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.