Business Musings: Outside The Box
While Dean was running one of our webinars on the morning I wrote this post, I decided to work in one of the nearby cafes. As I came in, a beautiful little girl wearing a flower in her hair and a sparkly unicorn t-shirt with pink shorts ran up to the counter. She tried to peer over it, failed, and then looked at her parents, who were sitting just a few tables away.
She started to run back in frustration because no one at the counter had noticed her. (She was too short.) But I was nearby and I said, “Did you want something? I’ll let them know.” She blurted something about “to-go” and “pizza” and I said, “Just give me a second.”
I leaned over the counter, and said to the guy who was making a smoothie not a foot from me, “A little person would like your help.”
He looked over, saw her, and smiled. Then he started to help her, while handing me a cup for my ice tea. I went to the beverage counter, got my ice tea, and as I turned around, she was back at the table, with her parents, and they were praising her.
“See?” her mom was saying to her. “It’s okay to be scared of trying something, but it’s good to try anyway.”
“You did great, honey,” her dad added. “You were afraid, but you did it anyway. Great job!”
I smiled, went to my table, and reread the comments posted on last week’s blog. Last week, I discussed the licensing fair that I had gone to in May and how I’ll be learning that entire new world in the next year.
A lot of you raised really good questions: should you go in already branded? What should you prepare before you go? Is the fair set up for people who are differently abled? And so on.
Great questions all, and with the exception of the last one, I can’t answer them yet. (The last one will probably depend on the site and the country where the fairs are held. Here in Las Vegas, the convention center at Mandalay Bay is set up for handicapped access, and not in the half-assed way I used to see in Oregon. Wide corridors, easy entrance into bathrooms with wide and useful handicap stalls, ramps everywhere, even more elevators, and on and on. But the upcoming rights fair in Shanghai? I have no idea.)
The response to the post was better than I thought. Indies are excited at the opportunity. The crickets from the traditional publishing camp doesn’t surprise me, although I did see two different threads on Facebook which made me shake my head. In my Facebook comment linking to the blog post, I urged traditional writers with agents to read the post. Of course, most didn’t, and one person (who started a thread herself) said she didn’t have to, since her agent handled all this stuff. Sigh, and double sigh, and triple sigh.
That—along with the indie response—got me thinking about my post two weeks ago on learned helplessness. (That writer’s response, above, was a prime example.)
Learned helplessness isn’t just about being told over and over and over again that you can’t do something. Or that you’re not smart enough to do something.
It’s also about fear.
In truth, it’s mostly about fear.
Some of that fear is constantly reinforced, like the myth that writers are too featherbrained to handle business. That’s all over the culture, everywhere, being constantly repeated.
But a lot of it is about learning something new.
Hence, those parents and that little girl.
She ran up to the counter because she had been urged forward. She tried, scared and uncertain, and was about to run back when I spoke to her. She would have stayed if someone behind the counter had seen her too.
Her parents were spot-on. She had done a great job at overcoming her fear. She did something that she perceived as hard and succeeded. But the key was the try.
That’s the attitude that a lot of writers have lost.
We lose it in writing workshops, reworking a story to death to make it “perfect” before we send it to market.
We lose it to content “editors” who claim to know more about writing than we do, when really, if they did, they’d be making a living at writing, not “editing.”
We lose it to agents and other managers who assure us that they know how the business runs, when we could never learn it as well as they do.
Frankly, it’s easier to let someone else handle the difficult tasks that terrify us. It certainly would have been easier for that little girl to let her parents do what they have done for years—ask for a to-go container for their pizza. But they sent her to do it in a nearly empty restaurant so that she could start to learn to stand on her own.
It’s that attitude—learning to stand on your own no matter how hard it is—that I’m trying to teach writers in my weekly blogs. Sometimes, it gets confusing, I know. Particularly as I’m learning something.
Because I am not an all-knowing guru, I don’t pretend to have all the answers. What I have is a willingness to learn.
It’s also a willingness to try something and fail.
And it’s a willingness to put myself in situations that make me uncomfortable. Or even terrify me.
Sometimes I use logic to help me. For example, the one thing that terrified me about living in Las Vegas was the heat. I grew up in the northern Midwest. I could deal with 60 below, but the idea of 115 scared the crap out of me.
