Who’s the Boss: Making It Your Business to Write

Corner office. Sort of.When I think of the business of writing, I think of what Debutante Ball guest author Clare O’Donohue says about writers needing to run their careers as they would a small business.

Because a publishing writer is a small business. (Just ask your tax professional.)

So small that for a long time, it’s just you. But even as you attract an agent, then a publisher, then some pals down the hall in marketing and publicity, then some book store owners and librarians, and then these elusive creatures known as readers—it’s still your business. You’re Research and Development as well as the manufacturing, quality assurance, sales, and customer service departments. You might get some help in some of these areas, but if you’re not ready to be the gear that turns any one of these mechanisms, well, you might be the guy who hangs out the Closed for Business sign, too.

The good news is that you’re the boss!

The bad news is that you’re the grunt who has to do the work, too.

But as award-winning mystery author Hank Phillippi Ryan (scheduled to be a guest here soon!) said at a writing workshop she recently led in Illinois: You’re the boss. Keep the boss happy.

The boss is happy when the words are written. Sure, she gives out hearty handshakes when other things get done, but she only gives raises when the words get done, when the edits are made and sent back to the press, when the publicist’s emails have been answered. She doesn’t care as much when the Facebook status is updated or the Twitter account is humming. All of it is business, but some of it is in the mission statement, and some of it isn’t.

Unfortunately every job has busy work, and rarely does the boss fully understand all the stuff the grunt is responsible for that keeps the entire machine running.

When I think of the things I’ve been doing to build my writing career over the last—woah—seven years, the single most important thing I think I’ve done, besides the actual writing, is the part where I put out my shingle. Open for business. What that looked like: joining a writing community, trying to learn as much as I could, reading the kinds of books I wanted to write, showing up to places where people doing what I wanted to do hung out and talked to each other. I didn’t have a book published. (I still don’t, until July 8, 2014.) But I put myself out there in the hopes that someday I’d belong.

The mystery community is very welcoming this way, but even if you’re not a mystery writer, you can find ways to build a community around you that will guide and support all the steps you have to take before you have an actual, forgive me, product. Do you think that successful business owners try to start selling their widget without getting a few focus groups together (beta readers), without crafting up some marketing copy full of the product’s features and benefits (query letter), without doing a little proof of concept (agent search)?

Anyone else tired of this metaphor? Fine. Me, too. But if you do your advance work, your product is much more likely to find its way in the world, making way for your next move, which is going to be writing another book. The boss is going to be very happy with you. Look out, corner office.

What’s your best piece of small-business advice?

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Lori Rader-Day is the author of the mystery THE BLACK HOUR (Seventh Street Books, July 2014). She grew up in central Indiana, but now lives in Chicago with her husband and very spoiled dog.

13 thoughts on “Who’s the Boss: Making It Your Business to Write

  1. I so believe in putting yourself out there, and not just with the actual words on the page. Learning about the business and figuring out how other writers manage to be successful is almost as important. Almost.

    • It’s a little tiring, I have to admit, to have spent this many years on output alone. But I’m definitely enjoying the benefits of that community-building now!

  2. Great advice, Lori. The busy work of social media and other promotion has to be done, but the real top priority, what we get paid for, is the words on paper. Easy to forget that.

  3. I’ve always loved this metaphor, because it’s often too easy for aspiring writers to describe writing as a passion or a hobby, which is fine…except that if we want to make it work, we have to treat it like a business. And that’s all about discipline. Might not be as fun, and it might not paint as sexy a picture of the very inspired writer sitting at a typewriter as the words flow, but the majority of the time, the reality is that writing is more about discpline than it is about inspiration.

    • Probably does make it less sexy, doesn’t it? No one wants to hear it, but writing is work, hard work. That image of the fingers pounding on the typewriter? Yeah, not me. I hate to think what I look like when I’m writing.

  4. For years, I worked as a part-time contractor from home while writing fiction. My friends thought I had such a cush lifestyle. Hardly working, kicking back — oh yeah fiction how hard could that be? What a nice life. Reality check: Writing fiction is the hardest thing I’ve ever set out to do. I’ve never worked so hard in my life.

    People seem to think that if the work is creative, it’s not like real work.

    • I’m a little jealous of the phrase “part-time,” though. 🙂

      Also, creative work, being FUN, shouldn’t be paid for. Grr.

      • Oh, it was the best. Totally. I’m bummed I couldn’t make that last forevermore. Full-time jobs get in the way. 🙂

        I get pissed about the no-pay thing too.

  5. Dead on, Lori. There is nothing unbusiness-like about writing except maybe the daily attire of yoga pants for full time writers and the incredible late nights for part time writers. I will say, I like being my own boss. I have higher standards for myself than any boss has ever laid on me so I’m definitely not off the hook there!

  6. “Because a publishing writer is a small business. (Just ask your tax professional.)”

    I have a friend who always advises young musicians to remember that, in forming a band, they are starting a small business partnership that may, if they’re really lucky, last the rest of their lives. That crazy drummer who plays really well but can’t function without beer and sometimes thinks he comes from another planet — you really want to go into business with him? It’s something most people don’t think about until it’s too late.

    • No crazy drummers on my team. Yet. That’s a great analogy, Anthony. I think it’s that way in hiring a team at work, too. You want someone who can do the job, but you also want someone you can spend 8 hours a day with without killing.

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