Writing is a Business

The Writer's Desk

The Writer’s Desk

I am a writer and a published author. I am working on my second book, and have completed my research for a third. I also blog — at one blog post a week this takes a fair bit of my time. Managing my marketing on Twitter and Google+ takes time, too. Finally I have a job that supports my interests, because my interests do not support me. In full, I am a business-person who is in charge of writing, publishing, and selling my books.

That’s a big job. Sometime in the future I want all this work to be useful to me as an income, not just a tax write-off. Will it ever be? I don’t know. But I am learning how to make better use of my time and money.

I am being forced to learn this, because people who might be interested in the subject I am writing about do not understand that this is my work. It is not a hobby, but a business. Some people will go so far as to ask me to speak in front of their group. They do not offer any payment for this. They do not understand that it takes a month or so to write and power point a talk, and the work of doing that interferes with the work of writing my next book or article. They do not offer an honorarium, and one group in particular didn’t want me to bring books to sell at the event. They just want to sit there and listen, and be entertained, and not be bothered by anything that might mean they have to shell out a few dollars.

People do not understand the business of writing. They do not understand how little we authors make from each book sale, and how expensive it is to write a book and how time-consuming. And when you have written your first book and had it published, you will not understand that either!

Certainly I didn’t.

Here is the reality, for me — it will be different for you as a writer:

In order to research this first book, I purchased scans of all of Alexander Caulfield Anderson’s maps, and it cost me some $2,000. I can write these off on my taxes as I use them in my power point presentations or as illustrations in my book[s], but that is sometime in the future.

It will be true of most of us who write history that we have to purchase copies of all archival prints used in the books, and also pay for permissions to use those prints. This is not cheap. It’s quite expensive, in fact.

So these are major costs that I am trying to recover from the sales of my book, and I am not even beginning to address the amount of time I spent in researching the book, the computers and computer equipment I used to copy out all the information, and that I used to write the book. It does not include the reams of paper I used to print off the various copies of information downloaded, or photocopying costs, or postage.

Yet people will ask me to talk in front of their group, without allowing me to bring any books with me to sell. As a new writer, they will do the same to you. Depending on your book and the group you are asked to speak to, it might be worth while talking in front of them. But consider the offer carefully before you say “yes.”

At this moment, I will travel to events that are distant if the audience is good, if I have another good reason to be in the area, or if its a good marketing possibility. I was invited to speak on Anderson Island [Tacoma, WA] in front of the historical society, but they paid my costs and gave us a place to stay. They were not wealthy, and I think it cost them, but they did it.

For the most part I will now say “yes,” if the place I am asked to speak at is local; if they allow me to sell my books at the talk; if there are going to be enough attendees at the talk to make it worthwhile — or if they offer me an honorarium.

All the better if they will offer an honorarium! — especially if the talk is at a library or a place where attendees are not going to purchase your book. Do you, as a newly published author, understand what an honorarium is? I didn’t, until I was offered one for talking in front of a group at the Public Library. I found this definition on an Investment website:

An honorarium is a voluntary payment given to a person for services for which fees are not legally or traditionally required. Honoraria are typically used to help cover costs for volunteers or guest speakers.

Interestingly, the people who said they did not want me to come with books to sell were members of an extremely wealthy social club in Victoria. These same people would be interested to know (and I was surprised myself) that when I receive my “T-4 slip” from my publisher, it comes, not on a T-4, as expected, but on a form that indicates it is considered an Investment! I fell off my chair when I saw that — and yet, it makes perfect sense. Writing and publishing a book is an Investment of time and money that will hopefully pay itself back.

When you offer an honorarium it shows that you respect the labour that went into the book. While I rented the microfilms from Hudson’s Bay Company Archives for free, I spent hours in reading and copying out the letters I found. We are not even beginning to talk about the actual writing.

When my book was finally “finished,” I paid for my editor. She is considered one of the best in Canada, and I am proud to have been able to use her services, but those services were not free.

I did all this work long before I knew I had a book that I could sell to a publisher. While this doesn’t sound like it cost me money, it cost me time, and I purchased books that helped me write the argument! Following that, I lost time in learning that writing the argument for submission to a publishing company meant writing an entirely different argument! I purchased another book so I could learn this. I learned how to write the submission.

