I used to regularly include updates of the books I’m reading on this blog, until I had some people complain that my personal reading habits weren’t that helpful to their writing careers. So I stopped doing it, and I’ve found I have missed talking about the various titles I’ve read, and being able to discuss books with readers books we liked or disliked. So when I received an email over the weekend that asked, “So what have you been reading lately?” I thought it was time to chat about some of the best and worst of the past few months. (Be warned: I’m a binge reader. I read a LOT in my job as a literary agent, and sometimes I’ll get on a roll and need to read several books on a topic. So maybe you won’t find all of this helpful, but at least you’ll know what an agent is reading — and I’ll encourage you to drop by the “comments” section at the bottom and tell me what YOU’VE been reading.)
-Over the past six months, I read a bunch of Malcolm Gladwell titles. I re-read Blink, Outliers, and The Tipping Point, then read David and Goliath. He’s one of those writers I always find interesting, and one of the few I feel I can go back and re-read without being bored. I learn a lot from Gladwell, and he causes me to think in new ways.
-In a flurry of reading on art forgery, I read several titles: Provenance, The Rescue Artist, The Art of the Con, Stealing Rembrandts, Caveat Emptor, Priceless, and Art of the Deal (the Horowitz version, not the Donald Trump version… though I suppose that book also touches on con men). I thought Priceless was great, Provenance was interesting, Caveat Emptor was awful, and the others fell somewhere in between. If you want to learn about a subject, reading a half-dozen books on
Someone wrote in to ask, “Can you explain the difference between an acquisition editor and any other type of editor? Who do they do? How are they hired?”
There are a bunch of different types of editors at any particular publishing house. An “editor” works on the story and wording of a manuscript, a “production editor” oversees the creation of the actual book, a “senior editor” gets to lord it over the other editors and grab the first donut in editorial team meetings, etc. At most houses nearly every editor acquires some manuscripts and is responsible for editing them and getting them ready for production. But some houses have dedicated “acquisitions editors,” who talk to agents, find authors and manuscripts that will be a fit, sign them to the house, then turn them over to developmental editors, who will actually work on the writing. Usually an acquisitions editor has spent time with the company so they have a feel for what he or she should be acquiring. And yes, personal tastes will shape the books they bring in. Therefore, a publishing house gets shaped by the editors who work there, so it’s important the people they hire know the distinctive of the house. Very few editors (just a handful of senior or executive editors) have the authority to simply go acquire whatever they want.
In general, the acquisition system looks like this:
Step one is that the acquisitions editor finds a project that fits the house. Maybe an agent has called to talk with her about it, or the editor and author met at a conference, but there’s a connection, and the editor likes the project. He or she works with the agent and author to sharpen the proposal and make it as strong as possilble.
Step two occurs when the idea is taken to the editorial board or team. In this meeting the merits of the book are discussed,
I’ve had a bunch of people write to ask some version of “How does a writer create a career plan?” There’s a lot of talk about it, but not much in the way of specifics.
As regular readers know, I have a background in organizational development — that is, the study of how an organization grows and changes over time. In my job as a literary agent, I’ve found it’s proven very helpful when talking to writers about their careers, since the core of it is “figure out where you are, decide where you want to go, then determine a plan to get there.” That the core of org development, and its also the core of career planning. Unfortunately, there’s a lack of specifics about that in our industry. My contention is that some agents pay lip service to “helping authors with career planning,” but many don’t really have a method for doing that. (Actually, from the look of it, some don’t even know what it means. I think “career planning” to some agents is defined as “having a book contract.”) During my doctoral program at the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), I served as a Graduate Teaching Fellow in the Career Planning and Placement Office. The focus was on helping people graduating in the arts figure out how to create a career plan, and that experience allowed me the opportunity to apply the principles of organizational theory to the real-world setting of those trying to make a living with words. So here are a few things I like to consider when talking with a writer…
First, I want to get to know the author. Who is he or she? What’s the platform he brings to the process? Does she speak? If so, where, how often, to whom, to how many, and on what topics? Does he have experience with other media? What kind? What’s her message? What books has
We’ve been talking about making a living at writing, and I had three people all ask the same basic question: If I’m going to make writing my career, how do I treat it as a business instead of as an art or an avocation?
