Business 101: Smashing Assumptions on Day One

This week, for five days or so, I’m pulling back the curtain and blogging about what you need to know from a business perspective as a new writer. I’m a little punchy, because I’ve been seeing so much b.s. not related to the nuts and bolts about the business of writing, so please forgive me if I come across as blunt and overly comma splice. These posts are not going to talk about administrative-related piecemeal crap or “theories.” This, quite frankly, is about a word I understand very well — survival. Not everybody can be a writer full-time or make a career out of it. That is totally fine. That’s why I’m blogging this week, because if you’re ready to make that decision, then these are the questions you need to ask yourself.

Today’s post is very important to understand where I’m coming from in my business philosophy. Every business has one, whether you see it or not. There is no one way to run a business and, for everything that you could be doing, there’s another example of someone who was successful doing the exact opposite. These are my opinions on the subject, and no doubt you have yours. Good. Own them, but put them into practice. Otherwise they are just theories, and thinking does you no good unless you actually go forth and do.

On to the assumption-smashing!

Agents are not satanic worshippers who sacrifice new writers at the gilded altar of publishing.

If you go the agent route, look at that person as somebody you want to enter a business relationship with. Don’t worship them. Don’t stalk them or be pushy. Don’t expect that they owe you anything, either. Listen to them. Respect them. Follow their guidelines and ask questions. At the same time, return e-mails as appropriate. You may decide not to seek out an agent and that’s okay! This is one of many business models. This does not mean you’re right and they’re bad, though. Different does NOT equal bad. Different is just different.

Publishers are not six-horned beasts with eight toes who drink your blood and suck you dry.

Publishers are business owners. Some are good at running a business; others are not. These business are large, medium, and small. To trust that the publisher will automatically do everything in your best interest is foolish. Let me be very, very clear about this: you can have faith, yes, but you cannot build a business based on your expectations about what other people should be doing for you. At the same time, being overly skeptical or nervous about basic business practices like contracts and the like will send up a red flag. When you get a book/story published, you are entering a business agreement. This is not your first born child you’re sacrificing here. This is about selling your work for money. Dinero. Soldi.

Anyone can be a writer.

I hate semantics, but I had to put this one in here. Yes, anyone can be a writer – as long as you write to get paid. Being a professional writer means that you are either providing a service, by freelancing, or you are selling your finished work to a publisher or publishing it yourself. There are multiple business models out there with a variety of levers to push and pull, but in the end: the goal is to earn money through your business either full-time or part-time.

Any model you choose or build should serve your core competency as a writer who wants “x.” That “x” could be a dollar sign or number of copies sold, but bottom line: “x” is career-related. If you’re in this for the long haul, then “x” changes. Maybe there’s a new “x”. Maybe you raise the bar or remove it completely. Either way, “x” isn’t about achieving the one goal and quitting. It’s about the milestones you achieve to build your career.

I don’t need to make money as a writer. I’m creating Art!

Okay, then. Well, you’re probably not the writer who needs to read posts about building a business. The process of creating Art is separate from selling it. If you only want to create it, that’s fine. Just don’t shit on any other writer who feels differently than you do.

Only writers who write “X” are real writers.

My answer to this statement is usually an eye roll. I’m very good at them. :-p

I can post whatever I want online and not experience any consequences.

Bullshit. Yes, it’s true: we’re all human. The more people get online, the more common certain behaviors might be, the more social pressures you’ll encounter, but silent judgments are always occurring. Never mind the legal implications of what you post online, bias is a fact of life and it’ll never go away. Posting about your long, laundry list of medical ailments, begging for money, revealing the intimate details of your sex life, always being negative and reactionary about rumors/politics/etc., attacking other writers, being so desperate for attention that you have to give us the sordid details about your personal sob story…

Folks, if I’m pissing you off, slow down for a second. People do read what you post and either stop reading or make an instant assessment about you. New writers without a proven track record are not treated or viewed the same as established writers. Do you really want to come across as someone who can’t get their shit together? If you’re applying for a day job, the answer would be: “No.” Then why the hell would you present yourself in a way that gives people a reason NOT to work with you or buy your work? If you tell people you’re broke, you come across as desperate. Then? The offers you get will be lowballed. After all, you’ll sign any deal on the dotted line. You’re broke. You’ve broadcasted that… And now you’ll continue to be so.

