This is an excerpt from The Successful Author Mindset. Out now in ebook, print, workbook and audiobook formats.
Logically, we know that overnight success is a myth.
When we see stories in the media about a particular author who made it big, who seemed to come from nowhere, there are usually years of hard work behind the book that went stratospheric.
There are also plenty of authors making a decent living who you have never heard of. Of course, there are always lightning strikes when an author hits a zeitgeist, but that's not something to base a business plan on.
“An overnight success is 10 years in the making.” Tom Clancy
Let's put the time it takes to build an author career into perspective. I come from the corporate world as many of you will likely do too, and most careers work the same way.
When you start your first job, how much are you worth after one year of full-time experience?
After three years?
With five years' experience, you begin to be paid a better wage, manage others and attain some expertise.
But you really start to become useful to a company and paid according to your worth between five and ten years in. And in the time you've been doing your job, other people have left and gone elsewhere.
A large part of your success after ten years in any industry is just sticking it out, becoming an expert and putting in your time. You really know what you're doing after ten years.
Why would this be any different for the writing career?
When I finally left my corporate job in 2011 to become a full-time author entrepreneur, my income dropped significantly. But of course it was going to, because I was leaving an industry where I had 13 years of extensive experience that companies would pay a premium for, to join a new industry where I only had a couple of years part-time.
It took four more years after that before my income rose to my previous level and since then, it has surpassed my old salary. (For more detail, see my book How to Make a Living with your Writing.)
Think about other creative industries.
If you start playing the violin, would you expect to be playing solo at Carnegie Hall the following year? Would you expect to make number one in the pop charts with your first song? How long do you think it takes a musician to get to a point of being paid? Or a painter?
So why consider it to be any different as an author?
In the same way, it takes years of working on your craft to become a better writer and it takes years to build up an audience in any niche.
Why expect your first book to be the best thing you'll ever write?
Surely your fifth book, or your tenth book, will be better than your first? So get the first one out of your system and move onto the next and the next.
For more experienced writers, is it logical to expect that your trajectory will always be stepping upwards? That every book you write will be a bigger hit than the one before? That your income will go up every year?
On a recent trip to Spain, I visited the Picasso Museum in Malaga, where the artist was born. The exhibition contained drawings, pottery, paintings and sculpture from his early years in the 1890s all the way through to the 1970s.
Picasso died at aged 91 and created throughout his whole life. There are estimates that he created over 50,000 pieces of art, only a few of which are known as masterpieces, but you don't create masterpieces without being prolific and continuing with the process of creation over time.
Consider prolific authors like Isaac Asimov, Enid Blyton, Nora Roberts or R.L.Stine. You can probably name a handful of their books, but all have written several hundred each. You don't know what the big stuff will be, you don't know which book will take off. Angry Birds was Rovio's fifty-second game.
Whatever you create, you just have to keep putting it out there.
The Picasso exhibition was powerful because the artist's development was clear, the early pieces and sketches as he experimented and learned his craft were obviously just part of the process toward mastery. His doodles and playful work were just as interesting as his finished pieces, even though they might be considered amateur and not actually very ‘good.'
In fact, the visual art world is excellent at recognizing and valuing an artist’s development, allowing for change over the years, whereas the literary world seems obsessed with debut authors making huge deals with their first books.
But of course, as with anything, you will get better as you practice and create more over time.
“You learn how to make your work by making your work, and a great many pieces along the way will never stand out as finished art. The best you can do is make art you care about – and lots of it!” David Bayles & Ted Orland, Art and Fear
The magic of intellectual property over the long term
Picasso was an artist but he was also a businessman and liked living well. It's said that he burned some of his early canvases to keep warm in his garret, but he was worth over US$500 million when he died and he left some of the world's greatest art. People laud the starving, crazy artists like Van Gogh, but Picasso might be a better role model for the aspiring wealthy creative entrepreneur.
Because the magic of intellectual property assets can only happen by creating work over a long period of time to allow for compounding. Here's how it works.
- Every book you create is an intellectual property asset and can put money in your pocket for the long term
- It is scalable, meaning you spend the time to create the book once and it can sell thousands, even millions of times
- You can turn that one manuscript into different formats e.g. ebook, print, audiobook to expand your sales
- You can sell those formats in 190 different countries (I've currently sold English language books in 72 countries as an indie author) and expand your sales even more
- You can license the rights to that asset in multiple ways e.g. selling the print rights, translation rights, film, TV, gaming and other media rights
- These assets can go on earning you money for your whole lifetime plus 50-70 years after you die according to copyright law (and if your estate is managed well)
The tragedy is that most authors don't see their manuscript as valuable, because they don't see this long-term earning potential. They take short-term cash in hand now rather than letting their intellectual asset base grow over time, compounding as it goes.
Because every new book I publish grows my audience and gives my readers something else to buy. Every book I put out expands my income in these multiple ways.
This is the business model that convinced me that I could far surpass the income from my day job as a full-time writer creating my own assets for the long term. It's a creatively satisfying life, but it can be a very profitable one too!
“You cannot have everything in the present. You will have to keep your focus on five to ten years down the road when you will reap the rewards.” Robert Greene, Mastery
What do you want your legacy to be?
Here's an excerpt from my journal, 22 Oct 2011, a few weeks after quitting my day job.
“I want to make a difference. I want to write something worth writing. I want to last. Yes, I want to entertain, but more than that, I want to be remembered. I want to leave a legacy. I feel like I'm waking up at the moment. That I've been asleep for the last 13 years. Because everything I've done up to now has disappeared. It's time to change that. I will measure my life by what I create.”
