Writers, Beware the Service-Provider Conundrum

Published writers, are you tempted to offer your services to other writers who are still working toward getting their books on the market? They need help with editing, formatting, cover design... you know there's a lot involved in creating a quality product. If you're thinking about doing that, I can relate! I felt the same way, and I acted on it.

After hearing about other indie writers being ripped off for basic services, and having my own experience self-publishing my books, I decided to make life harder for the sharks by offering better services at vastly lower prices. Originally this was focused on children's books and was on a pay-what-you-want model (but not free). I eventually created Crenel Publishing to provide, as the tagline goes, "publishing services for a digital world."

It seemed a slam-dunk decision. I have a solid technical background and have been publishing digitally since before the Web existed (and thus before Amazon existed), and I could provide technically-correct, author-sensitive services at reasonable prices. Everybody should win, other than the sharks... right? What I didn't expect was an inherent conflict that would loom as my client list started to grow. Read on to learn more about what I now see as the service-provider conundrum.

In a nutshell, the conundrum is this: Whose project do I work on? And I don't mean "which client" but rather, choosing between working on any client's project versus working on one of my own. What I didn't see on the horizon when I decided to help other authors is the time, energy, and focus conflicts between working on the projects of others and working on my own. After starting to provide publishing services, work on my own projects slowed to a crawl, when they moved forward at all. Consistently, if there has been a time conflict between a client project and one of my own, the client project wins and mine goes back on the shelf. Or, more likely, it never came off the shelf to begin with.

Sometimes it's not a big deal. Maybe I just wanted to complete a certain first draft within a certain time frame and didn't meet my self-imposed deadline because my time was spent working on client projects instead. Other times it's less innocuous, like when I had a locked-in release date of one of my own novels but couldn't focus on promoting it because my time had to be spent elsewhere. Watching a book go live without any sales at all and missing the chance to build sales momentum in that critical first-30-days window is not fun.

Social networking exacerbates the problem. We're often told (and I believe it's a good idea) to be active on social networks in relation to our writing. This is not by begging for sales but just making people aware of what we're doing. This is even more critical up to and during the release of a new title. However, clients are able to see public posts just as well as anyone else. If they see you posting a lot about your project, they may question whether their project is getting any of your attention. Good communication is important, and a reasonable client will understand that you can't be expected to devote your life to their project... but spend a few minutes reading Clients From Hell and you'll see that communication and being reasonable will only go so far. (Luckily, I have had very reasonable clients and any communication problems have usually been on my side.)

I realize that not everyone will experience the same problem. Part of the reason that it has been so difficult for me is the extent of other demands on my time, aside from anything work- or writing-related. If you find yourself sitting around wondering what to do, or binge-watching show after show, then your time isn't overbooked and it's likely you also have "spare bandwidth" when it comes to personal energy, focus, etc. Starting from that point will give you a very different experience from mine. I do not have a time surplus, so choosing to do one thing means choosing to not do something else.

In most business situations, having enough work to keep you busy is not a bad thing -- in fact, as long as that work is profitable, it's the best situation you could hope for. You don't want your employees sitting around idle. However, for a one-person, home-based business (as mine is currently, and as your author-services business is likely be at first), there are no employees to whom work can be delegated. Often there are no substantial time or physical boundaries between "home" and "work," either. That can lead to discarding any sense of work/life balance and working all the time. Your own writing projects -- especially if you're not selling enough to make a living from them (which also describes my situation) -- will seem more and more like hobbies to which you should not allocate any time.

Most businesses are also not build around all-out creativity. Sure, creativity plays a part of any successful business, because you can't achieve and maintain success without adapting to changing market conditions, and that requires some element of creativity. But many businesses are not built upon creativity. For writers, creativity is the beginning and the end, their entire publishing career is creativity. That imposes a different set of constraints compared to other lines of businesses. Many types of work can be stopped and started with very little preparation, but writers often need a mental warm-up time to get significant (and good-quality) work done. This makes switching from a client's project to your own project more time consuming and, in general, more difficult.

I don't want to discourage anyone in particular from offering their talents and skills to other writers. I just want to make it less likely that someone will blindly stumble into something that, in the long run, throws cold water on their own creative efforts. If you're successfully balancing work on client projects as well as your own, or if you've been caught up in the time allocation service-provider conundrum, feel free to leave a comment below.

Photo credit: gracey on morgueFile.com. Used under license.