Business Musings: Own It

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Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of reading on other writers’ social media accounts, blog posts, and acknowledgements inside their own books. Add to that the fact that off and on over the past six months or so, I’ve advised a number of writers as they negotiated something. Some of those writers read my book How To Negotiate Anything. Others were at the Business Master Class in recent years.  So they know my philosophy of negotiating, and they’re trying to implement it for themselves, which is great! So many people are stepping out of their comfort zones and trying to stand up for their work.

The discussion about agents these past few weeks on this blog and in other places, as well as the “Learned Helplessness” post, awakened something in me. I started watching how writers phrase things about their own careers.

And it shocked me.

Because most writers never take responsibility for their own careers. If the writer has success, it’s because their agent did something marvelous or because they have a brilliant editor or because their writing group is stellar.

Now, granted, some of that (in book acknowledgements especially) is faux humbleness. And some of it is true gratitude, particularly when dealing with research or someone who gave emotional support at just the right moment. Some of it is about opening doors as well. It’s always good to say thank you to someone who helped you make your art better.

But a lot of it is an unwillingness to recognize a few things.


Let’s start with success:

  1. If your book sells, it’s not because your agent is brilliant. It’s because you wrote a damn fine book. You’re a good storyteller. Simple as that.
  2. If your book garners a lot of readers, it’s not because you had a great editor. It’s because you wrote a damn fine book. You’re a good storyteller, and readers reward that. Simple as that.


Do those two success points mean your agent didn’t do a good job selling your book? Who knows? Your agent might have sent it to an editor you wouldn’t have considered. But that’s about it. Speaking as an editor, now, as an acquiring editor, there’s no amount of cajoling that will make me buy something I think is awful and/or don’t like and/or I don’t think is worth spending time on. If you come to our anthology workshop in March here in Vegas, you’ll see what I mean.  Or read these posts from Ron Collins.

Do those two success points mean your editor didn’t influence your work? Who knows—well, maybe you do. I have been lucky enough to work with a handful of great editors over the years, including Sheila Williams at Asimov’s, Kelley Ragland at St. Martins, and Gardner Dozois when he was at Asimov’s. Both made suggestions on some of my work that materially improved the work. In fact, the work would have been very, very different without their input.

But both missed things as well, or misunderstood something I was trying, or gave completely irrelevant advice. I’m the one who chose whether or not to follow that advice, and I’m the one who figured out how to apply that advice to improve my work. They didn’t.

I sound like a walking ego here to many of you writers, and I am. Because I believe that something in my writing will appeal to readers, so I put my writing out there. As I’ve said a million times, writers are a weird combination of ego and insecurity. The moment you believe that you are good enough to be read worldwide, then you have a large ego. But combine that with the insecurity of Is it good enough? and you have nearly every writer who has put pen to paper. (Fingers to keyboard. Voice to dictation software…whatever your analogy is.)

Take responsibility for your success. You did well. Will you do well again? I hope so. You can hope so too. But don’t expect it. Readers judge by the story, usually, not by the author. And writing isn’t an uphill craft. You do get better, but not in a straight line. In waves.

And not every reader will like every word you write. Readers are different entities from each other. There is no generic reader. There isn’t even a generic reader for a specific author. Readers have opinions, and those opinions make them as individual as you are.


Let’s move to failure:

  1. If you failed at communicating a story the way you wanted to, figure out what you did wrong. Not what your agent did or your editor. Don’t blame the reader for being “stupid.” Don’t blame someone else for the problems in your craft. Learn from your mistakes.
  2. If you had a business failure, figure out what you did wrong. Yeah, your agent or your financial manager might have given you bad advice. But you took that advice, didn’t you, often without research. You might have trusted the wrong person. You might have made a bad decision. You Don’t blame someone else for the problems in your business. Learn from your mistakes.


I’ve made all four of those points over and over again in these Business Musings blog. I’ve said both in person and online hundreds of times these catch-phrase from the workshops that Dean and I run:

You are responsible for your career.

The good and the bad, the ups and the downs.

I thought that was pretty self-explanatory.

Then I started helping with negotiations. I read those blog posts. I saw writers time after time screw up by failing to use one word.


Yep. I.

Writers don’t want to take responsibility for their own decisions in negotiation. Or in dealing with their business.

