Learning the Biz

Is writing an art or a business?

Maybe you have an immediate reaction to this question.  If forced to choose . . . oh, but we’re not, thank goodness. Because, of course, the world of the professional writer is both art and business.

You need the art to write your stories. Stories that mean something to you and make use of  your grasp of writing craft and that tap into your passion and talent.

Which writer are you?

But when it comes to the business side, many writers freeze up. Are you a teensy bit phobic about learning the business of writing? Is one of these people you?

  1. You tend to strike a moral pose and call your work art. You’ll let your agent handle business.
  2. You’ve tried, really you have, but now conclude that you have no time for such extras.
  3. With all the mayhem in publishing today, you’re constantly looking over your shoulder at an approaching tsunami. In other words, you get the importance, but it scares you.

If you’re a #1, good luck with that. You’re probably not successful in selling your work, or your career is in a downward spiral or may soon be. I know there are exceptions. But let’s move on.

You’re a #2? How much time does it take to become conversant with the business of writing and publishing? One hour a week? Two? Even if you’re brand new to writing and have a lot to learn, you can afford to read two blogs on business a week, follow three publishers on Twitter, and read old copies of Writers Digest and Publishers Weekly.

And really, is learning the business an extra?

There are things you need to know. Honestly, there are. They concern:

  • Practical writer’s knowledge. Likely income, professional markets, taxes, record keeping, contracts.
  • Agents. What they can and can’t do for you. Differences among agents and how well they suit you. What is standard practice and what is a scam or a waste of your time.
  • Publishers. What they can and can’t do for you. Differences among them… oh, just read the bullet above.
  • Rights issues. What rights do you sell or agree to?
  • Networking. Who do you need to know? How do you meet these people?
  • The new publishing. Amazon, Kindle, Nook, etcetera ad tsunami.

Eating a car

I know this sounds like a lot.

And it is. But, like, you don’t need to learn all this tomorrow. You’ve heard the story of the man who ate a car? One piece at a time over a couple years.

At an hour a week, in one year you’ll have spent 50+ hours learning about business issues that will save you lots of time later when you suddenly need the information. You’ll at least know where to look. And you won’t be operating on naive myths that are just dead wrong.

You’ll have things to talk to published writers about. . . and editors who you might find yourself sitting next to at a convention bar. You can toss around words like royalties, aggregators, mashups, and lead title. And not just to show off. These concepts refer to things that relate to what you will earn and who will be skimming off the top. (Clue: often people who know more about the biz than you do!)

Surf the tsunami

There are some unsettling things about the changing business climate of publishing. So if you’re a #3, I think you’re entitled to a certain disquiet.

But the good news is that many changes coming down the road (roaring across the ocean at 150 miles an hour) can be quite good for the writer. This blog is already too long, but just for starters, we may have:

  • flexibility to publish in new ways, some of them in downloads
  • ability to sell stories that formerly were seen by publishers as too risky
  • choice to keep more of our writing income than before
  • direct access to readers
  • freedom from genre (where, for example, is the fantasy shelf on Amazon?)

It’s true that many of these advantages accrue to the writer who is already a brand. But it’s not a given than you must have an established readership. A following can be quickly built with the right story, with word-of-mouth, viral luck.

None of this is dead simple. It is hard. It might be confusing and at times not work out so well. But isn’t that also a description of life? And you’re not afraid of that are you? You’re not too busy to pay attention to what life is teaching you. And presumably you’re not firmly tied to a philosophy that allows you to ignore real stuff. (Remember that #1 guy up there?)

So let’s make a beginning. An excellent resource is writerbeware.com. Look up your favorite writers and see if they blog on the industry. Find the ones with careers that you would like to have. There are wildly different ideas out there about e-publishing and agents, for instance. Keep an open mind. Don’t take any single writer’s viewpoint as delivered truth. Choose your mentors. And, you know, keep learning.

I personally think the tires are the hardest to swallow, but I hate the smell of rubber.

7 Responses

  1. Tom Hopp says:

    It’s a brave new world, isn’t it? Not for the faint of heart, but persistence and elbow grease can have an impact. A subtext I think I hear echoing in your note is: “try — a lot.” It seems to me that the ways and means of making a go of it in publishing are proliferating these days. I tried for years to get onto the science fiction shelf without much success, but unbeknownst, the mystery shelf was wide open to me. Surprise! I’m still not qualified to join SFWA, but MWA took me in and I continue to sell pieces in the mystery market. As you point out, it would have been bad for me to get a #1 attitude about my fiction. I’d still be an outsider to the SF genre. Nowadays, I’m more a #3, although not so much in fear and trepidation, but rather rubbing my hands with glee.

  2. J. Noel says:

    I think writing is an art, but publishing is business. Hardcore business.

    I’ve been working on my art, and will always continue to do so, but I do dedicate at least a little bit of time reading up on the business side of writing.

    Luckily, I am in corporate/business sales, so I don’t shy away from that side of publishing at all. But, the landscape is constantly changing, on a daily basis it seems.

    That makes it more exciting!

  3. Kay says:

    Tom, congrats on the business sense and flexibility! So glad to hear you found some fertile ground out there for your work. Care to tell a little more about the mystery market and why it may be more accessible than science fiction?

  4. Kay says:

    Joel: Oh, then you’ve got the right attitude toward all of this. So many of us don’t. Business sense seems not to play well with the artistic side.

  5. Tom Hopp says:

    Kay, I can’t say I know exactly why the mystery genre was easier for me to crack. I think it’s probably not any more accessible than SF (read, they’re both overloaded with talent). I probably just matched up better in some way or other with the genre’s expectations. Here’s a guess: my science fiction always takes place on Earth, starting tomorrow or in the very near future. Perhaps the SF publishing sector disdains the here and now in favor of far off and way out there. In mystery, stories told here and now are perhaps the most compelling. There you have it. Just my guess. But whether in SF or mystery, your observations about needing to come at it in a businesslike way are right on the money.

  6. Kay says:

    Tom – Well maybe luck just hit you differently in mystery. Luck and timing is inordinately decisive in breaking in.
    I’ve heard that SF these days sells better if it *is* more tied to today. That is, people like a bit more of the familiar in their stories. Totally an anecdotal conclusion. (And, as always, brand name authors can be an exception.)

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