Six impossible things

The Business of Writing: Pulling it all Together

So there you have it: all seven areas of business – operations, sales and marketing, quality control, finance, administration, public relations, and executive – laid out for writers. Looking at them all at once like this is rather daunting, but not looking at them at all is a recipe for messing up.

If you are a professional writer – or hope to be one – you are running a small business. It’s kind of a peculiar small business, but it’s still a business. Even if the main thing you are interested in is the Art of writing, the business aspects deserve careful consideration and attention, because they affect both the time and energy you have for creating your work (if you’re spending twelve hours a day putting out fires because you neglected one area or another, there’s not much time or energy left for writing). How you manage your business also affects the availability and distribution of your finished work. This doesn’t matter much if you want to sell 100 copies to your family and friends, but it makes a big difference if you’re hoping to make a living at this.

If you’re just getting started, or have yet to sell, most of your time will be doing Production (writing), Quality Control (editing and revising), Sales and Marketing (researching publishers and sending the ms. out), and Administration (tracking your submissions). Finance will kick in as soon as you have either income or expenses to track; Publicity usually shows up a few years down the road.

Midlist writers tend to be juggling a lot faster, as they typically have several projects somewhere in the pipeline, meaning that they may be in the process of writing one book (Production), editing another (QC), while a third is just hitting the bookstores and needs a Marketing or Publicity push; two backlist titles are going up as e-books and those files need reviewing (more QC and Admin); meanwhile, Croatian subrights on half the backlist have sold and need to be tracked until the checks arrive (Admin and Finance), and maybe the writer should see if his/her agent can get them interested in the other half (Admin and Marketing); and an unexpected opportunity to edit an anthology has come up, which could take the writing career in a whole new direction and which the publisher needs a Yes or No on by the end of the month (Executive/strategy). And of course, writers who’ve achieved “lead title” or bestseller status have even more complications in all areas.

In other words, the farther along your career you get, the more work has to be done in each of the business areas, and the more complex that work becomes. This means that no matter what sort of planning you do in regard to your writing business, you’ll probably need to revisit it periodically and make adjustments according to where you currently are in your business, what the market is doing, and how your goals, skills, resources, and opportunities have changed.

As I said to begin with, most writers don’t have a formal business plan. This is because most formal business plans are designed for small businesses that are trying to get a loan from a bank, or for giant corporations that are trying to project their future business. They’re heavy on the financial stuff – sales projections, breakeven analysis, three-year projected P&L, and so on. That doesn’t work particularly well for writers because a) they’re hardly ever going to need a loan to support the business, and b) the time-line for developing a writing business is usually a lot longer than three years, which makes financial projections really difficult unless you have several contracts already in-hand.

For writers, planning the business is about managing their own resources (time, money, energy) in order to have their writing job/career/business go in whatever way they want it to. This obviously means that you have to start by figuring out which way you want things to go. Are you looking for the validation of professionally publishing a few stories? Are you hoping to make a living? Will you be happy writing one gigantic forty-volume popular series about the same people and places, or do you want to do something different with every book? Would you be happy doing some high-paying ghostwriting or working under several pseudonyms, or do you want all your work to be your original stuff with your name on it? What does “being a writer” mean to you?

Once you’ve done that, think about what you are willing and able to do to get there. I’ve talked to folks who weren’t willing to give up one hour of television per week in order to work at their writing, yet who were supposedly desperate to become bestselling writers. You can’t run a decent hobby business on one hour per week, let alone a bestselling writing business. Be honest with yourself about what you want, how much time and energy you’re willing to put into getting it, and how well those two things match up.

Also think about the kind of time and energy you are willing to put into each of the seven business areas, which ones you think you’re good at (or can be), and which ones you’re pretty sure you’ll hate. Then think a bit about how best to design your career in order to minimize the need to do stuff you hate, and get maximum benefit out of the stuff you like doing and/or are good at. (Hint: if you hate doing the Production part of Operations, i.e., the writing itself, this is probably not the career for you.)

What I’ve tried to do in this series of posts is a quick-and-dirty top-down overview of the business of writing, which I hope will be of use to people no matter what stage of their writing career they’re at. I may, at some future date, try to get into more specific practicalities in some of these areas, but probably not until after I’m done with my taxes (it’s too much like a busman’s holiday otherwise. Though I am going to add an extra post on retiring next, because people asked for it.)

Writing is a job, a career, and a business, as well as an art. If you don’t think about the business end before you actually start selling, you’ll have to play catch-up later…and the longer you wait, the harder it gets to figure it all out.

A final caution: Always keep in mind that there are only two line areas: Operations and Sales/Marketing. The Executive area, under which “making a business plan” falls, is not one of these. In other words, thinking about how you’re going to handle all this is worthwhile, even necessary, but it won’t do you any good at all unless you a) have a product (a manuscript, story, or book) to sell and b) can sell what you’ve produced. The first thing is always, always the writing: doing it and improving it and getting it out in front of editors and/or readers.

  1. I agree that the writing should always come first. Too many people get ahead of themselves and start planning their futures without working on their craft.

  2. Will you be happy writing one gigantic forty-volume popular series about the same people and places, or do you want to do something different with every book?

    I’d be interested to hear more about the merits and pitfalls of those choices, in some future post.

  3. Thanks for doing this series! I’d always separated writing into two areas: writing and everything else. 🙂 It’s interesting to think more closely about how the individual pieces fit together and complement each other.

  4. “If you’re just getting started, or have yet to sell, most of your time will be doing Production (writing), Quality Control (editing and revising), Sales and Marketing (researching publishers and sending the ms. out), and Administration (tracking your submissions)”

    After so many years of not selling novels, the executive me is having a harder and harder time deciding how much time should be spent on what. I feel like I’m operating in an information vacuum. My attempts to do Sales and Marketing have clearly had less than stellar results. Is it because I have some kind of problem in my Quality Control methods? Or is it because I just suck at Sales and Marketing? Or is it just because I haven’t found the right Product for the current market yet? I don’t understand what the problem is, so trying to fix it feels like flailing about in the dark.

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