• tarahthornburg

Creating a 5-Year Plan and Future-Proofing My Author Business

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The Fearless Creative podcastIf you’d rather read instead of listen, I’ve included the abridged transcript below. (Please note that I had to re-record this episode, so the transcript here is not an exact match to the final published episode.)

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Welcome, welcome, welcome to the show everyone. Today is Saturday as I record this episode for Monday… And I don’t know about you, but I always try to do way too many things on Saturday. I try to clean the house and take care of the yard and go to the store and record podcasts…It’s just too much sometimes.

Lately I have been really, really busy. And anytime I get really busy, I’m reminded of just how high-functioning I can be when I kick my setting up from like a six to a nine.

I actually work best when I’m over-busy. I get more done when I have less time. Is anyone else like that?

I get up really early and I tackle all of my big tasks first thing, and then by two in the afternoon I’m useless and going down the rabbit hole of trying to claim my knowledge panel on Google. Has anyone else ever done that? You Google yourself, and there’s that little knowledge panel off to the side that says who you are and what you do.

I always thought the information in the knowledge panel was edited by Wikipedia, but you can edit it yourself if you go through the NSA-level vetting by Google. You have to send them screenshots of all your social media profiles…you have to send them a picture of yourself holding your driver’s license…all of that. It’s crazy.

Anyhow…If you’re like me, it’s easy to get caught up in the weeds of the day-to-day tasks you have to get done. And sometimes I get so caught up in the most immediate pressing thing that I lose sight of the big picture.

I have to stop and ask myself: What do I want in the long term?

This is what should really dictate how we are spending our time and what we are focusing on.

There’s a couple of times that I’ve made a decision for how I was going to spend my time because I needed a job immediately or I needed some money immediately, and these things were not sustainable. And in the last few years, the publishing industry has become kind of this hamster wheel of production because of Amazon’s algorithms. Amazon favors new releases, and so the game in publishing has become “how often can you produce a new release?”

To address this challenge, a lot of big names have formed collectives where they are employing writers to write under their brand, which allows them to put out a new release every DAY in some cases to take advantage of Amazon’s algorithms.

Now, as an artist, I find this whole thing very disheartening. I think it’s a little bit fraudulent. But these sorts of practices exist in every business. In trading, a lot of big institutions will use different tactics to manipulate thinly traded stocks. They’ll run stocks up, go short, and then run them down — and they can do this because they control such a huge amount of money.

A lot of people I think would be disgusted by a lot of ways that people make money, but the way I see it, you can either get mad or get smart and earn money. And I still think there is ALWAYS a way to do what you love, do it with integrity, and get paid well to do it.

So to circle back to my business, I started out this year with one plan, and I have drastically adjusted course. My focus for the rest of this year and next year is future-proofing my author business.

Ahh. That feels good to say. I am future-proofing my author business. I am future-proofing my life. And I’m going to tell you how I’m doing it.

Today I want to talk about long-term planning. Why it’s important, how we can gain clarity around what we REALLY WANT long term, and the steps I have taken — very recently — to ensure I am always moving in that direction.

This leads me to the new segment that I am adding to the show…This is the Discovery segment, where I share something interesting or useful I have discovered this week. Sometimes this will be a book or a podcast or a TV show or just someone in the world who is doing something amazing.

And this week’s discovery was an interview on the “Unemployable” podcast. And the person being interviewed was Joanna Penn, who is one of my industry role models. I have been following her for close to eight years. She is the queen of indie publishing. She is a futurist. She’s a crazy-smart businesswoman. I just adore her and her podcast.

And a while back she gave a really fantastic interview on another podcast called “Unemployable.” And if you are an author or you’re interested in writing a book ever, you should definitely give it a listen. 

In her interview, she said a lot of really exciting things, but what stuck out to me was when she mentioned that she had a ten-year plan.

