Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Not A New Career

For over 20 years I worked in Silicon Valley for companies large (IBM, 400,000 employees at the time) and small (UpShot, where we started with three employees). A couple of years ago, I decided to change careers and become a full-time writer.

The joke was on me. I didn’t really change career paths as expected. Instead, I just veered a little. Let me explain.

When you’re coming up with product ideas in the high tech world, you look for a niche that will make your product distinctive and competitive. I did the same thing when I wrote my first two novels. I set them not in New York or even San Francisco but amidst the ambition, greed, and wealth of Silicon Valley where almost no crime fiction had been set before. Silicon Valley crime fiction has become my niche as a writer.

Next, and most important of all, when you’re seeking financing for a high tech company, you need a compelling story, you need to draw the listeners in and have them buy into your dream. You need to expand on that initial elevator pitch, too, with a business plan. Your objective is to get venture capitalists to invest their time, money, and resources into making your story come true. And when you are writing fiction? Your objective is to get a publisher to invest time, money, and resources into turning the story you tell in your manuscript into something tangible, a book.

In telling your story, both investors and publishers are searching for the next blockbuster, for the next Google or the next Da Vinci Code. I’ve had a VC tell me that I had a terrific, useful idea but it was only a $250 million idea, and he was looking for multi-billion ideas. Similarly, I’ve had a manuscript rejected with this comment: “Good as this is, I think it would quickly fall into midlist realm for us here.” Here’s the problem in both cases: No one knows what will make a blockbuster. What investor looked at Facebook when it was a roster for undergrads at Harvard and imagined it with 400 million users? And what about Stieg Larsson’s books? No one, no one had a clue that they would be an international publishing sensation including him. What you want in both cases is to bring a great idea to life. Those who just look around for blockbusters are going to spend too much on what they invest in and miss great stories that end up much bigger than they’d imagined.

I’ll just hit one more too-close-for-comfort-similarity. It’s not enough to build a great software product nor to write a great book. You have to spend your time and ingenuity promoting them. I don’t know what drug Emerson was on when he said, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” Right. There are so many new products, so many new books that you need to stand out. You need to get word of mouth going. How? Who knows? But I do know it’s as hard standing up at a trade show as it is at a bookstore.

Entrepreneur? Novelist? Loved both careers (or one-and-a-half of them), but maybe I should have stuck with my original dream – playing center field on the Giants.

13 comments:

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Great post, Keith. I'd never thought of the similarities between the two before, but you hit the nail on the head!

I think I was stunned when I realized how MUCH writers have to do to promote their writing. That we're really running a business...in every way.

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder

Julia Buckley said...

Ah yes, Keith. If only we could kick back the way Emerson did, probably drinking his lemonade and basking in his self-reliance. :)

Alan Orloff said...

Keith, all you have to do is come up with an idea for a $250 million dollar book. Either that, or learn how to switch-hit.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Great post, Keith. Being a writer is exactly like starting up a business. You have to develop a product folks want, sell it, invest in it, slave over it. Even have sleepless nights over it. As much as we'd like to, we can never forget for long that it is a business. If we do, publishers are there with a reality check.

G.M. Malliet said...

I'm going to the tax accountant today. Looking at the huge pile of receipts for travel etc., I don't think there's any question I'm running a business now.

There is also the fact that, as in any business, writers work even when they don't much feel like it. Looking at the gorgeous weather outside, I really don't feel like working but my office hours are 9-5.

Keith Raffel said...

ELizabeth, Sue Ann, think about the poor entrepreneurs who are usually engineers. Did they know how much of their job would be story-telling? Julia, another similarity is the need for a great team whether vice presidents or agents/experts/editors/fellow bloggers. Gin, I don't have a set time for writing each day. Instead I have a word quota for the day and week. Alan, I guess JK Rowling had an idea bigger than $250M. But she illustrates another point. The so-called experts did not recognize it as such and most turned it down. Thanks for the comments!

Cricket McRae said...

You hit the nail on the head, Keith. It's amazing how much of my former program/project management experience I use in my "new" career.

Deborah Sharp said...

So if you ''fall into the midlist,'' the world DOESN'T beat a path to your door? Damn ... looks like i've been waiting in vain.
Thoughtful post, K!

Keith Raffel said...

Cricket, maybe you could share those skills with the rest of us in a future post. Deb, let me know if your experience is different!

Darrell James said...

One dream at a time, Keith. You've still got a few dozen books to write for us before you take on centerfield. Great post!

Keith Raffel said...

Darrell, a few dozen? So appreciate your optimism.

Mike Dennis said...

The center field dream isn't out of the question, Keith. The Giants need all the help they can get.

Keith Raffel said...

Mike, And I am MUCH cheaper than Rowand.