3am thoughts, or why everyone says to be an accountant (Blast from the Past: October 2013)

A lot of my blog posts this week had to do with money, wealth, and politics, so when I was searching for an old post to bring back, this one made me stop and reflect for a while.

My opinions and perspective have changed a bit since I wrote it, but the fundamental message is still one that I agree with. I’ve trimmed out some of the parts where I think I was wrong, and left the stuff that still resonates. Hopefully it resonates with you as well. Either way, feel free to let me know.


I’ve been reading in bed on my smart phone recently, which is probably a bad idea because it makes it harder to go asleep. At the same time, it tends to get my mind rolling, and at 3am my thoughts tend to go some really interesting places. Sharing those thoughts is probably going to get me into trouble, but hey, you might find them interesting, so why not?

When I was eight years old, I knew I was going to be a writer.  There was never any question about that. I spent all my free time making up stories.  However, I knew I never wanted writing to be my job, because 1) everyone hates their jobs, and 2) everyone knows that writers can’t make a decent living. Even at eight years old, I had bought into some of society’s most pervasive myths about jobs, careers, and how to make money.

Americans are generally horrible with money. We struggle to keep budgets and put all sorts of things on credit, and pay more than twice what our houses are worth by signing mortgages we barely even read. Because we’re so horrible with money, we tend to see it as a magical force, something that can solve all our problems and make us happy. Rich people are like wizards or sorcerers, so far above the rest of us that we can hardly fathom their ways.

Nowhere is this stupidity more apparent than in the fact that most of us spend our lives working for some sort of hourly or salaried wage. Wages and salaries are basically the same, in that they convert time into money. That’s why we all measure income in terms of dollars per hour, or salary per year.  But for anyone who understands how money works, that is stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid. Money comes and goes, but time? Time is one of the most finite and precious resources known to man.

All of us are going to die someday. Most people are scared shitless by that fact, so we try to ignore it or put off thinking about it until we have to. But not all of us get the opportunity to put our affairs in order before we die. And even if we do all live to be centenarians, our time on this Earth is still finite. It’s non-renewable, too—you can’t go back and relive that day or that hour or that minute once it’s passed.

Converting time into money is basically trading gold for lead, or wine for water. Yet that’s exactly what we do, because money is this strange, magical force that so few of us understand.

Questions like “where do you work?” “what is your job?” and “what do you make?” are much more common than “what do you do for a living?” That’s because most of us have bought into this idea that money comes from working for someone else. While we’re on the clock, the company owns us and anything we produce. That’s the pact we make in exchange for this magical substance we call money.

It wasn’t until college that I started to become disabused of my childhood notions about writing for a living. First, I came to realize that lots of people love their work—that just because you do something as a job doesn’t mean that you’ll come to hate it. But it wasn’t until I graduated unemployed in the middle of a recession that I was disabused of the notion that writers can’t make a living.

People say that about every career—that is, every career except accounting. That’s because accountants are the ones who count the magical money. They’re the ones who know where it comes from. Their jobs are the ones that the people with the magical money will always need.

But there are other ways to make money—thousands of ways. Millions, even. It’s not about time it’s about producing something that people want and need. But when you’re working for yourself, that’s hard. You have to own up to your work—the failures as well as the successes.

When you work for a corporation, it’s easy to shift the blame. It’s a rare case where one person is solely responsible for bringing down the whole collective enterprise. But when you work for yourself, you can’t blame anyone else when things go wrong. You’ve got to take the risk.

That’s why everyone says that you can’t make a living as a writer. They say the same thing about any career where you strike out on your own.

In the end, though, it’s all just silly. Money isn’t a vague magical force—it comes from the value you create. It comes from producing something that people are willing to pay you for. And you don’t need to sell your time at $11 an hour or $44,000 a year to do that. You just need hard work, a great idea, and the ability to learn from your mistakes.

So can you make a living pursuing your dreams? The answer to that question depends entirely on you.

What I would do if I were starting out now

In a word, short stories.

Write a bunch of short stories. One or two a week if possible. Keep that up for a year or two, tapering off at the end to transition into novels. But keep writing short stories even after novels have become the main focus.

Make a serious effort while writing short stories to master both the craft and the art of storytelling. View it as an apprenticeship period. Experiment. Try out new things. Join a writing group, preferably of experienced professional writers, and have them rip your stories apart. Soak up as much constructive feedback as possible, and apply it to the next story.

