June 2012

Recently Steven Pressfield published a new book called Turning Pro. Reading it made me think about my own experience of turning pro as a novelist. Turning pro can be defined as “following an occupation as a means of livelihood.” That certainly is what one hopes to achieve, but turning pro is actually a mindset. It means you take your writing seriously, and you want others to take it seriously too. I turned pro about a year ago. Along the way, I gathered help from many sources, including other writers who blogged about their own experience. As a way of paying it forward for those who are courageous enough to follow down a similar path, I thought I’d share what I learned this year.

Believe in Yourself

You won’t make it far if you don’t. When you set off down this path, you will be assaulted from all sides by cynics and disbelievers. They will question what you are doing because it will, at least in their minds, undoubtedly lead to nothing but heartbreak. Why put yourself out there to get trampled upon? Because you believe in yourself and what you are doing, that’s why. If you don’t, you might as well do something else right now.  You need to do whatever it takes to keep yourself on the path. Assemble all your sources of inspiration, all your self-help gurus, all your motivational speakers, all your prayers and affirmations, all your angels and spirit guides, because you will need them on this journey. They will remind you, in your darkest hours, why you set out to begin with.

Finish Your Book

This was the goal that I wanted to achieve when I left my corporate gig in December 2010. I simply wanted to finish. I’d been trying to write Sterling Redmond since I was twelve, and dammit, I was going to finish it, even if it killed me. I did finish it, and it didn’t kill me. It felt like reaching the summit of a mountain. The characters of my story had broken free at last from the confines of my mind. It was fabulous; my brain had just done a major purge. I felt open and ready to tackle another creative endeavor. Finishing is the deal. You can’t move forward unless you complete this step.

Get Feedback

Now share it with some people you trust and listen to their feedback. I assembled a group of test readers, mostly women since I write love stories. Each reader had something unique to share with me about their impression of my book, and I listened to them. Thankfully, none of it resulted in huge changes for the book, but it helped me to gain a different perspective.  A fresh set of eyes is key to improving your work and preparing it for publication. Above all, this provides a safe environment for you to receive criticism. This will get you comfortable with how others perceive and respond to your work. It helps you define what’s important and non-negotiable about your writing, because you’ll need to build up your defense walls for when the public gets their shot.

Be Prepared to Present Yourself to the World

You are about to walk out on a stage. How do you want to look? What do you want to say? What kind of impression do you want to make? You need to have professional headshots taken. Buy a domain name, set up a website and start blogging. When somebody searches on your name, what will they see? When they click on your website, are you proud of it? It’s not just about your book anymore. It’s about you and how the world perceives you. Put your best foot forward here.  This is your proclamation to the world that you are a writer. It’s your chance to make a good first impression.  This is your “coming-out” as a writer. Warning: some major stage fright can occur at this point, leading to a paralyzing state of overwhelm.  I recommend the following:

Hire Professionals to Help

You can’t do it alone. You need specialized skills to take the next step. Unless you are a multi-talented wunderkind, you will need to hire a web designer, a cover designer, a photographer, and most importantly, an editor.  There are lots of talented people freelancing out there; maybe they lost their job in the recession or they just couldn’t stand working another day for corporate America.  Help a brother out and help yourself at the same time. If you want to be a professional, you need to present yourself as a professional.  Leverage the expertise of others. One key program that got me jump-started was Jonathan Field’s Tribal Author Enterprise Camp. I consider Jonathan to be an information aggregator, and he’s put together a comprehensive program that pulled it all together and taught me stuff that I didn’t even know I needed to learn.  I’m grateful to all the experts who helped me along the way, and they appreciate me contributing to their bottom line. This is just the beginning of the relationship building you need to develop if you want to be a success.

Research Publishing Options

I realized half way into my year that traditional publishing was not a viable option for me, simply because it takes too long. Like most aspiring writers, I attempted unsuccessfully in the past to get an agent and publisher. But, frankly, the more I learned about the publishing business, the more it sounded like the corporate environment I had just left.  Traditional publishing is currently struggling under the weight of an old dying model.  There was a very slim chance that they would take on my book. Even if they did, I would get low royalties, no say in my cover design, and little to no marketing help. So what’s the advantage? For me, nothing. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my days trying to sell my book to an agent, who then had to sell it to a publisher. I didn’t need validation from the publishing community. I didn’t want to wait for someone to say yes to me; I needed to get my book out there. I decided to say yes to myself by taking advantage of the new opportunities opening up in self-publishing. I bypassed the gatekeepers in the stressed publishing world and opted instead to let the market decide.

Originally, I intended to publish Sterling Redmond as an e-book and a print-on-demand book. But when I started down that path, I quickly realized that doing a print-on-demand book required more money and effort than I wanted to spend. It seemed prudent to get it out first as an e-book and see how well it did. If it sold well, I could take it to the next level and do a POD version. So I did e-book only, which cost me nothing to publish, except the cost of hiring a graphic designer for the cover. I formatted my book file and uploaded it on Kindle Direct Publishing. My book was for sale on Amazon the next day. All those years of waiting and rejection and hoping and wishing were magically over. I became a published author that day. I reached another summit.

Find Ways to Promote the Work

Now the real work starts.  If you have made it this far, it’s clear you aren’t just in it to express your creativity. You want some reward for your labor. You want people to buy the book. So you take off the writer hat and put on the marketing hat. I didn’t even have a Facebook account until I realized I needed one so I could promote my book. Facebook, Twitter, blogging – these are the tools of 21st century communication.  You’ll need to reach out to blogs that talk about your subject or genre and ask them to review your work. Ask your test readers to post reviews on Amazon. Because I was an unknown, I needed to get my work out there and build an audience.  I utilized the Kindle Select program which provided me with 5 free days during a 90 day window to give my book away for free on Amazon. The first time I had a free promo day on Amazon, the book had 2000+ downloads. The idea that this many people had my book on their Kindle app really blew my mind.  In the din of the internet, you need to grab some attention. Get people talking about the book. This will be a constant and ongoing effort.

Savor Your First Royalty Check

A shift happens in your brain when you get your first royalty check. So maybe it isn’t enough to live on, but it is real money that you can deposit into the bank. You’ve now been paid for your work.  You are, in the eyes of the world, a professional. The check in your hand is proof that it can be done. It is possible. You just made money off your writing. Now you need to find a way to add some commas and zeros to the end of the numbers on those checks. Breathe deeply and  savor your success, no matter how small.

Keep Going

You realize now why so many people tried to discourage you at the beginning. This is hard work. There are no overnight successes. So you need to decide – are you in it for real? Do you want to keep going? If writing is your calling, you won’t have any choice but to say yes to this question. Personally, I know that writing is a healthy outlet for me. I have a very busy mind, and it’s a relief to get all that noise out of my head and onto the page. If I don’t do it, it gets awfully cluttered up there. I don’t write as well or as fast as I’d like, but I’m writing and I’m learning. Every day is a slow build of one step in front of the other. One day,  you’ll finish what you started and give yourself a big high-five.

And then you start again.