Bought, Sold, Processed

One of the most difficult things I have to do as a teacher is talk to my students about the business side of publishing. It’s not difficult because it’s complex, it’s difficult because it’s uncomfortable and often times not encouraging. It is also hard for me to talk about these things because I am partial to the idea that the arts and education have a value that goes way beyond their capacity to create money.

That said, nobody can publish books if they can’t sell them. Business ventures take capital, but you don’t need much capital to write, just a few simple tools, and some time.

When I was working as a creative writing professor, I told students to save talk of publishing for later. Usually I would give them a lecture on this late in the capstone fiction writing course, one that would address the “crass business side of publishing.” This was not always satisfying for them. I wasn’t partial to it either. I think they had the gut feeling that writing needs to be out in the world to matter, and publishing is the system that puts it there. But they also had a sense that talking about publishing was a lot like talking about how much money you sell your children for on eBay.

I would usually counter those concerns with, “Yes, but remember people can’t read a book that doesn’t exist. So, that’s why I focus on the writing. We can’t take this stuff out of order.”

These days I’m no longer a creative writing professor. Instead I direct a university-wide experiential learning program that requires students to design an out-of-the-classroom project that tests their classroom learning. A big part of this curriculum asks people to pivot from doing their work as students to doing their work as professionals.

I directly oversee projects clustered around creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship, so I’ve had to really bone up on the business side of the arts in order to help. Where I used to forestall the discussion of publishing, I now embrace it, and in doing so, I’ve spent a lot of time reviewing my own life in the arts, especially the parts where I got paid.

In graduate school, I was in a band that played a number of college and blue collar bars. It was a very good side-income that helped keep my student loans down. This experience taught me a lot about why bars even have live music. Surprise: it’s to sell drinks. I also learned how to price yourself for success at in a given market. We were gigging during a time when we were shifting from a cash world to a card world. When people don’t have cash in their purse or pocket, it’s hard to drop that money into a jar. And sometimes, you had to fight the bartender for the money you earned at the door. Notice that the word fight wasn’t in quotation marks.

A few years after my band days, I was able to join a friend in putting together a two-person show at a gallery, which taught me even more about pricing, taxes, and keeping records. With the help of my wife, I made and sold series of small wax encaustic paintings based on text from an imaginary story. It was a cool way to explore writing in a new context, but I learned that a lot of the gallery work had nothing to do with art. Once the paintings were done, they had to be prepped according to the gallery’s specs, and details about the works entered into a series of documents the gallery would keep on file. Almost all of the paintings sold, and I was in the position of having to correlate my records to the gallery’s and keep track of my earnings, minus, of course, the gallery’s fee. All this taught me why galleries exist. Surprise: it’s to sell paintings.

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So, now that I’m working with an agent, I’m circling back to these lessons. Surprise: publishing house exist to sell books. The good news is, if you land a deal, they’ll be trying to sell your book. But this isn’t exactly right. Publishing a book isn’t a hand off, it’s a partnership. You don’t get to walk away from the the hustle like a grandparent handing a stinky baby back to its mom and dad.

The literary agent Carly Watters has a fantastic post over on Open Book, which covers the kinds of things you can expect to be doing once your book is accepted. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

This article would come as a shock to my students, many of whom, had their fingers crossed that being an English major meant they weren’t going to have to “sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career.” For a long time, I also did not want to “sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed.”

But here we are.

The sad truth of the matter is that books are all of these things: bought, sold, and processed. Publishers are in a different business than writers are, even though there’s a symbiotic relationship at play, like the one you see between birds and rhinos (I won’t say which is which). They can’t do their work without your work and you can’t do your work without theirs.

A final word of advice: if you’re still in school. Take a marketing or social media class. It’s important to build up your knowledge and skills for the writing and publishing sides of this business. If you’re out of school and on your own, dedicate some time to reading up on these practical matters.

I’ve got a short list below to get you started.

Thinking Through Our Fingers – Yes, this very blog has a host of articles that can help you become familiar with the business side of things.

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living by Manjula Martin – This is a fantastic collection of essays on the intersections of writing and business. You can also get Manjula Martin’s email newsletter here.

Jane Friedman’s Blog – This is an treasure trove of information on craft and business from a publishing media specialist.

Sidebar Saturdays – An amazing resource for legal issues for writers. They have articles on legal issues for the business side of things and for representing the law and legal processes in the work.

Carly Watters’ Blog – Carly is a literary agent with a knack for boiling things down to their essences. She’s stopped actively posting, but the back entries have great insights and information.

Seth Godin’s Blog – Seth Godin is a well know marketer and thinker. His blog is a steady stream of humane nuggets about pushing yourself out there, being interesting, and getting found.

If you’ve found other useful books or online resources, please share them in the comments.


41e02-black2band2bwhite2bside2blitTodd Robert Petersen is represented by Nat Sobel of Sobel/Weber Associates. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. You can find him online at and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.

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