The Writer As a Small Business

Publishers used to invest in their writers; now we have to invest in ourselves. I now view myself as an independent, small business. Most small businesses fail, but writers are driven to write, and perhaps restaurateurs are driven to open restaurants. Maybe fashion designers become irritable if they can’t design fashion, the way I do when I don’t find time to write. Fashion designers, writers, restaurateurs, and all small business owners face daunting odds, but we have legacies to create and promise of our talents to fulfill.

Our culture cannot survive without stories, and my mission seems larger than my balance sheet. Ever since the first group of humans gathered around the first fire, there have been stories. They are a million times more important than Big Macs. The world can’t live without our stories, yet the publishing giants are the groaning, heavy-footed dinosaurs of the business world. They are picking the low-hanging fruit and weeping in their Chardonnay. We authors, however, are not wimpy souls needing to “express ourselves;” we are the conscience and spark of mankind. We must find a way to tell our tales even when our supports are knocked from underneath us.

Just as a restaurateur must rent a location, decorate it, hire chef and staff, devise a menu, publicize the opening, and provide a cushion of cash while the restaurant builds its clientele, I had to create something to sell, join the writing community, and find a way to be published. Here is a partial list of my past and expected expenditures:

  • A computer, printer, and supplies
  • A place to work (Stephen King claims to have started in the laundry room)
  • 5-6 writing conferences
  • A paid writing coach
  • Monthly trips to New York for my writer’s group meetings (about $20 per trip)
  • When I can afford it, a submission service, Writer’s Relief
  • A shelf full of books and occasional seminars/webinars on marketing/blogging/writing
  • If time is money, 20-30 hours a week (sometimes a lot more) for 10 years
  • Website design and hosting
  • An audio engineer to help with the recording of the audio version of my book
  • An artist to design the cover
  • Paying for printing the hard copies

This adds up to many thousands of dollars, which is what one would expect when setting up a business.

A small inheritance made it possible for me to quit a comfortable job in 2003 and write for a year. After twelve months I would see if what I produced was good enough for publication in the literary press. If it was, I had a shot; if it wasn’t, I’d go back to a regular job.

The literary press consists of numerous journals, often associated with universities, which publish poems, essays, book excerpts, and short stories without paying the author. The field is highly competitive, and getting published is a feather in a writer’s cap. It is like playing in the AAA baseball league…for no money. The prestige garnered by publication in these journals is potent among writers, useless elsewhere. In the first year, my work was published in two journals, so instead of going back to being a secretary, I became an adjunct professor of writing. I had fashioned a way to continue doing what I wanted and needed to do.

Receiving an inheritance is not the only route to financial backing. One friend became a postman, knowing that his schedule would be regular and his pay and benefits adequate, leaving him time to write poetry. Those literary lions Charles Dickens and Mark Twain promoted their books by giving lectures on a schedule as grueling as a rock band’s. (I wonder what it must have been like for them to ride in stagecoaches and gritty trains from, say, Cincinnati to Chicago at the end of the 1800s to give the same old speech.) Herman Melville supported himself with a regular job for many years before Moby Dick. Then there is crowdsourcing, but that hasn’t made its mark as a way to fund writers.

Virginia Woolf quipped that female writers need “Money and a room of their own.” Thoreau, though male, satisfied himself with a cheap cabin on Walden Pond. I identify with Katharine Ann Porter’s opinion that writing and washing dishes don’t go together: having time at the right time is critical. The effort required to write well goes well beyond the exertions of ordinary life—Truman Capote remarked of one mediocre book, “That’s not writing. That’s typing.” But somebody still has to wash the dishes.

* * * *

After my year of writing, I stepped back from writing itself to the time-consuming process of submitting my work. I needed a new folio of information and a new set of skills, so I attended a writers’ conference in New York City.

The first workshop was conducted by a young man with the signature mix of humility and swagger sported by social media businesspeople. He assured the oversubscribed room of eager authors that “It’s easy to get published these days.” It all had to do with “networking” and “building a platform” and, well, you know. You have heard the spiel a hundred times too, author or not.

