Category : The Business of Writing

  • January 17, 2012

    A Series of Fortunate Events – a guest blog from Gina Holmes

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    It's not everyday that a debut novel becomes a bestseller, which is perhaps why people are curious as to why and how Crossing Oceans made its way on to the CBA, ECPA, Amazon, and PW Religion lists. 

    Anyone who regularly follows the bestseller lists for a few months will notice that while the book titles change, the authors rarely do. People like Ted Dekker, Francine Rivers, Karen Kingsbury, etc show up there over and over—making it difficult for a new name to squeeze in. (This is true in the CBA as well as the general market).

    There is, of course, no single way to turn a book into a bestseller. If there were, everyone would be doing it with every book. I can’t speak for the rest of debut novelist’s who were lucky enough to break in, but this is how it went for me:

    ·      I had a champion.

    Actually several. It started with a top-notch agent, Chip MacGregor, who championed the book and sold it to Tyndale House. Karen Watson, Associate Publisher there, read a partial manuscript and became passionate about it. She took a risk and gave an untried author a chance.

     This wouldn’t have happened though if the idea had been poorly executed. It took years to hone my skills. Over the course of ten years, I'd written several manuscripts that were ultimately rejected, read every how-to writing book I could get my hands on, and aligned with the toughest critique partners I could find. 

    Lucky for me, the rest of the team at Tyndale House also got excited and additional resources were thrown at the book. One "higher-up" from Tyndale commented it was one of the best debuts he’d  ever read. That’s the kind of excitement that helps sell a book.

    ·      I had a great editor.

     I doubt I have to convince writers how important this is. Kathy Olson saw my vision for the

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  • January 16, 2012

    How is money paid on a book contract?

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    Cherice wrote in to ask, "Can you explain how money is paid on a book publishing contract? I've got a contract in front of me, and I don't understand it."

    Happy to, Charice. First, most authors are paid an advance against royalties when signing a book contract. There's a long tradition of publishers paying advances to authors, since it allows the author to survive while he or she is working on a book. This isn't free money — it's sort of a no-interest loan that will be earned back after your book releases. Let's say the contract calls for a total advance of $20,000. Typically you'd get one-third of this on signing, another third upon turning in the completed work, and the last third upon publication. (That said, there are a million ways to divide the advance. Some pay half on signing, some pay a percentage when the author completes the bio and marketing forms, etc.) So when your book releases, you're now in the red $20,000 to the publisher. You've been paid that amount, but you haven't earned anything back yet. 

    Second, as your book sells you are credited with  money for each sale. That's your royalty money, and with each sale it slowly reduces that $20,000 debt. Most trade publishers in the general market (that would include Random House, HarperCollins, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, etc.) pay a standard royalty on hardcover books: 10% of the book's retail price on the first 5000 copies sold, 12.5% on the next 5000 copies sold, and 15% thereafter. Royalties for most trade-paper books are 7.5% of the retail price, and mass market books pay a bit less than that. (Be aware: Most CBA publishers don't pay on the retail price of the book — they pay on the net price, which is the amount of money the publisher actually receives from the bookstore. And you negotiate royalties on each book.

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  • August 25, 2010

    On Relationships in Publishing

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    Donna wrote to ask, "Is it possible to have two agents, one for fiction and one for nonfiction, or one for ABA and one for CBA?"

    It's possible, I guess. I'm not a fan of this plan, since I think it makes it harder for an agent to do his or her job in terms of career planning. Still, some people do it. The alternative? Find an agent who fits what you do. 

    Julie wrote with this: "Some agents have a large number of clients, and represent very successful authors. But where does the midlist client fit in today's market?"

    I think your question presupposes that having a small list of clients is a good thing — perhaps better than being part of a larger agency. In my view, it's not as simple as that. First of all, I don't think most authors would know what a large or small number of clients is. I represent around 40 or 50 authors. Is that large? Not in publishing — it's fairly small. But so what? You don't sign up with an agent because he or she has only five clients, do you? You sign up with an agent because he or she does a good job, knows how to help you, is a fit for you and your work, and can help make you successful. Move from the world of books to the world of investments for a moment – Would you prefer to hand your hard-earned money to a startup guy who admits he doesn't have many clients, or to somebody with a proven track record of success? (And I"m not making an argument for going with a big agency here — I'm just trying to show the weakness of this particular argument.) Janet Grant, a friend and a very good literary agent, and I are two of the people who have been agenting the longest in CBA. We've both seen

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  • August 23, 2010

    A Mixed Bag

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    A mixed bag of questions today. Donna sent this to me recently: "Nonfiction seems to be struggling in bookstores, but fiction has been on a growth track. I heard you say one time that this disparity is due to the growth of the internet. Can you explain that to me?"

