Investing in the Future, While Honoring the Past

How, as a writer or creative professional, do you make room for the new, the future? How do you create potential for yourself, your writing, and those who you hope to reach?

How does one leverage the wisdom of experience, respecting the events of the past, and honoring those who came before us, while still pushing forward into new territory?

How do you, as a creator, create new work, establish new processes, new habits, and in doing so, open up new possibilities?

I’ll admit, I get sad when I see an old house destroyed. Recently, I watched this happen in the town I live: a 100+ year old house was torn down, and the acre of land it sat on was cut up into three lots, making way for three new houses. This is the house:

And let’s watch the destruction and rebuilding, shall we?

Here it is from another angle, this time focusing a bit more on what was backyard. In the end, that yard fit two large houses in it. The third house is still to be built, that will occupy the space that was formerly the front yard of the old house. You will see that the property was very overgrown in the beginning, filled with trees and shrubs:

Did you get sad while viewing this progression? Did it stir up something inside of you about preservation of beautiful old relics? Did you feel something was lost? Me too.


I’m challenging myself to see the other side of this. I had walked by that house what seems like hundreds of times, and my wife and I always talked about how amazing it was. But the reality is, it always seemed as though maybe just 1 or 2 people lived in it. It was sort of run down in many ways.

I spoke to someone who went inside it during an estate sale they held just before the house was torn down, and while he loved the craftsmanship of the old house, he admitted that it needed an extraordinary amount of work to bring it “back to life.” I didn’t get into details about the age of the systems, the structural integrity of the house, or the aesthetics of the walls, woodwork, and floors, but a renovation of that scale could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Someone would need to take this on, to invest. And if they did, in all likelihood, with an acre of land, they would have gutted it to it’s core, expanded it greatly in the back, and turned it into a much larger home, at least 3,000 – 4,000 square feet.

We live in a small town, most of the lots are smallish, so a 1 acre piece of property is pretty unusual, and a lot for a normal family to take on. Again – someone would want to make a huge commitment not just to “save” the house, but to maintain an acre of land in an area where most people live on 1/5th of that. What they take on is much more than a financial investment.

The point I am making here is to move beyond simple statement such as “Oh, someone should have saved it!” because it implies that someone ELSE should have saved it. We are bestowing that responsibility and investment and commitment onto someone else. It’s probably worth noting that the old house sold for more than $1.3 million, solely on the value of the empty lot alone.

What will happen with that piece of land? Three new houses with three families living in them, each creating new experiences and memories in that previously overgrown lot. What is the other “value” created in this process:

  • The original owner got a lot more for the lot than they paid, and it should be noted that their choice to sell, and who to sell it to was indeed a CHOICE. They accepted the tradeoff.
  • The builder will turn a good profit, each of those new houses will likely each sell for somewhere around a million dollars each. (new houses in New Jersey tend go for a premium)
  • The town itself will receive more tax revenue from that lot. They received around $16,000 per year from the old house, but will likely receive more than $60,000 total per year from the three lots combined. (and yes, I understand that this money offsets very real costs to the town, including schooling, public works, etc – that this is not somehow “profit.”)
  • Three new families will be able to live in this town, and in new homes they dreamed of.

Beyond the dollars and cents, what is being created are EXPERIENCES and POSSIBILITIES. For some, that is indeed measured in profit and the new possibilities that comes with that. But for others, it is created every day, in small moments. Everyone in this process made an investment, and from an outside perspective, all seemed to have benefited in ways that they actively chose.

So I am asking myself: should I be sad at the loss of this beautiful old house?

I recently wrote about “the good old days,” and the perception that things were always simpler and better when they have safely defined boundaries because they are in the past. The present and the future, on the other hand, are filled with gray areas, and questions marks of where they will lead.

I work with writers and creative professionals every day, and tend to see a fair number of blog posts and articles where people talk about a “battle” going on in publishing between “the old ways” and “the new ways.” Or among different “sides” representing opposing ethos in how to share one’s work.

I don’t see that, not at all.

I mean, if I take anything away from the past 5-10 years in publishing it is that there are MORE options, MORE possibilities for inclusion, and MORE ways to both honor the past while investing in the future.