At the same time, don’t spend so much time reworking old stories that you aren’t producing new ones. Learn how to keep a rigorous production schedule. If a story is totally broken, toss it out! Get to the point where you can hit 2k words consistently every day, and knock out a story at least every couple of weeks or so.

In a word, learn how to be prolific.

Experiment with standalones, but also build a couple of universes with recurring characters. Write a few series, both sequential and non-sequential. Focus especially on the non-sequential series, though—the ones where any story can be an entry point. Learn how to find the sweet spot between writing a satisfying ending and leaving a hook for the next one. That sweet spot is different for every genre.

Submit every story you write to the traditional short story markets. Start with the highest paying markets and work your way down. Pay close attention to average response times on sites like the Grinder and don’t submit to any market with an average response time of more than 30 days, no matter how high the pay rate. The goal is to get each story through all of the pro- and semi-pro markets in about a year. If a market can’t get back to you in a timely fashion, it’s not worth your time. Ideally, you want to be receiving multiple rejections every day.

Once you’ve got about twenty or so stories that have come off of submission, start self-publishing.

Use the first couple of stories to learn how the process works. Figure out how to format, do cover work, and write up all the metadata on your own, then do all you can to streamline that process until it becomes automatic. You can outsource some of the more difficult stuff, but learn to do as much as you can on your own. Don’t spend more than about $50 per story to publish it, preferably more like $30.

Once you’ve got a process down, set a rigorous release schedule of 2 stories per month. Keep to that schedule religiously. Don’t worry too much how the stories are selling: they probably won’t sell well until you’ve got a couple dozen or so out. Just focus on getting them out.

Keep an email list, with links to subscribe in the front and back of all your books. Build that list as much as you can. Most of your early marketing efforts should go to building that list, and cultivating a relationship with the people on it. Don’t rely on Facebook, because you don’t own that site and can’t control it. Same with any other social media. Do all you can to bring your readers to a place you control.

Start blogging. Build relationships with other bloggers. Strive to post something new every day. Make it the kind of site that your readers will want to come to. Be sure to have pages for all of your books, as well as a series page that lists every story in every series, in chronological and written order (side note: I really need to write up a series page).

Experiment with free pulsing and price pulsing. Experiment with price points. Experiment with bundles. Experiment with everything.

ORGANIZE YOUR DATA. Ohmygosh. You’re going to be drowning in data after just a few months. Keep all of your sales reports, and compile all that into spreadsheets showing how many sales you got of each title each month, how much you earned from each title each month, etc. Data, data, data! Learn how to thrive with data!

Write a formal business plan, and update it constantly as you go. Write down all the strategies that work, as well as the ones that don’t. Write down all the strategies you want to try out. In case it wasn’t obvious, write down your release schedule. Write down your to do list, organized by urgent / not urgent and important / not important quadrants. Write down everything. WRITE IT DOWN.

Eventually, you’ll get to the point where you’re releasing bundles alongside or even in place of your short stories. Don’t unpublish anything. Maybe update the covers, if you decide your early ones are really really bad. But don’t worry about it too much. Just focus on being as prolific as possible.

As long as you keep moving, you’re going to get somewhere. So always keep moving. Even when you have a disappointing sales month, or a spat of bad reviews, or whatever, just keep moving. Even if you’re moving in the wrong direction, that’s better than not moving at all.

At some point, you’re going to start to see some success. You may even have a breakthrough. At that point, you can start moving on to novels. Hopefully you’ve written a couple of them by now. Your first one is probably utter crap, so toss it out and focus on the good ones.

Hopefully, you’ve written it in the same universe as a bunch of your short stories. That will make the marketing easier, but its not strictly necessary so don’t worry about it too much if you haven’t. Also don’t worry too much if the novel isn’t in a series of its own. It’s better if it is, but standalones have their place too.

Try to write in trilogies, or to write standalones that can easily be turned into trilogies. The first book should stand on its own, the second should end on a low note and hook into the third book, and the third book should blow the reader’s mind away. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series is a great example of this.

If your career hasn’t taken off by now, you aren’t experimenting enough. That, or you’re cutting too many corners. One way or another, you’re going to have to put in the work.

That’s pretty much it. Have fun!

Write every day or quit now?

Hoo-boy, do a bunch of writers have their panties in a twist over this article. Who would have thought that the suggestion to “write every day” could be so triggering? Not just for aspiring writers, either, but for Hugo-award winning authors as well.

I’m being a jerk, of course. So is Stephen Hunter. But he isn’t wrong.