First, I recognize that some writers will insist on treating their writing as an art — which is fine, and for some writers no doubt more appropriate. I represent some authors who don’t really see themselves as “business” people, but as artists, creating words that share their stories. I totally understand and respect that perspective, since some writers are, in fact, artists with words. But if it’s important to you that you generate a full-time income through your writing, and you’re pondering how to create a number of writing projects that will improve your bottom line, then you need to begin to see your writing as a business. In essence, your words are a service or product — they have value, and others need to pay you in exchange for them.
Second, determining the value of your words is tough at first, which is why I’ve encouraged authors to begin by setting a small monthly financial goal, then building up the number as you find success. If you know you need to earn, say, $2500 per month, then it’s clear the goal is about $500 per week (which sounds small when you put it that way, doesn’t it?). Thinking in that manner moves writing into more of a business model, since it reduces your work to numbers: “I need to make $500 from my writing this week.” You then begin to map out which projects you can do that will generate the cash flow you need.
Third, as I’ve said a number of times on this blog, today is a great time to be a writer. There are more readers and more opportunities than ever before,
Someone wrote to ask, “Is it a big deal if my book doesn’t earn back its advance? What percentage of books earn out? And does a publisher lose money if a book doesn’t earn out?”
I frequently get questions about advances, and to answer them I need your patience… Let me answer this with hard numbers, so that I can make my case. It will take a couple minutes to run the numbers.
First, you always want your books to earn out. Every time. If your book earns out, it means your book is selling, the financials on the book aren’t going to be an ongoing concern, and the publisher is happy and is going to want to work with you again.
But second, keep in mind that only about 25% of books earn back their advance. That number goes up and down according to the year and the economy, but over the years that’s been the figure publishers have used. Which means that of all those books out there, roughly three quarters of them are in the red. That can give you a bit of perspective. (That said, remember: with the massive growth of ebook publishers and smaller houses that pay no advance, there are many more books on the market in which the author was paid nothing — he or she is earning all their income on sales.)
Third, to answer your question about a publisher losing money, keep in mind that every business can lose money. Retail shops, service business, investment firms, everyone. If you own a shoe store, order in shoes that don’t sell, and then have to drastically reduce prices, you can lose money on each pair sold. That’s business, and publishing is no different. The publishing house pays out an advance, they pay an editor, hire a cover designer, buy ink and paper, pay a printer, and cover overhead such as the light bill
A few years ago, I created a talk about how an author can make a living with his or her writing. I called it The MacGregor Theory (with apologies to the MacGregor who came up with all the Theory X and Theory Y stuff back in the 90’s), and over the years it’s been picked up and discussed by all sorts of writers and editors in the blogosphere. I’ve revised and tweaked it a few time, but now, with the recent changes we’ve seen in the world of publishing, it’s time I go back and revise my theory of making a living at writing. So if you’re interested…
I have five rules for authors who want to make a full time living at writing:
1. You need to have four-to-six books earning you a royalty. In other words, you’ve done some traditionally published books in the past, you’ve had some earn out, and you currently have some books that are making you a passive income.
2. You need to have 18 months to 2 years of contracts. This is much harder to do in today’s publishing economy, but if you’re going to do this full time, you probably need to know clearly what you’re going to be writing for the next year or two. If you have your calendar filled up for the next 18 months with projects that are contracted, so that you know you’re going to be generating some income, you’re at least afforded the clarity that comes from knowing what you’ll be working on.
3. You need to be self-publishing. These days, most successful authors are generating income by regularly posting new projects, earning some sort of income by self-publishing books, novels, novellas, articles, and/or short stories. With fiction, it’s clear an author needs to have a number of titles gong (having one or two books isn’t going to cut it — a series of books will
We’ve been talking about “making a living at writing,” and I had several people ask what essential tools are needed if someone is going to do more than just type up a manuscript at home. A fair question…
I suggest there are nine essential things every writer needs:
—A time to write. That is, a set time when you’re going to sit down and write every day. When I decided I was going to make my living at writing, I had a regular job, so I got up early and sat down at my computer every day from 6 to 8 in the morning. I’m not a morning person at all, so this was a sacrifice… but I had three small children, and it was the only time when I thought I could get uninterrupted writing time.
—A place to write. You may need peace and quiet, or you may do best with the buzz of a lot of people around. You may like music playing, or you may insist on silence. Some writers use a spare room in their house, others want to take in the atmosphere at Starbucks. But whatever the exterior trappings, most writers do best if they have one place and one time, when they KNOW they are going to write.
