The Business Rusch: Playing To Win

 

The Business Rusch: Playing To Win

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

I keep teasing my husband, saying he should write a how-to book called Think and Grow Thin. Seriously. Because that’s how this man loses weight. He lost 40 pounds this year on the Think and Grow Thin method. He sets his mind to losing weight, and voila! he does it. Of course, there’s some effort involved. He says the book should be titled Eat Less and Exercise More.  But that’s not as sexy as Think and Grow Thin.

Besides, my title is an accurate reflection of what he does. He thinks about every bite he puts in his mouth and then he loses weight. Because he’s focused on it.

That title could probably be modified for anything: Think and Grow Rich (Didn’t Napoleon Hill already write that?); Think and Grow Confidence; Think and Grow a Pair. Seriously. Because you can do anything you put your mind to.  At least, that’s how I was raised.

Two weeks ago, I wrote a post called “Unexpected Gold in Self-Help Books.” I’d been looking at self-help books written for women and took out the word “woman” and inserted the word “writer” you might have an accurate portrait of most writers today. Then last week, I talked about the way that modern writers were trained in the old world of traditional publishing, and how that training influenced the way they approached their business.

Jim Franz in the comments mentioned that psychology has moved beyond finding what caused the behavior to figuring out what causes a person to continue that behavior in the present. If you’re participating in some kind of harmful behavior, what are you getting out of it? Are you getting anything at all? Or is it inertia? Maybe there is a root psychological cause, but better to dig out the problem in the present than deal with whatever caused it in the past. The past is immutable. The present is not.

So with that in mind, I separated out my list from two weeks ago into a whole new series of lists, with subheadings like:

    • Money
    • Fear
    • Playing To Win
    • Being Powerful (Not a Victim)
    • Believing the Worst
    • Prince Charming to The Rescue!
    • Defending the Writer
    • Volunteering to Get Screwed

 

Then I put the pertinent items from my long list into the subheadings, figuring there would be some crossover. There is, but not as much as I expected. So I’ll deal with the subheadings and their various lists in the next few weeks.

This week, I’ll deal with the one I find the most fascinating: Playing To Win. Because most writers I know—hell, most people I know—do not play to win. The difference between people who are truly successful and people who are not is that winning attitude. I know you’ve heard this a million times, but it’s true.

I’m not talking about the winner-take-all attitude that we sometimes get taught in gym classes and that movies like Wall Street are about.  I’m talking about the attitude you bring with you to any situation.  No coach in college football—where the stakes are high, and money comes into the program based on a good record—tells the team as they’re headed onto the field, “See if the other team will let you get one touchdown. One touchdown, and maybe a few extra yards. That’s good enough. Just one touchdown.”

The coach does his best to get the team to win.  Some coaches cheat to do it. Some destroy their players to do it. And some teach their players how to play effectively with the eye on the prize—a win at the end of four quarters, with no injuries and no cheating and a lot of hard work.

Imagine me as the coach who wants to teach you how to play effectively. The first thing you have to do is learn how to win.

Sounds silly, no? But it’s not. And the whole idea for this topic initially came from a self-help book written by Mika Brzezinski called Knowing Your Value. Mostly, the book has recycled ideas from other self-help books (which is why it’s not in my recommended reading list). But the fascinating thing to me about this book is the reason that Brzezinski wrote it in the first place.

This internationally famous woman, daughter of a former National Security Advisor, longtime broadcaster with years of success in her own right, realized she was underpaid and undervalued at her job. It took years of fighting to get a salary on par with the other men in her office, and she actually had to make a case for herself, a case that none of the  men had to make.

I find this fascinating because I always assume that someone famous, someone who works as hard as Brzezinski does, has already learned her value. The fact that she hadn’t, that she had to claw her way up from an unequal position that she believes was partly caused by her own attitudes (and, after reading the book, I agree), is an open window into a private world. This kind of behavior happens all the time to people who are obviously successful and those who are not.  It leads to unhappiness, burnout, and midlife crisises. In some ways, failing to understand your own value is like a football team going onto the field hoping for and being satisfied with a single touchdown.

People who don’t know their own value can’t play to win.

So here’s the list of pertinent items from two weeks ago that belong in the Playing To Win category:

  • Writers don’t play to win
  • Writers strive for survival, not wealth
  • Writers don’t have financial goals
  • Writers don’t know their worth
  • Writers don’t get rich because they don’t envision themselves rich
  • Writers refuse to learn when and where they have power
  • Writers lack a sense of entitlement
  • Writers listen to naysayers
  • Writers rarely speak up for themselves
  • Writers give up too easily
  • Writers fail to negotiate
  • Prince Charming will ride to the rescue. (In a writer’s world, Prince Charming is an agent.)
  • Inheriting wealth is an investment strategy (or in writing world, counting on a bestseller is not an investment strategy).
  • Learn to say no.
  • Risk is not a synonym for loss
  • There are no secrets
  • Learning takes time and dedication

 

Of course, the first item on the list gives the list its name.  We’ll let that one just float out there for the time being.

