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Find and Keep Your Direction: The Secret to Publishing (and Career) Success

As a writer, what’s the worst thing in the world besides not getting published? A lack of direction. The most successful authors have a very specific direction—not only for their book, but also for their broader career; a personal mission statement.

Susan Peirce Thompson came to us years ago with what she called “a big hairy ambitious goal.” It was to publish her first book—Bright Line Eating—a book that later became a New York Times bestseller. Today, The Bright Line Eating Cookbook publishes, and is already topping the charts on Amazon.

But Susan’s books were simply one component of an even more audacious goal: to solve the world’s obesity crisis, a crisis that she had personally experienced. And this became her direction

Every aspect of Bright Line Eating’s writing and promotion was aligned to this call to action. Susan had an exquisite understanding of her audience—their biggest dreams, their deepest fears, the limits of what they might accept as true or put into practice in their daily lives. If a publisher had an idea for taking the book in a different direction, be it editorial or marketing, she would listen, of course. But ultimately, she knew how and where and when to deliver for her community. And every call she made turned out to be right.

Susan was further along in her career, but perhaps you are just getting started. If you’re 25 years old, you may lack direction because you don’t yet know what you want to do with your life, and you’re afraid to commit. In this case, it’s not lack of direction that’s problematic— it’s perfectly reasonable to still be ironing out your direction in your 20s! The problem is the failure to commit. Only in committing can you find your “passion” or “purpose”.

It’s on us as individuals to find “excitement” in our work. A great former boss told me so, and I’ve returned to this belief every day since. Once you commit to something, once you invest and give it your full attention, purpose and passion uncannily emerge.

The curse of the curious and multi-talented can easily become the curse of the dilettante: to flounder.

We do not wish to see our authors flounder.

If you aspire to publish, lacking direction looks like this: you query a literary agency to say that you’re at work on a novel, a memoir, and a short story collection. Oh, but there’s also a young adult fantasy idea still lingering on your computer desktop. Will you take me on?

You’re writing because you enjoy writing, maybe have a talent at it, or need to write for your own catharsis…but you don’t know who you’re writing for or what that reader needs from you.

If you’re an author at the brink of publication, direction comes from an understanding of who it is your book wishes to serve. It’s fatal to figure: I have a book deal and a publisher behind me. The mountain is built, so they will come.

Successful authors know the mountain gets built every day. And every day is a chance to throw a ladder down to someone who doesn’t know you, your blog, or your book. This is work that can’t be automated.

So for the aspiring nonfiction author, when you write for your blog or for other publications—what do the Instagram comments suggest? Is there a particular sentiment that stands out? For any author, read what’s around you. Know what’s selling. That debut novel that’s been on the list for months—what chord is that hitting for people? Why your book, now?

For the seasoned author: what is your mission statement, your call to action, your act of service? It can’t just be about a book. What does someone do after turning the final page? If you want to influence a movement, if you want to change the way people think about something, anything, having a sense of that action is exactly where you need to begin.

Commit to your readers and you’ll find that they’ll commit to you.