On Business

Scattered puzzle pieces next to solved fragment My brain is a mass of porridge right now, because I’m lunging for the end of the third Bannon & Clare book. Which, since it’s happening during a particularly busy month–tax preparation, birthdays for certain young people, changes in school hours and such–is rather a type of torture. My skin feels too tight and everything that isn’t writing scrapes unbearably. It’s hard to interact with people because most of me is somewhere else, so I stop in the middle of sentences or stare blankly at other adults who might be talking to me, desperately trying to pay attention through the noise of a fight in alt-Victorian London ringing through my skull.

It’s my day to speak at the Deadline Dames, and since I’m scattered enough to think just about anything is a good idea, I thought I’d talk to you about business. Specifically, I found myself in the position of giving advice today, and I realized things I wish I’d been told when I was starting out.

Just because it’s sometimes a struggle to think through the noise of the story in my head, demanding to be birthed or it will RIP ITS WAY FREE (you’re welcome for that visual, by the way) doesn’t mean that I’m helpless. And it doubly doesn’t mean that I’m not a gentlewoman. When you make the choice to have writing pay your mortgage, it behooves you to use your wonderful, story-exercised brain upon the whole subject of hard cold cash. (If it makes me a hack, fine. I’m on record with being okay with that.)

To that end, I thought I would share three things I’ve learned about writing-as-a-business. Your mileage may vary, all applicable disclaimers inserted here, and if you think you shouldn’t be worried about money because you are an ARTIST, well, go back to the lilybed of grief because I am obviously not your huckleberry.

1. Don’t work for free. Your time is worth something. If you don’t respect your own worth, nobody will. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t work for something other than money–but if you’re working for “exposure,” you’d better have a damn good idea of what exposure you’re working for and how it’s going to materially affect your ability to produce what you want to be paid for. Getting trapped into working for “contacts” or “exposure” can have huge, nasty effects on your energy level (they call it burnout for a reason) and on your creative life. You need energy to produce/create; giving that energy away doesn’t help you. When people get things from you for free, they don’t tend to value them as much; and there’s the nasty cold hard fact that once you’re used up and no longer provide the free services, chances are you’ll be tossed aside like refuse. Or the equally nasty cold hard fact that people who arrange things to get stuff from you for free quickly come to believe they are entitled to said things from you. (See: Sick systems.)

But Lili, I hear you whine, like the rusty gates of hell, you do stuff for free for your chiiiiildren and your friiiiends! Yes, I do. But when we’re talking about the living I make in order to pay my mortgage, feed my kids, and spoil my friends damn rotten, it’s a different situation. Don’t throw that red herring across the trail. Look, your work is worth the time and effort you put into it. Do some math and figure out what those things people ask you to give away cost you. At some points in your career, taking a loss on that might be a good idea. Be sure you’re doing it wittingly, though, and not because you feel like you can just break in if you network hard enough. All that networking and doing stuff for free means less time honing your craft with writing, and the name of this game is to produce enough solid writing to get consistently paid for it.

2. Do some math. Yeah, I know. Creative types aren’t supposed to care about math, are they? They’re supposed to live in some floaty golden castle where they never have to balance a checkbook or eyeball a royalty statement. Right?

*waits for the laughter to die down*

Look, I hate math. It’s my Kryptonite. I cringe every time I open my accounting software, and royalty statements are a version of personal hell. But I still do it, on a schedule, for one simple reason: You can lose track of the ways your life can be royally screwed up if you don’t. Start practicing financial discipline, because (here’s a clue) writers don’t get paid regularly. Oh, yeah, you get your advances and royalties. But royalties can come quarterly, or biannually, or (sometimes, in some cases) monthly except for when they fall below the price of a latte. And royalties vary widely–they depend on sales that you have absolutely no control over. They can be a delicious surprise or a crushing disappointment. And advances are great, yes–but contracts (which you sign before you get the damn advance) can take a glacially long time to get to you. Basically, your income may fluctuate wildly, but your landlord/mortgage company and your utilities do not look kindly upon you offering them a similar deal. (They get cranky.) Take a business or life-skills class if you have to. Get comfortable with the idea that money is your friend and you need to have an okay relationship with it in order to do the thing you want to do–eat enough to be able to write.

3. Hire if you gotta. If you’re self-publishing, spend decent money for a decent editor. (Not to mention graphic design for your cover and copyediting…) Quality control is worth paying for so your name doesn’t get associated with shoddy, slipshod work. This is, incidentally, the cost a publisher would take on to produce a product they expect to make some money on. You don’t want to be associated with a bloated, error-filled piece of trash. And expecting to be one of the (admittedly lucrative) bloated pieces of trash that strikes it huge is like counting on the lottery for retirement. It’s stupid, and you’re not stupid. You’re a dedicated wordslinging monkey, and you will take your lumps and take no prisoners.

*clears throat* Ahem. Sorry. Got carried away there. The point is, hire if you have to. The chances of you being a great graphic designer AND editor AND copyeditor WITH time to burn to make it cost-effective for you to do all those things for yourself are incredibly miniscule. It is not cheaper to do a halfass job and hope nobody notices. Your readers–and the IRS–will notice.

See how I brought it back to taxes there? Soon I go visit the accountant, whom I pay with a smile because it’s more cost-effective for me to spend my time writing than keeping up with tax law. *shudder*

There it is, then. Over and out.

photo by: Horia Varlan
  • Li

    Great advice. Also make sure the cover that is used for the book isn’t one that is used by a book of another genre (I.e., cover photo for a young adult book shouldn’t be same one for a previously published erotica book).