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Assess (and Reassess) Your Career

Written by Vicki Hinze

On July 18, 2012

WARNING:  This is a no-edit, chat zone…


Often writers set out on a course for their career and they develop the mindset to stay the course regardless of current market conditions or other career developments until such time as outside factors insist they alter their course.

This is a very human thing to do, but it is also carving a tough path for the writer to walk.

Let’s discuss why in practical, no-frills terms.

You write x type books.  You embark on the path to become a great author of x type books.  You’ve written a few and met with moderate success, and then:

1.  The market for that type of novel collapses.

This happens.  The market cycles.  A few years ago, historical romances were in high demand.  Then suddenly even the historical superstar authors saw sales drop significantly.  Many changed to write romantic suspense and/or small-town contemporary romance.  Why?  The market’s appetite became more favorable for those types of books.  Then still later, historical romance novels again found favor with readers.  Some authors changed back, some didn’t, and new opportunities opened.

Regardless of what type of novel (sub-genre novels, too) an author writers, there are times when outside factors impact readers’ appetites.  Market cycles are driven by reader demand, by interest.  Reader demand and interest are driven by events and all of the usual people, places, things that shape public opinions.

a.  The bottom line is authors can stay the course in what will for a time be a difficult-to-sell type book (a down cycle) and continue writing type x books and wait to sell or publish when conditions improve or

b.  publish anyway, knowing that demand is low and sales will be also or

c.  write something else that has better odds of finding favor with readers at that given point in time or

d.  ignore the market and write what the author wants to write anyway, hoping the market will eventually catch up.

It’s really the author’s call.  The choices are evident and the results of any decision are predictable.  Some authors simply aren’t interested in writing a different type of novel.  That’s their choices and calls, but it makes for a rough career path.

Some authors have broad interests and enjoy variety; they prefer to be flexible and cycle with the market.  That makes for a smoother path in ways yet unless the author prepares his or her readers for the transition, the author can face challenges on not meeting reader expectations.

For example, if your readers know you to be a thriller author and you switch to write cozy mysteries or romantic suspense, you need to prepare your readers for this change or they’ll pick up that first cozy or romantic suspense expecting it to be a thriller.  When it isn’t, they’ll be disappointed.  Now, even prepared, some readers will make the transition with the author and some won’t, because readers have preferences and they might love thrillers but not care for cozy mysteries or romantic suspense novels.  Now, readers who don’t read thrillers but love cozy mysteries or love romantic suspense can become new-to-the-author readers.  The better foundation the author makes for the transition, the greater the odds of success.  Still, no guarantees.

The thing to keep in mind is that markets cycle and authors should be aware of it and make deliberate choices on their reactions to the cycles.  They can only do that if they assess their careers or reassess them at points in time where reassessment is warranted.

 2.  Some authors are determined to hold on to the bitter end.

Authors often resist change.  They love to write what they love to write and keep writing it regardless of what the market does or where reader demand is at a given time.  There’s nothing wrong with that, provided the author does so deliberately for the reasons given in #1 above.

There is wisdom in writing what you love and if all you love is one type of book, then that pretty much says all that needs say.  It does mean that the author is in for a career of peaks and valleys, and some would say, those peaks and valleys are coming anyway, so one might as well stick with what one loves. There’s merit in that, to be sure, and some authors have the fiscal luxury of following that path.  Some authors are also astute businesspeople who prepare for famine during periods of feast so that when sales are down, their fiscal needs are met and covered.

I hope you’re seeing the pattern:  whatever you decide to do is great.  Authors aren’t one-size fits all and their careers aren’t either.  The key pattern is to understand the market, prepare for it, and have reasonable expectations of performance at various cycle stages during it.

Too often what I see are authors who hang on to the bitter end when they’re forced to change or can no longer sell because they fear change.  Many don’t dub this as the root cause, but many do.  They feel they’re established in a certain genre or type of novel and they should stick with it.  Perhaps they have had moderate success and wish to build on it.  That’s a good strategy.  But if the author is lacking publisher support, or if indie, a successful marketing strategy, more often than not what happens is the author gets caught in a downward spiral.  Let me explain in a practical example.

Author writes x.  Publisher has a decent track record for selling x type novels.  They agree to terms and form a strategic alliance.  Author publishes three books and sales are less than expected for whatever reason.  So say that bookseller A ordered 20,000 copies of Author’s first novel and sold 12,000.  Book 2, Bookseller isn’t going to order 20,000 copies.  S/he is going to order 12,000.  Let’s say author sells 85% (sell-thru), which is a very respectable sell-thru.  That’s 10,200 copies.  How many books does Bookseller order on book 3?  Exactly.  Simply put, orders are based on sales of the last book, so the downward spiral becomes evident.

