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.