Does a business tool fit a creative process?
I’ve been reading about the business concept of Return on Investment (ROI) and its application to the writer’s life to increase profit margins and define the marketability of content. According to Wikipedia, ROI is “a ratio between net income (over a period) and investment (costs resulting from an investment of some resources at a point in time).” Proponents of using ROI in the writing life claim that assigning a cost to each piece of the writing process the writer gains a clear picture of what is a cost-efficient use of time and what is not. This guides the writer in producing different content or streamlining their process. The argument makes sense at first glance, and yet . . . Is the act of writing an industrialized procedure that can be broken down into widget-style chunks? Can the writing process be calculated and measured? Must all writing adhere to the rules of a consumer driven marketplace?
Writing as skill. Writing as craft. Writing as art.
If we define all writing as transactional, then ROI can be applied to the process; however, not all writing is transactional.
Journalists and Copywriters
Journalism seems most aligned with ROI. A journalist or freelancer has a certain amount of time to cover a story and the subject is assigned; it has parameters. This type of project lends itself to ROI cost analysis. Content writing, whether it be marketing copy or a social media post, also lends itself to ROI. When a writer is trying to either relay information or to persuade an audience, their writing is transactional. Both goals are measurable. Journalists and content writers leverage their talent with words to earn a reasonably steady salary. But what if we consider a journalist crafting a year-long expose´? Does ROI still apply? A year-long assignment might take many more working hours than are paid for the final piece. So even in the more structured writing professions, ROI might not be a useful tool.
I define this group of writers as professionals who sell books parallel to coaching and teaching subjects within their specialty. Think of the real estate guru who, in addition to working as a realtor, writes books, produces webinars, and offers coaching classes. Their business, their identity, is fully supported by the “extras,” so if their ROI is not balanced, the “extras” will have to be streamlined. I also would put ghost writers in this category, because of their entrepreneurial nature. Writers in this category often embrace ROI because the tool fits their business model. They are in the business of writing without management or a steady salary; therefore, the hours they devote to projects must match the amount of payment.
Novelists, Poets, Short Story Writers, and Others
So where do authors of novels, poetry, and other works fit in with ROI? Contrary to the blog posts I have read, I do not believe they do. Writing as the pursuit of a lifelong craft or writing to create a piece of art, is (well let’s just say it) inherently a waste of time in the capitalist model. Quite simply, if an author is following their Muse, there is no way to judge whether their work will be recognized. If by chance the work is recognized by the public or curators of content, then it will quickly become a commodity across many markets. At this point ROI can be happily embraced as amount of effort exerted will match the profit brought in by mass marketing. If, on the other hand, the work is not recognized and marketed, an author will gain neither wages nor praise. If resentment, depression, or failure of inspiration follow, the author will be better-served by calculating ROI. The starving artist and penniless poet are based on a sobering reality: somehow food and shelter must be bought. In short: Get a job to support pure creativity.
An Alluring Notion
Applying business ideas to a creative process is alluring, especially in our gig economy in which creatives are struggling for a daily living. The blogs and podcasts I’ve looked at increasingly take for granted that ALL creative acts must be strategic and held against ROI in order to be defined as successful. Obviously, each writer’s definition of success varies. Why impose business success on a personal creative act? What happens to a fiction writer’s authentic voice when playing to the market? I assume that as adults we know having a day job such as working as a journalist is prudent if one also wants to pursue novel writing. It’s a balanced approach to living. To push ROI into all writing pursuits seems an unnecessary killjoy. It does not translate to a creative journey where authenticity and finding one’s voice through art is a lifelong process.