I have never met a would-be writer who has a business plan.
OK, I haven’t met many professional writers who have a formal business plan, either. Nevertheless, every last professional writer I know, of whatever genre, pays a great deal of attention to the business of writing, one way or another. Unfortunately, for most writers, on-the-job training is all they ever get when it comes to the business end of things (quite a few don’t even want that much, and reality tends to be a nasty shock for them, because if you are writing and selling your stories, or hope to do so, you’re running a business whether you like it or not).
I’m lucky. I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs who talked business over dinner…and pretty much anywhere else they happened to be. I enjoy reading business books and magazines; I enjoy talking business (except when my Dad and my brother start going off into engineering specifications). I loved getting my M. B. A., and I really enjoyed being an accountant and financial analyst before I quit my day job twenty-five years ago to write full time. I just liked writing more…plus, I knew even then that as a full-time writer, I’d get plenty of chances to do business-type stuff, while as an accountant, I probably wouldn’t get a lot of opportunities to write about dragons.
Back in business school, I learned the standard model for business organization, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen it applied to writing. So I’ve decided to do that now. There are seven basic areas, and I’m going to do one post per area after this overview, and maybe a summing-up afterward, so if this is something you’re totally uninterested in, you can skip the next four weeks’ worth of posts (though if you are hoping to get professionally published at all, let alone make a living at this, I’d really recommend at least skimming the posts and thinking about what-all I’m going to say).
The seven basic areas that every business has to cover, one way or another, are:
1. Operations – This includes primarily production, but also design, development, and fulfillment. For writers, that’s everything from having the idea to delivering the first draft: research, developing/prewriting, notes and outlining, and, of course, actually writing the book and shipping it off to the editor.
2. Sales and marketing – Sales is defined as “the act of selling a product in return for money or other compensation.” For writers, sales can be split into direct (selling a book directly to the reader) and indirect (licensing production to a publisher, who produces and sells the book directly to readers). Marketing is the strategy that a business uses to get to the sales part.
3. Quality control – This is where products and processes are tested for defects. For writers, this obviously includes all of the editing and revision parts of the job, but it also includes less obvious things like motivation, confidence, and getting enough sleep.
4. Finance – All the monetary aspects of a business. For writers, this used to break down primarily into managing cash flow, recordkeeping, and tax preparation, but it’s rapidly getting more complex as new options arise in the other areas, which need to be balanced and evaluated.
5. Administration – The overall organization of people and processes, including everything from office management to the human resources department. For writers, it covers the day-to-day tasks of making and tracking submissions, filing, etc., but also things like skills development.
6. Public Relations – This has to do with the relationship between a business and the public in general – both the business’ current customers and all of the rest of the people who aren’t customers now but who may or may not become so at some future point. Writers usually lump it in with sales and marketing, but it’s much more general.
7. Executive – This has to do with strategic planning and with overseeing everything else; for writers, that means keeping an eye on all the other categories to make sure nothing is left out and everything stays in balance (which can be quite a trick for a one-person business). This is also where long-range forward planning goes, as well as a whole set of choices that get lumped under “managing your writing career.”
Generally speaking, the first two areas (Operations and Sales & Marketing) are considered “line” functions, because they are the things that bring in the money. Everything else is a “staff” function, that is, tasks that support the money-making side of the business, but that don’t directly generate income. Staff functions are necessary (just try running a business without paying taxes!), but the fundamental difference between jobs that directly generate income and jobs that don’t remains.
Juggling all this stuff is especially complicated for writers, because we’re trying to do most/all of it ourselves. Yes, the editor, agent, accountant/tax-preparer, publicist, and housecleaner all count as help, but it is very rare for a writer to be able to hand the whole of any of these seven job areas off to any of these support people – and it’s rarer still for a writer to be able to afford even one full-time employee. Also, even when one is just getting started it is common for more than one of these areas to be active at the same time. Once one is fully launched into a writing career, they’re pretty much all going on constantly, and not in any particularly logical order, either.
The kinds of things writers need to do in each area, and the degree of importance of each, varies somewhat depending on what stage the writer’s career is at, too. Unpublished and just-published writers will have to put more of their Administration time into setting up tracking systems for the long haul, for instance, whereas a midlist writer might be spending that time networking and practicing writing skills and a bestselling author might be keeping an eye on foreign editions and making travel arrangements for publicity gigs. It’s all still Administration, though.
I could probably natter on about each of these areas for pages and pages at a time, but for now I’m keeping this to one post per topic. That means I’ll talk mainly about the general kinds of things involved in each area, rather than a specific set of how-to recommendations, but one has to start somewhere.
Next post, the first line function: Operations.