Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Rolling with the Punches

As an entrepreneur I frequently am asked for my advice on starting a new business, and while I’ve shared my so-called wisdom with dozens of future business owners, I’m not sure I’ve ever passed it along to my blog readers who, as writers, are all entrepreneurs and business owners.

There are really only two tips I ever pass out, both of which I think can easily apply to any of you in any stage of your writing career.

Tip #1: Give It Five Years
I’m not sure why, but somehow I feel that five years is the magic number. No business grows overnight and a writing career is no exception. When starting a business you need to give yourself time to have and enjoy your successes and then build on them. In my opinion, five years is the time you need to really be able to judge whether or not your business is working. For BookEnds, I know that 2004 was a real turning point for us. It doesn’t mean that we were making it rich by then, but by 2004 I remember feeling as if we had firmly established ourselves as an agency to watch by both writers and editors, we were consistently selling the books we really wanted to be selling, and had taken on clients we knew we could help grow into household names. At five years I knew that we were here to stay.

So does that mean if you’ve been writing for five years and haven’t sold you need to quit? Not at all. Success doesn’t always mean reaching that ultimate goal, but at five years you do need to check to see your rate of growth. If you’ve been seeking a publishing career (and keep in mind that’s different than writing) for five years and still feel that you are in the exact same place you were five years ago (working on the same book, getting the exact same form rejections and not even finaling in contests), I would ask that you seriously reconsider your business plan. However, if you can see real change in where you are now from where you were five years ago (change in your writing, change in your publishing network, and a string of successes like an agent, or personal rejection letters from agents, full request, or contest wins or finals) then you’re probably on the right path.

Tip #2: Be Ready to Roll with the Punches
When Jacky and I started BookEnds we never dreamed that we were starting a literary agency. We thought we were book packagers. We joined the ABPA and attended each and every monthly meeting to learn as much as possible about book packaging. Heck, just a few short months after starting the business we even made our first two-book deal. If I do say so myself, it was an instant success story. The problem was that book packaging wasn’t quite what we thought it was and, most important, we weren’t enthusiastic about taking BookEnds to the level we needed to to make it the success we wanted it to be.

During the first year or so of business we were also getting a lot of requests from authors to represent their work. Well, guess what: that didn’t seem like such a bad idea. So after a little more than a year, we called an agent friend of ours and took him to lunch to pick his brain and learn what we could about the literary agency side of things. We asked every detail we could think of about agenting, how he started his agency and what we were getting into. Now keep in mind, we weren’t starting with no experience, we already had connections and an understanding of the contract, we just needed to talk to an expert to get tips and tricks. About a week or two after that lunch we made the announcement that we were changing our status from packager to agent and we haven’t looked back since. However, we also haven’t settled in. While from the outside it appears that the agency has remained consistent, from the inside we are continually going through changes and making alterations. For example, what we represent is ever-changing. Certainly in 2001 I wasn’t representing a lot of erotic romance (in 2001 erotic romance didn’t “exist” per se), but I was actively looking for chick lit (something I’m not seeking now). And as many of you know, it wasn’t until fairly recently that I opened up my list to fantasy. Just as a reader’s tastes might change over the years, so do an agent’s, and yes, the market makes its own set of changes. In my mind, to be successful, I need to be willing and able to roll with these changes and make adjustments as necessary. And obviously, it’s proven successful for me.

Does that mean a writer should chase the market? No, never, ever chase the market. What it does mean though is that you need to be willing to roll with the punches. You might sit down with a plan to write fantasy and realize halfway through your book that what you’re really writing or what you’re really good at is romance. So go with that. Don’t force yourself to be a fantasy writer or a literary writer or a mystery writer if you really aren’t. If it seems that romance might be your thing, join RWA and learn about romance. If books are getting sexier and you’re comfortable writing sexy, then go with that, stretch yourself, and I can almost guarantee you’ll find success.

Jessica

20 comments:

Devon Ellington said...

That's such great advice, thank you. I'm constantly reassessing the business of my writing both in terms of finances and in terms of passion about the project. We so often forget that success is often backed up by years of hard work. And you have to grow and change during that, or you get stagnant.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say thank you for your posts. I only recently found the wealth of blogs from agents and other publishing professionals and, after a couple months, have begun pulling away from them because their outlooks make me feel walls surrounding my writing that I truly believe shouldn't (or don't really) exist. For example, the negative opinion about writing in more than one genre leaves me stifled. This is a case where the business side overwhelms the creative side too much. Your post today about the willingness to change and evolve during a writer's/business's growth is very helpful. And I truly believe that regardless of which genre I write in, if the book is good and marketable, I will be able to move forward telling the stories that I am inspired to tell.

Jennifer McKenzie said...

