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The Top 4 Challenges Authors and Thought Leaders Face

Whenever I speak with a thought leader I always ask them what they are struggling with the most. The range of experience and levels of success that this group has achieved is varied – some have been practicing for 30 years and some for under 3 years. Some have 5 or more best sellers under their belts and others haven’t been published yet. Some have substantial businesses and others have a relatively small practice.

What I hear consistently amongst the entire groups are four themes. My hope is that we can all learn from the experience of others and increase our individual level of awareness of these issues so that we can deal with them as best we can.

1) Prioritization

The most universal challenge amongst the group is the difficulty they have prioritizing the many task and activities that need to get done to run their businesses on a day to day basis as well as all of the future projects that they would like to do. That’s a pretty broad statement so let me expand on it a bit:

This group, for the most part, has a longer list of things they would like to do in the future than any other group of professionals I’ve ever interacted with. It may be the next book, some new content or a new offering. The common denominator is they are passionate about what they want to do and want to reach a large audience and build loyal followers. However, they are often spending too much time on things that don’t yield the results and not enough time on higher value tasks. Many of them are performing tasks because they need to get done not because they are the ones best qualified to own these tasks.

Without having the clarity needed to help them understand where they want to go, prioritizing activities accordingly becomes a daily struggle. When measured against opportunity cost it is an incredibly expensive struggle.

2. Books – Past, Present and Future

If 5% of your total revenue could be attributed to an activity would you rationally spend 50% or more of your time on that activity? Probably not. Books however are a strange beast. The publishing industry is struggling (understatement) and attempting to invent business models that work for all of the players (including the authors).

In the interim the gap between the objectives of the author and the objectives and business interests of the publisher have never been wider. A book is often the only physical, tangible representation of someone’s work, yet marketing a book is part art, part science and part luck. Spending a year of your life writing a book that sells 2,000 units is incredibly frustrating.

Almost every author I know has been frustrated and confused when it came to deciding whether they should self publish or stick with a traditional publisher. That’s the wrong question. The question should be, “Where does the book fit into the overall strategy to market and leverage my content?” Is it about cache? Building a brand? Generating leads? Increasing speaking fees? An ego enhancer? Or does it have a well defined place in all of these things as well as new product introduction, pricing strategy and market differentiation?

The time to think about the offerings that can be derived from a book is before it’s published, not after. Do you have a large enough group of “fans and followers” to insure the book can have a predictable level of success? Is your strategy to use it as “the ultimate business card”? Are you proactively building relationships with other experts that have loyal followers or are you waiting for the call from Oprah to make your book a success?

There are no clear cut, universal answers to these questions but you should be able to clearly articulate why you are writing a book and what you think success will look like as a result of publishing it.

3. Portfolio Mix

Given that content is something that can be amorphous or vague and difficult to scale and monetize it isn’t surprising to me that the less diversified the portfolio of offerings the more thought leaders struggle with the business side of their business. For example, many rely on speaking as the primary path to generating revenue from their work. Given that the speaking market has tanked significantly and is not likely to return to pre 2008 levels any time in the near future this is a very valid concern.

Sure, you can lower your fees and be more flexible but so can everyone else. If you can only win an engagement by being the lowest cost provider you are in trouble. This isn’t only true for the speaking side of the business but many authors do not have a diverse portfolio mix of offerings that can whether economic cycles and generate income that is not contingent on them personally delivering the content. Assessment tools, virtual coaching, train-the trainer, certification, subscription based content models can be created from almost any content but it requires having a solid strategy as well as access to specific skill sets to develop, manage and sell and market effectively.

4. Differentiation

Let’s face it – there is a lot of “stuff” in the marketplace. Sales, leadership and communication skills are just a few of the dominant categories and differentiating is not easy. Thought leaders that believe their work can benefit “anyone” struggle more than those who have niched out into a specific industry or population. You can’t be all things to all people but your content can be modified so that it is the best in class against a smaller segment of the universe.

Even if your message is universal, those that customize it so that it has a unique and beneficial outcome are far more differentiated than those who have not. I’d suggest thinking about your work and doing some sort of an audit to help you understand whom it has the strongest impact on and why.