And these are personal choices.

The beauty of what it means to be a writer today is that you have MANY potential actions, and that the path you choose is your own.

Regardless of what anyone tells you EVERY PERSON’S PATH IS UNIQUE TO THEM. There are not two paths (traditional publishing vs self-publishing) or even three paths (hybrid publishing!) There are as many paths as their are writers, and each of those writers can change their path at any given time.

The concept of “sides” in this or “battles” seems to miss the point. There are more options for us to come together, to choose our own path, and to craft and share the work we are most proud of. And of course, how this work affects the lives of others in positive ways.

So, am I sad that the old house above was torn down. Yes, I am. I am just sentimental that way. I love the idea of a place having a sense of permanence, even though I realize how laughable that is in the bigger scale of things. I won’t get all “nothing last forever” on you.

Even though I have a great deal of respect for that old house – for the past it represents – I am working hard to also honor what is being created here. Notably, the experiences of the good folks who move into those new homes, and become a part of this community.

And let’s face it, I did nothing to “save” that old house. I invested zero time, money, or energy to “raise awareness,” to try to create other options. Without that investment, how could I expect others to not invest in their own futures on this land? It’s easy to sit on the sidelines – or in this case, the sidewalk – and observe and judge. It takes a lot more to truly get invested, make hard choices, and create potential for oneself and for the community.

What I love most what writers face today is this: it is up to them. Choose to craft the work YOU believe in; choose the path to sharing your work – to publish – that seems right to you; and connect with readers in ways that make sense for who you are as an individual, and for what ensures your work has the lasting effect you hope it will. Invest in yourself, your work, and those you hope to reach. How you do so is up to you.

As it should be.


The Year-Long Book Launch

I recently shared a post over on that takes you inside a year-long book launch process I am partnering with an author on. Through this process, we have been live-blogging our actions, and being super honest about how emotional the process is. Since last June, we have shared more than 100 blog posts about our process. What has been most interesting has been the reaction we have received on Miranda being honest about FAILURE in her writing career.

In the WriterUnboxed post, I frame all of this into three core lesson:


Read the full post here!

Empathy, Education, and What It Means To Truly Create a Body Of Work That You Are Proud Of

Today I want to talk about a part of my work that I rarely discuss: the consulting I do with organizations outside of publishing. Over the years, I have become convinced that I can better serve writers if I understand more broadly what works in terms of sharing stories and engaging a community beyond the context of books.

How can educational institutions better connect with the communities they serve? And what can writers and creative entrepreneurs learn from that? These are questions I have been considering through work I have been doing for three organizations – all three of whom are focused on EDUCATION, not publishing. I have had the pleasure of doing work with these fine folks so far in 2014:

  1. PS 123, a public school in Harlem, NY
  2. Sesame Workshop, a non-profit who is behind Sesame Street
  3. Knowledge Universe, a private company focused on early childhood education, most prominently through their KinderCare centers.

Since a lot of my work is private and even proprietary to these organizations, I won’t go into too much detail about each organization. Rather, I will share insights as to what I feel writers and creative professionals can learn from the type of work I do with these and other organization.

Three big things to discuss:


Too often, people ask for “best practices” or a strategy, ignoring the most important element of what it means to share a story and engage a community: PEOPLE. So, for an author, this could be a marking plan or book launch strategy. For an organization, it can be how they craft content that engages their ideal audience in a meaningful way, and leads to larger goals around growth or revenue.

How often in your career have you seen a company you work for or with spend loads of time and resources crafting this perfect plan for growth, only to fail in adequately:

  • Providing the human resources needed to support it.
  • Communicating that plan to the correct people within the organization and train them on how to integrate this plan with their other responsibilities.
  • Understanding the needs and goals of their partners in the process – so you hit stumbling blocks before you even reach your audience.
  • Consider the behaviors of the folks they intend to reach. Perhaps this was a failure to consider where they are, or maybe it was misjudgment in terms of the messaging that would engage them.

