by Kathy Meis
Much of my workday at Bublish is spent talking with authors about the intersection of creativity and commerce—how to be true to one’s artistic intentions while writing work that is commercially viable.
Early on in these conversations, I encourage authors to take some time to articulate both their artistic and commercial aspirations—no matter where they are in their writing career. To me, this is very important work for all writers to do as early as possible. It’s an exercise that should kick off every writing career and every new writing project.
A writer should ask themselves: Why do I write? Where do I hope this creative journey will take me? And they should be as honest and thorough as possible in answering these questions.
Often I learn that this is the first-time the writer on the other end of the phone has engaged in such self-reflection. Up to our call, they explain, the story has led. They may have a vague sense of what they hope to achieve, but they haven’t taken the time to fully explore their intentions, motivations or desires when it comes to balancing creative and commercial interests. They are simply swimming in story ideas.
Don’t get me wrong, creative immersion can be filled with growth and wonder. It’s a beautiful thing to behold and experience. But over time, it can also be exhausting. A writer can lose his or her moorings. There can be a sense of being adrift and alone.
Riding creative currents is fine for a time...but if an author feels disheartened when a colleague achieves commercial success, it’s probably because they haven’t been completely honest with themselves. They haven’t fairly considered their professional hopes and dreams and what it takes to achieve them. Now, they are drowning in story.
Great writing careers are driven by the author, not the story. By no means does this imply an author has abandoned creativity; they have simply learned to harness it. The creative is in charge, not the creation. There is a big difference. With intentional work, the author has mastered craft and commerce.
Authors who have taken the time to dig deep are often surprised to discover that creativity and commerce are not in conflict, as they might have once thought. Rather, their explorations show them that their creative intentions can be aligned with their commercial goals. Remember, there are no right or wrong answers here, but there are answers. And having defined the terms of a unique, creative endeavor, an author can now confidently make decisions both inside and outside their manuscript.
What do you really want out of your creative journey? Know your answer. It’s quite liberating.
If you’re comfortable taking the time to answer that question, I have another for you. This one is meant to help you dig a little deeper into your relationship with the commerce side of the equation, because that’s typically where the discomfort is most pronounced.
It might seem like a simple question, but your answer is pivotal to your commercial success, however you define that success. In a marketplace where more than 70,000 new titles are published each month, it’s crucial to be writing for someone. It might be ten readers in your hometown, or thousands of readers that purchase your books online or in bookstores and libraries across the globe. But are you writing for someone other than yourself?
Like you, each reader is an individual with different interests, likes and dislikes. But like all of us, they also yearn for connection through shared stories and ideas.
Do you think of them when you write?
Have you explored their commonalities?
Are you open to engaging with them, learning from them, and building community around your work?
After looking inward to define your relationship with creativity and commerce, try looking outward to learn about your readers. It’s yet another way to align your artistic intentions and professional goals, and will enrich your creative journey immensely. Much joy can be found in writing work that delights others.
Once you know your readers, it is your promise to them that will become the foundation of your author brand—a much misunderstood term that makes many authors cringe. Authors are told they need a brand to break through the noise in today’s crowded book marketplace. People talk about brands like they are something an author has to put on—like clothes. It can feel forced and lacking in authenticity. But, if done well, nothing could be further from the truth.
A powerful author brand is the nexus of an author’s choices about creativity and commerce. An authentic author brand emerges from the work we discussed at the start of this post and continues to evolve through ongoing self-exploration and continuous feedback from an author’s community of readers. That doesn’t sound terrible, does it?
As someone who frequently sees authors struggle with the commercial side of publishing, I encourage you to step away from the writing for a moment and have a frank conversation with yourself.
Ask yourself the hard questions. Define what you want. Come to terms with your creative and commercial desires. Find meaning in the entire journey of publishing and define success in your own terms.
How do you define success in writing? Do you know your audience? Do you personally write with them in mind?
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Kathy Meis is the founder of Bublish, the world's first complete publishing platform with built-in marketing. She is an entrepreneur, writer, editor and ghostwriter with more than twenty-five years of experience in the media and publishing industries. She has worked for such iconic editorial brands as CBS and Forbes and served as a founding partner of PubSmart, an author-centric publishing conference held in Charleston, South Carolina. As a frequent blogger and speaker on a wide variety of topics, Kathy has become a sought-after expert on the topic of independent publishing and disruption in the publishing industry. She has spoken at Book Expo America, Women in Media, San Francisco Writers Conference, GrubSteet, and IndieRecon, among others.
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Sometimes it takes a while before we find the genre that's a good fit so we try on various writer hats. That it itself can be quite the journey.
When in Arizona, I was introduced to a MeetUp group of writers who formed a marketing group. In these meetings we learned, among many things, about the importance of knowing your readers.
I appreciate what you are stating here. Great article.
I went to a class with Jennie Nash where she made us describe our book's ideal reader, and where it would be shelved in a bookstore, BEFORE we'd even started the book. It was an eye-opening class. 🙂
Jenny, I'm a big fan of Jennie Nash. She's a smart lady.
Hi Ellen. I'm glad you enjoyed the article. Yes, knowing as much about your readers as early as possible is important. This isn't something that should wait until you launch your book. It's best to understand the readers of your genre while you're still writing the manuscript.
As an indie mainstream writer, I battle the fact that most of my potential readers think ALL indie writing is substandard.
To which I respond that it's not true; some of us who write indie have very high standards, but know the traditional world has no room for us for various reasons; in my case, I doubt they will put a novel trilogy with a disabled main character in one of their limited catalogue slots unless it is already a bestseller - and if that is so, I wouldn't need them anyway. Catch-22.