I wrote my first book and it’s a guaranteed best-seller. I write better than [insert famous author here] and you should be privileged to publish my masterpiece.

Let me be blunt, because if you’re reading this, you probably have dreams. So, allow me to crush them by saying one word: no.

To end today’s post, here’s a breakdown of this “No!” point-by-point.

    1) Bragging leads to buying your own bullshit. When you’ve got those blinders on, then you make really terrible decisions for yourself and your business. I’ve seen this happen all too often, sadly. Have some amount of pragmatism and find a way to remain grounded. This is not the same thing as letting success get to your head. This is full on “I’m a very successful writer” delusion territory, even though you aren’t making any money. That’s dangerous.

    2) Agents, editors, and publishers are inundated with people who make broad, sweeping claims – all of which can now be researched by a click on the internet. It’s just not possible to make shit up anymore. The rapid speed of communication and the way people are super-connected to one another, especially in this industry, means that if you talk smack you will get caught.

    3) Even if your story is that good? You still have to find a way to sell the book. If it really is that good, it’ll sell itself. Focus first on the story, not on the fact that YOU wrote the story. Marketing comes later.

    4) You will not sell every book and story you write. You cannot sell every word. At times, you will suck and you will need to revise. Own it. This is the unsexy part of being a writer.

    5) Your first book usually blows. I say “usually” because this obviously isn’t always the case. There are exceptions, but this is not the rule. Laugh. Rip it up. Delete it. (I did!) Write the next one.

    6) The only way to get better as a writer is to write, and that takes time. I’ll be talking about time this week as a stand-alone post. This one… Oh, you may not like that one in particular. But, it must be said.

    7) Success can be desired and dreamt about, but you will starve if you bank on what you haven’t sold. Pay your flipping rent and put food on your table. If you aren’t selling enough to pay rent and eat, then get a job. Your health and safety are important. You may be able to write anywhere and cheaply, without a ton of equipment, but take care of yourself. Sheesh!

    8) You cannot predict what will be popular and will go Cthulhu-crazy if you do. I’ve tried to analyze books after the fact, but that’s after the fact. BAD MONICA! See also: before I knew what the story was about, I thought 50 Shades of Gray was a book about graphic design… The moral here is: the market is unpredictable and publishers are always operating way ahead of you. The trick is to always have a polished story to sell — one that you’ve loved to write!

    9) Quality is subjective. I have unsold stories like every other writer out there. Sent a story to a publisher who has two editors. One loved it, the other hated. The “No” won out. This has happened to me twice. Besides quality, there are other factors that influence buying decisions. Good stories don’t always get published according to YOUR schedule. Sometimes, it takes a while.

    10) FFS, write like yourself. Writing like Stephen King or Nancy Collins or whomever means you’re writing like them. You’re not writing like you. Have some flipping pride in yourself and in your work. Readers will make that comparison – DON’T DO THIS TO YOURSELF. The only way you can write like you? WRITE. Just [1,000 F-bombs] write.


Podcast Heaven and the iTunes Model Revisted

I finally started adding my music library to iTunes yesterday and noticed that there were a few beloved albums I had to have. Pandora has been fantastic; there are several artists and albums I discovered through there. So, I went over to the dark side and bought the Tron: Legacy soundtrack, The Seldom Seen Kid album by Elbow and, of course, the remastered radio edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

BOOOOOOOOOM! Thirty dollars later…

I also added several podcasts that I’ll be listening to. iTunes has two ways to subscribe, so if you have any recommendations let me know. I’m brushing up on my French and Italian as well, so if you’ve fallen in love with any podcasts from France or Italy, feel free to suggest those, too. I’m not quite ready to mention what I liked and didn’t, but there are a few I’m looking for related to yoga (an audio podcast as opposed to video), jewelry-making and pretty much anything comics, game or fiction-related. I’ve already subscribed to a couple of podcasts in geekdom, but there’s sooooooo many it’s hard to know where to begin.

