Thursday, November 19, 2009

What’s Your Business Plan?

By John Gilstrap

Today’s Killzone entry is born directly of Michelle’s excellent post from yesterday, in which she shared an article by
Declan Burke. In his essay, this very talented writer declares that he can no longer afford to be a writer. He cites the opportunity cost of the hours redirected from the freelancing that pays his bills, and the emotional burden of time away from his family.

Man, I have so been there. Back in 1993, I was a division manager for a behemoth company in the hazardous waste business. It was a time of transition in the hazwaste industry, and after a solid five-year run, I took a hard look at the tea leaves and decided that the company had no choice but to dissolve my division. It wasn’t that we didn’t provide valuable service; rather, there was so much tumult within the organization that none of my rotating bosses had the inclination to pay me a lot of attention.

The details are too complicated for this space, but I realized that their inability to see the value of my group presented a unique opportunity. I hocked everything I owned (and then some) and bought my division away from the behemoth and started a new company, Compliance Services, Inc. It was a sweet deal. And I was terrified. When I say hocked everything, I mean everything. The house, the savings, the kid’s education money . . . everything. If I failed, I didn’t just fail for me, I failed for my entire family.

Failure was not an option. My job became my life, 24/7, and the company thrived.

The bet paid off. Except it never was a bet. A bet implies chance. Obviously, serendipity plays a role in everything, but before launching Compliance Services, I knew exactly what was at stake. I had a business plan. I understood the services I was providing, and I understood the market that purchased them. I knew how much revenue I needed to bring in every month to make payroll, service the debt and pay the bills, and I knew that every dollar beyond that number was mine to keep or reinvest. Truth be told, there weren’t a lot of those extra dollars, but we stayed afloat and comfortable.

I wonder how many writers—themselves by definition business owners—have business plans in place. I’m not talking recreational writers here, the ones who plink at their keyboards the way a duffer swings a club on the weekends; I’m talking about people who depend on their writing for the baby’s shoes and education. Do they know their break-even points and their overhead rates? Do they continuously study the marketplace and strive to serve it?

Do they have a contingency plan in place for the lean seasons? Do they even have a goal?

In business, goals are important. Without them, “success” is indefinable. So, what is your goal? Seriously. If it’s merely to be published, then success is only a Kinko’s away. If it’s to be #1 on the NYT Bestseller List (that’s mine, by the way), then a longer view is in order, and it might be worthwhile to have interim goals. Perhaps being the lead title for your slot at your publisher is a place to start. Maybe it’s just finishing the work in progress. Whatever it is, state it affirmatively.

Having a goal is only the beginning. The next step is to communicate the goal to others. My agent and editor both know where I want to go with my career, and that knowledge helps them shape a thousand different decisions. Being number one on the Times List means writing a Big Book. High concept. My team help me keep my eye on the prize that I’ve laid out for myself. We all know that it probably won’t happen with the next book, or maybe even the next three or six, but we’ve marked intermediate territory to keep us on track.

That brings us to the plan. How are my team and I going to get me to where I want to be? These are the details in which the devil lies and this is where information becomes confidential. Like all businesses, ours is a competitive one, and the microelements of strategy are, I believe, best played close to the vest. Suffice it to say that it’s in constant adjustment.

Finally, there’s the disaster plan. What happens if the bottom falls out of everything? What happens if my plans prove to be misguided? How do I recover? How do I hedge in the good times against the possibility of bad times? For me, the day job helps a lot. The financial cushion and slate of benefits is always welcome—especially now that I’ve crossed the half-century mark—but as I’ve written here before, I enjoy the daily intellectual distraction from things fictional.

Life deals unequal cards. Sometimes the royal flush is followed ten straight hands of garbage. You get knocked off your path, or the path itself becomes a tangle of weeds. These are the times when your goals feel most threatened, when achievement seems too daunting. I think that Declan Burke was in such a place when he wrote his essay. If so, my heart goes out to him.

I just hope he doesn’t give up. Regroup, yes. Change what he writes? Maybe. Who knows? Who am I to say?

I think that our most defining moments occur when our goals seem most threatened. I pray that I’ll always have the stamina to blaze whatever trails I need to keep the goals in sight. I worry that surrender would kill me.


  1. This is great advice for any writer at any stage in their career. Many writers just starting out only see the artistic and creative side of the business. But writing books is a business, and those that are most successful see it that way. Having obtainable goals in place is also critical. You can never arrive if you don’t know your destination.

  2. I couldn't have said it better, John. Being an Environmental Engineer myself and likely used the services of that Haz-Waste behemoth of which you speak, I understand exactly what you went through.

    Last December, after almost 40 years of straight employment (yeah, I started working at 15 and had a job all the way through college) I found myself without a job and in a horrible economy. Killer was my being laid off had nothing to do with the economy, it was the Inbev buyout of Anheuser-Busch.

    I thought about writing full time. I thought about it for all of 2 seconds and then my mind snapped back to reality.

    I knew what my finaces were and knew that a full time writing lifestyle wouldn't fit my plans right now. It took me about a month, but I found a great position and I'm building a new environmental department for an big established company. It's taking a lot of time from writing, but hey, I need to look after my family and "it is what it is."

    Before I began writing my first novel, I wrote a business type goal: "After a reader puts down A REASON FOR DYING, I want them to wonder if this could really happen." Some of my writing friends thought I was crazy. But it was the businessman in me coming out.

    Did I achieve my goal? That's not for me to say.

    Good blog, John.

  3. Sometimes it feels as if we have a lot less control that we actually do. While some things are out of our control, but fewer than we want to admit.

  4. I completely agree, John. In my new writing book (see this Sunday's post) I have a section on strategic planning for writers. You simply have to these days.

  5. I heard an excellent presentation by a consistent NYT bestselling author, who said that her career as a writer changed when she "decided what sort of writer she wanted to be." In her case, it was to make $60,000 a year (and that was a few years ago). To get there she had to change the types of books she was writing (from romance to thriller), revise her writing production (from 2 - 3 books a year to one), and rely on financial support for one year to get going. That sounds like it was a business plan, and you're right, John--it's crucial.

  6. I know about planning for business. About the same time you started your offshoot business, John, I started a computer business in Ohio with visions of being the next Gateway. Three years later I was 28, bankrupt & living on my Grandparents farm in Alaska where I bailed hay and built sheds for half a decade. Why? No plan & no backup for how to acheive my goals.

    With writing I have formulated a goal and a plan.

    The Goal: I am going to be the next Tom Clancy / Frederick Forsythe guy by 50.

    The Plan:
    1. write until I have the form and style perfected.
    2. In the meantime build an audience via web/ blogs/ podcasts/ talk radio/ town crier/ etc
    3.Keep repeating until agent and I are able to convince publishers of my plan
    4. get movie deals (3 & 4 may be reversed and that's OK)
    5. continue to supplement writing by working regular day job for as long as it takes.
    6. If above doesn't work as planned, change method of attack and flank 'em according to principles of Generals Sun Tzu & A.M. Gray.

    That's the goal and plan.
    It will be accomplished,
    Aye, Aye Sir!

    Semper Fi!

    ooh...I get goose bumps thinking about it.

  7. Some wonderful tips and hints, it has inspired me to keep writing.