Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Is Writing a Real Job? - Lucy Coats

Well, yes, of course it is.  Those of us who write full time know that. But there are people who question it, sometimes to our faces, and I met one the other day.  I managed to stay polite throughout our conversation.  Just.  But it made me think.  What if I had to write a job description?  What would I say? How would I describe exactly what I do in terms that 'real world' corporate denizens (yes, that's what he was) would understand?  So...let's see

Job description: Self-employed Writer
 
I am allowed to choose my own working hours, and since I have no employees at home, to dress how I like when I am working 'at the office'. (This annoys lots of people, and seems to make them jealous.) Working in pyjamas, or in bed to keep warm (as I often do) is somehow seen as not proper work.  Interestingly, my new accountant says that the bedroom is a valid working area for a writer.  Bless her.  The fact that I often work far longer hours than a person in a regular office seems not to count. But anyone self-employed who works at home can choose their own hours.  A writer is no different from, say, a graphic designer or a computer game programmmer in that respect.  Or, indeed, an architect, a potter, a sculptor, an artist, a researcher, a freelance anything - and a list of other 'work at homers' as long as your arm. Would you question whether those jobs were 'real'?  No.  Didn't think so.

Aims of job: Producing a saleable product

The problem lies with the fact that the product is not, in the beginning, physical, although in the end, with the help of agent and publisher it will become so.  My primary products are ideas and creativity, which eventually result in a book. In the 'real world', almost every product we buy in the shops starts with a creative idea - sometimes big, sometimes small.  Without James Dyson's creative and inventive mind, we would have no bagless vacuum cleaner.  Without some nameless genius's creative input, we would have no Cadbury's Fruit and Nut Chocolate.  You see where I'm going with this?  Everything, yes everything, starts with an idea.  Some work, some don't.  That's why every writer will have a drawer (or, nowadays, computer folder) full of manuscripts that will never see the light of day. 

Let's put those under the 'real world' department called Research and Development.  Some books take years of R & D, especially if there is history or a specialised subject involved.  R & D is an investment of time and energy which may not pay off every time, but which still has to be done in the interests of accuracy and veracity. A writer will hope for a contract before they commit to this, but it doesn't always happen nowadays. Not everything I have written in the past has sold to a publisher - for many reasons, some of them out of my control, but mostly because that particular book just wasn't good enough. Writer's products may sometimes fail at the first hurdle, just like any other company's.  But most of what I write nowadays has a good chance of selling, since I work very closely first with my agent (who I employ for good reasons such as contacts, market experience etc, as well as being a professional 'eye') and then with my publisher to make my product - the book - as saleable as it can be. Every 'real world' company does the same in their own sphere, as well as product testing. An author must do that too - perhaps working with a class of children to see whether a new piece of work 'hits the spot', and adapting and changing as necessary. But books are only really product tested when they hit the shelves, so every one is a risk.

Proper product planning and scheduling are also important parts of the writer's job. Deadlines must be met. If several books are contracted for, a reasonably accurate and achievable schedule must be in place.  Clashes must be avoided if at all possible, and this means working closely with agent and publisher.  Two books coming out with two different publishers at one time of year is not a good plan, just as a 'real world' company would avoid bringing out a new and exciting brand of chocolate at exactly the same time as a competitor.  In corporate terms, it's not good to compete against yourself, as it dilutes the sales message. 

Marketing/publicising the product

Most 'real world' companies have a marketing/publicity department.  I am the same.  Except that with my 'company', all the departments are bundled up into one person.  Me.  So, in this case, the book product and the author product become one entity.  One cannot be marketed/publicised without the other.  This means that I work hard at the 'author platform', which consists of website, author Facebook page, author Twitter page and blog (see links to all these below).  Learning how to wrangle all these things correctly takes a lot of time and energy away from the creation of the main product (the book), and a balance must be struck so that the primary focus is not lost.  I must also look at my budget for implementing these things. Other marketing/publicity tools are: school visits, library visits, bookshop visits, festival visits, radio/tv/blog interviews, vlogs, videos - and I also do some journalism and reviewing which keeps my name current.  For some of these I will work with my publisher (the distributor of the product), and their publicist will be key in getting me into places I would otherwise not be able to access.  For this I must find a new skillset - I must speak in public (hard for someone who works solo for most of the time), and I must find the ability to promote myself and my books without in any way appearing to do so in a 'hard sell' manner, (because that will put buyers off). Because I write for children, I also have to get past the 'gatekeepers' ie booksellers, librarians, parents, reviewers. Any 'real world' company will involve some or all of these elements  when launching a new product - the difference is that they will be able to employ the 'hard sell' tactic, they probably won't worry about gatekeepers, and they are likely to have a large, dedicated budget and team.  Every book a writer publishes must be seen as a 'new product'.  The author can be seen as 'the brand', and a brand can be built up to have a loyal core of buyers, with new buyers being tempted in on a case by case basis.

