Treating writing like a business is crucial. It’s not about the money.
When writing is a business, you market it.
When writing is a business, you invest in it.
When writing is a business, you learn about the business.
When writing is a business, you market the business.
That last point is key. The old days of just writing, hitting publish, and letting the book publisher gatekeepers take care of everything for you are over.
If you write, you have to market your work.
But marketing is a messed up word. It causes people to shove selfie poles in front of their faces and fall head over heel in love with themselves. We don’t want that. You’re a writer, not an insecure influencer searching for a Lambo in the Hollywood Hills.
A friend of mine calls what I’m referring to here as the “business side of writing.” I’ve made a business out of my writing and gone from $0 to more than $100,000. I believe you can do the same with a shift in thinking.
As writers, most of us suck at the business side of writing.
I don’t market my blog posts as much as I should. I publish and prey like many other writers. The world is shifting though.
You can’t rely on social media platforms anymore to get your work out to the readers who want it.
Their algorithms are complicated and they simply can’t please everyone.
Most writing platforms don’t age well. The ability for a writer to reach readers on a social media platform diminishes over time.
I remember when it happened on Facebook. Entire online businesses were wiped out. I was standing backstage at a startup event when it went down. There were literally grown men and women crying into their startup t-shirts.
I felt their pain. They’d spent so much time on Facebook only to have them shift their attention to ads, and away from their users. Now Facebook is a rotting carcass. Even my grandma doesn’t use it anymore. All that’s left is local clowns and cinemas looking for customers, who buy ads in the hope their dreams can be repaired because of a global health crisis.
When you treat the tools you use — like the places you write — the way a business does, your thinking changes.
I think of writing platforms like LinkedIn as a partnership. I’m lucky to have them and they are free. They may change over time, but as long as I can reach a few people then it’s a pretty good deal.
All writers are renting the social media platforms they use.
You can’t control them but you can certainly appreciate them. In the end, most platforms have a business to run just like you. Can you blame them for trying to please the majority of users while attempting to pay their building rent and staff with the attention their content gets? I certainly don’t.
Lesson: Treat writing like a business and de-risk your work by publishing in a few places.
Can you write for free?
This is a huge test for writers. See, what is missed by the glossy blog posts promoting billionaires who went from their carport to a luxury mansion overlooking a lake full of white swans is that these business people started working for free.
When you choose to start a business, you work for free for a long time.
Normally that free work happens outside of your paying job until you validate your business enough that you can cut the bungee cord and make the business your everyday thing.
The problem with modern-day writers is they’re entitled. They expect to get paid on day one. This is flawed thinking.
Most writers you respect started doing it for free. Many of them (like me) didn’t even know you could make money writing. The test of any business owner and writer is whether they can do it for free in the beginning. And I don’t mean for one month; I’m talking about years.
If you can write for free then you’ll build up the skill to make it into a business — but not before.
Lesson: Time in the online writing game equals more financial upside.
These are the parts of a writing business.
Let’s get into the detail. Business means making money from your work. The ways writers make money are as follows:
- Premium subscriptions through their personal blog for paid content
- Traditionally published books
- Paid newsletters using Substack or ConvertKit
- Royalties from writing platforms like News Break
- Selling online courses
- Companies who pay to advertise on their website or newsletter
- 1–1 coaching on an area of expertise
- Ghostwriting for people who want to be thought leaders but don’t have time to write.
- Copywriting — writing words designed specifically to make a sale of a product or service.
- Freelancing — writing words for anybody who wants them, and getting paid either a per word or per article fee.
So the business side of writing is just understanding the different ways you can make money as a writer and then mastering them. Obviously you pick more than one way. And obviously you don’t pick every single way to make money and end up mastering none of them.
The trick with thinking of writing as a business is that readers are potential customers. I say potential because not every reader has to become a customer in order for writing to become a business for you. My rough formula is this:
90% of readers access my work for free.
10% of readers access my work via a paid channel.