Now it isn’t just a lack of publisher support that can toss an author into a downward spiral.  As we saw in #1, it can be reader demand, market conditions, preferences.  All sorts of outside influences impact sales.

What happens often and is extremely difficult for the author is when to say whoa, time to make a change.  Knowing that specific point in time is only clear if the author is watching.  And too often, authors are so tied up with writing, marketing, promoting, social networking and doing the many other tasks that are significant to authors, they don’t notice the beginning of the downward spiral.  Often, they don’t see the spiral until they’re entrenched deep in it.

Publishers hesitate to address the matter until contract time because frankly it is to their benefit to work with an author who has a positive mindset during the writing.  There are other reasons, too, but nothing impacts creativity as much as the author’s mindset.

So you have an author steeped in the work who might ask but is given obscure information on numbers until it’s time to go back to contract.  Many are stunned to discover then that the publisher doesn’t want to go back to contract, or that an offer will be coming but at a greatly reduced rate.  Here again, you see the challenges that come to the author who is unaware of his/her status and support and sales.  I receive notes frequently from authors who are blindsided by the news that the publisher is no longer interested in seeing future works.

That’s business, pure and simple.  It’s about the bottom line.  Before you bash the publisher for that, ask yourself if you really want to form or keep a strategic alliance with a publisher who isn’t fiscally sound.  You want your publisher to be wise and prudent and responsible.  If not, the publisher won’t stay in business.  That’s the real bottom line.

So how do you recognize the downward spiral?  Look at the example.  If you’re seeing shrinking numbers and you’re told that the market is shrinking, that’s a sign.  The market is changing and fast.  But it is reshaping.  A few years ago, ebook sales barely impacted overall sales.  Then they exploded.  And in many areas, our collective tipping point has been reached and we’re selling more ebooks than print books.

The author who willingly remains in the dark on the market and on how his/her books are doing relative to the market risks finding him or herself deep in the spiral.  It takes time and effort, but it’s a good investment in your career to assess and reassess.

3.  Authors, not just their books, grow and change.

You’re not the person you were when you started writing, or the person you were twenty, ten, or five years ago.  You’re not the person you were yesterday.  You are the person you are now, today, and your interests and desires and purpose for writing changes.

If you don’t assess yourself and reassess on a regular basis and not just when necessity gives you no choice, are you best serving yourself?

That might seem like an odd question, but it’s at the very heart of you, the human being, and that makes it critical.  Not important, not a suggestion that would be beneficial to follow (though it is), it’s critical.  Why?

As we experience and age, what most matters to us changes.  If we don’t assess, we miss the opportunities afforded us by the wisdom gained in our personal journey through life.  We might start our career writing x type books but something happens and we feel driven to write about it even though it’s very different than anything we’ve written thus far.

The key word is driven.  That’s a signal that we’re passionate about this new type of book.  And that passion and drive are signals that we’re hitting upon purpose.  While purpose can be physical, emotional or spiritual–and certainly can be all three–we might not make the connection between writing to our purpose and our personal sense of fulfillment and accomplishment–to success.

I’ve known many authors.  Some define success by money.  But for most, money isn’t enough.  It takes more to reach the contentment zone–a sense of purpose and worth in what you’re doing.  The earlier you recognize this and factor it into your decisions, the fewer regrets you have later on.

Some experts recommend you assess your career once a year.  Others suggest you have a five year plan.  I say, assess it as frequently as you must to stay confident you’re doing what you need to be doing to reach your vision of success.

I’ve always had a five-year plan that includes writing goals and publishing goals.  But I have to tell you that the market is changing so quickly, five years ago it was hard to imagine that the market and landscape in publishing would look as it does today.

More changes are on the horizon, and a lot closer.  That makes a five-year plan still valuable and the annual plan valuable, but it also offers the author the insight that even more frequent assessments are in the author’s best interests.

Understand that when I speak of a five-year plan, or an annual plan, I speak of a plan that addresses me on all levels–physical, emotional and spiritual.  While some things change at the speed of light, some remain steadfast, but one’s approach to them requires modification.  Things happen that impact methods and means everyday.

The benefit of staying in touch with yourself and aware of who you are and what you want and how you plan to get it is I hope clear.  Will things always work out as planned?  No.  Actually, rarely.  But because you’re focused and aware, more of what you’re after will be accomplished, and for real life, that’s pretty good.

I hope this helps.







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