Business Musings: Getting By
In the fall of 2014, before I started this blog back up again, I wrote a series of posts. You’ve seen several of them, particularly the “What I Learned” posts at the end of the year.
This one dates from that period. I’d been sitting on it for a moment just like this. I’m in the middle of a big writing workshop this week. I had hoped to get another blog done last week. Instead, I finished up 3 short stories and a few other projects, and decided to post this piece now.
(The other two posts are going to cause a bit of a stir, and I didn’t want that while teaching.)
Even though this blog, like last week’s, starts out about employees, it does apply to writers in a big way.
Here’s an anecdote those of you who have faithfully read my Business Rusch blog or The Freelancer’s Survival Guide have encountered before. I apologize for the repetition, but the context needs to be here.
Trust me. I will bring this anecdote around to writing and freelancing farther on in this post.
One-hundred-and-fifty thousand years ago (or the early1980s, whichever makes me seem older), I got a job at a textbook publishing company. I came in as the lowest of the low, an editorial assistant—in other words, a secretary with a fancy title that made me seem more important than I was.
I was barely out of college and the best thing I had going for me was that I knew how to turn on a computer. (Seriously, these people had had a new computer sitting idly because no one could find the on-switch.) We did everything by hand or by typewriter, and for the bulk of my time there, that computer gathered dust.
I had come from freelancing. My (soon-to-be ex-) husband and I owned a failing business, and we were broke. So I got a full-time job to pay the bills.
Day one, I got trained by the woman I was replacing. Day two, I came in and did everything I had been assigned to do within 30 minutes. My boss, the wonderful Editor Greg, was startled that I finished so quickly. He double-checked me, found out I had done everything right, and gave me more to do. Still and all, I was done with my tasks by noon.
With Editor Greg’s permission, I read a book all afternoon. The book was one of the company’s textbooks, but Editor Greg thought that it might be useful if I knew the product.
Day Three, same thing.
Day Four, the other secretaries—I mean, editorial assistants—waylaid me as I came into work. They explained in no uncertain terms that I had to make my 30 minutes of work stretch throughout the 8 hours, or I would make every other editorial assistant look bad.
I was baffled. I said, “Why would I want to do that? I hate being bored. And if there’s stuff to be done, I’ll do it.”
They said stuff about camaraderie and supporting your fellow employees and helping them keep their jobs, for heaven’s sake. And I shrugged and walked away. I continued to do 30 minutes of work in 30 minutes. A month or two into the job, I had read every book in the place and was getting ready to read everything in the files (I did that at a real estate job I had in college—and oh, boy, did I learn stuff) when I realized that our personal financial situation had improved.
I went back to freelancing, earned a lot more money than I did in that crazy-making job, and moved on.
I often talk about those secretaries in astonishment. I thought they were anomalies. Even though a good friend of mine—a very good friend of mine—spent his entire career at a government job that, he said, required him to do eight hours of work in a forty-hour week. He stretched those eight hours over five days, then added in another eight hours in those five days for good measure, and became the most productive person in his department.
He kept that job even though he got sick after every trip he took to an sf convention (generally one per month). He took tons of vacation time and personal days, and he still got promoted and treated well there—because he was the most productive person in his office.
I never put A and B together, not really, except to make silly jokes about the things government employees could get away with. But other friends who had corporate jobs would tell me about the folks in their offices who, no matter what anyone tried, never really did much.
Those folks showed up, shuffled papers, and went home.
After that textbook publishing experience, I stopped hiring out as a secretary for part-time work. (For a while anyway. Years later, I moved to Oregon, and was desperate for any part-time work. Then I got hired by a wonderful man [still a friend] who let me leave when I finished the tasks assigned me.) For most of my early working life, part-time work I got go augment my freelance income was as a waitress.
Waitresses in busy restaurants can’t slack off. If you do, you get fired. Or, if your bosses really don’t care, you don’t make money. Because other (good) waiters and waitresses will take your tables—and your tips. By the time I was out of high school, I could handle an entire Country Kitchen restaurant at breakfast by myself (with the assistance of someone to bus tables) and still get customers in and out of the restaurant within an hour.
And I had fun.
Why am I telling you this?
Because one of the things I learned in 2014 is that a lot of employees get by.
Dean and I own or co-own eight different businesses—not all of them to do with publishing. Generally speaking, we’re good at hiring people and for the most part, over the years, we have hired excellent folk. We have a good staff of people right now—people who work hard, care a lot, and do an excellent job.
Dean and I have hired and fired people throughout our adult lives, and also generally speaking, we tend to avoid the get-by folks. We get rid of them fast when we accidentally hire them.
How do we accidentally hire them?
They present well. They present as smart and talented and (sometimes) misunderstood. In their (excellent) interviews, they complain that they were in the wrong job. Sometimes, given their resumes, it seems like they actually were in the wrong job.
While the get-by folks talk a good game, they don’t perform well. After their training is complete, they can’t seem to meet deadlines or get work done. There’s always a reason.
