Friday, January 9, 2015

6 Things I Learned In The Last Year About Writing And Business

During much of the last fourteen years, I worked full-time--and then some--as a lawyer and wrote fiction on the side. Last year, I gradually shifted gears so that now more than half my professional life is devoted to writing and to the business side of writing. Below are a few things I've learned along the way.

Get Out:  Getting outside once a day, no matter what the weather, boosts my mental health. Much as writing all day at an antique desk in my home office sounds appealing when it's ten degrees with a six below windchill (can you tell I live in Chicago?), if I stay inside too much, I start feeling blue. I'm also less creative and less motivated. So if I'm working from home more than a day or two in a row, I make sure I meet someone for lunch, lug my laptop to the local coffeehouse, or at least walk a few blocks to the Container Store to admire the many wondrous things there. Despite the time it takes to layer on a fleece, winter coat, scarf, and double gloves (when it's zero or colder), I feel energized and ready to get back to work when I get home.

Flexibility:  For years (actually, decades), I wrote, submitted manuscripts, and ascended the rejection ladder, graduating from form letters to personal notes to publication of some short stories, poems, and articles. I took a few breaks when my law practice became extremely busy and after my parents' deaths. When I came back and needed to decide what to do with my most recently-completed novel, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about authors having success with self-publishing. I hesitated because in my mind that wasn't "real" publishing. But the more I researched, the more excited I became. I believe in my work, and rather than spending so much energy and time persuading others to invest in it, I decided to bet on myself. Now my marketing time goes toward reaching readers directly. Likewise, I discovered I need to be flexible about genre. I think of my Awakening series as a thriller series despite occult elements, as it contains relatively little of the type of gore that's common these days in horror. (Though I disagree that gore is required.) Yet the books sell well when listed in Amazon's horror category. When my first fan email came in, it was from readers who love science fiction, a genre in which I hadn't imagined the books directly fit. That's when I realized that, by not reaching sci fi and other genre readers, I was missing entire audience sections.

Amazon helps those who help themselves: The more I do to advertise and promote my books, the more Amazon does to promote them and the more sales rise. This is a great relief. When I started running ads for The Awakening, I rarely recovered the price of the ad. Now ads in smaller publications nearly always pay for themselves, and an ad in a publication with a large subscription base such as BookBub usually earns me much more than it costs within the first day, plus prompts a string of sales for weeks to come. Having a second book in the series adds to this effect. While I'm sure longevity and past sales must be factored into Amazon's algorithms, this also reflects a larger truth in any business. At first, a huge amount of time and effort is spent getting the word out. But if you have a good product, eventually others start selling it for you. Not as a favor but because, if they are customers, they truly love the product and want to share it with others and, if they are vendors, because you are showing you can help make them money.

Consistency matters: There is a great quote that I don't remember word-for-word in Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich. It goes something like "you are what your habits make you, and you can choose your habits." I thought of this as I began devoting more time and effort to writing and publishing. How does it relate? For the majority of authors, writing one book and publishing it on Amazon results in little more than a handful of sales to family and friends. Likewise, writing a blog post or two, occasionally tweeting, and creating a webpage won't sustain a career or a business. It's the effort that's made week after week, month after month, and year after year that has the most effect. Writing in particular is something a lot of people love doing, as is playing sports. That means for authors and athletes (and singers and actors and visual artists), there is a lot of competition. That doesn't mean it's not worth pursuing. It does mean a successful career will likely require effort day after day for years. This is something I keep in mind every time I read an "overnight" success story. Usually further research reveals that the novel the person wrote and sold a hundred thousand copies of was the fifth one that person finished, and the stunning sales record came not because of one ad but after months or years of seeking reviews from book bloggers, attending and speaking at conferences, and finding creative ways to reach readers.

No one owes it to me to be excited about what I'm doing: There are certain things that almost everyone in our culture universally expresses excitement about when women do them--mainly getting married and having children. Beyond that, it varies. For example, some people feel earning an advanced degree is a great accomplishment, others scoff at "professional students." When it comes to writing and particularly an author independently publishing her own work, there will always be people eager to downplay any success, or who view all artistic efforts as too much of a long shot to be worth noting. At first those attitudes surprised and disappointed me. Then I realized that everyone is entitled to her or his own opinion, and I don't need to share it, be concerned about it, or factor it into how I live my life. What's important is doing my best at what I love doing.

