4 Mistakes That Cost Books the Best Sellers List

“If you understand how the category system works, you can give your book instant visibility on Amazon.” —David Gaughran

In my previous post I talked about virtual co-op and how most online bookstores sell their prime real estate to the highest bidder (i.e., large publishing houses). The exception is Amazon, whose co-op is mostly based on merit. In other words, Amazon gives away most of its prime spots to those books best suited to a particular reader’s tastes. Now the question is: how can a book show Amazon that it’s the best choice to recommend?

The 4 Big Mistakes

Many authors, and even publishing houses, don’t understand Amazon’s genre categories. This naïveté is extremely detrimental for sales because Amazon uses genre categories to fill its Best Sellers lists. In short, if you don’t understand how to categorize your book, you’re almost guaranteed poor sales. 

In this post I’ll again be drawing from David Gaughran’s book Let’s Get Visible: How to Get Noticed and Sell More Books.

Mistake #1: Your Categories Are Too Broad

For each book, a self-publisher can pick two of Amazon’s genre categories (traditional publishers, on the other hand, can choose up to five, depending on their deal with Amazon). A common mistake is to choose a genre that is too broad and too competitive. 

The Fiction category, for example, has over 750,000 books. Appearing in its Top 100 would be, as Gaughran puts it, “beyond most mere mortals.”

Note: Gaughran includes in his book a Rank to Sales Estimator so you can estimate how you would fare in a respective category. 

Not only are broad categories usually too competitive for most authors, they’re also a waste. Amazon filters its categories into each other, like rivers breaking off into streams. Gaughran explains:

Even if you drill down several levels to choose something like Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Fiction > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Thrillers > Political, your book will still show in all of the top-level categories above the one you have chosen (i.e. Fiction; Mystery, Thriller & Suspense; Thrillers). In other words, when you pick something more specific like that, you are multiplying your potential visibility opportunities rather than restricting them. If your book is doing particularly well, you will appear on a number of Top 100 lists, all of which will drive further sales.

Mistake #2: You Don’t Diversify

With only two genre spots, it’s important to maximize visibility by opting for two distinct categories. Many authors unknowingly corner themselves by nesting their two choices within the same category. Here’s an example from Gaughran:

If you have written a gritty crime novel set on an army base in Iraq, the obvious category choices might be Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Mystery & Thrillers > Crime, and Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Mystery & Thrillers > Police Procedurals. However, there are two weaknesses to this approach. First of all, they are both very competitive categories, requiring around 100 sales a day to hit even the front page of the Best Seller lists.

Second, they are both roots of the same top-level category: Mystery & Thrillers. . . . You could keep Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Mystery & Thrillers & Suspense > Crime, and choose something a little less competitive for the second.

Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Action & Adventure requires around 200 sales a day to hit the front page of the Best Seller list but others are less demanding such as War (50 sales a day), and Men’s Adventure (40 sales a day).

WARNING

Don’t over-correct by choosing a category so small that it barely has any reader traffic.

Mistake #3: You Don’t Change Up Your Categories

Back when only brick-and-mortar bookstores were around, a book was typically placed on one bookshelf, and that was its permanent home. Nowadays with online bookstores, shelving is much more fluid, and a book that doesn’t explore new shelves risks stagnation.

According to Gaughran, there are a number of reasons why an author might virtually “re-shelve” her book by changing its genre category:

  1. If a book’s sales have slowed and could use more visibility by switching to a less competitive category
  2. If a book has strong sales and could do well in a more competitive category (which is, by default, seen by more readers)
  3. If a book has had a long run in a certain category and could use a fresh readership

WARNING

Switching a book’s categories requires the author to be honest about her story and aware of the expectations of each genre. “It’s a bad idea to choose any category that isn’t a good fit for your work,” Gaughran says. “The few readers who do download your book will probably be outside your target audience, and they will likely respond with poor reviews. Tread carefully. Nobody likes being hoodwinked.

Mistake #4: You Don’t Choose a Kindle Category

This mistake might sound a bit counter-intuitive. Not all available categories are actually categories within the Kindle Store. “Like virtually all e-book retailers,” Gaughran explains, “Amazon gives you numerous category choices when uploading your book or making changes. These are based on BISAC subject headings, which are industry standard. . . . While the system attempts to map your BISAC choice to a Kindle Store category, it doesn’t always work.”

