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The Business of Writing

June 30, 2010

So, you guys know how rarely I post about writing. It’s not that I don’t love talking about writing. I DO. It’s just that, as I’ve said in the past, I so rarely feel like I have anything meaningful to add to the wealth of information already out there.

But the other day a comment someone made got me thinking. It wasn’t a big thing. She just mentioned that she could see how my business background helped in my communications with other people.It made me realize that all those years in business DID help. In a thousand little ways, I’m still guided by all the things that made me successful at what I used to do.

Since I know so many aspiring-to-be-published writers also hold down day jobs, I thought I’d share some of the most powerful cross-over lessons.

Think of it as the Business of Writing.


Manage Expectations – This is a biggie for me and always has been. My old boss used to say that clients would forgive you anything if you managed their expectations. People just want to know what to expect. If a project was running behind, don’t wait until the last minute to tell them. As difficult as it might be to break the news, it’s a whole lot easier when you do it BEFORE the client is dead-set on a delivery date. If there was a possibility of running over budget, pad your proposal by just a bit. Better to exceed the clients expectations by coming in under budget than to fall short and have to ask for more money.

I do this in every facet of my writing. I never tell anyone I can meet a deadline if I’m not sure I can meet it. If someone asks me for an interview and I’m especially swamped, I’ll agree but tell them there are no guarantees about when I’ll be able to get back to them. If I’m going to be MIA online for a bit, I’ll try to let you guys know so you don’t waste your time checking the blog for updates. In these ways, I rarely feel like I’m letting someone down. And when I do, I realize it’s because I haven’t managed the expectations clearly or haven’t been honest with myself about how much I can handle. It’s so much easier to decline to read for someone because I don’t have the time (much as it pains me) than to keep putting someone off after I’ve agreed (which I’ve done).

I’m still working on this one!

And by the way, this works in life, too. If we have something to do after school and the kids are going to have to move fast, I’ll tell them in the morning on the way to school, “Now don’t forget we have the chorus concert tonight. So right when you get home, you’re going to get a snack, finish your homework and start getting ready. We’re not going to have a lot of play time today.” It helps!

Don’t Internalize – When a client chooses to go with another company, it’s so easy to assume you did something wrong. You missed the signals, didn’t address their concerns, or didn’t offer the best price or service possible. But most of the time, it’s just not a good fit. In the same way, try to avoid over-thinking in the publishing industry. Don’t assume a delay in response from your agent or editor means something. It usually doesn’t. Well, it does. But instead of meaning that you suck, your manuscript sucks, and he/she regrets ever agreeing to work with you (or review your manuscript or whatever!), it likely just means they’re really, really BUSY!


Assume You Don’t Know Everything – About internal relationships, the dynamic of the company, their history with other vendors, etc. In publishing – and especially with the interaction online – assume you don’t have the whole picture on ANYTHING. You’re getting a snapshot of everything through the lens of the person presenting it. That perception is one-sided. Even in circumstances where you’ve heard the same story from more than one person (I hear things like this ALL the time that are ultimately traced back to one person), realize that in the tight-knit community that is the blogosphere, it is entirely possible that view of things started with one person and spread from there. It’s almost impossible to miss the gossip in the blogosphere, but try to avoid passing judgment or formulating concrete opinions until you have first-hand knowledge of the facts about the situation.

Be Professional – This is kind of vague but so important! It extends to things like deadlines (I never, ever miss one – even those that are self-imposed), communication with others (emails should include capitals and punctuation. Not everything is a text!), and appearance (I’m not exactly a fancy person, but I always try to look presentable when I attend events – even if it just means my jeans are clean and my black t-shirt’s not too wrinkled!).

It also includes interaction with others. And I’m not gonna lie. It’s not always easy to be nice to people who, well, aren’t nice. It’s not always easy to step away from a situation in which you feel like you’ve been treated or judged unfairly, especially when so much of our professional lives now play out online. But sometimes – usually – it’s for the best. It’s so much better to step back from something and maintain a professional distance than to reduce others opinions about you by backstabbing, gossiping, or fueling the fire.

Isolate your demographic – This is just a fancy way of saying KNOW WHO YOUR CLIENT IS. I love other authors and I love bloggers and reviewers and all kinds of people, but there is no denying that the vast majority of my “clients” are regular teens and adults who happen into a bookstore looking for something to read and/or buy a book because a friend told them it was good. A few months back I had a real “gut-check” moment. I wasn’t really “feeling” my blog, and as many of you know, that’s when I decided to focus my efforts on reaching the average reader (95% of whom, for me, are females between the ages of 12-40, the majority of whom don’t blog). This is why you so rarely see writing-related posts from me and why you see polls on TV shows, music, discussion about girls and self-respect, etc. And the bonus is that this is where my heart is anyway. So instead of feeling like I’m blogging about the things I’m “supposed” to blog about, I actually feel like I’m being true to who I really am.

It’s no accident that I’m writing YA!

Be Authentic – When I was first starting out in sales, my manager accompanied me on sales calls. We were working to close multi-million dollar deals, but the first things I’d notice when I walked into someone’s office were the photographs on their desk or the books on their shelves. I’d start talking to them about their kids, the books they owned, or a newspaper article they were reading, and the next thing you know, we were just… connecting. Business always came later, of course, but by then, I’d established some cameraderie and trust with the person. It didn’t matter if it was a CIO (Chief Technology Officer), CFO (Chief Financial Officer), or CEO. They were all people first, and my manager always marveled at how easily I could speak to anyone.

And here’s the thing; it wasn’t a sham. It wasn’t a technique or a ploy or a sales tactic. I genuinely LIKE people. I’m curious about them. Intrigued by them.

