The Business End of Writing

By Mike Briggs


Writers are generally pretty open about their craft. Ask about characters, tone or setting and they'll drone on for hours. Ask about the money, taxes, or actually making money as a writer, and you can suddenly hear the crickets chirping in the next county.

There's several reasons for this. First, many writers are 'artists'. You know, creative geniusess who speak with angels, live in cardboard huts, and wouldn't sully the purity of their work by associating with the crass and materialistic world. I say that tongue-in-cheek, but for many artists it's true. They don't create for money. They support themselves in some other fashion and create whatever strikes them using whatever scraps of time remain. Those of us who brazenly labor for lucre don't often say so; the purists look upon us as prostitutes. It's kind of like the first rule of fight club: artists don't discuss money.

Second, writers are often embarrassed by their earnings. I honestly don't know how much other authors make. I do know that, for the ten years of her writing career, Patty's work made a nice tax write-off for my income. Generally something between five and ten thousand per year. Deduct the cost of a computer, travel to a few conventions and it's pretty easy to show a negative return on investment. That's good if you need a tax write-off; bad if you're trying to live on it. When an aspiring author comes up, gushes about the latest book, and obliquely inquires about how lucrative the career is, it's tempting to explain that the first rule of art is that we don't discuss money. It's certainly less embarrassing than admitting that you make half of what the kid serving fries at Burger King takes home.

To make matters worse, success tends to come quickly, if it comes at comes at all. I suspect there aren't a whole bunch of authors making a nice stable fifty thousand dollar income. There's a lot making five to twenty, and a few making much more. And, of course, it's just as embarrassing (and even more crass) to talk about making a million as it is to talk about making five thousand. So, back the first rule, it's just not done.

It's not just income, artists are often proudly ignorant of taxes, money, banking, finance and all those pesky mundane concerns. There are many dilettantes, hobbyists and trust-fund beneficiaries who swan about claiming that the art is about supplicating the muse to distill some essence of the the divine for the unwashed masses. Obviously, the mouthpiece of the muse can't be concerned with money. . . I've heard it all, and I call shenanigans. For anyone who expects to make a long-term career, it's a business. So, here's my first bit of advice: find your mental image of the perfect author, the future you. Now get rid of the chiffon and silk and dress your avatar in a business suit. You not only need to write good books, but you have to run a successful business.

A Few Basic Rules

So, you're ready to start your business writing. Good. First question: "Why are you looking to an author's site for answers? This is the competition, cupcake! Do you think Exxon asks Conoco where to drill for oil?"

If that set you back a bit, good. The answer to that question, by the way, is that authors aren't really in competition. Most authors can't write more than a couple books a year, and most readers finish a novel in a day or two. The best way to maximize income is to increase the total pool of readers, and that means producing a lot more books than any one author is capable of. Fortunately, that means authors are free to help one another without cutting their own revenue. Most authors realize this, but it never hurts to be a little cautious of free advice.

The first thing any business needs is a business plan. The basic plan is simple, and goes like this:

  1. Write an awesome book
  2. Sell copies of the book to readers.
Notice that there's nothing in there about agents or publishers. Your business plan is to sell to readers, because that's ultimately where the money comes from. Simple.

The next thing you need to know is that time is money. Your time is finite, and if you're doing a mass mailing or tweeting about your word count, you're not making product.

A related truth is You're not an expert in everything. Many authors have a hard time with that one, so let's repeat it together:You're not an expert in everything. It takes a certain amount of ego to be an author. You need it to rise above the naysayers, the negative reviews, and the little voice of doubt that's trying to sabotauge your writing. However, that same ego can be a liability on the business side of life. Store your ego with that chiffon dress, you can have it back when you're actually writing. You're probably not a marketing expert, a financier, a graphics designer or a tax accountant. You may have some skill in one or more of those areas, but that doesn't make you an expert.

Don't believe me? Go look at some author websites. Pick a dozen of them at random. Heck, look at this website. Now, virtually every one of those authors believes they're a master of web design, or at least 'good enough'. Most of them are wrong.

Fleshing Out the Business Plan

Now you can put the basic rules together with your basic business plan to get a business stategy. When authors talk shop, it's almost all about the first step, write that awesome book. Let's assume you've done your homework, and have that covered. The next step is critical, and even experienced authors often misunderstand it.

Because you wrote the book, you have this nifty bundle of rights, including the exclusive rights to reproduce the book. The goal is to leverage that right to sell copies to readers. One way of doing that is with a publishing house. They have distribution channels, printers, marketers, and a host of experts to help promote and sell your work. And, they'll want about 90% of the gross proceeds to take care of it for you. Remember, however, that you're not selling your book to the publisher, you're contracting with them to package and distribute a product.

You may decide to go with a small press, a vanity press, or self-publish your work. These are all just tactics for handling the reproduction and distribution of your work. The temptation is to try to do it all yourself, and keep that big chunk of money the publisher wants in your pocket. Fair enough. Just remember our rules: time is money, and you're not an expert in everything. The more time you spend acting as art director and regional sales manager, the less you have for writing. For many tasks, you'll be better off hiring a third party.

There's no 'one true path'. There's a lot of business decisions to be made, and the details can be overwhelming. This part of the publishing industry is changing rapidly, and you'll have to chart your own course through it. Is it better to get 50% of net sales from a small publisher, or 10% of gross sales from a large publisher? Is it better to photoshop an out of focus starfield, or hire a top-notch cover artist? Strictly digital, or paper? Mass market or trade? It's your business, you're the CEO. Just remember, your goal is getting as many books as possible into the hands of as many paying customers as possible. If you decide to blog, or twitter, or give away free ebooks, that should be part of marketing plan that furthers the goal of selling books.

Having written the book, there's more money to be made than just selling English publication rights. There's a host of other countries out there who may be willing to buy rights to translate and publish your book. There's also movies, audio books, computer games, toys, T-shirts, and who knows what else. You can almost feel your idealism burn away in the cauldron of seething commercialism. You can try to pursue those venues yourself, or hire an agent (or even multiple angents) to do it for you. Yeah, that same agent might be helpful in getting a deal with a big publisher, if you decide you want one. Remember, this is a business decision, not a rite of passage. That agent, if you hire one, is going to want a piece of your pie.

So, we've chosen to go the traditional route, and for us it makes sense. Patty has an awesome agent, who has negotiated a number of foreign sales and opportunities we never would have found on our own. Her books are published and distributed by a large publisher, who gets paid by taking a portion of the gross sales. We sacrifice some profit and creative control for the time and freedom to concentrate on writing. Many other successful authors have charted a different course, with excellent results. They're not sailing blindly, they're making choices. Run your business -- it's a verb, it implies action. Know your goals, evaluate the costs, compare alternatives, make decisions.

Part II