Mapping Your Career Path

When you’re a new writer embarking on a career, you often will feel uncertain about what to do next. You might ask yourself questions like, “Should I be writing that big science fiction novel, or do I want to write mainstream? Should I focus on short stories or should I write a screenplay?”

These are pretty basic questions, and there is no easy answer. Usually, you just follow your heart and strike off in the direction that feels best to you.

But the question remains, where are you going? How do you know when you get there? And once you reach one milestone, what comes next?

Here’s how I see a writer’s career path.

The Newbie Author

At the beginning of your career, just getting published—once, anywhere at all—is typically your goal

You may fail at traditional publishing. You might send your novels out at a time when publishers feel that the market is glutted with “that type of thing,” whatever it is that you’re writing. You might write stories that don’t fit easily into publisher’s categories, or maybe even if you’re good, you’re just not the flavor of the month.

So many new writers try the traditional route but eventually go to self-publishing. It’s still a thrill.

But by the time you hit twenty or thirty novels, those milestones fly by, hardly noticed.

Just getting published once isn’t enough. You realize soon that you want to be publishing consistently. Your goal is to become a “Proven Writer.”

The Proven Writer.

A proven writer is an author that publishers trust to deliver a story of high quality. As a new writer, you’re struggling to gain the skills in narrative, dialog, and description so that you can deliver powerful stories to readers. If a proven author turns a manuscript in to a publisher, the publisher doesn’t have to guess whether it’s publishable, they know it will be.

So how do you become a proven writer? There are several ways. If you write short stories and two or three editors at major magazines begin buying your work, other editors will see you as a proven writer. If at that time you turn a novel manuscript in to a new editor, the editor will consider your work much more seriously than if you have no prior publications.

When I turned my first novel proposal in to editors after winning the Writers of the Future, I was surprised to get several offers of publication based upon only a proposal. Now, I’d won half a dozen writing contests in the previous few months, and my editor told me that winning those contests was enough to convince her and others that I was a “proven writer.”

Of course, getting a couple of novels published also gives you credibility, and as your audience grows larger, your credentials as a proven writer grow.

But this is important: you prove yourself in three ways:

1) You must write fairly consistently, so that your publishers know that you turn in your manuscripts like clockwork.

2) You write prose of high quality so that publisher know you’re a contender for awards.

3) Or you must establish a large audience so that your stories begin to show up on the bestseller lists.

Ideally, you’ll do all three and your value as an author becomes solidified. Congratulations, you graduate into the “midlist”. You’re now someone who is publishable and who is building a reputation.

The Midlist Author.

As a midlist novelist, you don’t get any special treatment, no huge push or special advertising. You haven’t earned it yet.

But you’re on your way. As a midlist author, your work is considered publishable and just about every editor will take you seriously when you submit a new book proposal.

As a midlist author, you should continue working on your skills, and learning how to ‘up your game.’ But you should also begin struggling to win awards and widen your audience. If you’re selling 20,000 books with a new release, then you need to figure out how to sell 50,000.  In short, you’re working hard to get discovered.

This is often a difficult time for authors because they feel that their publisher is holding them back. The authors crab about how they aren’t getting wide enough distribution, or how the publisher isn’t spending enough advertising dollars on them. Don’t whine.

Those perks will come. When a publisher feels that you’re ready, the publisher will grant you bigger and bigger opportunities.

Lead Author Status.

When a new author is writing well consistently and begins either amassing a large audience or winning awards, then the publisher will elevate the author to “lead author” status.

As a lead author, you begin getting a little extra advertising money. For example, a midlist science fiction author might get his or her book advertised with six other authors on a single page of Asimovs Magazine, but a lead author for the month gets a whole page to him or herself.

The midlist author gets books placed on the shelf at the bookstore with the spines out, while the lead author will get some cooperative advertising—which means that the bookstore places the book with the full cover showing. The lead author will often get brighter covers and embossed foil on the covers of their books, too.

The lead author will also get a bigger push for promotion in book clubs, a bigger push to get paperbacks put into secondary markets (like grocery stores) and so on.

So the extra promotion will convince the buyers for the big chain stores to promote the lead author more heavily—usually doubling, tripling, or quadrupling their sales.

It used to be back forty years ago that midlist authors weren’t backed as lead authors until they had a few books under their belts—five, six, or seven—just to be sure that they were writing consistently at high quality. I still see that pattern with most publishers today.

We see the same thing happening online. As a new author, Amazon might be reluctant to “suggest” your book to a lot of readers. In fact, a number of authors have told me that, “My numbers just exploded on my eighth novel!” I suspect that Amazon’s algorithms are set so that once you prove yourself well enough, they begin advertising your work much more widely.

Once you become a lead author, you continue building your audience by producing better and better books on a regular basis. But where do you go next, and how do you get there?