In my career I have seen the behind the scenes process of organizations relaunching website fail again and again. In some cases, these were year-long projects costing (and I’m not kidding) more than a million dollars, and thousands of hours of employee time to create. And regardless of this resource expenditure, the website failed to meet basic needs of their ideal audience.

Of course, I have seen this happen with individuals as well – folks who spend six months designing their “perfect” author website, only to feel a profound sense of confusion when it does zero to connect with readers.

What is often missing from this process is involving the ideal audience early in this process, and at every step of the journey. By the time the strategy, plan, or even website launches, you should have a clear sense as to not just what it should be, but how your target audience feels about it.

This is a messier process, one that requires you to get out of the office to engage with these audiences often, instead of just crafting that “perfect” plan on your laptop. For my process, that can mean I:

  • Collect and analyze all data available about performance of existing strategies/products/services/websites/etc.
  • Review all audience touchpoints and conduct a brand analysis. This is nearly always paired with market research and in some cases, a competitive analysis.
  • Collect and review audience data – either internal or external to the organization. A core element to this, which many overlook, is to actually revisit who their ideal audiences actually are. People often go way too broad on this question. As part of my work, we may create audience profiles and/or personas.
  • Interview key stakeholders internal to the organization, and other partners in the process. For a larger organization, this means chatting with executives and business leaders, and it (very critically) involves speaking with folks who manage processes day to day, including interns. There are ALWAYS hidden insights about what works for your target audience when you chat with these folks.
  • Speak with your ideal audience! This one is huge. I can write a whole series of articles on this one point.
  • Consider who else connects you to your audience, and chat with them. Their needs are often complementary, but different. Understanding their needs and goals can be a key difference in serving a community, not just individual goals.
  • Commissioning new research, such as surveys, focus groups, etc.
  • Test key ideas before you formalize them into an action plan. Too often, we keep our “precious strategy” secret until it is launched. So we only learn what aspects of it work, and which don’t, when it is too late to really adjust. Instead, test ideas again and again to see where theory meets reality.

Inherent in all of this is HUMAN interaction, not some staid list of “best practices.” And empathy is a core part of all of this.

One of my favorite websites is, where Andrew Warner interviews successful entrepreneurs. What I love about Andrew’s focus is the messy human stuff. So if he is interviewing someone who founded some huge internet company, Andrew always zeroes in on questions about emotions, interpersonal relationships, developing a culture within their organization, the time a customer was let down, dealing with failure, and even how their families coped with the workload required to develop the company.

When you consider all of this within the context of an educational organization, you see the complexity right away: they are serving children, parents, the broader community, and do so with a staff of experts who are aligning to educational standards, internal organizational culture, parental expectations, and let’s not forget: a classroom full of kids! This is not only an incredibly social and human process, but one filled with emotional intensity beyond education itself. Likewise, the “results” of their work (if you can call it that) is not just measured in a short-term letter grade, but in a LIFETIME of actions and experiences that students have once they move on.

For writers I work with, each has the ability to choose every aspect about how they write, how they share that with the world, and how they extend that work into relationships, conversations, or bigger EFFECTS with their audience. And at nearly every step of this process, it is about relationships. I often find that when I begin to work with writers, the first thing we do is try to open that line of communication to readers.


Identity represents not just who you are, but:

  • Why you do what you want to do
  • Who you serve
  • How you go about doing it
  • The potential effect you have on others
  • Your long-term legacy, and how you will be remembered

For an author, this can be framed as the moments someone reflects on one of your book 8 years after having read it. For an educator, it how what you taught affects a decision that the former student makes 25 years later.

Maya Angelou has that amazing quote:

“People will forget what you said.
People will forget what you did.
But people will never forget how you made them feel.”

So if I ever talk about “branding,” it is not to limit what someone is, but rather to be mindful of how your actions do or don’t create positive experiences for others. And how that experience can have a ripple effect across a lifetime, even extending to how their behavior effects others. Sometimes we simplify this by calling it “word of mouth marketing,” but it goes so much deeper than that.

With writers I work with, we often go through a process of figuring out WHO YOU ARE (as a writer), and WHERE YOU WANT TO GO (with your work.) Without understanding these things, all other decisions are arbitrary, based on who others are, and where they want to go.

