Six impossible things

The Business of Writing: Administration

5. Administration – This is the overall organization of people and processes, including everything from office management to the human resources department.

 For writers, Administration covers most of the day-to-day tasks of making and tracking submissions, answering mail, returning email and phone calls, filing, organizing manuscripts, maintaining the web site and blog, and so on. This is where the famous Secretary Hat goes – the job of logging submissions and rejections and then getting the manuscript back in the mail.

Administration, like Finance, is often considered dull, unglamorous, and downright boring. It generally involves a lot of paperwork and organization, which puts a lot of folks off. But like Finance, Administration is something no business can do without. The most obvious part is the aforementioned getting the manuscript in the mail – as I’ve said before, editors do not do house-to-house searches for publishable manuscripts. If Admin doesn’t get the manuscript out, the story won’t get published.

There are, however, a lot more ways in which Admin is important. Keeping track of submissions, for instance – you probably don’t want six novels all sitting at the same publishing house at the same time, even if it is your first choice of publisher. You certainly don’t want to forget that this story was rejected by Editor A at Publisher A three years ago, and send it back as a “new” submission. You may want to keep track of which markets respond promptly and which take years, or which places have bought more (or paid more for) particular types of stories.

You also don’t want to lose track of how long things have been under submission – there’s a point at which you really ought to query the publishing house to find out if the ms. got lost somewhere in the process, and that point is neither six days nor six years after you mailed it off. You don’t want the email from the agent or the prospective editor to sit unanswered in your “in” basket for a week. You want your files and data entry up to date in whatever system you have, so that if and when somebody asks whether you own the Portuguese language e-book rights for a story you published twenty years ago, you can look it up without spending hours and hours digging through old piles of paper, only to discover that the contract you’re after seems to have vanished.

Administration can also cover a lot of miscellaneous and occasional jobs, like travel agent, monitoring and reordering office supplies, mailing out ARCs (Advanced Reading Copies), correspondence, keeping the library in order, finding research materials, keeping the web page current, scheduling and coordinating whatever meetings or interviews or events need to be scheduled and coordinated, etc.

In a large company or corporation, pretty much every department has its own Administration section, because every department has paperwork, phone calls, and organizing necessities. For writers (and any small business), Administration doesn’t have such hard edges. Deciding what to write next is Operations; but is keeping track of the story notes and supporting research Administration or part of Operations? Deciding on a list of publishers to query is Marketing; but composing and printing the letters is probably Administration. Doing the taxes is Finance; filing the receipts and entering income and expenses into Quicken all year could be considered either Admin or Finance. Etc.

It isn’t particularly important that this area be broken out from all the others. What is important is that the work gets done – submissions get tracked, manuscripts get mailed, contracts get filed, the web page gets maintained, e-mails and letters get answered, and so on.

However you choose to keep all the various records and processes, it is generally easiest to set up a good system right from the beginning. The longer you wait, the more likely it is that your early work will never get properly entered when you finally get around to it. The problem is that the earlier one is in one’s writing career, the more all this tracking and record-keeping seems like overkill, or at the very least, over-optimism. And besides, it’s boring and it takes time and it’s boring and it takes energy and it’s boring. Nevertheless, if you stay in the writing business, your future self will thank you for doing it all right from the start. Trust me on this one.

Administration also includes the Human Resources department. Since few writers have any actual employees, this covers stuff like dealing with one’s agent, accountant, and any other professional services one has contracted for, plus whatever skills development one decides to invest in for oneself. “Skills development” here refers to anything that’s going to help the business. Writing skills are one obvious area; one can work on them deliberately in lots of ways, from doing informal experimental bits and pieces to critique groups to attending a seminar or workshop to taking classes in grammar or whatever other area you may feel weak in.

There are, however, lots of other business-related skills that are good for a writer to develop. Basic financial management is a fairly obvious weak point for way too many people; checking the latest marketing and publicity techniques never hurts; website management changes so rapidly that it’s certainly worth reading up on every year or so, and maybe even taking a brush-up class periodically. Publicity and Marketing are areas where writers tend to be at one extreme or the other: either they’re naturals, or they’re floundering. There are books and classes on all these things, frequently in Community Ed centers (which are usually cheaper and less time-intensive than college-level night school).

If you’re starting to feel overwhelmed, I’m not surprised. I started feeling overwhelmed about two posts ago, and all I’m really doing here is describing, in categories and a bit more detail than usual, the stuff I have to do to make a living writing. Seeing it all laid out in print makes me realize just how much I and all the other pros I know are juggling all the time…and there are still two areas to go.

Next up: Public Relations.

  1. Thank you!

  2. I built my own database to track my stories and where I sent them, but that was before I discovered Duotrope. I have to admit that their site does a better job, at least for now and at least for me. There’s even a place for notes for each story, where I can (theoretically) list the rights that are eventually purchased. As an added bonus, I can download a backup copy of their data, so the risk of losing everything is minimal.

