As indies, we often think we’re superior to the big publishers.
“Ha ha,” we say, “we are smarter than those outdated, slow-moving behemoths in traditional publishing! They are the past. We are the future. Hail the new wave of publishing!”
I mean, talk about an industry that can’t go to where the puck is headed. They might see the big changes coming, but they’re giant organizations and can’t be nimble like we can. They’re the Titanic. It’s not that they can’t see the iceberg; it’s that they’re too big to steer away from it. All they can do is brace for impact.
Well, don’t be so quick to dismiss the big boys. It’s true that they can sometimes appear slow and cumbersome while self-publishers are small and agile, but they still have some things going for them that most indies lack. Let’s take a moment to pay tribute to the traditional world and see what they’re doing right that many indies are doing wrong. If you think self-publishing is definitely the way to go, awesome. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a hell of a lot we can learn from those who’ve been in the game for a lot longer than we have.
Not Treating Writing Like a Business
You wake up. You sit down to write. You peck at the keys for a while, waiting to see if you feel inspired. Sometimes, you do, and good words spill from your brain to the screen. Sometimes, you don’t and decide you can’t rush art, so you do something else instead.
If you have a day job, maybe this is where you go after calling it quits on writing for the day. You’ll write when you get home, if you have the energy. But it’s a rough day at work, and you don’t. You watch TV instead, or maybe do some reading. Either can be justified as “research,” so it’s cool. You go on this way for a few weeks or months, figuring that the first draft will be done when it’s done. Eventually it is, but it still needs an edit. Then maybe another. You have to pay for an edit, then another to be sure. You get a cover done by the best cover artist supposedly out there, and it costs you a grand, but hey, this novel is really awesome and you read somewhere that covers really matter.
After everything is finished, you put your book online. Nothing happens, so you buy some advertising. There’s no return, so you buy some more. Eventually, you start a second novel and repeat the process, but this novel’s harder because you see how badly you’re bleeding financially on the first one, and it’s not exactly encouraging you that this self-publishing thing pays off. A few people buy that first novel, but not enough. They say nice things and ask if you’re going to release another book. You try to keep up with these people but eventually lose their contact information.
I’ll stop there. I’ve made my point; there was a ton done incorrectly in the above scenario. But it’s not merely overpaying for a cover or the lackadaisical approach to production that’s the problem. Those are symptoms. The bigger problem is that they represent someone treating writing like a hobby and not a business.
The best book I know about the workmanlike approach to art is The War of Art. Get that book. Read it. It’s a fast read; you can plow through it in a few hours. Pressfield’s approach (which he put a finer point on in The War of Art’s sequel, Do The Work) sounds almost merciless. Making art is like a war. It’s you versus The Resistance. You wage battle by surrendering hours, grinding through your art like you’d grind through the chore of moving a pile of dirt one shovelful at a time. You don’t treat making art with kid gloves. You don’t pamper it or wait for inspiration to strike. You work. And you work. And you work. Like you would if you were doing a job for someone else.
Do you treat your writing like that? Do you show up on time, put in a given number of hours, and stitch words together like you’ll be fired if you don’t? Most writers write when inspired, which is ephemeral and comes and goes. Some days they write a lot, and others they don’t, but it’s random. They have no idea how many hours they’ll put in per week, and no idea how many words they can expect to produce during that time. They don’t set deadlines for themselves, and if they do, those deadlines are solid as tissue.
Don’t do this. If you want to succeed, you can’t just think of yourself as an artist; you must also be a businessperson and a marketer. If you buy that idea, drill down until you prove it with practice.
If you’re doing a real job in a real business, you set regular hours, and unless you’re deathly sick or unless it’s a special, planned-in-advance occasion, you show up when you’re supposed to and stay until it’s time to leave. You’re given deadlines, and if you expect to keep your job, you meet them — or if you don’t, you give your boss a damned good reason for it and promise to bust ass until you get the job done.
Businesses set budgets. A business knows what it can expect to get out of an investment at the outset, and spends accordingly. A business will invest in projects that aren’t expected to deliver a return, but only if that loss is in the service of a greater win down the road. This means that while a product line may be expected to run in the red, the sum of the business’s products, over time, is always expected to end up in the black. Businesses never go into a venture, spend blindly, and hope. Businesses plan deftly. If a project is a pilot and carries risk, it’s kept on a shoestring. Only blockbusters are given blockbuster budgets.
