Should Writers “JUST” Write?

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photo by topgold

“A writer should do what they do best and only this: write.”

I heard this statement again at the Digital Book World conference in New York City last week, and I began really considering if I agreed with it. We are at a funny time in the world of creative expression, one where the artist, the musician, the writer no longer absolutely NEEDS middlemen in order to make a living with their art or craft.

Layers have been removed between the writer and their audience. No longer is a publicist or an agent or a publisher required. YES, they are powerful partners in one’s writing career, but they are now an OPTION, not a requirement. That is a huge shift.

So for you, the author, you get to choose whatever type of writing career you would like. There is no single path anymore. Yes, you can just write and do nothing else. No marketing, no social media, no book tours, no worrying about cover design, or translation, or rights, or file formats, or metadata, nothing. Just write. Go ahead, I don’t mind.

But…

With 1.5 million books published last year, what we are seeing is that lots of folks are doing just that: writing. Which is why I focus more and more not on getting one’s work published, but ensuring it is read; ensuring it finds a reader who appreciates the work, and is affected by it in a positive way.

It sounds romantic to say that a writer should just write. The implication is that a writer should not become marketers. They shouldn’t sell out, and belittle their writing talents by becoming a salesperson. Insert complaint about authors yelling “buy my book!” on Twitter, all day, all night.

This romantic vision aligns with a vision we hope to have of the world, one of the authentic craftsperson or artist, honing their skills with a zen-like focus over the course of years.

This has always been a favorite image of mine, from the movie The Last Samurai:

DanBlank_LastSamurai500

This is someone perfecting the tea ritual. This is what they do, period. They slowly perfect the tea ritual with complete focus on even the tiniest of details. I love the thought of this, of being the guy in the village and all I do all day is hone the tea ritual.

But…

The person perfecting the ritual is doing so for reasons other than just sharing the tea. The ritual itself provides a deeper purpose to their experience in this world. For a writer, the act of crafting stories or sentences can provide the same function. And that is fine. In fact, I love that.

But what about connection to an audience? If that writer – if YOU as a writer – want your work to be read, then we have to shift the conversation. We can’t just posit romantic notions of the tea ritual. This idea that a writer should just sit in their attic and write write write, never considering their audience because that would somehow corrupt the creative process.

But if your writing is about connecting it to readers, then you can’t assume that the other half of the process is magical. That work of high quality naturally finds its way into readers’ hands.

In a small village where one person makes tea, sure, they don’t need to worry about marketing. But with 1.5 million books published last year, estimates of more than 2.5 million to be published in 2013, plus the collected works of human history already published, you are not the lone writer in your little village.

So when I consider the question “Should writers JUST write?” I am not implying that they need to become publicists or marketers and make their writing take a backseat to promotion. Rather, I believe they may want to consider connecting to their audience in meaningful ways. Or, of you are a writer who needs to support yourself via writing, better understanding the business side of publishing.

When you offload the ENTIRE connection to your readership, then you give away so much more than you may realize. You won’t own the channels by which to reach readers, so you will always need distributors and publishers and partners; you won’t know what messages encourage readers to turn interest into action and book sales, so you will always need copywriters, marketers and publicists; you will not know where readers are, what else they are interested in, and how you align with them in other ways, so you will always be guessing as to what they may want to read next; where they want to show up to meet you; and what they would love to chat about when they do meet you.

When you offload these things, it creates a distance between you and your potential audience.

To some writers, this distance is romantic. I always hear about how introverted writers are, but having met hundreds upon hundreds of writers in many venues and channels, I have to say: I don’t find writers to be any more introverted than the average person.

Which is to say: most people are introverted to some degree. Most people would rather be home right now watching a movie or reading a book. Most people would prefer to have coffee with a friend in a quiet corner than go out to lunch with 12 colleagues.

So I want to look beyond the romance of distance between the creator (author, musician, poet, artist, etc) and their audience.