I studied it and studied it and studied it, and then moved here. I learned that dry heat really is different from humid heat, but that the sun is both wonderful and makes things worse. Mostly, I cope just fine. Air-conditioning is my friend.
But every now and then, my powerful imagination hooks on the horrors of heat and what could go wrong. After a particularly long stretch of record heat, I found myself as scared as that little girl. And I sat myself down and had a mental talk with myself.
It started with a look at the population of the Vegas Valley, which is about 2.25 million. If 2.25 million people can live here, dealing with the summer heat, then I can too. I just have to learn the same skills they have already learned.
And I am.
You’ll note that I made a similar mention in last week’s licensing post. I wrote: All of those people who attended that expo here in Vegas learned the world of licensing one detail at a time.
None of us go into a new world knowing how to navigate that world. From the heat in Las Vegas to figuring out how to best license our writing to figuring out how to tell good stories in the first place, the new things are hard and scary and difficult in the beginning.
They get easier.
Of course, it would all be easier if someone told us where to stand and what to do and how to behave. It’s even easier if someone does all of this for us.
The problem with that, particularly in this vast world of writing and publishing, is that letting someone else do everything for us opens the door to theft and fraud and simple mismanagement.
The best way around all of that is to learn the skills yourself, then hire someone if you need to. Why? If you learn the skills first—even if you’re awful at them—you will know what the job entails. You will know the kind of person you need for that job.
Before that, you’ll only know what you can imagine. And your imagination might be wrong.
The other nifty thing about doing something for yourself first is that it will open up possibilities for you. You might not be able to, say, work all the controls on a major sound editing program, but you will have investigated them and learned that certain things were possible, things you didn’t even know existed.
That’s why I suggested that you attend a major licensing fair first. Before you go in with all systems go. Before you hire someone to go in for you. Before you figure out if you need to brand your stuff first or if you must do so later. Before you even figure out what you even want out of the licensing fair.
You need to know what’s possible. And what I see at a licensing fair might mean nothing to you. Your writing projects are different; your needs are different; and your interests are different.
That, by the way, is the problem with any kind of employee or representation. They might go by what “everyone” does, not by what you want. And if you’ve never attended a licensing fair, you won’t even know what’s possible, let alone what you want.
That goes for all aspects of the publishing business. When you hire someone with expertise and then you give them their head, they will do what they have always done, or what’s easier, or what everyone else does. They won’t do what you want.
And if you’re an indie, you might think outside the box. Or you might want to. But dang it, folks, you have to leave the box to know what’s possible outside of that box.
Because I had grown up in Northern Wisconsin, where a 90-degree day with 95% humidity was oppressive at best, I expected the heat in Las Vegas to be oppressive too. I took those Midwestern summer days of my memory and added 15 to 20 degrees. I figured if the heat there was oppressive, it would be damn near unlivable here.
But it’s not. Today’s humidity is 11%, even though the temperature is 103. And that makes all the difference. It’s not unlivable at all. In fact, after three months, I now find myself thinking that 75 is a little chilly. On the Oregon Coast, 75 would be stifling. In the Midwest, 75 is pleasant.
I know all that because I’ve experienced all three of those places in the heat. Because I have, I know which I prefer. I prefer the low humidity to high humidity. And I wouldn’t have expected the difference.
Learning a new world—particularly in your industry (or related industries)—is not just about learning the reality of those worlds. It’s also about knowing what’s possible.
Look at the picture at the top of the blog. That sticker was on the banana I ate for breakfast this morning. In 2016, someone came up with the idea to partner Dole products with Disney products. (I know this because I Googled it, afraid that I had missed a Dole/Disney buyout.)
The October 2016 press release, filled with all of those lovely cheery words that try to make us love both companies more, stated that Disney and Dole decided to market fresh foods to children. Rather than put an Incredibles character on a cereal box, Disney opted for healthy food. Or probably, since I don’t have kids and don’t pay attention to kids’ cereals, as well as putting those Incredibles characters on a cereal box.
The press release makes it sound like Dole and Disney are working to help all of humankind. And maybe they are. But this is a marketing ploy, open that caught my attention when it started with Star Wars bananas a year or so ago. I thought that was funny.
But now, after attending the licensing fair, I can see how this partnership came about. Someone saw the way that Dole (and Chiquita and all the other banana companies) branded their bananas. They put little stickers on the bananas. And someone—whether at Dole or Disney—wondered how much it would cost to put a little Disney advertising on those bananas. That person (or persons) came up with the concept, and then Disney licensed the characters to Dole for the ad campaign.
