I met Leila through BookCrossing in 2005. She was already a writer, but was at the beginning of her publishing career at that stage. Leila’s story shows us that, even if you’re in a creative field, you still need to think about marketing yourself and making sure you can be found on the web, etc., as well as diversifying to make sure you can support yourself. It’s also interesting to see that, like me, Leila started off working part time at a day job while she developed her craft and business. She also makes some important links between creativity and running a business, running in both directions, from which I think we can all learn.
What’s your business called? When did you set it up?
I am a self-employed writer, primarily of children’s fiction – my books are published by Usborne Fiction and I’m represented by Julia Churchill at the Greenhouse. So not precisely a business, but I guess I ‘set up shop’ when I got my first publishing deal, so back in 2007.
What made you decide to set up your own business?
Again, this won’t be a conventional response. I always loved writing, but while working at my first job (admin for the National Literacy Trust) I decided that I cared enough about it to make a serious push to get published. I understood the time and effort I would have to put in to getting good enough for publication so I changed job so that I could cut down to 4 days a week (I would recommend that to anyone who wants to start something new – the extra day is really a godsend) and concentrate on writing for the other three. I guess what made me decide to ‘go for it’ was similar to what motivates people to set up their own business: wanting to make a difference with my life by doing something creative, wanting to spend my time doing something that I felt good at and which felt rewarding and persona l…
I also do writing tutoring which is more conventionally business-like. I love the practical challenge of setting up and running workshops; and I think it is something I can do well, and something that people want. Running a business is a very creative and challenging thing, and it really infuses your whole life, I think – like writing. I never switch off my writing brain.
What made you decide to go into this particular business area?
As above, a lifelong passion and a sense that I could do it well.
Had you run your own business before?
No, but I had worked in some small businesses (pubs, a deli) so I had a sense of the hard work and rewards involved.
How did you do it? Did you launch full-time, start off with a part-time or full-time job to keep you going … ?
As above, I changed my job to make sure I had the time to concentrate on the writing. I happened to meet my now-husband at the same time, we ended up moving to Brussels where the cost of living was lower and I was able to work just four days a week in a bookshop. This meant I got a very good overview of my competition (other writers! ) and the industry I would be entering into. I understood publishing from the ‘opposite end’ – the sellers rather than the producers of the books, and I have found it very useful to understand the overall economic context my books will be entering into.
What do you wish someone had told you before you started?
I think I was aware of most of the challenges but it’s hard to really understand them until you experience them. Certainly everyone wanting to be a writer should be aware that it is difficult to make a living – the average member of the Society of Authors earns less than five thousand pounds per annum from their writing. It is also just as difficult to continue being published as it is to get published in the first place, perhaps more. Books of acknowledged literary excellence can go out of print within a couple of years. Published writers get rejected too, frequently. If your first book doesn’t sell publishers may see you as an economic risk and you may never get published again. The life of a writer is a probation period that never ends.
An unpleasant surprise was discovering how fragmented the writing community can be. Children’s writers in particular can be very supportive of each other, but at times I found mutual suspicion and ignorance between writers working in different contexts: e.g. Arts Council funded versus commercial publisher. This seems to be typical of the arts, though – it can be very dog-eat-dog.
What would you go back and tell your newly entrepreneurial self?
It’s worth it!
What do you wish you’d done differently?
I wish I’d started to take my writing seriously, earlier.
What are you glad you did?
Worked very hard at improving my writing to publishable level.
What’s your top business tip?
Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield.
How has it gone since you started? Have you grown, diversified or stayed the same?
My waistline has grown. The writer’s life is a sedentary one. I have diversified: as well as writing my novels I now write for Working Partners, do manuscript critiques, teach creative writing, run writing workshops for adults and children, do a bit of proof-reading and a bit of English teaching. It’s essential, because for me as for 99 % of writers, writing does not and is never likely to pay the bills. Though fingers crossed it might one day!
Where do you see yourself and your business in a year’s time?
Hopefully with more books published and/or under contract.
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