Some get-by folks, the ones who’ve been in the work force for a long time, find ways to get other people to do the work for them or they meet their deadlines (just barely) with shoddy work, complaining that the task was hard and almost impossible to do in the time allowed.
When you’re a small business owner, chances are you’ve done the task yourself before hiring someone to take it off your hands. And unlike managers at corporations who supervise people whose jobs they aren’t as familiar with, you know that the excuses are just excuses.
I hate it when we hire a get-by person. Because they’re often extremely nice human beings who are fun to be around. But they aren’t good employees.
As you can tell from the mentions above, we had to deal with get-by situations at our many businesses in 2014. While dealing with the aftermath of the get-by situations (and learning just how much never got done), I had a realization about writers.
There are writers who get by.
I’ve always known that, but I hadn’t given it a lot of thought until the indie publishing revolution. Throughout my entire career, I’ve known writers who take five years to write a book (or a year to write a short story!), writers who never try freelancing because they can’t get their production up, writers who can’t seem to finish anything after the first few books.
I always thought, ah, it’s their critical voice that’s on too loud, or they really don’t want to become a writer, or they have some other interest that’s more important.
I never thought—I never realized—that a goodly percentage of these writers are simply folks who get by. These writers figure out how to game the system at their jobs. They do like my very good friend did at his job; they seem productive when they are not.
Unlike my very good friend, many get-by people seem to believe their own hype. They seem to think there’s a way around everything, that everyone else does this, and that successful people aren’t people who work hard but are people who know how to play the game well.
Does this sound familiar?
There are blogs everywhere on how to manipulate Amazon’s algorithm to make a book a bestseller. There are writers who cringe when you tell them the best way to sell your first book is to write a second. There are writers who simply do not believe that writing the next book (and the next and the next) is more important than promoting the only book.
Honestly, I hadn’t understood that mindset until I thought about the Get-By People. They have made entire careers about doing a lot of initial work to impress their employer, and then skating on that work for as long as possible. Part of the skate is a gift for hype that makes the initial work seem more important than it actually is.
You see, they say, it’s hard to write a novel. Terribly, terribly, terribly hard. The writers suffered as they wrote. The fact that they finished that novel is very, very, very important. These writers should be rewarded for their very hard, very important work. We should all recognize just how much effort these writers put into that novel, and we should respond with sales and accolades.
I never understood that point of view from a non-writerly perspective until this year. I thought it was just something weird that writers did, until I started to talk to others who have dealt in their jobs with the Get-By People.
Expecting recognition for a minimal amount of work is a get-by attitude.
Why do I call writing one novel a minimal amount of work? Because I’m mean or a show-off or a hack or freakishly productive?
No, because I know writers who have long-term careers. Most of us never talk about our productivity. Most of us never talk about how many hours we spend at the computer. As Dean often says, we are successful because we work harder than everyone else.
There are excellent employees in the world, people who put in extra hours or who are “freakishly productive” by filling their days with actual work rather than talking about movies or surfing the web.
(Are you at work right now? Is it your lunch break? Or are you supposed to be working? Or is this scheduled free time? Do you feel guilty yet?)
Some weeks I work harder than those excellent employees. But often I match them in productivity. I had just not seen them in action until the past few years.
Dean, on the other hand, works harder than anyone I’ve ever met. He’s a whiz at getting a lot done in a little bit of time. He’s more productive than I am—and I often feel like a Get-By person in comparison.
But back to that one-novel thing.
It is an accomplishment to finish your first novel. Go celebrate. Most wannabe writers never finish a novel. They may not ever finish a short story. They talk the good talk, but they don’t put in the work.
When you finish your first novel, you have taken that first step toward being a professional writer. But from the perspective of career writers, people who’ve been at it for years, you’re a baby who has toddled over to your parents for the very first time.
Yep, it’s an accomplishment worthy of cake and videos and applause.
Now, time to emulate that toddler and learn to run.
These days, most indie writers expect that first novel to be a success. I expected my first (real) novel to be a success as well. We all write because we know we’re brilliant, because the world was just waiting for our wisdom, because we have done something Mankind Has Never Seen Before.
Then those of us who want careers get over ourselves and move onto the next novel, and the next, and the next, and the next.
Right now, the Get-By People who wrote that first novel, gamed Amazon’s algorithms, and tried to convince everyone under the sun to buy that novel are leaving the writing business in droves. The Get-By People are complaining that “sales aren’t what they used to be.” They’re complaining that “free doesn’t work any more.” They’re wondering why no one is praising their (three-year-old) work.
How come these Get-By People aren’t rich and famous?
Because the publishing industry does replicate the real world most of the time.
Very few Get-By writers ever have long-term success with their first novel. That’s true of the past and it’s true now. Remember, the traditional publishing industry works on velocity. Occasionally, a first-timer writes a kick-ass novel, and traditional publishing rewards that writer with lots of push, and a visit to the bestseller list.
