5 ways for a writer to be more business savvy

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

When you think about your writing, does your mind slip into business mode or artistic mode? For most writers, the artistic side looms large. Of course they know that publishing is a business, but that doesn’t mean writers knows how to think like  businesspeople.

Over the years I’ve observed the artist’s mind at work in a business world. Below are a few common ways the artist makes business missteps.

1. If you’re itching to write a book, then the artist in you knows it’s worthy of being published.

Some ideas are good, some are not. Some should be magazine articles because the idea isn’t expansive enough for a book, others won’t draw a large enough readership.

Yet I hear comments like this over and over again, “I started a series of historical novels, and I keep hearing from readers who want to read more about those characters, but the publisher doesn’t want to publish more.”

It doesn’t occur to these authors that the publisher is making a business decision–possibly a good one. The writer has dived deep into artistic waters. He thinks that receiving requests for more books in a series is an indication that each request represents thousands of unspoken requests. But that is an equation that seldom proves accurate. Unless the author receives thousands of requests, it’s unlikely adding to a series will result in a sales success. Nor should every good idea be turned into a book; sometimes the timing isn’t right or the audience isn’t sufficiently large.

2. Meet the deadline or keep reworking the manuscript?

I am unendingly surprised by writers who think their only responsibility is to create the best manuscript they can. They forget that publishing  is a business. Product costs money to create (tens of thousands per book), and publishers need to recoup that money by selling copies of the book. So what happens when the author doesn’t turn in  the manuscript on time? The publisher can’t earn back the money it has invested. When it comes to deadlines, the writer can’t just think about whether he or she is “done” with the manuscript.

3. Not every author’s marketing idea is genius.

An author can’t ask a publisher to make an investment in a creative marketing scheme that’s unlikely to sell sufficient books. Every marketing plan must strive to bring in more money than the plan spends. It’s a business decision, not a lack of support for a book.

4. A cover design is an artistic–and business–decision.

You have an idea for your book’s cover; the artist in you knows it’s perfect. But the publisher has a different idea. So you press for what you have in mind. But the publisher can only make so many passes at your book cover. Suggesting a new model or a completely different idea after seeing the publisher’s design, means the cost of the cover has just doubled. Saying no to the third, unique cover design means you’ve tripled the publisher’s cover costs. It doesn’t mean you can’t express your opinion, but keep in mind that every change adds to the cost of producing your book. Authors have a hard time thinking about the business side of a cover, but it’s just as real as the artistic side.

5. Handle your decision about an agent like a businessperson, not an artist.

If you’ve engaged in a significant conversation about your writing with one agent and that agent is waiting for more material from you, you should let that agent know if you connect with a different agent. And you should tell the second agent you’re in conversation with agent #1. Full disclosure is fair and shows you’re a savvy businessperson.

If one agent takes the time to give you specific feedback on a project, don’t make those changes and then go to another agent without giving agent #1 a chance to decide if he or she wants to offer you representation. It’s common courtesy and shows you’re an aware businessperson.

Writing  is both business and art. It’s a balancing act. Often, for writers, the teeter-totter lands on the artistic side, and the writer doesn’t even realize it.

Why do you think writers often have a blind spot when it comes acting in a businesslike way? What can a writer do to balance artistic endeavor with good business practices?


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40 Responses

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  1. It would seem that many ‘artists’ have a misplaced sense of responsibility.

    The bottom line is that a published book is first and last a commodity.

    If the publisher’s risking the money – they get to make the rules. If you don’t like them, don’t sign the contract.

    Because when you sign – you have a responsibility. To your art, sure, but first and foremost to your publisher (same goes for responsibility to an agent, whose investment is time and effort).

    Point being that writing with an aspiration for publication is a profession, and confers a requirement of requisite professionalism on the practitioner.

  2. Finally! A writing moment when my day job is an asset, not a liability–a place where deadlines must be met and costs must carry a benefit. I told my boss, “I like what I do, thankfully, but I do this job for money not love. If you didn’t pay me, I wouldn’t do it.” I’m sure the same holds true for publishers and agents.

    Writing . . . I do for love.

  3. Writers often have a blind spot about acting in a businesslike way because getting a book contract can be a long path. Signing a book contract is so huge for writers that it can seem like the crowning mark of success. Really, it is just a landmark on the way.

