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My Second Act: Bestselling Novelist

If you'd like to write novels for your second act, here's what to know

By Bill Thompson

After decades as a corporate executive for a financial services firm, my life in that fast-track world changed forever on July 3, 2009, when my first wife learned that her rare neurological disease would claim her life within 12 months. I quickly transitioned from executive to caregiver and soon found time to finish a novel I'd started 30 years earlier, "The Bethlehem Scroll."

Close up photo of a book. Next Avenue, second career, writer
Credit: Jonas Jacobsson

My wife died a year after its publication, and I decided not to return to the "real" world. I sold the company and started on book Number 2. Was this a hobby or a new career? I had no idea; all I knew was I enjoyed writing.

Today, at age 74, I have 21 books; they've won a total of 21 awards.

It took 18 months to finish the second book, but then I ramped up, turning out two more a year — sometimes three. Today, at age 74, I have 21 books; they're archaeological thrillers and supernatural/paranormal ones. They've won a total of 21 awards. I'm enjoying a second career as a novelist, and the rewards are truly worth the effort.

If the idea of becoming an author for your second act sounds intriguing, you may want to learn how I've done it and see my advice below.

How You Can Become a Second-Act Novelist

I'm an independent, or self-published, author; that's true for many second-act authors. It means you won't see my books in airport stores, but I do get to keep a greater percentage of sales than authors of publishing houses, control my own content and cover design and am responsible for all promotion and marketing.

I looked into traditional publishing and chose the indie route because of its flexibility. A publisher can force you to change your story or replace the cover with one you detest. Even with the glamour of a major publishing house's logo on your cover, unless you're a James Patterson or a Daniel Silva, your book will sell based solely on your own marketing efforts.

I figured: Why not self-publish and keep more money for yourself? (I use Amazon's publishing arm, CreateSpace.)

When I transitioned to writing, my motive wasn't pecuniary. I sought something fulfilling to occupy my time and give me a sense of purpose.

I found that and more – a good monthly income bolstered by an ever-growing backlist, structure in my life (through things like goal setting and managing blocks of time to write) plus an unexpected by-product — the support and appreciation of readers who reach out to tell me they like my novels. That's what makes it all worthwhile.

Why I Find Writing Fulfilling

Writing, I've found, is fulfilling in different ways than corporate life.

For instance, I get an instant performance evaluation each time a reader posts a review online. I'm grateful that most of mine are positive. The negative ones I read and let go. You can't please 'em all, my genre doesn't appeal to everyone and I can take criticism. Sometimes a negative review even helps, by pointing out problems with inconsistency, formatting or grammar.

Book cover of "The Atonement" by Bill Thompson. Next Avenue, second career, writer

But, I've also found, becoming a second-act author is no get-rich-quick endeavor. It's estimated that more than a million new books, mostly self-published, are posted on Amazon each year and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos says fewer than a thousand authors will make a six-figure annual income.

At first, writing was mostly about the satisfaction and goal-fulfillment angles. Once reviews started posting, however, and I realized people actually liked what I wrote, I decided to approach it as a business instead of a hobby.

I wouldn't simply produce a book now and then. Instead, I'd set a schedule, notify my readers and meet my deadlines to give them more of what they — and I — wanted.

The decision to manage your life as a business comes with challenges, though. For me, one of the biggest is self-imposed deadlines. As an independent author, I decide when my book will be released, what advance marketing and publicity will happen and how early I'll send pre-release notices to my reader database. Once that release date is public, I must ensure it happens.

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Amazon, which I depend on for 90% of my income, considers a missed deadline a major blunder, and there are serious consequences. Miss a deadline and you can't post a book for pre-release again for six months. Miss one twice and you can't post for pre-release at all.

It's also unprofessional, and an indie author must be no less a professional than a traditionally published counterpart.

Writing Isn't for Everyone

Although self-published authors face low barriers to entry these days, writing isn't for everyone. Your toolkit must include a fertile imagination and a knack for spinning a yarn. If reading, English class and basic writing skills weren't your bag in high school, it's unlikely you'll enjoy — or be successful at — becoming a novelist.

In 2020, I published three books; I doubt I'll ever do that again.

I use a computer and the writing software Scrivener to help structure my book as I write and advance my career as an author. 

When you're finished with a draft you'll need a proofreader, an editor and a few beta readers — not your mother or your friend from the bar or your 14-year-old gamer grandson. You need people who enjoy reading your genre and will provide frank, unbiased criticism.

Many indie authors join beta reading teams, pairing with another author to get an honest critique of style and content in exchange for giving the same.

Sometimes I ask myself when all this will end. My second wife Margie and I love to travel, and we enjoy good food and wine. We're seeing friends and family again, so I won't have the hours of free time locked in my house that was the year 2020. In that year, I published three books; I doubt I'll ever do that again.

Writing gives me purpose and keeps my mind active. Reading reviews from fans gives me a boost when I'm discouraged. Margie ensures everyone we meet on trips knows I'm an author and where to find my books.

I may slow down as a writer but won't quit unless something changes in my life. I just hope it's not anytime soon; I'm having way too much fun.

Editor’s note: This article is part of America's Entrepreneurs, a Next Avenue initiative made possible by the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation and EIX, the Entrepreneur Innovation Exchange.

Bill Thompson
Bill Thompson Bestselling author Bill Thompson's award-winning novels have entertained thousands of readers. His latest is "The Atonement," a spooky mystery in an ancient bayou mansion. Visit Billthompsonbooks.com for more information. Read More
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