The Business Rusch: What Writers Need To Know
On Monday, I spent an hour talking with a very knowledgeable business reporter who works at a well-known business daily newspaper, one you probably read. I didn’t exactly speak to her on what’s called “deep background,” but that ended up being my function. She had found a blog of mine that pertains to an article she’s writing, and wanted an interview.
I won’t know whether she uses that interview—or whether the topic will end up to be the same topic she initially planned—for a while. She’s writing a long analysis piece, and I can tell you from personal experience that those morph the deeper the reporter gets into the topic.
Reporters are generalists. They have to be. Even reporters who specialize in a topic like business don’t know all of business. They have to go nimbly from covering Dell’s decision to go private to the hacking of Bank of America to the Justice Department’s lawsuit against Apple and the book publishers. Reporters need an ability to quickly research a topic, enough to ask the right questions of someone they choose to interview and they need to know enough about that topic to hear when the person answering prevaricates or operates off a paid-for script.
It’s hard to do this well. I’m currently researching some events that took place in January and February of 1970. To do that, I’ve spent the last week reading old newspapers from the time, looking at stories that broke then, stories I already know the ending to, some of which didn’t get covered in detail because the detail didn’t become important until later, some that got abandoned when another story broke, and so on.
To be a reporter is to constantly feel like you have your hands on a runaway train, and if you let go, you will be left so far behind so fast that you will never catch up.
All of these thoughts went through my mind as the business reporter and I talked. Because, somewhere in the middle of the conversation, the things I had to tell her depended on a deep understanding of the publishing industry, something I couldn’t give her in one phone call.
I referred her to articles, and hoped they would be enough. I offered to provide links to other articles and to put her in touch with folks with a different expertise in the topic she’s focusing on than I have.
But none of that is enough. Because publishing is an old industry, with practices that developed over decades (in some cases, over more than a century). Outside of our small industry, those practices make little sense. Hell, let me be honest: Inside of the industry, those practices make little sense.
Dean and I write blogs that attempt to explain the industry, not just for indie writers but also for traditionally published writers. I’ll be frank: I think the traditionally published writers need a lot more help learning this business than indie writers do. Not because traditionally published writers are dumb, but because they’ve been encouraged for decades to outsource the business part of their careers to others.
Here’s the minimum traditionally published writers need to know about their business:
1. How to write a good book/story (we’ll call it the “work”)
2. How to get that work to someone who will publish it
4. How to negotiate a good contract for the writer
5. Money management
6. How to hire good advisors—lawyers, accountants, and maybe, just maybe, an agent
7. How to manage a business
8. How to say no
Indie writers need to know all of that plus:
9. How to run a business
10. How to do a cost-benefit analysis
11. How to design a good product—from e-book to print book to audio book
12. What makes a good product—from cover to interior to sound quality (for audio)
13. How to hire good assistants—from editors to cover designers to distributers/aggregators
14. How to get that product to retailers—from ecommerce sites to actual bookstores
There’s a lot more both types of writers need to know, but I’m not going to list it all here because I’m sure that by now you are overwhelmed. I know that I am.
I’m writing this on an afternoon, while I have a migraine (it’s not as bad as yesterday’s, which resulted in catching up on Downton Abbey. Work was simply not possible). I also need to go over a copyedit for one of my publishers, fix a novella for a different publisher, finish and upload this blog to my website, cook dinner (I think), exercise (if I can move my head enough to do so), and continue that massive research project. This doesn’t count the e-mails I’ve been fielding on two separate Hollywood negotiations, as well as some other business-related e-mails for projects so far in the future (that would be next week) that I really don’t want to think about them now.
I’m sure you all have daily lists like that. In addition, most of you have day jobs and/or children who demand (and deserve) your attention. Plus whatever else is going on in your lives.
You look at the to-know lists I posted above and think, I can never do all of that. And in the aggregate, you’re right. You can’t do it all this week or next or the week after that. You have to do it bit by tiny bit, without neglecting your family, your day job, or the writing that means so much to you that you give up your precious free time.
You look at that list, and think, What she believes I should do is impossible. And that’s the point some of you smugly lean back and think, Thank God, I have an agent. Or, I’ll just hire someone to do all of my publishing work. Or, I’m happy I gave power of attorney to my accountant/business manager/foreign agent so they can deal with these matters and I don’t have to think about it.
These lists are why so many writers abdicate the tough job of running their business. Why so many have careers that implode or wonder why they’re not making enough money when others in the same category make more. Overall, it looks impossible.
But it’s not.
If you take the long view.
Let’s take you traditional writers first, because I said you need this much more than indie writers. Why do you traditional writers need it more than indie writers do? So many indie writers (55% percent, according to a Digital Book World poll) have chosen to self-publishing because they want control of their careers. Which means they’re already thinking about business.
Many traditionally published writers want someone else to handle all of the business details so that they can focus on the actual writing. The problem is that you can’t effectively manage someone—or even advise them—if you don’t understand what they’re doing.
