Turning the oft-asked question: “What should I hire someone else to do?” on its head, J Thorn and Crys Cain talk about doing everything, being a one-man show–when is it useful, and when is it not? And how do you negotiate the transitions?


Crys: Welcome to the TASM podcast. I’m Crys Cain with my cohost, J Thorn. How’s it going? 

J: Hey, Crys. How are you doing? 

Crys: I am on vacation and I’m actually vacating. I am not working… much. 

J: …as you’re doing a podcast, you say I am on vacation. I’m not sure I get this, Crys. How do you define vacation?  

Crys: I’m not really sure.

Working less… leaving my house as a vacation… for like overnights. Getting LASIK done was a vacation. 

Okay. Okay. 

I don’t know. I’m really bad at vacation. 

J: There’s room for improvement there. 

Crys: Room for improvement. How about you? 

J: I’m doing okay. It’s a busy March and April, then really busy for me as far as some client work and some contract work that I’ve taken on.

And I’m trying to like. I’m trying to keep May in sight because I figure once I get to May, some of these things will be over, but I’m kind of in the thick of it now. And it’s just, it’s a challenge, you know? 

Crys: Yeah. Yeah. I did finish a book on Friday and then I basically have not done any words work.

I say that’s a lie. I then went through my– I’m just really bad at not working. Let’s just say I’m an alcoholic. 

J: You’re not on vacation at all is basically what you’re saying.

Crys:  I’m not an alcoholic. I’m a workaholic.The two sometimes get together. We’re just going to say I worked, but I’m mostly not working. 

J: Okay, fair enough. I won’t push you anymore on it. 

Crys: I keep trying  to justify myself, throwing myself deeper in the hole.

 On, I guess it’s two weeks ago as we’re recording this, we’re a couple episodes ahead, on “How do I figure out my system?”, A. W.  Roberson   had a good comment about how, as our knowledge and craft evolves, our goal changes about what writing a book means. 

And it was a lot of what we talked about. How much harder doing the same thing becomes because we’re so aware of all the levels of things we can be doing, even if we aren’t.

J: Yes. Yeah. That was a very insightful comment. I appreciate him leaving that. Or her. Not sure. 

Crys: Oh, yeah. We don’t know, A. W.  We won’t assume. 

I have a question for you that we can take a lot of ways. And I feel like this is really pertinent to us and our community, because this is something we’re constantly negotiating and that is: 

How much can I do alone? 

J: I would like to hear your thoughts first on this one. 

Crys: As little or as much as you can. It’s such, it’s such a broad question, and this is why I love. I really do like the questions that are personal and there isn’t a right answer.

J: That’s your answer?

Crys: That’s my answer for the moment… 

I started out doing everything alone. Every single thing. I did my cover, I did my editing. I did my formatting. I did my proofreading terribly.  But I did it. I managed everything. Now I push off everything I possibly can and still get the quality I want.

J: How did you make that transformation? 

Crys: Step one was co-writing. 

When you have a co-writing relationship, you have to negotiate the sharing of those responsibilities often because one person will care more about a certain aspect of the project than another, or one person simply has more skills or time. So there’s a lot of negotiation there on who does what. 

Then I think I moved into hiring a virtual assistant and I chose someone that I knew because I knew that they delighted in strictly outlined tasks that they did not have to think and intuit what I wanted. So I knew exactly what I was going to give them. And I know that I’m going to get the same result every time because I give them a very specific types of tasks.

I’m still negotiating a lot of other things that are more along the lines of you have to know the business to make smart choices about the things that you do. And I haven’t leveled up to that level of sharing and choosing what I don’t do. 

J: Yeah. Yeah. I, yeah. I feel like the… I feel like the popular response would be: you need help.

You need to reach out or you need to hire, or you need to co-write. And I think it depends. 

So let me pose a scenario to you. And this was me. This was probably you, when you first start this whole thing, how much do you know about it? 

Crys: I mean, generally, you know nothing. Yeah. 

J: Nothing. Your first book or your first couple books, you’re trying to create a process you don’t know much about, you don’t know the difference between the developmental editor and a proofreader.

You don’t know the difference… you wouldn’t know a nice cover if it smacks you in the head, you’re learning. And my experience was I had to do a lot of stuff to figure out what I shouldn’t be doing. And although the easy, popular thing would be you don’t need to do it all yourself.

I think in the beginning, you kind of do. At least for awhile. I think you need to do all the stuff, so that you can go, “Okay. I clearly, I’m not a book designer or I definitely need to hire an editor,” or whatever it happens to be, and it will be different for everyone. So this isn’t sort of a blanket response. And I wonder if there’s a business equivalent to this.

If you rise in the corporate structure from like the mailroom, this is like the stereotypical Hollywood version, you work in the mailroom and you rise up, you’re CEO. If you start in the mail room then you know how everything functions. It doesn’t mean you have to do it, but you understand it.

