by Gabriela Pereira
When I first started my business, I didn’t know it was actually a business. I thought I was writing a book. I went to a mentor and asked what he thought of my book idea. He replied: “Sorry to say this, Gabriela, but I don’t think you have a book here.” My heart sank, but my mentor continued. “What you have is the core concept for a business.” All I could think was: uh-oh.
Exciting as it was to think that my concept might be bigger than just one book, this idea of turning the book concept into a business terrified me. I had no idea how to build a business. In fact, I never really considered myself a business-minded person until starting DIY MFA. But building DIY MFA as a business first was probably the smartest thing I’ve ever done. Here’s why.
1. You can’t publish non-fiction without a platform.
Once upon a time, it may have been possible as an unknown author to write a non-fiction book (or series of books), and have it sell well enough that you were able to make a living just from writing and selling books. The way publishing is structured these days, the harsh reality is that it’s much more difficult for an unknown author to get a non-fiction book deal. Why? Because unlike fiction and narrative non-fiction (i.e. memoir) where you write the book first, prescriptive non-fiction is sold on proposal. This means that in order to get a publisher to sign off on your idea, you need a platform.
Many people think a platform means having a lot of Facebook “likes” or Twitter followers, but the truth is it’s much more than that. Sure, having 50,000 Twitter followers is great, but what a platform really means is that you’ve positioned yourself as the “resident expert” on your topic. At the heart, the platform is all about branding and positioning. You have to show that for your topic, you are the go-to person in your niche. Then when you write that book proposal, the publishers will understand why you’re THE person to write this book.
Depending on your niche, your business can actually become the platform for your book. All those things you do to build your business are the same things you need to do for your platform. Your email list, your social media presence, and your website, are all parts of your business that can strengthen your platform and help build an audience for your book.
2. You can start bringing in revenue and honing your concept.
The beauty of building the business first is that you can not only build traction for the book idea, but you can also start bringing in some revenue right away. Remember, there’s about a 1-2 year lag between when you write a book and when it finally gets published. That’s a long time to wait to get paid. If you go the traditional publishing route, you might get an advance for the book but don’t spend it right away. It’s a good idea to reserve it for marketing and helping to promote the book. If you self-publish then you’ll only start seeing revenue from the book when it’s released, which could be a while.
Also keep in mind that while print book sales tend to rely on making a big splash immediately after the launch, eBooks work a little differently. It takes time for ebooks to build traction in online retailer systems. Reviews, SEO, and metadata all contribute to your ebook “playing nice” with Amazon and other retailers. This means it could be as long as a year after a self-published ebook comes out for it to really hit its stride in terms of online sales. You can build the business and bring in some revenue while all this is happening.
3. You can put concepts into action and test them.
Once a book is published, it’s hard to rejig or revise things. This is why building the business first is key. It allows you to test out ideas from your book, implement them, and even collect case studies by working with clients. This material can all contribute to your book down the road.
This is especially true if you’re following the lean entrepreneurship model and you’re launching your business on a shoestring budget. In this case, the process of iterating and testing things in your work will help shape not just your business, but your book. As you knuckle down and do the work, you’ll see connections between different areas and structure your business accordingly. These decisions will influence how your business (and your book) evolves.
Case Study: DIY MFA
When I started DIY MFA I thought of it as a book first, business second. After speaking to that mentor, I started testing out ideas for products and services I could offer under the DIY MFA umbrella. I started small: a blog, a newsletter, and one webinar. This was back in 2011. Since then, I’ve taken on writer clients (some of whom have gone on to get book deals), have built a strong email list, and launched a 10-week course. I’ve also seen that original book idea translate to countless web articles, and have honed the structure of the DIY MFA content by testing it out, one post at a time. While the DIY MFA book is still on the horizon, I know that having built this business first, the book will be stronger for it.
And who knows, maybe one of these days, I might just start writing it.
Gabriela Pereira is the Instigator of DIYMFA.com, the do-it-yourself alternative to a Master’s degree in writing, and she holds an MFA from the New School (New York, NY). While undercover as a graduate student, she learned the inside scoop on MFA programs, invented a slew of writing tools all her own, and discovered new, more effective ways for writers to learn their craft. Now she wants to share what she learned and help writers around the world get the “knowledge without the college.”
Before founding DIY MFA, Gabriela taught several writing courses in New York City at organizations like 826NYC, Everybody Wins, EHTP, and a local writing workshop she built from the ground up. More recently she has shifted gears to teaching exclusively at DIY MFA but continues to speak and lead workshops at national and international writing conferences both online and off.
Her favorite thing to do is come up with new dastardly plans and innovative resources for DIY MFA. When she’s not working, Gabriela loves to write middle-grade and teen fiction, with short stories “grown-ups” thrown in for good measure. She is represented by Jeff Kleinman at Folio Literary Management and is currently working on a book on writing.
Gabriela lives in NYC with Lawyer-Hubby, Little Man, Lady Bug, and a trifecta of feline critters. You can connect with her on Twitter (@DIYMFA).