And I want to consider some business realities. At Digital Book World, author Hugh Howey was interviewed along with his agent Kristen Nelson. The discussion was interesting in several ways:

  • His agent described how, before she met him, she assessed how much he made on his own self-publishing and felt there was nothing she could say to lure him to work with her because he made so much money on his own.
  • As she got to know Hugh, she tracked his sales, and how he went from pulling in $50,000 per month in book sales to $150,000 per month in book sales. PER MONTH!
  • That they were getting million dollar deals that they quickly rejected because it was clearly a bad business move.

But it’s not all about the money.

The coolest thing I heard about Hugh’s appearance at Digital Book World came from Porter Anderson. Porter chatted with Hugh after the session, and asked how finds the time to write. Hugh told Porter that he was at his table in the grand ballroom, writing a book up until the moment he was called on stage.

What I loved about this is that at this 1,000+ person conference about publishing, filled with big publishers and agents, there was actually an author in the room WRITING A BOOK! Here’s a photo of Hugh and his agent Kristen Nelson taken by Porter:

DanBlank_HughHowey

I also like how this statement shows the duality of Hugh’s world: agreeing to appear at the conference to share his story, while also finding time to write.

It is clearly not easy, it takes discipline. No, Hugh wasn’t in his village, doing the tea ceremony by himself. He did it while sitting among 1,000 other people, just before getting interviewed on stage. I don’t know Hugh, but my gut would be that he would describe himself as an introvert. And here he is, writing moments before getting on stage in front of all these people.

Which brings me back to the question: “Should Writers JUST Write?” Some questions you may want to ask yourself as you find your own personal path of being a writer:

  • Do you own the understanding of who your audience is?
  • Do you own the ability to connect to your audience any time you want?
  • Do you own the channels by which to reach them?
  • Do you own the ability to craft messages that moves them to take action?
  • Do you own the financial understanding of how to create sustainable writing career?

While you likely won’t be a master of all of these things, be careful about 100% offloading them to others. Consider the skills you develop when you take on some of these things yourself. When you entirely offload these tasks, you don’t just offload the work, you offload the knowledge of what you learn by engaging with others.

You also miss out on the serendipity and good feelings and validation that happens when a creator connects with someone who appreciates their work. Plus, you may feel a greater sense of ownership and control of your writing career, something I know that can be elusive to many.

Overall, these are skills that provide value beyond their immediate action. That sending a Tweet is not about promoting your book, but about connecting with like minds.

Look at the actions many successful writers take. They go on book tours, they speak at events, they comment in the media, they engage with others in book groups, libraries, and social media. This is not just publicity. This is their way of living the LIFE of a writer. Defined by more than just publication and sale of a book. By CONNECTING with others about topics or stories they both admire.

Is some of this “work?” Yep. I don’t know why J.K. Rowling feels compelled to stand up on stage and answer questions when she may have some stage fright. Or why Cheryl Strayed continues to tour tour tour around her book. Or why Neil Gaiman uses Twitter.

I assume it comes from a place other than the notion of “well, I suppose I will go ‘promote’ my book now.” That there is other value in connecting with readers around their books.

Janes Friedman recently wrote a post looking at “commodity publishing.” The post is a great read and asks interesting questions. Bob Mayer responded in the comments section:

“I’ve been thinking about the quality/quantity argument and here are my thoughts: when I was making my living in traditional publishing I wrote four books a year, writing under my name and three pen names. Publishers didn’t want more than one book a year because their production schedule was geared that way and they had little clue how a book did for at least six months… I know a lot of writers. I’ve collaborated with other writers. And frankly, those who take a year or 18 months to write a book, often simply don’t glue their butt to the chair.”

If you are a writer, and you want to “just write,” I 100% support that. But more and more, I am focusing on the challenge of ensuring a writer’s work gets read – that it has an effect on others. And that doing this is not viewed as “selling out,” but rather, forging more meaningful connections to others in the world.

Thanks!
-Dan

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About Dan Blank

Dan Blank is the founder of WeGrowMedia, where he helps writers share their stories and connect with readers. He has helped hundreds of authors via online courses, events, consulting, and workshops, and worked with amazing publishing houses and organizations who support writers such as Random House, Workman Publishing, Abrams Books, Writers House, The Kenyon Review, Writer’s Digest, Library Journal, and many others.