It’s like one of the problems I had early on was, I picked book covers because I thought they looked nice, which is it’s just, it’s terrible. It’s a terrible approach because they’re not art. They’re the packaging on a product and yes. I mean, they can look nice but it shouldn’t matter what I think of them.

In fact, I’ve had covers that I’ve hated, but they’ve been effective and I go, It works.” I don’t, you know…, I’ve divorced myself. But in the beginning, like I picked book covers and options because I’m like, oh, that’s so cool. Or that looks so nice. And it wasn’t what I needed. 

But I didn’t know that until I went through the process and figured that out.

So I’m wondering if there is, if there’s a dependency on where you are in the journey versus how much of that stuff you should be doing. 

Crys: I think yes, but I would also say that not everyone feels the need, like you and I do that, we need to know the ins and outs of our business from the ground up. That is a very learner quality. 

Some people know just enough that they know that they need to choose people for certain jobs like cover design and, whether by personality or other experience in whatever their day job is, they know how to find those people. And that’s great. 

But I think a lot of us do feel that need a lot of us who are drawn to writing do feel that need to know how to do every little thing. Some people shove off anything that’s technical, like formatting and stuff, and that’s fine. 

I even have taken back some things that I originally were one of the first things that I shipped off, like cover design. I have gone from doing my own covers to shoving them off to somebody else. And I say shoving off with it’s a bad thing. It’s not, it’s just, I’m shoving it off my desk onto somebody else’s. And then I took it back. 

And it wasn’t because the cover designer was doing a bad job. I’m a pretty darn good cover designer for my genre. And I was really frustrated with the time it took to communicate with someone the basics of what I needed or to get a paperback turned around or to get an audio book cover turned around when I knew that I could do those in an hour to thirty minutes, thirty minutes to an hour. And so I took those back because the time exchange versus value was more on the side of me doing it myself. 

J: Yeah. I can understand that. I think I did something similar with taxes. I never… once I started my own business, I never did my taxes myself.

I didn’t feel the need to learn how to do it and then hire someone to do it. I was just like, no, here’s my CPA. He’s been doing my family’s taxes for decades. Here’s all my stuff you know? And so I get that. Yeah. I ,see what you’re saying. 

The only thing that’s different about that is that’s more of sort of a, an organizational piece of the responsibility. I feel like I’m more, I should know more about anything that’s related to the craft side of things. Maybe that’s where I want to learn first what I don’t know and then hire someone. But if it’s craft related, I kind of feel like I have an obligation to, to at least experience that.

Crys: With craft. Are you including like the presentation as far as the… 

J: Maybe. Yeah. Maybe that’s a blurred line. Like maybe that’s a gray area where some of it… 

A more recent example is I experimented with Pinterest and that taught me that I shouldn’t be on Pinterest. Or that I don’t understand Pinterest like that. And that’s when I hired someone to do that. So maybe it’s just really dependent on the task or the job or the responsibility. 

Crys: Yeah, I think a lot of times it is really helpful, and this is for any skill in the business, it’s really helpful to attempt to do it at least once.

Not just so you know whether it’s something you’re skilled at or something it’s not, but to know the questions that you want to ask somebody else, when you give the job to them to figure out if they’re going to be a good fit for you. 

J: Yeah. Yeah. For sure. I almost think that cover design is a good example of that too, is not necessarily knowing the answers, but knowing which questions you have to ask the designer.

Crys: Now with the, how much can you do alone, we’re answering that question, but also how do you find people to help you do the things that you decide you don’t want to do? 

J: I would say in my experience, it’s been… the personal network is the first. Thing that I look to. So I want to ask friends or colleagues or co-writers like what they’re doing or who they’re using or who they’ve hired.

Because I think that word of mouth network is much more powerful than if I just started Google searching people. So I think that’s where I would start. How about you? 

Crys: I a hundred percent agree. And this is interesting because in real life, when it comes to any kind of services that aren’t my business, I turn to the internet first. I want to be able to see the reviews. I want to judge for myself. 

I don’t want to be influenced by other people’s relationships with their provider everywhere else in my life, except my writing business. In my writing business, I very much want to be influenced by my friends and my network’s relationship with their provider, because I think that those are relationships that I want long-term. 

And I don’t know why I have that disparity between how I judge I don’t want somebody to tell me what hairdresser they use. I just want to go to figure that on my, out of my own, but I do want somebody to tell me what editor did they use?

Granted there’s a much greater expense between an editor and a hairdresser. Most of the time, maybe that’s part of it. 

J: Yeah. Very well could be right. Like the hair. Yeah, the hair dresser’s not as much of an investment. 

Crys: Now, this has always been something that I’ve wondered because I have benefited from inheriting good relationships with editors, and really haven’t gone out to search on my own, but how do you figure out when those relationships, those particular relations– this could be a whole nother episode, but how do you know when that relationship is a good fit versus when it’s not? 

Are there any things that stand out to you as red flags within the first project or whatever that would make you move on immediately? 

