Monday, June 25, 2012

Taking Care of Business

This is not a sexy post.  No video, no glossy photos.

This post is about taking care of business, and unless you're into that kind of thing, this is about as exciting as toe fungus.

Now, if you're like me, one thing you hate is business.  You know, charging people for services and then expecting to be paid?  There's just something so . . . craven about it.  When I went to medical school, business was the last thing on my mind.  The IDEA that I was rendering a service for which I deserved compensation . . . who thought about medicine that way?  Okay, I'm sure someone did, but I didn't.  My focus was learning how to help people--or, maybe more accurately, how not to kill them while I was trying to help them.  (Believe me, every doctor--in training or out of it--comes close every now and again.  Why, there was this one guy . . .)  So no one told me anything about how to set up an office, run it, collect fees.  Really, there was so much MEDICINE to absorb, the business end of things wasn't talked about.  Earning money wasn't on my radar.

So I learned as I went along, after I left the military and opened a solo private practice and was, for a good long time, a small business owner.  Boy, was that rocky.  I just didn't get it.  I mean, here I was, a pretty decent child shrink . . . and where were the patients?  It had never dawned on me that I had to learn the biz, how to cultivate it, make contacts, find referral sources, all that.  It felt a little slimy, to be honest, this need to go out and trawl for a paycheck.  Eventually, I learned, through trial and error, what worked--which relationships to cultivate so I had referrals; what I had to do to gain exposure so people would know me; who I could trust with certain aspects of my business, those things I couldn't do myself because it wasn't my area of expertise--all so I could meet my office rent and, oh, make a living.  Lucky for me, I ran a one-woman shop, so all I really worried about was making payroll for one.  But it sure would've been nice if my med school education had included a unit on running a small business.

Like many professions, doctors are also expected to keep themselves educated and up to speed on their specialities.  They're called CMEs (continuing medical education credits) and every state has a mandatory number a doctor must complete every year, or they won't give you a license to continue practicing.  That's fine; I'm no more anxious to kill anyone now than I was back then.  But, darn it, there STILL aren't any CMEs that tell you how to run a business, so far as I know.  This isn't the problem it used to be, primarily because I'm not seeing patients right now and, more likely than not, if I'd stayed in practice, I'd have hired an office manager and let her/him take care of business.  But I might very well have gone to a couple business seminars, too.

Now that I'm a full-time writer . . . well, the experience has been only a little different.  One question most beginning writers ask is how to break into publishing, which only makes sense and about which I wrote an earlier post.  But what I think most beginners don't realIy understand is that, as a writer, you're the sole proprietor of a small business.  Sorry, but it's the truth.  You're into this because you love to write--but you also enjoy eating.  

Since that IS the case, it behooves all of us to learn as much about the business side of writing as we can because things come up, all the time.  Now, it's true that if you are very fortunate and have done your homework (I am and have been), you will likely have an agent you trust acting on your behalf: negotiating contracts, selling your work, that kind of stuff.  But that doesn't mean that you can simply put your head down and spin out product.  You must become as savvy about the business as you can, so you know what the terms of that contract mean, the publishing cycle, access to overseas rights, royalties . . . it's a big deal.  We're talking money in or out of your pocket here.  We're talking groceries.

Business isn't necessarily sexy.  Business is frequently . . . well, business and requires a certain mindset, this idea that you really do need to be looking at what benefits you and your bottom line, and then weighing that against what benefits everyone else who supports your business.  But taking care of your business is essential, and like everything else in this biz, you need to devote some time--doesn't have to be a lot, necessarily, but some--to keeping current, getting those writerly CMEs.  Like I was way back, you're in private practice: the sole proprietor of your business.  These days, you could make a go of it solo--as in no traditional publisher, no agent, or maybe an IP lawyer to look over contracts you DO negotiate with a traditional house (but only if you are just SO savvy and experienced, you really get the biz)--or you can hire people as you go along: a copy editor, a graphic artist, etc.  Or you go the traditional route.  Whichever way you choose, you still need to understand business.

I've attended only a handful of writers' workshops, none more valuable than those devoted to understanding the business of writing, from copyright to contracts to publishing cycles (and I STILL need advice and help, believe me).  The very first workshop I ever attended was not about plot or pacing or any of that; it was one entirely devoted to the business of publishing: a crash-course on breaking in, what to expect, production levels required to sustain x-amount of income over x-amount of years, when you can quit your day job (if ever), payment cycles, agents, work for hire, all that.   Since then, I've made it part of my business to keep current.

