Engineering Your Success: Wisdom Takeaways from the San Francisco Writer’s Conference
by Shanan Winters
Now that the dust has settled and my mind has stopped reeling from the overdose of information that was the San Francisco Writer’s Conference, I’m able to gather some thoughts and present a handful of takeaways. The SFWC is more of a “Business of Writing” than a “How to Write” experience. There were question-and-answer panels with genre authors, but most of the classes focused on marketing, publishing, and building an author platform.
The overarching message received was abundant and clear:
You, dear author, are the engineer of your success.
You will be as successful as you make yourself. No more. No less. Today’s publishing industry is vastly different from that of just a few years ago, and it continues to change. It puts the author firmly in the driver’s seat of her own career.
And since you are the driver, you need a road map. It boils down to three parts: Your book, your marketing plan, and your team.
It all starts with an idea. Your idea. Whatever is rattling around in your brain, get it on paper. Complete the work. You can put time into your marketing plan, and you can research your agents, editors, artists, publishers, and other teammates during the writing process. But having a finished product is key.
Set a strategy for yourself. Be diligent. Work hard. Read in your genre and produce something that is uniquely yours to offer the world.
I did hear a lot of mixed messages from the industry professionals. The New York Times Bestseller List authors shouted, “Write your story! Make it yours! Write with passion!” The agents said, “Give me something I can sell! Know where it would shelve in the bookstore!” The publishers said, “For the love of all that’s good, give us something new!”
I came away from the conference scratching my head, and decided to continue with my book the way I want it written.
Your Marketing Plan
During one of the sessions, an attendee stood up and said, “I have written and self-published a book that has great reviews from those who have found it. I have another written, and three more plotted. But I have a very hard time marketing myself. I can’t go brag about myself on social media, and I’m really bad at writing queries and pitches. How can I take my work to the next level?”
The agent who responded was blunt: “If you don’t make it, that’s your fault.”
In order to succeed in this new publishing age, you have to be your own biggest salesperson. Whether you choose to pay for a publicity company, or you’re ready to roll up your sleeves and self-promote, know that it is, in no uncertain terms, completely on you to develop and implement your marketing plan. A publishing house will help to a point, but they tend to pour the most advertising dollars into their biggest-name clients.
Until you prove yourself, you have to make yourself. Be prepared to blog, write, and speak about your work. Be proactive and use the platforms that work well for you (there are countless self-promotion tools out there). Devote a set amount of time per week to self-promotion and building your reader base.
If you’re not sure where to start, the conference professionals provided a clear, concise and unified message: Start by building a list of email addresses. Get those hard contacts. Facebook and Twitter are great, but they change their algorithms more often than their underwear. You may get 500 page views one day, and five the next. But your email list is yours, and it’s completely under your control.
To build that list, master the art of the ethical bribe. Give something away for the price of an email address. It can be a story, an excerpt, or the promise of a monthly or quarterly newsletter. For fiction authors, they suggested you do a monthly or quarterly drawing for a $5 Amazon gift card. Kill the “follow” button on your blog, and replace it with an email sign-up form. Build that list! And then, when the time comes for publishing, use your list to your advantage. Start there, and build your reach outward.
Many self-published authors think that they can get away with working in a vacuum. You can… but you are limiting the success of your book. Traditional publishing involves an agent, a publisher, graphic artists, marketing strategists, and a sales force. When you self-publish, you either have to be all of that and more, or you can enlist the help of professionals who can offload some or all of the work.
One panel I attended at the conference focused solely on the changing industry, and the new, hybrid roles of agents, publishers, and other industry professionals. They urged us to determine what we are able and willing to do, and outsource the rest.
Regardless of how your book is published, all of the steps to publishing still apply. If you are able to design your own cover, then great! Have at it. But only if you have the time and energy to devote to cover creation. Are you uncomfortable calling newspapers and arranging press releases? Then hire a publicity company to help.
The other message that rang loud and clear was that there are two types of team members you must employ: Editors and beta readers. Success depends on a number of metrics, but the biggest factor is production of a quality product.
No matter who you hire or enlist to your team, remember that the relationships should be symbiotic. Publishers and agents need us as much as we need them. It’s an equal and even relationship that can be mutually beneficial. If an industry professional is difficult to work with, find someone else. But if you realize you are continually seeking out new team members, examine your own communication techniques.
Time to Take Charge!
I went to the conference with a question in mind: Should I self-publish or go traditional? My biggest lesson learned is that my question was antiquated, and largely irrelevant. Today’s publishing world is one where the writer has much more control over her destiny. It’s a world of partnerships and mutual benefit.
I urge every writer to stay abreast of the industry changes. Write that book, plan to market, and then design a team around your own success. Yes, you will still get rejection letters from agents or publishers. No, not every editor is going to be interested in working with you. Keep at it until you find your fit. Get out there and engineer your own success!
Shanan Winters is a Phoenix-based freelance writer, editor, and novelist. She has avid interest in geek topics and fandoms, issues of parenting, and desert horticulture. She loves archery, cats, aviation, and board games, and has performed in a variety of Irish folk bands over the years. When not working on projects, Shanan can be found writing about writing at ShananWinters.wordpress.com.