Pro writers write, and keep writing over time.
The successful professional writers have multiple books that they continue to produce, even when previous book sales didn’t perform as they would have liked. Professionals aren’t put off by short-term disappointment.
They produce a body of work over time. They don't believe that one book is a special snowflake and give up when it doesn't hit the mainstream. They know that each page is a development in a journey. The habit is creating every day.
What can you create today that will build your body of work?
Life is short. Make the most of it.
In the last six months as I write this, a number of famous actors, musicians and authors have died including David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Prince. Prince's death hit me hard, maybe because his music played in the background of my teens and twenties and I sure partied like it was 1999 back then. But he was an incredible musician, songwriter and all-round creative who lived for his work. Fantasy author Terry Pratchett's death from Alzheimers also made me determined to create more, because death is a certainty.
The only question is when.
So what can we do with our time on this earth to be remarkable, to be extraordinary?
That is all we can do. For this body will crumble and die but we are not tethered by it. Measure your life by what you create. Now go write.
This is an excerpt from The Successful Author Mindset. Out now in ebook, print, workbook and audiobook formats.
Do you think long term about your writing career? What makes this difficult? Please leave a comment below and join the conversation.
Meg Cowley says
I love love LOVE this. It really resonates with me.
I strive to keep adding to that body of work and try not to be so impatient when sales fall as they have done this year. In the long term, it will work out. You can’t give up at the first hurdle, or the second, third or fiftieth.
Hard work and perseverence will get us all there in the end, wherever ‘there’ is! 🙂
Inspiring and very true in that we grow as we learn. We creat our own worth even when others do not value that worth. I’ve been following your posts and I have to say I’ve enjoyed them and what I’ve taken away with me.
Rachel Weishaar says
This was the perfect thing for me to read today. I have just left the “special snowflake” mindset and have been focusing on small, steady improvements. Encouragement and perspectives like this always help.
Great, inspiring article, Joanna! I have written over thirty short stories but only three on Amazon. Still working out marketing/building an audience before releasing other stories. Oh, and focusing on blogging to engage readers enough to take an interest in my work. Keep up the good work! Thanks!
Mary Gorden says
I’m publishing my first book Life Without Ceilings this fall because my research indicates that I’m better off with a published book. I’m sure I can make it better but since it it’s good I’d rather put it out there and make my next one better.
As I am a bit of a slow writer at the moment, focusing on long term goals and knowing I’ll improve with every book, keeps me pushing forward.
Meredith Bond says
This is so true! I’m always saddened when I hear of an author giving up because their first or second book didn’t sell well. I’ve published 15 so far and just finished writing #16 (getting it ready for editing). My last one didn’t sell nearly as well as I’d hoped (tried a new genre), so instead of giving up, I put it up for free on Wattpad and started the next book (back in my comfy old genre).
Thanks so much for your words of wisdom!
Joanna Penn says
Great approach to an under-selling book Meredith 🙂 I’m putting one of mine onto permafree in a few weeks, just to get some reads on it and hopefully reviews. Selling badly doesn’t matter so much on one book when you have a backlist either 🙂
Dan S. says
Great post- just what I needed to hear. I’m currently suffering from “first book syndrome”, but I’m hoping to get over it by working on the next one. thanks!
Icy Sedgwick says
I’ve been putting out novellas since 2011 so I sometimes get crippled by “Why them? Why not me?” when new authors land agents and get big deals with their first book within six months of finishing it.
I have to remember though that I’ve been working on a PhD, and I’ve co-authored an academic book, and I’ve been working on my academic profile so time other people have spent on writing fiction has been time I’ve spent working on other projects.
But I have two fiction series on the go, and I’m making time to write, and to network, and to build my blog. The only way forward is through, so I make sure I do something every day that benefits my writing, even if it’s just listening to a podcast. As the old saying says, slow and steady wins the race!
Joanna Penn says
Indeed, and the race is actually only with ourselves … 🙂
Melissa Van Dover says
Joanna, this was another great article! I love your blog and the resources you provide, and really appreciate all the effort that you put into them.
I was particularly drawn to the section of this post about the magic of intellectually property as it compounds over time. I think this piece is critical for self-published authors as it pertains to backlists. As a self-published author when you’re working to generate compounding sales and create a more steady income you have to have a backlist to do this. Understanding the need for a backlist is a critical lesson for any author to learn.
Also, I think the biggest struggle that authors face just starting out is loosing motivation and not remembering to think long-term. It takes time for books sales to really snowball and I think this can be demoralizing for some authors. How do you deal with loosing motivation when you’re first starting out and trying to get things going?
Joanna Penn says
I think the only way to make it through the difficult times is to decide on why you’re writing anyway. Most long term writers don’t seem to have much choice, as in, there’s nothing else we’d rather be doing! But yes, you’re right, the backlist is so important. It takes time to build but hey, what else would you rather be doing!
P.D. Workman says
I needed to hear this today. I keep reminding myself that those authors who make a big hit with their first book, or their third book, or even their fifth book, are the outliers. That I need to keep doing what I am doing, keep creating, keep improving, and my business will continue to build. It is still building. Maybe I won’t be able to live on my writing this year, or next year, or the year after, but if I keep writing and publishing, it will keep improving.
It’s a long-tail business. And that means that I’m going to be waiting while I build it up.
Sean Homer says
This is the kind of blog I need to keep bookmarked, and read at least once a week! Those times when logical Sean has lost all sense and is wondering why a fledgeling draft is worth finishing. Thanks for always helping to put some perspective on getting into the craft Joanna.