But these items fit together:

  • Writers strive for survival, not wealth
  • Writers don’t have financial goals
  • Writers don’t know their worth
  • Writers don’t get rich because they don’t envision themselves rich
  • Writers refuse to learn when and where they have power
  • Writers lack a sense of entitlement


These items fall in the Think and Grow Thin category. Writers never think of themselves as powerful. And they are, particularly now, in this new world of publishing. Writers hold all of the cards, but they refuse to recognize it.


Refusing to recognize that fact makes sense if you go back to last week’s essay and you realize that throughout all of their careers, writers have fought to simply have a career. So now that the world has changed underneath us, we don’t recognize where we stand.

Without writers, there are no publishing companies, no game companies, no comic book companies, no movie companies, no record labels. Without us, most of the entertainment industry will collapse.

In some of those other related fields, writers have taken the power that they have and used it collectively. In television, the head writer (often the creator of the show) has more power than anyone, including the star of the show. And that, my friends, is how it should work.

Because without the writer’s vision and voice, there is no product.

Think I’m kidding? Look at it from a reader’s perspective—and please, no cheating here. Think about your favorite author of all time.  Then tell me who publishes her work.  Tell me who published her first novel.

Then tell me who first published Little Women. Or A Christmas Carol. Or Hamlet. (Scholars, pick something outside of your expertise.) Now, tell me who wrote Little Women, A Christmas Carol, and Hamlet. See how easy that is?

The publisher gets the book distributed to the readers. Or did, once upon a time.

That time has changed. Now all of us can download books on our e-reader or via our computer direct from the writer himself if we’re so inclined, and if that writer has enough foresight to have the book available. The distribution networks have changed and now the writer can access those networks easily.

Mark Twain published his own work. So did Edgar Rice Burroughs. In fact, the only reason we’re familiar with Tarzan today is because Burroughs self-published.

For  years, publishers told writers that we were interchangeable. If one writer is difficult, the publishers would say, they’d find a different writer to take her place. Which was just straight hypocrisy, and any writer should have seen it. Because if J.K. Rowling became “difficult,” publishers would have jumped through hoops to satisfy her. They wouldn’t have told her that any writer who could craft a story about a boy wizard in a magical school would do, because any writer would not do.

It was Rowling’s storytelling, her voice, and her vision that made her unique. It’s the same with all of us. Not all of us sell at Rowling’s level, but if we’re published writers, we have fans and followings who know the difference between Richard Kadrey’s urban fantasy novels and Jim Butcher’s urban fantasy novels. And the difference isn’t just in the details, it’s in the way the stories get told, which is all about the writer and not about the genre at all.

In the past, writers stepped onto the field and hoped for a touchdown. They got satisfied with a single good play, with maybe making it to the 50-yard line. For the most part, writers believed the crap fed to them by those who made a fortune off them and gave the writers a pittance. Writers stopped playing to win, if winning ever really crossed their minds.

Now, when a writer approaches her work, she needs to do it with the attitude that she will do the best she can possible do in all areas of her career. Not just write the best stories.  She must also do the best in her business dealings for herself and her family.

She must—without cheating or injuring someone else—play to win. That means this behavior must stop:

  • Writers listen to naysayers
  • Writers rarely speak up for themselves
  • Writers give up too easily
  • Writers fail to negotiate

 

The writer needs to believe in herself first and foremost, believe she’s even worthy of being on the field. Because no team on any field—from middle school to high school to college and beyond — belongs on that field if the team doesn’t think it can win. Whether it wins or not is immaterial. What matters is believing that a win is possible.

So if you believe you can win, then you must have confidence, you must defend yourself if need be, you must try and try again, and you must push forward.

The first step in a negotiation in the new world of publishing is to have confidence.  Confidence is reflected in this question: Do you even want to be in that negotiation in the first place?

I often get e-mail from indie-published writers who recently have been approached by agents. And always, the indie-published writer includes this sentence, “Last year (or two years ago or three years ago), I would have been thrilled to hear that an agent wants to represent my work. But  now I’m wondering what an agent can really do for me that I can’t do myself.”

Exactly. That’s the right question. What can the agent do for you that you can’t do yourself?

I just asked the same question of a publisher of mine. He blinked, then gave me a sheepish smile, and said, “Can you afford the cover artist?” We both agree that the covers are spectacular, and honestly, I might be able to afford the artist. So my answer to his cover artist question was a shrug. But when it came to marketing, distribution, and all the things that traditional publishers used to do better than writers, the answer to my question was a resounding no.

