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.

A fascinating journey of discovery

I had a really fascinating experience last year that has turned into something of a journey of discovery. It’s still ongoing, and I’m sure it will affect my writing in years to come.

It started with family history. Long time readers of this blog will know that I’ve been interested in family history for some time. My sister is a professional genealogist who specializes in Czech records (she keeps a blog here), and I got started by helping her.

In the United States, the census records are only useful to about 1850. Before that, you have to get into land records, probates and wills, and local courthouse type stuff to really go anywhere. But in the Czech lands, the Catholic Church has kept meticulous parish records going back to the 15th and 16th centuries. They’re handwritten in old German and totally unindexed, but the books are all digitized and available online.

As I worked on this research with my sister, I started to wonder: how far back can we push these lines? What are the limits?

The Czech lands were part of the Holy Roman Empire, under the Austrian Habsbugs. In the 15th century, the Hussite Wars shook things up quite a bit, and that’s about as far back as the Catholic parish records go. But the noble genealogies were very well kept, and go back quite a bit further. If one of your lines connects to the nobility (which is very possible, given how many bastard children were running around), you can push back really far.

But past the 8th century, things start to get sketchy. Most of the nobility in Europe are descended from the barbarian tribes who invaded the Roman Empire: the Goths, the Franks, the Vandals, etc. Same thing with the Slavs and the Byzantine Empire, though the Byzantines held out much better than the Western Roman Empire (it was the Turks, not the barbarians, who eventually did them in).

The trouble is that when these barbarians took over, they tried to establish their legitimacy by fabricating genealogies. Plenty of royal European lines go back all the way to Adam and Eve, but how reliable is that really? As rulers of Christian lands, of course they would try to connect themselves to famous characters from the Bible.

The Dark Ages might not be as dark as we think they are, but in terms of records and record-keeping, they certainly are. The largest and most civilized empire in the world had just collapsed, with barbarians running amok in the countryside and the Persians threatening the last vestiges of the empire in the east. Very few historians have documented this era, and it was a huge dark spot in my own understanding of the world.

So I set out to study it. I scoured Wikipedia, subscribed to the Western Civ podcast, and listened to the entire History of Rome by Mike Duncan (excellent podcast, by the way). The Roman Empire had dominated Europe right up to the early middle ages, and I wanted to learn why it had fallen.

That led to a journey of discovery all in itself. Roman history is a fascinating subject in its own right, and the four or five centuries from the Punic Wars through the reign of Marcus Aurelius are very well documented. Rome faced a lot of challenges, and even a few existential threats, but for more than a thousand years they dominated the known world.

So why did they fall?

The more I studied about the Romans, the heavier this question weighed on me. I learned about Diocletian and the Tetrarchy, the crisis of the third century, and Constantine the Great—a period of Roman history that was much less familiar to me. And then things started to click.

My Czech ancestors were serfs. They emmigrated to Texas shortly after the last vestiges of serfdom were abolished in 1848. Under serfdom, they were little better than slaves. The land they lived and worked on was owned by the Hukvaldy Estate, and they were bound to it by feudal law.

When Diocletian became Augustus, the Roman Empire was reeling from half a dozen existential crises, including an economic collapse. The money was so worthless, most of the empire had resorted to a barter economy. Diocletian established a system of exchange where people could pay their taxes with trade goods rather than money. However, the only way for that system to work was 1) for everyone to take the profession of their parents, and 2) for no one to move without Imperial permission. Otherwise, you might have too many pig farmers in one province and not enough blacksmiths in another.

In other words, the system of feudal serfdom that my ancestors labored under had its roots in the reforms of Diocletian. But it went much deeper than just one man. Diocletian reforms were necessary because the Roman economy had collapsed, and the economy had collapsed because for more than a hundred years, the Empire had been in massive debt, and had serviced its debts by devaluing its currency.

Sound familiar?

