Because art requires so much of our souls, it falls into the middle of a Venn diagram showing business and pleasure. Many of us write because we love it or it calls to us. Many of us also loathe the monetary aspects of it; we’d rather write our books than try to sell them. But if we want careers doing the thing we love; the business of writing plays a big role.
So what are your goals? Do you write solely for pleasure, or do you set goals with the aim of making a career of it? Do you write full time, or when you have time, or just when the whim strikes? There are absolutely no wrong answers here; creative pursuits are deeply personal.
I’ve known hobby writers who write stories every now and then or participate in NaNoWriMo every year but have never taken the next steps to publish their books. They love writing, but aren’t in any hurry to publish or even share their writing with anyone. I’ve also known writers at the other end of the spectrum, who are entrepreneurs who run their writing career like a business, with strict deadlines, quality standards, and detailed business plans. These extremes and everything in between are legitimate ways to handle your writing—only you can decide what your goals are—but one thing I’ve seen a lot lately are writers who want careers but still treat their writing like a hobby.
I’ve seen this manifest itself in two ways. Either authors are in such a rush to get their product to market they cut corners, or authors value the creative expression more than the packaging of the final project.
Here’s what I mean by that. I’ve seen a rash of social media posts from self-published authors recently that are some variation on, “I want to put books out but I don’t have the means to hire people to help me, so I’m just going to do what I can and hope for the best.” These are authors who don’t hire editors, who do their own covers (badly), who just type out a story and upload it. I’ve also seen writers who complain when reviewers ding them for bad editing, saying grammar shouldn’t matter, that the story is more important.
And, look, I get it. Author services are expensive. You could spend a few thousand dollars to produce a book if you hire top-quality editors, cover designers, and book formatters. There are many authors who can’t afford that. But I feel that authors aren’t taking their potential customers seriously if they skimp on the quality of the final product for the sake of putting out a book. They’re short-changing themselves, too, because bad covers and books riddled with mistakes turn off readers, so rather than cultivating a group of fans on which to build a career, they’re putting out books that may sell a few copies but probably won’t inspire repeat customers.
So why not work to save the money to hire quality people? Or why not try submitting that novel to a traditional publisher, who will take on the expense of packaging the book well?
Because, yes, a novel is a creative expression, but if you want a writing career, it’s also a product. You wouldn’t buy a piece of furniture missing some screws or a cake that is only half-frosted or clothing with seams that were incomplete. So why would you buy a book that is still unpolished? Why would you expect readers to buy that book?
Here’s why it’s important. Shifts in the market have made it harder to be competitive as a self-published author. The days when an author could upload a book, sell it for 99¢, and sell thousands of copies are largely over. This is not to say that self-publishing success cannot be achieved, but more that the authors who will do well are those who treat their writing careers seriously, and not as a hobby. They treat writing as a business, putting out polished projects that are well written, well edited, and have eye-catching covers.
Which means investing in your product, just as you would with any business. If you want to make furniture, you invest in the materials to make good-quality furniture. Why wouldn’t you do the same for a book? Put in the time to make the book as good as you can make it, which means studying craft and improving the quality of your writing, taking your time to write a good draft and revise it, working with critique partners to get feedback and improve, and then hiring an editor to put the final polish on it. All of these steps take time and work. If you don’t have the design skills, hire a cover designer. Pay for software to format your book, or hire a formatter. These are expenses, yes, and may end up being significant expenses if you hire quality people and pay them what they’re worth, but think of it as an investment to make your book a quality product.
The authors making six-figures self-publishing have a whole team of people they work with and put out books on a regular schedule. It’s an incredible amount of work—a successful writing career is a hell of a lot of work, full stop—but the payoff is worth it.
Or, if you really don’t have the means, the model of traditional publishing is that the publisher takes on the cost of making a quality product. Publishing isn’t either/or these days, so you could also consider going the traditional publishing route, building up a platform and a fan base, and then begin self-publishing as well for the higher royalty rates and more creative control, if that’s what you want. Studies indicate the most successful authors (from a financial standpoint) are hybrid authors who do a mix of self and traditional publishing.
But at the end of the day, you should decide for yourself what you want. If you want to write stories, put them out into the world, and would be delighted by a few sales, that’s great. But if you want a career, you have to invest in it.♥
Kate McMurray is an award-winning author of gay romance and an unabashed romance fan. When she’s not writing, she works as a nonfiction editor, dabbles in various crafts, and is maybe a tiny bit obsessed with baseball. She has served as President of Rainbow Romance Writers, the LGBT romance chapter of Romance Writers of America; and as Vice President of RWA/NYC. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. Visit her at www.katemcmurray.com.