I bumped into Mellisa Sherlin and Rona Gofstein at a publishers’ conference a few weeks ago. It was early fall, a weekend mixed with wind, rain and sparkling book publishing conversations. The conference was organized by the Independent Publishers of New England (IPNE), and it gathered together bright lights among independently published authors, small presses, and the myriad of creative and technical talents (e.g., book designers, illustrators, printers, book reviewers) that make independent and small press book publishing work. Mellisa and Rona were just about to go on stage as panelists, speaking on the topic of “Your Book as a Business.”
The two are book whisperers of sorts. I remember listening to them talk with an author standing next to me who, like many independently published authors, was asking about how to increase sales of her book. I am paraphrasing, but what Mellisa and Rona asked her first was this: “Every writer has something important they want to say to the world. What is it you want to say? What is the message that you are passionate about?” That struck me as a question that cuts to the chase. Why are we writing? If we can answer that, we are one step closer to understanding who our audience is and, if we knew that, we can go about finding and interacting with that audience. There is a process that needs to be followed for successful book sales.
The skill sets you need to make a book sell successfully, Mellisa and Rona both say, are different than those that are required for simply writing well. There are business skills an indie author must (and can) learn in order to make a book a success from a sales perspective. Both of them are best-selling authors in their own right and decided to form Writers Business School as a vehicle to help other authors learn those basic business skills to make their book writing a successful business.
Writers Business School offers webinars, on-site events, resources and tips for authors approaching their book as businesses. But I suppose I should just let Mellisa and Rona tell you their story, since they tell it better and with wonderful candor and enthusiasm. (Oh and as an aside, Mellisa and Rona will be penning a column on Inkspokes that will provide business tips for authors! More on that later.)
Thank you Mellisa and Rona for taking the time to join us on Inkspokes!
NS: Can you tell us a little about what Writers Business School is and how it was started?
Rona: Really funny story. I met Mellisa through a writer’s group we’re in and over time we learned we shared a lot of interests outside of writing. In addition to common social things like a love of movies and having kids about the same age, we were both studying a lot about business and applying it to our writing careers in slightly different ways, as well as helping our friends out with it. We had talked about how we’d like to work together someday since we had different strengths and one day three words and an idea came to me: Writers Business School.
Mellisa: Rona called my cell and left a message since I was stuck at a construction site fixing a paperwork snafu. She’s the emergency contact for my daughter, so I instantly thought there was something wrong at school. She was really excited in the voice mail. I heard “teach authors all the business skills we learned, but showing them how it all applies to writing.” I left a voice mail back – “I’m in!”
Rona: It was perfect. I home school my boys and Mellisa was a certified teacher and a corporate trainer, so it combined our love of teaching with our love of writing and helping authors get out of the slog of terrible book sales. I knew I was on the right track but her voice mail confirmed it. I pulled into a parking lot and bought our website. By that Saturday, we had the beginnings of what is the Writers Business School.
NS: What is your background in book publishing?
Mellisa: I’ve been published regularly since 1986. Bestselling for all my publishers since 1997, nationally and internationally award winning. I’ve written just about everything, but I prefer romantic comedies and dark fiction. For the past 4-5 years though, I have been mostly ghost writing. Rona figured it out much faster than I did. Rona, you were best-selling, what, the second year after you were first published?
Rona: That’s about right. My first book, which came out almost 10 years ago, sold like crazy because I had researched which publisher would be the best fit for my writing and would do the most for launching my career. After that, I diversified by signing with a startup publishing company and I earned out my advances in less than a year. In addition, I currently work with a company that helps non-writers create books based on their professional expertise so that their messages and talents reach a wider audience.
NS: When you speak with indie authors, what is the most common question you receive from them? How do you respond?
Rona: The most common question is really a mindset, “Why do I need business skills to sell better?” Too many times authors have been told all they need to do to sell more is to write better, so they keep worrying about their writing skills and wondering why their books aren’t selling more. The truth is, their writing is terrific – their business skills are lacking. It wasn’t great writing that made Stephanie Meyers and E.L. James best sellers.
Mellisa: Trying to sell more books without learning business skills is like trying to make purple with only red. No matter how well you mix shades of red, without some shade of blue, you will never get purple. Without business skills, you can’t sell more book no matter how well it is written. The problem is that people are taught to frame the question about selling more books as an either/or argument. You “either write well and sell lots of books”, or “you write poorly and sell poorly”. That is not really what is going on. Writing well is important, but business skills to sell those books are equally as important.