We were advised to interact with as many people as possible because “People don’t buy products, they buy from people they like.” We should post frequently to our blogs and become a recognized name in whatever field we chose. We should offer guest postings to friendly blogs and provide links to blogs similar to our own, as well as inviting postings by other bloggers. We should acknowledge and encourage others if we expected them to do the same for us when our books came out. We should scour Google and Twitter for organizations which would be interested in having us come to speak at their meetings. These activities, done well, would require a full-time commitment more suffocating than washing the dishes, and each individual author would have to spend the required hours finding the resources and making the contacts. In the good old days, there were publicists who had much of this information in their pockets. It was at least more efficient.

Next up was a session featuring several successful agents. They gave their pitches and then answered questions. My question was: “I don’t see how the business plan you are using can work. Agents and publishers are expecting writers to edit, design, and market their own work. If anything, the qualities for a designer or marketer and for a writer are the inverse of each other, though there are some exceptions. Are you working on an alternative business plan?”

There was silence for a moment, then one of the agents puffed himself up and said, “This is the way it is, so you’d better get used to it,” and moved on to the next question. I was angered and baffled. Were these luminaries deluding themselves? Yes, it appeared they were.

I was looking forward to the last event of the day, the “agent slam.” A few years ago I had an agent briefly, but she retired because her husband was dying. I was moderately optimistic that I might find another one at the slam. How wonderful it would be to be scooped up by an enthusiastic agent who would help me hone my work and negotiate a publishing contract. Maybe even an advance!!

I waited in long line after long line for a few minutes with five agents. It was a challenge to whittle a whole book into an elevator pitch, but I did pretty well. “It’s a book about what happened when I started dating again at sixty.” The agents made suggestions: “Include the word ‘sex’ in the title, maybe Sex Over Sixty, because sex sells well,” or “How about Four Years: A Hundred Men. People like numbers.” I came away with some business cards and welcome encouragement. This was a start.

Besides my book, I had taken a year to research and write a long article on the history of abortion. Restrictive abortion laws were being passed, and I wanted to present some unique and surprising information on the subject. I told a publicist friend that I would, what-the-heck, submit the article to a major magazine. “Please don’t do that,” she urged. “If they like it, they’ll send it along to someone with more name recognition, and that person will write the article.” I couldn’t resist the megalomaniacal temptation and sent it anyway. A few months later the magazine published an article on abortion (the first I can remember them publishing on that subject). The Harvard professor who wrote it padded my article amply with her own facts and thoughts, but I think my publicist friend pegged it. The outline, the sources, and many of the facts were familiar.

The point is not that I was probably wronged but that this is a familiar and predictable pattern for the esteemed magazine—another weak business plan because they are depriving themselves of new blood. This article did not hold my major ambitions anyway. I was happy the information I had labored to present was being disseminated, but shame on me for not being angry that I was not paid for my year of work. Why have we gotten so used to this sort of thing? I couldn’t win the battle, so left it behind. I was learning the game.

Armed with information from the conference workshop, I persevered with the abortion article; after all, “It’s easy to get published these days.” I climbed onto Twitter and Facebook, established a blog and a website, and published the article on Amazon Kindle about a year ago. This entailed tedious formatting work, some rudimentary cover design, and several frustrating technological glitches. In the end I didn’t much like how it looked, but I didn’t possess the necessary skills to create a glimmering product and didn’t want to spend weeks learning them. I’d spent long enough writing it. At first I had the heretical idea of charging $5.99, the price of a couple of heritage tomatoes; my publicist friend laughed out loud. I held out for $1.99, still a little high for Kindle.

The recommended social media moves were made, and after a year I have made less than $10 on the book. (The money stays within Amazon—they only pay you when you reach a certain threshold. Given the number of publications which don’t earn the threshold amount, these bits must add up to a tidy sum for Amazon.) This does not qualify in any dignified or productive way for the term “publication.” I am proud to say that there are two heartfelt comments though. “Megan” liked it: “Brilliantly written, great info & reference… Highly recommend it :)” And “Timothy” (who describes himself as a man who stands and prays silently for abortion’s end, and who took issue with my interpretation of two Catholics saints’ writings) described it as “smoothly written.” Megan gave it five stars, and Timothy surprised me by giving it two. At least I got that article off my back.