—A project to write. When you sit down to write, you’re not journaling or searching for your muse — you’re working on a project. It might be a blog post, or an article for a website, or the next chapter in your book. But when you start, you know exactly what project you’re going to work on.
—A writing goal. Many writers set a goal of creating 1000 words per day. Others set it much higher. When I was writing full time, I had a goal of a chapter per day. The trick is to set some sort of goal, so
We’ve been exploring the idea of “how to make a living at writing,” and I’ve saved up a handful of questions from people who have written to ask about becoming a career writer. Someone wrote several months ago to ask, “What would you say is the ONE PIECE of advice you’d give a career writer to help them succeed?” I love the question, and I’ve been mulling it over for a while now. We could talk about writing goals, or butt-in-chair time, or all sorts of tips and techniques, but if there was just one piece of advice I would give, I think it would be, “Develop a writing calendar.”
That may not sound terribly deep or sexy, but if you’re going to make a living at writing, you need to seriously consider creating a writing calendar. This is, you need to have a document that details what you’re going to write each day. Think about buying a big paper calendar, and jotting down a writing goal for each day of the month. For example, perhaps on Monday you’re working on chapter five of your book; Tuesday you’re completing the chapter; Wednesday you are creating that article you’ve wanted to do for the writing magazine; Thursday and Friday you are doing a paid edit. In each day on your calendar you’ve got something that focuses you on the task at hand, to give clarity and direction to your writing. Maybe it’s as simple as, “I’m going to write 3000 words on my novel” or “I’m going to finish chapter ten.” But you have a calendar, and you treat writing as a job by having your goal for what you plan to accomplish each day.
To figure out what you put into each day, you look at your “to do” list and do some prioritizing. What needs to get written today? What will pay off? What will push your career
The other day we were talking about making a living at writing, and I had a couple of people suggest good ideas (check the comments section) and ask a couple great questions. I’ve talked about the importance of having a place and a time (among other things), but let me suggest there’s one other thing you’re going to have to learn to do if you are to take the next step in your writing career: learn to think quarterly.
This may be new to you, so hear me out… Let’s say your goal is to make a part-time income with your writing — say, a thousand dollars per month, so $12,000 for the year. That would be enough to suggest this is a real part-time job, and not just a hobby. It’s a realistic goal for many writers. But it can be daunting to think you need to earn $1000 this month. So here’s what you need to know: Many writers find it far less daunting to think in terms of quarters. In other words, you don’t need to make $1000 this month — you need to make $3000 over the next quarter. Sure, the math is the same, but the fact that you have the extra time allows you to shift your priorities around, and give yourself enough breathing room that you can earn the money. So don’t think the pressure is on you to make all the money NOW — assume you’ve got a three-month goal.
By the way, the federal government already thinks that way — it’s why they ask self-employed writers and editors to pay quarterly taxes instead of monthly. Writing income never arrives on a monthly basis (with the exception of earned royalties from Amazon), but it’s fair for a writer to plan for a decent paycheck four times per year. So move your projected income into quarterly groupings, lowering the pressure, and give yourself
I’ve been talking about authors trying to make a living at writing recently, and a couple people have written to ask me, “Is it realistic to think of actually making a living with my words?”
To me, the answer is personal. One author may feel she is making a living when she’s earning $1500 per month; another may feel she isn’t really making a living until she’s making $3000 per month; still another won’t feel she’s really making it until she’s at $6000 per month. I think you have to pick an amount based on your own situation, look at your options, and determine if you can make it work. What are your household income needs? What’s reasonable for you to earn over the course of a year? How much time do you have to devote to writing?
There’s nothing sacred about making a living at art. Some can do it; others (who are just as good artists) struggle to do it. Today’s book publishing market makes it easier to try than it used to be, since you can post projects on Amazon and SmashWords and try to generate income. Just recognize that it’s hard. Our industry tends to get filled with people claiming they’re making huge money self-publishing, when in fact making real money at writing (or at ANY type of art) is hard. I believe in writers making something from their self-published books, but I’ve grown tired of the BS from those claiming all you’ve got to do is post a book on Amazon and suddenly the Publishing Fairy will show up and sprinkle you with golden coins.
The fact is, whether you’re writing books or painting pictures or playing your guitar or dancing on stage or acting in a play, art is a tough way to make a living. So most of us probably don’t do it for the money — we do it because we have