We parted ways after a few back and forths. But the truth of the matter is that had that conversation not been mandated by the option clause in my contract, I wouldn’t have had the conversation at all. Because I knew that this particular traditional publisher wasn’t doing anything on my books that I couldn’t do—and do better (except maybe pay that spectacular cover artist his fee up front).

Do you want to be in the negotiation at all? Should you be? Will it help your career, make your writing better, get your work to the most readers over time? Because that’s the other thing writers forget now. Playing to win isn’t about the short term.

Playing to win in publishing is about what will happen a decade from now, when it used to be about what will happen in the next six months. Quite a change in thinking, and one writers need to make.

Which brings me to another point about playing to win. Because the traditional publishing game was rigged in favor of the short-term gain over the long-term build, writers got into what I call magical thinking. If I have the right agent, I’ll succeed. If my publisher puts the right amount of advertising dollars behind my book, I’ll succeed. If I go on a book tour, I’ll succeed.

But remember that William Goldman’s axiom about Hollywood also applies to publishing: No one knows anything.  And what that means is this: none of the magic above will guarantee success.  Which means that these two items—

  • Prince Charming will ride to the rescue. (In a writer’s world, Prince Charming is an agent.)
  • Inheriting wealth is an investment strategy (or in writing world, counting on a bestseller is not an investment strategy).

 

—constitute magical thinking. Wipe those thoughts from your brain and realize that success in the new world of publishing comes from years of hard work and planning, learning craft, learning business, and learning how to approach your career with the idea that you will do well.

Once you make that leap, these last four items become a kind of touchstone, a bit of a to-do list:

  • Learn to say no.
  • Risk is not a synonym for loss
  • There are no secrets
  • Learning takes time and dedication

 

I said no to my traditional publisher, because to do anything else would harm my career. (And honestly, from the perspective of someone who spent 30+ years in traditional publishing, that sentence still boggles my mind.)

But I also believe in taking calculated risks. I’ve written about how to take risks before, and I suggest if you don’t understand by what I mean by calculated risk that you look at this post in my Freelancer’s Survival Guide on risk.

Realize too that the information to help you succeed is out there. Just because someone else is successful doesn’t mean that she knows a secret handshake that no one ever taught you. The difference is this: She’s learned how to be a successful business person, and you’re just starting on that journey.

If you don’t know how to do something, ask. I know that sounds really basic, but it’s that easy (and that hard). Sometimes the answers are in a blog like this one. Sometimes they’re in books. Sometimes they’re standing in front of you in the form of a person whose career you would like to emulate.

When I give talks, I always open the last part to questions, and sometimes no one asks a thing.  I get told that I’ve covered all the bases, but I know I haven’t. Sometimes people are afraid to ask or embarrassed by their own ignorance or worried what others will think of them. And we’ll deal with that in a later post.

But I say at the beginning of my question sessions that there are no stupid questions, and I mean it. If you don’t know something, then ask. Seem stupid for a minute or two. You’ll get your answer that way, and you’ll have a greater chance for success.

Finally, remember learning does take time and dedication, just like it says above. I’m still learning. If you’ve been reading this blog for the past few years, you’ve seen the trajectory of my learning, as I realized things I needed to know for the new world of publishing or as I gradually understood that what I had learned for the old world of publishing doesn’t apply at all in this world.

Playing to win is not about crushing an opponent. If you’ll notice, I never really mentioned an opponent at all. Because that’s where the sports metaphor breaks down. In a football game, one team wins and another loses. In writing and publishing, if one person succeeds, that person’s success does not force another person to fail. In writing and publishing, unlike a football game, the rising tide truly does lift all boats.

The key here is attitude. Think like a winner and you will succeed. It’s a variation on Dean’s Think and Grow Thin method. He thinks about each bite he puts in his mouth and that enables him to lose weight. If you think about your writing career from the perspective of success rather than constant failure, then you will succeed over time.

Does Dean manage to eat right every day? Nope. But when he doesn’t, he knows it and gets back on the right track a day or so later. Likewise, you won’t succeed at writing and business every single day. You will fail. But no one wins without losing. Failures teach you how to be a success. In fact, the biggest successes always have a slew of failures behind them. Failing is how we learn. (Again, I dealt with this in the Freelancer’s Guide.)

So change your attitude. Go at everything in your writing career from the perspective of doing your best. Make sure you do your best work. Make sure you negotiate the best deal. Make sure you do the best you can for your family and friends.

And if you do that, you will be playing to win.

The success of this blog has surprised me. Once I committed to it, I decided to the best work I possibly could. I also decided that I would do this as a reader-funded project, which has worked so far. So, if you have gotten anything out of the blog, please click on the donation button. And thank you!


“The Business Rusch: Playing To Win” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.