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Transcript for Episode 16.01

Writing Excuses 16.01: Your Career is Your Business


Key Points: Look at becoming a writer as a business. You are starting and running a small business. You have to manage your business, the publisher and the agent will not do it for you. They are partners, they will help, but it is your business. What do you want, what do you imagine it becoming? Think about a creative mission statement. Make sure your career is deliberate, not accidental. Ask yourself questions. How are you going to handle health insurance? How will you balance your time between writing and promotion? How are you going to handle email? You might silo the non-writing things into one day a week, or chunks of time spread through the week. How are you going to handle taxes? Hire an accountant or DIY? Think about placing a dollar amount on an hour of writing time, and use that to decide whether to pay someone else to do it or do it yourself. Try balancing money, audience, and shininess. Money, how much does it pay or cost. Audience, how many people will you connect with. Shiny, how much do you want to do it. Think of your writing as a career, a business, and make deliberate, informed choices.

[Season 16, Episode 1]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Your Career is Your Business.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] As you’re in a hurry.
[Brandon] And we’re not that smart.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary…
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary Robinette] Robinette.
[Mary Robinette] We’re all fine. I’m Mary Robinette, we’ve done this a lot.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Dan] This, as you can tell, is the very first episode of 2021. We are excited to be here. We’ve got a cool thing that were going to do for the entire year, is, we have split this year into a series of what we are calling Master Classes, or intensive courses is maybe a better way of thinking about this. So each of us has come up with a topic and we’ll spend eight or nine episodes diving really deep, kind of teaching the rest of the group about that specific topic. So we are going to start with this really cool kind of inside look at the publishing world class that Brandon has put together. Brandon, do you want to tell us a little bit about your course in general?
[Brandon] Yeah. So, the idea is to have a course that starts training writers to look at becoming a writer as a business. This is something that took me by surprise when I started into this. I was not aware that writing is a small business. I didn’t know I was starting a business. In fact, I didn’t incorporate for several years. That’s very common. But not knowing that led me to make a large number of mistakes before I’d got my feet underneath me. Even still, I’m making some of these mistakes. But I thought, you know what, one of the things that I really wish I’d known when I began was that I was starting a small business. I wanted to give some tips to writers starting on this journey or who are in the middle of it who just may not have given enough thought to this aspect of it. We all want to be artists, that’s why we become writers. This whole thing isn’t to dissuade you from your artistic intents. But it is to start you this class and this mindset that just isn’t often shared in writing courses. Because we all want to be artists, and sometimes it feels like talking about the business side of things is crass, and we don’t want to monetize our artistic intentions, but when you start on this path, you are starting a business.
[Howard] Speaking briefly as the parent of four hungry adult children, who still don’t all have their own jobs, I very much want to monetize every last little bit of my everything that I do.
[Howard] Crass or not crass, I want to eat.
[Dan] Yeah. So, I am very fortunate in that one of my best friends got published about a year and 1/2 before I did. So when I did get my contract, Brandon, the very first thing he said to me was, “You need to think about this. Think of yourself as a small business owner,” and gave me some really great advice. So what are some of the bits of advice you want to give us, Brandon, about starting to think of ourselves as business owners?
[Brandon] Right. Well, the first idea is just this mindset change. Which was the biggest hurdle I think I had to overcome. That’s why I named this first episode Your Career Is Your Business. A lot of writers, myself included, when we begin, we have in our head that once we get published, the publisher and the agent are going to be in charge of the business. We’re going to have people managing all of the business side. We will be able to spend our days in artistic pursuits. This just isn’t true. An agent is not a business manager. An agent will certainly help. An agent is, if you’re going traditionally published, an agent is the number one resource you will have for these sorts of things. So certainly it’s nice to have them. But it’s your business that you’re starting. It’s not their business. They have a lot of different clients they’ll be working for. You’re going to be expected to care about your career.
[Howard] One of the things that I like to… I developed this mindset when I was in the corporate world. My career in the corporate space really was defined by the people I was working with, but my career as a person who makes things, a person who imagines things, a person who wants to be paid to operate the oven that bakes the cookies that only come out of my brain, that is not a career path that can be managed by somebody else. That is a career path that has to be managed by me. So a literary agent is a business partner. A publisher is a business partner. I already had, when I started doing comics, I already had a big framework in my head for what business partnerships look like and what they don’t look like. So that gave me a quick leg up, and it made a lot of things easier early on. But Brandon, you’re absolutely right about this mindset. You have to start from that point, believing that what you are doing is your business and, it is, to layer the meaning, a little bit, it’s your business, it’s not anybody else’s business. They’re going to try and get all up in your business from time to time, but it’s really all about… It’s all about what you want and what you imagine it becoming.
[Mary Robinette] So, I’m really glad Howard mentioned what you want, which I’m sure Brandon is going to get into. But I come into this from theater, and being a freelancer for my entire adult life. So, for me, the small business was transforming the small business that I already had. Which was puppeteer, audiobook narrator, and then writer. One of the things that I find helpful when thinking about this small business is to actually have a mission statement. You can think of it as your creative mission statement. But it’s going to change over the course of your career. So, initially the mission statement that I had was fairly simple. It was to be able to turn down the gigs I didn’t want to do. I’ve gotten to the point in my career now only gigs I’ve got are the gigs that I want to do. So now I have to figure out actually what kind of work do I want to be doing and who do I want to be and be presenting myself as. Because I have to start figuring out how to turn down the gigs I do want to do in order to focus on really refining who I am, and this thing that Brandon is talking about and Howard about monetizing. Because it’s not… It’s not always a straightforward path.

