Business Matters by Catherine Czerkawska

A whole heap of radio plays ...I'm lurking in there somewhere!
Before I begin: if you’re somebody who gets pleasure from writing stories or poems purely for enjoyment or fulfilment or as a way of exploring human nature but doesn’t have any great need to communicate or disseminate the work or only to a select group of friends, then this is probably not the post (or rant) for you. There’s nothing wrong with writing just for fun. Lots of people do it, just as lots of people paint and draw or play sports for love and without any thought of turning professional, even though many of them are arguably more talented than some full time professionals. I remember back in my teens writing only because I loved what I was doing, although even then, there was lurking at the back of my mind the desire to make a career out of it. Along with that was the hope that somebody, somewhere, might pay me to write. And in fact quite soon, the BBC did pay me to write a whole heap of radio plays, so the idea that doing something I loved could bring in a reasonably good income came to me quite early on.

This may have been my misfortune.

What I didn’t realise back then – and what it has taken me some forty years to come to terms with – has been the need to know as much as possible about the business side of writing. Because once you enter a commercial world, a world where people are commissioning you and paying you (or not paying you), where deadlines must be met and taxes and National Insurance must be paid, a world where marketing matters, and where the waters in which you are swimming are infested with sharks who can scent their prey a long way off – you need at least a modicum of business knowledge in parallel with the need to learn your craft.

Back when I started out: Edinburgh in the 70s - full of hope and naivety.
Back when I first started out, the idea of a university creative writing course was only a gleam in the eyes of certain academics and administrators who could see that it might be a very good way of getting bums on seats. My first university was Edinburgh and Norman MacCaig was our Writer in Residence. I was saddened to note, a few years ago, reading an advertisement for a lecturer in Creative Writing there, that one of our finest poets would not now qualify to be employed to teach the subject. Instead, the job might go to a postgraduate with a clutch of finely honed short stories and maybe a single literary novel. A PhD would be desirable. Soon it will be essential. MacCaig might not have cared much about the business side of writing, but he certainly had forgotten more than most of us knew about the writing side of writing. And he never pretended that any of it was going to be easy.

But now that such endlessly proliferating courses are being touted as vocational, with a potential career path and jobs at the end of them, I am alarmed that only a few of them seem to offer any kind of serious business advice. The last time I wrote about this, a colleague suggested that such knowledge would be better acquired from government or local enterprise companies. Well, they can be useful. But I find something worrying about the way in which it is now possible to move smoothly from school to undergraduate to postgraduate fellowship to lectureship without any notion that a writing career outside the walls of academe might involve some knowledge of the business side of writing.

A couple of years ago, I was asked to speak to a group of postgraduate Masters students at a Russell Group university, alongside officials from the Society of Authors. We were there to talk about the practicalities of a career in writing and between us we had plenty of experience of just what can go wrong. It was a bit like trying to speak to a group of people caught in the headlights of the oncoming truck that was the reality of the career they had chosen and already paid a small fortune to study. 

Get yourself a money plant and hope for the best.
Did they know anything about self employment and taxation? About being a sole trader? About expenses and allowances, about book-keeping and whether or not they might need an accountant? (And we’re not talking about tax evasion here – just a few more legitimate quid in the coffers.) Did they have a scoobie about copyright and intellectual property? Did they know what they might be signing away to a publisher or agent? Did they know that if an agent asked them for a three month option while they made up their minds, they might be shafting themselves where another, better agenting deal was concerned? Did they know much about traditional publishing, self publishing, vanity publishing and the differences between them. Did they know about the dreaded non compete clause? About VAT? About cash flow? About business plans and expenses and funding and business loans and how to work out whether a residency or a fellowship might be worth undertaking? Did they have the foggiest notion about costing out their time when undertaking a freelance project? Or about not giving up their time for nothing when everyone else is being paid. Did they know about allowing for the cost of running an office, even when that office is the kitchen table. Did they know that time spent away from your desk isn’t ‘free time’ when you’re self employed, but lost time? 

None of the above. And it was clear from the dearth of questions – almost none were forthcoming – that they had not even thought about any of this, too caught up in the joy of writing. Which would have been fine if that’s all they wanted to do. But they had paid for the course in the devout hope of it leading to a career. Yet they knew nothing about being self employed and seemed to think that none of the business side of writing applied to them. Somebody else would take care of all that. They were the creatives and creatives don’t worry their heads about such things.

Well, I’ve made that mistake too. And I can tell you one thing. From a perspective of age and experience and a certain amount of poverty, I don't think I was ever astute enough. With hindsight, I would still have done the Mediaeval Studies course that was my first degree. But I would then have gone on to do some kind of business course, something that taught me a bit more about small business management and marketing. Something that taught me how to be tougher. Right from the start, I made sure I knew something about being self employed, but it was never quite enough. My excuse is that back then running a writing career as a business was less viable, but not impossible. Some clued-in people managed it better than I did. Good for them.

If you want to work for love or for charity, go for it. We all do it sometimes and often it's justified. But do it from a position of knowledge rather than ignorance. We need to know enough to know when we are being exploited, when freebies - so often undertaken at the behest of people who are on comfortable salaries - are eating into good writing time. We need to stop underselling ourselves. To stop believing in the fiction that working at an event for several days unpaid will be 'good promotion'. (Funny how they never seem to say that to the electricians or the people erecting the marquees.)  In short, to stop undervaluing ourselves and our work. 

Business matters, and it’s high time we realised it and organised ourselves and our working lives accordingly. Meanwhile, here's a little something to stiffen your spine. If you think I'm fond of a good rant, listen to this. Although not if you object to swearing. You have been warned! 