They say things like I’ll have to ask my agent. Or I’m not sure what my editor thinks about that.

When I teach writers to negotiate without an agent, writers ask me how to do that. I give them phrases.

But dumb me, I’ve finally figured out what writers are asking. They’re asking how to avoid responsibility for their own negotiations.

It’s easy to say, My agent doesn’t want me to talk with you unless you’re serious about this project.

It’s hard to say, I’m not interested in talking to you unless you’re serious about this project.

At least, it’s hard for writers.

It took me a long time to learn that negotiation is all about strength. If you say, My agent or my lawyer too many times in the middle of a negotiation, the person on the other side of that negotiation won’t want to talk to you. You’re not the one with power.

The person on the other side of that negotiation will want to talk to the person with power. You’ve established that someone else has control of your career.

But if you say, I do this  and I decide that, then the person on the other side of the negotiation realizes they have to deal with you, with everything you’ve put forward. They have to sweet talk you or scream at you or figure out how to manipulate you.

If you can, you make them play by your rules. But you can only do that if you’re willing to say I.

When you say I, you’re approaching the negotiation from a position of strength. That does mean that you will get a lot of pushback. People will react to your actions and your words strongly, and it might feel personal.

A lot of folks don’t like strong people. They don’t like to hear a firm yes or no. They don’t like someone who has the self-confidence to say This is what I want.

They also don’t like to hear that that same person has made mistakes and owned those mistakes.

Oh, well. That’s their issue, not yours. Sounds so easy to say, but it’s very hard to learn.

Just like it was hard for me to realize that writers—in dealing with their writings and their business—hate to use the word I.

It’s taken me years to figure that out, and that little detail is missing from How To Negotiate Anything.

Which means that the book is missing a key ingredient.

You have to learn how to speak up for yourself. To demand the respect that you deserve.

And you do deserve it.

Even if your writing isn’t selling well at the moment. Even if you don’t have much of a business yet.

You’re trying something very hard. You’re working in an international profession. You are putting yourself out there, each and every day.

That’s worthy of respect.

So respect yourself.

Say I.


I write this blog every week. It reflects my opinions at the moment. It reflects what I know to be true at this point in my life.

And yes, I occasionally refine what I know. And I try to point out where I went wrong.

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“Business Musings: Own It,” copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / ivector.


10 thoughts on “Business Musings: Own It

  1. I’m an inveterate people-pleaser, yet I was able appropriately to say “I” in the face of skepticism when I made the decision to go indie. I was able to say it again when colleagues I respected told me it was dishonest for me to register my own publishing company with a separate name, and even if i did, I didn’t need a website for it. I took ownership and said “!” when my in-person crit group tried to insist I change the genre of my second novel.

    But I admit it— those were all people I don’t have to deal with every day. I can quietly do what I think is best for me and my writing career without them being the wiser. (I quit the crit group, by the way.)

    The question is, will I be able to say “I” out loud if my work is successful and someone in a position to negotiate brings me an offer worth negotiating over? I’m telling myself that if I’m ever in that situation, it’s a sign of good things happening— somebody wants a piece of pie from my magic bakery! But yeah. It’s up to me and no one else to judge whether they want too much of the pie or want it too cheap.

    1. If you do your negotiation by email, as I suggest in the negotiation posts, then you can write the email initially the way you would to be a people pleaser. Before sending, you go back in and strengthen the sentences, with active language and the word “I.” It works. It’ll feel scary at first, but then you’ll get used to it over time. Thanks for the comment!

  2. One thing I figured out when I was a kid was that if you’re afraid, “they” can tell, and they’ll use the fear against you. At the time, I was thinking of dogs. Dogs scare me. They can smell the fear on you, and then they come right at you. People can’t smell fear, but they can tell when you’re afraid. Unfortunately, many times as an adult, I let the fear take over, and “they” won. In those cases, I was afraid of losing a job. Well, the fear did me in–I was laid off four times. You do have to pick your battles, though. Sometimes, letting them win is OK. But you decide that. Don’t let your fear take you down. Letting fear run you is another way of not saying “I”.

