The business plan is not always the first thing on everyone’s radar. I’m not sure exactly why it often gets left out, but it may well be for the same reason that I never used to make an outline when I was about to write a report in school. I’d write the report first and make an outline afterward, and then only if a teacher required it. What I didn’t realize was how helpful an outline could actually be if written first.
Carrying the analogy a little further, the outline of a report and the written plan for a business are similar and have similar objectives. They both give you a direction to go, set out an order of events and subjects to address, and state clearly all of the things you’ve planned to include in your work, so you can see ahead of time whether you’ve left out anything important. As far as goals, they give you something to aim for. Just as an outline helps give a book an advance look at the structure and direction of a book’s plotline, the business plan does something very similar for the business you’re creating.
Now that we’ve got at least an inkling of why it might be good to make one in the first place, the next question is going to be, “What should I include in a business plan?” That answer will vary depending on whom you talk to, but there are a few general considerations that will work for most small businesses, including a small indie press like mine…or yours.
If you want to see how this might look for you, perhaps you’d like to bring up your word processor or grab a notepad. I’ll ask a few questions, you can answer them onscreen or on paper, and by the time we’re done, you’ll have the bare bones of a business outline. Then I’ll throw a few links at you, and when/if you feel like it, you can go see how the pros do it, and refine things a bit further or add things you think should be added. It’s simpler than a lot of people think, and it doesn’t have to be particularly fancy. It’s just important to know the answers to a few questions, and get those recorded so you can refer to them at some later date when you want to take a look at the progress your business has made and see where you might want to make changes.
1. Goals: What are your goals for your publishing business? What type of books do you plan to write and publish? How many books do you think you’ll be publishing—one to two a year, or are you more prolific than that? By the time five years have gone by, what do you hope to have accomplished with your writing and publishing venture? Keep your answers relatively simple to start with. This part of your plan is also what some would call a “mission statement.”
2. Audience: Who will be reading your books? Are you writing for an adult audience, for teens or children? Are you hoping to reach the DIY crowd, or the sci-fi devotees, cosplayers, horse lovers, backyard mechanics, crazy cat ladies? Who do you hope will see your book and want to buy it? You’ll be tailoring your marketing to them, so it’s important to figure out who these readers will probably be. If you’re writing in multiple genres, you’ll want to write down a couple of sentences to a paragraph to describe each group of readers you’re trying to reach.
3. Your Unique Focus: What makes you stand out from the crowd? This can be a tricky question, because of course there are plenty of other mechanics, math majors, self-help enthusiasts, life coaches, fantasy writers, etc. This is the time to consider what it is that makes your company and your books different from all the other indies out there. What makes it shine? What about your subject matter makes you feel passionate about it? These are important questions, in part because they are the same questions your potential readers will be subconsciously asking themselves each time they consider buying one of your books.
4. Distribution and Sales: How will you get your books into your readers’ hands? Do you intend to buy a bunch of copies of your printed book and then just sell them out the trunk of your car, the way people used to do way back in the day when self-publishing wasn’t yet a widespread thing and POD was unheard of? Will you get just a box of copies printed at a time, and take them to various genre-related events to sign and be seen? Or are you planning to skip the print version and just sell ebooks through Amazon or other online retailers? There are lots of online venues for ebooks, and if you’re going to be your own distributor, you’ll probably need to establish an account or business understanding with each one you plan to use. For the purposes of this particular blog post, let’s just have you begin to think about these questions for now. Write down a couple of ideas for what you’ll do, or just leave this spot blank for the moment. We’ll talk about distribution strategies later on, where we can devote an entire post just to this topic.
5. Projected revenue: Oh, this is a fun one–sort of. It’s very hard to predict exactly how many copies of your books you’re going to sell, because sales depend on so many things, like exposure, visibility, and marketing. But for now, just throw a number up there. Set a goal for how much money you want to bring in per month. If you set a goal that’s higher than a few dollars per month, it may take time and several books published to work up to that level, but that’s okay. Just write down the amount you’d like to see and keep it somewhere in the realm of realistic. It’s probably not realistic to set a monthly revenue goal of $1000.00 right at the outset, but it’s at least somewhat realistic to expect a monthly income of anywhere from $10 to $30.
Don’t get discouraged; this is potential income just from sales of your first book alone, if people find it right away and if you start gaining readers via word-of-mouth. It may not look like much, but if you get even a few dollars a month, it’s enough to save up to finance the production of future books, and you can build up further from there. Remember, one of the possible reasons you went Indie was so that you could take the time to build a business from the ground up, and it won’t be a grand mansion right at the outset. At first it may look a lot more like a cottage than a mansion, but you can keep adding on to it with more books published, and eventually it may become much larger and roomier than it was at first. In the meantime, you’ll probably want to hold onto that day job.
6. Production Process: How and where will you run this business? The most likely answer is “Out of my home,” but some may have the benefit of a separate office building or the like. Besides location, you will also need to consider how you will produce the most important parts of the book—the manuscripts, the files for your ebooks, and the layouts for your print version if you’re doing one of those. Another thing to consider: Will you be doing all of this work yourself, or do you plan to hire someone to format your book? This question is important for reasons that we’ll cover in a future post.
If you will be the one doing the formatting/coding/layout work, do you have a dedicated computer that you will use for this, or will you have to use a shared machine or a library computer? I assume that if you’re reading this blog, you have access to a computer, but you may want to jot down its capabilities here. Is it a Windows machine or a Mac? Does it have a decent amount of storage/memory? Are you currently limping along with an old machine and are you in need of an upgrade, or can you get by with what you’ve already got? This is important to know because it will figure into the budgeting, which we’ll also get to later.
These questions cover the very basics and can get you started, but there may be more parts you’ll want to add to your business plan as you go. There are also templates that you can download and use to structure your business outline, if you prefer. Here are some links to look at for more help with the business plan process:
Even if you decide to use any or some of the above guides, you’ll still want to make sure that your business plan is tailored to your specific needs. You may find that there are parts of a more service-oriented business plan that, as an independent writer, you simply don’t need or want. Just get your underpinnings down and then fine tune your business plan from there. It’s perfectly okay to revise it and add to it as you go. It might even be useful to document your changes as you make them. That will give you the ability to look back and see where you had to re-evaluate your original plan from time to time to adapt to changing circumstances and opportunities that arose during the first few years after establishing your business.
I’m by no means an expert on business plans, and as you’ll see when you chase those links, there are other people who are far more adept at designing them than I am. But regardless of its level of sophistication and regardless of what you may happen to leave out or overlook, I truly believe that it’s far better to have at least some sort of business plan than to have no business plan at all. Good luck with yours, and have fun creating.