Many talented people are generous with their time and information: This is the flip side of the point above. For every person who is dismissive of self-publishing, there are three or four who freely offer information, advice, and support. I've learned tremendous amounts about writing, business, and marketing from blogs and websites created by authors like Nick Stephenson, Joanna Penn, Bob Mayer, and Melissa Foster. I've also joined on-line communities where authors share what they've learned about writing, editing, and marketing. I had this same experience when I started my own law practice after many years of working at a large firm. It reaffirms my faith in human nature and in the value of being kind, professional, and considerate. It is almost always returned tenfold.

Questions or comments on these points or a few to add of your own? Please comment below or email me at
Lisa M. Lilly is the author of occult thrillers The Awakening and The Unbelievers. Her poems and short fiction have appeared in numerous print and on-line magazines, including Parade of PhantomsStrong Coffee, and Hair Trigger, and a short film of the title story of her collection The Tower Formerly Known as Sears and Two Other Tales of Urban Horror was recently produced under the title Willis Tower. If you'd like to be notified of new releases, click here to join her email listThe Awakening series is also available on

1 comment:

  1. Hi Lisa,
    I'm sorry I didn't respond back to your last comment. Between wrapping up last semester and the holidays (which almost always ushers in a certain amount of high-level family drama that I have to sift through - honestly I wish I were a hibernating bear during the holidays), time just got away from me. I do have to admit, though, that I came back to reading your post feeling a little sheepish. You see, I was really excited to find your blog. So, I responded to two or three of your past posts to which I went on and on about philosophy (which is a field of study I recently stumbled upon and have come to love). When I stepped away from your blog, I thought, 'oh, dear I think I overly blogged.' I hadn't meant to blog so much. I guess I got a little carried away.

    Thank you for your condolences about my sister. Yes, cultural divides can be very difficult in families, it certainly has been for me. To this day, those differences are difficult to deal with. I am not very well understood in my family - I might as well be from Mars.

    That was fun that you remembered the 'Sandy outfit' my mom made for Grease. The back story on that is that my very traditional mom and dad did not want me to be in a school play, not some girls should do. In fact, they put me under so much pressure, that I told the music teacher I wanted to quit. The teacher talked me out of it. My mom and I went round and round on that and finally she said in her Italian accent, "okay, I'll make you an outfit for that play, just this once." Well, something must have happened with her thinking because when I finally saw the outfit, I was stunned. It was black and skin tight. I didn't think it was going to be 'that kind' of an outfit. Great, now I wanted to back out of the play for a different reason, I was embarrassed to wear it. I don't know what ever happened to that outfit - I certainly would not fit in it today.

    Back to your post, this is a great post. I will definitely share your blog with other writers that I've met along the way. I think your right about the perception that the only way to be published is to be published through the traditional way. However, new technology and self publishing has created more options. I found the points you made about flexibility and amazon to be very interesting. I liked the idea of how an author can get to know their readership a little better, and also how working with a company like amazon creates options for authors to get their work out there. I follow another author/illustrator who is making great strides with her work by using technology. She has a fun blog and its fun responding to her blogs. For myself, I discovered sites like 'Blurb' when I started doing my own writing/illustrating - I am very new to the world of writing - doing artwork is my forte. Currently, I have two half written, half illustrated story for children that I would eventually love to do something with. They're on the back burner while I finish my schooling, but they are softly calling to me.

    I also liked your point on "how no one owes it to me to be excited about what I am doing.... and how it is important to do the best in what I love doing" Really, it's true how people are universally excited about marriages and babies, which are all great things in life, however there are many, many more things to add to that list of exciting events in life. Its great to see that many possibilities exist for women. A comment you made in a past post was something like 'baby showers are fun, but business showers would be fun, too - for someone embarking on a new business venture." What a good idea.

    Oh dear, I think I over blogged again. Oh well... how fun. I do have your contact information now. I'll contact you there and give you my email that way you don't have to go try and find my contact info. I'd love to hear from you, whenever you get a chance. It has been years.

    Cheers, Silvia