THE PRACTICAL WRITER Strategic Thinking
Business management tools for writers.
BUSINESS is about making money, and poetry is not. But if we think of the connections our writing makes with readers as sales, the correlation offers some useful tools for viewing and enhancing our impact on the poetry market. Art is made not only in the solitary act of creating, but also in the act of receiving by an audience. The power of art rests in that connection. Sales works the same way: You might prep for weeks for a business meeting with a client, but the important part is what happens when you’re all seated around the table.
Businesses must focus on sales to survive. It’s not always a pleasant task, but it is made more palatable when you believe that what you’re producing will enhance someone else’s life. That the product is needed and necessary for the world. That even if people don’t know to look for the product, they will enjoy it and it will improve their experience of the world.
Below are some tools commonly used in the business world to help teams and individuals focus their time to achieve the business’s objectives in an effective manner. I found them very useful during my fifteen years as an executive at a Fortune 10 corporation, where I led teams that set pricing strategy for mobile phone plans and broadband services, and I’ve adapted them to my writing life. They give me a framework in which to plan my time, increase my impact on the marketplace, and recognize my achievements.
Tool 1: Mission and Vision Statements
What is it you’re trying to do with your writing? Is it to express and/or work through feelings for your own benefit? Document history for yourself or family or friends? Create art for an abstract audience? Become famous? These are all valid reasons—there are no wrong reasons—but be honest with yourself. When money is not in play, success is defined by whether you’re doing what you set out to do.
Write a mission statement that summarizes your purpose. My mission statement is “to create and facilitate wonder.” I don’t write to delve into my inner self. I create because I want to have something that makes me see the world in a new way—that creates a new world that I hope will delight others. And I know there are other people in the world
whose brains are similar to mine, who will be delighted as well. I just have to find them (more on this later).
A vision statement is similar, but instead of defining you and what you’re about, it goes into why and how. Vision statements can take a few different forms. With regard to my own pursuit of wonder, my vision statement could be, on the more artistic side, “to take nature by surprise by acutely observing the world while making it new, in order to create wonder for readers.” Or it can be more practical: “to create experiences of wonder for readers by presenting them with new visions of the natural world, in public forums and written publications.”
Tool 2: Elevator Pitch
This is a thirty-second speech, so called because you could give it during the time it takes to ride an elevator. The idea is that you happen to get into the elevator with the CEO of your company (or your ideal client or reader or interviewer), and that person asks, “What do you do?” You have until the elevator reaches the inquirer’s floor to make an impression and answer the question. It’s a good idea to have one of these prepared for your job. It’s also a good idea to have one prepared for your art. I am embarrassed by how long I’ve been stumbling at parties and dinners, mumbling something about being a poet, and my awkward answer to the inevitable follow-up question of “what kind of poetry do you write?” In fact, I finally wrote an elevator pitch for this article. Want to hear it?
What do you do? I am a poet. I draw from the commonplace and nature and combine those elements in uncommon ways. I want my readers to experience something new and extraordinary but relatable to the world they know. I think creating wonder improves individual lives and, therefore, our community and world. I also edit and translate because I love bringing fresh voices to audiences that will be enriched by them.
Tool 3: Market Analysis
Who is your audience? Where do they get their reading materials? How do you effectively reach them? Read a lot of literary journals and small-press titles to find your editors, who likely will already have some of your audience gathered, just waiting to read you. If you’re writing for your own benefit, you are your own audience, or perhaps your family and friends are your audience.
Tool 4: SMART Goals
Set goals for yourself. These should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time Limited. What does this mean? Specific means you need to fix on a number. If your goal is to send out your work to journals, what do you mean by that? Will you send twentyfive poems to journals over the next twelve months? Or resend work within two weeks of it being rejected? Or if you’re setting writing goals, are they ten pages a week or two hours of writing every weekday? Be specific. Specific
goals are Measurable. As for Achievable, instead of setting a goal around the number of publications or books sold, which you don’t control directly, set them around the number of readings you do or submissions you send out. Track your progress against them. Your goals should be Relevant, meaning they should tie to your mission statement. They should be steps toward what you’re trying to achieve with your art. If you’re writing a family history for family consumption, sending out your work to journals is not relevant, but sending it to your cousin might be. And your goals should be Time Limited: Do this action by this date.
My SMART goals for 2018 are to send out my work to more than one journal at least once every two months, to translate a book and prepare it for submission to publishers, to organize a community of writers in Atlanta to give feedback on one another’s work and meet together monthly, to release the first book under my editorship with Doubleback Books, and to do at least eight readings in support of my second book launch. These all reflect my mission and vision statements, and they relate to my elevator pitch. These are all ways to connect with readers for my own work, to sharpen my skills as a writer to become more effective, or to introduce other writers’ work to an audience.
Along with SMART goals, you might set what I call stretch goals. These are more visionary objectives. They might be more aggressive SMART goals, which you hope to achieve one day but might require more work than you have time for now. Or they might be more aspirational. Mine is the number of copies of my books I want to sell—I calibrated my expectations after asking my editor and editor friends the average and highest-selling books they typically see—and the number of poems I want to have accepted for publication, which is based on my latest years’ trends. These goals tie directly to connecting with my audience but in ways not directly under my control.