Writing is hard. Habits are automatic. Turn writing into a habit, and you’re much more likely to succeed. That’s it. That’s the whole message.

In particular, I really liked this part:

The most important thing is habit, not will.

If you feel you need will to get to the keyboard, you are in the wrong business. All that energy will leave nothing to work with. You have to make it like brushing your teeth, mundane, regular, boring even. It’s not a thing of effort, of want, of steely, heroic determination… You do it because it’s time.

Now, do I follow this advice? Do I write every day? No, but I probably should. It would certainly make life interruptions easier to deal with. I would probably finish a lot more books, too. Right now, I write almost every day, but there’s a very big difference between finding success and almost finding success.

As far as professional goals go, making writing into a daily habit is a pretty damn good one. Unless, of course, you’re just a professional victim and/or Twitter queen with a writing hobby. Which seems to be the case for a great many butthurt people.

And what if health, or circumstances, or whatever else prevent you from writing every day? What if just the title of the article throws you into fits of self-guilt? Remember that it’s free advice. It’s just an opinion. Take a deep breath and like it or leave it as you will.

Personally, I like it. It feels right. If writing were so habitual that I didn’t have to expend any willpower to do it, I could get so much other stuff done. Why would I want to do otherwise?

Great article. Check it out.

Rethinking free

I recently read an interesting blog post on Dean Wesley Smith’s blog, about how, how not, and whether to make your books free. The conclusion he comes to is this:

Free is short time, limited supply, and never on the major bookstore shelves.

In other words, no permafree, no free pulsing, and no publishing free online content on sites like InstaFreebie unless it’s for a limited time.

Three or four years ago, I probably would have pushed back pretty hard against this advice. There are still points of it that I disagree with, such as the idea that giving anything away for free devalues all your other work. Perhaps that’s true for physical product, but for digital content I think there’s a solid argument to be made that the rules have changed.

That said, a lot has happened in the last three or four years. Permafree worked really great until about the middle of 2014, at which point I noticed that it was a lot harder to generate any kind of interest in my free books. I switched to a free pulsing strategy in 2015, which was a lot more effective at giving away free books, but that didn’t always translate into more sales.

In fact, there’s a passage from Dean’s blog that sums it up real well:

A customer walks through your door and you have a wall of twenty pies in glass cases, all the smaller short story pies in a case in the center, and some specials near the cash register.

And there on your wall are three pies that say, “Free.”

And a bunch of short stories that are “Free.”

The customer can take an entire pie for free or buy one. As a customer, what would you do? Duh. You take the free pie and leave.

And pretty soon your customers start to change. The only people who come through the door are people who only want the free stuff. They would never buy something under any circumstances, but you are giving your pies away for free, so they take one.

Pretty soon there would be lines out the door to get your free pies and you would make nothing. The free takers would crowd out and devalue the pies you are trying to sell.

Now, I don’t entirely agree with Dean here. My 90-day sales chart on Amazon shows a predictable uptick in sales every time I set a book free and send out an email to my list. Most of my subscribers signed up through InstaFreebie, which means they’re probably not quite fans yet (and probably signed up for a bunch of authors’ lists).

But my long-term data tends to agree with Dean. Back in 2012 and 2013, there was a very clear correlation between free downloads and royalties / paid sales. Then, in 2014, that correlation started to become fuzzy. Over the next several months, it got progressively fuzzier (even though I was giving away more books), until today there’s really no correlation at all.

Obviously, YMMV and I can only speak for my own books. But there have been a lot of major shifts in the ebook market over the last five years. Kindle Unlimited has had a huge impact on the effectiveness of permafree, or any kind of free book strategy for that matter.

Point is, it may be personally useful to rethink my free strategy. I’m not going to stop doing the free book thing altogether, since I do think there’s still value to it (if for no other reason than that little sales bump, plus the handful of “thank you!” responses I get from my email subscribers each month). But instead of free pulsing two books each month, usually including a first-in-series novel, it may be better to do a 99¢ novel and a free short story.

The two biggest mistakes I’ve made so far in my writing career have been 1. underpricing my books, and 2. unpublishing books that were still selling. (I still can’t believe how stupid I was) Holding onto a free books strategy that isn’t working could easily become a close third. I’m not going to throw the bus into reverse while it’s barrelling down the highway at 70 mph, but some experimentation and a course correction may be in order.

Writing is not a business

I recently read Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki. It’s a fantastic book, not only because it gives you a basic education on financial literacy, but because it gives you a solid foundation for making money in general. It’s one of those books that really deserves its bestseller status.