Comments

  1. says

    Dan, this may be my favorite post from you. One of the key discussions with my Buzz authors is how they are going to connect with the reader and how we’re going to build and enhance that relationship as their book launch approaches. They know they can’t sit and hope readers buy their books.

    And obviously your post speaks to me since I am an author, publisher and brand strategist. Though they are different hats, they do have storytelling and creativity in common and I feel blessed that each day brings new challenges.

    I sat with a life coach in 2006 about how to converge my passions and in 2011 all the pieces came together. Each of us should take the time to outline those steps on how we want to live and take the steps to make it happen. Thank you!
    Malena Lott´s last blog post ..Hope Floats Storygrams

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  2. says

    This is a great article, and shares both sides to how I feel about the current state of writing. For the novel I am working on, I still have that perfecting the art of tea sense of the work I am doing, particularly in not wanting to rush it to publication just because I can. For the novel, I still (as of this month; things change so quickly…) plan to go through traditional publishing channels, anticipating querying agents is my next step.

    But I spend time on social media, seeking community and sharing my voice. I’m sure there are days when it takes the place of fiction writing, but it has also strenghtened my fiction as the writing I’ve done on my blog has made me so much more conscious of the writer-reader connection, given me the opportunity to mull over concepts of craft and discover great resources, all while doubling my audience every 6 months.

    And, while I plan the traditional route for the novel, I have 2 possible nonfiction/professional books I could see self-publishing at this point, as there is an effective immediacy in being able to put current advice directly into a reader’s hands.

    Thanks for sharing all your insights, as it definitely is an eye-opening time with so many opportunities available.
    Elissa Field´s last blog post ..How the January Challenge Arose from Freelance Writing

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    • says

      Elissa,
      I love hearing that – thank you! So interesting to hear you talk at once about writing in a way that is comfortable to you, while still doubling your audience every six months. That, by the time your book is published, you will HAVE an audience!

      The issue of social media replacing writing time is a tricky one. Many writers would say, as Bob did, it’s a “butt in chair” solution. Just do it, as Nike would say.

      But I also like how you are considering the value of social media as listening and learning, not just marketing. Thanks!
      -Dan
      Dan Blank´s last blog post ..Seth Godin on Kickstarter and the Value of an Author Platform

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      • says

        With all the comments you’ve had, Dan, thanks for taking the time to reply to each one. It’s that kind of connection that really makes the writer-reader-writer relationship of social media so great.

        It’s interesting reading the different takes. As an education leader pointed out to a group of teachers recently: “We are educating children now to be able to perform jobs ten years from now that don’t even exist yet.”

        Part of the success is in accepting or even embracing that opportunities are changing all the time, all around us — the community aspect is in recognizing we’re all in it together.
        Elissa Field´s last blog post ..Friday Links 01.25.13

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  3. says

    Well, dang – now you have me all fired up and raring to go. Thanks a lot, Dan (that’s said sarcastically by the way *laugh*), for picking me up by the ankles, shaking me, and letting all my excuses fall out for all to see. Dang!

    A fine post, if not a scary one. And I do agree that we can’t operate as if we live on an island of one. I want to find that comfort zone for me – one that allows me to connect and to “get the word out” about my books, but doesn’t make me squirm too much with “ick” factor.
    kathryn Magendie´s last blog post ..Ten ways Exercise Makes for Better Sex:

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    • says

      Kathryn,
      Thanks! I find that the things that make me uncomfortable are the things that push me forward. That said, I certainly want to be respectful that everyone has their own personal boundaries and are likely balancing LOTS of stuff in their life, not just writing and finding an audience.

      When we are kids and teenagers, we have all these people around us constantly pushing us. As adults, we don’t get this. We end up on the hamster wheel, just trying to keep up with mundane tasks.

      This is why I have learned to appreciate taking actions that push me beyond my comfort zone. At 39, I still feel like I am growing.

