates back to success – or failure.
This step of defining a vision is critical, and can make or break every step that follows.
What are my objectives/goals?: With an established vision for the business or creative endeavor, the focus narrows to the more specific objective or goals for each particular product. Some of the goals are obvious from the vision – one goal would be perform quality checks. The list of goals or objectives can be much longer and detailed, and will dovetail out of the vision. Some goals or objectives will be tiered down from a main goal. In turn these primary and secondary goals are all placed on a schedule where each goal can be tied to milestones on the path to completion and quantitative measures to assess progress toward those targets.
For example, one major goal might be: I want to sell X number of books. To determine how to accomplish this goal, I’ll need a layer of tiered goals beneath it.
Goal: To sell X copies of my book.
- I need to expose my book to Y number of people.
- I need to gain a Twitter presence. (perhaps targets of Z tweets or Z followers by a certain date)
- I need to develop a following on Facebook. (with similar targets)
- I need to blog and draw in potentially interested readers; for my book, scifi and fantasy fans are a clear group that fits that bill. (my goals might be pegged to the number of blog posts or the number of regular readers)
- I need to find appropriate places for advertisement. (my goals might be to research possible places, then target dates for designing the ads and then buying them)
This process can be time-intensive, and becomes more intuitive the longer you work in a particular business. Even after years of working as an engineer and successfully winning projects, though, it’s always helpful to go back through this type of process for every single job I win. When starting something new, success can be that much more elusive if I haven’t defined what I want and how I’m going to get there.
What is my business plan?: With goals, objectives, and milestones in hand, the fun begins. (Not really, but I tried.) If someone intended to sell an upstart business to investors, the business plan would actually be the key piece of information they would want. Not only do they need to see each of the goals placed along the schedule, but also the financials – cost in either money or time to get the business running, the targets for finishing products and selling them, and the predictions of the point in time when the goals have been achieved and money starts flowing back into the business. In other words, a business plan is a rough estimation of how much a product will cost to develop and how much it will make in return – and when.
So I hope whatever endeavor you embark upon, this business discussion gives you a place to start. When I realized that writing a novel and getting it published had become a more realistic dream with the ever-in-flux publishing trends, this is pretty much the strategy I employed before the first page of my novel was ever written.
Next month, I’ll discuss the question of Who?
Tricia’s Business Lesson Learned the Hard Way: Corporate theory books are interesting studies of accomplished corporations. There are two universal truths – times change and sometimes those accomplished corporations end up in the tank. And so with those failed accomplishers goes the theory behind great corporations. Lesson learned: Stay current. Be relevant. Don’t be a hedgehog. (If you get the last part, you probably didn’t need to read this blog, but thanks for following along.)
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