Dear Writers: What’s Your Business Model?

Eleven years ago, I kicked off a small indie publishing company to put out RPG products written using the d20 system. To my surprise, I wasn’t awful at it, and between 2005 and 2007 I worked pretty continuously at producing stuff that would earn me money instead of finishing my PhD.

Don’t get me wrong, I made plenty of mistakes in those two years– the worst being an utter failure to adequately back up my creative work and business files, which is one of the three things that finally killed me off – but I had a metric for success when I set out and I hit it, pretty religiously. It also taught me two important things, when it came to writing.

The first was the realisation that I was running a small business, rather than just being a writer. This was obvious enough, right from the beginning, that I actually looked at some small business advice and bought a couple of books on the subject. They got me thinking about things I’d never considered before, like cash-flow and business plans.

These immediately led me to the second major lesson: it’s a really stupid idea to kick off a small business without a figuring out how you plan to make a profit, let alone start bringing in a living wage.

48 HOURS OF RESEARCH

When I first thought about starting an indie press in 2004, I went into it with enthusiasm, a love of RPG gaming, and a handful of writing credits. Basically, the same tool kit as any other writer.

When I started putting together a business plan, I had to think beyond that: who was a writing for? What was I giving them? Who were my competitors and how would I do better than them? Most important: what was my business model? Where did the money come from?

And because small business book after small business book stressed the importance of that, I set aside my eager enthusiasm for 48 hours or so and did some research. By the time I was done I had rough answers for all those things – enough to make me confident about the potential income – and for the next eighteen months my estimations were pretty accurate.

That 48 hours gave me a niche to fill, an identity that set me apart from the other people working in that space, and reasonable idea of what I needed to do to start generating cash-flow. It told me the most valuable places to focus my energy – what to do, and what not to do, when time was limited.

My plan and research served me well enough that I was surprised other weren’t doing it, given that it was largely put together with 48 hours of research and some scrap paper. I had a clear business model – this type of product, released this often, with this kind of focus – that gave me a clear measure of success or failure.

I had never had that, with anything I’d written before. It was remarkably focusing.

When it came to putting a business plan, I was a convert. Then I went through a few years where I kept finding myself working for small business that didn’t have researched, sensible business plans, and I became even more of a convert.

By the time I started working for Queensland Writers Centre, put together a goddamn business plan was pretty much a mantra.

Putting someone with that kind of mind-set in a job where they could suddenly start talking to successful writers about their business models was…illuminating. It’s one of the reasons the things I talk about, when it comes to writing, moved away from the craft and towards thinking about the business.

I basically spent five years disguising the fact that I was interrogating every writer I met with the goal of getting the answer to two questions:

WHAT’S YOUR BUSINESS MODEL? WHAT’S YOUR BUSINESS PLAN?

I rarely asked it this directly, because writers are encouraged not to think about what they do as a business and get weird when you leap straight to those questions. There are plenty of successful writers who aren’t immediately aware that they have a business model, even if they’re living it.

But you can lead them to it, given enough time and trust, and the results are illuminating. And occasionally you will run into someone who has an actual model in place, intentionally, and the you get to have the kind of exciting, nerdy conversations you rarely get to have.

But yeah, not thinking about business is a writer-problem – particularly a new writer problem – on a massive scale. This unwillingness is frequently coupled with a kind of willing ignorance about the money writers tend to earn – most people seem to simultaneously believe that there is no money in writing at all and all writers are JK Rowling-level millionaires, with absolutely no middle ground.

WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON? WHAT ARE YOU DOING NEXT? 

Writers look to the immediate future. Ask them what they’re writing now, and they can answer you. Ask what they’re writing next, and a bunch of them will look kinda uneasy about the question. Ask what they’ll be doing in five years, or what their business model is, and many will go pale with terror.

But writers do have business models, if you look closely and pay attention to their answers to these two questions.

Some of them build their careers around constant releases and deep back-lists, particularly in the indie space. Their business model is built on the momentum of their releases, and the diversity of their income streams, and their ability to get things done.