      Thanks.
      -Dan
      Dan Blank´s last blog post ..Seth Godin on Kickstarter and the Value of an Author Platform

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  4. says

    I was once under the mistaken impression you describe (closeted, pour myself on the page, and done). I guess I’ve concluded (finally) that I want to connect with readers, and in a meaningful way. And that’s going to take more than just an ivory tower and a Word doc. My conclusion is part of the ‘why’ for my involvement in WU.

    I’ve been taking it a step at a time as I labor toward putting my work out there. I want to make a solid connection on the first crack at it, novel wise. But in the meantime, I’ve discovered solid connections through blogging and my writing community. Moreso than I originally thought possible.

    Thanks for keeping me thinking about my own path to connection, Dan.
    Vaughn Roycroft´s last blog post ..“It Was a Dark and Stormy Night.” Of course it was.

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  5. Charlie Quimby says

    There’s a third dimension to this balancing act that Dan hints at here. Being a writer also involves being a human being engaged in the world. Being a parent, a volunteer, a snowshoer, an eavesdropper.

    I find I have little interest in reading writers who focus on output while ignoring input.
    Charlie Quimby´s last blog post ..The Dog Stars: Post-apocalyptic Hope or Warning for Today?

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  6. says

    Excellent article! I am published traditionally, but that doesn’t change the need to wear many hats. There’s no way to succeed at this career without putting yourself out there. I am VERY much an introvert, and would rather eat straw than do a public appearance, but I do it. And I fake it. :) No one at any signing, book club, or speaking event has ever known that I’m scared silly and was hyperventilating in the car before I walked out. LOL. Because I turn on another switch inside myself and put on a show.

    Even conferences drain me, I have to go back to my room and decompress from all the energy and “acting” but I still love conferences. I’ve signed up to teach a class at RWA this year… because I’m insane? :) Possibly. Will I be a nervous ball of freak-out? Probably. But maybe someone will like my approach and like my personality, and enjoy the interaction and go buy my book. And that’s another reader. So it’s worth it.

    Because as much as we’d all love to “just write”, it’s not reality if we want to build a readership. If that’s your dream, you do what you have to do to make it happen. :)

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  7. says

    I love this. I have swung the pendulum of “promote all the time!” and “only writing matters!” and I’ve had books that I loved die on the vine because I didn’t want to connect with readers. I think that there’s a happy medium, and that the balance is necessary. I always find your posts thought provoking and encouraging — thanks for this!
    Cathy Yardley´s last blog post ..The Promotion Experiment

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  8. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    I agree with what Cathy Yardley said above. The importance is to find the balance. I’d also like to go one step further and suggest that not only are writing, painting, acting, and music forms of art, the skill of an agent and a promoter are art forms in themselves. While the pendulum has swung in an extreme direction at this unsettled moment in the publishing industry, it is my suspicion that when the unsettled settles, the necessity for the art of an agent and publicist will be a high priority, if in a newer form for a newer world of publishing. And it will all continue to evolve. Who was it that said? “Change is the only constant?”

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  9. says

    Hm, lots to unpack and think about, thank you.

    Mostly I net out where Charlie and Cathy do — there’s a balance, an equilibrium to be met.

    Now, for each person it’s going to be different. There’s no ONE balance that’s “right.” And I think that’s what each of us writers is striving to do: find the equilibrium that works for us.

    (Of course, life likes to be funny and change things on us all the time, so it becomes a Sisyphus-ean pursuit…)

    I confess I’m a little confused about the quote at the end, though, because it seems to be critical of those who take a year to 18 months (or longer) to write a book. As if they are doing something wrong. Whereas this post is all about realizing that go-go-go output isn’t necessarily the only (or best) way to succeed. Right…? Or maybe I’m misreading (or reading too much into) the quote.
    Kristan Hoffman´s last blog post ..Stuff worth reading

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    • says

      Kristan,
      Thanks! For Bob Mayer’s quote at the end, I suppose I was just trying to underscore that, yes, this is work. That too often, we make excuses because they protect us emotionally. So Bob’s viewpoint, to me, was that of the ‘professional’ as Steven Pressfield would say. That getting a book done is work. And that building a readership is work too. Sure, there are aspects that are natural and just fall into place. But if at times, it feels hard and even unnatural, that is the difference between making it happen, and giving in to easy excuses.

