Chip MacGregor

November 18, 2013

Treating your writing as a business


I’ve been exploring the notion of making a living in the new publishing economy, and I want to make sure writers understand the big picture… You’ve got to treat your writing as a business. 

Oh, sure, some writers will insist on treating their writing as an art, which is fine, and for some writers no doubt more appropriate. I represent some authors who don’t really see themselves as business people, but as artists, creating words that share their stories. I totally understand and respect that perspective, since some writers are, in fact, artists with words. But if it’s important to you that you generate a full-time income through your writing, and you’re pondering how to create a number of writing projects that will improve your bottom line, then you need to begin to see your writing as a business. In essence, your words are a service or product — they have value, and others need to pay you in exchange for them. 

Determining the value of your words is tough at first, which is why I’ve encouraged authors to begin by setting a small monthly financial goal, then building up the number as you find success. If you know you need to earn, say, $2500 per month, then it’s clear the goal is about $500 per week (which sounds small when you put it that way, doesn’t it?). Thinking in that manner moves writing into more of a business model, since it reduces your work to numbers: “I need to make $500 from my writing this week.” You then begin to map out which projects you can do that will generate the cash flow you need.

As I’ve said a number of times on this blog, today is a great time to be a writer. There are more readers and more opportunities than ever before, so there’s a market for people who can create good content. You’ll still hear people complain that it’s not easy… but when has making a living with art ever been easy? For that matter, when has starting a business ever been easy? I started a writing and editorial service, built it into a success, and it was a lot of hours and work. I then went to work for publishers and traded my time for a salary, which was also hard work. When I started my own literary agency several years ago, I knew it would be a ton of work — locating good projects, finding authors with whom I was comfortable, building relationships with publishers, spending hours looking at proposals, reading contracts, keeping the books and cutting checks, getting involved in marketing discussions, having career conversations with authors, training staff, keeping in touch with people in the industry through this blog and other sources…. I’m not complaining — I love my job. Love being an agent. Don’t want to do anything else. But it’s hard work; just as setting up and running a writing business will be hard work.

On the other hand, there are numerous pluses to starting a writing business. There’s no big overhead — you need a computer and internet access. Business cards and  a website are helpful, as is a professional wardrobe and some people skills. You’ll discover that, like marketing your novel, running a writing business is basically a sales job. You’ll need to get the word out and increase your visibility, but that will help you when your book releases. You’ll need to know how to tell your story, in order to sell people on your skills. You’ll need to have a dedicated time to write, so that you balance the marketing with the actual writing. And that keeps you writing regularly, so that you begin to see writing as the task you’re doing every day, rather than a hobby to try when the mood strikes, or you’ve found your muse. (As I learned to say when I was working for a newspaper: “Screw the muse — write the words.” Though the editor who taught me that phrase might have used more colorful language.)

One last thought on treating your writing as a business: Learn the value of a three-legged stool. The metaphor of a three-legged stool has long been used with small businesses. If you only have one product, you have one leg to your stool. That works fine so long as your product is popular, but when popularity fades, you’re left with one product that isn’t making you any money. That’s why bookstores don’t just sell books — they sell cards, puzzles, games, journals, bookends, fancy pens, stuffed toys, t-shirts, jewelry, and anything else that might appeal to book lovers. If you’re running a writing business, you may want to think about adding other legs to your stool. If you write books, perhaps you can collaborate and help others write books. Maybe you can edit other people’s manuscripts, or copy-edit, or do the developmental book connecting that’s so important with fiction. You might be able to teach writing, or speak at writing conferences, or help with some free-lance book marketing. You can’t do all of these things, of course, but figuring tout the tasks you CAN do, and creating a business that involves several of them, will give you a more stable financial base.

I’d love to know what you’re found helps you make a living at writing. Share your thoughts with me in the “comments” section.

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  • Mike Sheehan says:

    Although I’ve been the CEO of a natural medicine company for the past 16 years, I made my living at science/technology writing from 1980 to 1995, first at NASA and a high-tech PR firm in Silicon Valley, then as a free-lance writer. My goal was to earn about $4,500 a month. I took on a variety of writing projects for computer companies, including end-user magazine articles, technical white papers, press releases and even acquired a year-long $50,000 contact with a major energy lab writing about environmental issues and clean energy. I still write and edit newsletters at my current job because we work with German companies and English is not their primary language. But back in the day I had to hustle and sell myself to high-tech firms (an MS in Science Journalism and a portfolio that I could show helped a lot). With determination and persistence, it can be done.
    Plus as a free-lancer, I was able to take about 10 weeks of vacation one year, which was a huge bonus, because a large computer company gave me assignments in Sweden and Germany that more than paid for the entire trip. So I encourage anyone who wants to free-lance to “just do it” and wish you much success.

