As an author you invest in your business with money, time, effort, and connections. Now imagine approaching a bank or other investors (literary agents and publishers could be considered investors) to ask for financing. Smart investors will want to know you have a plan before taking a risk – a business plan. Indeed, those who advise on business planning often say, “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”
In the past, writers were asked for book proposals, more often for non-fiction but increasingly also for fiction. These proposals usually cover one book. In contrast, a business plan covers the breadth of your writing business and hence must be more comprehensive.
Let’s borrow from the domain and language of small business to explore the contents of such a plan tailored for writers. Your plan will cover your writing focus, qualifications and skills required, the market for what you produce, an understanding of your competition, how you will market and sell, financial matters, and some thoughts about timing.
Writing Genre/Portfolio – when describing your portfolio think of the books you have written as well as those you plan to write. Describe their themes or focus. An example,
Fiction focus: 20th century historical fiction with a particular interest in WWI and in using stories to explore the affects of war on families and relationships. Non-fiction focus: articles based on reader surveys and historical fiction insights. Blog focus: reading and writing historical fiction.
Some writers offer ancillary products or services such as speeches, workshops, blogs, lectures and you should consider whether your writing business will encompass offerings such as these. Describe the current status of your portfolio (eg: novel complete, outline drafted, first two of a series available). Describe the value you offer your readers and any unique or proprietary attributes (eg: based on first-ever survey of hikers climbing Mount Kilimanjaro).
You might wonder why this is important. You might also say that you have no idea of your future writing direction. There is value in challenging yourself to consider the longer term not just the immediate. If, as experts like Mike Shatzkin and Jane Friedman suggest, communities of interest are the way of the future and social media is a critical mechanism for reaching your community(ies), then you should think of who you write for and what you write with those concepts in mind. For example, a non-fiction author who specializes in spirituality might have a difficult time being credible with a book about horse racing. At the very least, it would require different marketing. A fiction writer known for 16th century romances might disappoint or even lose his/her readers with a sci-fi novel.
People & Qualifications – in this section you consider skills, strengths and experience of the writer(s) and others involved in your writing business. Describe why you are qualified to write in your particular focus area. Include relevant technical, academic, research, life or business skills. If you plan to enlist others in your business, describe their desired skills and potential roles. For example, to reach your community in the realm of social media you may need to hire technical support in order to be effective. Or, to write about 17th century royal families you might contract with a researcher of fact-checker. To augment your writing with speeches or workshops, you might join a speakers bureau.
Market and Competition – every day, people come up with ideas for books, however, without a realistic assessment of demand, you might be writing for an audience of one. In this section of your business plan you describe the target market segments and factors affecting each segment. An author writing YA will have different demographics than someone writing police procedurals. Your novel set in ancient Rome might be of interest to romance readers (one segment) and young adults (a second segment). Your book on blogging for money could target existing bloggers (one segment) as well as small business entrepreneurs (a second segment).
Consider how your readers prefer to purchase, how they hear about the genre, what reviews they trust, whether any socio-economic or geographic factors are relevant. Think also of trends that impact your potential audience.
You should also assess your competition, their strengths and weaknesses, your points of differentiation. You might want to conduct a market survey (relatively easy to do using a blog or Facebook) to understand what motivates your reader’s buying decisions. Describe the ingredients that make your writing (and other products and services you offer) unique, whether you are well known in your field or have credentials and contacts to leverage.
Marketing and sales – based on your understanding of customers and competition, assess different marketing and promotion approaches including blogs or websites, conferences, trade shows, interviews, ezines for short stories or teaser articles. Find out what other authors in your domain are doing. Perhaps you write travel based fiction, you might want to build awareness by writing for a travel company.
Determine alliances or connections to pursue. For example, in a 2009 post (http://www.idealog.com/blog/aggregation-and-curation-two-concepts-that-explain-a-lot-about-digital-change ), Mike Shatzin talked about curators. If there are curators serving your target readers, you might want to develop a relationship with one or more of them, which means you will have to figure out how.
Be selective. You only have so much time to go around. Then, bring these elements together into your marketing and sales plans. The days when writers wrote and publishers did all the marketing and sales and long gone.
Operational matters – many writers fail to analyze their writing process looking for ways to improve how they write. Consider again your investors, even if you are the only investor. Finding ways to bring new works to market sooner offers a quicker return on your investment. Include the writing, agenting, editing and publishing parts of the process. Work with your agent or research for yourself the publishing mechanisms that make sense for your work (traditional, POD, e-retailers, self-publishing, serialization).
Beyond books, consider other income producing writing related activities you plan to undertake. How can you accomplish them effectively?
Timeline – this section of your business plan describes both near and long term milestones and identifies important dependencies. Essentially, your timeline outlines what you will do and when you will do it, enabling you to track progress and adjust when necessary.
Risks – investors will want to know that you have anticipated potential risks along with areas of weakness, and that you have thought about what to do if certain risks occur. For example, you are writing that book about Kilimanjaro and just before finishing the manuscript, another author releases a similar book. Or your novel about WWI is ready at the precise time that everyone else targeting the centennial of that event is publishing WWI novels. Now what? Consider scenarios like these in advance.
Financial budget – here you estimate expenses (eg: blog services, advertising, printing), resource requirements (eg: your book requires a survey, you need technical support or research services), and costs to complete your manuscript. If you can, estimate your target market size and potential revenue.
Summary – think of this section as the highlights of your plan, the critical points you will keep uppermost in your day-to-day efforts. You will probably include your writing goals, a few points on your strategy to accomplish these goals, your writing genre and existing works, target readers, competition in your niche, key ways you will market your brand, milestones you’ve set for yourself. You might also briefly mention financial needs and risks you foresee.
Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? I expect successful author entrepreneurs will spend a good deal of time building their business plan and will regularly review progress and update it. Even asking yourself the questions implied by each section will enhance your efforts.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.