This conundrum can result in one of three outcomes:

  1. Your e-book is in a book-only category (i.e., it’s categorized with print books).
  2. Your book is in an international-only category (for example, Medical Thriller, which is included in the UK Kindle Store but was only recently added to the US Kindle Store).
  3. Or you pick an ill-fitting category because you don’t realize that there are other Kindle Store categories that are not selectable when uploading.

If you do choose a category that isn’t offered in your country’s Kindle Store, you are essentially wasting one of your two categories. However, with this potential trip wire, there is also an opportunity. Gaughran explains:

Those Kindle Store-only categories are sparsely populated as few authors or publishers have chosen them. As there are fewer books to compete with, you don’t need to sell very many books to appear in the charts; this gives crucial visibility opportunities to books that aren’t selling particularly well, or those that have just been released and haven’t built up a head of steam yet.

Keep these four pitfalls in mind when you’re ready to publish and you will give your book a much better chance at bestseller-dom.

If you liked this post, sign up now for more tips from a professional editor. 

Missed the first two posts in the series? Check them out here and here.

What Self-Publishers Need to Know about Virtual Co-op (Genre Categories, Pt II)

Co-op Money: The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

In my previous post I talked about the marketing struggles of The Physics of Star Trek. In short, Barnes & Noble had decided to shelve it in the science section instead of the Star Trek section, which meant a potential huge loss in sales for B&N, the publisher, and the author.

Luckily, the book was able to recover through co-op money. As Susan Rabiner explains in Thinking Like Your Editor, co-op money is given to bookstores from publishers to help sell their book. It can be spent several ways: “for example, to pay for print advertising . . . or to obtain better placement of the book within the bookstore” (such as piled high on the “New Arrivals” table or face out on the “Recommended Reading” shelf).

But not all books have such a happy ending. If the preorders for The Physics of Star Trek had not hinted at best-seller status, its publisher most likely would not have shelled out more co-op money. And even if the publisher had opted for more money without the surety of a best seller, B&N could have disagreed:

Even if lots of co-op money were set aside, such money would still not guarantee front-of-the bookstore display . . . . That space is valuable and limited: Booksellers will not devote any part of it to a title that cannot pay its keep there, no matter how much money a publisher offers.

The Virtual Co-op v. Self-Publishers

At first glance, it might seem like this co-op has little to do with self-publishing—after all, self-published books rarely appear in brick-and-mortar bookstores (and if one does, it’s probably selling very well, so bookstores are happy to give it prime real estate). Co-op, however, has everything to do with self-publishing because it’s also used by online bookstores and can be enormously detrimental to indie authors if not understood and handled well.

David Gaughran discusses co-op at length in his book Let’s Get Visible: How to Get Noticed and Sell More Books. (At the time of this writing, he’s offering his equally excellent first book for free: Let’s Get Digital: How to Self-Publish and Why You Should.)

Gaughran talks about how online retailers such as Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Kobo sell the most visible spots on their sites to the highest bidder—i.e., to large publishing houses. Thus, self-publishers have a very difficult time building momentum for their books. These retailers also close off other avenues for indies to find a following. Gaughran explains:

There are no Top Rated lists on Barnes & Noble or Kobo, so you won’t be able to put your book front and center on the strength of reader reviews alone. The big site promos for those two retailers tend to only include books from major publishers. Search functionality is poor on both sites too . . . Categories are a mess. All of this . . . serves to focus sales on the Best Seller lists and the books sold by large publishers, which are either handpicked for promotions or sold into co-op spots. 

Well, that’s all pretty depressing. What marketing is left for the cash-strapped self-publisher?

The Egalitarian Amazon

While Amazon isn’t completely co-op free, it has a far more meritocratic method for marketing books than the backroom deals of the other online booksellers.

Amazon gives self-publishers a much more level playing field; those all-important opportunities for visibility—those digital front tables—are open to anyone.

