Monday, March 26, 2012


Every writer (and indeed anyone who creates something new- a game, a software, a painting, an app) has their own journey, but one thing binds us all- the joy we feel in creating something new and then forming connections with others through our work. As I became a professional writer I learnt that creating something is not enough- you need to be able to reach potential readers and have them discover you. That was a lesson also cemented in my day job in the corporate world as a marketer. Often people scoff at creative folks talking about the business side of it, but the way I look at, creativity and entrepreneurship are two sides of the same coin. No great idea can get anywhere without the drive, passion and initiative to put it in front of potential users. That’s what makes the difference between creating something purely for the pleasure of creating it and creating something that actually connects with and makes a difference to potential readers and users.

I have had numerous influences and experiences that have shaped my view of what I call `Creative Entrepreneurship’ but the foundations of my core beliefs go way back- to when I was in the seventh grade.

That was when I self-published my first book. My first book was a collection of my poems bundled with solutions to problems from the coming term’s Maths textbook that I sold to my classmates. The lessons I learned then still hold true today, and while my writing journey has taken me far from that day, when as an eleven year old, I triumphantly held aloft my first book, even today I realize that the basics of what it takes to be a successful Creative Entrepreneur haven’t changed all that much.

These lessons were field tested most recently when in February 2011 I took a leap into the unknown by putting up my work on the Amazon Kindle store, self-publishing some of my backlist as ebooks to reach new readers, and gradually writing all new novels that were uploaded straight to the Kindle without even looking for a `traditional’ publisher. Till then, I had been the literary equivalent of a `salaryman’- writing for publishers in India, with predictable advances, publicity departments to help me out, editing and design resources of the publishers- and indeed, royalty checks that dutifully arrived once a year. Digital publishing was the equivalent of the Wild West for me- there was nobody to help me with covers, designs or publicity. I not only had to write, but also take care of the entire business aspect of it. And while I could get paid every month, there was no guaranteed advance and certainly no guarantee that I would see a cent of profit. To make matters worse, I was a totally unknown name to American readers, but that did not faze me. If anything, I figured that I had nothing to lose and I took the plunge. Whenever I felt any self-doubt, I’d remind myself of that cocky eleven year old who published a book, and the lessons I learned all those years back.

1. Embrace what makes you different

Often, new writers wonder whether there is a formula for success, or which genre they should write in to maximize chances of success. The short answer is- write what you are passionate about and what makes you unique. Marketing 101 says that any brand will succeed when it’s differentiated, not when it tries to ape other more successful brands. The same goes for writing or creativity- don’t rush to write stories because others have succeeded in a similar genre. Instead, embrace what makes you special and unique. I was a geek in Grade 7. I’d come first in class, but was pretty introverted. But when I self-published, I turned that to my advantage. Girls may not have been lining up to be friends with me, but when it came to solving problems in class, I was the person they’d bet on. Fast forward more than two decades- I was well-published in India by majors like Random House, but in finding an international audience, I discovered the amazing opportunity the Kindle provided and decided to self-publish my upcoming work on the Kindle. I wondered for some time whether I should try and write something that would be more `relatable’ for Western readers, but then remembered this lesson and instead of fighting what made me different, embraced it. My first break out success, Vimana, is a science-fiction thriller springboarding off Hindu mythology. There are a lot of global themes there, but the core of it is the whole idea of ancient gods in their flying machines (vimanas) as related in Indian epics, a field where I could contribute some unique ideas given my Indian background. My biggest bestseller to date, Alice in Deadland is a dystopian thriller set in New Delhi, a city I spent much of my childhood in. Ditto for Zombiestan, a bestselling zombie thriller set in India. So ask yourself what life experiences, backgrounds or ideas make you unique, and don’t be ashamed to make that the cornerstone of what makes your creativity different. Embrace your diversity and individuality, don’t try and be another member of a large herd.

2. First appearances do count.

That’s a cliché, but when it comes to books, it’s true. I still meet self-published writers who say that they will invest in a professional cover when they are more successful. To me, that’s a bit of circular logic- you will increase your chances of being successful if you have a professional cover. To be clear, for me the definition of a professional cover is not necessarily one for which you’ve paid a lot of money to someone. That is a means to the end. A professional cover is one which when put side by side with the bestselling books in your genre will not disadvantage your work in the eyes of potential readers. If you really want to be successful at self-publishing, ask yourself whether your covers can meet that benchmark, and if not- then either polish up your design skills or invest in the best cover designer you can afford. Back in Grade 7, I obviously had no money to create a cover, but I did have an older brother in High School. So I told him what I was doing, and in return for doing his share of cleaning the snow off the driveway (this was in Ottawa in the winter, so it was a significant payment!), he designed a cover for me on his computer and printed it out. When I showed my book to my classmates, their `oohs’ and `wows’ when they saw the cover told me I had made the sale. Even if you don’t write, whatever your creative field, whether you paint, write code or make new apps- the `user interface’ ie. What the user sees when he/she first is presented with your creation will determine whether they click through/pick up your offering or pass on to other options.