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Peter Winick has deep expertise in helping those with deep expertise. He is the CEO of Thought Leadership Leverage. Visit Peter on Twitter!

This Post Has 33 Comments

  1. Definitely a good list of struggles here, Peter. I agree that number 1 is a perennial challenge. Even though I follow an annual marketing plan, which I advise all my readers and clients to do, things change at breakneck speed. Technology has made our lives easier, while it simultaneously overwhelms us with its sheer volume.

  2. Thanks for sharing Peter.
    Some of the things you’ve mentioned such as differentiation, are hard to respect. Sometimes we just feel that we belong in the top 20% or top 5% of experts on a topic that is out of our existing (differentiation) area. We know that we can add value, but we lose focus and confuse our audience if we decide to write / talk about it . The ego says “go for it”, but in most of the cases we should just keep consistent messages to our (consistent) audience.

  3. I work for a major publishing house and I appreciate your comments on books and book publishing. The superstar authors in the professional development and self help categories have such out-sized success that many “thought leader” authors are disappointed with their publishing experience in comparison to the big names. To use a phrase from another thought leader, those successes are outliers.

    Your advice here is rock solid. Writers who choose to share their expertise should look at their book as part of a professional portfolio. Before publishing, they should consider how they want to leverage the book to help them succeed in their other professional outlets whether it be speaking, consulting, etc. A book shouldn’t be the repository of a writer’s hopes and dreams for success, it should be part of an overall strategy.

    I’m far too biased to weigh in on the self-publishing verses traditional publishing debate. Publishers should be providing editorial input and marketing and distribution. Any writer should weight the value of these services and consider whether they need them to achieve their objectives for their book.

  4. Thanks for sharing these insights, Peter. I’ve worked with a couple of authors, too (primarily academics) including best-seller Ellen Fitzpatrick and my husband who has an upcoming release on taking scientific field notes.

    I have also found that authors are in a tough spot. It is relatively easy to get published today, but almost impossible to get PR/marketing assistance from the publishing houses. In that regard authors recognize up front that they are on their own. Luckily, authors are well-equipped with the skills to implement some do-it-yourself marketing, a.k.a. inbound marketing.

    The issues you talk about almost all relate to traditional principles of marketing (differentiation, product mix, pricing, etc.). While authors generally don’t have marketing expertise (why should they?), they can be great bloggers. Blogging, social media, and SEO can generate a lot of attention when done right. Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah have a great book that outlines how to harness the power of “Inbound Marketing” (also the name of their book). I recommend it to all authors.

  5. Thanks for alerting me to your post.
    Just a couple of points I would like to make beginning with: eBooks are much in the news these past few days. Amazon says it is selling more eBooks than bound books. I can believe this because as far as my books on Amazon go, this is I change I have seen developing over the past year. Then just today on NPR I heard where the Wylie Agency, has launched an e-book line that will release works by John Updike, Salman Rushdie and other Random authors through online retailer Inc.
    Change is afoot.
    My comment on writing – I think most writers of fiction are more interested in writing than they are in selling their books. Yes, they would like to make money, at least enough to quit their day job so they could spend more time writing. But the actual craft is more important than success. I guess this is true for most artists, whatever their medium.

  6. Peter-
    You truly hit the top four things that I and other leaders & writers I know struggle with and have been challenged by.

    I am looking forward to your sharing the rest of your experience…

  7. As a young writer/editor I understand how important each of these challenges are. But, beyond that, I also agree with Pete Klein. Most writers (especially fiction) are writing because they are passionate about it, not merely because they want to make money.

    Also, as young writers begin emerging, one of their biggest struggles is writing mechanics. The fundamentals of good writing are being lost on an entire generation because of social media and new technologies.

    Thanks for the comments and the content – great read!

  8. Very good analysis. I consult authors on their marketing programs. My main advice is simply this – your job is 10% writing and 90% marketing. Once they get over the shock of that, we then work out the keywords and content creation strategy. Authors that rely solely on their publisher to do their marketing are going to be very disappointed.

  9. Coincidentally, I just did a post on my blog today about how to add your genealogy (or any, for that matter) blog to Kindle. The ability to do so is very easy, and I see it as another way to publish on a smaller scale. Time is my biggest enemy when it comes to writing anything.