For example, if an agent comes to a writing-only writer and tells her that a foreign publisher has offered $5,000 on an advance against such-and-so royalties, that writer has no way to know if the deal is good or not, if the offer is complete or not, if there is something left to negotiate or not. The writer must completely trust the agent, and that way doesn’t work. Even agents (at least the good ones) don’t like that. The agents (the good ones) know that they’re working for the writer, which means that the writer must make the decisions and the agent execute them.
If the agent makes the decisions, she will do something wrong. Same with the attorney, the accountant, or any other professional a writer hires.
This same rule applies to indie writers. If you hire someone to do your covers, then you have to know what a good cover is and what it does. Just recently, I got an e-mail from a cover designer who thought the new covers on my books unprofessional. The designer included a link to his business website, along with the very broad hint that I could improve my covers by hiring him. I went to his website, discovered that the designer had just graduated from college with a degree in design, and has started a book design business. All well and good. Even approaching me was okay, except criticizing someone else’s work as a way to get work isn’t the best approach.
The problem? His sample covers were not professional. They were close. They looked like something that you actually might see at one of the big traditional publishing companies as a trial design or a let’s-never-hire-this-person-again cover. A lot of those do get published because the publisher only has the budget for one cover, and most are professional-quality designs, just not good book designs. There’s a difference.
Writers who indie publish need to learn that difference.
Yes, it’s a learning curve. It all is. And as someone just starting in the industry, I’d feel terribly overwhelmed. Or if I were someone who had spent years focusing on writing only and decided to turn my attention to the business side of publishing, I would also feel overwhelmed.
Ah, hell. Who am I kidding? I do feel overwhelmed. There is so much information, some of it conflicting, on all of the changes in publishing that I know I can’t always keep up.
Fortunately, I have decades-long systems in place for learning about my business. I rely on those.
I know this isn’t a race, that I will make mistakes, that I will make ignorant mistakes, and that I can recover from those mistakes.
That enables me to focus on what I need to do every day, and continue to learn as well.
That’s why I recommend those of you who have purchased The Copyright Handbook from Nolo Press to read it slowly. You can’t absorb all of that information in an afternoon. You can learn it over months. You can then find ways to reinforce that information through quizzing yourself when you see a weird copyright story or a strange notice, and then researching it. Often that research will return you to the Handbook and you will realize that you had skipped right over that detail or hadn’t understood it the first time.
You’re also seeing me learn in real time, not just in my ever-evolving blog opinions, but also in the estate articles. There’s way too much for me to learn in a week or two, so I’m spreading it over months and sharing it with you in a once-monthly post. I need to learn it as I figure out what I want for my estate, and now that I have a cover-your-ass will in place, I can take my time to make sure I understand the concepts before I finish my plans.
Here’s what I believe you need to do to learn the business:
1. Realize learning is a process, not a goal. Things will change, and you will have to change with them.
2. Focus on writing. That’s your top priority in your writing career, whether you are an indie writer, a traditional writer, or a hybrid of the two.
3. Make sure you’re learning how to improve your craft while learning everything else.
4. Pick two other things from those lists above that you don’t know, and devise your own curriculum on those things only. Take as much time as you need, but never take time away from your writing.
5. Once you’ve got a handle on one of those things, pick the next thing you don’t know and start learning it. (Note I am not saying have mastered, just have a handle on).
7. If you think you know everything on a subject, you’ve stopped learning. Time to refresh that subject and start all over again. Remember, learning is a process, not a goal.
Learn in bite-sized chunks. As time passes, you’ll be surprised at how much you’ve learned.
You’ll find yourself trying to explain this crazy business to someone and realize just how complex it truly is. You might still be able to explain it but you’ll also be aware of everything you left out, and how inadequate that explanation is.
Can you survive in publishing without learning all this stuff? Well, yeah. Kinda. Sorta. Depends on what you mean by survive. Can you luck into a bestseller? Sure. Can you sustain that bestselling career? Maybe. Can you have a career without a bestseller? Sure. Can you make a living from that career without learning this stuff? Probably not.
Can you survive longer than a decade without learning most of the above? If you’re lucky. Can you make a living wage during that decade without most of the above? If your income overwhelms the people who are taking little pieces off it without your knowledge.
Can you survive a serious downturn in your career without learning the things above? Nope.
Does every writer suffer a serious downturn? Yes. And one or two in a generation are lucky enough to survive without learning business. One or two. That’s like banking on the lottery for your retirement.
So go learn this stuff. One little piece at a time.
If you do, you’ll be around to read this blog or something like it ten years from now. If you don’t, I wish you good luck.
Because you’ll need it.
One of the ways I keep learning is by writing this blog. So many of you add things to the comments that I’ve never thought of, or you e-mail me links that open my eyes to new things. Plus, I always double-check my information before I blog about it, and sometimes I dump a blog topic when I realize I don’t know nearly enough (yet) to write about it. Then I go out and learn it.
Thanks for all the links, e-mails, comments, and support. Because this blog has to fund itself, I appreciate financial support too. The donations enable me to carve time out of my busy schedule to write the blog. Otherwise, I would probably put it off.
So, if you’ve learned something from this or previous blogs, please leave a tip on the way out.
And thanks again!
“The Business Rusch: What Writers Need To Know” copyright 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.