My husband and I decided on "The Five Year Plan" and I set a goal to be NY published (or well on the way) by a certain time.
Interestingly, an epublishing career began and I've managed to make a few sheckles with my writing. However, I keep my eyes on the prize.
This past year, I did more submitting than previous years. My plan for the next year is to keep at it.

selestial-owg said...

Anonymous 8:37 made one of the points I was about to - that sometimes change is good, and it is great to read that there is an agent out there who thinks the same thing. (Though I will admit the five year plan had me freaking out a little bit when I read the title, I calmed down as I started breathing again and kept reading.)

As for following the market, I think you are right that people shouldn't write something "just because" it is what the market wants. On the other hand, just because you want to write something doesn't mean you are following the trend - it might just mean you want to write it. Otherwise, after yesterday's post, we would have all started on our 'commercial women's fiction' pieces.

Thanks again for presenting such a useful and positive blog.

Mark Terry said...

Great post.

I'm in my 5th year of writing full time, so I would add two observations.

1. Writing careers evolve. When I started writing, it was all about novels. I signed a contract for my 4th novel last week. But I make my living writing magazine articles and market research reports and editing a technical journal, among other things. Who knew? I'm currently interested in adding ghostwriting and collaborations and nonfiction books to the mix.

2. Writing careers fluctuate. Some years are better than others. Clients come and go. Types of work comes and goes. Rolling with the punches is a way to keep your business alive and still stay sane.

Kim Lionetti said...

Ummmmm, I think you forgot to mention the other reason 2004 was so momentous....

DebraLSchubert said...

Jessica, Kim's post cracked me up! I love the idea of agents evolving, too. As a writer, I enjoy the natural creative evolution that occurs (how Darwinian!). The novel I've finished and am currently seeking representation for is, as you may recall, women's fiction/humor. My next endeavor is a series called, "The Doctor's Wives Murders" based on two characters from my finished novel. I love mysteries and true crime, so it will be fun delving into this arena. As a writer, you have to write what you love and what gets you jumping out of bed in the morning to write.

Anonymous said...

I agree that writers shouldn't chase the market. But it seems these days that's exactly what agents and editors do--follow trends, buy what's "hot."

They seem too easily influenced by current fads to make the easy sale (*paranormal, YA, erotic romance). Seems they think too short-term and not long-term, waiting until the economy improves and the market rebounds.

So what's a writer to do when our novel doesn't fit in these categories?

Anonymous said...

As someone who's been working on a novel nearly five years your advice is timely and well put.

Robena Grant said...

Fabulous advice, thank you.

My five years have come and gone. It doesn't bother me though, because with no publishing contract this is my time to explore and grow. Looking back to 2004, I see amazing progress, can't beat that.

Heidi C. Vlach said...

Excellent advice. I'll try to think in five-year-plan terms more often!

Marissa Turner said...

I remember reading something like this when I was in high school; my teacher was (and still is) one of my sounding boards, and he gave me an article that said to write what you love, and then sell it like no tomorrow. Chasing the market only ends up in heartache.

Rick Chesler said...

Interesting look from the business perspective of publishing--thanks for posting.

Angela said...

Great advice. For me it's been five years, and a lot of growth has happened, so I can say that I'm happy where I'm at. Here's hoping to five more great years of productive growth for all of us.

Anonymous said...

Good advice Marissa! When I started my book I had no intentions of publishing. It was just a story that needed to come out. As it reveals itself, I learn. So, either it's meant to be published or it's meant to teach me something. Either way I am happy.

Deb Vlock said...

Great post, Jessica! My two cents: five years is quick! Many writers take longer than that to break out. I've been writing novels for 11 years -- four of them so far -- and am on agent #3. I'm optimistic that the third time's the charm. What's kept me going all this time is positive feedback from agents and editors, and a passion for writing. If novel #4 doesn't sell I'll just concentrate on novel #5. I guess the moral of my story is: if you are growing as a writer and love doing it, don't give up!

Martin Willoughby said...

You've just given me a fantastic lift.

I knew writing was going to be a long haul, but I'd forgotten that my other way to pay the bills was going to be equally hard.

Right article at the right time.

Inkpot said...

This is really good advice, thank you for it. I'm 2 and a half years into my five year plan and I am happy with how things are progressing. I'm just learning to roll with the punches :)

CoreyBlake said...

As an entrepreneur and a writer, I just want to say how much I enjoyed that post. My company is three years old and while we're financially successful, we too go through internal changes continually. Letting your company grow in this flexible, organic fashion is such a joy. Thanks for the topic.

Anonymous said...

I must beg to differ. Any "writer" who has not sold anything in fiev years is a crank. Forget five years, they should quit after five rejections. If they keep writing after that they need to have their fingers broken.