Writing as a business

posted in: Indie Publishing | 0

These days in publishing, there are (unfortunately) a lot of divides.  Most of them, possibly nearly all, revolve around the opportunities that indie publishing has made available.  One of the ones I find most curious doesn’t really have a whole lot (directly) to do with publishers.  Writers, specifically, old-school writers; those authors who’ve come up through and/or with the publishing houses prior to the advent of 21st century practices.

To my knowledge, no one’s really run any sort of survey, so I couldn’t really speak to percentages or numbers; but some non-insignificant amount of these ‘old-school writers’ have never given any thought to the things a modern writer needs to (or, at least, should).  I’m talking about the things the pro-trad side often tries to play up into these insurmountable mountains; the marketing, the publicity, the connections to other media or over-seas markets, the accounting.  The things the traditional publishing industry demands 90% of a writer’s income to take care of.  Except, as we know these days, the publishers are pushing more and more of the execution and cost of marketing over to the author anyway.

But let’s move on.  Arranging for marketing isn’t very complicated, especially when you keep it online.  Authors should be spending a couple of hours a week “keeping their hand in” by monitoring and absorbing events and happenings in publishing and indie publishing.  Anyone who does this regularly should have at least a starting point idea of how to go about setting up and executing a marketing campaign for their title(s).  Email marketers contacting ebook customers for you, online ads like those offered by Facebook, mailing lists, cross-promotional mentions with other authors (who presumably write in or at least are positioned near your genres); these things aren’t that hard to do.  They can start to get expensive, especially with things like online ads, but the regular ‘reading’ (which can include podcasts or Youtubes, even conventions) should steer you rightly.  At least, it should put you where you know who to contact to keep a lid on things.

The accounting really isn’t hard at all.  I’ll admit I might be at least slightly biased in this regard – I’m a self taught spreadsheet expert, or at least semi-expert; I’ve got over a decade of experience in accounting positions or with accounting functions in real jobs; and my father has a degree in and nearly forty years experience with accounting – but it’s really not hard.  Or time consuming.  It’s just not; it doesn’t take hours and hours; we’re talking about business math, which never involves algebra or calculus or anything else that uses letters to represent advanced concepts.  It puzzles me that people find it hard.  We’re talking about the figures for one writer.  Even a prolific one who writes in series and cranks out dozens (and even multiple dozens) of titles per year doesn’t generate the mass of data that a company does.

Then again, I suppose it shouldn’t; most people don’t balance their checkbooks (correctly or otherwise).  Most people are willing to pay a hundred bucks (or more) a year for someone else to fill in a 1040EZ for them.  A lot of indie authors are willing to hand over account login and password information to third-party programs to apply filters to and present their sales data to them, plus pay $10 to $20 a month for the privilege.  That last one bugs the hell out of me; that login information lets someone change where the money goes when Amazon pays you.  Sooner or later one of these services is going to go rogue, or get hacked, or be infiltrated by a virus or malware or something, and it’s going to get ridiculously messy for all these “I can’t be bothered” authors to pick up the pieces.  I don’t want it to happen, but it very probably is going to happen.  That’s what you get when you hand over passwords for money-bearing accounts to third parties.  Would authors hand a bank login over to a website or faceless person they ‘met’ online?  Why hand over the Amazon login then?

I’m also biased, possibly, because I’ve seen my success with Amazon.  I’m very familiar with the sales data Amazon gives me each month for my titles, in the form of a spreadsheet.  I take those spreadsheets and run them through a filter I created in Excel that dumps them into my spreadsheet.  This process takes about ten minutes each month, and has not grown in time as my number of titles has increased.  If I get into the thousands of titles, it might add a couple dozen seconds to the processing time here and there, but my ‘effort’ won’t change; the computer handles it all.  The time I spend looking at and thinking about the data might, but that’s not ‘work’, that’s analysis and pondering . . . thought.  I’m less familiar with the form the non-Amazon services report their data in; because I don’t use them, and when I did they weren’t yielding the success that Amazon does.  But surely they’re all reporting in a spreadsheet or a tab-or-character delimited importable format.  Data is data; you pull it into a spreadsheet, and the sheet does things to it for you.

