After a four-month corona-quarantine hiatus, this is the eighth installment in my randomly periodic “Your Write Turn” series of blog posts. I’ve discussed choosing writing as a second career, assessing what personal skills and resources you bring to your writing, hauling yourself over the hump of self-doubt, writerly hygiene, getting your manuscript from draft to done, choosing the traditional or self-publishing path, and sorting your way through the jungle of writing contests and ebook marketing.
From the start, these blog posts have offered advice for people over 40 or 50 who want to become author-entrepreneurs, not just writers. This means approaching your efforts not only as rewarding literary self-expression, but as the creation and marketing of valuable intellectual property. Something worthy of people spending hard-earned cash and eight irretrievable hours of their lives reading. Writing is your product and the sooner you start conceptualizing it that way, the better for all concerned.
Although there are business models for author-entrepreneurship ranging from traditional agent-publishing house deals to 100% DIY, I want to share the model we chose—the Family Writing Business.
Let’s be clear. There’s no way to completely separate your writing from your family, with the possible exception of permanently separating yourself from your family. But that involves Many Lawyers And Bad Feelings, so I don’t recommend it. Even if your spouse says they want nothing to do with “all that writing nonsense,” they’re stuck suffering through your fevered rantings about character breakthroughs and plot cul-de-sacs.
What I want to discuss here, however, is willing and voluntary family involvement, not dragooning. This is what my wife, Kay-Kay, and I set out consensually to do from the start. And now we know some things.
How Much Is Just Right?
The way I see it, there are four Writer Family Biz gradations from least engaged to all-in. This spectrum runs from Indulging your writing as part of family life up to the level of a Full-Up Family Business. There are a couple of intermediary levels between these extremes: Collateralizing stuff the family would be doing anyway and Leveraging family skills and financial resources. These levels of family commitment are cumulative, not mutually exclusive.
Indulging the Writer Among Us
This is the Family Business model with the least burden on the actual family, although this can vary widely depending upon the level of writer neurosis. First and foremost, the Indulgence model requires respecting the author’s writing time and space. If she says she’s unavailable 8 – 11 AM weekdays during her writing time, then you leave her alone. The only exceptions being house fires or someone arriving at the door with a camera crew and a Really Big Check with her name on it.
Second, the family provides indispensable emotional support and encouragement. Once again, the independent variable here is the level of writer neurosis and where he is in the Greatest Writer/Total Imposter cycle of self-doubt. The writer, however, needs to recognize this is not a limitless resource, so weeping at the dinner table over your inability to decide the eye color of your antagonist is heartily discouraged.
The Indulgence model is rather like having a new puppy in the family, one that requires feeding, grooming, and extensive belly rubbing. This is kind of enjoyable, as long as your writer-puppy doesn’t tear up the furniture or poop in the corner.
Collateralizing Things Normal Families Do
This is a step up in commitment, as it requires the family engage in some planning and even giving up stuff in support of their author-entrepreneur. You’ll be looking for ways to squeeze collateral benefits for the writing business from stuff you’d be doing anyway.
For example, never miss opportunities that vacations offer to shoehorn in an author event. Every destination has, for example, libraries that host all manner of book-related programming. If your books are well-researched non-fiction or novels set during interesting periods, you can produce a standard presentation for library talks.
My first three novels are a trilogy set during the First World War and the 1920s, with a substantial chunk of the stories taking place in Ireland. It’s not altogether a coincidence that it was the centenary of the First World War and the Irish War of Independence when these books came out. Libraries love these kinds of one-off, 45- or 60-minute programs. Most importantly, they don’t mind if you sell and sign books at the end either. You’ll quickly learn how to pack boxes of books around the suitcases and beach chairs.
I’ve also done book club author talks during visits to family. I even did a couple of sessions as a visiting author in creative writing classes at my old high school. (And they did not have creative writing when I was a student there.)
This is admittedly very retail level stuff and you’ll sell books by the tens and twenties, not the hundreds. But you’ll be there anyway and all it costs is a couple of hours of your time.
Leveraging Indigenous Resources
Now we’re getting to some serious family engagement. As Emeril Lagasse would say, “Let’s kick it up a notch.” It might even rope in distant—in both miles and consanguinity—relatives to help support the writing business. At this level, we’re talking about two additions from the family: real money and serious expertise.
In order to produce a high-quality product, you can’t skimp on the ingredients or the packaging. When the product is a book, that means a wonderfully designed cover, flawlessly edited text, and a professionally formatted interior. To have any chance of rising above the background noise produced by the million or so titles thrust onto Amazon every year—most of which should never have seen the light of day—this level of professionalism is the table stakes. Don’t bother sitting down to play unless you can ante up a beautifully crafted book.
That said, if this is the family business, you may find some necessary talent in house. Literally. So take inventory of the skillsets within your household, among those with your last name, or those unfortunate enough to marry into your clan. Your cousin Leona in Winnemucca? Her PhD in English Literature may prove useful. This could also include your circle of closest friends, if they’re willing.
