How to Become a Full-time Writer in Three Easy Steps
by Bill Bibo Views: 2017
As every writer struggling to be heard today knows, just being good at your craft is no longer enough. If you want to achieve that ultimate goal, making a living solely from your writing, you have to know the business side as well. And the better you know it, the better you’ll do.
Mash Stories was fortunate to be able to talk with Adam Fletcher, author of the bestselling books, “How To Be German”, “Denglisch for Better Knowers”, and “Make Me German”. With titles like those you know he’s a very funny guy and, even better, he really knows his stuff. He was willing to share his insights and give us the business on the business of writing.
Bill Bibo: Adam Fletcher, you are a full-time writer, three times on the bestselling lists in Germany. You write and speak on numerous topics including Technology, Publishing, and Entrepreneurship. You’re a British expat living in Berlin. You’re hip, you’re cool, and according to your website you have achieved Professional status as a Napper. First question: I’m 60 years old and live in Wisconsin. Is it too late for me to be you?
Adam Fletcher: I’m hip and cool? I thought I was old and bald. Why is nobody here in Berlin treating me as if I’m cool?! Young people stand up and give me their seat when I get on the U-Bahn, that’s how old I look. I do live in the coolest city in the world (as judged by itself), and yet I only go to a club once per year, and only under great protestation. If I’m cool, I fear for cool. I mean…I write books for a living!?! How un-cool is that? No-one cares about books anymore, Bill. Just me and you and few other equally un-cool Mash people who doggedly refuse to accept the obvious superiority of audio, video, and animated gifs over our boring, static words.
In short, it’s too late for you to be me (by about thirty years) but there’s little fame in being either of us. So it’s fine, we can enjoy our mutual irrelevance together.
Bill: Well, I haven’t given up yet. If I can’t have the fame, how about the fortune? You claim to write purely for money, and that there are no emotions, nothing else involved. How can a writer do this and still retain the integrity of their art? Can you be happy?
Adam: Those familiar with Game of Thrones will understand the term sell-sword. Nudge that second s back across the hyphen and you get what I am—a sells-word. I love writing; it’s pretty much the most fun thing there is (of all of the things you can do alone). But it’s primarily a job for me. I treat it as one. A lovely, lovely job, but a job nonetheless. I afford it no higher societal status than any other job. Some people clean streets, some stack shelves, some sell insurance. I sell stories.
We are all offering a service. We offer a service the world wants, we get paid. We offer it one it doesn’t, we die hungry.
They turn up 9–5 at their jobs and work; I also turn up 9–5 at mine and write.
I’ve simply retired the words “art” and “artist” from my vocabulary. They’re loaded with other people’s baggage and expectations. Often people use the words “art” and “artist” as an excuse for why it is that they don’t make money at what they do. I don’t believe there is any topic, any story, that cannot be prepared in such a way that it is significantly interesting enough, to enough people, that you can make a full-time living selling it. It’s more a question of your ability to market, than your ability to write.
Bill: I hear that a lot, that you have be a good marketer to be successful as a full-time writer. That’s a scary thought to many writers. Where do I even begin?
Adam: Over the years many people have asked me for advice on how to become a full-time writer, so here it is:
Adam’s Super Awesome and Completely Foolproof How to Become a Full-time Writer in Three Easy Steps Programme
Step 1. Lower your cost of living as much as possible
The world is not fair. It’s not a well-calibrated machine in which you can pour in talent and hard work and out comes this matching lump of “success”. Which is why Paris Hilton has a bigger house than ours and Adam Sandler is still making movies. It doesn’t mean you won’t be successful, it just means you can’t foresee yet what you need to do to be successful. There are just too many variables between you and “success”, and many of those variables are completely out of your control.
The one thing you can control, however, is how long you stay in the game of writing. You do this by lowering your cost of living. Every hour that you don’t have to spend waiting tables or pouring beers just to pay your rent is an hour you can invest in writing or marketing what you have written. The more things you have to offer the world, the more places you go and offer it, the more likely someone is going to say “yeah, well, I wasn’t really looking for a you. But I guess, since you are here, and keen, fine, have a chance…”
Move somewhere cheap (it’s how I ended up in Berlin), record all of your expenses and work to squeeze that number as low as possible. The biggest threat to your chances of being a full-time writer is not the stupidity of the general masses no longer being interested in buying smart books. It’s also not the closed, fickle world of agents and publishers, colluding to keep your genius from the public’s book shelves. Instead, it’s your inability to make more money selling words each month than you spend while writing them.
Bill: Now that our kids have moved out we are trying to downsize. Unfortunately we haven’t been very successful yet.
Adam: Not needing much money is the crucial first step.
Bill: I’m almost afraid to ask what the next step is.
Step 2. Enlarge your Luck Surface Area
Luck Surface Area is a concept coined by entrepreneur Jason Roberts, who said this about it: “When you pour energy into a passion, you develop an expertise and an expertise of any kind is valuable. But quite often that value can actually be magnified by the number of people who are made aware of it. The reason is that when people become aware of your expertise, some percentage of them will take action to capture that value, but quite often it will be in a way you would never have predicted. Maybe they’ll want to hire you, or partner with you, or invest in you…it will be serendipitous.”
Expressed mathematically, your Luck Surface Area is:
Bill: You didn’t tell me there would be math involved. So every person has their own Luck Surface Area?
Adam: It’s like a big net that we carry around behind us for catching opportunities. Whether those opportunities take the form of new friendships, lovers, high-paying projects, business opportunities, book deals, or all-expenses-paid trips to Jamaica, we just can’t know in advance. However, the bigger we make our luck surface area—through developing an expertise and networking/marketing/busking that expertise—the more opportunities will get caught within our net. In short, you can’t control what opportunities you get, but you can control the number of them. You do that by increasing your Luck Surface Area.
