Wednesday, July 27, 2011

It’s a Business

Several years ago, I was chatting with Susan Campbell Bartoletti at an SCBWI conference. After receiving acclaim for her nonfiction books Kids on Strike and Black Potatoes she had quit teaching, much as she loved it, to devote herself to writing full-time. “It’s hard,” she told me, “but for now I’m putting most of what I earn back into the business.”

It took me a moment to understand what she meant. Business? What business? I thought she was writing!

Oh. The writing business. I felt as foolish as the person who can’t figure out the answer to the old riddle about the man and his son who are in an accident, and when they get to the hospital, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate on that child. He’s my son.” How can that be?*

The thing is, I wasn’t thinking about my writing as a business, so I wasn’t thinking in terms of investing in it.

A few years after that conversation with Sue, I was hard at work on my second novel. My husband told me he didn’t understand why I was writing something that didn’t have a publisher yet. I tried to explain that I had to finish it first, and then see if I could find someone to publish it. He still didn’t get it. Then I was inspired to borrow language I had heard him use: “I’m writing it on spec.”

This time he got it because I was using the language of business to talk about my writing, awkward as it felt. It still feels weird to use the vocabulary of commerce when I talk about what I do, but I need to get over it.

Because it is a business. If I were writing just for me, if I didn’t care if anyone but my immediate family and my friends ever saw my work, I wouldn’t have to change my mindset. But I do care. I do want people to read what I write. And that means that my books have to be published and then people have to buy them, which means they have to know about them, which means I have to think in terms of marketing and promotion.

So help me, please. What aspects of the business world have you found helpful when thinking about your work? I’ll get it started: "You have to spend money to make money." Advances are so low these days and royalties are so slow in coming that it seems hard to write a check as soon as I get a check, but that's my plan.

What other aspects of business should we apply to our writing careers?

P.S. Off-topic, but I'm pretty excited that my forthcoming novel, Dark of the Moon, was given a starred review in the Kirkus Reviews and a lovely review in School Library Journal

*The surgeon is, of course, the boy’s mother.


  1. Tracy, I love knowing the impact such a remark made!

    Here's a business application I use: I once read that the typical home business office can handle 3-5 business activities. The book went on to describe how to organize the home office for optimal results.

    And that made me think: Hey! Isn't my brain a home office? How many tasks am I expecting it to handle?

    Then I listed each task and all of its subtasks.

    The result?

    You guessed it. I called a family meeting and told my husband and children that I was downsizing and I would have to let one of them go.

    Oh, just kidding! I would never downsize my family.

    Honest. I wouldn't.

    But the activity did help me prioritize tasks and let some activities go.

    Thanks for this, Tracy -- and congrats on Dark of the Moon!

    Susan Campbell Bartoletti (who can't figure out why Google downsized her name Google . . . )

  2. Good luck with your full time writing adventures. You're talented enough that you shouldn't have any problems making a living as a full time writer. In fact, I just finished King of Ithaca and was so impressed that I wrote a blog post about it. I will probably post it late Thursday.


  3. Thanks, Sue! And Joyce, thanks for the blog post! I don't anticipate being able to support myself on the proceeds of historical novels, unfortunately, but I do have some other irons in the fire. More on those as this last year at the day job progresses. Ten months left!

  4. Speaking as a former marketing consultant, the most important part of a successful independent business is marketing. And writers are small businesspeople. If you're writing for the fun of it, don't market. If you want to make money, market.