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Category : The Business of Writing
I started this blog nearly ten years ago (we’re coming up on the ten year anniversary for this blog), as a way to simply answer the questions writers have about the process. Some people wanted to ask about writing, others about publishing, still others about marketing. Writers asked about careers, they asked about proposals, and they asked about contracts. Lately we’ve had a ton of people asking about indie publishing and working with Amazon to become a hybrid author.
Over the next couple of months, I thought we’d do an “ask me anything” segment. So… what have you always wanted to ask a literary agent? I’ve got a backlog of questions, but I thought I’d begin by simply asking the people who read this blog a question: If you could sit with me over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine somewhere, and ask anything you wanted, what would you want to know? What would you like to chat about?
Drop a question in the “comments” section below, or send me an email at chip (at) macgregorliterary(dot)com, and I’ll try to offer short answers to your questions. You can ask about books, about proposals, about writing, career planning, marketing, platforms, proposals, or anything else. If I don’t know an answer, I’ll ask someone who does. If they don’t know, I’ll just make up something that sounds good. (Or maybe I’ll ask someone else.)
So there you have it — October is gong to be “ask the agent” month. Send me your tired, your poor, your huddled questions yearning to breath free. I’ll do my best to get you a good response.
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,
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
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
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
Over the past few weeks we’ve been answering questions about writing and agents, and while reading over the questions, I’ve heard from several people who asked, “What advice would you give to someone who wants to make a living at writing?” I love the question, and it’s one we’ve tackled here before. Some of my thoughts:
—Have a time and a place for writing. If you really want to make a living at this, then treat it as a business. Get up, get dressed, and go to the office (even if your “office” is a little desk in the corner of your bedroom). You need to show up to the office every day and write, so have a start time. My world changed when I read an interview with the great American writer Tom Wolfe, and discovered he started getting up every morning and putting on a white suit to go to his office (even though his office was in his home) just so he could begin to think of his writing as a “job.” He started at 9, an alarm went off at noon so he could take a lunch break. A time and a place — a great start to making a living with writing.
—Keep your mornings protected for writing. Move your other work to the afternoon, but write every morning.
—Group similar activities. If you do all your phone calls back to back, you’ll get through them faster. Ditto emails, snail mail, budgeting, project planning, looking over proposals, etc. Stick all the activities that are the same into one block of time, and you’ll get through them more quickly.
—Organize your day first thing every morning. If you have a plan, you’re much more apt to stay focused. So at the start of each day, make a list (or check the list you made last night) to give yourself an advance
Some wrote to ask, “I’ve been told we should have a launch party when my book comes out. Is that a good idea? And what what makes a good launch party?”
I think a book launch party is a great idea — it allows an author to involve friends and acquaintances in the release of the book, is an easy way to garner some local media, and can help you kick off book sales. (Besides, it can be great for an author’s ego, if done right.) Let me offer a couple of suggestions to help make it a success…First and most important, you want to make sure you INVITE people. In other words, don’t sit around and hope people show — be proactive and make sure you get a house full. That means you need to find a big group who can be supportive, like your local writer’s group, you church congregation, the organizations you belong to, all your relatives, people at the clubs or sports you’ve joined, and all your fans in the region. Pick a venue you can fill up, since getting 40 people in a tiny bookstore makes it feel like a great party, but getting those same 40 people in a huge shopping mall gallery can feel empty. Determine a definite start and end time, and make sure everyone sees it’s a celebration. Again, you’re trying to get the word out, and get commitments from some folks to attend.Second, if you really want to make people show up, offer an incentive — books at a discount, or free chocolate, or wine and cheese (a few big boxes of wine don’t cost much and seem to bring people out of the woodwork). If you can’t do wine, ask a couple people to bring their latte machines and offer free lattes to everyone. Your only expense is the price of coffee. But have something that is
Someone wrote and said, “I get a royalty report twice a year from my publisher, but I don’t really understand it. What tips can you give me for reading a royalty report?”