      I relate a lot of this to the idea of entrepreneurship. For me personally, I am the sole income provider for my family, which means that I can never hide behind comfort. I need to keep pushing myself, keep launching things, keep putting myself out there.

      I have found, again and again, that the reward far outweighs my initial fear. And I don’t just mean the financial reward, but the sense of personal accomplishment, and the AMAZING AMAZING AMAZING relationships I have made because of it.

      Thanks!
      -Dan
      Dan Blank´s last blog post ..Seth Godin on Kickstarter and the Value of an Author Platform

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  10. says

    I think you are very right that connection is a big piece of the writers life. I’ve been very concerned for quite a while on connecting to readers – and not on the “buy my book” level. It’s kind of tough to get outside the writer circles, but I’m finally finding the places where readers hang out. Now if they can just find me!

    I believe the media/marketing stuff can be done in moderation and be effective. It is the extremes that get us in trouble. :)
    Lara Schiffbauer´s last blog post ..Funny Friday Photos

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  11. Robin Yaklin says

    Those “do you owns” are a marketing degree! But, answer them we should. Not saying I can just that the business side of writing is important if you want to make money. Seems you’ve got to decide how much in-depth you want to answer these. Perhaps, an agent can bring some of those answers to the table. Then, the next question is how well can I execute, outsourcing what you cannot do. How you frame yourself to yourself starts it all moving, dontchathink?

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  12. says

    QUOTE: “So for you, the author, you get to choose whatever type of writing career you would like. There is no single path anymore. Yes, you can just write and do nothing else. No marketing, no social media, no book tours, no worrying about cover design, or translation, or rights, or file formats, or metadata, nothing. Just write.” END QUOTE

    Even trad-pubbed authors have to market their work. If a writer “just writes”, he’s not making a career out of it; he’s practicing a hobby. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the article focuses on making a living at it, and publishers don’t do all the marketing for any author signing contracts these days.

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    • says

      Elle,
      While I agree that authors should consider connecting to their audience, with 1.5 million books published last year, I would say that PLENTY of those authors did nothing to market their books. And that of the traditionally published books, many of those authors did zero to market their books. That many authors still choose the traditional route with the expectation that the publisher will do the marketing.

      And while most publishers want the author to be active in marketing, that doesn’t mean they get it.

      Thanks.
      -Dan
      Dan Blank´s last blog post ..Seth Godin on Kickstarter and the Value of an Author Platform

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  13. says

    I know this is all true, and yet I feel dread at those questions. I know I can’t answer them. It’s like…well, readers will not just reject my book but will reject me. But obviously one has to get over/through the fear. I want to connect to readers. I’m all for connecting. It is daunting to figure out where to begin, who are my readers, am I crazy for doing this?

    Anyway, lots to think about. And lots to plan.
    marta´s last blog post ..Where does writing begin?

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  14. says

    Great post. I write children’s picture books and non-fiction science under a non-fiction name. I have a foot in what can sometimes be very different camps (think Olivia vs. Sheldon Cooper, PhD).

    I keep my social media sanity by keeping two websites, two blogs, even 2 pinterest accounts because it’s easier to connect topic-wise with colleagues and readers. A LOT more time consuming, but easier in the long run.

    Your thoughts reminded me why I go through all the trouble to do it.
    Thanks.
    Quinn Cole´s last blog post ..Revisions Rule

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  15. says

    Too many writers “just write”…and that’s why they fail. If you leave the rest to someone else, it will never work out for you. No one is more concerned about your career than you are.
    RD Meyer´s last blog post ..Granting Advantage

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  16. says

    Hi Dan:

    Writers are not commodities. They are not all like number two wheat. Some writers might have to spend most of their time marketing in order to have any hope of success. Other writers might never need to market and their highest and best use would be writing, writing, writing, and hiring everything else done for them. And there is every kind of writer in between.

    As a marketing man (and writer) I have one request for all writers. You can write 100% of the time but please put the marketing into your book before you write the first word of copy.

