I’ll never forget a conversation I had years ago with a colleague who runs online courses for authors. He emphasized the necessity of teaching tactics: tangible, actionable steps that students can take toward their goals. If he focused too much on big-picture strategy or abstract theory, he said, he lost attention and course satisfaction.
He was right. Few things are more powerful in teaching than sharing a step-by-step process that leads to observable results. For better or worse, however, I often err on the side of strategy—which means that students always ask me how to apply said strategy. They want to know what specific steps to take. All of us, especially today, welcome such instruction in an increasingly changing publishing environment.
Before I explore this tension further, let me first offer an example of the difference between strategy and tactics. If you’re an author who wants to sell more books, you may want to learn how to advertise through Amazon Marketing Services or Facebook, how to be active and engaged on social media, or how to podcast. Learning best practices in these areas would provide valuable tactics, but doing so sidesteps larger, strategic questions that affect your success. For instance, what are your strengths as an author and what would you be able to execute well and repeatedly? Where can you gain early or easy traction with the resources available to you? What part of the market is best to focus on? Where are your best opportunities for growth and visibility?
Some tactics may seem essential—because everyone is using them and thus they are required to play the game. But always question and assess. Is Amazon advertising going to be effective for the book you’re trying to sell (factoring in your book’s pricing, packaging, and positioning)? Is social media a suitable tool for your genre/category, given the amount of time that you have to wait to see results? Do you know enough about your target readers to understand how they discover books to read?
For example, I’m repeatedly told that I should get into podcasting because it’s big and growing. But should I adopt that tactic when it would require me to stop accepting paid work or stop other activities that are effective and even growing? Possibly—but only an evaluation of my strategy would lead to an informed answer.
Strategy questions can be difficult to answer, and most of us like to avoid grappling with them. They also require awareness—an understanding of yourself and the market. And, while you may think you know your goals, when pushed and questioned, I find many writers aren’t clear on what they want. So consider the following:
What outcomes are you looking for in the short term and long term? Consider how the short-term outcomes play into the long-term outcomes. For example, getting a book traditionally published is usually a short-term goal that can have little in common with earning a living.
Are your outcomes specific? And do you know when you’ve attained them? The more specific your desired outcome, the better. “I want to sell lots of books” isn’t as useful as “I want to sell 1,000 copies through Amazon during the first year of sales.”
What are all the possible methods you can use to reach this outcome? List all the methods you know of, no matter how unlikely you are to use them. Then try to find methods that you might not know about yet. Consider which methods you are well prepared to execute and succeed at—and this is where you may need to experiment to know for sure.
For instance, many authors are advised to use social media as part of their book launches, but they establish accounts only for the purpose of book marketing. Such authors lack the years of experience and community building that are typically required to see sales results. If social media is a critical factor for reaching readers in your genre/category but you lack a social media foundation, then a more sensible tactic is to target influencers or VIPs who already have reach.
In a great scene from Lost in Translation, Bill Murray’s character says, “The more you know who you are and what you want, the less you let things upset you.” If I could customize that for today’s authors, I’d say, “The more you know who you are as an author and what readership you seek, the less confused you’ll be about marketing.” And the less you’ll be influenced by the crowd.
It’s easy to feel anxious about your progress when you see your peers engaging in new forms of publishing or marketing and you feel pressured to join. But the more you’re focused on your own long-term outcomes and how to wisely use your time and resources, the better prepared you’ll be to consider or experiment with new tactics, adopting or discarding them as you see fit.
Jane Friedman teaches digital media and publishing at the University of Virginia and is the former publisher of Writer’s Digest.