I was talking to a writer friend the other day about the sacrifices we have to make in order to have long and storied careers as writers. I mentioned the idea of a Writer's ROI, that everything we do is adding another quarter to the piggy bank of our careers, and she asked me to write more about it. I think it's a useful topic to think about, so here goes.
ROI, or return on investment, is a common financial term. Its formula is thusly explained: ROI= (Gain from investment — Cost of Investment) / Cost of Investment.
In other words, it’s very easy to gauge how much money you’ve made on an investment if you subtract the gain from the cost and divide it by the initial cost. Positive ROI means you’ve made a good investment. Negative ROI and you’ve messed up somewhere.
So how does this term apply to the writer’s life?
In simplest terms, your publisher is certainly running ROIs on you. They look at a book, run a P&L (profit and loss statement — excellent examples here from Jane Friedman) decide what it’s worth to them to publish you, make an offer of advance against royalties (which you will either accept, negotiate, or reject.) Assuming you come to terms, you then need to help sell said book in order to make their investment worth it.
The way you do this is by writing a kick ass book, obviously, but also in the courtship of readers: through direct means (social media), through booksellers, conferences, and the like. All the while, you’re writing a new book for them, one that will get an even bigger advance, and so on, and so on. Every sale counts against that advance you were given, in the general range of 8% - 12% of cover price for physical copies, and 25% of net for an ebook. The readers are investing in you just as the publisher is, helping you grow, to earn out those contracts, and keep getting new contracts. (The goal of your personal ROI is to keep you writing, in case you hadn't picked up on that.)
Everyone at some point in this process has the moment of — OMG, my book is going to make the New York Times list, become a blockbuster film starring Angelina Jolie-Pitt, be publishing simultaneously in 50 territories, and I will retire and rest on my laurels forever! This happens, sure it does, but if you’re approaching your writing career thinking you’re going to write a single book and the rest will take care of itself, you’re 99.9% in for a rude awakening.
The sad thing is, many truly excellent authors get discouraged if the scenario doesn’t play out the way they’ve envisioned. Or this scenario *does* happen, and then they’re paralyzed to create anything new, so they do rest on their laurels, and find out the universal truth of life — this too shall pass.
So for the rest of us, thinking about your career, your trajectory, your responsibilities to yourself and your readers, can be looked at in terms of your own personal ROI. You invest in yourself. You build your career, one word at a time, one deadline met at a time, one book sold at a time. You stay humble and focused and write hard. You help other authors by shamelessly promoting their work; you mentor newbies. If the big breakthrough doesn’t happen immediately, you still know that you’ve done it all right, and you’re going to keep plugging away until you do have that breakout book.
Building isn’t always fun. It’s hard. There are many sacrifices. Trips to conferences take time away from family and cost a lot of money. Honoring your writing time can be seen as being selfish (especially for women.) Books are published poorly, or orphaned. Life gets in the way.
But if you take this career seriously, if you take yourself and your art seriously, you will plan for these inevitabilities. You will make the appropriate sacrifices, at the appropriate times. You will manage your expectations. Your investment in yourself will begin to grow, to show fruit.
Your next book advance might be a little bigger. The reviews might be a little better. The publisher might ask you to meet with some booksellers, or attend a trade show. And you’ll do it, willingly, because you take yourself and your craft and your career seriously.
And so on.
Maybe another term for ROI, one creatives may be more familiar with, is *paying your dues*.
You pay your dues in this industry so you’re not a flash in the pan. You became a writer because you wanted to write, not because you thought you’d be feted in Hollywood. Right? *Right?*
So you write. And you sacrifice. And you recognize that you are climbing the mountain, one glorious step at a time. You are earning your way to the top. Your ROI is growing a nice little nest egg by the point, too. The money is getting better. The work is getting harder, though — something you must prepare yourself for.
Let me say it again. **The work gets harder**. The more your ROI increases, the more demands there will be on your time. The more the publisher will ask for, the more your readers will expect. You have to juggle the career, the social media and marketing and conferences and bookseller meetings and tours, with writing another book that surpasses the one you’ve just been out selling to the world. It can be rough. It can seem nigh on impossible sometimes.
This career — earning the moniker of author — it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s hard. There are speed bumps. Careers wax and wane. The industry shifts. Genres that were once wildly popular fall out of favor. Editors leave to have babies. There are takeovers and mergers. Publishing is cyclical if nothing else, and understanding that is the key to having a long, fruitful career.
And as for your ROI, you might not have a lot to show for it right away.
But if you keep investing in yourself, in your art, in your career, one day soon, you will hit the mark you’ve set for yourself.
So write hard, my friends. The world is your oyster, and you, you are the shining pearl. (A black pearl, of course, because if you’re a writer, you’re a damn renegade, so own it!)