The Business of Art
This is one of those “behind the curtain”/”seeing how the sausage is made” blogs, so for those of you not interested in the management and career aspects of being a writer, feel free to skip it. I’ll have something more fun next week.
For those of you still here, today I am going to, at least cursorily, touch on a subject very few writers like to: money. It’s an uncomfortable topic; even speaking in generalities can come off poorly. Say you’re doing bad; it can look like a cry for cash. Say you’re doing well; it can look like you’re bragging and have lost your humility. But money is an important part of what we do, and it has a direct relation to our work. Those who make more of it have the freedom to leave their jobs, or at least spend more time writing, which produces a bigger output of material. As writers, we have to look at our works with a business-minded eye in at least some part of the creation process.
Now, let me say upfront that I’m not claiming authors all only churn out what we think will move the most copies with no regard to the stories we want to tell. But even if we write only things we are in love with and burn to create, that fiscal eye is still a vital part of the process. It informs dozens of aspects of what we do, though today I’m only going to focus on two of the bigger ones.
I have never written a book I didn’t want to write. I honestly don’t think I can, I’m not that dedicated of a person. Even the ones that got shelved because they weren’t working, I still wanted to create them. My business considerations don’t dictate my projects.
They do, however, sometimes dictate the order in which I do my projects.
There’s a common sentiment among writers, a rule held to be so universally true that you’ll rarely see it said out loud because it’s just assumed everyone knows it: series sell better than stand-alone books. It makes sense, when you look at it logically. The longer a series is out, the more books in it will get reviewed, talked about, recommended, and perhaps catch the eye of a reader who enjoys the content. Plus, if they do like it, then that’s however-many-are-in-the-series-number of sales rather than just the one.
I’ve got no reason to doubt this wisdom, as it’s held pretty true in my own experience. Go check my Amazon page if you like, I think you’ll notice quickly that my two lowest ranked books with the fewest reviews (outside anthologies, which are a different animal) are Topher Nightshade and Pears and Perils, both of which are my stand-alones. Even more interestingly, for the first year it was out Fred, the Vampire Accountant was one of my slower performers. It only took off when the second book came out. Now that’s no doubt in large part due to the marketing push that was made, but I’m pretty certain it was also because a second book marked it as part of a series.
How does this all play into scheduling? Well, it’s pretty straightforward. Right now, I can produce about three books per year while still keeping up with my blogs, podcasts, and web-serials. That’s three books I have to plan out in advance, knowing what will come out when. And it’s no coincidence that two of those slots are constantly filled by existing series. Hell, last year it was all three of them, although that was coincidence. I make sure to do a new Spells, Swords, & Stealth book and a new Fred book every year because I can count on those to sell. My third book is usually something a little different, like an SP spinoff this year, or a new series launch next year with Forging Hephaestus. I love both of those series; in fact I’ve even said that the SS&S books are currently my favorites to write, so I’m not doing them just because I think they’ll make money. I’m writing them because I enjoy it, but I’m writing them in this particular order to try and make sure I always have a strong enough year to keep doing this job full-time.
I’ve spoken at length before on this subject, but a quick recap for those of you who haven’t read the old blogs: I’m a hybrid publisher, meaning I do both indie and traditional. I like them both, and as I’ve said many times before one isn’t inherently better than the other, it’s a question of what fits your project the best.
What I haven’t ever talked about, however, is what goes into determining the best fit for a project. It should go without saying, but this is the internet so I’ll say it anyway: this is my personal criteria, it may not fit your situation and that’s okay. We all have different ways we look at our work, different goals and needs to consider, so as long as your criteria works for you, it’s valid.
For me, a big component of what goes into choosing whether to push a book through indie or traditional is the size of the market I think it will hit. Traditional publishers come with a lot of perks, but at the exchange of decreased royalties. And that’s as it should be, they have a business to run and need to eat just like you. From a fiscal perspective, though, it means you need to decide if a lower percentage per book will ultimately be made up in volume.
Fred, for example, was a series I saw having solid mainstream appeal. That’s why I took it to REUTS, why I wanted to try out traditional publishing in the first place. I felt like they’d be able to get it in front of more people than I could, and that those people would be willing to give it a shot. Now Super Powereds, on the other hand, I think I would still indie publish, even if I were starting it today. The market for gigantic superhero books exists, but it’s more limited than the one for humorous supernatural fantasies. I don’t know that a traditional publisher could generate enough increase in sales to justify the trade-off in royalty loss, and that’s something it would be irresponsible of me not to be aware of.
By no means do I want you to think this is the only metric for determining which publishing direction to go in, this is just one of the components that goes into the decision-making. Control, direction, series length, marketing plans, and so much more go into deciding what the best move for a project is. This is just the most fiscally applicable, therefore the most relevant for this blog.
While keeping an eye on the money is something all but the uber-successful have to do, if you manage it well it can actually give you more freedom. As I write this blog, I’m probably a few weeks from finishing Spells, Swords, & Stealth #3. When it’s done, I won’t need to start on the fourth Fred book until September. That means I have the whole summer to work on some of my more off-the-wall projects, like Second Hand Curses and Infinity Villas. Neither of them will be part of a series, and to be honest while I hope each one will be good, I don’t count on either of them being big sellers. They’ll be a little odd, a bit niche, and while its certainly possible I’ll get a surprise like I did with NPCs, if I don’t it’s okay.
That’s part of what keeping a fiscal eye on things does, it allows me to roll the dice in higher risk projects because I can absorb the failures. If I were writing with no planning for how to best schedule my projects and keep above water from year-to-year, I probably wouldn’t be able to do that. Heck, I might not have lasted these three years to begin with.
No one likes to think about business mixing with art too much, it feels icky and seems like the two should be polar opposites. But if you go into the writing business with the hopes of making it a full-time job, you have to be willing to take the fiscal-minded view on occasion. A little business here and there will allow you to create a lot more art for years to come.