Maybe you’re a pantser when it comes to writing, but to have a writing career, you need to be a plotter. As I discussed in my last post, successful independent authors craft business plans for themselves. They don’t have to be complicated, but they do have to exist. We know that people who write down and share their goals achieve them faster than those who don’t, so let’s think about where you want to be, and set some SMART goals to get you there.
Stop what you’re doing, set a timer for five minutes, and set those writerly daydreams—we’ve all had them—to paper. Do you envision seeing your name on a New York Times bestseller list? Hobnobbing with literary elite at the National Book Awards? Do you fantasize about a six-figure advance, or are your dreams simple, like seeing your name on the cover of a book on your local bookstore shelf?
Whatever. It doesn’t matter. Write them down.
SMART goals work by laying out precisely what tasks need to happen and giving you a way to hold yourself accountable. To illustrate, we’ll break down a monster goal together: hitting the New York Times best seller list.
(Caveat: No guarantees from the management. I’m not promising that by following these steps you’ll hit the list, only that following this SMART goal process will get you closer than crossing your fingers and hoping for the best.)
SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. This article by Emily Esposito gives us a great foundation.
Esposito recommends asking the classic six W questions of journalism: What, Who, When, Where, Which, and Why.
- What: I want to hit the New York Times best-seller list. That’s a good start, but get granular with this goal. Note that there are different versions of this list: fiction, non-fiction, children’s literature, and specialized monthly lists. That gives us multiple avenues to hit our goal, so we need to make choices. If we choose the fiction list, we find three further subcategories: paperback trade fiction, hardcover fiction, and e-book and print combined. If you’re an indie author, that last one is probably your most reasonable target.
- Who: Who do we need to achieve our goal? Without a doubt, we’ll need lots of readers, and that means building our mailing list. But back it up a half step. Maybe the most important “who” is you, the author-entrepreneur. Even if you’re traditionally published, you can’t count on the publisher to do everything (how many books are published by major publishers that don’t hit the Times list?). The more factors you can control, the better the likelihood of reaching your goal.
- When: Give yourself a loose timeframe here. You’ll get more specific in Time-Based, below.
- Where: This doesn’t apply in this case. In another example, you might aim to expand your foreign sales. This is where you’d identify specific markets.
- Which: Look at specific factors, categories, or tools you need to get you where you want to go. For this example, consider the genres of literature on the list. Are they mostly thrillers? Literary fiction? Space opera? If you’re serious about this goal, you must think about which books the reading public buys. Maybe you’re passionate about writing Amish time-travel mysteries. That’s perfectly honorable. But if it’s not what 20,000 people are buying each week, you may have a longer row to hoe to meet your goal then, say, people writing World War II spy thrillers.
- Why: Why is this goal important to you? Devote some thought to this question, as it justifies the work you’re setting up for yourself. For any author, hitting the Times best-seller list is a hallmark of success.
For this example, the metric is easy. It’s whether our name hits that list. Having a precise, concrete metric is important to achieving your goals.
This is where you break down the how of the goal. What steps do you need to take?
We can’t hit the list if we don’t know how the list is compiled, so we need to research the Times’s methodology. While their specific methods are secret, we can uncover some general wisdom. Consider the different retail outlets from which the Times gathers its sales data: chain bookstores, selected independent stores, online sales outlets like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.com, and big-box stores make up the mix. Factor that in to your decision about whether to “go wide” with your distribution or stick to KDP Select. If you’re cut off from one market, you’ll have to make up the difference in another.
Look again at the list. What do you notice? For this week, everyone on it is published by a major trade publisher—that is to say, no independent authors here. It has happened before, so we know it can be done, but it’s not easy. That’s an important data point to acknowledge. You may want to broaden your publishing plan to become a hybrid author—one who publishes through both the traditional, agented route and self-publishing channels. Taking a hybrid path means a new SMART goal, towards finding an agent. Either path is viable. This process is about getting clear about what the work will be, and what makes sense for you.
The Times list measures rapid sales in a week’s time. We know from Eva Natiello’s case that 20,000 people bought her self-published book in a week. That number is a valuable data point. How much of that could you control in your own case? What markets are available to you, and where will you weight your time and effort? Leveraging preorders may also play into this strategy. If you can motivate the people on your mailing list to buy a copy of the book in the first two or three days after it’s released, those are sales within your control. The people who see your book online, in an ad, or on a shelf and pick it up are not.
As you can see, tackling a major goal like this one raises new questions and sets up the need for intermediate goals like targets for your mailing list, establishing a presence in different markets, or a number of books to publish first to hone your storytelling skills and build that loyal readership. Practice the SMART goal method with smaller goals: I will publish one e-book on Amazon, Apple iBooks, and Kobo by June 2020. Or, I will build my email list to 1000 readers by next September. Make sure each small goal is in service of your larger goal. Hitting the Times best-seller list is like building a castle…a job for which you also have to make the bricks. Just take it one brick at a time.
Does this goal contribute to or detract from your larger business plan? Without a doubt, being a Times best-selling author is a credential you can leverage in your author career. It will open doors for you and increase sales of future books and your backlist. While you can certainly have a successful long-term writing career without hitting the list, achieving this goal will contribute to this overall ambition. So yes, it’s relevant.
Timing is important. Without a deadline, you’ll keep pushing the goal off and never achieve it. Having the deadline allows you to walk back and set those critical intermediate steps that serve as milestones to the larger goal. But it’s also important to be realistic. Unless you’re already famous, you’re not going to hit the Times list with your first book. You have to build an audience, not to mention your writing talent, and that takes time.
Give yourself at least ten years to hit that Times list. By then, you’ll likely have written multiple books (set another SMART goal!), so your craft will have improved. You’ll have had time to build your mailing list, so your readership will be stronger. And who knows how publishing itself may change in that time? Other factors will remain beyond your control, but the more research and strategy you employ, the better your chances become.
SMART goals are an important tool in any author’s toolkit. Use them to build the bricks of your writing career, like the book you’ll publish this year, or the mailing list subscribers you’ll take onboard. With those bricks, who knows what kind of castles you might build?
Helen J. Darling writes contemporary women’s fiction. Her first novel, I’ll Know Me When I Find Me, was self-published in January 2018. You can connect with her at itshelendarling.com.