  • Robin Patchen says:

    I love this idea, Chip. I’m just beginning a freelance editing business that’s growing as fast as I can manage it right now. Until I build a back list, this is the best leg on my stool. But about building that multi-book backlist–it takes a long time to become established with a solid publisher. Do you recommend working with smaller publishers or self-publishing or a little of both to build up a back list? Or is this another area where we writers just need to be patient while we wait to be discovered by the big guys?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      The market has changed considerably in recent years, Robin. Nowadays, I’m encouraging every writer to consider checking into self-publishing, and to consider both small and large publishers. The days of living from one advance check to the next are over.

  • Lee Thompson says:

    Hi, Chip! I’ve never had a problem asking my heroes for advice, and the majority of them told me to build a five book back list. The best thing that has worked for me since hearing that advice was developing an organizational approach that worked well for me. Since I’ve started selling novels, novellas, and short stories these past couple years, I plan pivotal moments/story titles/character arcs/themes way in advance (I know the four novels I’ll be writing every year) so I’m never dead in the water. I type really fast, I edit quickly, I have four pre-readers. If it wasn’t for all the stories I’ve sold over the last couple years I wouldn’t be able to write full time, and now that I’m doing it, I don’t ever want to go back to manual labor. It’s created a hunger in me, that freedom. Now I’m working on the ‘more visibility’ thing and plan to use video a lot for book tours, readings, Q &A, etc. You’ve really inspired me during our phone chats to give a hundred percent to the business side of the equation as much as the creative side, so thank you!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Love this, Lee. Thanks! And your advisers were right — a five book backlist will get you earning income on books you’re not actively working on. That helps you have a base income. Love the work you’re doing, and your willingness to talk about your story.

  • April Henry says:

    I found a book on handling money that was really helpful: The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-Timers, and the Self-Employed: The Only Personal Finance System for People with Not-So-Regular Jobs. It’s hard to budget and plan when you get paid irregularly and this book really helped.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Hey, thanks for that tip, April! (And for those who don’t know, that would be bestselling novelist April Henry, former Medford Black Tornado.) Really good to have you visit the blog.

  • Scott Appleton says:

    I really appreciate your addressing this topic as making my full income as an author is my objective. It is easy to let other things crowd out the writing and I think I have done that in the past two years. I need to just ‘buckle down’ and get it done.
    I used to be a full-time author. What I did was travel constantly speaking at schools and hand-selling my books at events. I need to get back to doing that, but the challenge is that I have a family now and constantly I am concerned for providing first for them. I need to keep moving in the direction God has gifted me.
    Thanks Chip!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Appreciate this, Scott. And yes, traveling and speaking regularly can be great for the pocketbook, but hard on the family. And schools and libraries are a great way to reach children and parents. Nice of you to share your story.

  • Cherry Odelberg says:

    I love the musical arts and I love to think of my writing as art. I am also old enough to know that you must treat your art like a business. The goal is to bring the left-brain into play just long enough to balance the books and plan a sane schedule. That schedule gives freedom to the right-brain.

    • Peggotty says:

      I like that, Cherry. “That schedule gives freedom to the right-brain.” It’s hard to create with all those duties niggling in the background. Lists are my friends.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Hey, I like that phrase, Cherry. I may steal it (and credit you) with it when I speak). Thanks.

  • Judith Robl says:

    Once a teacher, always a teacher. My forte is working with novice writers, helping them master both the language and the story concepts. Unfortunately for my income, they are mostly working on a frayed shoelace budget. But it is a second leg to the stool. My third leg is speaking – both inspirational and craft.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Judith. To some people, teaching writing just comes naturally. Conferences, classes, smaller writing groups, and one-on-one writing lessons can help bring in some extra income. Thanks.

  • Jeremy Myers says:

    As you have found, one of the things to do as a writer is to help other authors get published. As more and more people seek to break into print, there will be a greater demand for people to help them. I have a few things in the works on this, but the going is slow. A while back I started a blog to help authors learn to blog. I am writing a book now which helps authors get published.

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