For one successful nonfiction author I am working with now, we are tearing back the layers to really identify where they want their future books to lead. Right now, they are in a crowded niche, and have openly said many times that how their books are defined are not how they define themselves. That’s a big gap to not overlook.

For fiction and memoir authors I am working with, we often dig deep into who they are, why they write, and the effect they hope to have in readers, and use this to craft their bios. I can’t even tell you how interesting this process is.

One client has had this whole intriguing career that not only directly relates to their books, but had previously been hidden from readers. The process we go through isn’t about creating a resume, but crafting a narrative whereby an author’s experience informs readers about their writing and worldview.

I always love Barry Eisler’s bio, which starts:

“Barry Eisler spent three years in a covert position with the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, then worked as a technology lawyer and startup executive in Silicon Valley and Japan, earning his black belt at the Kodokan International Judo Center along the way.”

Would you read a thriller by this guy? Oh, yes you would!

For an organization or company, a lot of this stuff is sometimes framed as a “brand book,” or style guides, and is fully realized in the culture of an organization. While many think a culture can be embodied by a “statement of values” posted on a conference room wall, it isn’t. The culture is what you feel when you walk in a room with these people – and what you feel when you see them doing their work, and engaging with their audience or customers.

Library Journal archivesSometimes, you have to look deep into history to experience this. When I worked with Library Journal, I spent time in their archives, looking at issues of the magazine dating back to 1876.

When you extend this to education, I think the complexity grows, perhaps because the mission is so important. The identity of the institution is embodied in the lives of their students, and it truly becomes a lifelong process to be fully realized.

Perhaps this is why I wanted to dig into the Library Journal archives at the time, to EXPERIENCE their mission instead of having it told to me. And of course, when I look back on my experiences with PS 123 over the years, I reflect on not just what I did with these kids back then, but where they are and what they are doing today:

PS 123


Last night I helped run a local meetup for creative professionals, and we were discussing the challenges someone has in turning an idea into reality. Inherently, there was an issue of stagnation because of how solitary the process can become. And the value of involving others in the creative process. I recently wrote about my process working with Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, and how my role is in some ways to be a “buddy” in the process.

For organizations, having an outside perspective can be critical to not just reframe direction, but also say things that everyone knows, yet remains unspoken. This is nearly always part of my role as an outside consultant – to bring up difficult topics that others avoid because it creates an uncomfortable work environment.

Likewise providing insight into a RANGE of experiences is critical, which is why I love doing work with organizations outside of publishing, even though I often describe my main focus as writers. I feel that responsibility extends outside of the publishing blinders – to understand how public, non-profit, and private institutions establish their voices, craft meaningful work, and connect that work to a powerful EFFECT in the lives of others.

My wife and I recently renovated our home, and I enlisted MANY others in this process, not just to swing the hammer, but to make loads of decisions, to understand boundaries, and explore possibilities. That is what I looked for when hiring a professional – someone whose range of experience created CONVERSATIONS around what is possible, instead of commoditizing the task a list of “best practices” that didn’t take into account our personal goals and challenges.

What is critical for me in considering working with these organizations is to not just READ about their experiences, but to truly dig in and being a part of their challenges, and hopefully, part of the solutions to helping organizations better share their stories and connect with their communities.

Since the experience was like being a kid in a candy store, let’s end with a tour of the Sesame Workshop offices, which was so much fun to explore! (And no, I didn’t get to visit the Sesame Street set, which is located in a separate facility in Queens.)

