Writing as a Business

Though I haven’t taken anything like a scientific poll on this—I wouldn’t have the foggiest notion of how to do that—it seems to me there is a general consensus among writers that there are two things we all dislike, maybe even hate: writing synopses and doing self-promotion.

Hating the synopsis is understandable: we didn’t get into creative writing to do product description, and that’s what a synopsis is. We have to take our wonderful story, with all its twists, turns, character development, wonderful prose (at least in our opinion), and nuance, and turn it into this soulless piece of writing and hope a total stranger will actually find something redeeming in it. When we think every single redeeming thing about it has to be taken out for the stupid synopsis.

Sure, there are writers out there who like writing a synopsis, or at least don’t hate it like so many of us do, but they’re probably the exceptions. Most of us hate what it makes our stories look like, and, for me at least, it seems as if it actually decreases the chance that an agent/editor will actually bite. How can he or she actually exhibit an interest in this thing? It’s got nothing going for it this way.

We forget that the agents/editors who want a synopsis are aware of this, that, somehow, they take this into account. I’m not sure if I could sit around all day looking at dry, boring synopses. But, I have to say I’ve read a few well-written synopses that made me want to get all the juicy details that are in the actual story. A good synopsis is like a good newspaper headline: it has just enough details to tease the reader into wanting to know the rest of the story.

And let’s face it: the synopsis is an unavoidable part of the business. Not every agent/editor wants one. In fact, I’d have to say most of the agents I’ve submitted to (I haven’t submitted directly to any editors) only want a query with a one- or two-paragraph plug, rather than a synopsis. Synopses are becoming almost as rare as the first-fifty-pages rule that used to be the industry norm. I know of only one agency, Ethan Ellenberg, that still wants a full fifty pages. Most that want a ms want three or five. One—I can’t remember the name off the top of my head—wanted the first three chapters.

So, while we hate synopses, they’re not the general rule that self-promotion is.

We’ve been having once-a-month marketing classes in my writing group on the last Thursday of the month. Last time, one of the members asked something like this: “If we have to do all this, getting Facebook accounts, and LinkedIn accounts, writing blogs, how in the world did authors like Isaac Asimov and Harper Lee make it? Did they have to do all this?”

No, Isaac Asimov and Harper Lee did not have to do all this. Besides the obvious fact that there was no Internet to do it on, back in their day, the publishers handled promotion. They set up the book signing tours, they approached the book stores, arranged for the ads, all that stuff. They were set up to do it, and could almost manufacture the next bestselling author.

Things are different now. Publishers expect the author to do self-promotion. They’re already putting a lot of money out there upfront, risking a lot of cash on you as an unknown. If you want to be the next (insert name of favorite bestselling author here), you have to get there largely on your own. You need a blog. A Facebook page. A website. A LinkedIn account. You gotta get out there and comment on other people’s blogs as a subtle way of putting your name in front of people. You gotta learn to play the Amazon promotion machine—assuming you have a book on Kindle—in order to make people buy your book by, strange as it may sound, giving away copies.

And the sad irony is, if you do all this and manage to reach bestseller status, the key to the kingdom will be handed to you. All of sudden, your publisher will start promoting you on their dime. Why? Well, Stephen King has often complained that his critics say he could publish his laundry list and it would be a bestseller. That fact that they’re probably right bugs him, and I can’t say I blame him. You reach that point, you gotta wonder if they’re buying your writing or your name on the cover.

And the publisher doesn’t care. As long as you’re selling books, who cares why customers are forking over their hard-earned moolah for your books? You’re a bestseller. As long as you retain that status, the money they’ll spend on promoting your book is well worth the return they’ll get.

The irony is that, now that you’ve reached the point where you don’t need them doing all this marketing for you, they’re falling all over themselves to do it.

Where the hell were they when you were trying to get your debut novel off the ground? Why didn’t they put this kind of effort into getting you established? I did all the ground work to get this thing off the ground, and now you want to stand around with your hand out?

It’s enough to piss you off.

Most of us are raised to be humble. You don’t front yourself. You elevate friends and family members, while downplaying yourself. And, besides, who has time to do all this marketing crap? I’m a writer, not an ad man. Let the marketing department take care of that stuff. I’ll sign some books, sure, but if I’m updating my Facebook page and writing blogs, when do I have time for my book?

All legitimate questions, but here’s the rub: how many other professions spend the bulk of their time doing their actual job? How many other jobs entail attending endless, seemingly meaningless meetings and web-conferences? How many times, in your line of work, have you attended the so-called productivity meeting, the one that makes you wonder how important it’s gotta be if you’re stopping production in order for you to attend.

Much as we hate it, writing is a business. You are that business.

Compare it to musicians. How many times a day do you hear that little promo piece on your local radio station that features a famous artist saying that this is so-and-so and you’re listening to such-and-such radio station? That’s not just promo for the station. It also keeps the artist’s name out there, on your consciousness. You hear it and you might just think, I hope that means they’re going to play the new song now.

It seems like an insurmountable task, especially when you consider you still have your day job to contend with, not to mention family life and other day-to-day problems. Your budget’s already tight, and you have to fork over money for a website? What’s up with that?

There’s an old axiom: You have to spend money to make money.

I don’t particularly look forward to doing all this. I’ve had a blog for a couple years now, I guess, and a Facebook page for about as long. I just opened a LinkedIn account this week. Haven’t had a chance to do much more than finish the profile and, with my schedule, all this will take longer than I’d like. I also have to save up the money for a website from what little I make selling plasma. And, I’m going to make a concerted effort to write more short stories and get them published online and in local anthologies.

These are the kinds of things you gotta do if you want readers outside of family and friends to see your work. If you want your work out there and known, you have to make yourself known first. No one else is gonna do it for you. Yes, fellow writers will help as much as they can, but you have to return the favor.

Writing is a business, and that means we gotta become business people. Yes, it’s the antithesis of writing. Writing is creative, fulfilling. Business sucks your soul out, or that’s how it feels to me.

Just keep your eye on the goal: a book on the shelf of your favorite bookstore, the opportunity to log onto Amazon just to see your book there.

Writing is a business. You gotta make it your business to be good at it.




One thought on “Writing as a Business

  1. Greg Camp

    My point about Harper Lee is that she wrote a great book and then refused to do interviews. Asimov and other greats of his era had John W. Campbell to guide them into success. Alas, I was born about two hundred years out of my time–either too late or too early The sad thing is that there are too many celebrities with no talent who are shoved into the limelight.

    O.K., enough kvetching. I’m supposed to be working at this writing business. . .


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