This is one area where indies can learn big lessons from traditional publishing. Their criteria for deciding whether to take on a project are a lot tighter than ours need to be, but at least they have them. Most writers write what they feel, publish when they get to it, and spend whatever seems right. A publisher won’t budget for publication and promotion if it doesn’t expect a return, and you shouldn’t either. Your less-certain novels should be kept on tight leashes. Get a good cover, but nothing outrageous or extravagant. Don’t dump a bunch of money on advertising for a single novel with no sequel or anything else to send a reader to because you’re emotionally attached to its success. Publishers don’t get attached to any one book’s success. Books, to publishers, are line items on expense and income sheets. You’re going to be somewhat emotionally invested in your books, and that’s fine, but you can’t approach business with emotion in your equation. Will an expense pay off? If it won’t, do you have a concrete plan to make it pay off down the road? If not, why are you doing it?
Set a budget on each book that is commensurate with its real, objective, non-emotionally-clouded expectation of return. Set regular hours for yourself as you would for an employee, and stick to those hours, keeping your butt in the chair, getting words on the page. Measure your stats if you can, noting how many words you can write in a day and extrapolating to see how long a book will take to complete. Set deadlines for projects (which also requires guessing at a word count for those projects and trying your best to hit those word counts) and stick to them.
The more you treat your writing like a business, the more likely you’ll be to have a businesslike result rather than a starving artist’s.
Making Your Books About You Instead of Your Reader
Joanna Penn shared a graphic on Google Plus that read: Writing is about you. Publishing is about the book. Marketing is about the reader.
This is 100% true. Publishers think so, too — at least the last two-thirds.
Writing should be about you. When you’re coming up with your story ideas, creating beats for those ideas, writing the first draft, or revising, you should be acting according to your internal compass. These are decisions that should be made without thinking of the market and what’s most likely to sell. Writing is both art and business, but they shouldn’t mix. It’s art then business — in order, non-overlapping.
Your written product stops being about you, your needs, desires, and emotions as soon as the writing is finished. Then it becomes a product, and you must treat it as such. Products must sell, and in order to sell, they must be positioned in the best possible way — even if that way doesn’t totally jibe with your own personal artistic feelings. That’s not always easy when those words feel like your babies — things you slaved over, loved, and gave birth to. But you need to take a step back, and if it won’t work for readers, you must be able to see that and act accordingly.
Remember: Write for you, then act in the best interests of the market and your reader.
Thinking Short Term
If you sign with a traditional publisher, your book will get a promotional budget, will spend a few weeks on bookstore shelves, and then in all likelihood will disappear. Your book can earn its way out of obscurity by selling well, but only a minority ever will.
While this may be heartbreaking, frustrating, and downright infuriating to the minor author whose book ends up dead in the water, it makes sense to the publisher. They have a crap-ton of assets (that’s how they think of books), and any business knows that if it’s thinking long-term, it must cut non-performing assets so it can focus time and energy on those that generate a return.
As an indie, you can choose to make the same choices. Now because keeping a book available in e-book form (or even in print-on-demand form) costs nothing, you don’t have to pull non-performing titles from the shelves like a publisher in order to consider the big picture. And because when an indie does promotion he sort of ends up shining light on his entire catalog, there’s also no real reason to ever give up on any one title. But the principle is still there: Don’t just think of what might happen today; think of what will be best in the future. What assets are most likely to pay off later? What properties are worth working on and getting behind because they have potential down the road, even though they may stagnate now?
If you only try to make money today, you might do well … and you also might sever excellent opportunities to make much more money later. You’re an independent publisher. You don’t have to have huge book launches, and don’t need to manage your inventory to account for limited shelf space. You can afford to let books sit, arranging pieces of your publishing business like you’d arrange pieces on a chessboard before moving to take your opponent’s king. Your book published today has the potential to earn money forever. You can write a book knowing it won’t make you a cent, because its larger, longer-term purpose is to promote you, serve as a feather in your cap, or advance sales of another book (or series).
I’d take a month today to write a book that would flounder and fail … but then, five years from now, would push big sales onto my entire catalog.
Don’t make the same mistakes as the amateurs. Avoid these three pitfalls and play a better, more professional game.