A guest post by Jeff Goins
I find myself facing an uncomfortable experience common to many authors today. Every single day, I meet someone who thinks they can do my job.
“What do you do?” they ask.
“Oh,” I say, reluctantly, “I’m a writer.”
“Oh, really? What kind of songs do you write?”
I explain that I don’t write songs, at least not for a living, a common thing writers who live in Nashville have to explain.
“Oh,” they say, “what kind of books do you write?”
“Well,” I say with a chuckle, “none that you’ve probably heard of. I mean, I didn’t write Left Behind or anything.”
“Oh,” they say with disappointment obvious in their eyes. And then comes the line I hear almost daily: “I’ve always wanted to write a book.”
That’s the one that gets me. Because in no other vocation would you say such a thing. I would never say to my dentist, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to pull teeth.” And yet, for some reason, we think writing is something anyone can do. It can’t be that hard, can it? You just pick up a pencil and get to it.
Unfortunately, at least in my experience, it is that hard.
Maybe, though, I’m wrong. Certainly we see more and more people publishing books than ever before, with the advent of print-on-demand technology and digital self- publishing. Maybe anyone really can write a book.
But even if those people are right, even if they could write that book and get it published, they would not be writers. Why? Because it takes more than writing one book to be a writer.
A Way of Life, a Calling
Finishing a book, even one hastily thrown together during NaNoWriMo or in a bout of incredible discipline, is not what makes a writer. If popular opinion is right, anyone can write one book. But not everyone can be a writer, because being a writer is a way of life. It is a vocational choice, a calling.
That doesn’t mean you have to be rich or famous to be legitimate, but you have to take this thing seriously. I don’t mean it can’t be fun or whimsical. I just mean it needs to be something more than a bucket list item. That, in my opinion, is the difference between a one-time writer and a lifelong author. And of course, there’s nothing wrong with being the former. But writing one book is not the same as being a writer.
So let’s say you want to be a writer, a real one, not just someone who once wrote a book.
What’s your next step?
What it really takes to become a writer is you have to “turn pro,” in the words of Steven Pressfield. This is a mental shift. It’s simple but far from easy. You have to start taking your work so seriously that other people do the same.
This goes way beyond writing a book. You have to act the way real authors act, avoiding the path of the wannabe. And to do that, you’re going to need help.
Four Marks that Distinguish a Professional Writer From an Amateur
1. Real authors have a clear message.
Where amateurs confuse, professionals clarify. Real authors understand they aren’t writing just for themselves; they’re writing “with intent,” in the words of Marion Roach Smith.
Every word they write is for someone else, because the act of writing is inherently generous. You are sharing your gift with the world, and that means you have to write with an audience in mind – both clearly and concisely. And you have to make every word count.
So forget what you’ve heard about writing prompts and other wastes of time. The professional writes for real and with as much clarity as he can, every day of his life. Don’t settle for anything less.
2. Real authors have a platform.
What this means, in laymen’s terms, is a website. It doesn’t have to be a blog, but you have to own some place online where people can find you. Your Amazon page doesn’t count. Every pro understands this.
Steven King has a website. So does J.K. Rowling. As does Jerry Jenkins. Heck, even J.R.R. Tolkien has a website, and he died before the Internet became a thing.
You need a website – where people can learn about your work. This is called a platform, and every serious author – not those who once wrote a book – has one.
3. Real authors have a tribe.
Do you know what every writer wants but doesn’t realize she wants until she’s gotten everything else?
It’s not a bunch of money.
It’s not a prestigious title like “Pulitzer Prize winner” or “New York Times Bestseller,” either.
It’s far more simple but often more elusive:
Every writer wants a tribe. A small but dedicated group of readers who will read everything you put out. That’s what we all yearn for: to know that someone is really listening.
Flannery O’Connor said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” And while it may be true that we write to figure things out for ourselves, we keep writing because someone is listening.
And how do you do this today? Simple. You build an email list. Through Mailchimp or Convertkit or whatever tool you want, set up a simple way to collect people’s addresses so you can update them once a week on what you’re working on.
Do this well and, in time, you will grow your audience. People will listen to what you have to say. And when you have a book to share, they pay attention and will buy it. This may not be a huge group, but it’s is enough to sustain you. “1000 true fans,” Kevin Kelly said, was the magic number for a creative person to make a living off his art. That’s all you need.
4. Real authors have multiple streams of income.
Amateurs expect to either strike it rich off their first book, or even worse, to never earn a dime.
Neither is accurate.
Most working writers I know have multiple and diverse streams of income. Some are speakers. Some sell online writing courses. Some do consulting or run a side business or have a day job. But very few just write books and make a living off their royalties.
Granted, some of them actually could do just that. But personally I would find that boring. It’s fun to engage your readers on different levels with offerings other than books. Of course, this isn’t for everyone, but if you don’t figure out a few different ways for people to pay you, then you may find it difficult to make a living as a writer.
But if you want to be a writer, not just someone who once wrote a book, this is essential.
The truth is that if you build a tribe – by creating a website, building an email list, and then serving that tribe with helpful, interesting, and even entertaining content – in the words of indie musician Amanda Palmer, you won’t have to worry about getting them to pay you. But you will have to let them.
A Year of Living Meagerly
After composing 400 blog posts in 365 days, I learned this lesson in a surprising way. I was tired. I’d hoped to be making money writing soon, but my prospects weren’t good. Lacking confidence, I was reluctant to ask my readers to buy anything, even a book. I was still waiting for a publisher to discover me.
But after that year of blogging and sharing my best ideas for free, I started getting emails from my readers. First it was one, then two, then several, and eventually hundreds. And they all, essentially, said the same thing:
“Hey, all this free stuff is great, but can I PAY you for something?”
So I conducted a survey asking what readers wanted and how much they were willing to pay for it. Then I offered it to them.
And that’s how I earned my first dollar as a writer, which became my first $1000, then my first $100,000.
I didn’t have to make people pay. But I did have to let them. And the truth is, an amateur never would have done that. It took a professional, someone committed to being a writer for the rest of his life, not just someone who once wrote a book.
What do you want to be – a real author, or just someone who once wrote a book?
Begin by taking yourself and your work seriously, then follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before you. It’s hard work, but in the words of my friend Sandy Kreps, it’s good work.
And if you need help figuring out where to start, look no further than this eBook I recently released which you can get for a limited time for free.
Our guest blogger
Jeff Goins is the best-selling author of four books, including the national bestseller The Art of Work. He is also the founder of Tribe Writers, an online community and course for writers. Connect with him on his award-winning blog at Goinswriter.com or on Twitter @JeffGoins.
Jeff’s premiere audience-building course, Tribe Writers, is available until Wednesday, October 26. Click here to check it out.
Do you want to be an author, or someone who wrote a book once? Tell me in the comments below.