Rona: Maybe in some ways more important. Because without the business skills, we worry that some really terrific writers will quit. It’s called the best sellers list. Not the best written list. We’ve all seen books on that list that aren’t as well written as books by people we know. That’s because that person knows how to sell books or the publisher knows that it has a way to reach a wide audience – that’s about business skills.
NS: In one of your talks, Mellisa, you have a slide with an interesting statistic: 90% of books for sale sell fewer than 100 copies. What do you see as the most important consideration for an author not to fall within this 90%?
Mellisa: There are so many easy things people can do to break out of that pattern. I’m a planner, and I love check boxes, so I’m going to say having a plan for how many books you want to sell and how you are going to reach the right number of readers is important. How are you going to tell people about it? Where are you going to speak? How are people going to order it? Is the ordering process simple? How long will it take to get the book after they order? How much will all this cost me? And then stick to the plan, no matter how many “ohh shiny” things pop up to distract you. You can’t toss your book on Amazon and expect the world to instantly flock to your book. And you can’t print off a thousand hard copies and expect people to magically order them from you. A better postcard or prettier bookmark isn’t going to change your sales, it will only increase your costs if you don’t have a plan.
Magic happens in the movies, but in the real world, there are steps people can take to make those things happen. Someone can look at the success and think it’s magic or luck, but the truth is book sales are all about business skills. And business skills are a series of processes that get you from where you are to where you want to be. Rona approaches things differently than I do, so her suggestions will probably be completely different and equally effective.
Rona: Our different perspectives is one of the things that makes our business so effective. While they’re making their list and checking off those boxes, and we all love doing that, I want writers to be thinking about what connections they are going to make each and every time they step into the world as a writer, as the author of their book. We choose to be writers because it matters to us, because we have to. Our readers choose books because they feel a connection and a reason to spend their money on this particular book. When you are building bridges between you and your audience, sales – including presales – come easily. They are as excited for release day as you are. And when you know how your presales are going, you can know more about how the book is going to do overall.
NS: What are your future plans for Writers Business School? Any special projects in the offing?
Rona: We have big plans for Writers Business School. We want to change that terrible “under 100 copies” statistic so that every writer can make a living as an author full time. That’s the reason we broke the information into 5 Skill Sets (this will be subject of our first column and you can also find more about this on our website). Those are the areas authors need to strengthen so that they can eventually fire their bosses and have the best-seller life they’ve dreamed of, including and especially the freedom to write every day. To show people how fun and understandable this information is, we do Free Webinar Wednesdays. Every Wednesday, 7PM EST, we have a basic 60 minute webinar to help authors.
Mellisa: And we have other more in-depth classes on our website for when people are ready to take that next step. I think we’ve covered all the ways people learn. On-line, On-demand and On-hand.
Rona: Webinars, of course, and also, ebooks, workbooks, audio files, self-directed and group classes.
Mellisa: Worksheets, check boxes, lists … I love lists.
Rona: She does. She’s gotten me hooked on them now.
NS: Outside of Writers Business School, what is one interesting fact readers might want to know about you?
Mellisa: Besides my unhealthy love of checklists? I cross stitch. It is the worst hobby for a person with dyslexia, but I love it. I think it’s all the little boxes. It really gives me a medium where my painful attention to detail and penchant to micro manage are rewarded.
Rona: You should see the back of her cross stitching. It’s as neat as the front. I couldn’t believe it the first time she showed me.
Mellisa: We’re both like that – when it’s something we love, we get really into it. You’ve got a few fun obsessions, Rona.
Rona: It’s true. My kids don’t want to be near me until after my morning coffee. I have recently gotten back into the fun and power of makeup and I am hopelessly addicted to all things Wizard of Oz. It’s my favorite movie and combines two things I love – fairy tales and musicals. I have every updated version of the movie, books, dolls, wall hangings…
Mellisa: Several pairs of ruby slippers.
Rona: I have sequined high heeled shoes and boots, flats, even socks and slippers that look like them.
(This interview was conducted for Inkspokes by Nelson Suit.)
Mellisa and Rona are also authoring a monthly column on Inkspokes, Ask the Book Whisperers: Business Tips for Authors.