October 6, 2011

Are Writers Entrepreneurs?

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Have you ever visited a restaurant where the food was fantastic, but the service was atrocious?  I’ve known several places like that.  People who love to cook might dream for years about opening their own place—and then once they do, the restaurant fails.

Why?  Because the skill of being a good cook is different from the skill of running a business.

The same goes for writing.  Just because we’re good at writing doesn’t mean we can turn ourselves into a business.

In fact, some of us don’t want to think of ourselves that way.  We might even hate the idea with a passion.  Others of us look at that approach and think, “Duh.  How else would it be?”

Philosophies Make Us Different

Like my post last time on avoiding the publishing kool-aid, there is no “right” way to approach the business aspect of writing.  Katie Ganshert commented on my post with a link to her blog asking about our personal philosophy as writers.

This idea that writers have different philosophies is important.  It’s so important that I suspect differing philosophies about whether to consider writing as a business is behind much of the vehement disagreements between some advocates of traditional publishing and self-publishing.

Do You See Your Writing as a Business Endeavor?

Some writers aren’t comfortable thinking of themselves as a business.  Maybe they know they wouldn’t be any good at it.  Maybe they want to avoid risk. Or maybe they don’t want to deal with learning all the business stuff, much less doing it.

They’re looking for agents and publishers to be their partners, and in some way, maybe even like their employers.  They produce the product and someone else does the rest of the work.  They might even equate their query letters to job applications.

This approach is not wrong.  They are doing what is right for them.

Other writers would consider themselves a business no matter how they published.  They are entrepreneurs at heart.  Their writing endeavor is a start-up business that needs an upfront investment, just as a new restaurateur has to spend money on tables, uniforms, and kitchen equipment.

They don’t see themselves as employees of publishers.  Publishers are a means to an end.  And if the publishers can’t get them to that end, there’s no point in staying with them.  These writers are perfectly fine with finding other resources to get them there.

This approach is not wrong.  They are doing what is right for them.

Where Does the Name Calling Fit In?

So why does this difference of philosophies cause so much name calling?  Because like most philosophical things, we don’t consciously think about this stuff very often.

Instead, we look at the actions of so-and-so and think they must be an idiot.  Even if they try to explain their actions to us, they talk about the circumstances surrounding that one decision without going into the depths of their philosophy.

We see only the symptoms rather than the cause.  So we have no way of knowing that their actions make perfect sense for their philosophy.

Think about it for a minute.  How are we taught how to tell if something is a writing scam?  We’re told: Money flows to the author.  We’re told: If a publisher charges you to publish your book, run away.

And yet, how do self-published authors get started?  By spending their own money on editors, cover artists, and designers.

For those who embrace the writing-is-my-job philosophy, the entire concept of self-publishing looks suspiciously close to vanity publishing.  I could name twenty ways self-publishing is different from vanity publishing, but I can still understand the confusion to someone who thinks authors shouldn’t take financial risks.

Yes, to some authors who don’t see themselves as a business, those who self-publish look like idiots.

On the other hand, for those who embrace the writing-is-my-business philosophy, the idea of sitting back and hoping a publisher will have good cover art, will do enough marketing, and won’t make wonky editorial changes gives them hives.  They can’t imagine not championing their work.  They’ll gladly take the financial risk to reduce the other risks.

Yes, to some authors who see themselves as a business, those who go with the flow of traditional publishing look like idiots.

No One Is an Idiot

Hmm, no one?  Okay, I take that back.  I’ve known some people who did truly stupid things to mess up their lives, but that wasn’t about publishing.  *smile*

We all have good reasons for making the choices we make, even if those reasons aren’t apparent from the surface.  And those reasons might be hidden from others because they are such a core part of our philosophy that we don’t even realize they’re there.

Our philosophy can influence whether we pursue going to conferences, paying dues to join professional writing organizations, blogging, getting a website, developing a brand, deciding whether we should even have a brand.  In other words, our philosophy profoundly affects everything we do and how we do it.

I’ll end this by cautioning those who don’t want to consider themselves a business.  Make sure your goals are compatible with markets that don’t require a business philosophy.  And as the publishing landscape gets more complicated, those who rely on their agent/publisher for the business side of things will need to make sure they can really trust them.

Maybe if we’re aware of our philosophy and understand how that’s influenced our decisions, the name calling of others won’t hurt as much.  Or maybe we’ll know how to defend ourselves against those who disagree.  Or maybe we’ll discover our philosophy and our approach don’t match as well as we thought they did and that the “idiots” were right.  *smile*

Do you agree with my theory that differing philosophies causes much of the vehement disagreement?  What’s your philosophy when it comes to the business side of writing?  Do you consider your writing a business endeavor?  If you see your writing as a business, do you treat it that way?  Will you spend your own money upfront to invest in your business?  How has your philosophy has affected your choices?