About midway through reading it, I realized that I’ve been thinking all wrong about my writing. Everyone always says that if you want to write professionally, you should treat your writing as a business. But that’s not entirely correct.

Writing is not a business, it is an investment. Publishing is a business.

The basic argument of Rich Dad, Poor Dad goes like this: if you want to be wealthy, don’t work for money—make your money work for you. How? By owning more assets than liabilities. An asset is something that puts money in your pocket. A liability is something that takes it away.

When you write a book, you are creating an asset. A book is an intellectual property that generates money. Dean Wesley Smith compares it to a piece of pie in a magical bakery, where you can cut infinite pieces for your customers. With online publishing through ebooks and print-on-demand, that’s not a bad analogy.

If I were to cease all of my publishing activities right now, including all marketing and promotion whatsoever, my books would still generate income. It probably wouldn’t be a lot, but it would still be something. Even starting from zero, with a single book on Amazon under a totally unknown name, over time it will generate a small trickle of income.

A book is an asset. Writing is how you create that asset. Publishing is how you service that asset to make it more profitable.

As an indie writer, I am my own publisher. The business that I own is a publishing business, not a writing business. It’s a subtle but important distinction. I could still create books if I weren’t my own publisher, but at that point I’d be a contractor, not a small business owner.

Writers are not paid by the hour. As an indie, I’m still earning money on work I did ten years ago, and I fully expect to continue earning income on that work for the rest of my life. That’s because writing is an investment. Not a job. Not even a business. An investment.

Which is not to say that the publishing aspect—or in other words, the business aspect—is less important. Quite the contrary. A rental property is an asset, but it won’t make any money unless you find renters and take care of the upkeep. Similarly, a prime plot of farmland is an asset, but it won’t make any money unless you work it.

So how do you “work” your books? By publishing them, of course. Publishing is your business. This includes marketing, promotion, branding, and the like. Publishing is the business that makes your assets—your investments—profitable.

 

The implications of this are really interesting. For example, suppose you have a book that doesn’t sell very well, or that gets a bunch of negative reviews. Does that make you a failed writer? Does it spell doom for your career? It’s easy to think so if you think of writing as your business.

But when you think of writing as an investment, everyone changes. Got a book that tanked? That’s okay, it’s just that book. Every investor gets it wrong every once in a while. Learn from the mistake and pick a better investment next time.

If all your books are tanking, is that a sign that you’re just not cut out for this writing thing? Possibly… or it could just be that you need to work on your publishing. Even the richest farmland needs to be tilled, and fertilized, and watered properly. Perhaps you just need to learn how to market better, or brand your books better, or do a better job of finding and connecting with your readers.

On the flipside, suppose you have a book that used to do well, but now it isn’t selling as well as you would like. You’ve clearly done a good job of marketing it in the past, but what can you do now? Market it even harder? Or recognize that this is just a normal part of the investment cycle and go out to develop a new asset?

If writing is your business, then the success or failure of your books is a direct reflection of yourself as a writer. With that kind of mindset, it’s easy to fall into some traps. On the one extreme are those who believe that publishing well is secondary to writing a good book, and that therefore they should devote the bulk of their time and energy to writing. On the other extreme are those who seek validation so hard that they put all of their effort into the publishing aspect and neglect the writing. The truth is NOT somewhere in the middle, because both extremes grow out of a faulty premise: that writing is your business.

This is the Fugio cent. It was commissioned by the Continental Congress before the ratification of the Constitution, and designed by Benjamin Franklin. Fugio means “I fly,” referring to the sundial, which represents time. Taken with the inscription below, it is a reminder that we can all leave the world a better place by doing our best in whatever line of work we choose to pursue.

For many of us, writing is more than just a hobby, or a job, or even a career. It is a vocation. It is our calling. And yet, we live in a commercial world, where the price of a thing is often conflated with its value. How, then, can we best fulfill our calling as writers? By ignoring the demands of the market? By fancying that our books are simply unappreciated by those of inferior tastes? Or by losing sight of our calling for that lucre that will perish with us?

Benjamin Franklin’s message is that we can best fulfill our calling by pursuing excellence in every aspect of it. That includes the commercial aspect as well as the artistic, the practical as well as the spiritual. When we truly learn how to excel, we will see that there is no contradiction between the two sides.

Writing is our calling. Publishing is our business. Our books are investments, many of which may very well outlive us. By understanding this, I firmly believe that we can mind our business as well as Franklin admonished us, and truly fulfill our calling.