Wendy H. Jones said…
Very interesting post Catherine. Food for thought indeed.
Susan Price said…
Great post. Like Catherine, I learned most of this the hard way - and still probably don't know a lot that I should know.
These artifical divisions created between art and science, art and business, don't really help anyone.
Bill Kirton said…
Great post, Catherine. A demonstrably reasonable rant. And the Harlan Ellison outburst is terrific.
Penny Dolan said…
Catherine, I bet the wisest of those students thanked you - in their minds - long afterwards.
Mari Biella said…
All very true, Catherine. My original approach to writing was about as un-businesslike as could be imagined, and that was fine before I started publishing. But once you start making money - even a small amount - you have to develop some kind of business sense. I'm now learning about that the hard way. I still don't know nearly as much as I probably should, but experience is a very good, if sometimes strict, teacher!
Lydia Bennet said…
So very true Catherine as ever! Sadly some creative writing students expect a bidding war, and at least a six figure advance, as a natural consequence of doing some workshops. I know because I've lectured at MA level and heard this from students. Also some 'creative' people (you know, they did an internet quiz which said they were) think business is a durrty word and beneath them. This forms a barrier to many people realising this need until too late. On the other hand some of us gradually 'fall into' being professional writers and the need to grow some business brains catches up with us unpleasantly, usually through the Revenue who'd rather chase a poet for £6 than a massive corp for £6billion.
Nick Green said…
It's for these reasons that I don't think I'd ever give up the day job, even if I were to start earning again (my last decent cheque was about 7 years ago). You couldn't pay me a big enough advance to induce me to give up my salaried desk job. Half a million pounds, you offer me? Well, after tax that's more like a quarter... that's perhaps seven years of non-extravagant living, and I'm a slow writer. It might be two or three years before my next book, and who's to say that one will do as well? Even worse, once your advances start to fall, then your whole stock starts to fall, so a lower advance this year often means being dropped like a stone next year. Not good news for anyone's mortgage repayments.

If you write full time you are far, far braver than I'll ever be.
You are so right about the Revenue, Valerie. And you're right about those anticipating the six figure advance and the bidding war as well. I suppose occasionally it happens, which only feeds into the myth and the subsequent angst. Like most people commenting on here, I learned things slowly and am still learning. Last night, I was invited to speak to a local businesswomen's association and apart from the pleasure of speaking to such a friendly group of people what struck me most about them as a self help/business networking group was how positive they were - so refreshing to find people who didn't think 'business' was a dirty word but were generous in supporting each other - and various charities as well. Susan - I don't understand those artificial divisions either. I know some universities where those studying computer games, for example, are never linked in any way with those studying film and media. On the other hand, a university such as Abertay seems to specialise in putting people from different disciplines together. So it can be done. It's just that people seem to be too entrenched to experiment.
Elizabeth Kay said…
Terrific post, Catherine. I loathe and detest the business side as well - but I've had the same agent for nearly thirty years, and she takes off a lot of the pressure. I also do my own tax return, which focuses the mind wonderfully. What beginners fail to realise, more than anything, is that income can fluctuate wildly. You can go from the higher tax bracket one year to the breadline the next; no guarantees, no security, so you'd better make sure you take out that private pension... Loved the rant, as well!
That's true, Elizabeth. It is such a switchback and yet when you start out, you tend to think that when you've made it, you've made it for good. Once you've found yourself sliding down a few snakes, right to the bottom of the board, you realise how wrong that perception is. I like the business side of things though - which is why I wish I knew more. I watch programmes like Dragon's Den and the Apprentice and all Alex Polizzi's series - knowing that it's all exaggerated for television, but still fascinated by the business stuff and the occasional nuggets of wisdom. Bit late to start doing courses now, but if I were younger, I would. I don't do my own tax return though - I pay an accountant every month, and he does it for me. Even sorting out the paperwork for him is the biggest headache of my year, although I'm quite careful about record keeping! Which reminds me that it'll be coming up soon ...
Good one, Catherine. I am quite surprised university writing courses don't teach the business side - I thought only people like me (who started before these courses were available) had to learn it all by trial and error... mostly error! Do you think a generation of business-savvy authors would be good for publishing?
glitter noir said…
Great post, Catherine. But had to turn the video off, at least for today, when I saw that it featured Harlan Ellison. Maybe some other day.
Lee said…
Of course business matters (I come from that sort of background, and the gene seems to have been passed on to a number of my kids), which is precisely why I keep business and fiction writing separate. Those who go through a creative writing course need to be prepared to make a living at any sort of writing BUT fiction. The lucky exceptions are just that -- exceptions.

I'm not sure I agree about freebies and exposure (for those who otherwise sell their books, obviously), and Harlan Ellison can probably afford to make the demands he does). After all, Fifty Shades started out as a freebie, as well as The Martian. I've no idea why they caught on so dramatically, but surely word-of-mouth played a significant role. Exposure is no guarantee, but it does seem to help. In some cases.
I'm not really talking about giving books away, Lee. I reckon that can work. I believe Fifty Shades started out as fan fiction - free on a fan site where it was very successful. I've occasionally done freebies myself on Amazon and they too can work in terms of paid sales thereafter. I think I meant the way in which - just as an example - many big commercial book festivals now expect writers to attend and speak for nothing, not even travel expenses. The word of mouth exposure of such things is minimal. A handful of copies sold, of which the writer gets pennies. It's perhaps why such festivals now tend to involve mostly celebrity non-fiction.
Lee said…
You're probably right about festivals and such, Catherine, though it would be helpful to have some actual statistics one way or the other. If freebies like festival appearances don't work well for the average writer, are there any types of appearances -- school visits, bookshop or bookclub talks, for example -- which work better?

Frankly, I have trouble getting my head round this sort of activity anyway. It seems like such a gargantuan waste of time and energy. But that's just me.

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