I swear some companies hire Obfuscation Technicians, just to try and make royalty reports hard to decipher. And remember, each company has their own format for royalty statements, so it doesn’t always pay to compare, say, a Hachette royalty report to a HarperCollins royalty report. Many authors simply get confused when trying to dig into the details of the thing. Even an experienced author will complain that the Random House statements don’t look anything like the Macmillan statements, which are different from the Simon & Schuster statements. And, unfortunately, some of the smaller companies seem to be purposefully trying to make them impossible to read. (One mid-sized publisher just revised theirs — and they are now worse than ever.)
In addition, there are some companies that do a good job of breaking things down (like Harlequin), but may not do a good job of aggravating the numbers — so you can see a book did great in large print, but you can’t actually see how many copies it has sold overall. Some companies do a wonderful job of telling you how your book did this quarter, but they fail to include life-to-date information. Ugh.
With all that crud in mind, there are about ten questions I need to keep whenever I approach any royalty statement…
1. Who is the author?
2. What is the project?
3. How many copies sold?
4. In what formats?
5. What was the royalty rate(s)?
6. How much money did it earn this period?
7. What was the opening balance?
8. How much is being paid now?
9. Is any being held back? (a provision allows the publisher to retain some of the earned money in case of future returns)
10. Is any
This question came in: “Ever since my book released, I’ve been asked to speak several times — sometimes at large venues, sometimes at very small places. My problem is that I don’t know what to charge when I speak. A flat fee? A sliding scale? Is there some guidance you can give me?”
This is a question we’ve talked about on the blog a few times. Happy to begin the conversation. Okay… start to think about creating a matrix for your speaking events.
Okay, I think the first thing you have to determine is your base pay. How much is your base pay for a one hour talk? For a beginner, it might be $100. I’ve worked with some big-name celebrities that were changing $10,000 for a one-hour talk. (Nice work if you can get it.) But let’s say your base pay is somewhere in the middle — let’s say yours is $500 for an hour, or $300 for a half hour. If you are offered, for example, $300 for speaking one time for 30 minutes to a small group, but it’s a conference and they also want you to speak a few other times, you just have to map out the extra costs. Or say they want you to speak once to a large group for an hour ($500), then lead a workshop to a smaller group for ($300 to $500?), then sit on a panel ($150?). By thinking of your base pay and the number of times you speak, you can pencil out the fee pretty quickly.
Of course, it might take an entire day, and some speakers do a minimum daily rate. So let’s say you set a daily rate of $1000 — that makes it easy to know what to charge. And you have to fly to Atlanta to do it, you add in travel costs, so you can say to them, “That will be a
We’ve been doing our “Ask the Agent” series for a month now, and I still have a handful of questions to get to. Someone sent this: “I hate talking money when it comes to my writing. I wanted to do this for the art, not for money! How can I get over my reluctance to talk dollars?”
I realize some authors are reluctant to talk about money issues, but it’s necessary if you’re going to get to know the business. When I was a free-lance writer, I noticed that publishers (both magazine and book publishers) tended to put me on the bottom of the pay ladder because I was a small free-lancer. I once called a publisher to complain that I hadn’t been paid, and the response was, “Oh. Yeah. Sorry. Guess we’ll get you next quarter.” To them, it was a measley $1500 they owed me. But to me, it was MY HOUSE PAYMENT that month. So, yeah, I eventually got over my reluctance to talk money with publishers.
But if you’re going to talk money, that means you have to know what you’re worth (in terms of money-per-page or money-per-hour), and you have to be able to share that with others. The good news is that it gets easier to talk about when you have a pretty good feeling of your value. I mean, if you know you should be making $3000 per month, and the publisher asks you to work on a freelance project that will take two months, it’s much easier to say, “I’ll need to make about $6000 for that project” than to take a wild stab at a number.
So let me suggest something… Figure out what you’d like to make from your writing in a year. (You need to be reasonable. Don’t say, “A million dollars” unless your name is James Patterson or George R.R. Martin.) Let’s say you think it’s reasonable for