I want to be commercially successful for one main reason: getting readers to see a disabled/chronically ill character as fully human, with foibles and choices, however modified, NOT limited to the ones society has declared appropriate for damaged people.
The harder the premise, the better the writing and plotting must be.
But it doesn't help that I'm very slow, even though finishing the trilogy (first volume already on Amazon in ebook and print) is my main focus in life right now.
I don't know why, but I have confidence I'll get there eventually. And that keeps me writing. That - and the reviews.
Alicia, I think you have a noble goal and I'm glad you're writing to that theme. DO people really believe that all Indie writing is sub-standard? I thought that perception had changed by now. There are many many indie authors doing incredible work.
Those who read literary/mainstream, which the traditional publishers still think is their exclusive purview, have that perception. Few of those readers will try indie, claiming they have been burned too often.
A perusal of some of the threads on Goodreads will unfortunately show you how entrenched and virulent the attitudes are against self-publishers.
Hi Alicia. The reality is that most readers don't know whether a book is traditionally or self-published when the purchase is at an online book retailer like Amazon. Indie authors now account for 20% of the revenue in a $26 billion marketplace. Indies are making progress. Just keep writing quality books and growing the number of strong reviews you have on your book's product page. Try price pulsing to get more people to try your work. It sounds like you have a clear vision of why you write and that will help you achieve your goals. I wish you luck. You have an important mission.
These are great statistics. Thank you for sharing!
Sorry. Should not have used your post - and Jenny's comment - to be candid. It is my experience over many years now that the 'conventional wisdom' doesn't work for mainstream/literary or for authors who put a lot of work into a novel, à la Donna Tartt, and produce complex books very slowly.
This is a great article. I see a lot of people talk about brand and marketing as it should be the main focus of what a new writer should be doing, but sometimes they forget that there needs to be a story that fits into that void as well. I've watched multiple people talk about how they get burnt out on all the marketing that we're supposed to do that their story suffers.
This article is great because it shows that the two can work together. There is a fine balance between your creativity and using it to your advantage in commerce. Great advice!
Thanks, Jeffrey. I'm glad you found the article useful. I've seen authors struggle with the disconnect between creativity and commerce. I've also seen authors take the time to figure out their goals and bring the two into alignment. The outcome is more success and a more satisfying publishing journey.
Good advice. If you are writing in one or two genres I can see it work. I find my situation is more complex because my inspired writing moves like a butterfly, from one genre to another. Connecting with a different audience for each book seems like an overwhelming task.
My response to this situation is to see myself as always writing about odd people who I see as reasonable, reasonable once one knows their background story. It is that background story that I enjoy revealing.
Challenge: How do you classify that kind of audience?
Hi Ken. That's a great question. Storytellers like yourself are often driven by themes, rather than a desire to write in a specific genre. If writing about odd people is what interests you, it's worth exploring why. Understanding your motivations will help you get to the heart of your author brand and your promise to readers. A Man Called Ove by Frerik Backman is a great example of this type of book. Read the reviews of that book. There are many readers who are interested in human nature and the quirkier the characters the better. I hope this helps.
I love A MAN CALLED OVE!
Kathy, thanks for a great post! I write for my audience. If I can entertain them for a few hours, I'm happy. That was all well and good but . . . who are they? After my third Surf City Mystery I got invited to speak at an event called Men of Mystery and when I looked around that room there they were. I'd gotten it right (the second time) by accident. So my suggestion is to attend events related to your kind of writing and talk to readers. Getting an understanding of who they are will help blend creativity and commerce. At least, it helped me.
Hi James. I'm glad meeting your audience in person and chatting with them helped you understand their interests and what they were looking for in a great mystery reading experience. Hopefully, there will be safe, real-world events for authors soon. I miss them!
Me, too, Kathy! I used to gripe about the prep time involved. Never again!
Haha. I think we're all learning to be grateful for the small things these days. 🙂
I'm constantly writing and working on craft, but I have to admit that when it comes to marketing, I'm an abject failure. I live in fear of marketing and promotion. The last year or so, I have finally been working to build my author platform and do my best to cultivate a solid brand image, but with my third book coming out soon I know I'm late to the party...like years late! As much as it pains me I know I need to start putting as much effort into a marketing plan as I do into my writing.
You are NOT an abject failure. You just don't love it. But, I object to that word choice, my friend. Doing something that's painful, or that you dislike, doesn't mean you're a failure - it's actually the definition of courage.
Hi Eldred, thanks for your comment. You are not alone. Many authors detest marketing. My advice to you is to think of marketing as a creative extension of your writing. First, I always say, "All great marketing begins in the manuscript." By this, I mean that if you are thinking about delighting your audience while you're writing, then you are performing the most authentic form of marketing: creating something of value for someone. If you start with this mindset, marketing is easier. Second, if you have created something of value for your readers, you are simply sharing your stories or inviting your readers into your creative world. When you "market" like this, it doesn't feel forced or false. I hope that helps.
I have a friend who is so obsessed with branding, taking classes, following this one particular person and swallowing all the kool-aid, but I'm not sure her product is there like it was.
I don't want to be her, but I want to be more than I am. Still figuring it out.
Hi Denise. You've made a valuable observation. At its essence, a brand is simply your promise to readers. By definition, brands can't be built without an audience in mind. So, if you start with craft and write something powerful for a group of readers that you strive to understand and delight...well, that's the most important type of brand building there is. You can't build a valuable brand with subpar work. It's futile. The brand must always be baked into the work. I hope this helps.