Two writer friends have been able to establish relationships with publishers in something like the old-fashioned way. One found the publisher herself, the other has an agent, but neither small publishing house provided an advance or marketing support.

The first friend has written ten books and appears regularly on radio and television, but since she only gets semi-annual sales statements from her publisher, there is no way to know how many books were sold as a direct result of her appearances. I saw her speak at a book fair in Tucson: she sold four books that day. Many times she drives a couple of hours to do a reading at a bookstore and does not even make back the gas money. She makes less than $20,000 a year from her ten books, some of which have been in continuous publication for twenty years.

My other friend was nominated for a major award for her last book and has achieved notoriety in her field. She, too, appears regularly on radio and television and travels around the country for workshops and speeches. She pays for her own airfare and hotel room. At today’s royalty rates she would have to sell hundreds of books to earn that back. Adding her part-time job teaching dance, she makes around $40,000 a year.

Both friends lead interesting lives; that is the payoff. Writing has never been a dependably lucrative career. The difference today is that the risks have shifted from the publishers to rest completely on the people least able to take them—authors themselves. The relationship is exploitative and cowardly.

Nothing I had done or learned so far was furthering the success of my major project, my book. I have chosen the title Searching for the Unicorn: A Picaresque Memoir, but have no experience devising book titles—that’s another thing that publishers and agents used to help with. I knew I had a dandy story that challenged readers with some meaty moral questions. It was also a chronicle of a changing society. When I started dating again in 2003, older women were just beginning to step out, the Internet was emerging as a romantic meet-up spot, and medical advances were changing our expectations about our bodies, our families, and our old age.

The business of publishing has changed a lot in the years since I last had an agent. Agents are swirling around in the same world I am. They are writing blogs and have renamed themselves “coaches” or have become technology advisors. They, too, are small businesses.

Over the last few years, I have gone down many roads, gaining areas of knowledge and some experience, and hardening my will. I have decided to no longer crawl around begging for crumbs from the corporate table. I am making an audio version of my book and engaging a talented artist to design the cover. I haven’t decided how I’ll get the hard copies published, but there are a lot of options. I’m going to a self-publishing conference in a few weeks and hope I’ll learn something there. I’ll avoid Amazon and sell through my own site, just the way people sell shoes or vitamin pills. Or maybe not. Whatever is more profitable. The blog attached to my website is garnering more and more visitors, and I’ll market to them. To do that I will have to post frequently, and that will mean partly forsaking my academic blog, which has six hundred or so readers a month, does not earn me a penny, and only minimally enhances my professional life. I write it as a service, a donation. I’ll speak and read my work locally, and if somebody wants to pay my airfare, I’ll go elsewhere. (Dream on.) I’ll use YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

It would probably help if authors became an ensemble to market their work, but my brain isn’t yet grasping how this could be done. So far I am simply urging other authors to jettison both the fairytale world of yesterday, where they would be scooped up like Cinderella and anointed by a publishing house, and also the overconfident world of social media, which has become clogged with products promoted or published for little or nothing.

In his book Who Owns the Future?, Jaron Lanier writes why everyone should care about our efforts to make a living from our work. Profession after profession—journalism, technology, music, education, medicine—is now expected to provide services for free (I consider $1.99 on Amazon “free”). The logical consequence of this business model is that the incomes of the very people who are supposed to be buying our wares and services are eroding because their own wares and services are also being scarfed up for free. We all need people who are willing to pay for the things they receive; otherwise we will be the puppets of the “Siren Servers,” as Lanier calls them, such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook, which use our time and effort for their own enrichment.

Though Twitter and Facebook are intellectual crack, I’ll use them, but am gambling on an almost biological need in all human beings for stories, for substance. We can give them out for free, or we can devise ways to give value to our work. Nobody else is going to do it.

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