Six impossible things

The Business of Writing: Executive

7. Executive – This has to do with strategic planning and overseeing everything else.

 For writers, the Executive area means keeping an eye on all the other categories to make sure nothing is left out and everything stays in balance (which can be quite a trick for a one-person business). This is also where long-range forward planning goes, which is a whole set of choices that usually get lumped under “managing your writing career.”

Exactly what is an Executive decision and what falls into one of the other areas of business is a slippery thing to determine – and generally unnecessary, as well. As long as you decide whether to let the publisher have e-book rights or whether to hang on to them and published the e-books yourself, it doesn’t matter whether you call it Operations, Finance, or Executive. The important thing is that the decision gets made.

Larger decisions fall squarely within the Executive category, especially those “managing your career” decisions. There are a lot more options than many would-be writers think of, ranging from basic and fairly obvious decisions (self-publish or traditional publishing? Large, regional, small, or micro-press? E-books or paper? Short stories or novels?), to things that affect specific areas like Finance (go for the highest possible advance, or trade high advances for a better royalty rate, or even a royalties-only deal?) or Publicity (focus mainly on online, or offline? Push early and often, or wait until there are more books to push?), to career development (strictly original fiction, or work-for-hire? Under your name, a pseudonym, or multiple pseudonyms? In one genre or several? Working with other writers, packagers, etc., working solo, or some combination as opportunities arise?).

All these decisions can and do get revisited periodically, and sometimes they change as circumstances change. You may decide initially that you’re going to stick strictly to novels, and five years later unexpectedly get asked to participate in a prestigious short-story anthology with some of the most prominent writers in your field. You might still end up turning the opportunity down, but I guarantee you’ll want to think really hard about it first.

This is also where I’d put managing the backlist, which is a key element in making a living for any writer who’s been at it for a while. Your backlist is all of your older titles; it of course includes the stuff that’s out of print, but it also includes stuff that’s been in print for a couple of years, and maybe even some of those “trunk stories” that never sold at all. Older titles can be resold to new publishers once they go out of print; if you and/or your agent put some elbow grease into it, subrights like audiobooks and foreign translations can provide a surprising amount of income. And then there are e-books and print-on-demand, which have opened up a lot of options for the backlist…but again, you need to put some effort into getting things out there and maintaining them.

One of the most important aspects of the Executive area is keeping everything else in balance – making sure that Publicity isn’t taking over the time that needs to be spend on production/Operations, that the Finance and Administration paperwork is kept up to date, that Sales is covering the backlist as well as the current work, etc. This is especially tricky because in writing, all of this stuff comes in waves: Finance is pretty dead for most of the year, bar an hour or two a month for record-keeping, but it suddenly becomes a critical activity in April when taxes are due. Quality Control has a big surge right before a new book comes out (with the copyedit and galleys to go over); Publicity and Marketing usually have their surge right after. And so on.  So you can’t assign X hours per week to each area, week in and week out. You have to put a lot of hours into whatever is “hot” at the moment, while keeping an eye out to make sure the stuff that isn’t currently swamping you gets enough attention that it won’t blow up into some other kind of crisis.

Long-range planning is a major component of the Executive area. What do you want your eventual writing career to look like? Some writers make as much or more from giving workshops, speaking engagements, writer-in-residence gigs, and teaching as they do from the books they write; others make their money cranking out titles in multiple genres under multiple pseudonyms; still others work in multiple areas, writing screenplays or comics or RPG scenarios as well as short stories and novels; some stick to one much-loved series or set of characters; and so on.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all way of managing your career, because there are many different possible goals and many different paths to reaching each one. Also, no two writers I know have ever been faced with the exact same set of opportunities and challenges coming out of the blue, nor have they made the exact same set of choices when faced with similar opportunities.

In the past thirty years, I’ve accepted or turned down various opportunities ranging from editing anthologies, to writing a work-for-hire, to helping a friend launch a small press, to teaching classes in writing, to writing a book specifically for a packager or a new line being developed by a friend/editor. Sometimes, my friends and colleagues thought I was crazy to take the risk I took; sometimes, they thought I was crazy for not taking advantage of whatever it was. At present, I don’t regret any of the choices I’ve made; I think that’s because I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do in the long run, and where I wanted to end up and why (if not always how to get there).

Another major component of the Executive area is keeping an eye on what the market is doing, and educating yourself about what it has done in the past and what possible directions it may be going in the future. Over my career, there’s been a major, market-changing event about every ten years – the Thor Power Tool tax decision in the 1980s, the collapse of the independent distributors in the 1990s, the explosion in e-books in the 2000s. Some were predictable; some weren’t – but all of them affected the way I handle my business (whether that means the kind of publicity I do, the way my agent negotiates various contract provisions, or which publishers I put at the top of my “I want them to publish my books” list).

Almost done; next is the summary, or Putting It All Together.

  1. Thanks again for publishing this series. It has been a fantastic introduction to the industry.

  2. It’s nice to have someone who is so analytically minded describe the process. I find there are a lot of authors who just say “I dunno, I just do what works for me.” This gives us a good handle on things. Thanks!

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,