“The system is largely agnostic,” Gaughran says. “Amazon doesn’t care if the featured title is published by you, me, them or Penguin, and it also doesn’t care if the book is 99c or $14.99.” Simply put, Amazon will show the title most likely to be purchased by each individual reader.

But of course there’s a catch: Too many publishers, both traditional and indie, don’t understand Amazon’s genre categories, and therefore, fail to capitalize on its valuable free co-op.

In my third and final post in this series we’ll discuss how to optimize Amazon’s genre category system so that your book lands prime marketing real estate for free.

If you liked this post, sign up now for more tips from a professional editor.

Missed the first post in this series? Check it out here.

Genre Categories Can Make or Break Your Book (Pt I)

I recently finished reading Thinking Like Your Editor by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato. Even though this book is over a decade old, the advice in it is still spot-on.

In the book’s prologue Rabiner explains the importance of genre classification, and she shares the hard lesson she learned.

Double Shelving

When Rabiner was editorial director of Basic Books, she oversaw the publication of The Physics of Star Trek, a book combining entertainment with high-level physics.

Even before the book was released, it looked liked it was well on its way to best-sellerdom. For one, Barnes & Noble had placed the largest first order for it than any other title in the history of Basic Books.

But then Rabiner hit a big bump in the road:

B&N had decided to shelve The Physics of Star Trek in the science section, on its face a perfectly reasonable place for a title loaded with hard physics. Except that I believed a stronger market would develop among trekkers interested in hard science than among science readers interested in Star Trek.

Rabiner set up a meeting to persuade B&N to move at least half of the copies in the science section to the Star Trek section. She assumed the meeting would be short and sweet—after all, her suggestion would mean more money for B&N—but she discovered that things weren’t as simple as she had assumed.

Over coffee, I raised my complaint. Failure to stock The Physics of Star Trek in the Star Trek section as well as the science section would cost thousands of sales for both of us. Couldn’t they at least shelve the book in both places? To my amazement, the answer was no, they couldn’t. One of the buyers explained the problem.

As each publisher presents its new list to B&N, the titles are divided among the buyers, each buyer responsible for titles that will end up in one particular section of each of the chain’s outlets; for example, the history buyer is responsible for buying, stocking, shelving, and selling all history titles, and the popular culture buyer has similar responsibility for all popular culture titles. . . . But some books don’t slot conveniently into B&N’s system or that of any other bookstore. For example, memoir is a well-established genre among publishers, but no memoir section exists in most bookstores. So depending upon how it is written, one memoir can land in biography, another in popular culture, a third in psychology, a fourth in parenting or even history. [Note: I checked barnesandnoble.com and there is still no memoir section.] Cross-disciplinary titles present another problem. A book entitled The Zen of Computers could find its way into the computer section, squeezed in among thousand-page manuals about using Java Script in designing home pages. Then again, it might end up in New Age or science and technology.

An idea lies behind the system—clear accountability. Each buyer is judged by the performance of titles within his or her own section. Thus, when more than one buyer wants to claim a new release for his or her own, the problem is resolved, I learned that day, by a sort of “arbitration” (their word, not mine). Publishers are allowed no say in the process. Even more important, once that decision is made, the book will be shelved only in the winning buyer’s section . . .

In our case, despite good commercial arguments for double shelving, the book remained in science only. On this point, there was no moving anyone. . . .

I left that lunch more cynical but wiser . . . I understood for the first time why another book I had published just around that time, a controversial memoir written by a strong African-American woman, but critical of her ex-husband, an African-American icon, was doomed to weak sales once the decision was made to shelve it in African-American studies. It belonged in women’s studies.

Rabiner goes on to say that booksellers have since loosened up about double shelving, but the problem hasn’t been completely fixed.

What This Means for You

If you want to traditionally publish, you need to view your book’s genre through the eyes of your potential publisher and your potential sales venues.

It’s not enough to put in your query letter that your book could fit into multiple genres. In fact, saying that could potentially harm your chances if you don’t back it with an explanation as to how the mix would be beneficial. As Rabiner says:

Did a proposed book’s potential shelving ambiguity ever come up at subsequent editorial meetings? Yes. . . . I [asked] more questions of these books than I did of others—in particular, was there a way to focus the title and marketing strategies so as to avoid an expected shelving problem?

