Is Your Writing a Business, or a Dream?

desk coffee

My son, a.k.a The Boy, does not always want to finish his meals.

I don’t force him to clean his plate.   That said, there’s one rule:  no veggies, no dessert. If you’re not hungry enough to eat your veggies, you don’t get sweets.

He will occasionally plead his case, using everything short of a Powerpoint presentation to explain to me that, while he isn’t hungry for dinner, he fortunately has an area of his stomach reserved for dessert, and special dispensation should be made.

But the boundary’s firm.  It’s not personal, not moral, not judgmental.  It is what it is.

It doesn’t mean he’s a bad kid — hell, he’s not even an abnormal kid.  It doesn’t mean he’s being punished until he sees the error of his ways.  It’s just cause and effect.

No veggies, no dessert.  Period, end of sentence.

What this has to do with the business of writing.

In the fifteen years or so I’ve been around writers, I’ve noticed two main recurring “goals” or desires:

The first:  “I want to make the New York Times bestseller list!”

And the second:  “I want to write full time!”

But why, I eventually asked?

When pressed, most of the people I asked said that they wanted to hit the NYT list because it was a guarantee, of sorts… once you made that list, you could pretty much write what you wanted, and your publisher would be on board.  You’d make gobs of money, and you’d be set.*

Which tied into the second goal:  writing full time.  No job!  No answering to other people!  Just being creative, doing what they loved for a living!

All the fun.  None of the responsibility.

What they really wanted, generally, was to be able to do what they loved without worrying about how that was going to work.

They wanted to have so much success, they wouldn’t need to worry about  painful things like querying, or rejection, or promotion, ever again.

They wanted to make so much money, they wouldn’t have to worry about budgeting, or marketing, or declining sales.

They could just write happily, with no consequence.

They didn’t want a business.  They wanted a lottery ticket.

*(Yes, I think most people now know that the NYT list is not the panacea it used to seem to be.  If you didn’t — I’m sorry, sweetie.   There are lots of people who have hit the list who can tell you they’re still working day jobs and writing their butts off.)

The Tiers of the Writing Tournament.

There are very few authors making “I can do whatever the hell I want” money: J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, Stephen King, James Patterson, maybe.  Bella Andre, on the self-pub side, perhaps.  They’re the majors: the top tier.

Beyond that rarefied cohort, you’ve got writers who are making a decent chunk of change.  Some may even be on bestseller lists.  They’re on a growth trajectory. But they’re still hustling, and they’re working on both craft and business.

Under that tier, you’ve got people with traction, who are making some money, but still working at day jobs or what have you.  They’re looking for that edge, something to help them break out.

Then you’ve got people entering the market, still getting their bearings.  They may not make much money, if anything.  Some might not even have a title for sale.

Every writer goes through these tiers.    Some advance faster than others.  Some go forward, then fall back. Some stall out and abandon the field at a certain level.  It happens.

But very, very few win the lottery and get the fairy tale by going from first book to gazillions.

If you want to sell books… you have a business.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, this shouldn’t be a shock.  Whether you’re selling business to business (as in, selling your book to a publisher) or business to customer (selling your book to a reader), the minute you have a book for sale, you’re an entrepreneur.  And if you want to be a successful one, there are a lot of grown-up, business-y things that you’re going to need to handle.

If you think “that’s not my problem, that’s my publisher’s job”  then you are handing your business over to your customer.

If you think “I’ll just do the best I can and my readers will find me” then you are handing your business over to fate.

And if you think that you’ll be able to vault over the lower tiers, and hit it big with one book or maybe one series and then retire to Bermuda, then you do not have a business.  You have what Naomi Dunford of Ittybiz calls “a fervent hope.”

My son’s other bit of wisdom.

When my son rails at the injustice of the no-meal-no-dessert rule, it’s usually followed up with the following response:

You git what you git, and you don’t throw a fit.

That means pretty much what it says.

If he wants dessert, he’s going to have to figure out a way to get rid of those broccoli stalks, by hook or by crook.  That might mean pulverizing them into green sludge and spooning them up, or drowning them in ranch dressing, or eating as quickly as possible, interspersed with plenty of sips of water.  Whatever.

Fulfill the requirement — handle the business — and get the reward.

Handle your business.

We’re not any different.  It’s not about winning the jackpot, and making it so big you don’t ever have to worry about running a business.

It’s about being aware of where you are, what you want, and what’s in the way.  Understanding how things work, so you’re not frightened into paralysis or daydreams.  And developing confidence and resilience so you’re able to weather the bumps, rather than running from them.

You can do this.

What’s more — once you accept that “you git what you git” and you’re running a business, not chasing a fantasy — I think you’re going to find that it’s a lot easier to actually move forward, and go further in your writing career.

12 Replies to “Is Your Writing a Business, or a Dream?”

  1. I might have had a leg up on this, having gone through building a business, knowing what it takes. Funny, never had the NYT list dream. And for a long while now, it’s become more apparent to me that this is the hardest gig of my life. I guess what I still have hopes for is an opportunity to continue (so I suppose what you term ‘traction’).

    I’ve been noodling over your comment to me in my Goals & Desires post in January. You spoke of connection, and said: “That’s what I think publication would provide for you, and what you’re ultimately looking for. Connection, with people who both need and want to hear your stories (even if they don’t know it yet) and people who will resonate deeply with what you’ve got to say, and how you say it.” Talk about deeply resonating! You hit the sweet spot for me there.