Both companies got good press (in 2016) about stopping childhood obesity and now Disney is getting noticeable advertising. (Kevin J. Anderson and I discussed this at the WMG Anthology workshop in 2017 when we both got a Star Wars branded banana with our breakfasts. We noticed. We discussed as consumers, not as writers or business people.)
When I was with my friend at the licensing fair, we spent about fifteen minutes in the Disney area of the licensing fair. Disney had rented space below the show floor—several ballrooms filled with space. My friend was trying to make an appointment with someone he had a connection with, but they kept missing each other.
There were hundreds of tables in that section of the fair, and most were in use. Then there was the room for the top-secret projects, one ballroom over, projects you needed an NDA for just to walk in the room. People came out of that ballroom looking stressed and frantic and hopeful.
The banana branding might have come out of one of those meetings. Or the advertising firm that worked for Disney or Dole might have come up with the idea on their own. Who knows? But the possibilities are there at those fairs.
You won’t just see keychains and mugs and t-shirts, but all kinds of other options as well. And if you have a creative off-the-wall brain (like most writers do) you’ll come up with a way to license your characters or world or books in a way you hadn’t thought of before you got to the fair.
If you mention that kind of thing to an agent who is “in charge” of your career, that person will discourage you. No one advertises on bananas, an agent would say. What good would it do you? What would we get out of it?
Those of you who have worked in corporations or big companies or with seriously overworked people know what those sentences are really about. They’re about someone who doesn’t have the time to investigate what writer Steve Perry calls a “wild hair idea.”
But you do. It’s your company, your writing business, and your career.
Ask a stupid question. Figure out if there’s a good way to partner with an out-of-the-box partner. You might be surprised at what you find.
One other thing from last week’s comments. A few of you wondered why a writer would want to go to a big licensing fair to have someone else license a bit of the content you’ve created when you do it yourself.
I get that. I do. I’m always advocating that writers do most of the work themselves.
However, you must continue to write. You can’t do everything. And if you’re spending your day shepherding your t-shirts and coffee mugs and banana stickers, handling your website, and fulfilling special orders on your signed autographed book copies, you’re not writing.
At some point, you will have to delegate.
So here’s what you do:
You learn contracts. You learn how to negotiate. (For help with that, see these posts or my book Closing The Deal On Your Terms) Then you license the rights to work on the things you would never have time for yourself.
Make sure those licenses have limited terms, so if you hate what one of the licensing companies does with the product, you can move to a different company.
Here’s the cool thing about licensing. If someone else did a product, you can use it to market to the next company, with the statement that you want to improve on what the previous company did. Believe me, that works.
Yes, yes, yes, all of this is terrifying. It’s hard. It’s overwhelming.
And here’s the thing that’s hardest for writers: there is no perfect. No workshop will help you develop your business the way you want to. No content editor will oversee your business and tell you how to fix it to make it better. No agent has ever had any experience with running this kind of business, so any advice they give is irrelevant, particularly since most agents work at agencies and have never run a small business in their entire lives.
To explore new worlds like this, you have to be willing to make mistakes. You have to be willing to fail. You have to be willing to ask stupid questions. You have to be willing to be that fish out of water, someone who has no idea what this world is, but you want to learn it.
And learn it you will. If you put your mind to it.
I’ll bet you have no memory of the first time you asked someone working in a restaurant to get you something. That little girl I saw this morning will probably not remember this incident when she’s my age. But her parents gave her the kind of grounding that you need to give yourself in a new world.
You get points for showing up. You get points for trying.
And if you decide that working within that world is for you, you might actually make additional income on your already-written projects, just because you were willing to try.
For me, that kind of analysis makes learning the vast world of global licensing worth my time. For some of you, that might not be what you want at all.
It’s okay. As I say to my students, you are responsible for your own career. For its successes, its failures, and for the vision that guides it.
I do hope you join me outside the box. There are nifty cool worlds out here, waiting to be explored. And I’m heading off to explore them. One little piece at a time.
I find learning fun. In fact, if I’m not learning, I feel like I’m dying a little. Some people find learning intimidating. I get that. But learning is essential to any small business owners, and as I’ve said a thousand times in these business blogs, writers are small business owners.
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“Business Musings: Out of the Box,” copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch