When the two of us started the Writer MBA, a company built to train authors on the ins and outs of the publishing industry, we knew we wanted to share the news with as many authors as we could. Our launch for the business was big and bold, as we were trying to drum up interest, excitement, and investment in the project all at once.
It nearly led Monica to burnout.
We’d launched the company using Kickstarter, something that Russell was accustomed to using for other projects. As a natural launcher with strong seasonality, he built his business by ignoring retailers and favoring in-person events or hosting Kickstarter campaigns.
Monica worked in the near opposite way—by drip, drip, dripping content and maintaining strong boundaries around time for research and experimentation.
Our differences at the time were the start of a larger realization. Now, after helping thousands of authors build more sustainable businesses over a combined twenty-five years, we’ve discovered the key to how we, and other authors we’ve worked with, can find success without burning out.
The answer? It depends on the ecosystem you’ve built.
Our observations distilled into five unique publishing archetypes that can explain how each of us best writes, markets, and grows our career. In April 2023, we mapped these archetypes onto five ecosystem biomes—desert, grassland, tundra, forest, and aquatic—to provide an easy-to-visualize metaphor for each type. We also identified healthy and unhealthy habits and developed guidance to foster a sustainable author career using strategies that align with your natural strengths.
Like any true ecosystem, everything in your author ecosystem must align with the environment you’ve created in order to thrive, and we believe focusing on marketing actions that work with your natural tendencies may be the surest path toward success as an indie author.
So what’s your author ecosystem? Read on to learn more about the five ecosystems we’ve identified and decide where you fit, or take the official quiz at https://authorecosystem.com.
The author who adapts between oases
Superpowers: spotting trends before others, producing books that readers are excited about, making business decisions within writing the book
Challenges: writing generic books, building brand loyalty, chasing trends that readers abandon
Examples of Deserts: Dan Brown, William Shakespeare, Suzanne Collins, Michael Anderle, James Hunter, Martha Carr
Deserts are masterful at market research and trends and often are able to study the market and find pockets of underserved readers. More importantly, they are nimble and can pivot to that underserved market quickly.
Deserts tend to create products that are right in the middle of the market. If witches are more popular than angels, then their main character is a witch. If a male captain is more popular than a female captain, then the character is male. In doing this, they create stories that hit the market or trend dead-on.
Deserts tend to write and release quickly—usually every few months. This allows them to stay both fluid and flush with resources. Hungry readers demand their stories now, and deserts are usually the type that is willing and able to deliver.
Deserts are good at finding groups of people who are already looking for something specific. This type is best suited to join other communities or read other book reviews to see what readers are asking for. They are also more likely than other types to gravitate toward heavy advertising. Because they’ve made a marketable product, they can usually see quite a bit of success with their targeting, especially when they target specific genres and comparable authors or books.
The author who weaves hundreds of blades of grass into a few trees
Superpowers: persisting on one area of focus, creating the best of the best in the niche, repositioning themselves in the market again and again
Challenges: perfectionism, exploring too widely, getting things done on deadline
Examples of Grasslands: Terry Pratchett, Cassandra Clare, George R.R. Martin, M.D. Cooper, Laura Greenwood, Monica Leonelle
Grasslands are good at feeling out trends and matching them to their interests, and they often go deep into one thing.Their commitments are often long-term—sometimes even lifelong—and they want to be sure that one thing is worth committing to.
Grasslands are vertical business builders, and even when they have multiple interests, they operate these interests in silos, usually starting multiple companies rather than uniting everything under one brand. Because they are willing to go deeper and explore longer in one area than other types, they are often considered to be among the greats in their chosen specialty.
Grasslands tend to be content machines, whether that means writing a ton of books in a series, posting regularly to social media, or creating more long-form content like serialization. They are the type of people who can produce endless content on the same story, genre, niche, or topic.
Audiences are loyal to grasslands once they understand what they are doing. Grasslands tend to get people invested in their niche over time, by putting pennies in the bank as they release content consistently over several years to build their expertise in a space.
