KISS lead singer Gene Simmons infamously says his iconic music act is not a rock and roll band, but instead a rock and roll brand. It’s a bit over the top and cheesy (not unlike KISS themselves), but it illustrates an important point.
There’s nothing wrong with thinking about your book as just a work of fiction or nonfiction, a story you want to tell for its own worth…if you have no aspirations of making a living from your writing.
If you do want to make money as a writer, you should look at your book as an entrepreneurial venture. One you make for profit, and treat as seriously as any other small business. To that end, here are the 10 most important questions any starting business needs to answer, and how to apply them specifically to your books.
1. What Are Your Financial Goals For This Project?
Every successful business starts with goals. This is true even of a kids’ lemonade stand, for which the goal is to make a little money to buy something (with that something often clearly defined). A small business might exist to make money for just one person, or might make money to pay employees as well, or simply be a side hustle that makes a little extra beer and vacation money for somebody with a full-time job they enjoy.
What are your financial goals for the book you’re writing? If you know this from the beginning, you can fine-tune your writing, promotions, and admin tasks so each gets the right amount of attention and energy at the right time.
Here are some examples of common financial goals for a single book. If one matches your vision exactly, use it. If not, these can help to inspire and define your own goals:
- To earn a specific amount of money, in total or each month
- To add a specific amount of money, in total or each month, to earnings you’re already making from multiple books
- To supplement earnings from a business you’re already running
- To make no money, but to help you learn and experience the bookselling process
2. Who Will Buy The Book?
Smart businesses use a concept called a “customer profile” or “customer persona” to help them spend their advertising dollars well. This concept imagines a real human being who is the most likely individual to purchase a particular product, and imagines them down to minute detail. Take, for example, three potential customer personas for a book:
- A woman in her late 20s, single, no children, likes romantic comedies, drinks wine, and tends to shop online rather than in stores.
- A man in his mid-30s, married, with two younger children, likes action movies, spends time at the gym, and makes at least one sporting goods purchase per month.
- A woman in her late 40s, married, with children grown and in college, who reads travel blogs and subscribes to the language learning app Duolingo.
If you had three books: a period romance, a police procedural thriller, and a travel memoir, which of those people would you market each of those books to? The answer is obvious…and that’s just the beginning of knowing your customer persona for each book you write.
Beyond that, if you start your writing with that person in mind, you can not just market the book for them. You can write the book for them, fine-tuning scenes and descriptions, even characters, to reach them more deeply. Just like you can write a better letter to a person you know, you can write a better book wen you’re writing it with a specific person in mind.
3. Who Are Your Core Power Partners?
A power partner is a friend, colleague, contact, mentor, or competitive rival who can help you succeed with your goals. Businesses identify these people early in their cycle, so they can leverage what help each power partner can provide. This process involves three steps.
- Step One is making a list of power partners for your book.
- Step Two is making notes about what, specifically, each power partner can do for you.
- Step Three is setting up a timeline for each power partner’s role in making your book happen.
Every different business has its own set of likely power partners. For writers, anybody who can help you with publicity can be among the most helpful, because this is where most writers have the least skill and experience. Anybody you know who has a platform from their job, a blog, a podcast, a side gig, or family connections can be an important power partner for your book. The earlier you think of and engage them, the better your book sales will be.
4. How Much Can You Spend on Marketing?
One of the biggest mistakes beginning self-published authors make is to not spend enough money on marketing. No business anywhere succeeds without some kind of advertising and publicity plan, and your book is no exception. This is a hard and fast rule of business success.
A second hard and fast rule of business success is that every advertising and publicity plan must include an advertising and publicity budget. Again, your book is no exception.
So you have to ask yourself: how much can you spend on marketing? It’s okay if the answer is just a few dollars a week. Find smart ways to spend those few dollars. While you’re at it, it’s a good idea to earmark a percentage of the money your book makes toward further marketing efforts. Figuring out what percentage works for you early in the process is a smart move.
5. How Will Your Book Help People?
Marketing for business includes the term USP: Unique Selling Proposition. That’s the thing a business does that no other business does, making them valuable to the public and better than the competition. It’s what differentiates them in the market and makes them worth spending money on, or spending more money on than some other options.
For authors, your USP will be the way your book helps people. A nonfiction book might teach a skill, or reassure somebody who’s worried, or support a political opinion they already have. A nonfiction book helps people by evoking a certain emotional state, whether that’s triumph, excitement, curiosity, true love, or all of the above.
