Don't Play Business - Hunker Down And Write A Book

I don't remember ever quoting one of my own blog posts before, but as dusk and the time for reflecting on the year approaches with the Yom Kippur fast, I want to repeat a couple thoughts from the previous Kol Nidre:

There really aren't two popular camps when it comes to building a career in self publishing. Pretty much everybody hangs out in the break-through camp, where they talk about pushing the ball to the top of the hill and then letting it roll down, gathering momentum and sales. It's all about the big push, mortgaging the house and quitting your day job. It's about radio and TV, publicity firms and viral marketing. It's about telling millions of people about your book and getting them into a buying frenzy, and who cares if they read it.

I hate that approach to publishing for more reasons than I can list, but the #1 reason is because I have to hear about it from correspondents making one of the dumbest mistakes of their lives. When an author pushes a book over the top of the hill through deft use of their money and personality, any success they achieve isn't about the book, it's about the author. They can't tell you how to duplicate their path. Becoming somebody else is not a practical business plan you can follow, especially since there's a big helping of luck involved in becoming a minor celebrity. Even worse, the momentum for most titles is illusory. When the pushing stops the sales stop.

And in January I wrote about the approaching economic downturn and how publishers could act to recession proof their businesses:

But perhaps the main point I'd like to remind myself and my publishing friends of is to beware that knowledge has a time value. What we all "know" about publishing in the mid 1990's through mid 2000's time frame may no longer hold true going forward. I've been involved in small businesses as long as I've been working, almost 30 years now, and I've seen many a small business fail by sticking with their business plan despite changes in the market. The final nail in the coffin is often a desperate attempt to prop up the old business model with advertising. Don't panic because your publishing business stops growing, or even sees declining sales. Try to see your complete economic picture, and ask yourself if you're better off than you were five or ten years ago. If you keep producing quality titles and weather the down-turn, at some point in the future, you'll see windfall profits when the economy picks up. Unless, that is, you've shifted your entire title list to books about the end of capitalism:-)

My January prediction stagflation may prove to be correct, or we may be in for a sharper economic contraction, but in either case, don't expect the publishing business to escape unscathed. I've heard from a few of my regular publishing correspondents about their plans or worries for the waning of the business cycle, and I want to reiterate my basic small business advice. Don't spend money in the hope that it may come back to you multiplied several times over. That's called speculation, and it's a lot easier and far less time consuming to speculate on stocks than on book publishing. Hunker down, cancel your trip to the London or Frankfurt book fair, and write a new book. Writing a book won't cost you anything but your time, and if it keeps you at home rather than going out shopping or partying, it will help your economic position even if it never gets published.

Focus on your core business objectives. I heard from a publisher in Taiwan a couple weeks ago who was interested in buying the Chinese rights to my latest book. I sold the Chinese rights for an earlier title of mine last year, it was far more trouble than it was worth. So I took a pass, even though a rights sale means cash in the pocket. I don't have the energy of a 20 year old to work on my business 20 hours a day, so I'm not interested in chasing every opportunity to make a buck and getting distracted from my bread and butter business model.

While statistics don't mean much over small data sets, I've seen a clear drop off in my business over the past two weeks, as the newspaper headlines turned from merely depressing to bleak. When Americans actually cut back on credit card spending, it means that the economy is contracting. Some book retailers, particularly Amazon, may see continued if moderate growth thanks to the high price of gasoline making their free shipping more attractive than ever, and the ongoing closure of brick-and-mortar bookstores. But Amazon, in the end, is a credit card business, so their immunity may be illusory.

Since I wrote about knowledge having time value and staying open to new paradigms in publishing, I've pushed back into e-book publishing with results that surpassed my expectations. E-books have accounted for around 20% of my publishing revenue since summer, and have helped my business model regain some of the independence from Amazon that I lost when Barnes&Noble stopped stocking my most popular title. I've also cut down my Self Publishing Blog posting frequency to around once a week, as it's not central to my business model.

In any case, moderation does it. My own approach to fasting is to eat a cheese sandwich and drink a glass of water beforehand, which makes the fast so easy that I almost feel like I'm cheating. But for those readers who prefer the traditional stuff and starve approach, I'll leave you with a little eye candy:-)


Reb Yudel said...

Thank you for the advice... and best wishes for an easy fast and a wonderful year.

Zoe Winters said...

I think the most important thing someone can do is write a fabulous book. Whether it's fiction or nonfiction, it really has to be the kind of book that makes the people who read it talk, hopefully positively. Any other kind and you're constantly pushing the snowball and hoping it picks up speed and power.

The power is in the words. If you don't invest it there, investing it in marketing or trying to propel yourself to minor celebrity status won't do it.

And when I say "you" I mean the general audience "you." I know that you you get that. :P

Morris Rosenthal said...

Reb Yudel,

As my copyright attorney says, may you be registered in the book of life:-)


Morris Rosenthal said...


I wish it was all about quality, if not necessarily words as I'm no artist, but I haven't seen that to be the case it publishing. It's far more about the market, timing, and promotion than it is about literary excellence.

But in any case, the real point I was trying to make here is that writing a new book is at worst cash neutral and at best can keep you out of mischief for a year or so:-)


Anonymous said...

I think what you are talking about Morris, and this is something that I need a good reminder of every once in a while, is a concept I learned in my favorite business book "Good to Great" by Jim Collins (highly recommended).

Collins compares B of A with Wells Fargo during a tough financial crisis in which Wells Fargo came out way ahead of B of A (this was 10 years ago; no relation to current financial crisis).

When things got tought......B of A kept spending cash on fluff, fancy jets for execs, fancy buildings, etc.

Wells Fargo came out way ahead because they hunkered down and started cutting back. The famous scene was the Wells Fargo CEO quietly sitting in his old worn out chair, idly picking chunks of cotton out of the chair (ha!) while listening with a furrowed brow to all of the lower down guys trying to get fancy budget items approved. Most didn't get approved.

I think we can all learn from Wells Fargo style and keep things tight when they need to be tight. After all, I know that in my company even in a GOOD year I can eat through all my profit with various "fluff" expenses if I'm not careful. In a BAD year this could be much easier turning my "career" into a "hobby" as fast as you can say 1-2-3.


Zoe Winters said...

hahaha good point about cash neutral.

It runs a little different in fiction. There are trends and such, but fiction is particularly hard to "market." And something can be a great quality book and still not sell.

I think it's the "gripability" if the book grips people, they tell other people and it catches on. Word of mouth seems to be a far bigger influencer in fiction.

Which I know makes someone almost borderline insane to publish fiction, but, it's insane no matter how you go about fiction. Trad or indie.