The Roman Empire fell because of deficit spending, government debt, and currency devaluation over the course of several generations. In 1913, the United States established the Federal Reserve, beginning our own process of currency devaluation. Our national debt has doubled every eight years since 2000, when the stock market peaked as measured in gold. Right now, our debt-to-GDP is 104%. One hundred four percent.

And that’s just our sovereign debt. Our household debt is north of $12 trillion, or another 73% of our GDP. The largest portion of that is student loans, which cannot be resolved through bankruptcy.

Seven out of ten Americans have less than $1,000 in savings.

Half of Americans would have to beg, borrow, or steal if slapped with an unexpected $400 expense.

Twenty percent of American households do not have a single person that is working.

Fully one-third of America is in debt collections, meaning that they have an unpaid debt more than 180 days past due.

Is it any wonder that the middle class is shrinking? We’re following the same path that Rome followed, except where they merely walked, we’re running headlong. With our modern communications, the pace of life is so fast that I suspect we’re completing the cycle in a fraction of the time.

And then you realize that what passes for money these days isn’t “money” at all, but government paper backed by government debt. What happens when we default? What happens when the credit markets freeze up and contagion spreads across the global economy? What happens when you wake up one morning, only to find that all the ATMs are down, the banks are all closed, and everyone’s accounts are all frozen?

So what started as an interest in family history took me down a rabbit hole where I learned all about how Rome fell, and how we’re following in the footsteps of Rome. It led to a keen interest in monetary policy and our global monetary system. It also gave me a new hobby: coin hunting.

The Romans devalued their currency by melting down the old gold and silver coins, and minting new ones mixed with copper. Over time, the melt value of the coins went down, and that’s exactly what’s happening to our US currency now.

Before 1965, dimes and quarters were made from 90% silver. After, they were made from copper with a thin nickel coating. Nickels have always been made from a 75/25 copper-nickel alloy, however, and pennies were all 95% copper until 1982. Right now, the melt value of a US penny is actually 1.8¢. At the height of the “jobless recovery” it was closer to 4¢.

Now, it’s illegal to melt down pennies because they are currently legal tender. However, as the currency continues to inflate, the penny will become even more worthless, eventually reaching the point where it doesn’t make sense to make anymore. Right now, the material cost alone of each zinc penny is 70% of the face value. Canada has already discontinued minting pennies, and we aren’t far behind.

I started dabbling in copper hoarding. But as I went through lots of pennies, I started coming across some really old ones. Which got me to wondering if maybe the numismatic value of some of these coins eventually might be more than their melt value. After all, when everyone’s melted down their copper pennies, a complete collection of Lincoln cents is going to be something special.

So I started building a collection of Lincoln cents. Then I got into state quarters, first as a cool Christmas gift for one of my nephews, then for myself. Then I got into Jefferson nickels, and started finding silver.

Right now, I have a complete set of Lincoln Memorial cents. They’re all from circulation, and some of them are pretty beat up, but there are a few really nice ones in there too. My wheat cents collection is much less complete, but the coolest piece is a 1909 VDB in very fine condition, with all the wheat berries still showing. That’s a $10-$15 penny that I found in a normal coin roll.

It’s a fun hobby, and it comes around full circle to what got me started down this rabbit hole in the first place. Each one of these coins is a small piece of history. That 1909 VDB is more than a hundred years old. I’ve got coins that my parents and grandparents would have used, and a penny for every year of my father’s and mother’s lives. With a bit of luck and a lot of patience, I’ll be able to find a penny for every year of my grandparents’ lives as well.

So yeah, it’s been a fascinating journey of discovery, and it’s still ongoing too. I just got started with Roosevelt dimes, and I’m catching up on Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast, which is just as interesting as his History of Rome. Turns out that the French Revolution also happened because of deficit spending and a runaway government debt. Surprise, surprise.

Life is a giant rabbit hole when you’re curious about everything!

Thoughts on Genesis Earth

So I finished rereading Genesis Earth, in preparation for writing the sequel, and I have to say it was not what I expected.

