Business Musings: Three Kinds of Writers (Rethinking The Writing Business Part 14)

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In the middle of September, an article on went viral. In an article titled “How To Lose A Third of A Million Dollars Without Really Trying,” the writer managed to blame everyone but herself for her stunning ignorance of the business of writing and publishing.

I wouldn’t normally link to that kind of ignorance, but I feel it’s important here, for this blog post, as an example.

Because, you see, the writer in question wasn’t just ignorant of the publishing industry or the writing business. She never learned how to manage money. I have no idea what background she came from, but if I had to guess, her parents were mostly likely struggling to make ends meet, and she knew it.

So when she got a six-figure deal, she thought she was rich. Shortly after the article appeared, Dean did a blog post without linking to hers (stunningly polite and smart, he was) that shows how the math works for traditionally published writers.

He then did a follow-up post because he got so many questions from readers, and he finally mentioned that just because someone has a three-book deal from a traditional publisher doesn’t mean that all three books will get published or even paid for. In other words, her deal was even worse than it looked if you actually did the math correctly.

(And just because I’m linking to some business posts of Dean’s that focus on traditional publishing, let me add this one on agents.)

As long as I’ve been in publishing, there have always been people like this poor writer. They make a lot of money (to them) and spend it, and can’t sell more books, and then their career is over, and they need a new career like teaching or they go back to whatever it was they had been doing before they thought they had hit the lottery.

Before the ebook revolution, it was a lot harder to remain in the writing business. You needed both a business sense and a willingness to overlook the absolutely crazy non-businesslike behavior of traditional publishers.

It was possible, though, for people like the writer of the article to have a long-standing career because the money was also absolutely crazy. Her deal would have been considered “small” back in the day, depending on her genre. If she hit the zeitgeist, she might have made millions and blown through it all before any repercussions came her way.

Hence the myth of the non-businessminded writer. There were some. There still are a few, although most of them got their starts in the 1990s and are still selling, although not as well as they did 20 years ago.

Then ebook revolution came about and suddenly the business-minded writer could have a writing career and manage their money, their time, and their business itself according to the principles of good business, because they never touched traditional publishing.

I wrote blog posts about the two kinds of writers—the traditional and the indie. The traditional, I opined, doesn’t want to think about business; the indie does.

And that was good, as far as it went.

But as we’re rethinking the writing business with an eye toward licensing, I realized that the gulf between the traditionally published writer and the indie who wants to license her own work has grown even bigger.

The traditional writer is giving up every license in her work for the life of the copyright. Traditional contracts do not explicitly call themselves an all-rights grab, but if you know how to read contracts and you look at what the traditional publisher is asking for, it becomes very clear that writers who sign these agreements are giving up every single license in their copyright “for the life of the copyright.”

An all-rights grab by any other name is still an all-rights grab. And no, agents won’t protect a writer from it. In fact, agents often participate in all-rights grabs all their own. I wrote about this in my contract posts, which I collected in Closing The Deal On Your Terms.

A traditionally published writer will make her advance. And maybe, if she’s lucky and has an agent with some horse sense, a few other advances for translation rights. If she’s really lucky, she might make some TV money, but she won’t see anything other than that first payment.

Somewhere along the way, some corporate entity will grab all of the merchandising licenses, the remaining entertainment licenses, the gaming licenses, and everything else. And the traditionally published writer, who trusts her agent and adores her editor, will think nothing of that. She will be told, as the poor ignorant writer of the Medium piece was, that that’s the way it is.

(I got so infuriated when that piece went viral. My traditionally published friends excoriated this woman, not for her financial ignorance, but for the fact that she didn’t know how traditional publishing worked. In other words, what these other writers were saying was, someone should have told her that we all expect to be screwed. She should too. To which I did not reply {with admirable restraint, I must say}, You are just as bad at business, if not worse, than she is.)

Until the traditional publishing landscape changes (which I do not see happening any time soon), traditionally published writers will need to keep their day jobs. Or these writers will have to produce four books per year just to clear $20,000 or so annually. It’s a sad hamster wheel, one in which making a living at writing is damn near impossible.

