Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The B Word

Sharon Wildwind

A lot of writers, including me, would be so happy if we didn’t have to deal with the B word.


Since Calgary is in the middle of another B word today — blizzard — all my writing and nesting genes have activated. Long ago, in a land far, far away, before I turned pro at writing, the most ideal day in the world was a snowy winter day, when I didn’t have to go to work and could write all day.

Ah, for the good old days.

At one end of the love/hate business scale are people like jewelry and textile designer, Megan Auman. Her mother was an artist; her father ran a small business. As a child she played business, and had a real one by age ten, selling confetti to other fourth graders. She literally grew up learning business models.

At the hate end of that scale is the unvarnished truth that not everyone can run a successful business. If a person can’t find a sales approach that fits her personality, and can’t afford to hire someone to do the business for her, might she ask herself if business is really for her?

In the great, grey, mucky middle are those of us who, most days, can tolerate running a business, but we don’t like it, or don’t think we do it well, or both.

Here are three things ideas for writers that might make business more enjoyable and profitable.

Know what our products costs

It’s easy to track supplies (ink cartridges, blank CDs, paper, etc.) and services (conventions, shipping, web design, etc.) of being a writer. It’s harder to track the most precious commodity of all — time.

How long does it take to turn out a finished project? A short story started in July and finished it in October took four months, right? Except … How many days in those four months did we actually work on it? How many hours? How do we count the time spent plotting while washing dishes or waiting at stoplights?

How many words — written, deleted, edited, and revised — went into our final word count? I didn’t formally participate in NatNovWriMo last month, but I tracked how many words I wrote following my usual writing schedule. To make the count a little cleaner, I decided to start and finish one short story in November. There would be other things I worked on, but that story was my main writing activity.

Because my writing program has a Target feature that I can reset, part of the word count was super-easy to track. My total word count for the month was 32,933 words. Of that I racked up 30,131 words on the short story, whose finished length was 11,400 words. In other words I wrote about 2.6 words for every word that ended up in the story.

What’s impossible to track is all those words I proof-read — often several times — found them acceptable and left them alone.

Why does this matter? Because one of the foundations of good business planning is to know what workload we’re capable of handling. Chances are there is a gap between what we think we can do — Sure, I can knock out this novel in six months — and what we’re capable of doing. We need to know how big that gap is.

Put our money where our business is

Occasionally, we need to pay people to teach us about business. At the very least, we need to have a library card, and raid the library frequently for helpful books. Surprisingly enough, the best books are about things other than business.

In the past year, I’ve gotten more helpful business advice from books about the art and science of making things, labyrinths, sacred geometry, acting, unleashing creativity, meditation, facing and conquering fear, wabi-sabi, and elements of Japanese design than I did from books related to business plans, marketing, and social media.

We are inundated by free advice from family, friends, peers, agents, editors, gurus, and people who want to sell us something even if it doesn’t meet out needs. We are also in a tiny, oh-so-specialized business. Almost without fail, when I spy a book titled something like, Basic Business for Small Businesses — a made-up title, but similar to what’s out there — the small in small business refers to 50-, 20-, or 10-person businesses. Wow, if I had nine other people working for me, life would be a whole different ballgame.

Writers need to learn the business side of writing from other successful writers, and that means plunking down those dollars to go to conventions or seminars, or sign-up for on-line business classes taught by successful writers, whom we admire and respect.

Develop our business vision — we’re talking brand here — and find customers who buy into that vision.

I’ll let Megan Auman explain that, because there’s no way I could do any better.

We’re not looking for customers who want to buy our product; we’re looking for people who need our world vision.
~Megan Auman; designer, educator, entrepreneur

Talk about a whole different ballgame. That makes business not about dollars and cents, but about, almost incidentally, collecting those dollars and cents by reaching out to people. It makes it about connections, about hope, about fun, about making life better all around, on both sides of the word processor. That kind of business I'd enjoy a lot.


TheaM said...

Hi Sharon,
It seems that quilting and writing are more similar than I realized.
So much time spent on both before a product goes to market! and so many 'hidden costs'...
Enjoy your snowy day if you can... just don't send that snow to me!

Anonymous said...

You have alerted us to a topic we need to pay more attention to - the business bottom line of writing ! It is far more expensive than we want to deal with! Thelma in Manhattan

Anonymous said...

Hi, Thelma,

Writing and quilting are very similar: collect your materials, cut materials to size, stitch them together, embellish.

The sad difference is that some quilters can realize the true value of what they've made. People will pay hundreds of dollars for a unique, well-made quilt.

It is much more difficult for writers to realize the true value of what they've made, not because they're underserving writers, but because the business end is so complex.

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Sharon,
As a reviewer, I've read too many books by authors who--dare I say it?--just can't write. While it's true that anyone nowadays can release something that superficially looks like a book, I've seen many examples of poorly written stories. I'm willing to excuse more copy editing errors than most, but when the story is just rambling drivel, I'm very upset.
That said, as a writer, I think too many of us who tell a good story feel forced to devalue our opus in order to compete. Yes, we have to learn the business, but we should value our art, even if readers expect us to provide free entertainment. I've started to include a TANSTAAFL message on each blog post. I suppose some readers are upset by this, but I don't care. I might not sell many books, but I'm no longer going to give readers a free lunch either.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Steven,

I agree with you about poorly-written books. Last year, I critiqued a couple of chapters for a man who was writing what I considered a promising first draft. I was dismayed when he sent me an e-mail bragging that he had published his book the day after he finished the first draft. I think he may regret this down the line.

There is no such thing as a free lunch.