What If You Want to Self-Publish?

It may be tempting to think that this problem doesn’t apply to self-publishers, especially since nearly all indie sales come from online rather than brick-and-mortar bookstores, but genre categorization is even more life-and-death for the indie book.

With over half a million books self-published every year, most of them don’t even leave a ripple. The ones that manage to stay afloat capitalize on genre classification. I’ll dig into the nitty-gritty specifics for self-publishers in my next post.

If you liked this post, sign up now for more tips from a professional editor.

Finish Your Book in Three Drafts (Yes, Really)

My mentor (and all-around awesome human), Stuart Horwitz, has finished his third and final (he swears!) writing book: Finish Your Book in Three Drafts: How to Write a Book, Revise a Book, and Complete a Book While You Still Love It.

I am so excited about this one—the title nails it. In the intro Stuart says:

Have you ever asked yourself while writing, ‘How many drafts is this going to take?’ That may seem like a question that can’t have an answer, but I would like to propose that it does. And that answer is three. Three drafts, provided that each draft is approached in the right spirit and we take the time we need between drafts.

(And because Stuart is awesome, he’s put together nine online supplementary videos and PDFs to go with the book. Look for me in PDFs three and four!)

So what exactly do these three drafts look like?

Draft #1: The Messy Draft

“Keep writing the first draft, and keep being okay when it feels like a mess.” —Stuart Horwitz [Tweet This]

This first draft is the most difficult for outliners. They tend to plan, plan, plan but never actually write. Outliners also tend to be perfectionists; they over-plan because they don’t want to face that inevitable “shitty first draft.”

I once read an interview where an author said she was terrified of dying in the middle of her first draft because everyone would see how bad of a writer she was. The solution, Stuart says, is to reframe what “perfect” means when we’re in the first draft:

A perfect first draft covers the ground. A perfect first draft tries material out. A perfect first draft makes a start in a lot of places. A perfect first draft familiarizes you with your material.

Stuart also offers six great tips on how to generate enough pages in your messy draft to move on to the second draft, which he calls “The Method Draft.”

Draft #2: The Method Draft

“Intelligent planning is not the enemy of creative genius.” —Stuart Horwitz [Tweet This]

Once you’ve completed your first draft, it’s easy to get intimidated by your mountainous, semi-coherent, half-formed story. Where to start? It’s tempting to pull out the red pen and go page by page, correcting here and there, but Stuart says, “What you are trying to do is tackle your book, not tinker with it.”

The method draft is where you step back and shape your story’s big picture. This draft. then, can be difficult for pantsers. “If the messy draft was about getting it down,” Stuart says, “the method draft is about making sense.”

In this draft you:

  1. cut up your scenes (not figuratively—literally),
  2. create a series grid,
  3. and draw a target theme (“because your book can only be about one thing”).

And here’s the awesome part: now that you’ve finished the second draft, you only have ONE MORE DRAFT TO GO. Stuart calls the third and final draft “The Polished Draft.”

Draft #3: The Polished Draft

“Finishing requires tenacity.” —Stuart Horwitz [Tweet This]

I love Stuart’s chapters on the polished draft because he talks about a crucial topic that has gotten zero in-depth attention in all of the writing books I’ve read, and that is THE ROLE OF THE BETA READER.

Beta reading can push a good book over the edge to greatness, but too many writers, either out of ignorance or pride, don’t properly use it. Getting feedback can be scary, but Stuart lays out exactly what you need to do in order to have a positive, successful experience. He answers such important questions as:

  • How many beta readers should you have?
  • Where do you find your beta readers?
  • What questions do you ask your beta readers?
  • What do you do once you have their responses? (Answer: Put together a punch list!)

Okay, you’ve finished all three drafts, you’ve recruited beta readers, and you’ve finished your punch list, now what?

Know When to Let Go

“The point is not to go through life writing the same book the whole time.” —Stuart Horwitz [Tweet This]

I feel as if Stuart wrote his last chapter, “The Crack in Everything,” specifically for me (and maybe he did). I’ve realized over the years that, while it’s difficult to start writing something, often times it’s more difficult to stop writing it. 

