Before You Write Your First Book

Earlier this week, I was discussing ways to help new authors promote their books with a friend who's published quite a few of them. With hard work an author can always increase book sales, but doubling sales from one a month to two a month doesn't do much to pay the bills. If your sole ambition in writing a book is deriving self-fulfillment from the process, than this post doesn't apply to you. If you’re ambitious to earn significant money from your first book, then you have to treat it as a business. Whether you are setting up your own self publishing company or submitting proposals to the trades, the following three paragraphs cut out of an e-mail I sent my friend might help:

“Most authors shoot themselves in the foot before they even start by writing a book first and trying to figure out how to sell it later. Many books have no market beyond, say, immediate family, or people who share such an odd set of experiences that they are few and far between. The Internet is a great way of reaching obscure markets, but who wants to author books that sell two copies in a good week? That volume of sales might work for Lightning Source, Amazon, or a thrifty subsidy publisher with enough titles in print, but not for the author. I've written several posts and dedicated a chunk of my book to the idea of choosing to write the book you know you can sell. I don't agree with the notion that everyone has one book in them. Everyone has dozens of books in them if they want to write, but in some cases, none of those books will be commercially successful.

And that's what my fairly extensive correspondence with authors has taught me, and what you must know as well from your publishing experiences. The vast majority of first books are written without any market research or time spent establishing the author as an authority on the subject, especially on the web. Some authors get lucky in their timing or their subject matter, but most don't have a clue unless they wait a while to see what happens with their first book, and then get serious with their second. Over the years, I've heard from some of the same authors over and over again telling me, ‘Your advice about choosing subject matter is great, and I'm going to take it on my NEXT book, but I just had to write this one first and I just know it's going to sell. Now help me, please, get the sales started so word-of-mouth can take over as I'm sure it must.’

The one thing that makes me feel like all my babble on the subject may be useful is that so many new authors are writing books every year that even the small proportion that are serious about doing it as a business add up to thousands of individuals. If I were to write another book about publishing (which I doubt) it would all be about matching your knowledge and authoring strengths to a title that both has a market and is marketable by the author. I should be able to come up with a better way of saying that. If nothing else, before you write your first book you should publish your first website. It's like all the ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure scenarios. By the time most authors contact me about low sales, it's already too late to do much about it. Not because they can't improve their marketing, but because they wrote the wrong book.”

If that reads even more preachy than usual, it's because it's from personal (and slightly edited) correspondence. Authors tend to get caught up in whether or not a book is "good", when they should be worrying about whether it's good business. I'm not a professional critic. I've read some horrible books written by famous authors from big trades, so I'm willing to concede that one man's art is another man's toilet paper. I don't read manuscripts for authors, but I read their marketing plans and provide the best feedback I can on how I see their chances for commercial success. A common mistake made by first time authors is the assumption that their book sales will make them an authority, after which they'll get invitations to promote their book. That's entirely backwards. You have to establish yourself as an authority first, before anybody will give you authority based promotional opportunities. A popular website is more of an authority credential than a poorly selling book.

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