Do what you like… 6 lessons I learnt about small business from the experience of writing a book.

In 2014 I independently published my first book through Amazon’s Createspace and KDP. The process taught me a lot about writing, publishing, marketing and mainly myself. Recently, I was asked to address a local business group about the process of “being a writer” but as I considered what to talk to them about, I began to realise that the experience of Independent Publishing has taught me six lessons about business in general.

LESSON 1: Work the problem, not worry about it.

Different ViewAt the midpoint of writing my first book I got stuck. I couldn’t find a way of bridging between two plot points and it stopped me. I worried about the process, my ability, how I was doing this or how and why I wasn’t doing that. I ended up concentrating more on my problem with problem solving than on the problem itself. Eventually I stopped pounding my head against the same dead-end and took a new viewpoint. I looked at it from a different character’s perspective. I worked in a different space and at a different time of the day. I changed my perspective and re-approached the original problem with a fresh viewpoint. The writing began again. – First things first, I DO NOT mean “think outside the box”!! What a lot of rubbish that trite phrase is. If I could think dynamically all the time then I wouldn’t be unable to work the problem and anyway, how am I meant to think outside the box if I’m trapped inside the thing.  In business we can all get bogged down in the minutiae and fail to see a solution. Sometimes a fresh view, a different input, a different perspective is needed. That doesn’t always mean expensive external consultants. Sometimes it means taking a break, sometimes it means a chat with a colleague, or one of your team or your manager. But do not waste time worrying about not making progress. Devote that energy into solving the problem itself.

LESSON 2: Keep current with your industry.

TechWhen I completed ‘A Time To Every Purpose’ I figured I had probably a good five or more years of going, cap in hand, to every literary agent or publishing company under the sun to try to get them to take it on. I was familiar with the horror stories. How C.S. Lewis, another Belfast-born fella like myself, allegedly was rejected for years and then went on to produce classics like the Chronicles of Narnia. I imagine a conversation like:
C.S.Lewis: “It’s about some children and a big lion.”
Publisher: “We don’t do wildlife books.”

Or Agatha Christie. The second most popular author after Shakespeare yet allegedly and famously turned down for almost five years:
Agatha: It’s a detective story.
Publisher: But he’s a Belgian?

I envisaged a long and frustrating path, but then a friend told me about independently published, Print-on-Demand. I worried about it being “Vanity Publishing”. You know the type of thing, get 20,000 copies of a book printed at your own expense, sell three copies, insulate your loft with the rest. But, no, he said this was fundamentally different. Global reach and a proper manufacturing process. I investigated and was immediately hooked. I just wanted to have a book out there and this was the way of doing it without risking a fortune. Also, no extra loft insulation. – So what did I learn from that? Keep up to date with the new initiatives, technologies and trends in your business. For if it changes and you are unaware then you could spend years chasing after something that you may not need. It is not only important to stop from chasing after shadows, but it is important to know what your potential customers are being exposed to. If you ran a vanity publishing company before, how does the print-on-demand system impact your bottom line? If you do wheel alignments on cars and don’t know about the new technology available from the ‘Acme Wheel-Balancing Company’ then are you still in business next year?  That means trade journals, conferences, research, memberships of associations and all those other slightly perturbing things for small business owners. But it’s got to be done.

LESSON 3: If you believe in your product, the market will surprise you, plan for it.

Success2I finished the book, put it out to the world via Amazon and sat back waiting for Hollywood to ring me with the offer of making it into a movie. Well, not really. I put it out there and hoped some would read it and some would like it. I was pleased and gratified that family and friends picked it up but wasn’t prepared for others to buy it. Then, sure enough, people I didn’t know downloaded the e-book, bought the paperback and began to review it favourably. Obviously, I believed it was good. I was happy with the story, the quality, the “feel” of the thing and yet I was surprised when others thought so too. It took me by surprise and I had no action plan with regard to what if? I was immediately playing catch-up with myself. That took so much time and effort that it prevented me from doing the stuff that I needed to. – If you believe you have given your best and you believe in your product there will be others out there who think like you. Yes there will be some who don’t and that’s good. You won’t have to work with them, they will go elsewhere. But some people will. Embrace them and have contingency plans. Not just for Business Continuity and Disaster. Have plans for success. Have a strategy that positions you just in case it all works out.

LESSON 4: Marketing is a snowball effect, not a single event and it requires effort.