3. Make the gatekeeper your friend.

Some self-published writers assume that not going through traditional publishers means that they have bypassed so-called `gatekeepers’ that stand between them and their readers. Here’s a dose of reality- there will always be gatekeepers. Review sites and blogs play that role, as do Amazon reader reviews. Don’t fight gatekeepers, make them your friends. Back in Grade 7, the biggest gatekeeper I had never counted on was my Maths teacher. When she learnt of what I had done, she was quite pissed off, and had a chat with me. She appreciated my aptitude and my enterprise but was worried that it would lead my classmates to take the easy way out and not study for themselves. That made sense to me. So for the next term, I asked her to share the test questions for the past couple of years, and I solved them and put out a new version which was more of a workbook- a compendium of past questions, blank spaces for students to solve them, and answers at the back. My teacher thought it would be good practice and would not come in the way of coursework, and while it meant some of my classmates seeking an easy way out didn’t buy it, it was more than compensated for by the fact that my teacher endorsed it, and even let me put up my cover on the school noticeboard. My gatekeeper had become my biggest advertiser. When I get a negative review today, I never react emotionally, but understand whether there is something I can do better. When any reader writes in, I write a response within the day. When a publisher rejects me, I never burn bridges. Even if I got a form rejection letter, I write a long, personal letter back to the editor thanking them for their time, and more than once, I have got feedback in return which has helped me strengthen my work. Now I am in the curious situation of being commissioned to write novels by publishers in India who had rejected my first novel, and a reader who had once written in with some criticism became a good pen-friend (or it’s digital equivalent) and recommended my novel onto one of his friends, who turned out to be the biggest book blogger in India, for review. It’s a small world, and those who appear to be gatekeepers may sometimes open up opportunities later- so never fight them. Learn from what they are telling you, never burn bridges, and even if you really disagree, don’t create a public spectacle.

4. Create and monetize a portfolio of work.

Writing one book is much easier than truly becoming a writer over the long term and as the cliché goes, the best marketing strategy is often to get the next book out there. However, for me, it’s not just having more books out there- but how you can use your portfolio of work deliberately to achieve more success by monetizing them. In Grade 7, I was really into writing poetry, but figured (correctly so) that not too many of my classmates would be willing to pay to read my poetry. So when I put out my first book, I bundled some of my poems with the Maths solutions. My classmates bought the book for the Maths, but inevitably many of them read my poems. And guess what, by the time I was ready with the next term’s edition, a few of them were actually requesting new poems to be included. The other lesson learnt of course was that writing poetry had its fringe benefits in impressing girls, but that’s another story for another day. Not much has changed- and I am still learning on how best to leverage my portfolio of work. I regularly `tag on’ excerpts of another book to my bestselling titles, and when Alice in Deadland was climbing the bestselling charts, a mere mention of my other titles on its Amazon home page increased their sales by a multiple of two. The key is to keep experimenting and learning- the difference between being a Creative Entrepreneur and a Salaryman is that there is no company manual, there are no `best practices’. You need to learn what works, sometimes adapting from what others have done, and sometimes trying out your own ideas. The business side comes in when I keep a running tally of every single promotion and ad I’ve run- so that I keep seeing the ROI behind them and fine tune my future plans. Contrast that to a corporate day job- I need not write any recos, I need not ask for anyone’s permission, I need not make any Power Point slides. That’s what makes it so much fun!

5. Keep practicing your craft.

In his book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell concludes that you need 10,000 hours of practice to really excel at anything. Even if you dedicate three hours a day to writing (and I know that is a lot for most people), that means you need to keep doing that non-stop for 9 years to really start mastering writing. I think there’s a way to short-circuit that- and that is to inject a bit of your passion for writing and self-publishing into everything you do. In school, even after my early experiments with self-publishing, I had been bitten by the writing and publishing bug, and would try and recreate that in everything I did. So even a minor school report became an event- with a designed color cover and neatly typed and formatted interior. I remember a teacher asking me why I was putting so much effort into it, and I told her that I imagined every report was a book I was writing. So even when I was not `writing a book’, I was practicing my craft. My day job today is in the corporate world, and how I bring the craft into my day job is to banish Power Point as much as possible. I don’t try and hide behind slide transitions and fancy pictures, but communicate everything I want in simple writing. Trainings I give take the form of a talk and a single typed sheet. That keeps me sharp in communicating what I want through the written word, and ironically, perhaps helps me do better, because what makes me unique (see lesson 1) is that I’m not just another cubicle dweller, but one who is a professional writer, and I am embracing that- so that even when I am not `writing a book’, I am writing and perfecting my ability to communicate and persuade through the written word.