“You don’t want to get to where you’re holding on to your manuscript too long,” Stuart says. “One of my mentors in Prague, Jim Freeman, used to praise: That fresh feeling, of not having been too well-worked.”

Are you working on a book right now? Have you been working on it for so long that you can’t remember when you started it and can’t see how you’ll finish it? If so, do yourself a favor and read Finish Your Book in Three Drafts.

PS: And don’t forget to check out the other two books in Stuart’s trilogy, Book Architecture (I’m in this one!) and Blueprint Your Bestseller.

Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a FormulaBlueprint Your Bestseller by Stuart Horwitz

If this post resonated with you, sign up now for more professional tips delivered right to your Inbox.

4 Powerful Mantras to Beat Writer’s Block

Four Mantras That Will Get You Back to Writing

1. “It’s never too late.”

From Elizabeth Gilbert:

Writing is not like dancing or modeling; it’s not something where—if you missed it by age 19—you’re finished. It’s never too late. Your writing will only get better as you get older and wiser. If you write something beautiful and important, and the right person somehow discovers it, they will clear room for you on the bookshelves of the world—at any age. At least try.

2. “I only promised that I would write.”

From Elizabeth Gilbert:

One day, when I was agonizing over how utterly bad my writing felt, I realized: “That’s actually not my problem.” The point I realized was this—I never promised the universe that I would write brilliantly; I only promised the universe that I would write.

3. “It’s normal to take a while.”

From Ira Glass:

Nobody tells people who are beginners—and I really wish somebody had told this to me—that all of us who do creative work get into it because we have good taste. But . . . there’s a gap. For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good. It has ambition to be good. But it’s not quite that good. But your taste—the thing that got you into the game—your taste is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you.

A lot of people never get past that phase; a lot of people at that point, they quit. And the thing I would say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. . . .

For you to go through it—if you’re going through it right now [or] if you’re just getting out of that phase—you’ve got to know that it’s totally normal, and the most important possible thing you could do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap, and the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. In my case, I took longer to figure out how to do this than anybody I’ve ever met. It takes a while. It’s going to take you a while. It’s normal to take a while, and you just have to fight your way through that.

4. “It’s not work.”

From Ray Bradbury:

Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration. You should be having fun with it. Ignore the authors who say, “Oh, my God, what word?” . . . To hell with that. It’s not work. If it’s work, stop and do something else.

[Say] in the middle of writing something, you go blank . . . you’re being warned, aren’t you? Your subconscious is saying, “I don’t like you anymore. You’re writing about things I don’t give a damn for.” . . . To hell with that! I don’t write things to benefit the world. If it happens that they do, swell. I didn’t set out to do that. I set out to have a hell of a lot of fun.

Feeling better? Sign up now for more encouragement delivered right to your Inbox.

4 Major Differences between Amateur Writers and Professionals

1. Amateurs get ready. Professionals get to work.

Amateurs attend workshops, read writing books, get an MFA, build their author website . . . do anything but write their book—because they don’t feel ready.

Professionals, on the other hand, know they will never be ready, so they dive in anyway.

At some point you must trust yourself as a writer. You may not know exactly where you are going, but you have to set out, and sometimes, without calculation on your part, the reader will honor the effort itself.

Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction

“Perfection is less interesting.” —Anne Carson [Tweet This]

2. Amateurs beat themselves up. Professionals forgive.

Professionals know that to write is to be in a constant state of imperfection. They know that most of the time they’ll be stumbling around in the dark, hitting one dead end after another. To professionals, writing is business, not personal.

Amateurs, however, use every wrong turn and misstep as fuel for their running commentary on why they can’t, or shouldn’t, be a writer.

Elizabeth Gilbert, best-selling author of Eat, Pray, Love, says self-forgiveness is the most important writerly virtue:

Your writing will always disappoint you. Your laziness will always disappoint you. You will make vows: “I’m going to write for an hour every day,” and then you won’t do it. You will think: “I suck, I’m such a failure. I’m washed-up.” Continuing to write after that heartache of disappointment doesn’t take only discipline, but also self-forgiveness . . .