Needless to say, I’m in podcast heaven. I’m very happy I can take classes, listen to audio fiction, and get different perspectives on the things I’m interested in. W00t!

Spending money with iTunes is even easier than shopping at Amazon, which got me to thinking about the iTunes model and the sheer tenacity some publishers use to think about pricing their books at ninety-nine cents. The funny thing is: I didn’t spend ninety-nine cents. Yes, I was buying albums, but even when I looked at songs, I was thinking about how many songs I could get instead of buying just one to build a playlist. Songs are something I can immediately consume. Download and play right there. I can’t “consume” an entire novel in the same time I can play a song. Even then, one novel differs so wildly from another one that I don’t buy books in volume.

Volume, in my mind, is the key to ensuring the iTunes model is successful. That is also what I feel is missing from the “Hey, let’s copy iTunes because they were successful” conversations. Every graph I’ve seen, every story I’ve heard is the same. In order to have profitability increase on a low-priced item, you’d have to move a lot of that items or similarly-priced items over a longer period of time.

Recently, I talked about the difference between marketing and selling your books. When you start mucking around with pricing, that falls under the retailer umbrella, even if you don’t own the shopping cart. The thing is, pricing an item appropriately is difficult to learn on your own because the issue of why people buy anything is very complex. Sometimes demand has absolutely nothing to do with your book; other times it does.

Just as one example, I’ve been looking at audiobooks more often lately. I have two primary concerns. Price and adaptability. If I can’t listen to an audiobook (or fiction podcast) on my iPod or my computer, then I probably won’t buy it. I’ve had several issues trying to listen to audiobooks on CD and I’m pretty much done with that. Most of the CDs won’t allow me to copy the audiobook for that purpose, because it’s considered just that. Copying. I don’t want to distribute it or share it with anyone else; I just want to listen to it in a format I choose. Add pricing concerns on top of that and for books that don’t warrant the higher price tag (e.g. audio performance sucks), then I’ll look for books within a particular range.

It’s a lot easier to make decisions about what music I want to buy, because I can quickly listen to a sample and make a snap decision. With a novel, even if there’s a sample, I’d have to read a preview before I bought it. Music I impulse buy. Books I don’t. Usually, when I buy a book, I already know I want to pick up a copy. I rarely take a chance on an author I don’t know unless it’s a personal recommendation. While I have made snap decisions to purchase a book in the past, it’s nowhere near as fast as how I buy music.

Now, those are some of my buying habits, and I’m assuming they’re probably different from yours. I wanted to share them with you to show how demand is often different for books than it is for music. Yeah, there are exceptions. There’s a reason why Water for Elephants is selling really well right now — the movie. Same phenomenon happens with comics, too. A movie debuts and the comics get a boost in sales. For a few examples: Wanted from Top Cow, Thor and the upcoming Immortals graphic novel from Archaia based on the movie of the same name.

If you want to read some of my past thoughts on the subject, check out weighing in on e-books and your business model is not your neighbor’s, which was reprinted at SFWA.org. I don’t feel my core message has changed at all, but I do feel that it’s becoming a lot clearer to me that there are distinct differences between looking at price from a retailer’s perspective versus a consumer’s or a marketer’s. No matter how much you may read about pricing, it’s often a challenge to understand how it works until you play around with it yourself. Even then, I’m finding out more and more that it can depend on your inventory (e.g. how much you have to offer people for sale) as well.

I’m confident that the publishing industry will sort itself out, and I think it’s pretty exciting that some authors are learning what works and what doesn’t for them. Still, I wish certain people would stop bashing retailers and publishers. I don’t feel that they’re evil. They simply have their own set of expertise that may be different from an artist, musician, etc. These are fascinating times and I can’t wait to see how the dust settles from digital delivery, internet retail and ever-changing buying habits. The stars only know what the right business model is. For me, that is.

[My Guest Post] Difference Between Marketing and Selling Your Books

This month at the How To Write Shop, I talk about the difference between marketing and selling your books. I got the idea for this post after my discussions at WisCon, because a lot of authors are starting to take on more of a retailer role than a marketing one. Internet retail is a whole ‘nother ball of wax, and I feel that it’s good to make the decision whether or not that’s something you want to do.