[Dan] Let’s pause really quick. Do our book of the week. Which is coming to us this week from Howard.
[Howard] Well, I wish I could take more credit for this one. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. I read it years and years and many years ago, and absolutely loved it. It has one of my very favorite uses of footnotes. It’s widely regarded now as a classic space in which it sits, and recently was made into a TV miniseries available on Amazon Prime. I have really enjoyed and benefited personally from comparing the two. I’ll circle back around to that later at homework time.
[Dan] Awesome. So that is Good Omens from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.

[Dan] Now, I loved what Mary Robinette said about mission statement, which ties into what I’ve heard Brandon talk about a lot in the past, is making sure that your career is deliberate rather than accidental. Brandon, what do you have to tell us about that, and how to do it?
[Brandon] So, there are all kinds of questions I feel like you should be asking yourself during your unpublished years and during your early parts of your career that you have answers to for when the need arises. For instance, a good one if you live in the US, unfortunately, is going to be how are you going to approach health insurance? This is a big question that you need to think about. I never thought about it a single time in the early part of my career. You would think that that would have come up, but it wasn’t until I was married and publishing my first books and realizing, wait a minute. In America, for some stupid reason, health insurance is attached to your job. I’m just not going to have that. How do I get that? Talk to other people, who are self-employed, and figure out how you’re going to approach this. Other questions are how are you going to balance your time as an author? How much time are you going to spend on doing the actual writing, how much time are you going to spend on promotion? We’ll talk about promotion in a later week in this master class, but right now, the question is when are you going to put these things in? When are you going to do email? I wasn’t expecting how much more email would come in…
[Brandon] And how much of it would involve publishers’ panic… Panicking about little things. I had to set aside specific times. What I’ve done in my life right now is I have taken all of the things that are not writing, and I’ve tried to silo them into one day a week. Thursdays. This is when I’m going to do all of these things, the longer emails. The short emails that can get a quick answer, I’ll do at the beginning of my workday. But if there’s something that is going to take a long, in-depth thing, I’ll say, “Hey, I’m going to respond to you on Thursday.” If there’s an interview that I need to do for promotion, I always schedule them on Thursdays. If there are company meetings, I put them on Thursdays. This allows me to take off my writer hat for a day and approach being a business person for a day. With me, this helps keep me from being frustrated. If I have good siloing of these sorts of things, I’ll stop being resentful of the time that I have to spend not writing.
[Mary Robinette] I’m going to chime in here, because I’d heard Brandon talk about this before, so I also tried siloing my non-writing things to one day a week. It turns out that doesn’t work for me, because my brain is wired differently. That wound up causing me to have more fatigue. But I did have to block out time. So I have blocked out specific chunks of time, but spread them through the week. This… I just want to point out that, much like when we talk about writing, there’s no one process that will work for you, but the principle behind the process, which is to be deliberate about it and make space for it, is going to be consistent. You just have to figure out which form it takes for you.
[Dan] I’m going to give a third perspective on this for the very, very early career writers. This is one of the very first bits of advice I got from Brandon when I got my very first publishing contract. I said, “This is happening. It’s real. What do I do next?” He said, “What you do now is you sit down and you write as much as you possibly can, because this is the last time you’ll have all of that free time to write.” That did help me a lot. I was able to finish, I think, a full book and a half of new stuff before all of the revisions and the emails and the editing process in the proofing and all of that business side crashed down on me. So, just for the very early aspiring writer, that is, I think, a fantastic piece of advice.
[Brandon] I do have more time to right now than I did when I was working a job while trying to write. But, one of the most shocking things to me was that by going full-time, I didn’t gain nearly as much free time as I thought I would. Because all of these other things crept in. Doing my own taxes. My first few years… I was used to doing my own taxes. Indeed, again, in the US, we have to do our own taxes, for some stupid reason. So… But then publishing made it infinitely more complicated. Because suddenly I was getting a 1099 instead of a W-2. Suddenly, I had sales overseas. Understanding that you’re either going to have to hire an accountant or you’re going to have to learn how to input sales from other countries and money coming in from other countries and all of this stuff with 1099s instead of W-2s. That’s a huge time sink once a year for US writers that I had just not even understood was going to come along and steal a week of my time.
[Dan] We’ve got an episode coming up about networking, but this tax idea, the finances of being a writer, is a really good reason to rely on other people. My agent, before she became an acquiring agent on her own, worked as a tax person for an agency house. So she was able to help me a lot, which was fantastic. Brandon and I and several other local writers all use the same accountant because the accounting process for professional writers is very different from a lot of other careers. So, using these networking opportunities to find out hey, how do you handle this, is a good way to help you figure it out.