3. Amateurs cling to lost causes. Professionals let go.

In my guest post for storyaday.org I discuss Adele and Gwen Stefani and their recent successes. This year Gwen released her third solo album, and it debuted at number one on the Billboard charts. Adele also released a new album, which surpassed the worldwide record-breaking success of her second album. But both Adele and Gwen struggled for a long time. They worked on their albums for years, scrapping song after song, until they finally found the ones worth keeping.

It’s hard to throw stuff out when you’re an artist. Even when you know it’s not good, you cling to it; you want proof that you’ve accomplished something. Professionals, though, grit their teeth and toss out the junk—giant slabs of it if required. They know that the only work worth sharing is the work that moves them.

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” —Maya Angelou [Tweet This]

4. Amateurs talk about how hard writing is. Professionals write.

In 2012 a young author named Julian Tepper wrote an article for the New Yorker called “In Which Philip Roth Gave Me Life Advice.” At the time Tepper worked at a deli that was frequented by his writing idol, Philip Roth. Tepper recounts getting up the nerve one day to give Roth his newly published first novel. Roth congratulated him and then said:

But I would quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself.

Best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert responded to Roth’s advice with her own article:

[S]eriously—is writing really all that difficult? Yes, of course, it is; I know this personally—but is it that much more difficult than other things? Is it more difficult than working in a steel mill, or raising a child alone, or commuting three hours a day to a deeply unsatisfying cubicle job, or doing laundry in a nursing home, or running a hospital ward, or being a luggage handler, or digging septic systems, or waiting tables at a delicatessen, or—for that matter—pretty much anything else that people do?

Not really, right? . . .

Becoming a novelist is not some sort of dreadful Mayan curse, or dark martyrdom that only a chosen few can withstand for the betterment of humanity. . . . If you’re lucky, you might be able to make a small living out of this thing. If you’re exceedingly lucky, other people might come to appreciate your gifts. If you are phenomenally lucky, you might become lionized in your own lifetime, like the great Philip Roth himself.

And if that should ever happen to you—if you should ever find yourself both successful and loved—please do try to keep in mind that you have been blessed, not blighted.

Take the First Step Today

If you don’t feel ready to write, if you don’t know what to write about, or if you can’t overcome your inner critic, then simply take one small first step:

Start writing every day.

Don’t expect anything of yourself other than a few sentences—no word limit, no time limit, no editing, no judgingThe goal is to slowly build your writing muscle. At first you’ll feel flabby and foolish and sloppy, but you’ll get stronger.

And how will you know when a certain piece of writing is worth pursuing? I wrote about that in my guest post on storyaday.org: The Real You: What Every Writer Needs to Know about Adele, Gwen Stefani, and Seinfeld.

If you want to give your writing a serious jump-start, check out Julie Duffy’s Story a Day May—a challenge to write a short story every day this month. The point is to write so much that your momentum snowballs, your inner critic gives up, and you get comfortable.

Feeling inspired? Sign up now for more inspiration delivered right to your Inbox.

The Fastest Way to Jump-Start Your Writing Career: My Mentorship Story

“A lot of people have gone further than they thought they could because
someone else thought they could.” (Unknown)

A Shortage of Support

In the past, the driving force behind the fine arts was the “support group.” Artists would find mentors to show them the ropes, then the artists would acquire patrons to support their work, and then these artists would become mentors themselves. A miniature circle of life.

But a lot has changed since the times of da Vinci.

Nowadays, more than 80 percent of Americans want to write a book—that’s 250 million people!—so you’d think writers would have the biggest support group in the world, but in fact, far too many of them have no one to turn to.

The Devaluation of Mentors

Our current culture is obsessed with technology. Human interaction has largely been replaced by tweets, blogs, online courses, and self-help books. But here’s what I’ve learned:

One good mentor is worth all those combined—a hundred fold.

My Mentorship Story

I started this blog four years ago. For the first two years it felt like I was pushing against a brick wall. Then one day I published a post where I broke down Rowling’s outline for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and compared it to Stuart Horwitz’s methods in his book Blueprint Your Bestseller. Within a few months Stuart had contacted me and asked if I’d like to coauthor a chapter for his second book, Book Architecture. (Um, yes!)

