Being an Authorpreneur: why writing feels so much like starting up

People like Eric Schmidt scare the daylight out of me when they say we are, presently, producing as much content in 48 hours as we did from the beginning of time till 2003. Just take a minute and imagine: every single day we are producing as much text as there is in half the libraries of the world. What Schmidt is basically telling us is that we can be great writers, but if we can’t figure out a way to stand out in today’s crowded world of content, we are just hobbyists and little else. This is absolutely fine if, for you, writing is just a fun thing you do on the side. However, if you are like me and have left all else just to write full-time, you will have to admit that understanding the business of words and textual content has to be your top priority. You can fiddle with your muse at night to produce streams upon streams of literature, but during the day you have to suit-up mentally and think about the hard numbers that will determine if you are anywhere near the success mark you have set for yourself. Even The Economist’s Schumpeter article on Authorpreneurship begins with this dirty secret, “To succeed these days, authors must be more businesslike than ever.”

So, when I started thinking like the businessman I have been trained to be, I figured out that if you are a yet unpublished author, you are exactly like a start-up. Nobody really knows who you are and you have very little money to begin with. You have talent and you have the time to put that talent to work for creating a product — a book, a blog, or a series of articles you can sell to a periodical — but that’s all you have really got. This means you have to figure out everything else: from building the content of your book after many rounds of research and feedback to finally selling it in the market; from building a brand for the books you write to building a stronger brand of your own name that connects all the book brands together; from figuring out who your long-term channel partners would be to figuring out when you would have the upper hand with them; and most importantly, from understanding who your audience is to knowing why and how you can keep adding some value to their lives.

And like most tech startups, somewhere along this path of “figuring out”, you will also come across the unwelcome realisation that the sales of your books are actually going to be only a meagre source of revenue for you. And if you are a blogger, that amount would be very close to zero. That is when you will start looking for lateral ways of monetising your business: speaking at corporate training sessions and exclusive conferences, taking up commercial writing projects, teaching part-time at universities, endorsing other brands in popular media, and selling filming rights of your books to the movie and TV industry.

Now, you would have noticed how none of the above monetising methods would actually work unless you have established yourself as a very good author, who knows about what he or she is writing. This part is hard work. This is not the kind of hard work you put in in your day job working the extra hour after your eight hour shift. No, no. This is the kind of hard work you put in when you are working 16–17 hours daily, including weekends, when you are developing your startup business. You not only have to sit and write everyday for hours on end, but you also have to make sure that you are getting noticed even with a lot of digital noise running in the background. You have to sit day in and day out making sure that you don’t get lost in the crowd of the thousands of writers out there who have been empowered by the internet to put out content at absolutely zero cost. And this daily grind goes on and on for a good 2–4 years before you see yourself making the big buck.

This last point about the daily marathon grind brings us to the most fundamental reason why I think writing is like starting up: taking the plunge for doing what you really love doing. I was willing to leave seven-digit salary packages on the table, because I am absolutely passionate about writing and I know if there is anything that will make me really really happy on the inside, it is the knowledge that I am making my daily bread by doing what I unconditionally love doing. I don’t have any clue as to how things will pan out in the coming year or two, but I know I am loving the grind now and that I am very very positive about chasing my dream to the end of the world.

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