The entrepreneurial mind-set

One of the things I used to really enjoy doing as a business reporter was interviewing entrepreneurs--people who had struck out on their own and started businesses. Sometimes these were small businesses--local chains--and sometimes they were businesses that you and me and your Aunt Sally all know.

What made these stories so much fun to report and write was that the entrepreneurs were all completely insane. They had all done it wrong. We're talking dropouts, dyslexics, bozos who couldn't hold a job for more than two months, financing their businesses by maxing out credit cards, living with their parents, and just plain crossing their fingers. These people did not cautiously climb the corporate ladder--or if they did, one day they just went crazy and kicked the ladder out from under them because they thought they could fly.

Totally entertaining. I mean, artists and writers like to think of themselves as misfits and bohemians, but Jesus Christ, we have nothing on these people. (If you think I am exaggerating, read this profile about the woman who founded Stila--OK, fine, she has an artsy background, but even the ones who start accounting firms are more like her than not.)

In short, these are people who have what I would characterize as a rather extreme faith in themselves and their way of doing things. It's not the normal way of doing things, which is why they tend not to do so well in corporate settings.

That kind of self-reliance I think is really important for writers--in general, really, but especially when they approach the business of publishing books today.

The Wall Street Journal recently had a profile of best-selling self-published author Darcie Chan (excerpts available here if you can't get behind the pay wall). Chan is a lawyer who wrote a book, put it up on Amazon as an e-book, did some promotion, and sold 400,000 copies! (Wow!)

That's all great, except that it looks like she's spending all her energy now trying to find someone else to take care of this property. She got an agent, who has not been able to sell the book to traditional publishers. (Does this make me look like a total ass? Possibly--although I'll turn it around and say that I expect the publishers who survive to routinely pick up successful self-published books.)

The problem? She's selling the book for 99 cents, and traditional publishers want to sell it for $26. Of course.

Call me crazy, but I think that having to sell things at really high prices is traditional publishing's problem, not Darcie Chan's problem. I think she needs to start thinking in terms of self-reliance, instead of looking to traditional publishing to take care of her.

Part of the issue, in my opinion, is that she's not monetizing her success: She's treating a gold mine like a nickel mine and thinking she needs help because she's only a humble nickel miner. Obviously pricing is something that is constantly debated, but when you've sold 400,000 copies? At that point, you don't need to introduce yourself to people. You can raise your prices. She's made 35 cents per book, so since May, when she put the book up, she's made $140,000. If she raised the price to $2.99, she'd make $2 per book. Even if her sales over the next six months plummeted to 100,000 copies, she'd make $200,000--and if they hold up, she'd make much more. Maybe her mind doesn't work this way, but for most people, once they've made a million dollars or two, they start thinking that maybe they're capable making good business decisions and don't need someone else to do that for them.

Another reason she wants a contract with a traditional publishing house is so that she can make a paper book that will be available in libraries and bookstores.

Uuugggghh. Because as this blog has amply demonstrated, it is impossible to make a paper book any other way. (She already has a cover, she just needs to hire a layout artist--hell, CreateSpace will do that for you for $249. I think she can afford that at this point.) Libaries do carry self-published paper books. And to the indie bookstores where she lives, she's a bestselling local author--I'm fairly certain they'll stock her.

Darcie Chan seems like a smart woman, she's willing to invest in her book, and I'm sure she'll find her way. But this sort of thing is why you see such frustration coming from people like Dean Wesley Smith and Joe Konrath--it takes relatively little research to discover that you don't actually need a publisher to lay out and print a paper book. It takes relatively little research to realize that the main advantage a publisher brings is with marketing, and hell, Chan's done an excellent job with that.

But you have to be willing to do business research. You have to approach this as an entrepreneur.

Some entrepreneurs can't go it alone--and it's very much to their disadvantage. Have you heard of a CT scan? Several people had the idea, but the machines were so insanely expensive to build that for years it never went anywhere until someone came along who had connections with the right kind of manufacturing firm. Likewise you might have a brilliant new concept for the design of a computer chip or a car--but unless you also own a chip- or car-making factory, good luck implementing it.

Writing is not even remotely like that nowadays. It's much more like software, where some guy working in his garage can change how everybody works, socializes, and thinks. You can go it alone, and increasingly, you'll have to. (I mean, publishers don't want a book that sold 400,000 copies in six months? WTF?) Writers have to be self-reliant in order to write--you have to believe in your vision and your product. Is it really such a challenge to extend that self-reliance into the arena of producing and distributing your book?