And these goals should be ways in which you can define success for yourself and feel good about your writing life, in which external reward and feedback is difficult to get. By making SMART goals around the factors you can control, you can meet them. By making stretch goals, you can picture outcomes that will inform your SMART goal setting.
Tool 5: Performance Reviews
At the end of the period you set for your SMART goals, give yourself a performance review. Did you meet your goals? What worked and what didn’t? Adjust and reset your goals for the next period. Do you have strengths you’ve seen? Weaknesses that are affecting your ability to reach your goals?
If you set your goals too aggressively, reevaluate. By having a feedback loop, you can improve your effectiveness, plan better, and celebrate your achievements.
Tool 6: General Work Skills
Be organized and document your submissions. The Poets & Writers Submission Tracker (www.pw.org/submissions) allows you to track your submissions, search for ones that have been out for too long (I allow magazines a year), and log any feedback you get. Set calendar reminders for deadlines and around your submission goals. Honor commitments to yourself and others. Take your writing seriously and act professional about it. Prepare for readings; practice what you’ll say. Have your elevator pitch and vision statement ready to recite. Put together a clean, professional website that is easy to navigate. If you make business cards, don’t make them fussy or cute— keep them clean and professional.
Tool 7: Network
Did you cringe at this word? It’s vital. Good networking is about building community. Meet the other writers in your area. Support their work. I’m in a book club, a poetry workshop, a women’s small-business group, and a women’s group associated with a university in town. I’m on the editorial staff for a press and a journal. I’m part of an active and highly interconnected neighborhood. I’m part of a church. I’m part of an extended family. There are people in all these groups who want to read my work because I wrote it. And you know what? Some of them love it. Some of them have it next to their bed, dog-eared. Some of them say they take a break during their day to read one poem, like sneaking a square of chocolate, and that it’s their favorite part of the day. Networking is about love, support, and genuinely appreciating what other people put out in the world and not being bashful about letting them appreciate what you’re putting out there. Accept the support, cultivate it, and give it to others.
Tool 8: Generating “Sales” Leads
The commerce of writing. This is where the rubber meets the road, where the audience gets your work into their hands, where the possibility of the connection is realized. The leads come from your networks, from your readings, from your website, from journals you appear in. Where is your audience gathered virtually and in person? How do you reach them there? How do you create new audiences?
One of the more interesting ideas I’ve pursued is Poetry-oke. I bring a binder of some of my favorite, often funny poems to a public space and invite people to step up to a mic and read them. This has been performed in the middle of downtown Atlanta as part of a public art and music summer series, in libraries, and at public art events. This doesn’t get my work out there directly, but it does increase name recognition locally. And it does it in a way that didn’t make me wince when I was first reentering the poetry scene after quitting my corporate job. It allowed me to build networks for my work. Check out the pictures
on my website, daniellejhanson.com /poetryoke. These are mainly people who never read poems, performing them in a public space. And laughing, and reading another one, and enjoying poetry.
I’ve written proposals for other public art forums—poetry along the Atlanta Beltline and as part of public downtown art installations. I never miss an opportunity to try to bring poetry into a public space in a fun way. Most proposals fail, but any that succeed will meet my mission of creating wonder.
Set up booths at art fairs. It seems strange, but I sold more copies of my book there than at any reading I’ve done. I gave away copies of a couple of my poems as samples. A man read my poem “Eating His Dead Wife,” about someone eating his wife’s ashes because he misses her so much. The man’s wife had died, and he didn’t know what to do with her ashes. He sat next to my booth for a while, bought a copy of my book, and asked me to sign it for his wife. Connection made and art created. That’s why we write. A connection like that will keep me writing through a lot of rejection letters.
Tool 9: Advertising and Web Presence
How do you reach more people? You have to put yourself out there where you can be found. Local papers will often advertise readings and events. A website is a must, so that a reader who finds your work in a journal or at an event can read more about you and more of your work. It also gives you a way to link to journals that support your work, perhaps adding to their readership. If someone likes your writing, and the editor chooses your writing for that journal, your readers are more likely to enjoy other pieces in the journal. Advertising your work can support the community you’re a part of. Getting your work into readers’ hands doesn’t have to be narcissistic. It’s just as much about your community as it is about you. Remember: Experiencing art is beneficial to your readers. Give them the opportunity to have that experience. Get your work into their hands. The worst that could happen is that you find the wrong reader and no connection is made. If ten people read your work, and one of them is transformed by the experience, if only for a day, that’s amazing.
IN SHORT, we in the arts often denigrate business as dirty and solely concerned with profit. There might be a kernel of truth to that, but when money is involved, people tend to become efficient and clever. We can use business tools in the arts toward a different goal—spreading connection and art to new audiences and improving our world.
Good sales and good business are about making connections between people. A genuine product that has emotional resonance is often more profitable. What better model could there be for spreading our work, for creating the connection that is art?