Some devote themselves to being a kind of prestige brand, with fewer releases that are aimed at a more specific audience. Their business model is predicated on the quality of the craftsmanship and the hunger of their readers for more than they’re getting..

Some build their careers around building a following among readers, where their success is as predicated on their personality and engagement as much as their creative work.

Some writers embrace the dreaded status of being a writer and, building their career as writers and a teacher, or a writer and a freelance journalist, or a writer and a day job.

Some are doing combinations of the above in various ways.

None of these things speak directly to the quality of the work – there are incredible writers rocking all those models – and none are a more valid approach to building a writing business than another. Most of us will naturally prefer one approach over another, drifting towards it out of habit, but I would argue that it’s worth thinking about for 48 hours.

If nothing else, you will start to recognise why certain approaches to having a career don’t suit you.

If your skin crawls at the thought of writing more than one book every couple of years, then you know its time to start looking at how writers with that level of productivity who aren’t crazy international best-sellers are making their living.

If you’re all about working in multiple genres, it’s time to have a close look at the folks who are doing that are maintaining their careers. Even something as simple as writing science fiction and fantasy can change the pace with which you need to work, in the traditional publishing realm.

And I will stress: you don’t have to think about this stuff. Many writers just fall into their business models. They do one thing, and then the next, and one day they look up and discover they have a career. And that’s great, if that’s your thing.

Me, I like having a plan. I like having something I can look at every year and see the forward progress towards my goals. I like having a strategic outline that tells me what opportunities fit with my goals, and which ones don’t. Almost all the miserable writing experiences in my life have come during periods where I’ve stopped paying attention to the plan and followed something shiny down the wrong path.

WHAT’S YOUR FRAME OF REFERENCE?

The real benefit to thinking about your business model is this: it gives you a framework for evaluating other people’s approaches. It tells you the kinds of skills you still need to learn, and the bits of your process that need to pick up. It gives you a framework to ask interesting questions, when you run into other writers, so you’re not sitting there asking tell me how to get published? Writers can be extraordinarily generous with their time, when they get the feeling that they’re not going to have the getting published 101 conversation over again.

Thinking about your business model you can have conversations about why writers are doing certain things, because you recognise that people are doing things for a reason.

Thinking about business models and researching them means you’re not sitting there discouraged, after your second book comes out, because you can’t figure out why you aren’t earning enough money to quit your day-job yet.

Thinking about business models means you get to say no to opportunities, even if they seem shiny, because you know they aren’t going to fit into your long term plans.

Thinking about your business model, and building a plan around that, allows you to start looking at strategies that will get you where you want to go. It will let you think beyond the end of your current project, and start charting pathways that will take you through the next few years.

Understanding your business model and putting together a plan means that you’ve thought about who your customers are, how you can service them, who your current competitors are in that space, and how you can offer something those competitors aren’t.

Thinking about your business model means you’ve put some thought into how fast you want to write, what genres you want to write, and how well you want to write. It means you’ve thought about where you want to get published, and why. Whether you’re going to write stories and blog posts and essays and novels. Whether you just want to sit down and write novels.

Because the important thing about writing is this: there is a lot of diversity in the way writers make their income, and it’s not one-size-fits-all.

And we are, currently, in a period where writers have to make more decisions about how they will be writers than ever before thanks to the explosion of potential business models that are backed by indie publishing, or crowd-sourcing, or simple engagement with fans online.

Failing to think through business model – the how of making money and where you want it to take you – makes it really easy to get blinded by all the potential models, to the point where you follow none of them.

As a writer with an interest in making a living out of writing, it’s really worthwhile taking a few days to think about what, exactly, it is that you are selling, what you want to be selling, and why readers should buy it from you.

Once you’ve got it, it guides pretty much everything you do.

  1 comment for “Dear Writers: What’s Your Business Model?

  1. 05/09/2016 at 6:56 PM

    So much great advice in here Peter. I do have a plan of sorts but you’ve given me lots of food for thought.

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