The Business of Writing

Posted by: Kevin Tumlinson 2 months ago

One thing I hear a lot of self-published and traditionally-published authors talk about today is the business of writing. I’m not talking about getting down to the business of writing. I’m talking about treating your writing as a business rather than a past-time or hobby—if you hope to make a living doing it.

You probably know writers (you may even be one) who say, “I write for the love of the craft, not for the sale of the books!” Good for you, noble writer. If the simple act of writing makes you happy, then write on, my brothers and sisters, write on. And hang on tight to your day job.

But if you hope to someday profit from your efforts, like maybe, oh I don’t know, make enough money from book sales to pay a bill or two, you must take it seriously and approach it as a business. You can’t make your mortgage payments with righteous indignation and ego. Dammit.

Let’s look at this from a business standpoint. The business of writing not only includes writing the work (consider that production or product creation), but many other things like:

  • editing (product improvement)
  • cover design (packaging)
  • market research (customer demographics)
  • ARC team or beta readers (focus groups)
  • revisions (product improvement)
  • getting reviews (product testimonials)
  • uploading to Draft2Digital (distribution)
  • prelaunch promotions (strategic planning)
  • tapping others to help promote the launch (joint venturing)
  • launch day (grand opening)
  • posting on blogs, sites, and social media, trying to get interviews, giving away free copies, doing whatever you can to spread the word (PR and marketing)
  • running ads on social media or the web (advertising)
  •  answering inquiries and comments from fans (customer service)
  • And a thousand other details and tasks that make writing a business whether you, the author, like it or not

Show me a writer who does not treat writing as a business and I’ll show you a writer who sells very few books. Forget the adage “the cream rises to the top”.  It’s not true in the book business.

The cream that rises to the top is the cream that was best whipped by doing all those things I just mentioned. Cream that is left on its own becomes a sad lump and sinks to the bottom of the barrel faster than you can say, “Buy my book please!”

I wish talent was all it took to make a living as a writer, but the truth is, talented writing will always take a back seat to talented marketing in a hyper-crowded marketplace. 

Another old adage: the sweetest voice in the choir is often drowned out by the loudest.  This has been proven time and again by the large number of badly-written books that regularly hold the top spots on online book seller lists.

Again, it’s rare for the best-written work to sell the most copies. 99.999% of the time it is the best-marketed book that attracts the biggest audience, well-written or not.

On the Interviewing Authors Podcast, I interviewed over a hundred well-known authors (dozens of New York Times bestsellers), many of whom have been around for decades and sold tens of millions of books.

When I brought up the subject of the business of writing, without fail, each and every one lamented about the good old days when all they really had to worry about was writing the book because their publisher took care of everything else.

The publisher handled editing, proofing, formatting, cover design, production, marketing, public relations, advertising, and distribution. All the author had to do really was show up at book signings the publisher arranged (and paid for), do a little bit of reading, bask in the adoration of adoring fans, and cash fat checks.

Gone are the days when bestselling authors just wrote the books and turned over all the other tasks to their publisher. Nowadays, even the big names like David Baldacci, Lee Child, James Patterson, Nelson DeMille, and Mary Higgins Clark must take an active role in the business side of things to keep their fanbase happy and their momentum going. 

Granted, they don’t do the work themselves, but they are paying someone to do it, which takes a very big bite out of their profits. However, you still see them taking a much more active role in marketing and promotion because they have reached a level where their name and face sells the book, not the story inside or the ad copy on the jacket.

Side note: Anytime you see a book cover where the author’s name is bigger than the title, it’s the author’s name that sells book, not the story inside.

Think about your favorite author. Mine is Cormac McCarthy. You probably read everything they write simply because they wrote it, not because it’s a great story (McCarthy has written some head-scratchers, yet I always buy whatever he writes).

That, is the pinnacle of success in our business: when your name outweighs the work.

Traditional publishers are largely glorified printers and distributors who take the lion’s share of an author’s royalties. Still, marketing is something the author must do on their own, or, if their pockets are deep like the big boys and girls, hire an outside firm to manage it all.

Can you have self-publishing success without worrying too much about the business side of things? Andy Weir did it with The Martian. Hugh Howey did it with Wool. But they are the exception rather than the rule. Both now treat their writing as their business and are earning well over seven-figures from their efforts. So, it has happened, but it’s a rare occurrence.

Can you just write the book, upload it, and expect readers to beat a path to your door? Might you be discovered by someone who will make your dreams come true, say an agent or publicist or even another author with lots of pull? Again, it has happened, but not very often.

Even those authors who have “lucked” into success eventually find themselves having to focus on the business side of things. Doing it all yourself is difficult, but turning it all over to someone else presents another box of headaches. It’s still your career. You need to be involved in the growth and management of it regardless of your success.

Why do you think super-successful authors like David Baldacci and Mary Higgins Clark took the time to come on my dinky little podcast? Because they know that’s what it takes to sell books.

Perhaps after you have firmly established your brand, gained recognition for your work, and built yourself a rabid tribe, you can let someone else take the reins so you can do nothing but write, but that is only after you have done everything many times over on other books to get to that point.

The 80/20 rule applies here. One of the most successful self-published authors I know claims that while he was building his writing business he spent 20% of his time writing and the remaining 80% doing everything I listed before.

He has now reached a level of success where he can afford to farm out the editing, proofing, formatting, cover design, marketing, promotion, etc. 

He now has more time to write, but he is investing several thousand dollars getting that 80% done to free up his time.

For him, his time is best spent writing, so it is money well-spent.

Perhaps that should be the goal for us all, work our fingers to the bone to someday sell enough books so we can afford for others to take care of business so all we have to do is write.

As writers, that’s not a bad goal to have.

Tim Knox is an Amazon bestselling author of over a dozen books in multiple genres, and the ghostwriter of over 150 works of fiction. He is also an editor, author coach, and self-publishing expert who dispenses advice on his websites and popular YouTube Channel.