We're very grateful to BIWC member, Phil Williams, for writing this article based on his experiences. It's so honest and open we think it will be valuable for people in the community who are considering writing as a career.
“Breaking Out” As a Writer
There’s a curious idea that surrounds the dream of becoming a professional writer, which I myself subscribed to for a couple of decades. You write The Right Book, it gets published, it sells in droves, and you receive untold funding to write for the rest of your life.
Querying traditional publishers and agents used to form the perfect validation check for whether or not you’ve written The Right Book. So when I faced query rejection, I wrote a new novel, thinking the next one would do it. Always improving, never paying bills.
Then the publishing landscape changed. Now that you can publish something without anyone telling you it’s not The Right Book. You can take charge of the ‘gets published’ step and go straight to selling in droves.
I first took a shot at that back in 2011 or so, and I got some lovely reviews. One reader said it revived her dead habit for reading. It sounded “Right Book” enough, yet, weirdly, it didn’t sell in droves, nor was I paid to write for the rest of my life.
I needed new excuses, like how the market is flooded or that I mistakenly launched a book on the cursed calends of April. The reality, however, is that the mere existence of a book, even The Right Book, does not build a career.
Which makes sense, because in no other business would the mere act of creating a product lead to untold wealth. Believing in The Right Book – or getting it in front of The Right Person - is tantamount to believing you can present the CEO of a multinational such a clever idea that they offer you a retirement package.
That’s not how careers work. Which I learnt not by repeatedly hitting my head against the wall with books (which I did for a very long time), but by attempting the same thing in the business world.
How Businesses “Break Out”
While I was trying to write The Right Book, I was also trying to earn a living freelancing. I stumbled into work as start-up exec and spent 3 years trying to raise money to explode a business. The plan was to build an app that could go viral, with the right funding.
As plans go, it was about as good as going out there waiting for someone to pick up our Right App. But it got us in front of a lot of successful people, and over those 3 years I learnt a lot, both through the false-starts we made and the people I met along the way.
I met one chap who had made a fortune buying and selling an innocuous mobile phone widget, for early wireless connections. He made this product, one of many possible ones, a success, by moving out to Asia, investing all his money, working to the bone until he was a young millionaire.
His story was one of hundreds all alike.
Ours ended up the same. By the time I left the company, a descendent of the original app was ready to become a success, not because the original idea was unique: it was because we stuck at it until something worked. We kept tweaking our plans and kept seeking out investment to keep going long enough to test our new ideas.
Realising what was happening, and what a successful business took, I understood that the same was true of success in publishing. I didn’t need The Right Book: I needed a willingness to invest and follow through.
Making a Business Out of Writing
I reassessed my writing as a business at the start of 2016.
Before 2016, I had invested perhaps £600 in editing one book and about £3,000 in a foolish marketing campaign for another (dreaming someone else would do all the work for me). Two bad investments for the same reason: I thought they’d make a difference on their own.
The problem was, the myth of The Right Book also fostered this belief in the Right Investment, and I took single shots at success without fitting them into a long-term, serious plan.
Come 2016, I had come to see investing hundreds of thousands (even millions) in a business, over many years, as standard practice. Investment sums were significant only in relation to the potential return - and the more we could spend, the better.
An easy way to justify this was looking at valuations. We sometimes operated on a basis that a company could be valued at 10 times its yearly profit. A £20,000 income could mean a £200,000 valuation. Investing £30,000 to build a £200,000 business, in that light, is perfectly reasonable; more than you’d earn a year, but a fraction of the long-term potential.
If you consider a modest living wage from writing, say approaching £20,000 a year, is the equivalent of building a business worth £200,000, then investing £500 in training or £1,000 in building a professional product becomes a no brainer. Even investing £1,000 to experiment in advertising is nothing in the grand scheme of things – perhaps even necessary so you can get it right next time.
The point is, building a business isn’t about spending money to get it back, it’s about building value over the long term, so your revenue stream can produce good, sustainable returns.
That’s the new mentality I took to investing in my books. My goal was no longer to finally write The Right Book, it was to create a sustainable business. I chose to think in terms of multiple years’ work and the development of a brand, and an interconnected catalogue, not a single product.
There is no Plan B, because there is no failure as long as I am still improving the business. A book can launch to crickets, money spent on advertising can produce no sales, a new cover can flop – it’s all invaluable for informing better future investments.
Nine months after I invested in book marketing training, and started pouring money into advertising, I was in the black. Not for that month or year, but since I began self-publishing. That came after a pivot at eight months when I took a chance prioritising AMS ads based on clicks rather than reported sales: I discovered the more I spent the more I made, regardless of Amazon’s reporting.
I continually reinvested what I earned, keeping an eye on my monthly balance rather than how much I spent day to day. It wasn’t always easy, and I tallied up my figures the other day to learn last year I invested some £15,000 in my publications and advertising alone. To say nothing of living costs.
I’ve more than doubled that in return, so far, and was astounded to see I’d sold over 10,000 books in total. And I know the next £15,000 I spend will give me a much better return and sell far more books. That initial success was based on gradually developing strategies that worked, setting up the business.
Now I’m in the territory of improving a successful business.
I’m not a well-known author (yet!) but getting my name out hasn’t been the goal for me for a long time. Making the numbers work has. If that sounds mercenary, it is – it has to be, if you want a successful business. That’s what a writing career is.
If your goal, instead, is to write The Right Book, that might be all you end up with.