The Business End

Professional writers often forget that they are, essentially, small-business owners.  They create a product that they must then distribute, promote, and (hopefully) sell in order to make all those big bucks that writers inevitably see (yeah, right).  The rub comes from the fact that most writers got out of the “real world” to avoid all of this mess in order to do what they love:  making stuff up.  Now comes the viscious circle, because unless they pay attention to the “business end”, they cannot be profitable enough to have the time to devote to the “creative end”.  Of course, unless they devote energy to their creative work, they won’t need to pay attention to the numbers…there won’t be any. 

Unfortunately, this is not a problem I currently have.  I have sold two whole articles in my lifetime, with a net profit of about $75.  The money was nice and I’d definitely do it again, but my business end is rather…petite.  I will not be needing to install the elastic band on my business pants to cover my debt-ridden derriere anytime soon.  My hope is that it won’t always be this way. 

Should my circumstances change and I am able to eke out some sort of living from my scribbling, I have attained enough self-knowledge to know that I do not have a head for business.  This is not because I’m an “artiste” and above such lowly concerns…it is because I hate math and have to push myself to balance my checkbook and track my debit card receipts.  I cannot even imagine myself creating a business or marketing plan, tracking a profit margin, or doing basic accounting…unless there are zombies or ninjas involved, of course.

Today’s meeting of the Denton Writer’s League introduced me to author Pauline Baird Jones.  She is the award-winning author of 8 books and maintains her “Perils of Pauline” web presence.  She and co-author Jamie Engle have recently published Managing Your Book Writing Business, a roadmap that allows fledgling authors to avoid many of the pitfalls that come from the “business end” of authorship.  At our meeting, Ms. Jones presented several key pieces of advice to help guide us down the path to success.

“You are responsible for your own career.”  This mantra, attributed to game-designer Joe Ludwig’s blog post was probably the primary theme of Ms. Jones’ approach.  There are a lot of aspects in publishing and in writing that the author has little to no control over.  However, the writer can and should manage their own business and, most importantly, manage their own choices, in order to ensure that they achieve success. 

The first step in achieving this success is for the individual to define what it is that they want to do.  Where are you going with your writing?  Why are you writing? Do you want to make it to the NYT Bestseller list?  Do you want to see your work in a bookstore?  Do you want to be invited to a prestigious conference?  Sit down and decide what defines “success” for you. 

Actually create a “mission statement”.  It can be as brief as you want.  It should also be broad and bold.  This is where you dream.  This is what you put on that pedestal.  Once you’ve decided where you want to go, then you will be able to make decisions that can take you closer to that goal.  Further, you can tailor your expectations to your decisions. 

If your goal was never to be published by a New York house, and then you get rejected by a New York house, you knew to expect this.  And it wasn’t what you wanted anyway.  But if it was your goal, then you can work on figuring out what choices are going to get you closer next time around.

Essentially, it is important for the author to know what she wants and to know what to expect.  With this knowledge, she can make good decisions that will take her where she wants to go.  And, just as importantly, she can create back up plans for when Plan A inevitably goes awry.

It is also important for a writer to cultivate their “brand”.  This is a nice industry buzzword, but what does it mean?  The brand is basically “who you are” (or at least the “you” that is being presented).  Use your uniqueness to create your brand.  If you, Polly Paprika, have created your brand then, when someone blogs about or is discussing your work,  people that already know Polly Paprika have an idea of what to expect.  It is your style, your gateway into people’s consciousness. 

It is also important for the author to create a brand in order to better understand what they are selling.  A writer that actively tries to understand what they write, why they write it, and how it is received can only reap benefits by acting on that knowledge.  They will not waste their time marketing their work to segments that are not remotely interested.   With this knowledge, the author can create a viable marketing plan.

An interesting side-note about marketing in the mainstream book industry: most of the publishing firms don’t really do much more market research than simply noting what people are reading “right now”.  The problem is, most of those books were actually written 2-3 years ago.  This makes it difficult to try and write to the market–it’s a perpetual game of catch-up.  With a solid brand, an author can take a short cut around this hill.  They are not selling specific books per se, but selling what the reader can expect from them.  This helps ensure that they are not entirely beholden to the whims of the moment and can commit “random acts of writing”.

Finally, the biggest thing to remember as a author/business owner is that your readers, agents, publishers, editors, and even other authors are people.  They remember when you help them out and are a good citizen of the publishing world.  They also remember when you’re a primadonna, a diva, and a gossip. 

Everything you do leaves footprints.  It’s a small world and getting smaller by the megabyte.  Try to build bridges with people instead of tearing them down.  Don’t gossip.  Don’t put your name to anything untrue, unreliable, or just plain bad.  They say that word of mouth can be the biggest seller of books.  It can also ensure that a rogue author never sells a book.  Remember that the people you meet (or “meet” online) are now your promotion platform and act accordingly.

By keeping all of these tips in mind you allow yourself to be the best boss you can be.  Break down the business components of your work into bite-sized chunks and make sure that you have time to write.  Let your author-self play once the checks are cut and the bills are paid.  Remember that “writing is a constantly evolving degree program” and that the business end is a necessary part of the learning curve. 

Now, I have to get back to the grindstone.  I don’t really have a business end yet and won’t unless I actually produce something.  With this advice, I’ll know where to start once that mad-money comes pouring in. 

OK, I guess I still need to work on those realistic expectations.

About Shedrick

I am a professional librarian and a part-time writer that's working to do that the other way around. I currently live in North Texas in the lovely city of Denton (“The Home of Happiness“) with my lovely wife and the obligatory demon-spawn cats. When not writing, gaming, or watching cheezy kung-fu flicks, I can sometimes be found in a pub (or the American equivalent) enjoying a fine brew.
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