The Business of Being a Writer

It is commonly said that you’re not a writer until you have a collection of rejection slips, but what does the publisher mean when they say:

Sorry but our list is full!

The key to the answer is that publishing is a business and so is writing. The problem is that those setting out on a career as a writer see it as an art, we feel driven to be creative and then expect publishing, which is a business, to fall over themselves to publish out work.

Yes I include myself in this ilk of creative, artistic writers who write what we want because we feel driven, but I also worked in the publishing industry and have seen the other side. Nor has anything I have had published due to that connection, other than it allowed me to understand how the system works. Publishing is as mercenary to its own as to any other.

The definition of a business activity is that it supplies of a product or service for reward. Publishers produce and sell books. Writers produce and hope to sell their manuscript at the end of the process. Hence, writing is a business. If you still want to argue, try telling the taxman he can’t have part of what you earn as a writer. The taxman will consider it earned income. You earn income working for someone else of for yourself. If you work for yourself, for tax purposes, you are classed as a sole trader. A sole trader is a type of business activity.

However, there is a benefit, any paper you use, printer in, postage, business equipment, travel for research, society membership, can be classed as business expenses and if you keep receipts and accounts, can be listed against earnings several years after the event.

Not that you are worried about that. You just want your book published and to know why your manuscript keeps being rejected.

The reason is that publishing is a business and it has to be allowed that if publishers don’t sell the books they publish, they won’t be in business very long. The income they use to produce books in the future comes from the books they sell now. As a consequence, how many they sell now denotes how many they can afford to publish in the future. It is a finite amount.

One thing leads to another, which is an editorial meeting where they discuss how much money is in the kitty. This denotes how many books they can afford to publish during the coming period. The first call will be on those manuscripts coming from commissions and their established authors, all of which will have a proven track record allowing the publisher to judge and feel confident about the volume of sales to come.

There will commonly be other projects in the pipeline as well as badgering by a number of literary agents to give their writers a chance. At the end, if there is any room left, attention may be given to some unsolicited manuscript that has caught the editor’s eye, but publishing this will be a gamble.

Publishers are not opposed to taking a gamble. Publishing any book, even those by an established author, is a gamble and they have enough flops to prove this point, but good gamblers hedge their bets. They look at the odds. They consider the going. How has this young filly run before? What books are hot in the market? What could be the next big thing?

This is where the writer comes in. How have you run before, or have you set out to write a novel in the expectation that it would be accepted and published just like that?

Running before includes a record of published articles, short stories etc., for which you have been paid. Being paid is an important criterion because anyone can get something published if they pay, or agree to buy so many copies of some anthology or other.

If you don’t think this important, consider something found and often overlooked in the biography of many famous writers. Terry Pratchett wrote obituaries in his local paper. Stephen King was a janitor at Ransom. Isaac Asimov and many others considered themselves lucky to have the occasional short story published in a periodical Anthology called Argossy. The headline, unknown writer has first book published is more of a publicity gimmick than a statement of truth. It can happen but most have a record of previously published work and this record cuts the odds. It allows the publisher to judge your staying power because if they are going to invest in promoting and hyping you up as the next best thing, they will want to get their money back with profit.

From a personal perspective, how do you know you can write? I’ll rephrase that question. How do you know you can write to the quality required by a publisher?

When you receive your next rejection slip, you can complain all you want that the editor doesn’t know what they’re talking about or can’t see how great you are, but how do you know? How can you judge unless you’ve had work accepted and published and banked the cheque for doing so?

The complaint now is that you don’t want to write articles or short stories or other such guff. I once researched and wrote an article on how to build a cesspit for a DIY Self Build publication. It was published and I got paid. Thank you very much, but would anyone choose to write about such a subject. The business of being a writer means working as a writer and the word is underlined in bold for a reason.

If you really want to be a writer, if you want to really succeed as a writer, then you’ve got to work and prove yourself as a writer. From a business perspective, there is an oversupply. Publishers can pick and choose, so, why am I telling you this? You’re my competition. If they publish you they’re not going to publish me so why should I care how many rejection slips you collect?

Because when all is said and done, writing is an art and writers should stick together, though this does not abdicate the need to apply market principles to your writing.

Writing a novel is the wrong place to start. It’s jumping in the deep end. It’s setting off to climb Mount Everest when you haven’t even scaled a nearby hill. The first thing I had published, for which I was paid, was a short item in the local newspaper. It proved to me that I could do it. I’ve lost count of the articles but consider this. A holiday to France resulted in a critique article of the resort, another of the local area and another on a local event that just happened to be taking place. Notes and photographs were taken while there. Magazines pay extra for attached photographs. Once home each article was reworked and supplemented with a little research to suit several different magazines. The result was that I made a considerable profit from going on holiday.

So here is a rule to follow:

When you are famous, you can write what you want.

Until you become famous, you write what the market wants.

Writing what the market wants will finance and allow you the time to write what you want until the day you become famous.

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Comments 4 comments

The Touch Typist profile image

The Touch Typist 3 years ago from Amsterdam

Extremely good hub that shows the condition of the author as an entrepreneur. I really enjoyed reading it. It should be an eye opener for all the writers out there who think that can write a single book and become famous over night.

Kind regards


BrightMeadow profile image

BrightMeadow 3 years ago from a room of one's own

Interesting and informative. I'm sure that inside info from working in the industry has been very helpful. Thanks for sharing.


Radical Rog profile image

Radical Rog 3 years ago from Plymouth Author

The most valuable lesson is that there is no point in the author blaming the publisher for rejecting their manuscript. These rejections are down to something the author has done wrong or hasn't understood and let's face it, the author is the only one that can change the way they submit their work. They then have to submit the right work to the right publisher at the right time. Even then there is no guarantee because other authors are doing the same, but at least they stand a chance and any chance is better than none.


SimplyKylieC profile image

SimplyKylieC 3 years ago

Great article, just what I needed to hear right now actually.

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