Super Lead

A super lead author is one that the publisher considers “bankable.” He or she turns in their novels consistently at a very high quality. These authors are working as novelists full time, and aren’t distracted by other day jobs. Their audience has grown so massive that each book they put out generates enough sales so that the publisher literally may be banking the future of the publishing company on that author.

The super lead author gets a hefty advertising budget–enough so that their books don’t get promoted for just a month, but for an entire season.

As a super-lead holds his or her position, that advertising budget grows the author’s audience year after year after year. The super lead author often gets special display cases, may have endcaps on the book aisles, or even have books advertised in the store windows so that they begin to dominate the bestseller lists.

Superleads may be invited to speak at large conventions for booksellers, or have television commercials made to advertise their works.

For example, authors like Stephen King, Nora Roberts, Dan Brown, Robert Jordan, and Danielle Steel are just a few super leads.

They may get huge advances on their novels—millions of dollars—and the profits from a single book might pay all of the staff and costs for a publishing company for an entire year.

As a super lead author, your fan base can grow into the tens of millions.

Very often, a publisher may spend decades building the audience for a super lead author, and they don’t have the resources to create another super lead just like that. So how do you get to that status?

You may have to wait for an opening. When a super lead author retires or passes away, the publisher will have to look at the lead authors in their stable and choose a successor. They might even have to go hunt for a worthy successor who is willing to switch publishers.

And guess what, when you begin hitting high on bestseller lists, your books don’t just sell in the 3000 bookstores in the US, they typically will begin to get displayed in grocery stores, airports, and newsstands. Now your books begins selling at 15,000 locations. Your sales explode, and you begin hitting at #1 on the bestseller lists.

This triggers something new: when you have a large enough fan base, suddenly your books might look good to movie producers. Let’s say that you sell six million copies of a book. Producers figure that for each book sold, it tends to mean that you will also sell one seat in a movie theater. So those six million books sold pretty much guarantee that the movie will bring in 60 million at the box office (in today’s market).

Well, the theater will get roughly half of that money. So if the cost of making the movie is under thirty million dollars, there really isn’t a financial risk for the producer to green light a movie. In fact, if the cost of making a movie is only four million dollars, the producer would have to be an idiot not to do it.

Now, the costs of filmmaking can vary depending in great part on where it is filmed, how many scenes need to be shot, how much of the film costs are picked up by foreign distributors, fees for actors, and so on. So you as an author might not have the expertise to get even a rough idea of whether your book is filmable. That’s up to the producers and the studios.

Guess what, movie studios like bankable authors, too.  Every copy of your book that it put out on a grocery shelf or in a bookstore advertises the upcoming movie.

So your goal as a super lead author is to grow your audience so large that there is no downside for film studios to invest in your story.

Once studios do start making your books into movies, you want to be sure that they create great movies. Early on, you may be approached by second-rate producers, and you’ll have to watch out. You need to look for a seasoned producer who is well connected—someone who has made movies before and knows how to get a movie distributed widely. The main producer will work with a line producer who knows where to find the great filmographers, set designers, fight choreographers, and so on The studios will work with the producer to select the actors and directors that they believe will be able to deliver an excellent film.

But as a writer, you keep focused on your next story. When you do get a blockbuster film made from your book, the studios will spend millions of dollars advertising the movie in theaters, on television, and on the radio. Even a minor release might get an advertising budget of twenty million, and a major release might have more than a hundred million spent on it.

All of that just spreads your name and helps widen your audience.

Your publisher will re-brand your novel by putting stills from the movie on the cover and re-release the books prior to the movie’s distribution.

It’s like having a rocket strapped onto the back of your old Ford pickup.

At that point, you graduate into becoming an Apex Writer.

Apex Writer

The Apex Writer is one who writes big books on a regular basis. These books have a broad enough fan appeal so that film development may actually begin before the book is even released.

The author typically makes multimillion dollar advances and gets promoted highly—getting heavy advertising, book tours, major speaking engagements and other perks that newbie authors don’t enjoy.

Apex authors include folks like John Grisham or Stephen King or JK Rowling.

Now, many authors seem to be more “hobbyists” than anything else. For them, they might spend their spare time writing when the muse strikes.  That’s fine.

But some authors want more. They yearn for the security that comes with a career. They’re willing to invest their time in developing their artistic skills. They see the value of learning how to promote their own work so that they grow an audience and move into the next level of their career.

Some people can become Apex writers quickly. If you look at JK Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, or John Grisham, they all took off on their first book. Other writers spend decades growing to that level.

Ask yourself realistically: where am I now? What are my next steps? What can I do to reach my goals?

Have fun!


I’m putting on a workshop on “Creating the Perfect Cast.”

This workshop will be held from Thursday, Feb 27 through Saturday Feb 29, 2020 in Provo, Utah. Check it out here: http://mystorydoctor.com/live-workshops-2/

If you are a highly motivated, passionate writer interested in becoming an Apex Writer, please send the word “Apex” to apexwriters@xmission.com. We’ll provide you with an application and let you know about the next step.

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