When I was just starting out as a professional writer, I made a pretty common mistake by focusing on the artistic side of things. I would not sully my work with concerns over filthy lucre—I just wanted to have my work published and read and appreciated, and if that somehow led to financial gain (though sorcery and wishful thinking, I assume) that would be great.
That’s classic short-term thinking. Instead of focusing on building a brand, establishing the worth of my work, and choosing opportunities based on how they could build on prior accomplishments to raise my profile as a writer, I was just grabbing any published credit I could get easily. Unfortunately, a lot of people approach their writing career with similarly short-term thinking. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of the big ones is simple human nature: Short-term gains are usually pretty easy to attain, and stringing a lot of them together can give you the feeling of success. After all, you’re publishing! You’re making some money! Your name is out there!
But chasing after short-term gains can leave your career stagnant because you’re not building on your successes—they’re just islands of good fortune. Sometimes pursuing short-term goals is necessary, but ideally that should be the exception—the rule should be to always think long-term, for a long list of reasons.
So what do I mean by The Long Game in terms of a writing career? The Long Game refers to all the stuff that has a deferred payoff. You put in the work today—and tomorrow, and the day after that—but you don’t necessarily see results right away. The Long Game is strategy—you’re setting yourself up for future success, and prolonged success. Short-term gains are tactical—you pursue an immediate goal, reap the rewards, and move on.
An example from my own writing career would be the difference between a novel and a piece of freelance writing. The novel might take years—there’s writing, revising, taking in feedback and revising again, figuring out a submission strategy, writing synopses, probably revising again (with tears streaming down my face and a bottle of whiskey on the desk next to me), then finally getting it out to editors. I may get paid for that novel ten years after I wrote it—or I may never get paid for that novel. But I work on it anyway because it’s part of my brand and because it’s a project I want to see out in the world, to be part of my literary legacy.
The freelance work, on the other hand, is short-term stuff. I need to pay my bills, so I pitch an idea to an editor, get their go-ahead, then spend some time working on the piece. I deliver it pretty quickly, revise as needed, then send in my invoice and get paid a short time later. I don’t necessarily think of the freelance piece as part of my brand or long-term legacy (though I do consider both to a certain extent when taking on freelance work—I’m not going to write about subjects I don’t want to be associated with or in support of opinions I find abhorrent).
There’s nothing wrong with short-term gains. And sometimes it makes perfect sense to put your efforts toward something that pays off right away. What’s important is to know the difference, to know what category a project falls into, and to have a plan. Here are some ways you can pursue long-term thinking in your writing career.
Aspiring writers can sometimes get lost chasing after the short-term stuff and forget to build a career foundation. This includes some fundamentals:
- Brand. Your author brand doesn’t spring up overnight. It takes constant work to establish one, and steady effort to maintain and expand it. When chasing after short-term goals, always keep your brand in mind as you work. If you imbue every short-term success with your author brand, it will pay off in the long run.
- Craft. When working at your writing full-time, all your time can be taken up hitting deadlines of one sort or another. You might have a full slate of freelance work to keep you busy, and/
or a novel that you’re polishing on the side—or vice versa. But you have to keep working on your craft as a long-term goal. That means constant reading—because there’s no better way to get better at writing than by reading great books and reading current books that can show what’s trending in your genre—and constant writing that isn’t to deliver contractual obligations—so you can practice and play with the stuff you’ve learned from reading.
- Promotion. An existential question for our time is: If you build an author brand and no one sees it, does it have an impact? Getting your name and your work out there so people can read (and buy) it is a fundamental aspect of the long game. It can take years to build up an audience and be recognized for your work.
Many writers are impatient to get on with their career, but you can’t skip the steps that make you into a better writer, that teach you how the business works, that slowly build a platform. Maybe you’re ready to write a novel right away, but a lot of writers aren’t, and pushing a novel out into the world when you haven’t quite mastered your craft doesn’t gain you anything. And you might want to be a digital nomad and make a living as a freelance writer—and maybe you’re the rarity who can land a high-profile, lucrative gig right away and be on a beach a week later living the dream. But most of us are much better off if we do all the intervening steps, like writing shorter fiction until we have a firm grasp of how plot, pacing, and characterization work, or doing freelance writing part-time until you figure out a niche you can excel in and understand how the business side works.