    Okay, let's call this The MacGregor Theory of Non-Fiction Struggles. First, the core of nonfiction is what we call "problem/solution" writing (or sometimes question/answer writing). A person comes into a bookstore with a problem ("I need to lower my cholesterol" or "I don't get along with my teenage daughter"), and wants a book that offers a solution to the problem ("Lower Your Cholesterol in 30 Days" or "How to Talk so your Daughter will LIsten"). They walk in with a problem, and they look for a book that offers a solution. Or they walk in with a question, and they look for a book that offers an answer. That's the focus of most nonfiction. (There ARE alternatives: history books tend to educate instead of answer, craft books offer an idea without necessarily being a "solution"). Fiction, on the other hand, is usually written to entertain, occasionally to inspire or educate. And during the current economic times, people are turning to fiction because it is basically a cheap, satisfying, and long-lasting entertainment option. (There's plenty of evidence to suggest fiction reading goes up as the economy goes down.) Anyway, with the advent of the web, people aren't buying as many nonfiction books because they tend to look to the web for a solution. (Think about it… the last time you needed to know how to make Yorkshire Pudding, did you dig through a cookbook or look it up online?) I'm not declaring the death of all non-fiction — I'm just explaining why it's struggling, while fiction is growing. 

    Andrew wrote and said, "I couldn't help but read that letter you received the other

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  • August 23, 2010

    A Mixed Bag

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    A mixed bag of questions today. Donna sent this to me recently: "Nonfiction seems to be struggling in bookstores, but fiction has been on a growth track. I heard you say one time that this disparity is due to the growth of the internet. Can you explain that to me?"

    Okay, let's call this The MacGregor Theory of Non-Fiction Struggles. First, the core of nonfiction is what we call "problem/solution" writing (or sometimes question/answer writing). A person comes into a bookstore with a problem ("I need to lower my cholesterol" or "I don't get along with my teenage daughter"), and wants a book that offers a solution to the problem ("Lower Your Cholesterol in 30 Days" or "How to Talk so your Daughter will LIsten"). They walk in with a problem, and they look for a book that offers a solution. Or they walk in with a question, and they look for a book that offers an answer. That's the focus of most nonfiction. (There ARE alternatives: history books tend to educate instead of answer, craft books offer an idea without necessarily being a "solution"). Fiction, on the other hand, is usually written to entertain, occasionally to inspire or educate. And during the current economic times, people are turning to fiction because it is basically a cheap, satisfying, and long-lasting entertainment option. (There's plenty of evidence to suggest fiction reading goes up as the economy goes down.) Anyway, with the advent of the web, people aren't buying as many nonfiction books because they tend to look to the web for a solution. (Think about it… the last time you needed to know how to make Yorkshire Pudding, did you dig through a cookbook or look it up online?) I'm not declaring the death of all non-fiction — I'm just explaining why it's struggling, while fiction is growing. 

    Andrew wrote and said, "I couldn't help but read that letter you received the other

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  • July 19, 2010

    Making Money through Articles

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    Kerry sent me this question: “Is it realistic to think an author can still sell articles and get paid for them? It seems like magazines and journals are all moving to unpaid, web-based forms.”

    I started out in magazines, and I still think magazine, journal, and e-zine writing is a viable way for an author to make some money. No, it's not as easy as it once was… but when was making a living as a writer ever easy? If you're looking for ways to generate income through your writing, don't feel you've got to land a book contract — focus on writing short articles. My experience has been that I made more money in less time creating articles than in writing books.

    It's best to go to magazines or e-zines you already know, so you're familiar with (1) the sort of articles they publish, (2) the most likely reader of the 'zine, and (3) the length and tone of the articles. By going to the website of, say, Redbook magazine, you can find out what they buy, how long they want each piece to be, and what their interests and requirements are… but you might not really get a feel for what the voice is in that particular magazine. 

    Once you have targeted a magazine, you create an article for them. Have a clear topic, find out who is the decision-maker, and send them an email. Put the title of your piece in the "subject" line. Tell the editor very simply who you are, what your idea is, the details of the piece (word count, etc), and why you're the person to write it. Keep it short, and under your name list a handful of links to other articles you've written. 