Contributing to the National Economy

If I earn enough annually, I pay taxes. That's a big if.  Children's authors generally, as has been said here and elsewhere, do not earn a lot from books, despite the JK Rowling misconception that some people have of us, and have to 'top up' their income with school visits etc. (Strangely enough, the JK Rowling idea goes hand in hand with the 'real world' perception that all children's book authors do is write about fluffy bunnies in a dilettante sort of way. Which is partly why I'm writing this piece. But I digress.)  I pay my website designer and Computer Guy (when I can afford to).  I buy office supplies, books to keep up with my industry, for research, for reviewing on the blog (that's a lot of books, thus contributing to other authors' incomes - and yes, I visit the library too). There are other things, too boring to enumerate here.  It may not be much, but even a little is better than nothing. 

Does that sound like a proper job to you?  It certainly feels like it to me.  But I've absolutely hated breaking it down into the sort of corporate terms the 'real world' will understand.  I will always be businesslike, efficient and professional when I have to (which is often) - but the major part of the time I spend working is mine to dream, create and write books which will give children and young people pleasure and speak to them in many intangible ways. I shouldn't have to describe what I do in commercialspeak to make it 'real' to the outside world. Writing is a proper job.  Full stop.

Lucy's latest series Greek Beasts and Heroes is out now from Orion Children's Books
Lucy's Website
Lucy's Scribble City Central Blog (Shortlisted for the Author Blog Awards 2010)
Join Lucy's Facebook Fanpage
Follow Lucy on Twitter
Lucy is agented by Sophie Hicks at Ed Victor Ltd

30 comments:

Elen C said...

I reckon that storytelling must be the second oldest profession.
So we have longevity on our side too!

catdownunder said...

But you know that "working from home" is never a proper job! (I know I work from home and everyone tells me "you don't work".)Sigh.

Lucy Coats said...

Perhaps I should put 'member of the second oldest profession' on the job description, Elen!

Cat - *sigh* indeed. I just wish it was possible to counter this one, and that people didn't see working at home as somehow less valuable than going out to an office. It's more ecologically friendly, for a start. I did ask the gentleman who inspired this piece why he thought as he did. He replied 'well, some women have been very successful setting up businesses from home. But writing, I mean, come on, it's not exactly arduous, is it?' The conversation went rapidly downhill from there, and we didn't part on the most amicable of terms. I was, and still am, very angry.

Rebecca said...

Well said.

From An Apprentice.

Keren David said...

I think the 'working from home isn't a real job' sneer is going to be heard less frequently as fewer people have 'real jobs'. We will be seen as trail-blazers for the new economy. Now, how to make money out of it?

Savita Kalhan said...

I've had that comment from a few people over the years, and it used to make me very cross. It's only slightly less hard to bear now that I am a published writer! Personally I like to think that those people are just jealous, but I do feel the need for a witty one-liner retort to the accusation of 'that's not a proper job'.

Lucy Coats said...

"trail-blazers for the new economy" - I LIKE that one, Keren, and will remember it.

Savita - yes, a really pithy one-liner would be good. I'm like Rabbit in Wind in the Willows, always thinking of something to say an hour after the event. Suggestions, anyone? Maybe we should have a little competition! *thinks*

Ms. Yingling said...

There are always people who doubt any job. Students frequently ask me if I had to go to college to be a school librarian. No, I just read a lot of books so they let me work here! Sigh.

John Dougherty said...

What does the "gentleman" do for a living, Lucy?

Lucy Coats said...

He's a corporate finance bod, John, met by chance, and hopefully never seen again.

karen said...

In my day job at WP I work from home two days a week and have to constantly field jokes and comments about the fact that I'm not really working, I'm just watching daytime telly. Has anyone watched daytime telly recently? I'd prefer to work! I think Keren is right that the knee jerk sneering will fade slightly as more employers become as forward-thinking as authors already are. People don't need water coolers, office air con or pin boards to do a good job - they just need the chance and the space to do a good job. That space can be the corner of a kitchen, living room or spare bedroom, or - even sometimes in my case - the cafe at my gym!

John Dougherty said...

Corporate finance? Doesn't that mostly involve gambling with other people's money, and eating expensive lunches? Doesn't sound like proper work to me.

Karen said...

Love the way you've listed all the other things a writer has to do, Lucy. I feel quite important now!

Wendy Meddour said...

Great post. All I'd like to add is: I've never worked so hard when I was at work :)

Wendy Meddour said...

(I mean 'I never'. Put all grammatical errors down to sheer exhaustion ;) )

adele said...

Excellent post, Lucy! Cannot think of one line put down, though. Leave that to wittier people!