It wasn’t disappointing. There were some annoying ticks that I noticed, like too many said bookisms or turns of phrase that I wouldn’t have written today. Also, the book was a little wordy or slow in parts, compared to my more recent writing. But those were relatively minor issues. The story was quite solid. I’d actually forgotten some of the plot twists, so it was fun to watch them unfold. A bit like reading the book for the first time.

But one thing above all else struck home: the person who wrote Genesis Earth is not the person I am today. I doubt that that person would have been able to write Gunslinger to the Stars. And if I were to go back and write Genesis Earth from scratch, it would be a completely different book in every meaningful way.

It’s bizarre. When you’re caught up in day-to-day life, you never really get a sense that you’re changing. And yet, the truth is that we’re always changing, hopefully for the best, but not always. It’s impossible to experience life and still remain unchanged.

I also got a sense of this when I finished the 2.0 draft for The Sword Keeper. Perhaps it was just me reliving my own memories from the times when I wrote it, but the first half of the book seemed very different from the second half. I wrote the first half while living abroad in Georgia, and the second half years later here in Utah.

There’s a couple of things I’ve taken away from this experience.

First, it’s not always a good idea to put a WIP on the back burner. By the time you come back to it, you may not be capable of writing it exactly the way you first envisioned it. Better to push through whatever’s blocking you and strike while the iron is hot.

Second, at anything you want to do well, it’s important to always strive to improve. Even when you’re at the top of your game (and I’m certainly not at the top of mine—not yet anyway), if you’re not always trying to do better, to learn and to grow, you’ll fall off really fast.

In reality, there is no “top,” because nothing is ever static. Improvement is a lifelong process, because the moment you stop improving is the moment you start getting worse.

One thing I really need to work on is writing every day. In the past, when I’ve been working on revisions, or prewriting, or getting a book ready for publication, I’ve slacked off on this. But the truth is that writing new words is the best way to sharpen your writing skills, and that writing every day is the best way to always keep them sharp. And there’s always something to write, even if it’s just a short story. If I could write a short story every week for a year…

So yeah, lots to think on. And I’ve got a few ideas for Edenfall as well. But first, before I move to Iowa next week, I need to get Gunslinger to the Stars ready for publication. Harder, better, faster, stronger—our work is never over!

Unthinkable truths

If you told the average person that you believed with near 100% certainty that intelligent alien life exists in the universe, they would consider you crazy. Yet the truth is that our universe is so incredibly vast, so full of Earthlike planets, that the odds that intelligent life only emerged here are low enough to be indistinguishable from zero.

Yet the near-certainty of intelligent life is, to most people, an unthinkable truth. It’s something that many people, perhaps even our entire society, just cannot accept.

Our world is full of unthinkable truths. Indeed, our society is built upon them. We can find examples of them in our taboos and social mores, or in the unspoken things that everyone “just knows.” In order for civilization to function properly, there are certain things we must all agree on, such as the idea that all men are created equal, or that we all have certain rights. It’s easier and more efficient to just program people not to accept some ideas than it is to encourage them to examine everything, and hope that truth prevails.

For Americans, one of our most unthinkable truths is the idea that our constitutional rights and freedoms are fragile, and can all be taken away. Those of us who were born in this country don’t realize that the United States is, in many ways, an aberration. We take it for granted that the world around us will continue the way it always has, and that our nation will endure. Anything else is unthinkable.

But how many nations have endured? How many republics have survived the crucible of history? Rome barely lasted a thousand years, and the republic was dead long before the empire reached its greatest glory. The Middle East is full of the bones of dead empires, from the Hittites and Babylonians to the British and the French. Even the most powerful dynasties ultimately fall into ruin, and the periods of relative freedom are the exception in history, rather than the rule.

I got into an argument on Facebook (yes, I’m back on Facebook, though I haven’t decided whether to stay back permanently) where the other person said, quite unironically:

We live in an Era in which our rights are secured by the free dissemination of information; not through the ability to send rounds down range… the fact that you can type those words is proof enough that [you don’t need an AR-15].