Many of the walls are coated with chalkboard paint, so the hallways are filled with these murals:
Sesame Workshop Offices

These are actually TVs in the frames, and the characters interact with you as you approach:
Sesame Workshop Offices

My favorite part of this photo is that the emergency exit door in the background (through the glass of the stairs) has an “Exit” sign very low – at Muppet height!
Sesame Workshop Offices

This is a display of Sesame Street educational material from around the world. Amazing to consider how far-reaching the mission of this organization extends.
Sesame Workshop Offices

The kitchen. The coffee-pods kind of freaked me out. I tried not to lose a finger when operating the machine.
Sesame Workshop Offices

The Big Bird inspired cup dispenser:
Sesame Workshop Offices

On the refrigerator:
Sesame Workshop Offices

Office copy machines look the same everywhere:
Sesame Workshop Offices

The incredible view out front: Lincoln Center:
Sesame Workshop Offices

Cubes also look the same in every office building:
Sesame Workshop Offices

Big Bird, Cookie Monster and Grover having a meeting:
Sesame Workshop Offices

The hallway to the CEO’s office suddenly got more formal: wood and glass:
Sesame Workshop Offices

Fun details on nearly every wall:
Sesame Workshop Offices

It’s hard to see, but this lampshade was made of feathers similar to Big Bird’s:
Sesame Workshop Offices

By far the most depressing thing in their offices: the “Cup ‘O Noodles” machine:
Sesame Workshop Offices

Okay, even their bathroom has an amazing view!
Sesame Workshop Offices

Characters, everywhere you look:
Sesame Workshop Offices

Thank you!

The Power of Enthusiasm: Should You Create a “Street Team”?

Remember that time when you created something, and all of these strangers magically found it and just shouted about it to everyone they knew, and you went “viral,” and your success just grew and grew, like a runaway snowball cruising down a hill?

Me neither.

Recently, I have heard some successful authors such as Bella Andre and Barbara Freethy use this term: “street team.” Sounds cool, right? Well, today, let’s talk about what a street team is, and why it can be important to FINALLY building some momentum in helping to spread the word about whatever it is you are creating.

This topic has been brewing in my mind for awhile, but then the other day Johanna Harness shared this post on Facebook:


What immediately moved me about this was the admission that she couldn’t imagine who would support her, and how surprised she was to be proven wrong. At the time, her Street Team had a 9 members – more than enough to thrill Johanna. And now as I write this, she has 15 folks who joined.

I think that all too often, a number such as “9” sounds small, like a failure. But imagine this: NINE people showed up who actively want to support your work. Amazing, right? And then within a few days, she had a 60% growth rate to 15 people!

Then, a little while later, Kate Tilton shared this photo on Instagram:


So naturally, I reached out to Johanna, Kate, and the author she was working with, S.R. Johannes (otherwise known as Shelli.) I asked each about their motivation, fears, challenges, and value of trying to build a street team. And what they had to say will SHOCK you! (okay, no it won’t, but it is interesting stuff nonetheless.)

What is a Street Team?
Wikipedia describes it this way: “A street team is a term used in marketing to describe a group of people who ‘hit the streets’ promoting an event or a product.”

Shelli shared a great series of links from various folks talking about what street teams are, well worth checking out.

Johanna told me that she was wary of the thin line between organizing a group of fans who want to support someone’s work, and merely trading giveaways for favors, such as book reviews. So this is how she is framing her street team to ensure it has meaningful value to all involved:

“Most of the people joining my Facebook group are stepping forward and saying they’d like to read early copies of my book and help in any way they can. They already like my writing. I want to give these friends inclusion in the process, even to the point of being included in the final book. I want to give them insight into the process, what works and what hasn’t worked for me. I want to provide a place where we can speak with a little more candor. I’m hoping the process makes some brave enough to cast their own words into the world. Stories are awesome gifts. The best I could get back from the group would be the opportunity to see other unpublished works make their way into print.”

And here are some of the specific ways she hopes to engage folks:

  • Opportunities to discuss the details of a book release and influence how things progress
  • Answering questions about cover art
  • Floating ideas about future blog posts and listening to responses
  • Take part in a global book release party
  • Giveaways
  • Share advance reading copies
  • Books for those who want to leave reviews

Shelli outlines specific value she is offering for her street team in this post, which includes:

  • Quarterly group chats
  • A physical welcome pack (seen in Kate’s post above), which includes a blog badge, bookmark, pen, signed bookplates, press kit, and more
  • A free ebook with a chance to win more
  • A Facebook members only group for an open discussions on the books, indie publishing, or marketing
  • Monthly missions where members can win prizes
  • Inside information on her books, writing process, and publishing journey
  • ebooks and giveaways for members’ own blog readers
  • A chance to hangout after author appearances
  • Access to exclusive content such as character dossiers, character diaries, and more.