  10. Very thoughtful article and I agree on all points. I think that the marketplace forces us to be more creative and willing to “step out of the box” as authenticity and uniqueness is going to be a decisive factor in success….or not. Also, honing our organization skills and focus is imperative. If the chaos and overwhelm does not stop the habit of disorganization and lack of clarity, health challenges will, as stress comes along with scattered thinking – and stress (a perceptual issue) is a killer these days.

  11. Thanks Peter. All four of these sum me up to a tee. I think the difficulty is also what comes first the chicken or the egg. We need to be packaged and leverage properly which is an investment. It is hard to let go of the fact that the “brilliance” won’t sell itself.

    I look forward to learning more from you on how I can get past these four barriers to the success I foster for others.

    My best to all of us “dorks” in Peter’s wild world.

  12. I found this post just after a frustrating call with a woman that wants to be my client.

    She was comfortable with calling herself an author and speaker. Then told me at least 4 times in 5 minutes that she didn’t want to be in business.

    I asked why she wrote the books and spoke? Got the usual rhetoric about there being a big market for that kind of book.

    After insisting that I couldn’t help unless there was some business, she said “OK, suppose I say yes to a business, what can you do for me?”

    Wouldn’t that be nice. A magic pill that can give people a business that they aren’t sure they want.

    Writing and speaking for the ego of calling oneself a writer and speaker are OK, but like Peter says, those people are the competition if you are selling the commodity of books and speeches.

    Meanwhile, there are thought leaders breaking out with a book that goes to bestseller, increased fees and requests for more gigs… in ANY economy there are more people that want what you have that you’ll ever get to. So fun to watch an “overnight success” come to someone who worked for years, then finally got the formula right.

    With a focused business approach, you can reach them.

    Follow what Peter says. Don’t be part of the vast hoard of author/speakers going broke. Be in business

  13. I would put other items on the list slightly above the ones you mentioned. The first would be creativity. Others have called it genius (von Clausewitz) or daring (Sun Tzu.) In modern times we call it having initiative or not giving up (Donald Trump.) This is the mental element of being great. First you have to think it, otherwise you can’t do it.
    The second is simply doing it. Like the Nike moto: “Just Do It”. Lots of leaders mention this one single little bit of difference between leaders that are able to do it and these who are not.
    It seems that these two elements are pretty much universal. Go back to Sun Tzu 5,000 years, to Larry Bossidy (The Discipline of Getting Things Done.) The sad observation is how few leaders have both elements in the right mix at the right time. Obama could have gone to see the gulf of Mexico oil spill the first week, he didn’t. Churchill went to see bombed out buildings while they were burning. So he could later write “this is our finest hour”. You can’t come up with words like that sitting at an office reading reports.

  14. Great write up Peter. I like 1) Prioritization – there is so much to cover these days as we have moved from the information age to the knowledge age.
    Though it could be part of 3. I would add “innovation and creativity” to the list, or the lack of or struggling with being innovative in what you bring to market, manage your company, people, etceteras…
    Looking forward to read more.

  15. Really enjoyed reading how you accurately asked the right question about publishing. My goal was to build credibility with larger organizations. Self publishing was determined not to be the best vehicle to achieve that goal and that is why I found a niche national publisher – Sales Gravy Press. (Author of Be the Red jacket in a Sea of Gray Suits –

    In business, marketing is always 3 times the efforts of selling or delivering the products or service. Why selling books is any different only appears to demonstrate how many people do not understand the overall sales process.

  16. The typical author has no idea how much time must be devoted to marketing, self-published or trade-published. Self-published authors also must devote considerable time to global distribution, market penetration, stocking and restocking. I have been traditionally published twice, including for my 2007 novel. Both times, I can to realize that publishers lack the resources and revenue to promote all books the same way. They place bets on those books they believe will be winners and the rest receive cursory attention. And that’s only in the first year after printing. After the first year, virtually all authors are on their own for marketing resources.