Sometimes, that first-timer is a Get-By writer. The Get-By traditional writer needs to write the “sophomore” effort. The Get-By writer hasn’t even started their second novel—often waiting to “see how the first one does.” The Get-By writer is usually late on that second novel’s deadline, and by the time the novel gets turned in, all that hype and promotion is years in the past. The second novel often fails in traditional publishing terms.
If that Get-By writer signed a three-book contract, the writer then needs to finish the third book, but never will. The publisher will cancel the contract or, when the publisher demands the book, the Get-By writer will shape up for one last effort. There will be no new contract after that third book.
In indie publishing, no one pushes the Get-By writer to write the second and third novels. Some Get-By writers realize they need to write a second book, but most never do. The Get-By writers who write that second book will rarely write a third.
By then, the Get-By writers are exhausted by their promotion efforts and all the work that writing is.
Besides, they didn’t get rich quick like Amanda Hocking (not a Get-By writer), Hugh Howey (not a Get-By writer) or the half dozen other writers who rose to the notice of the traditional press as indie success stories.
The Get-By writers will move on to the next scheme, just as they move to a new job in the Real World, once their employer starts pushing them to actually do the work they’re assigned.
When I quit that publishing job years ago, Editor Greg had already left to start his own business. His replacement, Young Former Salesman Boy (younger than me—and I was 24), begged me to stay.
“You’re the only one who gets anything done around here,” he said.
It didn’t sway me.
I have no idea what happened to all of those Get-By secretaries—I mean editorial assistants—who dithered at their jobs, stretching 30 minutes of work into 8 hours. I did know that Young Former Salesman Boy got Editor Greg’s job because YFSB was a top salesman—which meant he had a work ethic. And I suspect that work ethic doomed those Get-By secretaries.
If you want to be a successful writer, you can skate for a year or two or even four or five. Some of those Get-By writers are fantastic storytellers. A few traditionally published Get-By writers are great wordsmiths. Their first (and if they can, second) novels do well. Readers want another book, but they don’t get that next book—not from the Get-By writer.
Generally speaking, readers only buy a book once. (And often—if they use libraries or download freebies—they don’t pay for a book at all.) A few readers might like a book enough to buy it for someone else. A few more readers will tell friends about the book, sparking extra sales.
But after a while, readers find other writers. The Get-By writers will see their sales drop and drop and drop, and then think that no one appreciates their hard work.
But a lack of appreciation is not what happened. Readers did appreciate the work. They’ve just moved on to someone else’s work.
If you want a long-term career as a writer, you can’t get by. You can’t tweak algorithms forever. You can’t continually change your cover and blurb to convince readers you’ve published a new book. You can’t even get by in traditional publishing, because they’ll want another book.
If you’re traditionally published and have graduate degrees, you can teach. A lot of college professors dine out on that one book they published fifteen years ago. So do a lot of public speakers who go from conference to conference, rather like the one-hit wonders in music who hold concert after concert in increasingly smaller venues, playing their hit song and the ten other songs from their only album (along with a few covers).
Honestly, though, it seems to me—and remember, I’m not a get-by kinda person—that getting by is a lot more work than actually doing the work. You have to constantly figure out how to get people’s attention while hiding the fact that you’re not doing much. Seems like a whole lotta effort for a whole lotta nothing.
To say I’m not sympathetic is a huge understatement. I’m also not impressed. I’ve been known to ask aloud at jobs where I was the manager or at businesses I’ve owned if anyone knew whether we could actually demand that the get-by person we’d just gotten rid of could pay us back for all the time that person wasted.
I know that’s not fair, because as the boss, I’m just as culpable for the Get-By People as the people are themselves. I hired them; I didn’t see the problems fast enough; I have to deal with the leftover mess.
Just like the spouses and friends of get-by writers have to do when those writers finally give up or implode or just walk away from their dream.
Get-By People can survive in the real world by moving from job to job. But writers can’t. So if you’re trying to get by, ask yourself why you’re even writing. If writing is your dream, then learn how to change your habits. I realize that’s not an easy thing to do.
There are a million books out there on improving productivity or changing bad work habits into good ones. Buy those. Maybe take our workshop on productivity. Even if you don’t finish the work (and if you’re a get-by person, you won’t), maybe some of the questions will spark something in you and help you learn how to actually do the job.
The only way to achieve your writing dreams is to work on them—and even for those of us who don’t skate through life, that work is hard.
It’s also fun—and, it would seem to me, a lot more fun than just getting by.
When I came back to the blog, I did so with the promise that it would be irregular. I have given myself permission to skip weeks. I just don’t want to.
I also try to post by Thursday, although I don’t always manage it—and sometimes other things get in the way. So check the site regularly, sign up for the RSS (if it works), or watch my Twitter feed for announcements.
If this is the first post you’ve seen in a while, you’ve missed a few. Click on the Business Musings category above and you’ll find it.
And since I’ll be doing this semi-regularly and since I don’t get paid for the non-fiction, I have attached the donate button to this post.
(Yes, White Mist Mountain is my company)
“Business Musings: Getting By,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.