When you’ve identified how your book will help people, it helps you to craft those customer personas we mentioned earlier…and it helps you craft book descriptions and other publicity to help bring those customers to your book. Maybe even more importantly, it can help you write the book so it more effectively gives people the help you want it to.
6. What Strengths and Opportunities Do You Bring to the Project?
A SWOT analysis is a key part of any smart business plan, analyzing the position of a company in its industry. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. For purposes of performing this business planning task:
- Strengths are things that you currently are or have which can make your book more successful
- Opportunities are things that might develop which can make our book more successful, which you can take steps to help happen
Examples of strengths for many books might include a writer’s skill at a particular aspect of writing, strong understanding of a genre, and your power partners. Examples of opportunities might be a passing relationship with a potential reviewer, an upcoming movie release you can tie in to for leverage, and a bonus check from work you could put toward marketing.
When you write down your strengths and opportunities, also write down the specific steps you will take to make each as powerful as possible. For opportunities, include anything you need to do to make sure they come to pass in the most advantageous possible way. Turn those steps into a scheduled plan of action.
7. What Weaknesses and Threats Do You Bring to the Project?
The dark side of your SWOT analysis is Weaknesses and Threats. For purposes of building the SWOT analysis:
- Weaknesses are things that currently exist which can hinder the success of your book
- Threats are things that might develop which can hinder your book’s success
Examples of weaknesses for many books include a writing skill you find particularly challenging, a lack of marketing budget, and a full-time job that leaves little time to focus on your book and its success. Examples of threats might include expecting a new baby (a joyful event, but one which will profoundly alter your writing schedule), a developing controversy that might harm your book sales, or a popular reviewer you managed to annoy at a conference.
When you write down your weaknesses, also write down the specific steps you will take to mitigate their impact as much as you can. When you write down threats, you have two choices. You can, like with weaknesses, write the specific steps you will take to mitigate them. Alternatively, you can instead write down your plan for preventing the threat from developing. Either way, turn the steps into a scheduled plan of action, just like with your strengths and opportunities.
8. How Is Your Book Unique?
The bad news about almost any book you could possibly write is that somebody else has already written something pretty close. There are billions of books in print, and at least a handful are pretty close to what you have in mind. You need to identify the ways your book is different from those similar books. Do this for two reasons.
First, while you’re writing the book, keep in mind how you are unique and different. When you find opportunities to lean into that differentiation a little extra without derailing the book’s quality, do it. When you’re editing and revising, find new ways to do the same thing. This process will make your book stand out further, and attract more readers through standing out.
Second, while you’re marketing the book, use your unique differentiators as a key part of your publicity message. That way potential readers see from the outset why they need to read your book instead of, or in addition to, those competing titles.
9. Who Are the Power Players In Your Niche?
For this step, you’ll make two lists. The first list is of the top names in whatever topic or genre you write. If you write horror, you’ll mention Stephen King and Octavia Butler. If you write nonfiction about productivity, you’ll think of David Allen and Stephen Covey. This will be an accurate list, but not a list of people who will help you directly. They’re too big for you to approach. This list will be of people you can compare yourself to in publicity, and who you can sometimes piggyback on with hashtags and reviews.
The second list will be of mid-level power players in your zone. You may have to research these people, but they’re the folks one tier above yourself who have followings that include your key customers. These folks are approachable, and many times are willing to help people along in the way they themselves were helped. Make plans for reaching out to these individuals and finding ways to work together.
10. How Will You Scale Up Success?
It’s possible to start a successful business without this step, but it’s easier to succeed if you keep this in mind from the beginning. Once you reach that first financial goal you set, how will you leverage that initial success to wider success in the future?
For most writers, the answer is “once the first book succeeds, write a second book.” That’s a great start, but what kind of book? Do you plan to write a series? A follow-up book with a new treatment of the same concepts? Something wildly different? Do you plan to not write a book at first, and instead pursue speaking and coaching gigs for a while?
Having that plan in place from the beginning will infuse your writing and publicity of the first book to make your next steps easier and more effective. It doesn’t have to be a complete and detailed plan, but it you have a few notes in mind it can help you scale.
Time to Get Busy
Take a weekend, or a week, and answer these questions now. Don’t make the mistake of answering them after you’ve finished your book. Have them answered so you can work on the business of your book while you’re finishing the book itself. That way when the words are ready to launch, the means to make money from those words will be ready, too.