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Comments — What do you think?

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The problem with the “Their mindset is right for them” idea is that writers are entrepreneurs. Legally. Technically. Tax-wise.

Staff writers are employees (and their companies own what they write), but your average author? Nope. You’re an independent contractor. You’re a business.

You can refuse to think of yourself as an independent business. That’ll only hurt you, in the long run, because you’ll stick yourself to a single “employer” even when another would pay you better and/or give you better perks.

But that doesn’t change the fact that you are a business.

Katie Ganshert

Thanks so much for the link, girl! Great post!

Liza Kane

Great post Jami!
My one observation that I would add would be a level of accountability toward the business. I’m a store manager, and though I don’t own the business, I am still accountable to it, and work like I DO own the business.
I plan on publishing traditionally, not because of a lack of entrepreneurial drive, but because I want to be able to focus on the writing, and not be pulled toward the other aspects of publishing like marketing and cover art decisions. The accountability that I feel toward my writing is to ensure that I produce the best work I possibly can.
I actually see the traditional publishing route like a small start up asking investment groups for money/sponsorship. The query letter (and really, the submission round) is like a business proposal, and eventually a publishing house will see the merit in investing in my small business/product.
I know it’s not all that cut and dry, and I’ve not experienced ANY of this first hand, but that’s just the way I have looked at the publishing process when I first decided to make “novelist” as my career goal.
Thank you for sharing!

Kait Nolan

Fantastic point. I think this absolutely lies (for many) at the root of our vehement disagreements. I am constantly saying that self publishing (most specifically the formatting) is not hard, and that’s because it’s not. But to writers who think that their only job is to write a salable book, I’m sure it seems like a lot of unnecessary work (the fact that they’re living in a fantasy world if they think they won’t have to do stuff other than write in traditional publishing now too is entirely beside the point). Thought provoking and interesting as usual.

A.T. Russell

I blogged about this subject, but not quite as well as you did. Yes. Writers are entrepreneurs, business-folk. We have to realize that and then maximize our opportunities to broaden our e-footprints and platforms from a marketing standpoint. Thanks for the post.

Roxanne Skelly
Roxanne Skelly

People often need to think that their own path is the right path, and many people find it easier to judge themselves against others. Hence, it’s a boost to self confidence to think that the path of others is wrong.

Me, I try to compare myself to myself. I also tend to break things down.

Given that, for me, I see writing as a set of agreements with others. Were I to write full time, I’d be negotiating hopefully equitable deals with publishers, agents, publicists, reviewers, tax folk, the government, health insurers, and so on.

I guess that falls on the entrepreneurial side of things.

The employer/employee relationship is also negotiated, of course, but IMHO the employer usually takes care of all of that stuff, and unfortunately, IMHO, the relationship tends to not be so equitable.

A long time ago, I tried to do my own business for a bit, and ended up shutting it down ’cause I hated doing invoicing, taxes, purchasing, and so on. I simply wanted to do what I’m best at.

These days, well, I’m open to having other people do all of that stuff.

Gene Lempp

Philosophy is at the heart of practically every human argument. Yes, I know this seems like a sweeping statement but if you consider it for a moment I think you will see the veracity of it. Unless your philosophy is different then mine and then you’ll disagree *grins*

Writing, for me is a business. Yes, I write what I enjoy, but I do that with the long range goal of supporting myself and my family on income gained by writing. I’ve spent my life to this point working for other people and the experience is one I have not generally enjoyed. I do however, like working for myself just fine.

Nothing is easy when we start out, but that is how all business is, whether we are selling ice to eskimos or self-publishing “speculative fiction”. The term speculative is used for a reason. During the gold rush in the U.S. West, many started mines based on their best guesses. A few succeeded big time, others to varying degrees and many failed and headed for other opportunities in order to avoid starvation. Publishing is the same.

Off to prospect 🙂

Roxanne Skelly
Roxanne Skelly

I thought gettin lai…uh…attracting potential mates was at the heart of every human argument 🙂

Gene Lempp

That would be a difference of philosophy would it not 🙂

Erin Brambilla

Jami–I’m with you on the “live and let live” side of the argument. I am not going to say which side is right or wrong for another person, I can only decide that for myself.

Like, Liza Kane, I consider publishers to be sort of like venture capitalists. They decide if my writing/product is worth investing in. This means I have a lot of work to do, not just writing, but I like the idea of getting that kind of backing.