Stuart and I emailed back and forth throughout the year as we developed our chapter, which went so well that I also ended up beta reading and offering feedback on the rest of the manuscript. Even though I was excited when Book Architecture was done and ready to be published, I was also sad for the experience to end. I had learned and grown more in that one year than in my past two years of blogging combined.

So I felt incredibly lucky when Stuart contacted me yet again and offered me an internship—a first for him and his book editing firm, Book Architecture.

During my year-long internship, I delved into everything in the publishing world:

  • drawing up contracts,
  • creating style sheets, editorial letters, and agent databases,
  • walking through the entire self-publishing process,
  • and editing on all levels—developmental, line, and copy.

I also was a beta reader for Stuart’s third and final writing book, Finish Your Book in Three Drafts: How to Write a Book, Revise a Book, and Complete a Book While You Still Love It.

As the year progressed, Stuart and I found our collaborative footing and eventually my internship morphed into a mentorship. Unfortunately, not all internships are also mentorships.

In an internship, you’re simply learning “stuff”—a knowledge checklist. But in a mentorship, someone is getting to know you one-on-one and addressing your personal experiences and goals.

Along with all of the valuable “stuff” I learned, I also had mentor talks with Stuart. These talks revolved around any questions I had about the editing business as well as advice from him based on questions I should have asked but didn’t know enough yet to ask them.

In the end, I learned more during my one-year mentorship than I could have learned on my own in five years (or more). In fact, I have not found a single success story where the individual did not have some form of mentorship along the way.

Examples of Modern-Day Mentors

Lena Dunham was mentored by the late Nora Ephron. In a beautifully written piece in the New Yorker, Dunham memorialized Ephron:

[Nora] explained how to interact with a film composer (“Just say what you’re hearing and what you want to hear”) and what to do if someone screamed at you on the telephone (“Just nod, hang up, and decide you will never allow anyone to speak to you that way again”). She called bullshit on a whole host of things, too: donuts served in fancy restaurants; photo shoots in which female directors are asked to all stand in a cluster wearing mustaches; the idea that one’s writing isn’t fiction if it borrows from one’s life.

Oprah was mentored by Barbara Walters. In an interview with Walters, Oprah said, “Had there not been you, there never would have been me.”

Oprah was also mentored by Maya Angelou. At Angelou’s funeral, Oprah gave a eulogy and said, “I think mentors are important . . . Nobody makes it alone. Nobody has made it alone.

Usher has frequently spoken about mentoring Justin Bieber. In an interview with Pharell Williams, Usher paraphrased a line from Italian diplomat Galeazzo Ciano:

Success has a million fathers. Failure is an orphan. [Tweet This]

Now the Question Is: How Do You Find Your Own Mentor?

1. Never stop chasing your dreams.

Jon Hamm didn’t get a single acting gig for the first three years after he moved to Hollywood. Not surprisingly, his talent agency dropped him. Hamm gave himself five years to get his acting career on track; if nothing happened, he’d quit. He said:

I knew a lot of 40-year-old waiters and I didn’t want to be one of those.

In the nick of time Hamm landed his first big Hollywood movie, We Were Soldiers, and he was able to ditch waiting tables. A few years later he became the infamous Don Draper of “Mad Men,” which was voted the seventh best-written TV series of all time.

Paula Hawkins has a similar story. Hawkins got her start in the book industry writing a guide to finance. The publishing house that took on the guide asked Hawkins to also write some romance novels under the pen name Amy Silver. Hawkins said she never felt comfortable with the genre and realized that she wanted to write suspense and psychological thrillers. When her fourth romance novel flopped, she decided to try writing one last time before giving it up for good. The result was the fastest-selling hardcover ever recorded—The Girl on the Train.

How many people in history have given themselves a deadline, not knowing that success had been waiting just beyond it?

This mindset of “all or nothing” is not healthy or helpful. I realize we all must face reality—we have families, jobs, bills—but facing reality does not mean throwing away your dreams.

Maybe you have to figure out a different approach or perhaps you have to go at a slower pace, but at least you’re still in pursuit. Because if you’re not actively trying to help yourself, you have very little chance of finding someone who will want to help you either.