Indie writers have been on a similar hamster wheel, producing as much as a 50,000 word novel per month, trying to keep their own fortunes alive (particularly if they’re in Kindle Unlimited). That hamster wheel will break eventually. Either the writer burns out, which I wrote about in the past, or the system that the writer is exploiting (like KU) will vanish as new algorithms come into play.

The indie writer who understands business on a deep level will learn how to leverage their IP. Really smart, sales-oriented writers might be able to license 10 to 20 things off a single piece of IP (a novel, or a short story) making that earn money for them for years without writing another word.

And if you have a thousand pieces of IP like Dean and I do? Well, we figured out long ago that we could stop writing and still make a good living without lifting a finger. Because we have so much IP that sells and our expenses aren’t outrageous  and we have set up systems to continue to exploit our IP even if we do nothing else.

(What systems, you ask? Look at the back licensing posts for a clue.)

We haven’t stopped though. I’ve produced two new pieces of IP today. Dean has produced three in the past two days. We’re adding to our inventory all the time, and I’m sure we’ll do that until we die. (Neither of us plans to retire so we’ll either get too sick to continue or die with our boots on and our fingers on the keyboard.)

So really, it looks to me like the writing business is separating further. We now have three kinds of writers:

  1. The traditionally published ones, the ones who believe (like that ignorant writer and the writers who made fun of her) that someone else should do the work of publishing their novels, and for that work that someone else should get 95% of the income off that work.
  2. The day-job indies, the ones who think they have to churn out material day by day by day just to keep their heads above water, seeing nothing besides the single market to which they have licensed their work. Not looking at anything else like other retailers besides Amazon or at audio or at other licensing opportunities.
  3. The business indies, the ones who understand that they can license everything they do in dozens of different ways, and who might be overwhelmed at all of the opportunities to make money off their work.

I think a day-job indie can learn to be a business indie. But that’s the only category that will move. The business indie will never go back to day-job indie, and indies have proven in the past three years or so that they might sample traditional publishing before fleeing in sheer terror at the insanity of it.

What’s fascinating to me is the differences in attitude.

If you really expect other people to take care of you, you belong in traditional publishing. You will pay a hefty price for that desire to be taken care of. You will lose most of your money and your career probably won’t last very long. But you won’t really work very hard either. A few books in a few years, and a few signings or readings in public places, maybe an opportunity to speak somewhere or being an honored guest at conferences.

Otherwise, you can goof off and call it work….until you actually have to go to work at a real job because you can no longer make ends meet.

It really is a choice.

I have no issues with a writer who looks at the work involved in indie publishing and decides it’s not for her…provided she understands what she’s giving up to be traditionally published. And provided she knows that her career will probably end with her keeping her day job.

The day-job indie has trapped himself into a hamster wheel of production. Again, it goes back to choice. Rather than going wide with his work, he stays in K.U. or does whatever it is that brought him that modicum of success that he considers worth protecting. This will continue to work until he can’t produce any more.

Some day-job indies have found ways around the trap they built for themselves, and are slowly extricating themselves from the day-to-day grind. But most of them can’t figure out another way to do business, even though a number of us blog about it regularly.

The business-minded indie is always learning what’s new, always figuring out how to improve their business, and always trying to leverage what they’ve already done into a regular income so that they don’t have to work unless they want to. (Most of us still want to.) It’s a different attitude. The business-minded indie has to continue learning business because the industry evolves and changes. They can’t stop with that side of the work, even if they quit writing.

Some of the difference in attitude comes from the ability to see possibilities. Some of it, though, comes from education. And by education, I don’t mean what level of degree you hold.

The ignorant writer of the Medium piece clearly has had a good education…in all things but money management. I know a lot of people who grew up wealthy who have no idea how to handle money. I know a lot of middle class people who can’t manage anything except their salary. And I know a lot of people who were raised below the poverty line who know how to make a dollar work for them a dozen different ways.

It’s a type of learning that, here in the U.S., at least, few schools provide. Unless you were lucky enough to learn from a savvy parent or role model, learning how to handle money is one of the things that will be an indicator of your success longterm.

There’s one other factor that helps writers learn how to handle their money and their careers, and that’s a willingness to take risks. It isn’t that the business-minded lack fear. They’re probably as afraid of screwing up as everyone else. But the business-minded are at least willing to try new things. See the “Expect Failure”  that should be part of this series (but isn’t because I wanted it to go viral, which it did.)