Now, when I heard this, it really threw me for a loop. A ten-year plan? Really? I’ve heard of a five-year plan, but to me, a ten-year plan just seemed crazy. She and I work in the same industry — an industry that is changing rapidly. And personally, I can’t even begin to imagine what I’ll be doing in ten years.

In the next ten years, I’m going to be going through some dramatic life changes and probably some dramatic business changes. So I was racking my brain trying to figure out how Joanna Penn could possibly have a ten-year plan.

The more I thought about this, the more I started to think that it’s ridiculous that I don’t even have a five-year plan.

Up until this week, I pretty much operated on a year by year basis. Historically, I have started each year knowing that I am going to write three books (with the stretch goal of writing four books). And because I work in series, I nearly always know what those books are going to be.

But until very recently, I hadn’t stopped to consider that I don’t want to be writing three novels a year forever. I want to write forever, but I don’t want to write on a timetable forever, and I want to do other things. I’ve really enjoyed this podcast. I’ve been enjoying the blog and writing my nonfiction book and creating a course.

But on a personal level, I can’t even fathom what I’m going to be doing when I’m thirty-eight. Maybe this is easier if you’re older.

You know, if you’re in the stage of life right now where you have teenage kids, you’re thinking, “Hell yeah. In 10 years, they’ll be out of the house and I’m gonna have time to do what I want to do.” Or if you’re my dad’s age, he’s thinking he’s gonna be on a beach in Florida drinking a beer and flying his drone and looking for gold with his metal detector.

But for me in 10 years, I’m thinking that my life is going to be more complicated than it is now, not less. And maybe I don’t look forward to it because I’m thinking that my life is going to be PTA meetings and soccer practice. That I’m not going to be creating the way I am now. That my work is going to take a backseat to family commitments and that I’m going to resent that.

But this is working on the assumption that I don’t have a choice in the matter…that I’m just being carried along by this current…that’s I’m not an active participant deciding what I do and don’t want to do. That I’m somehow not going to still be me.

And this is something that I struggled with as I was about to get married. I had this really intense inner battle where I worried that getting married was somehow going to make me a different person — one that was less autonomous, less fulfilled, and ultimately less interesting. So you can imagine my joyful surprise to discover that I woke up the SAME PERSON the day after I got married.

The only difference was that I was no longer on my own. I had a partner to support me in life.

So the only way I can think about my 10-year plan is to think about what I value most so that I can uphold those things no matter what I’m doing.

These things are different than my personal values: My personal values like integrity, joy, courage, self-determination, and resilience.

In 10-year-plan terms, I’m talking about defining the things that I value most. Personal values are abstract. Things you value are very concrete. These are the things in my life that are most important to me: So my health and vitality, Ben, my creativity, and living a full life. Being awake and receptive to life.

If we know what we value most, we don’t have to worry about the mechanics of what we will be working on or how old our nonexistent children might be and what extracurricular activities they might be involved in. I tend to be an overplanner, and even I think that’s overkill.

If we know what we value, we can continually check in to see if our daily habits support those things. Because it’s our habits that determine our future. If we have the habit of eating poorly, not moving our bodies, and retaining a lot of stress, our future looks a lot like a heart attack. When it comes to money, if we are in the habit of spending less than we make and saving money and investing that money, our future looks pretty easy and comfortable.

So for me, I can’t really wrap my head around what I’ll be doing in 10 years, but I can continually check in with my daily habits.

Am I eating well? Am I sleeping? Am I exercising? Am I meditating? Am I creating things I enjoy creating? Am I spending quality time with Ben? Am I carving out space for us to have some fun and go on trips?

For me, long-term planning is a five-year plan. They say we tend to overestimate what we can accomplish in one year and underestimate what we can accomplish in five, and I’ve found this to be true.

When I was working my day job, I had a five-year plan for exiting that job, and I did it in about two.

So for me, the key component of the five-year plan — the first pillar of the five-year plan — is what I am going to be creating. How am I going to be spending my creative energy? And where is my money going to be coming from?

My goal is that in five years, my fiction will be something I do mostly for fun.