The author who works in seasons
Superpowers: launching, getting people excited, directing attention to themselves and their work
Challenges: getting stuck in a feast-and-famine cycle, predicting the size of launches, building audience
Examples of Tundras: Tim Ferriss, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Paulo Coelho, Rick Riordan, Melanie Harlow, Russell Nohelty
When tundras create content and products, they think in projects and do everything they can to get the biggest bang for their efforts. They want every project to hit its financial ceiling during the launch, knowing that afterward, they can be pretty much done with marketing it.
Tundras are seasonal. At their healthiest, they have a time for creation, a time for audience-building, and a time for launching. Some tundras can get this down to two seasons by doing some automation and systemization around their audience-building. But at the beginning of their careers, they tend to ramp up these three things quickly in order to establish themselves and what they are trying to do.
Everything is a project to a tundra, and finding an audience is no different. A tundra is the most likely type to go from zero to five thousand people—subscribers, followers, backers, friends, supporters, patrons, whatever—in a short period.
Tundras scale faster when they connect all their disparate projects under one brand—and we often see tundras who reduce down to one pen name after finding something that they can go all in on. This type sees its backlist as either an audience builder or a launch stacker to help make the biggest splash possible when then hit the launch button.
The author who steadily waters multiple trees
Superpowers: injecting their personalities into their books, high competency and skill stacking, nurturing every project consistently
Challenges: watering things long past when they should have quit, getting one series to flower before moving to the next, writing to market, letting go of aspects of their business
Examples of Forests: Brandon Sanderson, Elizabeth Gilbert, Dean Koontz, Colleen Hoover, Neil Gaiman, RJ Blain, Claire Taylor, Skye MacKinnon
Forests are competent at doing market research about what is selling and what is not, but they may find it a struggle to execute on a trend in order to catch the wave. A big part of why trend-chasing doesn’t work well for forests is because they inject so much of themselves into their books. A forest might think: “Well, obviously—doesn’t everyone do that?” It may surprise them to learn that the answer is no! Several other types can remove themselves from the creative process, which creates a lot of success for them. But when forests try to do this, it doesn’t always work.
Forests tend to be consistent creators who have multiple pen names and/or several major projects going at once. Other types are unable to juggle these, but forests are natural gardeners, watering each project equally over time. This means a forest can explore several genres or niches competently and all at once.
When a forest is able to focus on their author career full time, consistency is a forest’s middle name, and competency is their game. Forests hum along in production and rarely struggle to work, which is both a superpower and the thing that could undo them. They can also become work horses, potentially burning themselves out by taking on too much too quickly.
The saying, “All roads lead to Rome,” is a strategy forests could consider for their own businesses. They often have great success when they bring their readers together around common interests—usually related to their books—and have stronger crossover between pen names and product lines. Finding more ways to connect and create conversion between the silos in their book catalog will go a long way in scaling their audience.
The author who is not just an author
Superpowers: huge vision, high energy, team building, brand management
Challenges: serving the current audience and bringing new people in at the same time, building within their means, creating things for disparate audiences
Examples of Aquatics: Stephenie Meyer, Stan Lee, George Lucas, Emilia Rose, Jennifer Frontera
Aquatics research the market differently than many other types of authors. They are less interested in reported trends, or even the trends they observe, and more interested in what their fans are telling them they want to see. This type rarely needs to pull reports or study successful books on retailers because they trust their fans above all to keep guiding them in the right direction.
Aquatics build big, immersive worlds, regardless of their genre. This type is not only thinking of a story but also imagining it on a movie poster, on a product display at Target, and for a party of cosplayers at a genre convention. Because of this, many aquatics struggle to stay in independent publishing, and those who are attracted to writing may attempt to develop a huge fan base so they can bring it to other media, like television or film.
Aquatics are deeply in tune with their audience.They know many of their active readers by name, and they treat every project as if everyone has read their entire catalog and knows all the inside jokes. Direct sales and the serialized subscription model is ideal for them because their fans will fuel them to get the story finished.
Aquatics scale their audience by going horizontal. They build a world, a story, an experience, and then they extend it to a new format or product category, a concept called “transmedia.” Ideally, this serves their current audience while helping bring in a new one. To do this, aquatics often need to work with a team of people who have complementary skill sets. It takes a lot of work to realize an aquatic’s full vision, and they can’t do all the work themselves, nor can they learn all the things they need to in order to execute each project well.
What’s your author ecosystem? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org!