Sunday, June 28, 2009

Bean Counters Are People, Too

I’m going to admit right up front that my take on the topic of advice to aspiring writers is more prosaic than most. Before launching my second career at fifty-plus years of age, I was an accountant, and I think my former profession may make me uniquely qualified to talk about the business of writing. Please, hold the yawns and give me just a couple of minutes.

My inspiration for this post came straight from a popular listserv where a regular poster announced that his newest release would be the final one in his series. The publisher had not offered a contract for further installments. A hue and cry went up from fellow members, some vowing to begin bombarding the dastardly publisher with e-mails in the hope of encouraging a reversal of their decision. Others soon hopped aboard the bandwagon. It’s perhaps a natural reaction, and one for which I’m sure the author feels very grateful. I know I would.

But here’s the bottom line: Publishing is a business. If you’re an aspiring writer, your life will be a lot simpler if you go into it knowing that up front. And understanding it. Sure, it would be nice to think it’s all about the art, but it isn’t. The publisher’s business model isn’t very different from that of the manufacturer of widgets. (In my accounting courses light-years ago, we always did our practice sets for the makers of widgets.) You invest your money to start a company. You purchase or lease premises and the necessary equipment. You hire people to work for you. You sell your product or service to willing buyers who perceive value received in exchange for money paid. If you’re lucky, your sales revenues exceed your expenses, and the business thrives. If you’re unlucky—or perhaps incompetent—the reverse happens. If this goes on too long, you go out of business.

In a capitalist system—or the pale shreds of it we have left today—people vote with their dollars. In the above scenario with the dropped author, not enough people cast their votes his way. It’s not some vast conspiracy or hard-hearted disregard for the feelings of authors that causes publishers to drop them. As a former bean counter, I can assure you that we don’t run the world. It’s a simple matter of math: Revenues - expenses = profit. Reverse that equation for too long and you’re gone. And a publisher’s going out of business isn’t good for any of us.

It’s hard to say what makes some books succeed and others fall short. As a reader, if you want your favorite authors to continue to be able to provide you with stories, you have to buy their books. New, mind you, not secondhand from Amazon. Or encourage your local library to do so. As authors, we can write the best damn books we can and do everything in our power to get them noticed. The publisher’s sales force and marketing departments place their offerings in the hands of booksellers, reviewers, big box retail buyers, and others. And then it’s pretty much a crap shoot. Even if everyone along the food chain does his or her job to perfection, there are no guarantees. The public is fickle, and tastes vary and change. Look at the movies no one’s ever heard of being offered on Nexflix, and you’ll see the same principle in action. We are not alone, cold comfort though that might be.

So, if you’re an aspiring writer, find out how the business of publishing works. Understand that your part in the process goes far beyond just writing the book. Read and do the best you can to comprehend your contract. Study and understand your royalty statements. And most of all, realize that your publisher is in business to make a profit. It’s not a nasty word. It’s what greases the wheels of our economic system, and it’s worked pretty well so far, the current recession notwithstanding. Go into this business with your eyes wide open, and be prepared to be a contributing partner in your commercial success. Be informed. And if you get thrown lemons (as will undoubtedly happen to all of us along the way, with the possible exception of Stephen King and Nora Roberts), be prepared to get out the hammer and nails and start putting up that lemonade stand.

And by the way, we bean counters are not evil people. Well, not most of us, anyway. Honest.

Kathy Wall grew up in a small town in northern Ohio. She and her husband Norman have lived on Hilton Head Island since 1994. Her 9th Bay Tanner mystery, Covenant Hall, was released in April from St. Martin’s Press.


Florida Beach Basics said...

good post - much more useful than "follow your dream" or "build it and they will come" advise.

Jeanne (Zhahn) said...

This was an excellent post, and I might sound childish, but I need your advice. I am a published regional writer, write a regular feature in a magazine, have been commissioned to write history books, etc.

Two things happened to me that I can't seem to get beyond: both were instances of plagiarism by two well known artists/writer. One very famous author took a lot of my exact words from ideas and gave them to this wife who used them in her own book. My specific lines and ideas were widely acclaimed as hers. The problem was that she didn't write them; I did.

I sent an outline and book chapters of a novel to a reputable agent who represented one of my favorite authors. The agent liked my work, but turned me down because he was too busy. Two years later, his client, my favorite author, published a book that lifted so much from my outline and chapters, even to the point of character's names that I almost felt I was reading my novel in hardback.

I do not wish to sue. But I find I am left with a what's the use of trying to write anything to submit on a national level. Any advice?