  3. One of my relatives used to be a job interviewer for a major corp. She said the interviewers could only wrote down “I” statements. “I saw a problem here and this is what I did to fix it.” Any team statements, “Our team saw the problem and we came up with a solution,” were ignored. Even if it was more truthful. The company was looking to hire individuals, not the team.

    And most women in American culture have been trained since birth to not take credit for their successes, but to spread out the praise. Some European cultures are truly gifted at playing down their success, I’m thinking of my ancestors from Ireland in particular. It’s a struggle to claim your career. I think I’ve finally got that part figured out. Took me over sixty years though.

  4. THIS !!! Thank you, Kris. I’ve been drawing on your negotiation tips just now, in an area unrelated to writing. (A multinational company came to me personally to facilitate a delivery of a medical device coating, because 2 years ago, one of their supply chain companies (our ex-client) screwed up and failed to adapt to us no longer making it.) When I say “us” and “we,” I mean my little company and our sister company manufacturer in Europe. When I say “I,” I reflect the reality that I run the business off my laptop under the umbrella on the backyard patio.
    I still do the work.
    I still troubleshoot and connect people and offer a term sheet.
    I still try to pretend I have huge balls of brass when stating my terms.
    I feel out of my depth, but the Czech saying of “A lazy mouth results in poverty” still applies. And it’s just a bunch of contracts, I have a lawyer on call, so… I got this.
    But I parse the balance of “I” vs. “we” carefully, because the corporate world doesn’t need to see me talking to them out of my hammock.
    In writing though? I can say “I” as much as want. I have been doing that when talking with narrators and translators. We are all individuals and there is nothing to hide. However, I publish under my imprint, and I often revert to the “we” when I talk to a larger publisher. Is that no longer necessary? Remember, Dean said in one of his old online workshops that “nobody respects the writer, only the publisher.”
    If the sands have shifted and I need to adjust my thinking on that, please advise!
    And thank you for a brilliant post.

    1. “We” if it’s the publisher. “I” if it’s the writer. I negotiate with subsidiary rights folks all the time. If I say “we,” they’ll want to talk to the publishing company instead of me. If you give them room to talk to someone else, they will. And frankly, I don’t care about respect. I care about getting the best deal possible. If they disrespect me in the negotiation, I walk. Simple as that. (And as hard.)

  5. This: “A lot of folks don’t like strong people. They don’t like to hear a firm yes or no. They don’t like someone who has the self-confidence to say This is what I want.”

    Totally agree. And this is not just the writing life but every aspect of life. We want to get along, so we don’t set out our true boundaries and then become stressed when people step over our boundaries.

    Or is it that we don’t quite understand our needs (thinking they are merely “wants”) and try to live / negotiate from that standpoint?

    IDK. Both, maybe. For writers, a clear understanding of our goals and objectives and mission (business plan) might help. Set that up, then look for opportunities that fit the objectives. Yet many of us enter situations for which we don’t quite understand the nuts and bolts that drive the opportunity.

    How do we get to those practicalities to understand the basic needs that will fulfill our biz goals? Networking with pros? Seminars? Is this what the Master Business workshop will provide?

  6. Say I.

    Oh, hell yes.This is not just the secret to business success, it’s the secret to life.

    A clean, non-negotiable ‘no’ is a beautiful thing. But you have to own the ‘no’ fully for it to be so. You have to say ‘I’. It is impossible for others to grow in their respect for you if you are hiding behind your agent, editor, royal ‘we’ or passive voice when you communicate.

  7. So much of the rest of the world either discourages the use of “I” or it encourages a false use of it.

    I work for a corporation and my company is always telling us to “take ownership” of a problem. Do I have the power to make an exception? Only on a single issue: using overnight shipping at our expense, and it’s frowned upon. Do I have the power to fix the problem in the system which is preventing the task from being completed? No. Can I get something turned around in a day even when I know exactly what went wrong and what we need to do to fix it? Hell no. But I’m supposed to “take ownership” of the problem. All the blame, none of the reward for saying “I”. After all, the company didn’t say it. I did.

    And I’ve seen that “you have the ownership and the blame but not the power or the reward” philosophy in corporations for over a decade (probably more, but I wasn’t paying attention then).

    With a background like that, learning to say “I” in a negotiation is going to be an uphill battle for a lot of people. Writers MUST learn it, of course, but it’s not going to be easy.

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