Imagine this…You’re at a do of some sort and in the midst of general small talk, conversation turns to the fact you’re a doctor. It goes something like this…
‘A doctor? How lovely! I’d like to be a doctor. I think I could be. I think I could make sick people better. If only I had the time,’ (wistful sigh, and moment of thoughtfulness) then: ‘When I retire and have a bit of time on my hands, I’ll probably give being a doctor a go then.’
Grrrrrrrr. As if ‘being a doctor’ is a gift that drops arbitrarily, but decisively from the heavens. Something you are just good at and somehow need to do and probably don’t expect to be paid for.
Like being a writer.
Most of us who are writers, probably just are. It starts young and innocently enough – perhaps with a novel, hastily penned behind the bike sheds, or a couple of poems scrawled anonymously on the back of a toilet door. But with time it grows, gets bigger, and more out of control. Office memos become works of composition, even your shopping lists scan rhythmically, you tweet compulsively from the cinema or the bathroom, and pick over the discarded scraps of the lives of friends and lovers looking for plot lines, characters, and inspiration for your first/next/greatest work of literature.
You’re a writer. It’s who you are and what you do.
But, as my mother would sigh despairingly, what are you going to eat?
She was right. What does being a writer have to do with making a living? It’s easy to fall into what Dr Dale Spender has called ‘the gratitude culture’: writers are so committed to what they do, that…well, they are frankly amazed and delighted if someone offers to pay them for it. Imagine an investment banker with the same sense of economic worth?
‘What? I get to spend all day betting on business valuations, guessing market movements, and wearing this smart suit, and I get paid as well? Surely not – please make sure everyone else takes their cut first, and perhaps you can pay me in tiny installments over a period of several years?’ The global economic structure would collapse. (Hang on. It just did.)
I was determined to be a writer at seven years of age. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties, eating mainly rice and left overs from my weekend job at a local café, that I decided it was time to make a living.
Thank goodness I did. It is the years in business, meeting people, hearing their stories, getting to grips with how the economic world works, what it turns on, and what can jar its progress, endeavours for good, for gain, and sometimes for greed that taught me as much about who we are as human beings as any time bashing away at the keyboard in self-imposed exile waiting for ideas to drop from the attic ever could.
And just as importantly, as I took on an ever more broad range of business and professional challenges, I was learning the craft of writing: of audience, message and medium. I was influencing by email, motivating by memo, persuading with pages of management reports, presenting ideas and findings and feedback in writing and verbally.
Because writing for a living is a craft. Ideas may drop from the sky, but unless you craft them for your audience they risk languishing lifelessly on your laptop. It is a craft learned with practice, experience and endless feedback from generous friends and mentors.
It was becoming a mother that allowed me at last to combine the two activities: writing and earning a crust. There was no longer time for the two lives I led. I loved to write. I needed to earn some money. I would write for a living.
Once I had made that decision, and armed admittedly with my new perspective as a recently graduated MBA, everything changed.
Book proposals became business plans, complete with market research, competitive analysis, and financial goals, giving me the confidence to negotiate without an intermediary.
My experience working in publishing taught me that editors are busy, under-resourced and overwhelmed by wannabe blockbusters competing for their time. For my last two books I helped do the groundwork to prepare my proposals to pass publishing committee scrutiny. I researched other books of a similar feel/subject, listed their sales, analysed why I thought they’d worked or not worked, and highlighted key points of difference to each other and to my proposal. I also put together a suggested marketing plan including any possibilities for bulk sales, conferences I would target to speak at, media shows or websites that featured my subject matter.
Finally I looked at why me? Why would anyone take me seriously on my topic of choice? What did I bring to the party? Experience? Expertise? GSOH? All this helped to sell my manuscript into two fabulous publishers, and helped me understand more clearly what I was writing about and why. The book was easier to write as a result.
This is easier once you have an established reputation in your field and a relationship with the editors that you work with. At that point, there’s no need for ‘send something in and we’ll let you know’. Once an editor knows the quality of your work, and the reliability of your delivery, then get a contract – even a verbal one – before putting pen to paper.
I research what my work is worth – not simply what a client pays writers, but what it’s worth to their business, and that’s what I charge.
Different kinds of writing have different value to different types of publisher. Build a strong network of other freelance writers, and get to know your clients’ businesses and how what you do fits in. Does your name build their credibility or bring them customers? Do you have specialist knowledge they’d find hard to source elsewhere? Or are you just smarter/wittier/faster than others? Know your value. And negotiate up.
Speaking engagements should be paid, unless there is a good reason – like it’s a charity fundraiser. Let’s face it, they pay the caterer, the cleaner and the maitre d’. You’re part of the staff. If a speaker’s fee isn’t forthcoming, a bulk purchase of your books is one option or the opportunity to sell your books at the event.
Publishers are partners, not employers, or benefactors.
Publisher and author are joint shareholders in the business that is your book. How well each of you does your job will have an impact on how it performs in the market. And the relationship should be defined by professional courtesy and respect. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about how they are doing their bit: the design and presentation, marketing and distribution for example. Equally, it’s worth looking at the skills you bring to the partnership. Media training is a valuable investment for any first time author sent out to meet the press and sell their book.
Booker prize winners aside, writing makes few of us rich. But part of making it pay its way lies in managing costs and tax affairs efficiently. Know what you are entitled to and ensure your accountant has everything they need to do their job properly. And yes, use an accountant. Writing elegant prose does not necessarily equate to keeping elegant accounts. I’ve learned that the hard way.
Earning a living as a writer is demanding work, and the income can be unreliable. But it has been liberating for me. I do what I love, and what I do best. It brings me into contact with a vast and constantly changing range of people and ideas. I learn something new everyday, and each new thought informs the next piece of writing.
It is work that I can do anywhere, and I do. I set up in city cafes, libraries, by the beach, or on the bus. Writing about business, as I do, is writing about people, about how we live, interact and value each other and the world we live in.
It may be gracious and self-deprecating and uncompromising to view writing as an art, to be unsullied by the grubby transactions of economic value. It may be more romantic to yearn for life in a Parisian attic (and believe me, I want my turn) but by making writing my business and adopting a business-like perspective to it, puts food on the table, feeds my passion for learning and my need to have a say on just about any topic.
I have the best job in the world.