She said she had 30 folks sign up right away, and the street team is now up to 120 people.

Why I Love The Concept of Street Teams
When I consider the value of street teams for an author, artist, musician or other creative professional, these are the aspects I really appreciate:

  • A feeling of inclusion for the folks who join the street team; and the ability for authors to put faces/names/relationships on their readership.
  • For authors: it helps you engage with readers one-to-one, instead of this mysterious divide of “AUTHOR” and “AUDIENCE.”
  • For readers, there is the joy of shared enthusiasm. I’m a big fan of the nerdfighter community that John and Hank Green have created, which is all about enthusiasm for things that matter most to them. This goes from the most silly things, to the deepest: raising money for charity.
  • Shared journey – allows an author to have buddies in this process of publishing; it allows readers to feel a part of something, even if they aren’t writing and publishing books.
  • Especially for already popular authors, street teams seem to be a great way to stay connected with passionate fans in a manageable way, on a daily basis.
  • It allows an author to easily consider how they can scale their audience engagement efforts. For instance, they can have community managers who engage daily with the street team members, and the author can pop in when they aren’t writing. It isn’t so much a hierarchy as a way to create sustainability around engaging with readers.
  • My gut is that being a part of a street team is a badge of pride for many readers, it becomes an identity for them. This can align to a narrative that they appreciate – that perhaps they haven’t written the novels the author has – but they can still be a part of that process.
  • I love how vulnerability and enthusiasm seem to be core parts of this, two terms I have been thinking a lot about recently.

What Makes Me Concerned About Street Teams
Because I know street teams have becoming more and more popular, I don’t want to paint a picture that is all roses. Here are a some things that I think one must consider when deciding if a street team is right for them:

  • It’s too easy to be seen as, “I’ll give you bonuses and attention if you will promote promote promote me me me!!!” Connecting on a human level has to be the core of this, and that is a serious responsibility for the folks organizing a street team.
  • The flipside of organizing shared enthusiasm in this way: fans feeling as though the value isn’t equal. The author opens themselves up to judgement by sharing more of their process and of asking fans to do work for them. Ideally, trust is developed slowly, but too much enthusiasm for promotion too quickly could lead to crossing signals and miscommunication.
  • Social stuff is complex: readers could feel too much pressure; cliques could form within a street team, and one could feel like a wallflower in especially popular street teams.
  • It is INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT to properly manage a small community like this consistently over time. For instance, many authors will have loads of motivation to support the community around a book launch, but will they feel equal responsibility in the months/years between books?
  • As more people develop their own street team, it will become a de facto tactic, where you are constantly being asked to be on street teams as a marketing tactic.

I remember when Michael Hyatt created a Launch Team for his book. He reported that 764 people applies to be on this team, and he selected 100. It’s fascinating for me to consider the value of a team like this from the viewpoint of both a wildly popular author, and from the standpoint of an author prepping the publication of their first book. Clearly, there is value in both cases.

Shelli indicated that running her street team is indeed time consuming, and that in the beginning, there is no clear payoff. She hasn’t gone with them through a book launch yet, that will happen a bit later in the year. But my gut is, it’s better to go through a book launch with 120 people who love your work, than with just you and your cat. It’s always more fun with a buddy.

Kate Tilton was nice enough to share her experience managing street teams with me; here is some of her advice:

  • Authors find that many people who sign up are not as passionate as you hope they will be. Managing expectations on both sides is important.
  • When using giveaways to get folks to join a street team, you may find that only a small portion remain an active fan base – those who will complete a “mission.” The rest were just interested in the initial chance to win something, and were not really interested in a larger investment of their time and energy.
  • She mentioned Rachel Thompson as another example of having a street team, and mentioned that this was a great way to EXTEND connections with readers after you have already done so much else to develop that audience. I always love examples of how authors continue to find new ways to connect more deeply with readers, regardless of how many books they have already sold. (It’s also worth noting that Rachel’s street team is called “The Bad Redheads.”) Have clear guidelines governing expectations and behavior. You will hear stories of some street team members being a little too enthusiastic. Just like the metaphor the term comes from, you likely don’t want your fans “getting in people’s faces” on the street, but merely amplifying something they are excited about. Within reason.