Here’s a quote from the article:

I look at marketing as a way to build awareness of yourself and your work. Sales, on the other hand, is focused on the exchange of money for goods and services. Although they often go hand-in-hand, they’re two different things. Saying “buy my book” isn’t a marketing technique; it’s the hard sell. Telling your readers what your book is about, on the other hand, falls under that marketing umbrella. –SOURCE: Difference between Marketing and Selling your Books at the How To Write Shop

Hop on over there and give it a read. While you’re on the site, be sure to check out other articles, too. There are several new contributors and they are broadening the scope of the site. If you’re even remotely interested in becoming a professional author or want to relate to those who are circumnavigating the upheaval in the industry, check it out.

For Businesses, Social Media is Still Marketing

Someone sent me “Why I Will Never, Ever Hire a Social Media Expert” this morning and asked me what I thought. In it, Peter Shankman talks about how he’ll never hire a “social media expert.” It’s a scathing article that touches on what’s happening right now in online marketing. Namely, businesses flock to a “tool” because that’s where the audience is, but they are missing something very, very important — that it is not a replacement for a unified, cohesive marketing plan and that it’s one piece of the puzzle.

There are companies out there who run different tools as channels. Their blog is separate from their newsletter which is separate from their social media. In my opinion, this is a mistake because it’s a lot harder to maintain because often there’s no cohesive message or brand identity. Unless, of course, this is intentional. (Even though, in most cases it’s not.)

The challenge with social media and other tools like it, is the cost of implementing them offers an attractive alternative to more expensive options. Compared to direct mail or other marketing tools, they can be pretty cheap for small businesses to use. However, the ease of using something (or its popularity) to reach customers is not a replacement for a marketing plan.

While Peter’s article is pretty ranty, I can understand his frustration. It’s easy to get distracted by the “shiny,” but no new tools will ever replace the core business principles needed to be successful. Just because you have a business focus doesn’t mean you know how to message it.

The same principles are true for authors, however that is infinitely more complex. Why? Because we’re often individuals who have multi-faceted lives. So, to come up with a marketing plan on our own, without the help of a publisher, marketer or agent, is a lot harder. Right now? I don’t have a marketing plan because I am focusing on production. (e.g. Writing, submitting, revising, etc.) In other words, I’ve decided not to “market” myself, unless it’s a specific project, because it doesn’t make sense for me right now.

Regardless, having a solid marketing plan and all of the details that come with that is something I continue to recommend and encourage business owners — small or large — to do. Having that plan takes the guesswork out of a lot of things and can avoid embarrassing mistakes, poor collaboration, and help channel creativity where it’s needed.

On Facebook Contests

Yesterday, GalleyCat released an informative article about how Facebook is restricting contests on author pages. The reason why I wanted to point this out to you is to let you know that while this is not a new initiative, they are cracking down on this. Facebook first introduced contest rules restrictions back in November 2009 and they evolved a year afterward. Not following their guidelines will get your page canceled without notice. Why?

BlogHer has a really good article from 2010 called Keep Your Company and Your Blog Out of Trouble: The Scoop on Facebook Contests that examines what this means from a liability perspective.

So what is new? Two things: a release form and the further clarification has to be hosted on a tab or an app. What’s happening now, is that the popularity of Facebook (and the fact that it’s free) has caused many authors to flock to the tool. This time around, the changes in this policy are an amalgamation of what already existed.

What’s the bottom line? I would keep the new guidelines in mind. As I’ve mentioned numerous times before, you always take a risk whenever you use a tool you don’t own. While many free tools are highly-trafficked, in part because they’re free, you might want to consider looking at what you do have control over — your own website — first.

If you are looking for places to run contests besides your own website, there’s several excellent sites out there devoted to readers that would love an author’s support. I know Facebook is important to a lot of people, but there are other ways to reach your fans, too.

if you operate a contest, create content, or use functionality on a site you own,

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Monica Valentinelli > Work-For-Hire > Consulting and Marketing

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