I’ve been using StumbleUpon lately as I read the various writing blogs that I normally read, and I’ve discovered something rather enlightening. When you Stumble a link, you get this pop-up asking you to describe what the post is about. Usually I’d click Writing, American Literature, Books, Marketing, and a few other topical selections, but I found myself seeing (and clicking) Business and Entrepreneurship quite often. That struck me as moderately amusing the first few times. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense.
This isn’t going to be about all of the tax issues surrounding your writing, or how to claim your kitchen as a home office space. But let’s consider the whole business idea a little more seriously.
Google “small business success tips” or something along those lines, and you’ll get somewhere around half a gazillion results like “25 Common Characteristics of Successful Entrepreneurs;” “10 Tips for a Strong Start;” or “9 Tips For Growing A Successful Business.” All of those links have a lot of great ideas, and some of them don’t really apply to writing. Writers don’t have competitors, at least not like your typical business does. Yes, we’re competing for entertainment dollars against Redbox, Netflix, and so forth, but we’re not necessarily competing against other writers. (We sort of are, but sort of aren’t. That’s a topic for another post.)
But there are several ideas that do apply to writing, and maybe we should work harder on applying them to our writing life.
Dean Smith has had several posts recently that all talk about basically the same thing: we’ve got to remember that we’re playing the long game when it comes to writing. There’s a saying that it takes about ten years to become an overnight success, and far too many writers want to throw a book together in a year or 18 months, upload it to Amazon, and let the royalties roll in followed in short order by a movie deal with Chris Evans and Jennifer Lawrence playing the leads.
That’s like opening up a store, selling your first widget, and then retiring.
To quote a commercial, “That’s not how any of this works.”
You’re not going to get there that quickly. Million-seller books don’t happen overnight unless you’re Oprah, Kevin Durant, John Madden, or someone else with a huge audience from the get-go. It takes time to build a following, and in the meantime, you should be writing more books.
These two posts (About Time and Sales and Day-Job Thinking) really have a ton of good stuff in them about working the long game, so check them out carefully. Dean’s got a bunch of good material to learn from, so be prepared to spend some time there.
So what ideas from the business world can we apply to writing?
Here’s one that might sound familiar: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” I covered that by pointing you to Dean’s website, so I don’t know that I need to rehash it.
“Take care of your family, personal and spiritual health — if you aren’t laughing or smiling on a regular basis, recalibrate.” This one is critical. Take time out to pay attention to the world around you. Breath. Take a step back from the manuscript for a bit. That helps keep the creative juices flowing, and lets your family know you still care for them.
I found several tips about budgeting. “Always overestimate expenses and underestimate revenues.” “Figure out how to achieve your goals on a tiny budget — then cut that number in half.” What do you have to budget for? Capital expenditures. For a manufacturer, that’s the equipment and tooling to make their stuff. For a retailer, that’s the building and shelving and such. For a writer, at the most basic level, it’s a notepad and a pencil, although handwritten manuscripts are difficult to upload to Amazon these days. So capital spending for a writer is more realistically a computer system, including a printer. So do you buy the first one you find? Or do you set a budget, read the reviews, comparison-shop, and finally choose the machine that fits most of your needs and fits your budget? A business owner does the latter. She sets a budget knowing she can only afford $X for rent, then starts looking for buildings within that budget that meet her needs.
Writers should do the same. You don’t necessarily need a top-of-the-line, screaming-fast machine with all the bells and whistles, but you do need something dependable. The same holds true for software. Yes, you can buy Scrivener for $40, but does your computer already have Microsoft Word? There are dozens of free writing programs and apps out there that some say are even better than Scrivener. I get by with Word and Excel, but I know people who would give up a child before they’d try and write in Word, or without their favorite program. Use what you need, but be sure to budget for it.
But what else do you need to budget for?
Any writer needs to have at least one way to back up their data. Two ways are better. Your data is your business here. Lose it, and you’ve lost time and money.
If you’re self-publishing, you need to budget for your ISBN, your cover artist, your editor, and promotional costs. And yes, you need a professional editor, especially now that Amazon is starting to flag books with lots of grammatical errors. You need web hosting fees too, although there are one or two reliable free blog hosts, like WordPress.com, or Blogspot.
So what it comes down to is this: You need to plan your writing business, just like any other business owner. If you say, “Oh, I want to write this book, and maybe get someone to publish it for me, or I might self-publish it, because a couple of people really like my drawing, and I’m a pretty good writer, so I can do most of it, and…,” then in five years you’ll have one book published, and a couple dozen copies sold to friends and family, and you won’t know why you failed.
You might not even know that you failed.
But if you say, “I’ve got to write all the stories! I’ve got so many great ideas! I’ve got this whole epic series in my head! I can do this!” then you sit down and plan out your writing time, and make a realistic budget, and stick to it, then in time, you might have a few dozen streams of income from different books and anthologies.
It’s not simple, and it’s not necessarily easy. But it’s doable.
Writing for a career makes it a business. Start treating it like one.