  • Kate said, “you don’t join a street team to get free stuff, you do it because you love the author.” It’s not a bribery system. There can be a fine balance.
  • A street team should be more than just a one-off promotion, “a team collaborates together and works towards a goal.”

More from Kate on street teams here and here.

Are street teams right for you? That is for you to decide. But I do love how they focus very much on relationships and interactions with readers, and how they seem to have a mix of vulnerability and enthusiasm, that it requires a human investment to build a meaningful community.


No, Things Were Not Easier “Back in the Day,” and Other Narratives We Cling To In Order To Avoid the Hard Work Of Success

Too often, we create simple narratives to drive our actions, or our inaction. For writers and other creative professionals, these narratives could be:

  1. It’s all about the story, I don’t need to know anything about publishing a book, marketing a book, or connecting with readers.
  2. Writers back in the day didn’t worry about Tweeting, why should I?
  3. My author-hero never did a book tour or media interviews, why should I?
  4. There’s only one thing that sells books, and it’s _______ (insert simplistic view of how things happen)

In other words: we look for simple narratives that tell us things we already believe. This allows us to take actions we are already comfortable with, or avoid actions that make us feel uncomfortable.

I have sat in plenty of meetings where survey data and analytics are reviewed, and listen to the key things that are pulled out that:

  1. Support the success of an existing strategy
  2. Avoid confronting hard truths that folks have been avoiding
  3. Avoid more work and behavior change due to what has been discovered
  4. Avoid seeking out MORE data to prove if the “results” are indeed correct or directional

That, if you aren’t careful, you (intentional or not), filter out cues you don’t like, and seek out cues that align to the narrative you want to see in the world.

But when we break out of these pre-existing narratives, we uncover the potential for growth. Growth in worldview – accepting that things are often more complex than they seem; or in growing as a person, developing new skills and experiences, even those that are uncomfortable.

For example: let’s say you self-define as an introvert. Now, if this is you, I 100% accept that you are indeed introverted, and that this is something we need to honor and take into consideration. It’s important. So how can you the introvert still develop your career as a writer? By taking the next step beyond a definition. By not using it as a blanket excuse to avoid any action or situation that is even remotely social. Introversion is not just “yes” or “no,” it is multifaceted and there are lots of ways to respect the ways you are introverted, while still taking social actions. That, if you want, that simple definition and identify can be an excuse, or a starting point.

An author I am working with recently asked (and I’m paraphrasing) the following with regards to engaging with readers beyond his books:

“But Dan, I write fiction. Don’t readers simply want another story from me? That’s all I care about from the writers whose series I read. Why do I need to consider learning about and connecting with my readers beyond what sells a story to them?”

First of all, I agree with him: the STORY is the center. Period. Write. Write well. Write what feels right to you. Publish with a frequency that works for your work style. Engross readers in the worlds you create. Repeat.

Done. Right?

Well, that is where you as a writer have choices. That should be enough, right? Well, it depends on what narrative you are clinging to:

  • The one that frees you from having to do any more “stuff” in the publishing process. The one where it seems right and just to only have to craft stories. That anything else about finding and connecting with readers is a magical process that others should have to worry about.
  • The one that sees authors such as Bella Andre, Rebecca Skloot, Hugh Howey, and Eric Ries, and sees people who are taking so many actions IN ADDITION TO CRAFTING WONDERFUL STORIES to help ensure their work connects with readers.

Yes, this is all optional, as is your decision to even publish at all. I have said this before, but writing for the sake of writing alone is a worthwhile endeavor – not everything needs to be shared or published.

Many authors DO have expectations they would like to meet around book sales and the number of people who find and enjoy their work. Should you be happy that 10 people bought and loved your book? YES! Does that make you feel completely satisfied as a writer? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe you were hoping for 20 devoted fans. Or 2,000. Or 200,000.