    Give me a setting with a large installed base of fans – like the Grand Canyon or Palo Duro state park. Give my chacters with interesting occuplations that many perople have an interst in learning about. Take your characters to places many people would like to visit but can’t gain entry. Let the characters have hobbies that have millions of followers.

    In short, give me story elements I can put on the cover art of the book and attract the attention of millions of potential readers. In other words, if you want me to market your book successfully, then give me some help!!!

    The best marketing ever is going to be what the author puts into the book and not anything I can do after the fact.

    Vince

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  17. says

    Dan,
    Thanks for the mention. I absolutely believe there is much more to being an author than just writing. One of the biggest mistakes I made in my career as a trad author was not networking, forging relationships, etc. and focusing on my readers.

    A few months ago I started ‘disappearing’ from social media in terms of my usual blogs and comments about the state of publishing. I am continuing on that path. Because I realized I was addressing the wrong audience. I was talking to the publishing industry when I really needed to be focusing on readers. Yes, I know people in the industry read, but 99.9% of readers could care less what’s going on in publishing. They want to be entertained.

    I answer every email from a reader. We tend to give away a lot of free books to people who email us, because we feel they are the core audience. I answer any question asked. My blog at Write It Forward is becoming more personal, less business. My Facebook fan page features my dogs more than they do my books.

    Gluing butt to chair was something the recently deceased Bryce Courtney (#1 all-time selling Australian author) told me in Maui late one night as he regaled me with the history of his continent and his thoughts on writing. He said he got it first hand from Stephen King.

    Gluing butt to chair is also key in building readership.

    I believe it’s the best time ever to be a writer because we control more than ever. But with that control comes a great responsibility.
    Bob Mayer´s last blog post ..The Trip Down Memory Lane via Canceled Flights, Da Bronx and West Point

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  18. says

    Dan,

    Loved the post. I was at an author group about this time last year hearing about just writing, and not worrying about talking with readers (or other writers). I could not have disagreed more. Talking to readers is great motivation and makes you feel good about what you do. Also, I have gotten some terrific tips from readers about services that I might like and opportunities to promote my books. Thanks for the wonderful post.

    Nick

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  19. says

    I am just beginning the journey of writing fiction for publication (although I have been a professional freelance writer for more then four years) and I need this type of encouragement and expert advice. As you have written, writing is a joy in itself, but people who write, especially these days, seem to wear so many hats that the traditional view of an author is now archaic. A writer is all things–writer, marketer, sometimes publisher–so the definition has defintely changed. It is a little overwhelming for a beginner, but I relish the challenge. Thanks.

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  20. says

    Great article, Dan. Before I scrolled down to the picture of H. Howey, my mind was already thinking, “Hmmmm, wonder if this guy is middle aged and single?” That is quite an impressive MONTHLY income!

    When I saw that he is very young, I continued reading the article for more of your advice.

    I like being out doing book signings! Love meeting the people!

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  21. says

    I found this blog via Self-Publishing Strategies and am so glad I read this post. I am a self-published author and do it all, from the writing to the marketing. I am also going to put my fear of speaking in front of a crowd aside and schedule a book signing at our local library this summer.

    I would much prefer to stay home and just write, but if I do not do the marketing and social networking then I will not have an audience. I am impatient by nature and when I realized just how long it may take to secure a book deal, I started to explore the self-publishing route. In reality, I am just getting started as I have become more internet savvy in the past year or so. I love to write and have a list of books a mile long on my “to write” itinerary, but I am also wise enough to realize without my promotion and marketing they would just sit there collecting dust.

    I am connecting with other authors, and the best thing I did was participate in NaNoWriMo 2012, which forced me out of my nonfiction comfort zone. I like being in control of where my books are distributed and the fact I am not committed to only one platform. I have eBooks and print books available, and am contemplating audio as well, which I believe will open up even more avenues for me.

    Perhaps one day I can say I have made $50,000 per month from book sales, but whether or not that day comes I will keep writing, promoting, marketing and listening to my audience. Thank you for putting it all into perspective.

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