Business Plans for Creative People – guest post by Anna Castle

The Widow's Guild by Anna CastleAnna Castle and I connected not too long ago when I found an article she had written about building a plan for her writing efforts. She is the author of the Francis Bacon series. Book 3, The Widows Guild, has just been released. Today, Anna is discussing two aspects of business planning for authors. Over to you, Anna.

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I’m seeing a lot of articles this year about business plans and strategic planning for authors; part of the increasing professionalization of the indie publishing revolution. A good example of this kind can be found right here on Mary’s blog. Many of these articles focus on branding, identifying audiences, and marketing plans, all very useful advice. I’d like to focus on two other components of the author’s plan: the mission statement and the publication schedule.

The mission statement

This is where you state your goals. What do you want to achieve with your writing? Most self-publishing advice seems to assume everyone’s goal is to make as much money as possible. If that really is your goal, great; go for it! If it isn’t, also great. There are many possible goals, all of them worthy. Recognizing yours will help you determine your strategies and also to know when you’ve succeeded.

Example 1: Your goal is to get in the game. Everyone’s publishing these days, why shouldn’t you? You haven’t written much so far, but love fiction and want to give writing a whirl.

In this case, your best strategy might be to join Wattpad and some fan fiction forums. You’ll maximize interaction, get instant feedback on your writing, and hone your skills while having a whale of a good time. You might discover that you love writing and move toward a more professional program, or decide you’ve had enough and would rather be doing photography.

Example 2: Your goal is to tell the story of your grandparents, who had a founding role in the history of your community (whatever scale that might be.) You want everyone for whom that story might be important to be able to read it: your extended family, local historical societies, genealogists, etc. Naturally, you want to write the best book you can, but you may never write another one and you don’t care a fig for the bestseller lists or building a fan base.

In this case, your strategic plan might include reading a specified list of biographies, taking writing courses, and visiting every local history museum you can reach. (Good strategic plans always include fun outings.)

Example 3: You’re a retired person who has always wanted to write novels and now find yourself in the happy position of being able to do so full-time. (This would be me.) You wouldn’t mind making money, but it’s not your primary goal. The muse is driving your bookmobile; you write what you want. Once written, however, you want your work to find the audience who will love it. You would also like to be recognized in the writing community as a qualified professional.

In this case, you’ll spend time working out a publication schedule, as a way of sorting out your writing projects. You’ll learn how to market your work, but you won’t try to fit your work to the most popular market. You’ll seek opportunities to give talks at local libraries and writers’ organizations and you’ll go to conferences (the fun outing portion of the program.) Your financial goal may as simple as getting to the point where the writing pays for itself.

The publication schedule

This is where you decide what to write next – and then the book after that and the book after that. Examples 1 and 2 above don’t have to do this. Career authors, even retirement-career authors, will benefit from this level of planning.

To devise a production schedule, you have to know how long it takes you to finish a book. There are two ways to determine this number, like buying a dress online. You can chose an aspirational size and force yourself into it, or you can get out the tape measure and adjust to reality. The first method is easier at the front end (no planning), but can be painful in the execution.

I recommend the second method. Keep a worklog while you write your next book, noting when you start and finish each stage. For me, the stages are plotting, first draft, second draft, feeding the book through the critique group process, third draft, copyediting and proofing, formatting, and publishing. That sounds like a lot, but if I skip the mid-book angst and don’t do distracting things like remodel my house, I can finish a book in a little under six months. (There’s overlap: I’m writing a new book during the four months it takes the last book to get through my group.)

This will be different for everyone and there’s no right or wrong answer.

The mission is what matters

If your goal is to make a good living writing novels, you should pay attention to what sells. You’ll also want to tighten up your production schedule, because you need a regular flow of new products. But if trying to write faster or trying to write whatever’s most popular this year makes you miserable, you might consider rethinking your goals.

One of the hardest things for me is deciding what to write next. (I have 4 series rumbling around in my head.) Trying to be sensible about the business side helps me make that decision. For example, I’ve just published book 3 of my Francis Bacon series. My plan tells me to start doing some serious marketing, which is having the result of gaining more positive interest in my books, which I am enjoying.

My neatly balanced plan now tells me I should be working on my Texas series, sending book 2 through my critique group while writing book 3. But the group says book 2 needs more work than I anticipated, which means I won’t finish book 3 until spring and thus won’t be able to get back to the historical series for many months. That makes my heart sink; a sure sign that I need to revisit my mission statement. (When you’re obeying your muse, the heart rises.)

My business plan expresses my unique, personal balance of time, desire, imagination, and marketing. By pondering it, I found the answer. I’ll finish this Texas book, because leaving books unfinished drives me crazy. (One of the best reasons to publish is to get the thing out of the house once and for all.) But book 3 can wait until I’ve gone back to the past for another book, serving both a sensible business strategy and the historical characters clamoring for attention in the back of my mind. I’m re-balancing my series so that rather than being equal, one is now primary and the other secondary. The new plan still reserves December and January for short stories, which are practical marketing tools that allow me to touch base with neglected characters without taking months out of my schedule.

The beauty of self-publishing is that all of this is entirely in my own hands. The mission statement supplies the balls and the publication schedule shows me how to juggle them.

References

Gold, Jami. 2015. “Indie publishing paths: Do you know your goals?” Janice Hardy’s Fiction University

Swank, Denise Grover. 2012. “A business plan for self-published authors (Part one of a three part series),” The Writer’s Guide to E-Publishing.

Tod, M. K. 2015. “Authors need to plan,” A Writer of History, August, 2015.

Worth, Maggie. 2015. “Strategic planning for writers: Adding in the details,” Romance Writers Report, October, 2015.

Many thanks, Anna. I’m delighted to see your focus on mission as well as the publication schedule. You and I clearly have lots in common!

The Widows Guild by Anna Castle

London, 1588: Someone is turning Catholics into widows, taking advantage of armada fever to mask the crimes. Francis Bacon is charged with identifying the murderer by the Andromache Society, a widows’ guild led by his formidable aunt. He must free his friends from the Tower, track an exotic poison, and untangle multiple crimes to determine if the motive is patriotism, greed, lunacy — or all three.

Authors need to plan

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 10.24.03 AMAs 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.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

Linking Survey Insights to One Author’s Writing Plans

Today I’m very pleased to be guest posting at Historical Tapestry with some thoughts about how the historical fiction survey has changed my writing plans.

Here’s the link.