J: Yes. It’s going to sound petty.

And I’m not trying to offend anyone. I know some people will be offended, but communication behavior is a big time red flag for me. 

So if I, and I’m talking business, so if I’m doing business with someone, let’s say a random editor and I email them and days go by business days for three, four, five days and I don’t hear anything. That’s a red flag. 

I kind of feel like, okay, if you are an independent freelancer and you’re functioning on the internet and you get a lead via email, that should be pretty close to the top of your responsibilities. 

There should be some, or even if it’s a response that says I can’t answer this right now, but on Thursday I’ll follow up. Okay. Totally cool. I don’t expect the full response immediately, but if things go unanswered, especially once you’re into an agreement of some kind, if I have to chase people down for things that’s a big red flag for me.

I understand it kinda sounds petty. And I think it depends on how you manage your digital communication. But what I’ve seen in my experience is that the way people handle their digital communication is kind of how they handle everything. So if it takes five or six days to get a simple email reply, that’s kind of what you can expect on the job.

If it’s an edit, maybe that translates to five or six weeks when it should take two or something. I don’t know. But I think it matters. I don’t know. Am I wrong on that? 

Crys: No, I would agree. And you saying that actually brings to mind an a narrator relationship that I have right now who… he is actually one of the most professional people I’ve ever worked with, at least in the beginning of the relationship.

Now there have been months long delays on a couple of books and for completely understandable life situations. COVID hit all of this. He got COVID. But we, my co-writer and I have felt, and we got left out of a mass email communication that gave an update. I had to track him down for this. It does seem like this really in this particular relationship, we’ve kind of fallen to the bottom of the pile.

And I know like he’s got some big dog clients and we are not a big dog client and this, but this has been a sign for us okay, we’re not a priority in this particular relationship. He’s still pretty darn professional, but this relationship is no longer going to work out after these last few projects are wrapped up.

So we’re already moving on for the projects that are coming up because we’ve, we haven’t stopped writing. Even if he hasn’t been able to record, we’ve still got books that need to be recorded. And so we’re moving on. 

And we have shifted narrators fairly frequently because egos seem to get really involved in narration, and I think this is just creation in general, but it doesn’t seem to happen with ebook formatters. 

And we’ve started with narrators who were really happy to take us on. My co-writers a big name in our genre, so they jump at it, but then they get a big name because people follow behind her. Then they get a little snooty. They take on less of our weird little niche and more of the the higher brow genres. And then we get pushed to the side. 

So we’ve had to skip narrators several times because of this. And that’s difficult because you want somebody you can work with for the rest of your life, but that rarely does happen.

J: Yeah, that’s a good point. There’s another scenario where, so now we’re talking sort of about like the relationship after it’s been established. I’m on, I want to say my seventh or eighth editor right now? And that’s because I feel like I have outgrown the previous six or seven. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that because this is a tricky one, right?

Like you want this long-term relationship with an editor who knows your work at the same time, I firmly believe if you’re constantly trying to get better, at a certain point, you’re going to kind of cap out with that editor and you almost need to, that’s like a learning plateau that you kind of need to like artificially reboot and start with somebody new.

What are your thoughts on that? 

Crys: Yeah. You’ve said this several times. And I think because I’m writing pulp fiction, I have not had that same interaction, because when I go to an editor, I ha I’m not going to them for a learning push. I’m going to them for a cleanup, which is a very different mindset. 

I have had that same experience as far as jumping from class to class. Because different classes are going to teach me different things in the way that you look at editors is very much  “Hey, I’m having a one-on-one class here.”

J: Yeah. Good point. Yeah. I think it’s… I haven’t been in the situation that you are, so I think it’s different.

I mean, I think some of the stuff Zach and I did was much more like genre-y then some of the other stuff I’ve done. And you know, maybe that sort of, I wasn’t looking for an editor as a teacher. But I think for most of the stuff I’ve written I am looking at an editor as a teacher. 

And like the one I’m using now is wonderful and I don’t feel like I’ve outgrown her, or at least not yet. And it’s. It’s taking me longer each time, I feel like so that, you know, maybe that’s an indication I’m finding the right people and it’s taking me longer to outgrow them. But yeah I would say that’s probably different than sort of like the rapid release model.

Crys: Yeah. 

And so we started this out, like how much can you do on your own? The answer is you can do everything but it’s gonna be pretty hard, I think is kind of what we’ve come down to. And honestly, it’s going to be hard even with people, because, with the episode we were just referencing,  How do you find your system?

It’s going to change? What you’d need is going to change? The way you learn, what you want out of things is going to change. 

J: Yes, absolutely. 

Crys: I don’t know exactly what we want to ask our listeners. 

J: Yeah. Cause it is a, it’s a tough question. 

Crys: Yeah. I guess how much do you currently do on your own and how much do you imagine you don’t want to do?

J: That’s a good way to phrase it. 

Crys: Because you, aren’t going to know for certain. But what does it look like when you look down the lane?

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