As of this moment, I’d like to pursue traditional publishing, but I’m also in the “leaving my options open” camp. I can’t say for sure what will happen until I have the right book in my hands. So for now, I’ll just keep writing :).

Kerry Meacham

For most writers, I think they are fooling themselves if they think they don’t have to work to market/sell their product. In today’s market, agents/publishers/etc. expect authors to have a platform. If they aren’t willing to do so, they may be left at the station wondering what happened. Times change and so must we. Buggy whip makers had to change with the advent of the automobile, or they were left in the dust….with the horse $#!+.

Laura Pauling

At this point, yes, I do see it as a business and make plans without the emotion involved – or try too!

Roni Loren

First, did you read Chuck Wendig’s post about this debate? ( I love his take on it. It’s also a live and let live kind of philosophy. So I think the decision to go self-pubbed vs. traditional pubbed is definitely a personal one and a decision a writer shouldn’t be judged for. However, I will say, like some of the commenters above, that I think it’s a mistake for a writer of any sort not to think of themselves as entrepreneurs or the owner of their own business. It’s a dangerous mentality to think of yourself as simply an employee in this scenario. Even in your example above like writers writing for one of the Harlequin lines–just because the writer is writing shorter books in a an already established line doesn’t mean they aren’t the head of their own writing business like anyone else. As you know, I have an agent and a traditional book deal. I do not work for my agent, she works for me; she is there to be my advocate and consultant. The publishing company is not my employer, I’m self-employed. Sure, it’s a partnership and everyone is working toward the same goal, but I’m still the “business owner.” And the image of the traditionally pubbed author just writing and handing in their books and not having to do anything else is not reality. A big publishing house can take some of the things off your plate–cover art, editing, placing you in the right markets/stores/websites, all…  — Read More »

Jacquelyn Smith

I definitely see myself as an entrepreneur now that I’ve gone indie, where as when I was still querying agents and publishers, I thought of myself as applying for a job.

I see the costs involved in self-publishing as an investment, but that doesn’t mean investing indiscriminately. To me, what really makes me an entrepreneur is all the work I do (in addition to writing) to fill in the gaps of an agent/publisher/publicist, etc.

I think seeing myself as my own business is empowering and forces me to take initiative and responsibility. I would never work this hard for anyone else. 🙂

Matthew Wright

Thanks for your post. And, indeed, to0 true! The thing for me has always been that as soon as you step writing up from being a hobby, it has to be considered a ‘business’, both for the author and for the publisher. That’s even true for authors who – like me – have been picked up by mainstream publishers. But there is always that inevitable tension between ‘creativity’ and ‘hard nosed commercialism’. Sometimes the necessary skill set for being a good writer doesn’t always equate to having the skill set for business. Nor should it. But as the world veers more towards e-publishing, I can’t help thinking that the writers who get ahead will be the ones who are particularly business-savvy. Food for thought, anyway. Thanks again for your insights – great stuff.

Matthew Wright


[…] What is your writing philosophy? Do you see writing as a business endeavor or as a job where you produce the product while others take it the rest of the way?  The fantastic Jami Gold explores this topic in: Are Writers Entrepreneurs? […]


[…] Jami Gold does it again, as she asks the question – Are Writers Entrepreneurs? […]


[…] Writing Stuff The comments of my last post led to a great conversation about how not having a business mindset will likely hurt authors. […]


[…] necessarily. We each have to make the choices that are right for us. Self-publishing is not a good fit for everyone. We don’t all have the entrepreneurial […]

Taurean Watkins

I know I harp on this point all the time, Jami, but- Why can’t naturally business-minded writers get that “Can’t” is not lip service for “Won’t?” As hard as I try to be positive, it’s HARD to keep healthy self-confidence without becoming a jaded fool, I still fight that battle daily. I don’t need to be convinced how vital it is to do what you’re saying above, Jami. But even if you have the drive, sometimes the money’s just not there, but if you had it you’d not hesitate to make those investments. That’s why I sometimes I worry all this pressure to be entrepreneurial is coming down to how rich or poor you are. We don’t talk enough about the nuance between being “Cheap” and just plain not having much money to work with. Period. Until more writers across the financial spectrum understand that being “Cheap” isn’t the same as being “Frugal” we won’t get far. At least, in terms of respecting the differing choices writers make toward their publishing goals. Some of the greatest writers don’t have countless riches to their name, should they have to be left behind in today’s publishing landscape? Just you see yourself as a business , that doesn’t mean you can always make the “investments” many entrepreneurs make. That doesn’t make you “Cheap.” That’s being honest with yourself, and Jami, given your rant on what constitutes great editors, I’d think you’d get that this realization requires honesty, too. That’s why I resisted any…  — Read More »

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