Short-term thinking can really hinder your career in a lot of ways. A poorly-conceived novel can turn off potential fans. Diving into freelance work with no experience often leads to getting caught in the trap of doing a lot of low-paying work in order to pay the bills. Instead of reaching for the low-hanging fruit, take a step back and think how each step along your career path builds on the last one.
Something that takes a frustratingly long time in this business is establishing and nurturing a fan base. We all start off at the same point: Totally unknown. Whether you’re ten or ninety, the first time you sit down to write something there are exactly zero people in this world who know your work. It’s largely up to you to change that.
On the one hand, we have an advantage over the writers who came before us because we have the Internet. In the days before social media and the like, writers had few ways to connect with readers, and they were all laborious. You could travel around to conferences, do book tours, show up at your local library—and you can still do all of those things, but you can also connect with potentially millions of people just by posting something to TikTok.
But making a splash with a ‘viral’ posting on social media isn’t the same as nurturing a fan base. You can get millions of eyeballs in the short term, but transforming them into folks who check in with you regularly and buy and read your work consistently is long-term work. It involves building your presence on the platforms you’re comfortable on, posting content on those platforms consistently, responding to readers who reach out to you on those platforms—and then repeating the process every day, without fail. It takes a long time, but fostering a community of readers around you and your work pays endless dividends when you release work (either traditionally or self-published, folks will show up on Day One to buy a copy), need to amplify an announcement, or need some quick research for a story.
Whether you self-publish your book or go the traditional publishing route, something many writers overlook when just starting off is the many, many subrights you can monetize or exploit concerning your work. Audiobooks, for example, are a common subright. Foreign language translations are another fairly common one, as are the adaptation rights that can lead to a film or TV version of your story.
The mistake many writers make is assuming that they’re not well-known enough for anyone to be interested in those rights (or pay you for those rights), or that a publisher will just take of them on your behalf. But that’s short-term thinking. Just because it won’t be easy to exploit those rights for your book doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be thinking about it—and just because you don’t know (yet) how to exploit those rights yourself doesn’t mean you should just give them away. Publishers often pack their contracts with subright grabs, and you can just as often negotiate them out of there in order to retain control over them.
In some cases, it may be best to let someone else handle those subrights in exchange for a percentage of their eventual value, but the key is to be thoughtful about it. Think long-term instead of what’s easy right now. Hanging onto your audiobook rights might seem smart—but if you never actually get around to producing an audiobook, you gain nothing. You need a long-term plan for how you’re going to exploit those rights. Refusing to give up control of film rights might seem wise since there’s a lot of potential upside there, but if you have no idea how to make those kinds of deals you’re not doing yourself any good. At the same time, giving them away because it’s easier to just sign a contract in the short-term is also a potentially huge mistake. There are no easy answers, but that’s why you need to adopt a long-term mindset when it comes to subrights.
We definitely live in an age when self-publishing is a legitimate and potentially powerful way to get your work into the world. But it’s also a strategy that requires a lot of long-term thinking and planning. If you self-publish a book on a whim, just throwing it together and pushing it out into the world, you’re not going to get the best results. In fact, the worst-case scenario is pretty bad: The book sinks beneath the waves, bought by a small handful of people who know you, and then forgotten.
The reason this is a huge mistake—aside from not selling many copies—is because now the book has been published, which limits what you can do with it in the future. Sure, you can re-issue it, but will anyone care the second (or third) time around? And if you decide later that traditional publishing might be a better option you’ll have difficulties getting a publisher interested.
Again, self-publishing can work—but you need a plan. You need to make sure the book is edited, designed, and packaged to a high standard. You need to plan a marketing strategy and put some resources into it. You need to think long-term and give your book every chance to break through, be noticed, and sell copies. You can self-publish a book in five minutes—literally—and get the instant gratification of seeing your book in print. But it’s better if you take the long way around and think about the best strategy for your work.