I feel the same way about you guys. I don’t see you as “just” readers. I see Ayla as my sweet reader from Texas who has an amazing heart (don’t worry! I’m not going to give away anything here that you guys haven’t given away!), Danielle as the incredibly talented keeper of Grim who has suffered – and triumphed – over her own loss, Alix as a deeply complex teenager looking for – and finding – herself in the letters she writes, Shelley as my loyal online compatriot (you make me smile more than you know!), Mak as the gifted writer from Trinidad who has an undercurrent of darkness (to which I can relate), etc., etc. I could go on and on. I look forward to your online company and feel especially honored when I can offer a hand in support or a word of encouragement to young people.

Networking is important. It helps! I always networked in my former position as Director of Sales and Marketing, but even then, I did it when it came naturally. If it felt like pushing a boulder uphill, my relationship with that person stayed strictly professional. I do the same thing now. I connect with authors, reviewers, bloggers, and readers when it comes naturally. I accept that there will be times when it doesn’t, and I try not to compromise myself by forcing it when it doesn’t.

I love it when it does! And I try to listen as much as I talk. I don’t want our conversation to be one-sided. To spew information and updates about my writing while you listen. I want to learn from you and about you. Other writers stay true themselves by interacting in their own way, but I finally figured out that this is mine. I just… talk with you guys. And I’m okay with that.

Your career is a marathon, not a sprint – Sounds cliche, but it’s true! I remember agonizing over every little thing that happened in my former career. Why didn’t I have the same title as my male counterpart in another division? Would I be passed over for a promotion if I didn’t close that big deal I’d been working on? How was I going to fire the friend I’d hired?

But looking back, very little of it shaped the trajectory of my overall career.

What did?

That same things that are shaping this one; hard work, persistence, and a strategic outlook on the future.

For me, that means doing all of the things listed above and continuing to write 2 books a year to give myself a shot at having one published book every year for the foreseeable future. This means that I’ve scaled back my presence on Twitter and now use Facebook and this blog as my primary means of connecting with people.Β In the same way I once tried to keep things in perspective by focusing on the client – ignoring interoffice politics, schmoozing, and ass-kissing – I now focus on the writing. I haven’t joined Tumblr or Stumbleupon or any of the newer online venues, because I know they’ll further distract me from the real business at hand. I connect with other writers in ways that feel natural and not disingenuous, even though that means I don’t connect with as many of them as I’d like. Sometimes, I disappear from the internet entirely to center myself (as my friend Jenny so aptly calls it!) and re-align my priorities (they are very easy to lose sight of online).

When I do that, it always – ALWAYS – comes back to the writing.

And I’ve finally realized that is one of the very few aspects of this business I can control. The market will do what it will. I will have authors with whom I connect and become friends and others with whom I don’t. My editor may leave and join another company. My next book may not be compared to Paradise Lost (as Prophecy was by one German reviewer) or to the work of Henry James (by a British blogger).

But there is always writing. There is always another story. And when you come right down to it, THAT is my business.

Contest Side Note; The iPod Super Swag Contest ends tonight at midnight! There is still time to gain extra points by referring new peeps to the blog for comment. Once the contest ends, my assistant will calculate the entries. I’ll announce the winners on Friday with the Friday along with another freebie for the coming 2 weeks. Stay tuned!

17 Comments leave one →
  1. July 4, 2010 12:31 am

    Wonderful post – definitely a lot of stuff to think about from that, and lots of really insightful tidbits. I also love the fact that so many of those points has cross-over appeal and applies as real life advice as well. Thank you! πŸ™‚

  2. Kailin permalink
    July 2, 2010 9:33 pm

    Michelle – great post! Truly meaningful and conveys the same sentiment that I feel as an author as well.

  3. July 1, 2010 12:21 am

    I’ve been reading your blog (and loving it) and as a teen, I just can’t seem to get “the business of writing”! But this post helped me loads! Thanks!

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      July 1, 2010 12:25 am

      Glad it helped, Kailia!


  4. June 30, 2010 11:20 pm

    I learn more about writing from every post. This one really hits home. Thanks Michelle.


    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      July 1, 2010 12:26 am

      I’m humbled. Thanks, Cousin!


  5. June 30, 2010 10:37 pm

    Love your insight as always, house sister!!!

  6. June 30, 2010 10:01 pm

    Amazing. Beautiful. Insightful. You really described what people should strive for–both within writing, and other areas (I don’t want to compare writing to a job, but I’m referring to other jobs lol).

    It’s better to have something to say that sparks conversation, instead of having a blog that’s all “me, me, me.” Those aren’t as fun.

    …Occasional posts about one’s life are okay in my book, though πŸ˜‰

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      July 1, 2010 12:25 am

      Thank you, Tori! And I agree. I love reading posts about everyday life!


  7. June 30, 2010 3:28 pm

    I loved to read this. It’s definetly different from what I usually read on the web about writing, but it’s still very true.
    The way you see things is quite unique.
    Thanks for the tips.

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      June 30, 2010 3:49 pm

      You’re welcome, hon! Hope it helps!


  8. Emily B. permalink
    June 30, 2010 1:17 pm

    I love this blog, and I learned from it! We appreciate it SO much whenever you talk with us. We really do, and it means alot. We love you MZ!

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      June 30, 2010 2:04 pm

      Aw! This comment made my day! And you guys mean more to me than you know.


  9. June 30, 2010 12:46 pm

    Great advice! For business and for life!

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      June 30, 2010 2:12 pm

      I keep adding stuff! Lmao!


      • paula permalink
        July 1, 2010 2:44 am

        Wonderful, you have put things into perspective quite well..
        Thank You!!!

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