What I’ve Learned Working With New York Times Bestselling Authors.

Jim Woods
Jim Woods
Jun 14 · 7 min read

We all want to be bestselling authors, right? Of course, we do.

Well, thankfully, I’ve had the honor of working with some amazing writers: from first-time authors to New York Times Best Sellers.

It’s time to pull back the curtain a little. I’ll also tell you what you can do to step up your writing game. Sound good? Let’s dive in.

Figure out your approach.

One thing I can say with total confidence is that every writer has his or her own unique approach. Figure out what your approach is, and then double down on it. Don’t change it until you are 100% sure that this approach is no longer working.

If you’re not sure what your approach looks like, that means you’re experimenting. And that’s absolutely fine. Just document your results and go from there. Don’t “wing it” as a strategy. If you do, your results might be very hard to replicate.

Play the long game.

What does the long game look like? It means thinking about how well the book will stand the test of time. It focuses on sales of the book in the second and fifth year, not just selling books in the right places at the book launch.

The reality is being a New York Times Best Seller does not mean you sold a lot of books over the long haul. It means you sold books in the right places when the book was released. So perhaps having a goal of being a New York Times Bestseller isn’t really the best way to approach things; instead, if you focus on writing a fantastic, compelling book that people want to read you’ll do better over time. (For more on this, I highly recommend you check out Ryan Holiday’s fantastic book The Perennial Seller.)

Surround Yourself With Great People.

Behind every successful author is a great team. Surround yourself with others who will support you and make you better. The reality is, you probably only do a few things really well.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Just because someone is a great writer, that doesn’t mean she is good with numbers or technology. An author might be good at speaking, but that doesn’t mean she is good at marketing. She might need to bring on someone to help create a website, manage a blog, or keep an eye on social media.

The great news is you can always hire a freelancer with experience. That’s what I’ve been doing for five years now. For me, it’s the ultimate win-win. I get to learn from other authors and get paid too. If I’m totally honest, it’s kind of like getting paid to go to author school. I have helped authors with social media, copywriting, editing, self-publishing, putting their content here on Medium, creating webpages, writing emails, doing research, booking interviews, podcast production, and more.

Maybe this is something you’d like to do for other authors. Or, if you’re an author, maybe you should spend a few dollars to outsource some of these things instead of trying to do them all by yourself.

Get help in creative ways.

Can’t afford help? Having a team around you sound like a dream? I get it. You likely know other writers or friends who can help. Maybe even joining a writing mastermind could help take you to the next level. Don’t ever overlook the power of external accountability. After all, that’s often what deadlines from a publisher really are.

In addition, bartering might be a possibility. The key to bartering is setting super clear expectations. I mean having a contract — that just means something in writing don’t make it complicated — about what will happen.

So if you are trading one hour of social media management with a friend who will then do research for you for one hour, you need to have that in writing. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the exchange of services?
  • Where will it happen?
  • When will it happen?

Those simple guidelines can make bartering a more realistic workable option for you. If you really are clear and intentional, I do think you can make bartering work. If you don’t have clarity, bartering rarely works.

Use your tools.

Professionals don’t change their tools randomly. So once you find something that works, stick with it. I don’t care if it is an ancient word processor like George R.R. Martin uses. Quentin Tarantino only uses pens and notebooks. (Rumor has it that he doesn’t even know how to type.)

Photo by Eugen Str on Unsplash

You know the saying: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

There’s a lot of truth to that.

Sure, Scrivener sounds really amazing. So do Ulysses and all of the other new fancy word processor applications out there. But don’t switch unless you know FOR SURE that the one you are using right now is NOT working.

And once you start using a tool, it is important to use only the tools you need. That means avoiding bright shiny syndrome. I have some experience in productivity coaching too (I’ve co-written two books on productivity), and one of the most common struggles is when an individual keeps searching for a new productivity method or app to solve his or her problem.

Here’s the key that I’ve noticed from many authors: NOTHING works if you keep changing what you are doing all of the time. You have to stick with something for a while — at least 30 to 45 days — to actually know if it works or not. Switching apps every other week is a recipe for disaster. It simply doesn’t work; it leads to overwhelm and burn out.

Put more chips down.

We all have strengths just like we all have weaknesses. I know a writer who is a really hard worker and never shies away from a daunting task. Some might even say this writer dives “too deep” into the writing. I disagree. This writer knows it is one of her strengths. Doubling down on your strengths is one of the best moves you can make.

Photo by Kay on Unsplash

Figure out your strengths and leverage them as much as possible. You also have to say no to opportunities that are not a strength. If you want to learn more about this approach, I recommend the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown. As mentioned above, you might have to outsource or delegate some tasks. That’s fine — that means you will do better work.

Go ahead and embrace fear.

Our natural instinct is to run away from fear. This makes sense. For a long time, if we didn’t follow those instincts, we would die. But now, as you are writing a book, you need to embrace fear. You can even use it as a compass of sorts.

Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

You must reinvent yourself and try new things or you will never grow. Look at Seth Godin. He is constantly trying new things all the time. A few years ago, he shipped a book that was 800 pages long and weighed 17 pounds. By embracing fear and even doing something many could call a bit silly, you can stand out. You can create great, remarkable work.

If you do not face your fear, you will create work that is the equivalent of vanilla ice cream. Sure, it’s a nice compliment to something else, but it’s ultimately really safe. It’s boring. It is not remarkable at all and ultimately will not last the test of time.

Reinvent yourself every year.

Sounds like a lot doesn’t it? But that’s the challenge in front of you. And you must not ignore it. Reinventing yourself every year happens when you make small changes during the year through experimentation.

Photo by Alex Kondratiev on Unsplash

Instead of just scheduling a post on social media (about yourself) and forgetting about it. Listen more to your customers and readers. Spend more time paying attention and not speaking. This will also help you develop a better sense of empathy.

The only way to really reinvent yourself is always keep learning.

Start doing videos. Start doing podcasts. Start doing Instagram Stories. Maybe it’s time to start taking more pictures and blogging more too.

And one of the best ways to constantly learn is to create something every single day. I’m not saying you publish every day; rather, just create something. It’s an amazing habit that will force you to listen more and learn more.

Here’s your takeaway.

I know I went over a lot of things in this post. That was completely intentional. If you want to be a bestselling author, you’re going to have to juggle a lot of things at once. But here’s the key: you have to focus on doing the writing that only you can do best.

It’s all about facing the page and filling it up. You still will be doing what you’ve always be doing. But perhaps you’ll have more focus now. Maybe you’ll even be a bit more intentional about it.

If you have more clarity, then you are on your way. Sales algorithms change. Publishers change their practices too. But you always have to focus on your strengths. Keep telling great stories. Minimize distraction(s). Outsource or get help with your weaknesses. And, most importantly, keep showing up and doing the work.

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Jim Woods

Written by

Jim Woods

Published over 300 articles across 15+ publications. Top Writer. I'm an author, freelance writer, and writing coach that loves helping you share your story.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +481K people. Follow to join our community.