[Brandon] One other thing that I would recommend that you think about… This doesn’t work for all writers. In fact, this is one of these things I’ve noticed that can be debilitating for some writers. But it is something that I do that is very handy for me, is, I find out what the dollar amount of an hour of my writing time is worth. Now, you can’t be writing 16 hours a day. But, once you become self-employed, as Howard so elegantly put it in an early episode, you… It’s great being self-employed, you get to work half days and you decide which 12 hours it is.
[Brandon] Meaning, there is a danger here in that you can work all the time that you want which would lead to burnout. So be careful about that. But I keep a dollar amount assigned to an hour of actual writing time to me. Then, that dollar amount of an hour of writing time allows me to understand what things I can pay for to gain an hour of writing time. If doing my taxes is going to cost me three hours of writing time, and indeed, I will make more money writing that I would hiring someone to do that, it just gives me an opportunity cost method of determining what I should hire out and what I should do myself.
[Howard] When we started putting Schlock Mercenary books into print, we quickly realized that between cover work and bonus story and whatever else, it took a block of time to put a book out, and putting a book out generated several tens of thousands of dollars of money all at once. I could look at that and say, “Well, I have books that are not yet in print, because I’ve got this archive online.” Going to Comic Con saws three weeks out of my life. There’s the week of prep, there’s the week at the event, and there’s a week of recovery. It’s miserably stressful. I did the math and realized that unless I was bringing home $15,000 from Comic Con, it didn’t even begin to be worthwhile. We looked at it and said, “Well, gosh, instead of doing Comic Con, if I really want to sell T-shirts, I can just spend that week making a T-shirt and selling it and make more money.” Now, we’ve never done that because I don’t love making T-shirts. But that was what I had to balance it against. Without knowing how much your time is worth, without establishing a benchmark over time, you will make lots and lots of very, very bad decisions about your time and not realize what you’re doing until you wake up one morning and realize that you’re stressed and broke and hating the things that you’re doing.
[Dan] This kind of deliberate financial thought is how I knew when it was time for me to hire an assistant. Because I hit the point where I realized, oh, giving me an assistant will allow me to write one extra book per year, which will more than pay for the assistant. So that made it a very easy choice to make. We need to wrap up soon, but I know Mary Robinette has something else she wants to say.
[Mary Robinette] Right. Which is, when you’re super early career, the idea of assigning a specific number value to your writing work, especially when you haven’t actually sold anything yet, that’s difficult. So let me give you another metric which you’ve probably heard me talk about when I’ve talked about how to decide where to send a story to. A short story. Which is that you’re balancing three thing. Money, audience, and shininess. So money is literally how much is this going to pay me. Or, how much is this going to cost me. Audience is how many people will this connect me to. Then, shiny is just like how much do you want to do it. So, like, going to NASA, it cost money, does not actually connect me to audience, but it’s so shiny. So that’s a choice that I make. I also know that it’s something that I can use, and then will, later, down the line, have the potential to bring me audience and money. But depending on where you are in your career, you’re going to value those differently. Like, when you are very, very early career, you may say, “Hey, it’s totally worth it for me to go to a convention, because it is… Spending that money will allow me to connect with my peers, and audience, and that networking, the audience layer of it, is totally worth it, and the shininess aspect of it is totally worth it.” So it’s going to be this constant balancing act, and it will again shift over the course of your career.
[Dan] Exactly. Ultimately, this idea of thinking of it as a career, as a business, and making all of these choices deliberate and informed is what’s really going to help. So, thank you everybody. This is a wonderful start to our new year.

[Dan] We have homework from Howard.
[Howard] Okay. In 2003, at Comic Con, my friend Jim met Neil Gaiman, and Neil introduced himself, saying, “Hi, my name is Neil. I write comics.” Okay. That’s a fun story. Neil Gaiman rights way more than just comics. He wrote the adaptation that took Good Omens from being a wonderful novel to being a really amazing television series. You don’t know, or maybe you do, the path that your career is going to take the number of different things you might write. I posit that it will be extremely valuable to you to take something like Good Omens, your book of the week, and the TV show. Consume them both and make notes. What kinds of writing decisions were made between the two that you would have made differently? What kind of writing decisions were made that just blow your mind? The adaptation between mediums may, at some future point, be something that you get to do. As an added bonus, I think this homework will be fun for you.
[Dan] Awesome. Thank you very much. Thank you for listening to this episode. You are out of excuses. Now go write.