I'm going to suggest that YOU consider doing this, too.  You don't have to read a gazillion articles or anything, but you should read some.  Really, there is no one out there who cares as much about your career as you do, trust me on this.

There are organizations; the RWA, for example, has some fantabulous articles and presentations on all aspects of business (and they're one of the best organizations at paying attention to the business side of things, IMHO). There are also a ton of books and Reader's Digest condensed versions on things ike copyright law, etc.  Yes, a drool-worthy snooze-fest, but essential reading nonetheless.  We all run into this sooner or later.  I just spent an hour shooting off nasty-grams to pirate sites offering my books, as one for example.  These sites are like weeds, for God's sake, and they're stealing what I've worked very hard to produce.  They're stealing bread, man, figurative and otherwise.  It's like people walking by my table and nicking my drink because, well, it was just there.  Who said this is acceptable behavior?  Where are their mothers?  Don't get me started on this.

Back to business: you have to pay attention to who's offering the advice, too.  Now I don't know about you, but if someone's written a book on the biz, I tend to look at their credentials to do so.  It would be the same if I hired someone to fix a toilet or build a house.  Why trust people who, oh, aren't all that published, or have zip credentials?  I can not tell you the number of kids out there who take creative writing classes from teachers who aren't published.  What, WHAT?  This is like me, a surgery intern, deciding to learn the ins and outs of open-heart surgery from, oh, a plumber.  No, worse: a used-car salesman.  There's a reason doctors spend five hundred trillion hours learning from other doctors who have spent ten hundred bazillion hours.  Look at the creds, folks.  Don't get me started on this either.  

For my money, there are only a few people in the writing world whose take on business I truly trust (and admire).  If you're serious about your work, you've probably already heard of them and/or dropped by their blogs.  If you haven't, then here are two people to whom you should pay attention: the husband-wife duo, Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch.  Both are pro writers with about ten trillion hours in the biz and several hundred--we're talking hundreds here--of publications under their collective belts: short stories, articles, books.  (I think the last time I talked to Dean, he had . . . what . . . well over a hundred books, both traditionally published and, only very recently, as self-pubbed ebooks.  A hundred, people.)  Both have been editors.  Both have run a publishing house and just opened another.  Both have their unique takes on the biz and they offer workshops, not only on the building blocks every writer needs for the craft but--just as importantly--the business of writing, which I would encourage you to think about taking (or ponying up the extra dough the next time you're at a con or writers' meeting and they're offering a course).   They are people to whom I routinely turn for their take on various issues, some of which I haven't realized WERE issues until they brought them up.  (And, yes, that very first workshop I attended was theirs.  It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and I mean that; I absolutely do.  I trust and owe these two people more than I can express.) 

How seriously should you take their opinions?  How savvy are they?  Well, let me put it this way: quite recently, Kris did a fabulous post on some shady dealings in various agencies--and her site was hacked.  She reposted on a second site--and she was hacked again.  And again, on yet another site.  I'm not necessarily into conspiracy theories, but it really does seem that someone wanted to shut her up.  Fortunately, that post is available on an alternative site (which is, on its own, another very good site to read about the biz), and Kris has since redesigned her blog to be as hack-proof as possible. Not saying it won't happen again, but what I think this should signal is that when people who've been in the biz for a long time raise an alarm, you should pay attention.  

But . . . you can't do that if you're not paying attention in the first place.  If you're not taking care of your business.

So I'm going to suggest that you start with Kris and Dean, and go from there.  You won't always agree with their views (I don't), but for your opinions to hold much water, you need to at least understand and be able to talk the same language.  It is stunning to me how many writers can't, don't and won't.  But trust me on this: you can't afford to put your head in the sand and hope everything will work out for the best.  That you can simply choose to hand over  a part of your business--say, selling your work and contract negotiation--and trust that folks are doing the right thing by and for you.  Yes, ideally, they are; I trust my agent, but I also talked to and researched quite a few agents before I settled on mine, and we keep talking and I still trust her because she has shown that she knows what she's doing.  She teaches me stuff, too, and when she says something, I go look it up to see if what she's said is right.  When she DOESN'T know something, she goes and finds out because she's a pro and understands that you don't get to remain a pro is you don't act like one.  Trust but verify.

You must do the same.  You need to be able to evaluate if the folks you choose to work with are doing their jobs and you can know this only if you understand what their jobs are in the first place; if you understand the ins and outs of your business.

Remember: No one cares more about your career than you.

1 comment:

Jordan Dane said...

Great post, Ilsa. Man, oh man, so true. I hate the biz side, but it's a necessary dark force that can't be ignored. I read Kris's hacked post a while ago. Great stuff. Thanks for sharing it here.