When you think about writing in these terms, you treat readers with empathy. Instead of jamming stuff in their faces, you think about how you can solve their problems and instruct them through your words.
100 readers can make you 6-figures.
I wish all writers knew this so they would go narrow rather than broad with their writing.
Why do most writers never master the business of writing?
They get greedy or impatient.
They think writing is all about them and how quickly they can make a bucketload of money and pour it over their families.
Greed is a distraction.
Greed and creativity are poisonous mix. If you have to write for money then you will probably do the wrong thing. This is why I suggest to start writing because you like it, rather than it being a forced survival technique.
Here’s my deepest secret: I’m scared to make 100% of my living from writing because I’m scared I’ll mess up the magic of it all, and destroy the good luck I’ve had. Writing because I have to scares the shit out of me.
Many writers face this challenge. The answer in business is always diversification.
Find multiple ways to make money. Then invest the money you make wisely so it works for you. Then reduce your spending, lower your desire to buy stuff you know you don’t need, and you’ll have enough money to work when you choose, without stressing about the size of the paycheck.
Lesson: Think about writing in 5-year blocks. Build your writing business slowly. Make money from more than just writing.
Setting up the business side of writing is the easiest part.
The setup of a writing business is easy.
- Choose one place to write for free.
- Collect your readers through an email list or online community.
- Speak to your public and private readers through regular, helpful content.
- Find a second writing platform that pays writers and sign up.
- Write a short eBook and sell it on your website.
- Experiment with a paid newsletter to service your superfans.
Each of those steps is obvious and easy to do. If you’ve already set up a profile on social media then you’re already a master at setting up a writing business.
The part where writers stuff up
They set up all those tools and then nothing happens. That’s because the tools have several levels of learning.
Level 1 = you can use the tool.
Level 2 = you can find the hidden features of the tool.
Level 3 = you can use the tool in ways it hasn’t been used before.
Level 4 = you can stand out a little in the way you use the tool.
Mastery = you can help others use the tool and have them be successful.
A lot of writers stay at level one and try and turn writing into a business from there. It doesn’t work. Learning the writing tools means mastering them, so the value of your writing skills can help you earn a living.
The other problem: mastery doesn’t happen overnight.
If you use a writing tool like an email list for long enough then you’ll start to see patterns.
Patterns are where mastery is found.
After a while a complex tool can feel stupidly simple. Then you add another tool like a paid newsletter to level up your writing further.
The 2 skills you must have.
Business owners are investors — so are writers.
You have to be smart with the money you make from writing. There will be big months and periods where politics takes the attention off your writing. You’ve got to be prepared for both and invest your money.
The second skill you must have is collaboration. I haven’t seen any writing businesses worth replicating that are based on a single human. A single human writing business will become overwhelmed, eventually.
I spend a lot of my time with a group of writers who understand the business side of writing. They help me with my business and I help them with theirs. The revolutionary idea I came across recently was to pool resources.
If you have 1000 email subscribers, and you had ten other people with similar sized lists, then that’s a lot of email subscribers. You can reach a much larger audience when you collaborate.
Publications, editors, the writing platform you write on — they’re all partners, so treat them that way.
A user says “what can I take?”
A partner says “what are you working on and how can I help?”
Successful writers don’t follow the blind.
Many writers looking to turn their passion into a business are following the blind. Then the blind writers follow more blind writers who have no idea.
The result? The blind lead everybody towards blaming, complaining and extreme frustration.
The mental toll of writing is hard enough. You don’t need blind writers who have never made a dollar from writing telling you the sky is falling in and spreading conspiracies. I follow writers who have made their work into a business. They keep me calm and show me ways I can de-risk my business.
A giant shift in thinking is needed.
The business of writing is built on a solid foundation of high-quality content. You can’t build a writing business on terrible content.
Write quality content readers find helpful and you’ll have thousands of ways to repurpose that same content into online courses, books, and premium subscriptions readers will pay money for.
The business of writing is simply being helpful to a small audience who want you around to inspire, tell stories and teach them in return for a small amount of money they will gladly pay you.