In my vision, I am making less than half of my income from fiction. Ideally, only a third is from fiction.

Wow. That’s a little hard to say.

I’ll explain my reasoning for that in a minute but the plan is that the rest of my income will be coming from other sources — nonfiction, online courses, affiliate income, etc. I do see a pretty big chunk that comes from audiobook income, because increasingly people want to consume audio content rather than written content.

Someday, I want to hold workshops. Maybe even retreats. I’m not going to be doing any one-on-one coaching in the future, but I would like to hold workshops and retreats. Maybe that should be in the 10-year plan.

And I want to be taking a chunk of money from the business every month or every quarter and investing it in the markets. My ultimate goal is for my business to be self-sustaining. And what I mean by that is IF I needed to stop creating assets at any point…for six months, for a year, whatever…that my business could still earn me an income.

In the short term, I see that being possible by running paid ads. You invest a certain amount of money in paid ads every month, and the return on investment is enough to sustain me and my business. In the long term, I want to use Ben’s skill set as an investor. I want to reinvest some of the business profits, almost like a trust.

So I want to come back to my reasoning for just a minute. Because people who know me and know my business might be really surprised to hear me say that I want a smaller portion of my income to come from fiction.

There was a time not too long ago when what I wanted most in the world was to earn 100% of my income from fiction. But looking back, what I really wanted was to earn a living doing what I loved and to work for myself — not to have a boss. To be able to decide for myself what I would be working on.

My five-year plan still fulfills that goal. We have to be open to changing our goals, but I don’t really see this as a change. It’s only that my definition of what I love has expanded to include more things.

And, let’s be real…I couldn’t have launched a nonfiction brand and courses if I hadn’t built a business on the back of my fiction first. I would have nothing to teach. I didn’t know anything. But I have spent the last six years building a tremendous body of knowledge.

And here’s the other thing…

The publishing landscape that I entered six years ago isn’t the same industry that it was. It’s not the same as it was three years ago. Some people in trad publishing still don’t know it, but publishing is the fastest-changing industry that exists.

It’s not just the technology that’s changing. It’s business models, and it’s consumer behavior. All of those things are happening at once.

So as I said, what I’ve been thinking about lately is how to future-proof my author business. I will always be a writer. And I will always write fiction. But I would like more stability. I would like sustainability. And in my thinking, one of the best strategies for future-proofing any business is diversity. Diversifying income streams and diversifying my skill set.

So that’s the five-year plan. 

And how do I get there? What do I need to do in the next year to level up? For my situation, that’s expanding my body of work and creating the foundation of a whole other branch of my business. The podcast is part of that. The blog is part of that. And the online course is part of that.

All I need to do for the next year is make sure I am making consistent strides every week toward what I want for this next year. And to remind myself of what I want in the next year, I have posted my top four goals in my room where I will see them. I’m probably going to post them other places, but I think making your goals visible is key.

I used to do this, and I kind of fell off. Having my goals posted was how I ran my marathon. At the time I was really into watching the Biggest Loser and I would post pictures of Jillian Michaels saying mean things to get myself to go run. I kept my goal pyramid posted for writing. We talked about that in the first episode.

But somewhere along the line, I stopped posting my goals visibly, and I think those daily reminders are really important. You are literally keeping your goal in sight.

So this is what I have been working on: defining what I value so I can keep those things in the forefront of my mind over the next ten years. I have my five-year plan. And I have posted my goals where I can see them.

This has been kind of a long episode, but I hope you found it helpful. If you want to post your goals somewhere where you can see them and take a photo, you can tag me on Instagram @writewithtarah.

If you enjoy the podcast, please consider leaving a rating and a review. Those are tremendously helpful to me, and they help other creatives find their home away from home on the Internet.

I’ll see you next time…and happy creating!

Did you enjoy this transcript? Wouldn’t it be better if you could hear it in my sexy radio voice? Well, you can. The Fearless Creative is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, and wherever you get your podcasts. You can listen and subscribe to all the episodes here.

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