    Janet, other that this blog, what books or resources do you suggest for authors to learn more about being business and marketing savvy?

    • Janet Grant says:

      Carol, I learned to think like a businessperson during my time managing a book imprint and starting a couple of publishing divisions at nonprofits. I had to create budgets and live with the consequences of how books sold. I had to convince publishing committees that the books I wanted to produce would make money, etc. So my experience is learning on the job. But in terms of reading material, I would suggest that reading some of Michael Hyatt’s older blogs, when he was writing more about running a business, would be helpful. Also, I consulted with Rachelle Gardner, who loves to read business books, what she would recommend. She suggested reading the Harvard Business Review blog, which has a lot of content and a wide variety of writers to choose from. The blog helps her to keep her “business perspective awake.” She also recommends Daniel Pink’s book To Sell Is Human. His thesis is that every career involves selling, even being a mom, who needs to sell kids on the idea that they should eat their veggies. I hope these ideas help, Carol.

  4. I never had a “business” course … so I’ve definitely had to learn the hard way. The balance is challenging. I remember thinking if I hear, “read Sally Stuart’s …” one more time, I thought I would choke. It’s hard to manage home, kids, meals, work, writing … where do you fit more reading in?

    We must seek out help. Truly, your website has helped me tremendously. You always seem to point in the right direction, saving precious hours of research. And my husband’s business mind has helped me much.

    And wouldn’t it be nice if all things writing related were standard? But there is usually a different requirement at every turn. It’s just business, I know. Grin!

    And, it seems our hearts are all over our work … making business-minded challenging.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Shelli, you’re way ahead of the game in that you know what you don’t know. Lots of writers are blissfully unaware that they’re trampling all over the tulips in the business field. Having a husband who asks you business questions to help you to focus on that perspective is a gift. Go plant a kiss on that man right now! I’m sure at times his questions make you roll your eyes because you don’t *want* to think that way; you want to think like an artist. But his prods are important to consider.

  5. It seems to me that the first stage of the writing process is in some ways, the easiest, because we are not on a deadline. We have time to explore, tear our stories apart over and over and start again to make it better and better. No one else is depending on us, expecting us to meet their deadline.

    When a writer becomes contracted for a book, there has to be a change in mindset. It’s not all about “us” anymore. We have a responsibility to honor our word, to produce what we said we would WHEN we said we would. We have to look outside our to-this-point MO. We need to step up to the commitment and meet it in a professional manner, looking outside ourselves and thinking of others. Humans in general don’t do this by nature. Only through deliberate choices and practice.

    As a currently unpublished writer, I’m spending time on blogs and talking with mentors to hopefully develop the mindset I’ll need when the day comes and I actually sign on that dotted line for a book contract. I set self-imposed deadlines to give myself practice in meeting them so that I know what’s required when a real deadline is imposed. 🙂

    Great post today, Janet.

  6. Christine Dorman says:

    Great topic, Janet. Thank you.

    In response to your question “Why do…writers often have a blindspot when it comes to acting in a businesslike way?” I think the reasons will vary from artist to artist. One common thread, however, might be that we are so emotionally invested in our work (the individual project in question) that it’s hard to view it in a completely analytical way. The example you used about a book’s cover might be useful to help me describe what I mean. I understand–and completely agree with your point–that each pass on a book cover costs money, thus increasing the cost of making the book (and decreasing profits). At the same time, the artist might have concerns about what the cover implies about the book or the characters. Here’s an example of a cover issue that will seem like a very tiny (thus insignificant) detail, but it’s a detail that really bothers me–and I didn’t even write the book. The cover for a paperback edition of Mary Stewart’s THE CRYSTAL CAVE pictures a blond-hair boy who is supposed to represent Merlin. Merlin, in the novel, has black hair. Tiny, superficial difference, right? Not really. The fact that Merlin has black hair is used against him by his family as a reason to reject him and to label him as the child of a demon, and thus a wicked person, even though he’s only a six year old child. So the color of Merlin’s hair is a vital detail in the book. Why make him blond on the cover? Although I have been told by a number of people that I am “not really an artist” because I show up on time for things, am organized, deal with reality, and don’t tend to be a drama queen, if I had written that book, I would have fiercely objected to the cover.

