Monday, June 02, 2008

Risky Business

Let's talk about risk.

According to the dictionary, risk is the quantifiable likelihood of loss or less than expected returns.

Many activities have some sort of risk associated with them. Travel. Sex. Sports. Even eating, though the risk may be long-term.

If you look up stats on car accidents, or heart attacks, you might wonder why we still speed or eat french fries, because the risk is great.

The answer is that we weigh the benefits of these activities against the risk, and judge them worth doing anyway. So we dive 100mph while eating a gordito, because the odds are in our favor that we won't have a burnout and then v-fib.

Gambling may be the most calculated, and the most honest, risk we expose ourselves to. The rewards and risks, and the odds for both, are all laid out for us.

But our careers, on the other hand, are places where we tend to minimize risk as much as possible. We feel fortunate to be employed, and much of what we do is geared toward making sure we stay employed. Since our families are often tied in with our jobs, we can put up with a lot of crap at work in order to make sure the people we love have enough money, food, clothing, shelter, and XBOX 360 games in order to be happy.

When your job is one that involves a great deal of luck (you knew I'd get to publishing, right?) and you've worked very hard to be published, the last thing you want to do is rock the boat and lose your place in line.

Writers are conditioned to be grateful. We should be grateful---more people make their livings playing major league baseball than writing fiction. But that doesn't mean we should devalue ourselves.

I've always been about making money for my publisher. I feel a writing contract is a partnership, and if one partner is making money, so is the other.

But what if your partner isn't doing all they can, or should, be doing? You're doing your best. Writing good books. Promoting like crazy. Making money. But rather than try to grow, your partner is content with how things are. And your partner assumes that you're content as well, because you're damn lucky to be published in the first place.

I feel this situation is a problem. Perhaps not for all writers. Some may be happy with where they're at, and content to ride the status quo. Other writers, however, feel frustrated and trapped, because leaving their publisher and/or agent to try and go elsewhere involves a great deal of risk.

Is a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush if the bird is crapping all over your wrist?

One of my many core beliefs is that we should die regretting the things we haven't done, not the things we've done. Making a mistake is better than doing nothing at all.

Yes, walking away from an agent or publisher is hard. After all, they believed in you. Gave you a chance. Made you some money. You like them, and they like you. And if you leave them, you may wind up worse off.

But writing is a business, and the most successful business people take risks. That's just the way it goes. You have to be willing to lose big in order to win big.

How do you know it's time to part ways with your business partners? Here are a few signs.

You aren't getting feedback. If your agent/editor doesn't reply to your concerns in a timely, efficient manner, you aren't high on their priority list. Why should they be high on yours?

You're being handled. If you're treated like child, patronized, condescended to, then this isn't a good relationship. Ditto if you're shuffled off to underlings.

You have different plans for your future. This is a big one. If you want to go somewhere, and they want you to go somewhere else, how hard are they going to work to get you where you want to be? Even if you both want to get to the same place, do you agree on how to get there?

You aren't growing. Look inward. Are you doing all you can to grow? Are the people who are supposed to help you to grow actually helping you, or hindering you?

You want more money. Face it, we all want more money. But you can't ask for it politely. You have to demand it, and go elsewhere if you don't get it. But you will never win a negotiation if you aren't willing to walk away. Is your agent willing to play hardball, even if she loses? Is your publisher so committed to your success that they're willing to make a substantial investment in your future?

You aren't happy. This is ultimately the only thing that counts. Playing he said/she said doesn't do anyone any good. You need to take a close look at your professional relationships, weigh the good against the bad, and decide if you want to stick around.

But that's the thing. It's YOUR decision. It's YOUR career. Yes, other people are helping you make money, but you're helping them as well. Your books, both past and future, are a commodity.

Commodities are traded, bought, and sold, all the time. They change hands. Many hands.

Look closely at your career. Is it time for you to change hands too?