As you’ve probably heard, there’s no such thing as “only being a writer” any more, and while many might not want to handle the business side of things, to give ourselves and our books the best chance of success, we must.
In May 2012, when Becca Puglisi and I self-published The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, we had quite a few challenges. Living in different countries, we needed to create a formal partnership, set up businesses, and figure out how revenue would work. We had to learn publishing and take on marketing and promotion. Neither of us had a business or marketing background, so we relied heavily on research and intuition, and did our best to make the book discoverable. (You can read about our initial marketing plan here.)
Our unusual book on showing character emotion created buzz among writers, igniting word of mouth. Suddenly our lives went from busy to crazy as we tried to keep up with the burst of attention, writing guest posts, teaching workshops, and providing interviews. Books sales continued to strengthen, and we sold foreign rights. A few universities listed the book as required reading, and publishers began approaching us. At this point, Becca and I realized how far the book could go, but because we were being pulled in so many different directions, we didn’t know how to best take advantage of these opportunities.
The need for a business plan became our No. 1 focus. Fortunately, my husband is a management consultant who creates plans for many of his clients. With his help, we identified three areas that would help us grow in the year ahead:
- improving our professional image and brand credibility: creating a website, presenting at conferences and hosting workshops
- providing new product for our audience: writing two new descriptive thesaurus books
- expanding into the education sector: contacting colleges and universities to spread awareness of our writing resources
The roadmap we created allowed us to avoid distractions and focus on what would help us grow.
As we near the end of the year, Becca and I now have a professional website, three writing resource books that have collectively sold nearly 50,000 copies, and we increased our credibility through speaking engagements, teaching at conferences, and hosting workshops. In the near future we are looking to create awareness of our books at the collegiate level, rounding out our business plan objectives.
Since much of our productivity and growth are a direct result of forming a business plan (and sticking to it), I want to share steps you can take to create your own.
Step 1: Brainstorm
Imagine your year ahead and what you would like to accomplish as a writer. What will help you reach your goals, whether it’s publication, releasing more books, beefing up your online visibility, or honing your craft? Write down everything that you want to accomplish, and don’t forget smaller goals, as these are necessary steppingstones to achieving larger ones.
Also, choose goals that are within your power to make happen. For example, while you might really want representation, “getting an agent” is not necessarily something you can attain yourself; the agent decides whom they represent. However, “researching and querying all suitable agents” is a goal you can set and meet.
Step 2: Find Your Themes
Read through your list and look for bigger themes. Are there several goals that fit into a similar area of focus, like platform building or writing improvement? Grab some highlighters and group these together. Then, choose a name or tag line that summarizes each theme or area of focus.
Common themes might include
- Social networking improvement (platform building and connection)
- Education (attending workshops, finding a critique partner, improving one’s craft, studying the industry, etc.)
- Publishing (trying for an agent, working towards a traditional contract or self-publishing)
- Marketing visibility (researching and implementing ads, hiring a publicist, finding one’s audience online, soliciting reviews, etc.)
Step 3: Assign Importance
Now that your goals are organized into different focus areas (themes), step back and look at the big picture. Based on where you are now, which areas are the highest priority? For example, querying agents (publication related) and honing your writing skills (education related) might both be areas you’d like to focus on, but if your writing still needs work, it will be a waste of time to query agents immediately. Likewise, if you are winning notable contests and trusted critique partners are hard-pressed to see how you can improve, likely you should make getting your work in front of agents and editors a priority.
This step involves soul-searching and honesty. Sometimes desire (wanting to be published right now, for example) can get in the way of what we actually need (to hone our craft further). To be objective, set emotion aside. Ask yourself hard questions about what your career really needs. If it helps, pretend you are advising a writer friend. If they were in your shoes, what important things would you suggest they work on to get ahead?
Step 4: Pick Two or Three Main Goals
Now comes the hard part: choosing which goals to pursue. Which two areas of focus did you mark as being the most critical? These two themes (say “Education” and “Networking”) should be the primary focus of your business plan. Pick specific goals that will help you most in these areas.
Once you choose a goal, think about the steps you must take to achieve it. For example, if your goal is to “Build a Platform” you might have action items like open a twitter account and build a following, take a class on social networking, and join a group blog. For inspiration, look at the highlighted lists you made. Chances are you’ll find smaller goals listed there that will help you achieve your larger one.
Two primary areas of focus or main goals are good for a business plan, but if you have a third area you’d like to tackle, list it as a secondary goal. Do the same exercise as above and list out tasks (action items) that must be carried out to achieve this goal.
When making these decisions, think carefully about your time. We all have roles and commitments outside of writing, and these things require a lot of energy. Business goals should be achievable, so don’t take on more than you can handle.
Step 5: Set a Timeline for Each Goal
Stick to your plan by setting timelines that fit your schedule. Becca and I chose a seasonal timeline, so we knew which goal to pursue at which time of the year. This helped us meet completion dates. If you are unsure how much time a certain task will require, set a deadline with a fallback date. This way you won’t be discouraged if you miss the initial deadline, and you’ll have a buffer if needed.
Step 6: Bring It Together in a One-Page Plan
A visual helps when it comes to following a business plan. By condensing your plan on one page, it will force you to be succinct in what must be accomplished to meet each goal. You can use a spreadsheet or table to do this (Excel, Google spreadsheet, a piece of paper, etc) or download this template. Here’s the business plan Becca and I created for ourselves:
When your spreadsheet is filled out, print and display it where you write. This will remind you of what you should be doing and help you make good use of your time.
Step 7: Commit and Challenge Yourself Daily
Once your plan is complete, stick to it. When new opportunities come up, see if they fit your plan. It’s important to take advantage of potential windfalls, but only if they further your goals and you have the time.
Before you print your business plan, type this statement in bold at the bottom: Is what I’m doing or about to do helping me achieve my goals? Before you commit time and energy to new projects, challenge yourself with this question to evaluate if it’s worthwhile.
In today’s publishing landscape, writers must become master jugglers, wearing many hats. Whether you’re published or pre-published, having a business plan is one of the smartest things you can do to keep yourself on track, maximize your time, and ensure that you reach your milestones.
Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression and its many sequels. Her bestselling writing guides are available in eight languages, and are sourced by universities, recommended by agents and editors, and used by writers around the world. She’s also one half of the popular site, Writers Helping Writers, and co-founder of One Stop for Writers, a creativity portal loaded with one-of-a-kind tools, resources, and a Storyteller’s Roadmap that makes planning, writing, and revising a novel almost criminally easy.