Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Getting Your Hands Dirty as a Professional Writer

Today my guest is author DeAnna Knippling, who's got some excellent advice about becoming a professional writer. And while DeAnna is holding down the fort
at Terry's Place, I'm doing my monthly post at The Blood Red Pencil. Welcome, DeAnna.

The publishing world is full of the controversy between independent and traditional publishing, but the real secret is that professional writers need to take control of their writing business, no matter which side of the coin they're on (or both).

When did business get to be a dirty word, when it came to writing?

Probably back in prehistoric times, when one Neanderthal looked at another and said, "You know, that story was pretty good. What you need is a wider audience. I can get you that...for 87.5% of your total meat and flint intake, less 15%. But don't worry. You'll probably make more money with me than you could on your own. I mean, you do want to spend all your time telling stories, right?"

As far as I can tell, most writers, most of the time, will opt to let someone else take care of the business for them, especially after a lengthy explanation of why they really shouldn’t do it themselves. (If you can figure out what day of the week it is and guesstimate a tip at a restaurant, you have all the basic talent at math you really need.) It's true that learning how to write is an intense, time-consuming process and that you have to budget your time to focus on writing. But putting your financial future in someone else's hands is almost never a good idea...unless you never plan to make money or get published.

But, short of going to college for an MBA in running your writing business, what do you do?

Learning how to be a professional writer who doesn't have to have your hand held at every turn takes time...but not as much time as it takes to get an MBA (or even a business minor).  
Here are some basic, broad steps that I've taken so far. I’m not going to claim to be an expert, but I’ve seen professional writers recommend these steps over and over, too:

1) Set up a business, with a business bank account. Plenty of people set up businesses daily, and the process is fairly streamlined; if you go online to your state Department of Revenue, you'll find most of what you need.  Going to the IRS.gov website will help you with most of the rest.  The publisher Nolo has good books on setting up a small business; you'll want to read a few of them and take their good advice.

2) Set up an online presence, including a hosting service, blog, and social media accounts.  Writers don't need to set up store fronts and hire employees to run them--so consider yourself lucky!

3) Learn how copyright works.  Nolo has an excellent book, The Copyright Handbook, at their website.  

4) Learn how contracts and agency work.  Again, head over to Nolo.  Publishing contracts are, as far as I've heard, different than most contracts, but that's mostly because writers put up with more than they should.  I also recommend www.ThePassiveVoice.com, which is a former lawyer posting on issues specific to writers.  

5) Join the writing community and listen to a wide range of opinions.  Because writers have been buying into the idea that traditional publishing using an agent is the only option other than vanity publishing for a long time, I recommend taking the time to read information from people who question that, with various results.  Check out J.A. Konrath, Michael Stackpole, Dean Wesley Smith, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Laura Resnick, Amanda Hocking, Barry Eisler, and more.

6) Get your hands dirty by learning the self-publishing business on a few short stories.  The more you know about the process of publishing, the better--and learning how to edit, format, and find (legal) cover images and fonts for your stories will make you more knowledgeable as a writer in traditional publishing, too.  Learning how to market your stories is also a good thing...and you'll have something to compare traditional publishing to.  I’d start at Smashwords; they have great instructions on how to get started.

The learning curve for being a professional writer instead of a hobbyist is pretty curvy--but not as steep as signing a bad contract.

We seem to have the attitude that all business is dirty business, and that the more ignorant we are of how money and contracts work, the better we will be as writers.  (If nothing else, it’s good research on how to write characters who are competent at business.) 

But no matter whether you're in traditional or self-publishing (or whether you choose to have an agent or not), keeping your hands clean will lose you money, get you stuck in bad contracts with people you don’t enjoy working with, and set you up for all kinds of fraud, deception, and possible legal problems.

DeAnna Knippling started her small press, www.WonderlandPress.com, in April 2011, and now has over 20 stories and articles available, including a weird west novel, Chance Damnation. Her first novel, Choose Your Doom: Zombie Apocalypse, was published in November 2010 by Doom Press. She ghostwrites nonfiction books, writes murder mystery party games, formats ebooks, and does all sorts of other freelance work.

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Isis Rushdan said...

Great educational post for a new writer on the road to publication like me. Thanks!

Nancy J. Cohen said...

This is so true. Writers today have to regard themselves as business people with the goal of making a profit. And as such, we have to get into social networking, marketing and promotion, writing cover copy blurbs, and all sorts of things you don't think about when you're starting out. That's where professional writing organizations are helpful.

Jan Morrison said...

Yep, there's nothing for it. Even the President probably has to cut with scissors, goto the bank, and make cold calls. It is just life as an entrepreneur and that's what we are - whether we are pulled into it kicking and screaming or enter with aplomb and dignity intact.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Good reminder that we need to treat writing as a business! I like the Passive Voice blog, too.

DeAnna said...

Thanks, guys :)