As a student of history, this argument strikes me as obscenely absurd. There are numerous countries in the world today that have access to “the free dissemination of information” via the internet just as we do, but are horribly repressive even by historical standards. In China, for example, political prisoners are held in concentration camps and harvested for organs. In Syria and Iraq, ISIS burns people in cages and carries off young non-Muslim girls as sex slaves. In Canada and Europe, you can be imprisoned or fined for merely saying things on social media that the government deems “right-wing.”

The mere existence of Liberty does not guarantee its preservation. The only way that any people have ever remained free is by cultivating a culture of self-sufficiency. Without the right to bear arms, self-sufficiency is impossible, because it forces people to depend on the government for their own self-defense and preservation of their Liberty.

I’ve blogged before about why I need a gun. This post is largely a continuation of those thoughts. It’s unthinkable to us here in the United States that our country may one day fall, but if history is our teacher then that fall is inevitable. It may not come for another thousand years, but it may also come within the next ten.

Truth prevails—even the unthinkable truth.

Happiness is always a choice. So is being offended.

Happiness is always a choice. Always. So is taking offense. No exceptions.

Anyone who says otherwise does not want you to be an empowered, liberated human being. They are teaching you to believe that you are a powerless victim, unable to control your own destiny.

There are only two classes of things in this world: things that act, and things that are acted upon. Empowerment is when you give somebody the ability to act for themselves, independent of outside forces. Disempowerment is when you take that ability away.

There is nothing more empowering than to realize that no matter where you are in life—no matter how shitty your circumstances—you can always still choose to be happy.

Happiness is a feeling that only exists inside of you. It is not something external that is forced or bestowed upon you by outside forces. It is wholly internal to your heart and mind. It is a reaction to outside forces—a reaction that you choose to make.

If happiness is not a choice—if it is something over which we have no control—then we cannot have any control over any of our feelings. Our passions are external forces that act upon us, and we are powerless to stop them because our emotional development ended at age two.

Is there anything empowering or liberating about this philosophy? No. Quite the opposite. It debases mankind and makes us no better than the animals. It destroys our agency and makes us slaves to our passions.

Happiness is always a choice.

In a similar way, it is always a choice to feel offended. Why? Because offense is a reaction to external forces, just as our feelings are reactions to external forces. If we cannot choose how we react to the things that happen to us, then we have no agency—no power to act for ourselves.

If taking offense is not a choice, then we are always at the mercy of those who offend us. Forgiveness is impossible because we are powerless to react in any other way. We are, and always will be, victims.

Does this mean that if someone hurts us, it is our fault for feeling hurt? No, because there is a difference between being hurt and taking offense. Hurt is a result of external forces, while offense is an internal reaction to those forces. It is impossible to love someone without giving them the power to hurt you, but how you respond to that hurt is always your choice.

In politics today, there is an increasingly popular idea that being a victim somehow makes you virtuous. This is where intersectionality comes from: so that people can claim to belong to two or three victim groups at the same time. It grows out of the idea that fairness is equality of outcome, and it is completely anathema to the idea of personal responsibility.

What does “responsibility” mean? It comes from two words: “able” and “response.” When you are responsible, you are able to choose your own response to the things that happen to you. You are an empowered free agent, a liberated human being.

Can you see how the modern cult of victimhood completely undermines this? How things like safe spaces, trigger warnings, and microaggressions are all calculated to destroy our individual agency, and thus render us powerless to control our own destiny?

The flipside of the coin of Liberty is personal responsibility. Anything that erases the latter will destroy the former with it, and those who give up their responsibilities also give up their freedom. When we surrender our ability to choose our own response, we are no longer people who act but people who are acted upon.

Brigham Young wisely said:

He who takes offense when no offense is intended is a fool, and he who takes offense when offense is intended is a greater fool.

Offense is not something you are, it is something you take. And it is always—ALWAYS—a choice.