Too many writers dream of the “perfect” world whereby they write something in solitude, and then the world magically discovers it and amplifies it. Success in this instance is “pure,” because the body of work was so powerful that it intoxicated anyone who came in contact with it.

We glamorize “the olden days” when everything was easier, and “marketing” didn’t corrupt the purity of creative work. But this is not reality, it is merely ignorance of the complexity of a different time. Everything seems simpler and more pure in retrospect. Sure, successful authors in the 1950s or 1970s didn’t have Twitter, but they definitely networked and failed or succeeded based not just on the quality of their work, but on who they knew, and how well they managed their careers as writers.

There is a compelling documentary that focuses on an interview with former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. I have a deep and profound respect for the sacrifices that others have made in the wars of the 20th century. It’s almost beyond my comprehension, to be honest, the level of sacrifice and the scope of what happened.

Looking back on some of these historic events, it can be easy to fall into a simple narrative that makes us feel comfortable. That one side was acting on the side of justice, and they prevailed because they were “right” and the other side was “wrong.”

As Mr. McNamara reflected on his role in aspects in and around the Vietnam War, one thing he said just floored me:

“We – including myself – were acting like war criminals.”

Themes he kept touching upon showed the complexity of actions taken on both “sides” of a war, and he indicated how big the roles of LUCK and EMOTION were in the process. That rational people got us into these situations that literarily put the world on the brink of utter destruction.

Sometimes we look back on history and try to find simple ways to characterize complex scenarios. Our brains are desperate for simple narratives that embody what we want to believe – what we already believe. And to hear Mr. Mcnamara say that he and his colleagues acted like war criminals is a level of honesty that requires us to reframe simple narratives in light of complex realities that are neither black nor white.

Too often, I think writers don’t adequately flesh out what their goals are. I wrote about this in a post titled “Being a Success, Without Being a Bestseller,” which used an example from Bruce Springsteen’s seemingly odd decisions around making his album “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” For someone whose previous work drew success from the hopefulness of the open road of possibilities, the message of Darkness was very different:

He released an album of understated songs that adhered to a theme: coping with the limits of adulthood. Of what happens when adolescent dreams of greatness and freedom turn to the challenges of adult relationships, work, and living within boundaries. The “darkness on the edge of town” is the feeling of something keeping you in. Of the horizon not being an open road that promises new dreams to come true. That we are not all immortal and destined for greatness as we all may have believed in high school.

The album is ultimately hopeful, finding empowerment in facing these limitations. About redefining what it means to be a person living by principles in a world that is full of limits and challenges. It is an adult view of the world that does not rely on vague promises of success.

This is where we move beyond vague goals such as “I want to be a bestseller!” and move into the less sexy but more realistic conversation of: “Let’s talk about other milestones that define success,” and the concept of finding satisfaction in them.

Someone said this to me recently in regards to an online project he had developed:

“I just wanted to create something, and then kind of step back.”

The implication was that he would create it, others would give it momentum, and he could then step away from it and let it continue to succeed on it’s own.

But that rarely happens. There are many things that help success happen (including LOADS of luck!), but another is intention around working through the times when there is zero momentum. I was recently reflecting on my experience attending the 99u Conference last year, and all the in-depth stories of success I heard. The prevailing theme was the serious work behind each.

We often romanticize success, but the real stories behind them show a different picture: often a long road filled with failures leading up to that success. This image from Joe Gebbia from Airbnb is a good example of what “overnight success” really looks like:

99u Conference

It is well worth listening to his presentation from that conference, as well as the video from Jane ni Dhulchaointigh, inventor and CEO of sugru, both now available for free via YouTube.

So no, things were not easier “back in the day.” If you feel they were, consider your motivation for that narrative: where does it let you off the hook from taking the difficult actions of what it means to create work you are proud of, and how you connect that work in meaningful ways to other people?

Lastly: consider the EFFECT your work has in their lives – that most likely, your legacy will not be measured in book sales, but in the hearts and minds of others: those you know, those who surround you each and every day, and those touched by the work you create.