Bill: Okay, so I’m living cheaply with my loving, wonderful, and understanding wife. I’m out in the world tweeting and blogging and submitting my work to a lot of different places, making lots of noise showing people what I’m good at which in this forum is writing. What’s next?
Step 3. Test the demand for your ideas
I don’t proclaim to have any idea what the wider public wants to read. My crystal ball broke long ago. So my book ideas start as 1,000-word blog posts. I write these blog posts and then seed them on websites that have some traffic and accept guest posts. I thought I had so many really awesome book ideas, but then the blog posts for them only got 50 Facebook likes and one comment, and I’d realize maybe they were kind of crappy after all. That’s okay—they can’t all be winners. So I kept trying different ideas and formats and eventually I struck lucky with one called How to be German in 25 easy steps, which has more than 500,000 likes (across different sites). To date, more than two million people have read that blog post. To put that in context, that’s about 1,999,990 more the other blog posts I’d written up until then.
Because of its popularity, two publishers contacted me and offered me book deals, which got me into the traditional publishing system. Since then I’ve signed six further book deals in three years.
Bill: And all from an article that you submitted and published on numerous websites. I see: by doing so you expanded your Luck Surface Area. Unfortunately you never know when that luck will strike.
Adam: I would never have guessed that Germans are so interested in what people of other nationalities think of them, yet it turns out that they are. I’m very happy to offer them books on that topic; as many books as they’d like, in fact. To date it’s been three. Maybe it’ll be more. That will depend on the sales of the latest—”Make Me German”.
I’m learning. I’m improving my craft. It’s an interesting topic. I get to write full-time. In between my Germany books I can write on completely unrelated topics. I have connections now via my agent and publishers so it’s easier to sell other ideas. As long as I can convince them I know how to market whatever book we’ll agree on, there is a good chance they’ll go for it. My next two books are completely unrelated to my Germany niche: one is about philosophy and the other is about how the internet is changing work (which includes many of the ideas in this interview).
Bill: But I make all my stuff up. I write fiction.
Adam: It is harder to test your concepts for fiction than non-fiction, but there are places to do it (such as Mash), or you can mine the data of bestsellers to see what genres, settings, and protagonists seem to resonate best.
Bill: What’s next?
Adam: The last Step.
Bill: What? You said just three easy steps, though in truth they don’t sound that easy, especially all that living cheaply stuff. What do I have to do now?
That’s the easy part. The more you write, the more you have out in the market, the stronger your overall portfolio becomes, the larger your Luck Surface Area. In my case, I’m aiming for 2–3 books a year. Since traditional publishing can’t sustain this I’m now moving to writing under pseudonyms. At that level of output I can live from the advances alone, and if one of those books per year sells well (always a bit of a dice roll), I can put that extra money away for future lean years where I’m not publishing as much.
Bill: You mentioned traditional publishing can’t sustain your master plan for 2 to 3 new books a year. What about self-publishing? Or should we still keep trying for that big publishing house deal?
Adam: It makes no difference. Either way you have to build a “platform” and cross the chasm between you and your one thousand true fans. Publishers might help you with that, a little bit, if you write in the correct genre and they know how to market books of that genre. But I wouldn’t expect much. I see my publisher as a fulfilment centre responsible for ensuring my books make it into bookstores. If they do more, like getting me on TV, or my books reviewed in a newspaper, that’s merely a bonus. I don’t count on it, and so I’m always busy trying to arrange that kind of press for myself, often with rather limited success.
Once you have crossed that chasm, and have your fans and your platform, I think a hybrid mix is best. Long term I see my future in self-publishing. At present I just write gift-style books, and they need to be traditionally published and sold where people buy gifts. Self-publishing is not really an option for me at this time, writing in this genre, and for the German market.
Bill: How is technology changing the business of writing?
Adam: Publishers don’t understand the internet, and they’re invested in not learning it. Once things go digital, we won’t need them as much, or at all. So they work to slow down the adoption of e-books for as long as possible. In Germany they price e-books at €1 less than the printed book, which is moronic. In the US, it’s similar: they inflate the price of e-books, or delay their release, or cripple them with DRM (digital rights management). The system is designed with enough calculated misery that you’ll stick to the printed book. It’s a losing strategy but it helps keep the status quo that little bit longer. Digital will win out. When it does it will be better for writers. How soon that happens depends on your market, and your genre.
Bill: Are all these changes for good or evil?
Adam: It’s for good, relax. 70% is better than 10–15%. But 70% of nothing is still nothing. The skills you need whether you self- or traditionally publish are the same. You have to build that platform. I’d say do that on a self-publishing basis and then traditional publishing will come to you and you can decide if you want to accept its terms.
Bill: There’s a lot of great information here.
Adam: Sorry I talked so much (occupational hazard).
Bill: Thank you, Adam, for your time. May this interview expand both our Luck Share Areas.
Adam: Thanks for the opportunity, and good luck out there, my fellow Sells-word.
Bill: While you find out more about the man who ranks baldness as his top skill at www.adam-fletcher.co.uk, I’m going to work on Step 1 and talk with my wife about having a garage sale. What do you think of Adam’s easy steps? Do they seem easy to you?
Bill lives with his wife in Madison, WI. Late at night he writes about intelligent mummies, incompetent zombies, and other things that scare him in the hope that someday they no longer will. He’d like to thank his wife and children and especially his grandsons, Nolan and Sonny, for keeping the child alive in his heart. It’s so deeply rooted now nothing could remove it. @bbibojr
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