I was speaking the other day with one of my brothers (who lives in an American city far, far away from me) and was telling him about the new novel and the budget I’ve established to publish and promote it. His response was: “I hope you’ll sell enough books to make that back.”
Well, yeah. Me too.
This snippet of conversation got me thinking about the business part of writing and the misconceptions about the business part of writing (primarily from people who aren’t writers). Because, whether we like it or not, writing (and particularly publishing) is a business. We have a product—a novel, history, or collection of stories or poems—and we try to get customers to buy it. And we hope to make a bit of profit off each transaction. In this aspect, we are no different than the guy who makes widgets.
There are other similarities. Both need to be aware of expenses. (It does us little good to sell a million books for $15 each, if it cost us $20 to get it to your customer.) Both need to acquire and polish the skills necessary to produce a professional product. Both need to do some research to identify their market, which cost money (see expenses above). Both need to do some promotion to let their customers know the product is available (again, expenses). Both need to make sure their product is as good as it possibly can be and meets the customers’ expectations. Both would like to make a living—a good living, if possible—from selling their product.
In all these ways, there is nothing that qualitatively differentiates the writer from the manufacturer of widgets. They are both businessmen. They have the same goals, obstacles, and use similar methods to strive for their goals. But they are not exactly the same.
There are, however, some fundamental differences between the writer/author and the maker/seller of widgets. First and foremost of these is the fact that the widget man probably has no great emotional attachment to his widgets. Yes, he thinks they are good. Yes, he will argue that they are better than those of his competition. But when you get down to his soul, the widget is just a way to make a living. If he determined he could make a better living making cotter pins, he would switch in a heartbeat and never look back.
The writer, on the other hand, generally has a deep, emotional bond with literature and writing. She is writing because she loves to write, not because it’s a viable way to make a living. (Because by every measurable manner of determining such things, it really isn’t a viable way of making a living. It really isn’t.) She would probably still be writing even if there were no possible way of making a single dime from her efforts.
So this love of the process and love of the product changes things for the writer as business person. This means a few things change. Most of all, though the profit motive is still important, it isn’t as important as it is for the widget guy. She would, after all, continue writing even if she were not to earn a penny. So losing a little money on occasion is not as much of an issue. Unless she’s wealthy, she probably couldn’t do it very often, but she can do it.
The second big difference is passion. The writer has a passion for what they are doing and want to share that passion with others. The novelist wants you to read their book, not because they will make money when you buy it, or they’re hungry for your praise and admiration (though most won’t turn it away). They want you to read it because they think you’ll like it. They hope you like it. They want you to like it as much as they do.
I have known writers and poets who have given away more copies of their work than they’ve actually sold. They don’t want to be rich; they want to be read.
Not exactly a MBA approved policy.
Perhaps, it is more useful to compare the business of writing to the business aspects of other arts: music, visual arts, acting. In each case, the person who truly loves his gig, loves it as something immense and eternal. It is something he wants to be part of, more than just a way to make a living. Therefore, to a certain extent, the expenses are almost a rite of passage, more than a business expense.
Is paying for a professional head shot a good investment for the aspiring actor? Well, no, not if she doesn’t land any paying roles. On the other hand, she probably won’t land one without first having the head shot, so it is a necessary expense if the actor wants to be taken seriously.
Does it make good business sense for the young musician to pay to record her first CD out of her own pocket? Probably not. The financial guys down at the bank would say she didn’t have much of a chance to sell enough to recoup her investment, much less turn a profit. However, she will sell some of them. The people who play those CD’s will most likely play them for friends, who may like it too. They could buy their own copy and tell their friends about this new singer they’ve found. People who have never had a chance to hear her perform will hear the CD.
It’s a way of getting the word out, of building a fan base. It’s an investment in the artist’s future. The problem is there is no real way to measure the return on this kind of investment. It’s more a matter of faith. Faith in yourself.
It’s also the reason many—if not most—writers, musicians, and such have a day job to pay the bills. Because, realistically, their writing (or music, or sculpture) cannot do it. Only later, once the writer has built up enough of a reputation and following that her income begins to outpace her expenditures can she begin to work the gig like a normal business.
So what do we say when someone brings up the business part of our writing and questions the amount we’re spending? How about: “don’t worry about it. I have a plan?”