None of these activities strike me as ‘hard’, but some authors feel they are.  These authors talk about how it’s more important to “spend that time writing”.  I refer again to the 90% of income that “just worrying about writing” costs you when you take that maxim as having to join the trad side.  Even as an indie who outsources everything, you’re only needing to pay out fixed fees to third-parties (services and/or virtual or in-person assistants) to avoid having to bother your poor little head with such details.  Sending some Paypal payments, or maybe writing a check or two, for however much you spend (perhaps $50 or $100) each month is significantly cheaper than losing nine out of ten cents of your sales.  And if you’re in a position where you’re paying a virtual assistant for twenty or thirty or more hours of work each month, you’re probably generating what is commonly referred to as “real money”; you’re in a different category from most authors.  More power to you.

Part of why I say I find it ‘curious’ that a lot of authors insist “I should be writing” when they talk about how they’re willing to take such a small amount of income from what their writing generates in exchange for not having to worry about anything except the writing, is few of these writers are actually clocking 40 or 60 or 80 hours a week writing.  What writers, fiction writers, stay seated at the desk for eight or nine hours a day industriously pecking out words?  And I feel the output, the number of books we see on the ‘old-school’ side of the industry bear my point out; even if these writers are hunt-and-peck typers, anyone clocking 40+ hours a week at the keyboard would be publishing more than one or occasionally two titles a year.

My point isn’t about their writing output; it’s that they’re not actually spending every waking working hour writing.  They’ve got time, most of them more than enough time, to ‘bother’ with a little spreadsheet duty once a month.  To fiddle with sending some emails or playing with a few web sites every four to eight weeks to arrange marketing.  What most of them really mean when they say “I’m a writer; I’ll just worry about the writing” is that they don’t want to be bothered.

They want to just sit there doing whatever other things they do when they’re not actually at a keyboard pounding out words for stories.  They want to play Candy Crush or watch movies or go to their kids’ dance recitals or whatever else they’re filling their lives with.  And that’s fine.  There’s nothing wrong with having a life.  But trying to reframe having a life as “these other things are so hard that they’re impossible” is crap.  Further, it’s a disservice to all writers by continuing the misinformation, by acting as a rebroadcaster for untruths.  Some of these authors actually believe these statements when they say things like “tracking my sales is hard” or “I have no idea who to set up a marketing campaign.”  But others are just trying to make themselves look better; they know they don’t want to do these things, and they say it’s all hard and not the writer’s job so they don’t look bad in comparison.  After all, if authors handle all this stuff on their own, and the few that don’t get seen not doing it, it makes those not-doers look different.  Possibly even ‘bad’.  So they spread the lies.

And even if you’re an author who really would rather focus on the writing, even if you are in a cushy position on the trad side, you’re setting yourself up to get stolen from.  Dean Wesley Smith noticed a game one of the trad publishers is playing with his royalties.  And by game, we mean not paying them.  Stealing is the word I’d use.  It’s not enough that they’re already paying him pennies on the dollar for what his work sells; now they’ve got to steal the pennies too.  Some big name trad authors pay for accounting experts and/or lawyers to review their royalty statements to avoid such shenanigans; how can a struggling midlist author afford to outsource that kind of review to law firms and license-holding CPAs that will charge big bucks per hour (and take hours per month to boot) for such surety?

Everyone’s different.  Everyone has their own approach.  I get that.  But saying simple things are hard is just wrong when it’s really because you can’t be bothered.  If you don’t want to deal with tracking your sales or whatever, then say that.  Don’t lie and say “it’s hard”.  Don’t fib about how “you’re too busy”; just be honest and say that you’d rather be doing X or Y or Z, instead of pulling things into Excel or configuring a new ad.

There are a lot of things the old-school is working very hard to use to delay indies from moving to prominence.  And I mean a lot.  But when authors start taking up the banners of war against their new author brethren . . . that’s just wrong.  Let the evil companies fight their own damn wars.  Don’t enlist yourself in the battle on their side.  They’re already stealing from you.  Why would you give your soul up as well?