We aren’t all going to be “writers” anymore. And career advice from writer to writer will depend on the type of writer you want to be. There is no longer one-size-fits-all to this career.

I can tell you this, though. If you want to earn a lot of money as a writer, if you want a career that will last longer than 10 years (or 5, depending on your stamina), then you need to learn how to be a business-minded writer. You’ll be able to take time away from the actual writing—for illness, for family problems, for whatever comes your way—and still earn money.

In the other two categories, you won’t.

There’s a lot of difference in the various ways to approach writing. I’ve only hit on a few of them. But I’ve been discussing some of them throughout this series.

Most writers balk at the idea of career management. But it’s important. And the first step to career management is figuring out what kind of writer you want to be. Not expecting someone to take care of you or hoping you’ll get a million dollars from your art.

But choosing which direction you want to go in. Before you can make a choice, you need to inform yourself what your options are. Then figure out which one suits you the best.

An informed choice is always the best choice. And it might not be the choice I make. But it might be the best for you.

Figure out what kind of writer you are, and then move forward with your planning. You’ll be a lot happier than the writers who believe that “someone should have told them….” Educate yourself, and you’ll be better off. No matter what path you choose.


This business blog exists to try to prevent financial tragedies like the one that ignorant writer for Medium went through. I do try to tell writers what’s ahead so that they can decide for themselves if writing is for them.

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“Business Musings: Three Kinds of Writers (Rethinking The Writing Business Part 14),” copyright © 2019 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / leolintang.

8 thoughts on “Business Musings: Three Kinds of Writers (Rethinking The Writing Business Part 14)

  1. As I am on Ontario disability, I don’t have to worry about going back to my day job. I’m going to try a regular publisher, and ask them to send me no more than $200 a month, so that my ODSP doesn’t get messed up. I don’t want to get cut off, just for getting a couple thousand all at once, that I will have to pay back in sales of my book. I tried a self published book and only sold 54 books, and I write slowly. My writing and other art are just for small extras, to add to ODSP, until I’m 65, and will always get another $200 a month. Note: my previous book is a paperback only, through, with colour pics, so it’s around $20 + shipping.

  2. “I can tell you this, though. If you want to earn a lot of money as a writer, if you want a career that will last longer than 10 years (or 5, depending on your stamina), then you need to learn how to be a business-minded writer. You’ll be able to take time away from the actual writing—for illness, for family problems, for whatever comes your way—and still earn money.”

    And really, what you’re pointing to with that third type is someone who is transcending their identity/mindset of being a writer and instead sees themselves as a content creator, with all the flexibility and opportunity that provides. Something I got out of the Licensing Expo course which I suspect not nearly enough people took.

  3. Just a comment:

    When Dean first mentioned some article going viral at the time, I googled and found who I thought he was walking about.


    Caroline Calloway

    That generated about 24 articles. That is viral, with huge numbers of people going nuts about her antics. When I finally figured out who Dean was talking about I could not see that as viral.

    Try it. Google:

    Heather Demetrios

    You don’t get anything that would be viral. The Calloway stuff will be a movie someday, will generate tons of books duplicating her story. The Demetrios stuff doesn’t even rise to a google search.

    What is important to me, is because Dean was being coy and not mentioning the name of the article, I have a Story folder full of stuff that will generate many books. If he had mentioned the article, I would have read and forgotten it. When you mentioned it, I could not even remember reading it in September.

    The contents of her article are slipping from my mind even as I write this, after all, it was just a sales pitch for her consulting business, trying to drum up clients. I don’t remember many commercials.

    What was I saying. Huh…

  4. Excellent post. I also keep going over Dean’s post on Sales Numbers and after a few changes, I’ve included just about everything on the list. You and Dean are so talented and helpful…it is much appreciated.

  5. Kris, Thank you for this explanation of the three kinds of writers. It has helped a puzzle piece click into place for me. I now see that I am currently a day job writer because I am trying to build a backlist, BUT at the same time I am constantly educating myself to become a business minded indie.

    Or maybe I am a business minded indie who writes daily because there’s nothing else I’d rather do. Either way, this post makes me feel much more comfortable about where I’m at in my career and gives me hope that I’ll be successful. 🙂

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