Clearly, I am a businessperson. I took great risks and paid huge expenses long before I ever knew that my book would be published.

And yet some people have asked me to talk in front of their group, with the proviso that I cannot bring any books to sell to them.

As a salesperson I know that if you have the book available right now, they will be more likely to buy the book — and far less likely to purchase the book if a week or so later they think they’ll drop into the book store and get it. So, if you have no books on the spot, book sales are immediately lost!

As a newbie author you will also think that some “book tours” are part of the selling of the book, and you will think that the cost of these jaunts will be covered by your book sales! Right?

When I was a newbie to this business I was asked to talk in front of one of the Vancouver-area history clubs. I was flattered, of course, and said yes, and took a month to prepare my speech and power point it. I booked a hotel, and I took my sister along with me  on this jaunt. But when I reached the meeting place I found only six or eight people were in attendance, and only one person bought the book. My surprise gift for making the journey from Victoria to Vancouver and back — a second-hand donated book of history!

So as a new author, you need to ask the hard questions.

I had another occasion on which I traveled to a more distant city to give a talk, but the museum there (who was supporting me) insisted that they sell the books at the event, and not me. They did not understand that if I sold my books myself, I would instantly make $10. If they sold the book, I would make $3.00 or so some nine months later. While they thought they were supporting me, they didn’t understand how this business works.

As a new author you will also not understand this either. That is the way it is. You will learn the hard way.

However on this last occasion I had a huge audience, and the club collected money that more or less paid my expenses. It was very nice of them. When they asked me to talk, they had not realized that I lived so far away. I would travel to that place again anytime, and will; but I will sell my own books.

The local history society also does not understand how books sell, and how they don’t. At a recent colloquium they gave authors a chance to sell their books, so I paid the $50.00 attendance fee (even though I would have to sell five book before I made a profit). By the time the event rolled around we were told the books would be displayed in piles in the gift shop of the Museum in which the event was being held — some distance from the event itself. Moreover, the books were going to be sold by the staff of the store. I asked for my money back. One other person who did not do that attended the event, and told me later that she had enjoyed few books sales, if any.

If you can’t be there to sell your own book, in the room where the event is being held, don’t attend the event. No one can sell your book like you can, and you cannot sell your book if your book display is some distance from your audience. At a recent Federation of B.C. History conference the book room was distant from all other events, and no one even entered the room. If you want to sell your local history books at events like that, ask the hard questions. Ask what their book sales are usually like: do authors actually sell any books? The fact is, book sales at their events are poor, but they don’t tell you that. (However, I am optimistic that change is in the air. The organizer of next year’s event heard our complaints.)

So, here is the way you have to think: “I am a writer, and writing is a business.” A new writer needs to understand this immediately so as to not allow such disappointments to occur because of the absolute ignorance that people have about the publishing world.

And yet, people still ask me to take the time to write and power point a speech to give to them because “they are so interested,” but without allowing me to sell my books to them, and without offering me an honorarium for my work.

It is hard work to write a speech and power point it, and it takes valuable time away from the writer’s current project. Writing a talk and presenting it to a group who is “so interested” should not be unpaid work. This is my work. It is my career. It is my business. Respect that, and treat me with respect.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2014. All rights reserved.

3 thoughts on “Writing is a Business

  1. Julie H. Ferguson

    Well said!
    I stopped speaking pro bono many years back. As a professional speaker, before I retired, I got used to explaining, “I’m the same as your plumber. Do you pay your plumber for his/her services?” … “Yes?” … “But not me?” … “Then I have no option but to refuse your request as this is my livelihood.”
    Problem is much worse today, because Amazon charges the same price for my books as I pay for copies with my author’s discount. It’s a mug’s game, in my opinion.
    And that is why I support my traditionally published books with my self-published titles. Oy!!

  2. Vivian Copeland

    This is a difficult lesson to learn. Writers, especially fiction writers, want to think of themselves as artists, and they are, but the selling of books is business. You’ve got to do something to try and make your book stand out. You’ve got to try and market yourself. You’ve got to have a thick skin. You can’t let rejection and bad reviews get in your way. The problem is the “artistic” temperament doesn’t always mesh well with this mental model. Sigh. Anyway, great blog. Great information. Always good to have these points reinforced for us hard-headed Hannahs.

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