06 February 2015

Guest post: How author Scott Burtness defines success as a writer

Am I a successful author? I have no frickin’ idea. Honestly, I still have trouble deciding if I’m actually an author. At the moment, I have one novel finished (Wisconsin Vamp), a sequel on the way (working title, The Book that Comes After Wisconsin Vamp That I Really Need to Get Done, Dammit!), and a sci-fi short story that’s been shortlisted for an upcoming anthology. Seems like I should be able to say with some confidence, “Yep. I’m an author,” but I haven’t rounded that corner yet. For the most part, writing and all the marketing I’ve done to promote myself and my work has just been something fun to do while drinking coffee.

You see, writing was never a dream of mine. I’m pretty sure that when the teacher asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “astronaut,” or, “the guy in the coffee commercials.” I remember these commercials featuring a guy that was all rugged-handsome and dressed in a heavy, cable knit sweater, who travelled the world and took amazing pictures of amazing places. In the commercials, he’d bump into some nice family and they’d invite him in for a cup of instant coffee. I wanted to be that guy, or an astronaut. But a writer? Never crossed my young mind.

I’m sure no one is too terribly surprised that I’m neither an astronaut nor the coffee commercial guy. Personally, I blame an ineffectual high school guidance counselor. That said, I’m also sure that no one expected me to be a writer. Funny how things work out, right?

Writing for me happened in fits and starts. When living in Los Angeles, I started working on a screenplay about an awkward Wisconsinite turning into a vampire. After moving to Minnesota, I decided it would be more likely to see the light of day as a novel. As the years slipped by, I realized I should consider how I’d define “success.” It took a few beers, but I finally hammered out some milestones to work toward.

Milestone #1- Finish the damn book.
I got it done. From the table of contents to the last sentence, I wrote the damn thing. Woohoo! Beers!

Milestone #2- Traditional publisher or self-publish?
Writing helped me discover that I’m a bit of a megalomaniac. As I wrote Wisconsin Vamp, I became more and more convinced that I was awesome. I also learned that getting published was a long and trying journey. Why should someone as awesome as myself have to go through all that? It seemed silly, so I opted to be an indie author. My wife whipped up a great cover, I wrote a blurb about the book, and self-published Wisconsin Vamp in January, 2014. Woohoo! More beers! That led to the third milestone…

Milestone #3- Sell books.
My megalomania finally got a necessary dose of “wake the hell up.” It’s hard to sell books when no one knows you have a book, no matter how completely awesome you are or how completely awesome you think your book is. So to sell books, you have to market your book and promote yourself as an author. In 2014, I gave away 4,741 copies, sold 210 and earned $178. Here’s the kicker, though. For every dollar I earned, I spent about $4 on marketing. I don’t know if I’d call that ‘victory lap’ material, but it has helped me define the next milestone for success…

Milestone #4- Make more than I spend.
When that happens, I’ll have no trouble at all saying, “Yep. I’m an author.”

Will my definition of success change over time? Absolutely. In fact, I think Milestone #5 will be Movie Deal. Better start planning now. Who should be cast as Herb? Dallas? Lois? Stanley? Read Wisconsin Vamp and let me know who you'd cast for the movie in the comments.

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