Alison Staples said...

Well said - good for you!

JO said...

Of course it's a proper job!

And it's even more complicated once you have retired from official, paid, orthodox 'work.' How to explain - no, this isn't a little hobby to fill in the hours until my mind disintegrates, but the opportunity - at last - to do something I love and maybe earn a crust or two.

Emma Pass said...

What an excellent article, Lucy! Maybe the people who say that being a writer can't *possibly* be a proper job are just jealous - after all, we get to snuggle up in our pyjamas and spend hours making up fantastical characters and worlds and happenings, while they're crammed on a packed train at ridiculous o'clock in the morning, on their way to a day at the office.

…Hmm, I know which 'job' I prefer!

Keren David said...

'What a strange question. How do you define 'real job'?' would be my one-liner.

Irfan Master said...

What a great article Lucy. I met a guy once who said working from home, indeed being a writer was a bit of a hobby. I said: Think you can write 60k words to a deadline? He said: Yeah, probably. I said: Can you make those words interesting, characters leap off the page, places come alive. Could you hold the attention of the reader for hours on end. He said: Well, erm, maybe if I tried (He was persistent). I said: You can barely hold my attention for 10 minutes (I was annoyed). He said: @£$% I said: Are you annoyed? He said: Yes. I said: Good, that makes two of us. Have a good day.

Stroppy Author said...

Ironically, it's partly because it's so badly paid that people don't consider it a real job. It is, sadly, the case that most people who can afford to spend all day writing have another source of household income. That may be from them doing other work (including school visits) or may be from someone else earning, or from letting rooms in the house, or whatever. But many people still equate real job with real money.

Irfan Master said...

I'm not really smart enough to come up with an apt one-liner. I think this quote from Harlan Ellison puts it best: Writing is the hardest work in the world. I have been a bricklayer and a truck driver, and I tell you – as if you haven't been told a million times already – that writing is harder. Lonelier. And nobler and more enriching.

Nina Killham said...

Wonderful blog, Lucy. Not only do I think it's important for non-writers to read, it's important for me to remember. I'm a published author but those days when I'm not getting much done I feel like I don't have a proper job and get quite down. And I find myself looking at the rubbish collector with great awe thinking, well at least he's got a proper job. So thanks for the reminder.

Lucy Coats said...

Oh goodness! What a lot of lovely comments. Thank you all.

Irfan - your story made me laugh a lot - how brilliant. I shall remember it for next time. And I hadn't seen that Harlan Coben quote - thanks for that too.

Stroppy - you make a very good point there. That other source of income (for me, journalism, school visits etc) is vital. I know lots of people don't have that, and then, if they have an other job to live, the writing is then seen as the hobby. I wish we lived in a society where the arts and the people who create them were honoured and respected more.

Nina - your rubbish collector story made me laugh too - in recognition! Sometimes it IS good to have a reminder that writing is a many-stranded thing.

Abi Burlingham said...

A wonderful post Lucy, echoing all our thoughts I think. The worst of this is that other people's negative perceptions about what we do can hold us back. I know that this was a contributing factor for me describing myself as 'a teacher' (my 'other' job) for so long and neglecting to say that I was a writer too. When a salary isn't guaranteed, despite the hours we put in, somehow it doesn't seem right to declare writing as our job. And as you quite rightly say, we are also quite often responsible for our own finances, marketing, arranging school visits etc... goodness me, we're not writers, we're Superwomen/men!

Susan Elliot Wright said...

What a great post! It goes back to that 'I could write a novel if only I had the time'. Makes me want to scream! We all have exactly the same amount of time; I use mine working 60+ hours a week doing (and teaching) something I love for not much money; some people use theirs doing what they call a 'proper' job (and watching x factor or big brother or whatever. I'm so fed up with this idea that writers are somehow self-indulgent. Aarghh!!

Lynne Benton said...

Excellent post, Lucy! I get so cross when people assume that my writing is a hobby, because my "real job" used to be teaching. One recent conversation went like this:
"What do you do?"
"I'm a writer."
"Have you had anything published?"
"Yes. Several books."
"Are you rich?"
"No."
"Oh." Disappointment and end of conversation!

Book Maven said...

I am trying for the one-liner:

No, it's not a real job because it has no terms and conditions of employment, no salary and no pension - just long working hours and no paid holiday.

Linda Newbery said...

Great post, Lucy! I was once selected for a survey looking at the general work pool - this involved several phone conversations, and the researcher wanted to keep me in the survey because she hadn't got many freelancers. I found it impossible to answer most of the questions: How many hours do you work each week? Would you like to work more / fewer hours? etc. In the end I told the researcher that I don't really distinguish between working and not working.

Re the "fluffy bunnies" point, I just tell people now that I write children's books, and leave them to think whatever they wish. But I can probably guess.