A writing career is rarely a straight line soaring up into success. Sure, that happens, but not too often. Most writing careers are built on long-term planning and steady work building on prior success. That goes for both book publishing, where a book might capture a small audience that then serves as the foundation for a bigger success to follow, as well as freelance work, where steadily raising your rates and improving the quality of your clients is the name of the game.
Writers have to bake patience into their expectations, because nothing happens quickly in this business. It’s taken me years to write and decades to sell novels. I was 15 years into my career before I started getting invited to speak at conferences and recruited to write freelance articles—and that was after experiencing a number of professional setbacks. If your first attempt at publishing doesn’t go so well and you just give up in frustration, you’re falling victim to short-term thinking. The trick is to learn from these setbacks—why didn’t the book sell, why you didn’t get that lucrative freelance job. Culling lessons from short-term failures is the secret to long-term success as a writer.
When I sold my second novel, The Electric Church, the deal was initially for just the one book. That’s how I’d conceived the novel, as a standalone. A few months after signing the contract, my editor called me up and suggested that the concept could have the legs for a series, and asked if I’d be interested in coming up with some more concepts for additional books.
I was caught unprepared. I’d never considered the book as the beginning of a series, but the prospect was immediately exciting for reasons both creative and mercenary. On the one hand, I saw the prospect of two more advances and two more royalty streams and began placing orders for gold-plated furnishings. On the other, my mind began cranking out new concepts for the universe and the characters, great new ideas that I really wanted to explore. Through none of my own doing I’d been kicked out of a short-term approach that saw the book deal as a one-off and into a long-term approach that saw it as the beginning of a franchise. Ultimately, we published five novels with that publisher, there’s a small but fierce fan base for the books, and I continue to write stories featuring the character today. And none of that would have happened if I’d remained short-term in my thinking.
Not every book is the beginning of a series, and not every short story could be the basis of a film adaptation—but the key is to at least pause and consider the possibilities. This applies to your promotion as well as your work, and often in the opposite direction: Don’t start things that require long-term sustenance if you’re not going to put in the time. For example, launching a podcast to help support and spread your author brand is a good idea, but only if you’re actually going to produce new episodes on a consistent basis. Releasing one episode in a fit of short-term enthusiasm isn’t going to get you anywhere—but even if very few people pay attention to that first release, if you keep at it you’ll find your audience growing in large part because of your long-term persistence. Folks like reliable things.
One of the areas of a writing career where short-term thinking tends to dominate is in sales. There’s a focus on initial numbers—pre-sales and first-week sales—and most of your promotional efforts leading up to a book’s publication day will focus on pushing those numbers as high as possible. And that makes sense—strong sales out of the gate come with a bunch of benefits. Word of mouth will be strong, platforms will include your title in their bestseller lists and other promotions, and you’ll have some bragging rights to work with.
But although launching strong is important for a book, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Some books don’t burst out of the gate with a lot of sales, but keep up a steady drip of sales over time that eventually grows to a significant number. Some books can slumber at the bottom of the sales charts for a long time and then suddenly start to move when promotional efforts finally click or a fortuitous event shines a spotlight on them. Instead of focusing on immediate sales and then moving on to your next project, think long-term and continuously promote that book. This could be as simple as always remembering to mention it or name-check it in your social media or at appearances, or it could involve a whole secondary marketing campaign, a re-issue, an adaptation into an audiobook or some other media, or anything else you can think of. After all, the book’s out, it’s for sale—and moving a few copies here and there will add up over time.
The conflict between focusing on short-term gains and playing the longer game applies to a lot of endeavors, but it’s a crucial consideration in the pro writing game. So much of professional writing is delayed results—from freelance invoices that are processed on 30-day terms to book advances that take years to pay out as the production process drags on, from social media accounts that add three followers a month for years before exploding to short stories that sell to anthologies that take years to publish. The smart writer works to keep the long-term always in sight.