    As a yet-unpublished author, I have been studying everything I can find on the business side of writing and publishing and, like Jeanne, I’m trying to set deadlines and work within the parameters of the writing business. As a teacher, I am used to meeting deadlines, working collaboratively as a member of a team, and adhering to the standard practices of a system that I don’t always agree with. I anticipate that, if I obtain an agent and a publishing contract, that I will act in a professional, businesslike manner as a writer just as I do as an educator. That said, there may be times when the artist in me feels compelled to speak up. Going back to the cover issue, I doubt I would insist the cover be re-done several times, but I do have an image of a nightmare cover for my book. My main character is a faerie. She is the same size as a human, does not have pointed ears, and is wingless. When she is in her homeland, she wears long dresses and a gray, hooded cloak. During the summer that she spends living with her aunt in the human world, she most often wears t-shirts and jeans (she’s a teenager). My dread fear is a cover depicting Siobhan as a scantily-dressed nymph-like creature. While that cover might sell books (the business perspective), it would be a complete misrepresentation of who Siobhan is and the artist in me would take great exception to that portrayal. I would bring my concerns about a cover like that to my agent, asking her to talk with the publisher about it. However, I would accede, ultimately, to the decision of the publishing house since basically they’re my employer (I know most writers won’t like that concept, but there is truth in it). But I’d never be able to look joyfully at my published book. Every time I saw the cover, I’d cringe.

    • It’s such a tricky balance, isn’t it Christine? As far as covers go, and maintaining a professional demeanor we need to remember that the publisher is our employer. That sounds like a good mindset to maintain.

      • Christine Dorman says:

        It is, Jeanne. It is a bit disorienting. We have been in total control of our characters and our book world, then suddenly we achieve our goal of being agented and contracted to a publisher and we have to relinquish much of that control. Even writers who self-publish (if they are wise) have to go into business-mode if they want to sell books. They aren’t in the employer / employee category because they haven’t been contracted to deliver a product, but a smart self-published author will partner with an editor and a marketing person, which creates the business partner model. And there is no point in hiring an editor and a marketing expert if you’re ignore their expertise.

        Happy Monday!

    • Janet Grant says:

      Christine, your example of a mismanaged cover actually, is, in my opinion, a business issue. The cover needed to convey an important plot point correctly, and the publisher looks silly for not having done so. In today’s world of PhotoShop, changing color hair is a pretty minor adjustment. Now, if an author asks the publisher to change a cover from green (“My least favorite color,” the author proclaims), that is unprofessional. An author’s personal preferences are less important than what the publisher believes will sell the book and make potential readers pause to find out more about the book.
      Your faerie character is likely to provide some challenges regarding a cover design. You could be preparing some ideas that convey her faerie qualities even now. Because you already foresee potential differences of opinion.

      • Christine Dorman says:

        Thank you, Janet, for your feedback. I agree that the CRYSTAL CAVE cover makes the publisher look silly. It looks as if the publishing company never bothered to read its own book!

        You’re right that my character will present problems because she is an atypical faerie (purposefully). As a lover of the fantasy genre, I know there are certain images that scream “FANTASY BOOK” and that will resonant with the heart and soul of a fantasy book lover, so I think I may be in for an uphill battle if the publisher wants to feature the main character on the cover. I do have a plan, though. The working title (I know it will change) is Music of Dragons, and dragons and unicorns are a prominent part of the plot. My hope, then, is that the publisher might be open to a cover featuring these two fantasy icons rather than my unconventional faerie. But that’s down the road as first I have to get the book ready to go out, get an agent, and a publishing contract. Small steps. 🙂

      • Janet Grant says:

        Christine, often designers don’t read the book. They create the cover based on a summary and, generally, a description of each character. But the editor, if no one else, should have fought for a more accurate cover. Time might have been the dictating factor; we just don’t know.

  7. Sarah Thomas says:

    I think having been a journalist before becoming a novelist was great practice for the business side of writing. The day I signed a contract I considered myself “hired” by the publisher to do a specific job. Writing isn’t so much art for me, it’s work I happen to really enjoy. (Hey, maybe that’s what art is!)

