Chip MacGregor

July 25, 2016

Ask the Agent: How do I treat my writing as a business?


We’ve been talking about making a living at writing, and I had three people all ask the same basic question: If I’m going to make writing my career, how do I treat it as a business instead of as an art or an avocation? 

First, I recognize that some writers will insist on treating their writing as an art — which is fine, and for some writers no doubt more appropriate. I represent some authors who don’t really see themselves as “business” people, but as artists, creating words that share their stories. I totally understand and respect that perspective, since some writers are, in fact, artists with words. But if it’s important to you that you generate a full-time income through your writing, and you’re pondering how to create a number of writing projects that will improve your bottom line, then you need to begin to see your writing as a business. In essence, your words are a service or product — they have value, and others need to pay you in exchange for them. 

Second, determining the value of your words is tough at first, which is why I’ve encouraged authors to begin by setting a small monthly financial goal, then building up the number as you find success. If you know you need to earn, say, $2500 per month, then it’s clear the goal is about $500 per week (which sounds small when you put it that way, doesn’t it?). Thinking in that manner moves writing into more of a business model, since it reduces your work to numbers: “I need to make $500 from my writing this week.” You then begin to map out which projects you can do that will generate the cash flow you need.

Third, as I’ve said a number of times on this blog, today is a great time to be a writer. There are more readers and more opportunities than ever before, so there’s a market for people who can create good content. You’ll still hear people complain that it’s not easy… but when has making a living with art ever been easy? For that matter, when has starting a business ever been easy? I started a writing and editorial service, built it into a success, and it was a lot of hours and work. I then went to work for publishers and traded my time for a salary, which was also hard work. When I started my own literary agency several years ago, I knew it would be a ton of work — locating good projects, finding authors with whom I was comfortable, building relationships with publishers, spending hours looking at proposals, reading contracts, keeping the books and cutting checks, getting involved in marketing discussions, having career conversations with authors, training staff, keeping in touch with people in the industry through this blog and other sources, etc. I’m not complaining — I love my job. Love being an agent. I don’t want to do anything else. But it’s hard work; just as setting up and running a writing business will be hard work.

On the other hand, there are numerous pluses to starting a writing business. There’s no big overhead — you need a computer and internet access. Business cards and  a website are helpful, as is a professional wardrobe and some people skills. You’ll discover that, like marketing your novel, running a writing business is basically a sales job. You’ll need to get the word out and increase your visibility, but that will help you when your book releases. You’ll need to know how to tell your story, in order to sell people on your skills. You’ll need to have a dedicated time to write, so that you balance the marketing with the actual writing. And that keeps you writing regularly, so that you begin to see writing as the task you’re doing every day, rather than a hobby to try when the mood strikes, or you’ve found your muse. (As I learned to say when I was working for a newspaper: “Screw the muse — write the words.” Though the editor who taught me that phrase might have used more colorful language.)

Fourth, learn the value of a three-legged stool. The metaphor of a three-legged stool has long been used with small businesses. If you only have one product, you only have one leg to your stool. (For example, if you’re running a hot dog stand, you have one thing to sell.) That works fine so long as your product is popular, but when popularity fades, you’re left with one product that isn’t making you any money. That’s why bookstores don’t just sell books — they sell cards, puzzles, games, journals, bookends, fancy pens, stuffed toys, t-shirts, jewelry, and anything else that might appeal to book lovers. If you’re running a writing business, you may want to think about adding other legs to your stool. If you write books, perhaps you can collaborate and help others write books. Maybe you can edit other people’s manuscripts, or copy-edit, or do the developmental book connecting that’s so important with fiction. You might be able to teach writing, or speak at writing conferences, or help with some free-lance book marketing. Maybe you can help create proposals, or be a writing coach, or sell articles to websites and magazines. You can’t do all of these things, of course, but figuring out the tasks you can do, and creating a business that involves several of them, will give you a more stable financial base.

That’s how you start. There’s more to it, and I’ll get to that in my next blog post, but I’d love to know what you’ve found helps you make a living at writing. Share your thoughts with me in the “comments” section below…

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  • Kelly says:

    Thanks, again, for another useful post for those of us who treat writing as a business. Your straightforward, honest words are always refreshing (and helpful). “Screw the muse–write the words.” Don’t sugarcoat. Keep ’em coming!

  • Another excellent post, Chip. So helpful! Thank you. While working on my first nonfiction book, which I’ve pitched to two agents at writers conferences and both thought my concept is strong and are interested, I help people write their stories of success by writing resumes–something I’ve been doing professionally for more than 15 years. I also provide editorial and other author services, after obtaining credentials as a certified ghostwriter through Claudia Suzanne’s excellent graduate-level program at CSULB. (A very rigorous program that covers pretty much everything anyone would want to know about being a successful ghostwriter.) I love speaking to writer’s groups, business organizations, and students on books, publishing, career topics, how to write strategic business plans, and how be successful as an independent contractor. In my writing business, I’ve written copy for websites, brochures, direct response marketing, business letters, PR, procedural manuals, email responder copy, etc. A marketing tip for writers looking to find writing clients: check out a local chapter of Business Networking International (BNI). In the 25+ years that I’ve been an entrepreneur and small business owner (my current writing business is my third business), marketing has always been the biggest challenge. Joining BNI in 2014 was the smartest marketing move I’ve ever made–I wish I’d known about them years ago. It’s a way to create an very large extended sales force for yourself, while gaining professional development, speaking, and leadership skills.

  • Ron Estrada says:

    Good post, Chip. I’ve got two legs covered: self-pub and the continual search for trad publishers for my middle grade novels. I’m considering a non-fiction route as well, based on my “the science of God” experiment on Wattpad. Of course, I worry that I’m spreading myself a bit thin. We shall see.

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