I’ve blogged before about my ambitions to become a fabulously successful novelist and my annual April trek to Toronto to attend the Ad Astra literary conference. Having just returned from the 2013 edition, here are my latest observations that apply as much to entrepreneurs as they do to authors.

First let me reiterate that both are in the business of:

  • Developing a commercially viable product for the marketplace.
  • Refining that product through a beta phase (beta customers versus beta readers) to ensure it will pass muster with potential business partners, investors and retail distributors (agents, publishers, booksellers).
  • Building an identifiable brand among consumers through various channels that include social media, trade shows and industry events (among writers, it’s called “building your author platform”).
  • Engaging with the marketplace to build customer loyalty, grow sales and ensure that your follow-on products (subsequent books) continue to meet the expectations the market has for your brand.

And there are of course three crucial disciplines that will make or break either: marketing, marketing and marketing.

So here are the lessons I learned this time around in the various conference panels and hallway chats I attended over the course of the weekend:

Lesson 1: Don’t do business with anyone who won’t lift their skirts as high as you

Publishing is an industry rife with charlatans, fakes and con artists. For the first-time author, this first manifests when trying to find an agent. An agent is a business partner. It is intended to be a mutually beneficial relationship built on trust. They will know someone, you will know someone and together you will make things happen. They will look out for your interests to ensure contracts are above board and the royalties are flowing as they should.

The reputable agent does not soak you for “reading fees” or any other upfront expenses. They get paid when you get paid, with an industry-standard percentage. They should also have more contacts than you do. And any agent who is courting you should have absolutely no reluctance to refer you to other authors they represent so that you can talk to them, privately, about what it is like to work with this agent.

It’s all about due diligence and a fair and equitable sharing of risk: the foundation for any great business relationship. The tech entrepreneur should demand the same level of transparency and accountability from any potential partner.

Lesson 2: The fine print matters

This one should be self-evident. When it comes to the legal stuff, make sure you have qualified expertise in your corner. For an author, this may mean engaging with someone in addition to the agent. For the entrepreneur, it means don’t set yourself up for a disaster down the road by trying to cut corners to save money.

Lesson 3: Nobody wants to work with an ass

In a past post we spoke with Andrew Fisher, executive VP at Wesley Clover, about what he looks for in the entrepreneurs with whom he works. He considers their technical expertise and their ability to communicate, but the big one is personality. He always looks for people who are well-rounded and possess those characteristics that have been collectively referred to by others, such as Daniel Goleman, as emotional intelligence. This is a measure of one’s self confidence, self-awareness and ability to navigate periods of stress and emotional turmoil, all of which has a direct bearing on one’s likelihood of achieving business success.

Fisher was wary of working with insecure or high maintenance individuals. By the same token, agents and publishers don’t want to work with someone who is obnoxious, demanding and can’t work with constructive feedback to improve the quality of their work. I have heard many authors and other industry professionals state that the calibre of your work is not likely to overcome your behavioural issues. On the flipside, you as the author don’t want to work with an agent who is likely to burn bridges and alienate people with their personality – another reason to have those frank discussions with other authors.

Lesson 4: Don’t slit your wrists over short-term swings in the market

In one panel, Hayden Trenholm, an award-winning Canadian science fiction author and owner of Bundoran Press, challenged the hype about the impending death of print at the hands of electronic publishing and self-published ebooks. Citing reports from Forbes and other industry watchers, he noted how the growth in ebooks has noticeably slowed since the big gains of a few years ago. Even when ebook sales were skyrocketing in the U.S., sales of traditional print books continued to rise, leading to an overall increase in the number of Americans who read.

And while we are all in awe of those few self-published authors who have achieved stardom, the fact is, the typical self-published book by a first-time author never has more than $500 in sales. The biggest successes in e-books, in terms of volumes of sales and average selling prices, is still enjoyed by the world’s six (soon to be five) largest publishers.

In other words, when volatility has impacted the market for your product, don’t react in a knee-jerk fashion to the short-term impact. Stick with the fundamentals, follow the long-term trends, and invest in what will maintain your visibility in the marketplace and ensure the customer is still there waiting for you on the other side – sales and marketing.

Lesson 5: Persistence and work ethic is everything

Some people love being a writer, while others love living the life of a writer. But thinking about it, talking about it, even blogging and Tweeting about in a way that begins to build your “author platform,” is no substitute for just bloody doing it. You need to make time and make the most of the time you have.

The difference between “doers” and “talkers” came up in a past post, when we spoke with Jon Bradford, the man behind The Difference Engine and Springboard, two U.K.-based startup accelerators. When screening applicants, a track record that demonstrates an individual entrepreneur is someone “who just gets on and does stuff, as opposed to somebody who just sits on the fence and talks about it,” is crucial for him.

It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do. It’s the ability to produce results that matter.

So there you have it. The same business fundamentals apply regardless of the industry or the product or service in question. There is always an opportunity to get a fresh perspective and learn something new for your business by looking at what’s happening in other industries.

If you have a good story to tell about how you learned something that helped your business from an industry other than your own, let me know.

Image: Innis College Student Life