    I have no illusions of a free desert. I don’t always feel like moderating at WU or wrestling a difficult blog post that will have meaning or useful info, and so forth. I’m not always excited about yet another round of revisions, and don’t even get me started on writing queries or synopses. But I know I’ve got to eat my veggies if I want that traction, and that opportunity for connection. Tell The Boy to pass the ranch dressing, please. Great post, Teach!

    1. Thanks, Vaughn. I think you are lucky to have the business background, and you’re using a very grounded approach to the whole thing. That’ll help down the line!

  2. I had the interesting experience of doing some interviews with authors at the Emerald City Writer’s Conference last fall. They were published authors, some with day jobs and all working hard at both their craft and their business. Most of them said that they spent at least 50 percent of their available time on the business side of writing.

    It seems that the sooner we aspiring writers accept the fact the we are indeed a business, the better for our career.

    1. Lynda Jo, I think that the authors who have made it past their second sale especially tend to learn quite quickly that it’s a business, rather than a lottery. I also think that it frees them up, because so many authors think “if I just polish this and get it perfect, I’ll be the next J.K. Rowling!” that they never even submit a book. Or they quit the field when their first book doesn’t hit it big.

      This is a marathon, not a sprint. Or maybe it’s a series of sprints. A track meet? I’ll work on the analogy. 😀

  3. Very well put, as usual, Cathy! Another thing I notice with people who think of this as The Dream… They tend to have a harder time with rejection. Because it’s much harder to accept that someone bashed your dreams into the rocky shore than it is accepting that “this particular business deal” didn’t work out. The Dream is much more emotional than This Business is.

  4. This is great. I made the conscious decision last year to turn writing from hobby and dream into a business. That decision, coupled with the action plan I put together, has has a huge impact on not only what I’ve achieved, but also the way I think about myself and my future.

    A few years ago I attended a conference with a motivational speaker talking about the power of positive thought. About an hour into his speech he placed a lit candle on the stage. Then he asked everyone in the room and think positively about the candle going out.

    He really pumped up the audience. Everyone closed their eyes, and thought as hard as they could. But when we opened our eyes, the candle was still lit.

    “Positive thinking is important,” the guy said. “That’s where you start. But the way to be successful is to turn that positive thinking into positive action.”

    The Power of Positive Action is a concept I apply to every aspect of my life. Dreaming is important — essential in this line of work. But if I don’t DO something to achieve my dreams, if I don’t put in the hard work to get there, all I’ll have at the end of the day is a lot of positive thoughts and broken dreams.

  5. Thank you for such an insightful post. As someone at the beginning stages of this journey I found this equally terrifying and inspirational. For me, that’s perfect. It’s exactly as I felt the night before my first day of teaching (and probably my entire first year!).
    I have just spread this post far and wide – StumbleUpon, Twitter and FB. It’s a must read for all my writing buddies!

  6. LOL! My son used to use the same exact excuse–“But Mom, I still have room in my dessert stomach!”

    For many, many years I had the “dream” of the lottery win, but as I’ve matured, both in years and in my writing, I’ve come to realize that if I plan to have a career in writing, it will, as with any thing worth while, involve real work.

    Having owned my own business and been my own boss for nearly seven years now, I can say without reservation that there are days I’d rather dig ditches working for someone else. Working for yourself (and let’s face it, writing is a business, as you’ve pointed out) is not all bon-bons and drooling over Hawaii Five-O. There are some days I get to eat my lunch while watching TV; others, I don’t even GET lunch.

    I have gone from the dream of the lottery win and hot stable boys fetching my horse for me to ride (I live in a tropical area–SO sick of beaches, so no cabana boys) to taking the money that I will one day earn in writing to supplement my retirement income. Or buy candy bars. 😀

    I am loving your blog; it is full of such common sense advice, but you know what they say about common sense. 🙂

  7. I like this article because it shows would-be writers what their expectations should be.

    Speaking of expectations, I have two books I’m writing, one a shameless romance I finished but have not published, and one a thriller I am about in the middle of. They are very different and I have no idea which one to publish first. Do you have any suggestions?

  8. Hi Cathy,
    I feel like the business side of things is very overwhelming (not a social media person, here). Nonetheless, I’d like to start tackling it! How about a Rock-Your-Business Book??? I don’t have time to endlessly flail around on my own….Pretty Pretty Please?
    And I LOVE your Plot book! Just finished outlining with it.

    1. Strangely enough, I am working on a Rock Your Promo book. (Shhhh! ) If you’re on the newsletter list, you’ll hear about it as soon as it’s ready. And I’m so glad you found Rock Your Plot helpful! I love hearing that! 🙂 Good luck with the writing, and comment or email, anytime!

  9. I’m sure it is as you say, but it’s very disappointing. I’ve never been good at business or at selling anything, but I can write. If I’m to make a business of it, I’m going to need a lot of guidance and maybe some help. I have some feeling for writing, that is, I believe I know when something really doesn’t work, and when I need editing and correction, and I crave candid constructive feedback, It makes my writing better, but I have no feeling for business. What kind of guidance exists for someone like me?

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