I’m probably the last person who should be writing about investment strategies. Math was never my forte, so I intentionally chose a field in which I could focus on words. As it turns out, I can’t escape numbers: When I worked at a literary agency, we negotiated things like advances, royalty escalators, and sub rights splits for our clients. I did the same for publishing companies, where looking up sales figures and running profit and loss statements were part of my daily tasks.
I’m now going on three years of officially running my own business, and though I’m not sure how long it will last, I’d like to keep growing it. While I work mainly with writers who want to be traditionally published, I seem to have as much in common with those who are taking the independent route. An indie writer has several business models to choose from: assisted or DIY self-publishing, partnership publishing, crowd funding, serialization. In the same way, an indie editor—a title that didn’t really exist a few years ago—has many options in running a company. Until recently, I would not have believed that venture capitalism could have anything to do with publishing. But in today’s market, it seems like everyone in the field has to think like an entrepreneur.
Art vs. business:
When people find out that I’m a freelance book editor, they assume that I spend all day reading in my pajamas. If only that were the case! While I definitely have more flexibility in my schedule than those who work 9-5 jobs, I have none of the support they receive from colleagues, not to mention the predictable flow of work and steady paycheck. And while I wish I could just read all day, I don’t really have that kind of luxury. Nor can I allot the majority of my time to editing, which is supposedly my main job. Instead, I spend it on marketing.
Today, it seems like all authors—even bestselling authors—have to market themselves—at book events, through their websites, on social media, by writing short pieces in between longer works. I’ve been doing the same. When I first built my website, I left it online for months without updating it, hoping that it would just be “discovered.” I realized that I needed to become active (for me) on the web. I also had to start wearing a number of different hats—editor, proofreader, designer, publicist, book keeper, computer consultant, as I’m not yet at the point that I can outsource any of these services (and wouldn’t consider outsourcing the actual editing). If all I did was edit, I doubt I’d have a viable business. As Jane Friedman notes on Joanna Penn’s excellent Creative Penn podcast, the idea that art and business are antithetical to each other is a myth. In the publishing field, we’re all “authorpreneurs” and “editorpreneurs.
A few years ago, many self-published writers were giving their e-books away for free or selling them at a very low price point. While some worried that this strategy would de-value their work, Darcie Chan, who priced her novel THE MILL RIVER RECLUSE between $.99 and $2.99, was going for exposure. “Any full-length manuscript is worth more than that. But, being completely unknown as a writer, I wanted people to read my work.” She also set aside some money for advertising, and her investment paid off: She sold over 700,000 copies of her novel before being offered a book deal by Ballantine Bantam Dell. Not that being picked up by a major house is necessarily the goal, but this is a company that can’t afford not to make a profit.
Though I have yet to give edits away for free—except for the time I donated my services to a school—or offer sample edits, I did think long and hard about my pricing. When I shared with a colleague that it seemed to be working, as most clients didn’t question it, she told me this meant that I wasn’t charging enough! Maybe I wasn’t, but just like finding new readers was the initial priority for Darcie Chan, finding new clients was the initial priority for me. I figured that those writers who were happy with my feedback would refer me to their writer friends and come back with new manuscripts, and happily this has been the case with many of them. At this point, though, I’d like to improve my margins, so my prices will go up a bit in the fall (sorry, writers).
Long-term vs. short-term gains:
I was recently talking to a writer friend who was disappointed with the advance a publishing company offered her. She had spent years writing her novel and another few years shopping it around to agents, and felt she had little to speak of in terms of her return on investment. Although I didn’t see her contract, the offer seemed good to me. Not only was a reputable publisher offering to publish her book (which meant that they were willing to invest their own capital to edit, market, and distribute it), but it would potentially help my friend establish her credibility in her chosen genre. This doesn’t mean that writers should accept any offer they receive—especially not today, when self-publishing might be a better option. It’s just that, depending on where you are in your career, a book deal isn’t always about the terms of the deal. Sometimes it’s a more of a launching pad that will take you to the next level.
My ROI on my first freelance editorial project was dismal. The edits took me more than twice as long as I had expected, I offered a deep discount, and I never heard from the writer again. To this day, I still can’t accurately predict how many hours it will take me to finish a project and usually end up spending more time on it than planned. I’ve also invested quite a bit of money on subscriptions to industry periodicals and networking events that may never directly pay off. But I also know that I’m in this field for the long haul. Maybe my current return isn’t directly proportional to my (very subjective) worth, but I think it’s a safe bet to assume that everything I’m learning—about craft, about the challenges faced by unpublished authors, about digital innovations in publishing—is making me a stronger editor.
Planning for the future:
There are a lot of overnight success stories in book publishing—writers who receive six-figure deals on their debut novel, or sell thousands of copies of their self-published memoir in a matter of days. But many of these writers seem to fade into obscurity. Career-minded writers, on the other hand, don’t react to sudden gains. Instead, they continue to hone their craft, knowing that, even if they hit it big, their work is just beginning.
A few years ago, I received a very lucrative freelance gig that sustained me for longer than I could have imagined. It was followed by a number of low-paying jobs and then—nothing at all. Now, even before I seal the deal on one project, I try to figure out how I will land the next one. I’ve been devoting at least an hour to every writer who submits a sample to me, having no idea if they’re just gathering information or shopping around. I’ve been brainstorming ways to “diversify” my business—maybe by offering a greater variety of editorial services. A more immediate goal, though, is transferring my website from iWeb to another content management system. I’d spent months learning iWeb only to find out that Apple stopped supporting it. Although the site still functions, I can’t measure traffic or engagement, and I’m guessing that this information will be valuable down the road.
Have all of my investments in my business paid off? Not yet. Success in a creative field doesn’t necessarily correlate with the work you put into it, and it rarely follows a straight path. Like the stock market, the book publishing market is constantly fluctuating, and though I’m no financial expert, I’m “bullish” about it overall. As far as I can tell, if you weather the market’s ups and downs, your investments are likely to grow over time.