6. Re-invest for future success.

Being a Creative Entrepreneur means running a business, and for any business to thrive, you need to invest in future success, not just fret about short-term sales or profits. That means re-investing some of what you gain for future growth. In Grade 7, I earned the princely sum of $12.50 from my first edition (a quarter a copy with 50 copies sold), and I spent a dollar on a big stapler, so that next time the book would be more stable and not risk falling apart as it did the first time around with small staples. Today I reinvest 25-30% of everything I earn every month from Kindle sales- into booking blog sponsorships/Facebook advertising, getting professional cover designs and so on. I have a spreadsheet where I keep a tally, and like any business, I started off not fretting about my investments in the first few months. So in Months 1-3, I actually spent more than I earned, but by looking at my sales momentum, I knew I should hang on and I recovered all my investments by the fifth month, and now every month, I am nicely profitable. So don’t give up too soon or think too short term. Treat it like any business- define your investment appetite (for me the worst case was to not be profitable at the end of year 1) and spend for future growth.

7. Enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Creating something gives an artist joy, but being a Creative Entrepreneur is never worth it unless it helps you retain that sense of joy. The biggest tragedy is when a passionate writer or creative brain becomes a pessimistic, nervous wreck when it comes to being an entrepreneur. The key to me is to enjoy the fruits of my writing, to remind myself that my writing helps me pay back into things that bring joy into my life. In Grade 7, I splurged on ice cream and comics and treated my parents to a chocolate. Today, I reframe every cent I earn in terms of what I can do for my family. Last December, my wife and I were planning a vacation for our anniversary, and when she said that the suite at the resort I was suggesting was expensive, I said that it was just four days of royalty from Kindle sales. Moments that like make me realize that my writing is not just feeding my passion or my desire to be read, but in a very real way is helping me create special moments and joy for those who matter most to me. That inspiration is what every Creative Entrepreneur needs to keep going.

In hindsight, my latest experience as a Creative Entrepreneur should not have come as any surprise to me. After all, everything I needed to know I had already learned in Grade 7, when perhaps without realizing it, I took the first steps in this journey. Some years later, while in college studying Economics, I wrote two books on Economic History. My Professors were not amused but as in Grade 7, I fully co-opted them by getting them to write endorsements for my books. I also had learned an important lesson by then- if you got good enough grades, everybody was willing to cut you some slack and let you fool around a bit (In Grade 7, while I was publishing my first book, I also went through two years of school with an imaginary friend called Freddy). The other lesson I learned, which should technically be lesson #8 (but why mess with the catchy branding of 7 lessons in 7th Grade?) is to never seek permission to dream. If I had asked anyone whether I should publish a book in Grade 7 or a couple of books in college, I imagine a lot of people- teachers, fellow students, perhaps even relatives, would have called me nuts. The Creative Entrepreneur does not just dream about creating something and then ask for permission- he goes ahead and makes it happen. Seeking permission is for the salaryman, not the Creative Entrepreneur. Similarly, when I started my self-publishing experiment with digital books, there was a lot to dissuade me if I had bothered to ask. Most self-published authors sold no more than a handful of books, most made no money, and to top it all, in my first month, I sold a grand total of 118 ebooks. Instead of the 118 absolute number I focused on the fact that sales were growing 40% each week and soldiered on.

As I celebrate my first anniversary of self-publishing on the Kindle, I look forward to the future with renewed confidence. In the last year, I’ve sold well over 100,000 ebooks on the Kindle (supposedly becoming one of only about thirty indie authors in the world to ever do so and according to the E-Reader Corral Blog was among the Top 20 self-published writers globally in 2011). From tentatively uploading a couple of old novels, over the last 12 months I have put up three totally original novels (Zombiestan, Alice in Deadland and Through The Looking Glass- the sequel to Alice in Deadland) without even submitting to a publisher. I say all that not to become complacent, because that’s not what I do or how I’m built. Instead I use every little stepping-stone and every little victory to gather the courage to dream bigger.

That little stapled collection of poems and Maths solutions has come a long way, and there’s much more to come. Watch this space....

(This is an updated and modified version of a guest post I had contributed to fellow author and friend David Gaughran's excellent blog, Let's Get Digital).