Ava1As the interest deepened I suddenly realised I might have to get the word out. There was a chance I could turn 60 readers into 600 and who knew after that… But I hadn’t done anything to say hello to the world. From a standing start I got a website, a Facebook account, Twitter, Press reviews, a Launch evening, a blog, talks, more press, radio and at most every opportunity, face-to-face conversations. The sales began to increase and it was the most exhausting element of the whole thing. Constant. Requiring updates and improvements. With only me it was a struggle, especially when I started writing my new novel. The blog and the Facebook page and the “other things” were being sidelined by the new story. But, marketing still needs to be done, even more now the second one is out and the third due for release in Easter 2016 and the fourth already in planning. – Your business marketing MUST be done with diversity, accuracy and commitment. If you have a social media presence then keep it updated, fresh and interesting. Employ someone if you can afford it, to maintain your website and social media and remember about the other forms. Don’t just rely on that one advertisement running in the local paper, or the one radio ad played every so often. Maintain the pressure and occasionally lift the profile with another ‘push’.

LESSON 5: Manage your communications with respect for your stakeholders.

TypeThe reviews of my first novel showed I could write a story. I liked that people liked it. I wanted to write more and take it to the next level. To do that I thought I needed professional representation. That meant trying to get on the merry-go-round of publishers and agents. But, it also meant doing my own thing until I could get “discovered”. However, my impression is that as an industry, with a notable one or two exceptions, the literary world is the rudest, most self-centred, arrogant collection of business types I have met (or in most cases – haven’t met, read on you’ll understand).

What’s this impression based on? Simple business etiquette that the rest of us adhere to. If a contact, customer, client, stakeholder, interested passer-by, complete stranger, whatever, sends you an email related to your business then you respond. Short, long, caring or callous it doesn’t actually matter. Just respond. Be a decent communicator. Now, I have no idea how many emails the average publisher or agent gets but the volume is NO excuse. In the modern world there are email rules that can automatically send a response. You know the sort of thing, “Hi, thanks for getting in touch. We have received your email and will be in touch within 21 days. If by then you haven’t heard from us, then tough.” Perhaps not the last bit, but you get the drift. Apparently not in publishing. They seemingly don’t need to respond. – I’m not sure what that says about them or about me but in my ‘day job’ as a professional facilitator if I didn’t acknowledge in some form then even if I didn’t go out of business, I am pretty sure I would be seen as rude, self-centred, arrogant… you get the drift. So, in your business respond to your stakeholder interactions with due diligence and respect. You never know when it will be important.

LESSON 6: Do what you like.

Happy Kid

I enjoy writing and look forward to doing it. I miss it when I don’t do it and I do it even without earning a fortune from it. I expect to like it. Yes, there are days I struggled and still struggle to write a chapter. Yes there are days I can’t sit still to concentrate. There are days when what I have written is so bad it gets deleted and days that I could weep into my bourbon. But overall I like it. As I reflected on that I realise that I like doing my day job too. I look forward to going to work. On further reflection I realise it was the same when I was in the military. I liked it. I looked forward to going to work. Yes there were days back then when I didn’t and days here and now when I could cheerfully roll back over and go to sleep, but on balance I liked it then and I like it now.

So why was, “Ian, you just do what you like!” not a compliment when it was said to me whilst growing up. In fact, “You can’t just do what you like!” was the more normal from teachers and career officers. Luckily my parents ignored that nonsense. Yes, they certainly wanted me to get a job and contribute to society but in whatever capacity I wanted. I see and read all these stories of kids being told that Musician or Actor is not a good career. Pretty sure musicians have provided more joy to the world than most professions. Who cares if you never hit the “big-time” and never make the money of a solicitor or engineer? Mind you, engineers can provide joy to the world as well. The bridges and skyscrapers, aircraft and roads are things of beauty, sometimes. So why not do as you like?

One of my favourite songs is Stiff Little Finger’s track “At The Edge”. Jake Burn’s lyrics perfectly capture the many, many pessimistic adults who so often crush teenage dreams back into a restrictive view of reality; “Think of something you want to do with your life, nothing that you like, that’s not allowed”. So if your passion is music, or being an electrician, an actor or a sailor, a soldier, a welder, a drag queen or a drag racer, just do it. Give it a go for you are a long time at work. Might as well enjoy it. – The upshot is, all work is worthy but you work a long day so my advice, especially if you are running your own business is simple; Do what you like. Don’t worry about the money, if you like what you do and you do it well, with passion and commitment, the market will respond.

© Ian Andrew 2015
All Photos  © and used by permission Dollar Photo Club

 

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