    Oh, and submitting stories isn’t boring…it’s terrifying! 🙂 I’ve passed the 20-rejections mark (still a piker, I know), and I still get sick to my stomach when I sit down to submit something. Takes me hours to hit send on a two-sentence email. Maybe I’ll try a little dissociation and pretend I’m my own secretary.

    Which I can practice right now, since I’m reading this blog as a way to procrastinate on sending out the next story. Ooops!

    • Shannon – One thing that really helped me with the submission anxiety was turning it into a routine – I made up a form letter that only needed a new address and date, so I didn’t have to compose anything new to send out each submission, and pre-addressed a bunch of envelopes, so I had as little to do as possible to get the next submission out the door. It’s easy enough to do the same sort of thing for email, so that all you have to do is paste in the new address and hit send. Also, allow yourself to pitch a huge hairy fit – AFTER the next submission is on its way. Rejection is never fun, whether it’s the first one or the thirty-first one, and you’re allowed to feel bummed out about it. You just don’t get to be so bummed out that you neglect your job, which is sending out the next submission. 🙂

  3. It is a little overwhelming, but I think that it’s also something that would make more sense once you actually start doing it. Right now, it seems like there’s so much I don’t know, but I’m sure I’ll pick up on things once I actually have to. Also, at the same time, like you said, it is much better to get all these things organized before you need it.

  4. So when is the right time to send an e-mail asking if the ms. has been lost? Would it depend on the publisher, or be a standard?

    And another question: is it standard practice to send manuscripts to multiple publishers at once (which I think would make more sense) or just one by one? How do you know when it’s a good time to send out the next batch? Should you send a query letter or the ms.?

    Finally, in the great unlikelyhood that this would ever happen, what if TWO publishers were to accept the ms.? I would think that if someone turned down a publisher’s offer, it might ruin the relationship.

    But then again, I’m not an expert! 🙂

  5. Thanks for the good advice. Never give up, never surrender!

    I don’t know why I have this hangup about writing a new cover letter for every submission. It’s not like any of them are particularly creative (I’m told it’s better to avoid creativity in cover letters). I think there’s a little paranoid part of me that’s concerned I’m going to forget to change part of the letter (story title, editor’s name, whatever). Of course, I could quadruple check it for such things and still save 45 minutes to an hour over my current process. 🙂

  6. @Shannon

    The simplest way around that problem of getting errors on your submission letter is to put blanks where the information goes.

    Then write in a placeholder for that blank that is BOLD and ALL CAPS and possibly BLINKING RED LETTERS so you don’t leave out important information or accidentally leave in your placeholders.

    • Mary – It depends. I always sent a stamped, self-addressed postcard with my manuscript that said “We received your manuscript on _____”. If I didn’t get that back, I’d usually call about a month after I mailed the ms. If I did get it back, I’d wait at least three months and send a polite letter; after six months, I phoned. That was, however, thirty years ago; these days, I’d probably stick to e-mail for my inquiries. As far as submissions go, there’s some argument about whether a new writer should multiple-submit or stick to sending out their novels one publisher at a time, but most places won’t even look at unsolicited novel manuscripts now, so you have to start with a query letter anyway…and you can send query letters to as many places as you want, all at once. When they say they’d like to see your novel, you send it to them. Short stories are strictly one-publisher-at-a-time, no queries. The fact that multiple-submitting can indeed ruin your relationship with a publisher if two of them accept it at once is precisely why some people (me included) recommend sticking to one publisher at a time for a full submission; the fact that it takes forever for publishers to get back to authors is the argument in favor of multiple-submitting.

      Obviously, I need to do a post on this, too! 🙂

      Shannon – Unless you work in publishing or have good, gossipy friends who do, you’re unlikely to know enough about a given publisher to write an individualized, targeted cover letter that will have any impact at all. Many editors don’t even bother to READ cover letters until after they’ve looked at the manuscript. A cover letter doesn’t really need to say more than “Enclosed is my manuscript, THE BEST THING SINCE SLICED BREAD. Thank you for taking the time to look at it.” If you’re spending 45 minutes agonizing over that, you’re cat-vacuuming. If you’re really that paranoid about the editor’s name and addres and the title of the book, Starkin’s advice should do the trick.

      StarKin – What you said.

  7. I like StarKin’s advice. And I am definitely cat-vacuuming, though I’d always heard it as cat-shaving. 🙂

    Time for me to make an Outlook template, I think. It’s not that hard, after all.

  8. I’m not sure about other fields, but the 2 or 3 SFF publishers in the US still accepting unsolicited manuscripts are blunt about not wanting multiple submissions – Toni at Baen even says she sees it as cause to drop a submission she’s considering. That, mind you, is as much because she’s found that people who can’t follow submission guidelines are going to be too much trouble to work with even if they can write a sellable story. However, there’s nothing to stop you having Novel A in one slush pile while Novels B & C moulder away in other piles. You can always withdraw a manuscript if someone else asks to see it. A corollary is that if you have several manuscripts ready to go, most people don’t want to see more than one of them in their slush pile, but there’s no problem if you mention them in the cover letter. If they like what they have in hand, they know they can ask to see more.

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003,