Leveraging family-and-friend assets is not a panacea. You’ll likely end up with a mix of in-house freebies (or at least cheapies) and services you contract out at full price. In addition, there’s a Very Important Matter to consider before relying on family or friends to help with your writing business. Unlike strangers-for-hire, these are people with whom you presumably want to maintain a relationship. So although Cousin Leona, PhD, has the chops to be your line editor, you may have baggage from your mutual childhoods that make this a bad idea. But your family, your journey.
This has proven to be a significant resource in my own author-entrepreneurship. By pure happenstance, it turns out I married a really good editor. My wife, Kay-Kay, is a skilled and punctilious line editor and proofreader. With several decades of practice in spousal criticism, she’s also comfortable “giving me notes” on my drafts—which means telling me stuff like “That character is ridiculous” or “Lose 30 pages from the middle—zzzzzzz.” I’ve surprised myself how well I take this and it’s made for much better stories.
I’m not going to claim this is a frictionless writer-editor relationship. But any writer who claims they never argue with their editor is either a liar or a bad writer. The worst time for us is the endgame—by the sixth draft (all my novels have been published after seven drafts), I am so darn ready to be done. Kay-Kay, however, is resolute that nothing goes out with my name on it until it’s error-free. Even with my fourth-quarter meltdowns, we’ve made it work. As a result, we’re legitimate partners in the family business that is “Jeffrey K. Walker” and “Ballybur Publishing.”
Kay-Kay is the only one who reads my second drafts. [Practice Tip: the first draft is yours and yours alone—no exceptions.] Third drafts go to two of my adult kids. This is to get a trans-generational take from two well-educated readers—both of whom have years of experience eye-rolling at me. Neither has any problem giving me tough critiques and they’re both fast readers. Kay-Kay line edits the third draft, too, then fourth drafts go to outside beta readers. Kay-Kay gets the fifth draft, which is really the last with any substantive changes by me, and the sixth draft for proofreading.
We don’t have anyone in house who we’d trust to do cover design or book formatting—and these are critically important—so we contract out for those services. But once the books are launched, Kay-Kay is in charge of marketing and what she likes to call “talent management.” Although I’m not sure in my case how much talent she’s got to manage. This requires sustained attention. Having my wife in charge frees me up to concentrate on the production end—writing more books.
The Full-Up Family Writing Business
Just like running a paint store or opening a frozen yogurt stand, you can make your author-entrepreneur endeavor into a Full-Up Family Business. It doesn’t need to be your only business—meaning source of income—but it does require the mindset and work discipline to make it a going concern. This is an accounting term of art, meaning it’s financially stable enough to meet its obligations and continue its business for the foreseeable future. (Incidentally, this is also the IRS requirement for business expenses after your first few years. If your not a going concern by then, they’ll consider writing a hobby and disallow biz deductions.)
The threshold you’re looking to cross is a writing business that pays its own way. This takes patience and discipline. It also requires some up-front money which is either coming out of your family’s budget or in a loan from someone you know. Note that banks do not lend money to aspiring novelists. A few intrepid—meaning “younger than me”—new authors have gotten crowd-sourced funding to write their first book. Somehow I imagine most of that GoFundMe money is coming in anonymously from parents and grandparents, laundered through PayPal. Maybe I’m being too cynical. Probably not.
After four years of hard work and startling self-discipline, this is where we are. My books have covered their production and distribution costs and we’re now paying ourselves periodically. So we’ve created an income stream. It’s a modest one so far and I haven’t quit my legal consulting work, but that’s OK.
What are the next steps in my author-entrepreneur journey to grow this nascent income stream? First and foremost, of course, is more books. I have to keep turning out product. And isn’t it wonderful that the manufacturing process consists of me sitting around making up stories? I’ve started outlining a planned seven-book series in a new genre, which is a tantalizing and scary challenge. Also, I’m working on a novel that will be literary fiction. Since we’ve proven I can write a decent book and we can sell a respectable number of them, we’re planning to shop these new books to agents and give the “traditional publishing” route a try. Since we’re already skilled indie self-publishers, we know we can always publish and sell books regardless of agents and publishing houses.
Finally, as a restless author-entrepreneur, I’m looking to synthesize and expand this clutch of “Your Write Turn” blog posts into a book for older aspiring writers, providing some useful advice and personal encouragement. My hope is to use this book to launch a side gig in speaking, conferences, and seminars. Curiously, this will be in collaboration with a guy named Rick Terrien who just put out an amazing book, Ageless Startup: Start a Business at Any Age, with which he’s already gotten the attention and endorsements of the entrepreneurship community and seniors groups like AARP.
And did I mention Rick Terrien is my brother-in-law? It really is a family business.
I’ll be talking about my after-50 career move to author-entrepreneur on a couple of upcoming podcasts: small business growth expert Laurie Barkman’s Succession Stories podcast and Leah & Matt Rafferty’s very cool The Author Inside You online radio show. Check back soon for details on availability.