As Stuart says in Finish Your Book in Three Drafts:

If you look at the subset circle of people who didn’t make it, the entire subset of people who quit is contained within that.

2. Keep an open mind as to whom your mentor could be.

The secret to success is not in having a mentor but in having the right mentor. Luckily, the “right” mentor can come in all shapes and sizes.

Don’t limit yourself by thinking that your mentor has to have higher credentials than you or has to be more successful than you or even has to be in the same field as you.

Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said:

Here’s an important warning: you don’t have to have mentors who look like you. Had I been waiting for a black, female Soviet specialist mentor, I would still be waiting. Most of my mentors have been old white men, because they were the ones who dominated my field.

And the CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra, said:

Don’t always look high when creating your mentor network. Colleagues have great insights about you that you may have overlooked.

Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, John Glenn, and Walter Cronkite all had mentors who were either high school or elementary teachers.

One of Colin Powell’s greatest mentors was his father. Ansel Adams also credited his own father and so did Cal Ripken, Jr., who said:

I don’t know what value you can place on [a mentor], but the right words spoken at the right time from a person that’s been through it before can make all the difference.

More than anything else, a successful mentorship is founded on mutual respect and admiration. One of Steven Spielberg’s mentors was George Lucas. Spielberg has himself mentored many people, including J. J. Abram. Spielberg said:

The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.

Stuart and I are very different people at very different points in our lives. We live over 1,400 miles apart and have never even met. But the mentorship has been successful. I attribute our success to the fact that we not only respect our differences but also capitalize on them—we treat them as assets rather than as deficits.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, who mentored Henry David Thoreau, summed it up best when he said:

What I need is someone who can make me do what I can. [Tweet This]

3. Look first for mentorship moments. Then let them progress naturally.

A mentorship is not something you can force. Don’t walk around asking people to mentor you—that’s like asking a stranger to be your best friend. It has to be a natural process that evolves over time.

Robert Herjavec, TV star of “Shark Tank,” wrote:

As you consider mentorship, I encourage you to take the pressure off.

Stop the “will you be my mentor?” emails and start being present to embrace the learning opportunities all around you. Ask your colleagues and executive team members for their points of view. Seek advice from your direct leader or leader once removed.

Start having conversations and soaking in the mentorship moments.

Three years ago when Stuart contacted me to coauthor a chapter, I could never have guessed that I’d end up where I am today with an editing business of my own. All I was focused on then was embracing the opportunity and learning as much from it as I could. Don’t be concerned if a mentorship moment doesn’t turn into a full-blown mentorship.

Herjavec also wrote:

When I consider mentorship, I see it as a series of moments with key individuals over the course of my career. Have I always had one individual guide me along the way? No, that wasn’t my experience. But there are multiple people that have offered advice or a sounding board along the way . . .

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, agrees with Herjavec:

Throughout my career, I’ve benefited greatly from the wisdom and experiences of mentors. Some executives credit one or two key people for coaching them to success, but I believe effective mentoring takes a network.

Different people see different aspects of us as we progress in our careers and handle the opportunities and challenges along the way.

Financial advisor Suze Orman, who mentors personal trainer Jillian Michaels, said:

Everyone in life can be your mentor whether they know it or not. [Tweet This]

4. Ask not what your mentor can do for you, but what you can do for your mentor.

The most important thing to remember about a mentorship is:

THE MENTOR DOES NOT NEED THE MENTEE.

Stuart has twenty years of experience as an editor. His book Blueprint Your Bestseller was named one of 2013’s best writing books by The Writer magazine and his clients are bestselling authors who have appeared on “The Today Show,” “The Tonight Show,” and “Oprah.”

Stuart mentored me as a favor—not out of necessity. But like all great mentors, he also treated me as an equal. Not once during my internship did he give me a go-get-the-coffee job. That’s not to say that all my work has been enlightening and rewarding and inspiring—every job has its drudgery—but a mentor shows you how to most effectively and efficiently tackle the drudgery.

In the end, you only get as much out of a mentorship as you put into it.

A mentor’s job is not necessarily to make your road any easier. It’s to show you that the road is worth taking.

Did this post resonate with you? Sign up now to get more inspirational tips delivered right to your Inbox.