  8. Jaime Wright says:

    I’m a Director of Sales and Associate Relations so I totally get how numbers can make or break a sale. I have associates who are dead set on their way of selling but when the numbers don’t add up, it requires a paradigm shift in thinking. I think there’s two ways to look at writing: is it write for love or write for publication. If you want to dive into the story of your heart with no restrictions or expectations, then you write for love. If you write for publication, you write with savvy in mind. That being, you don’t embrace your book so hard you’re adverse to change or criticism and you realize there’s a place for perfectionism but there are also numbers that have to be met. You still write because you love it — few of us will be so successful it will be replace our day jobs. Unless your day job is extra padding and your spouse brings home the bacon (not my scenario). SO you write with passion, in blurps and blips, and you think savvy. Because in my experience, I want to be published. I want to be as successful as possible. If my publisher changes my cover model or tells me to cut 10K, then I shall do it. I love to write, but I love business savvy too. In some cases, that is why this world entices me so much. It’s like the best of both!

    • Janet Grant says:

      I appreciate your differentiation on what motivates a person to write–the core motivation–write for love or write to publish. Things get complicated when someone who writes for love gets a contract. Lots of painful lessons are about to ensue.

      • Janet, your reply to Jaime gave me a jolt. I write for love, and I want to publish. But do I really write to publish?

        Being a part of this community has taught me a great deal, but I also appreciate the way you challenge us.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Jenni, that is an important question to know the answer to, isn’t it? Because the way you function in relation to everyone who is in publishing as a business rests in the balance.

  9. I look at my work as something akin to building a house. I know what I have planned for the decorations, the pieces that go on the inside. I know the frame, but who’s to say I can’t leave room for an addition? But I can’t just build the house and leave it there. I need permits, trades people to do the intricate details that I’d fail miserably at. I cannot wire a house, nor can I run the plumbing, or even figure out exactly where my property ends and the neighbour’s begins.

    What can I do as a writer to balance art and business? Listen. Just hush up and listen. I knew NOTHING about the business side of writing until I found Rachelle’s blog, and then this one. Pretty much everything I learned about the business side of writing, I learned here.

    Even the ‘should be obvious’ things like not asking if an agent got my query on a blogpost about the Oxford comma. (Just a faux, made-up, not real, n’est pas vraiment example… everyone calm down…)

    And to read each agency’s submission guidelines!!!!

    • Janet Grant says:

      Jennifer, the example of building a house is a good one. Who among us would undertake to handle all the specialist stuff? Yet often writers forget that specialists exist in publishing and have learned their “stuff” mostly through experience. That’s where specialists shine.

  10. I don’t know why artists don’t do business well a lot of the time, but I do have a funny story. I once showed my neighbor some pictures I was woking on. She admired my work and said, “I had no idea you were into this kind of creative stuff. Now it finally makes sense to me. Creative people are often bad housekeepers.”

    ha ha

    So maybe some writers are bad at business for the same reason they are bad at housekeeping–their brand of creativity makes them lean toward being undisciplined rather than orderly. It’s too bad, really. Because the more disciplined and orderly we are, the more we can create.

    Thank God we aren’t stuck in place. Even if we have a bent toward being messy and disorganized, that doesn’t mean we can’t train ourselves to do better. I’ve learned to be organized in the last few years and I’m getting so much more work done now than I ever got done before.

  11. I have come across many Christian writers who assume that because they are Christian and writing they are in the ministry and publishers should partner with them on the endeavor.

    To assume that publishers should publish your work for free would be like going to a Christian dentist and expecting free cleanings and root canals. They have to run a business, they have to answer for the stewardship of their talents as well.

    If a writer wants to be in a better position with a publisher or agent, it is wise to understand the job they have so that the writer can bring more of a partnership to the deal. Writers need to understand the business side of writing if they want to take it to a professional level, otherwise it is a hobby…even if you are a Christian.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Marci, you landed on what might be a common misconception among writers. Writing a manuscript often does start out as a hobby. So it’s pretty breathtaking to end up with a book contract. But writers don’t always recognize that seeking an agent, looking for a publisher, or signing a contract all are a transition from hobby to business.

      • It is important for writers to understand what is at risk for the publisher. Writers tend to think they are the ones who have put all the work into the project but it really is a partnership. Investing in learning the craft is invaluable for those who want to take writing seriously.

  12. Lisa says:

    I have to admit I had no idea starting out. I think writers needing a stable platform along with great writing knocked me out of my dreamy state. Blogging, social media, development of voice, I quickly realized the dream and the business aspect are intertwined. I’m very thankful for your blog for teaching me the bigger picture. I have no doubt I’ll be better for it when publication comes.