    I learned the hard way how and where to market my books (see I discovered dozens of ways to market on a small budget, or no budget at all. But even after devoting considerable attention to creating this process, it requires constant effort to maintain. All of this means that authors spend less time writing their next book and more time marketing the prior book. Just like publishers, authors must determine strategically which books deserve your attention and which ones to abandon.

    This reveals the need for strategic planning; which is required before the book is done and then before creating marketing plans. Even writers like me who write for fun more than profit, must think strategically. Otherwise, the author will find him or herself wasting countless hours each day promoting a book with little or no hope of becoming successful.

    Charles Weinblatt
    Author, Jacob’s Courage

  17. I couldn’t agree with you more! Having helped nearly 500 entrepreneurial authors get published, I’ve heard so many of the same challenges. You really did a great job of encapsulating it all here. Thanks for getting this great article out there and for helping thought leaders like you do. And, I love your writing style… direct, fun, and very informative!

  18. Thanks, Peter, for a thoughtful message. I can certainly validate your four challenges – well done! I have self published 2 books simply because I love to write. The fact that some people find value in, and will actually pay for something that I’ve written is just wonderful.

  19. I struggle with all the things you mentioned. And I’m not even a thought leader. Maybe a contributer? Well, it’s at least a thought I guess, so that’s something anyway. Thanks for the article.

  20. Peter agree with the struggles except for #3. Before I wrote my book, I made sure I knew the results I wanted from it. Selling books was secondary to having a nationally published book. Large firms from my research prefer nationally published books over self publish. As that was my target market, I then did my research to find a niche publisher. And I would add these two struggles – #1) No formalized written plan including sub plans for marketing and sales. #2)Commitment to staying the course unless you have documented reason to make a course correction.

  21. Peter—

    This is an excellent article. I believe that you have a masterful grasp on what it’s like to be an author/thought-leader in this new economy. I struggle with items 1-3 for sure, but I must say that it is hard for me to imagine any non-fiction writer who didn’t know clearly who their niche customer or reader was prior to his/her book being written.

    In the 18-months before my book, Become Your Own Boss in 12 months, was released, I was busy cultivating an audience for my book. I was fortunate that a wise woman author told me two things which guided my marketing efforts; “Publishers are not interested in making you famous, they are interested in capitalizing on the fame you create for yourself.” and “60 percent of all books are sold to people with prior exposer to the author.”

    A book proposal is nothing more that a business plan for a specific book. The publisher is the investor. Of course you are in business. And if you self-publish you are just your own investor–you still need a written marketing plan.

    Keep up the great writing Peter, I am excited to read more.

    Melinda Emerson

  22. I really like that Warren Whitlock added his thoughts- I believe, also, that a book is part of the picture- that a book aligns with your business message and adds expansion to your business.

  23. Peter,

    I am especially struggle with book issues. I am wanting to write a book next year and trying to figure out exactly what I want the outcome to be. Your thoughts were very helpful.

    Keep up the good content.


  24. I like the whole idea of thinking of any book as just a mere part of the strategy. What do I want to be known for/as? What is my passion? What is my communication style? Those are the questions that I must answer daily in my writing, whether I write non-fiction about tech or fiction about how technology is in our lives. The post was great and the comments are just as helpful. Thanks for the insights!

  25. I can’t wait for part two of this. I certainly share all the frustrations, and as someone who considers herself a writer first, it’s a struggle not so much to get involved in marketing and business, but to actually get over the idea that my book, just as a book, should be enough.

    It’s interesting what Leann said, that her goal was to “have” a book, rather than to sell books. I think that in today’s publishing and business environment, this makes good sense and is the right attitude. Durnit.

  26. Prioritization and differentiation are my top 2 with “irrelevance” being the biggest fear…great post. Glad to know as in many things….we are not alone.

  27. You hit the top ideas and i belive the way we try to overcome is the most important thing. As a Business student i like your ideas on book and right now i am passing from this phase so this ides will help me to understand the situations more clearly.

    I am looking forward to your sharing the rest of your experience

  28. As a writer I have experienced all of these problems. They can be goal stoppers. Clear daily and weekly goals plus the power to stick to my prioritizing. Many times I and other writers probably feel frustrated or are fuzzy about where they are headed. It is important in the words of Stephen Covey to “Keep the end in mind.”

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