    This really isn't rocket science, but it takes some work. Magazines have a tendency to do business with the same writers again and again (like every other sort

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  • July 10, 2010

    Understanding the Financial Side of Writing

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    Amanda asked, “What do beginning writers need to know about the financial aspects of writing?”

    There are only a few thousand people in this country who make a full-time living at writing. Don’t assume, just because you’re hanging out at conferences with people who all write books, that the world is made up of full-time writers. An average novelist may take eight to ten months to write a book. With time added for edits and galleys, that works out to about one novel per year. Yet that novelist, unless he or she has a breakout book, is no doubt going to be paid less than $30,000 for the novel – sometimes considerably less. That means you’d work an entire year to scrimp by on wages barely above the poverty line. So think carefully before you quit your day job.

    Here’s what I did when I decided I wanted to write for a living: I set a monthly income goal for my writing. When I first started writing (on a very part-time basis), my goal was to make $100 per month. I would sell articles, write advertising copy, create newsletters, make up back-cover content – in fact, I’d do just about anything to produce some income from my writing. I edited manuscripts, worked as a ghostwriter, created study guides, and worked with pastors to turn their sermon series into books. Eventually that figure jumped to $300 per month. Then $500. Then $1000 per month. When I set a goal of making $1500 per month, that’s when I figured I was going to become a full-time writer. (And yes, that was more than 20 years ago, when $1500 went farther. Sorry to sound like my own grandfather.)

    That said, there’s nothing in life that says you are necessarily called to follow that same path. As I have said in other posts, publishing a book doesn’t validate your life. Perhaps you are called

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  • June 17, 2010

    Ten Notes for Today's Writer

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    1. Lots of big news this week, including something nobody seemed to have sniffed… THOMAS NELSON WAS BOUGHT OUT by an equity company, Kohlberg and Company. Remember, Thomas Nelson is one of the largest Christian publishers in the world, and they were sold just a few years ago to the guys at InterMedia (one of the pioneers in cable TV, InterMedia made the interesting step of pulling the company out of being publicly traded, and went back to being a private company). Anyway, the previous owners had financed a big chunk of the purchase, and Kohlberg must have seen Thomas Nelson was going to make them money, since they paid off the $219 million loan (go ahead and read that figure again) and took control of the company. 


    2. Wow. And it didn't stop there – they had the good sense to keep Michael Hyatt, perhaps the brightest mind in CBA, and the man who has restructured the company and made it both leaner and more focused, AND they brought on Jane Friedman as a board member. Some CBA people may not recognize the importance of that, but Jane used to be the boss at HarperCollins, the owner of Zondervan, before that was the Executive VP of Random House, and before that Publisher at Vintage . I'll tell you there isn't a publishing professional who doesn't respect Jane — she's one of the best, most experienced minds in contemporary publishing. An incredible addition, frankly.


    3. Novelist (and longtime friend) Joyce Magnin, best known for her wonderful "Bright's Pond" novels with Abingdon, has started a company to help new novelists get their manuscripts ready. This isn't just another editorial service — take a look at her website. You'll come away totally impressed:  www.joycemagnin.com/Site/Narrative_Destiny.html


    4. If you're a married woman (or you have any married women in your life), they can be part of a research project on

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  • May 4, 2010

    The Worst of Contracts

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    Dale wrote to say, "You've told us some things to look for in publishing contracts. What are some of the BAD things you've seen in contracts?

    First, let me say that I think it's great Dale wrote to me, so that I can legitimately use a joke about "Chip and Dale." I've seen some really, REALLY stupid things in book publishing contracts. Some examples: 

    1. A contract with no title listed and no description of the project. So you're on the hook for…who knows what?

    2. A grant of rights that includes everything, including if you ever decide to write or speak on this topic again sometime in this lifetime. (Keep this in mind when looking at the conflicting publications clause — it's reasonable to expect a publisher gets a window in which the author is focused on their contracted title. It's not reasonable to make that a lifetime ban on the subject for an author — something I've seen.)

    3. A description of the work so broad that you would be considered in breach of contract should you write a thank you note to your Aunt Agatha for sending you that bad Christmas sweater.

    4. An advance that needs to be paid back should it not earn out. Paid back?! This is an "advance against royalties," not a loan. For crying out loud — why not ask 'em to fill out an application? 

    5. Royalties that DROP when more copies are sold. (No kidding. Read the fine print.) Take a look at the contracts of some publishing houses — if your book is sold at a reasonable discount, they'll cut your royalty in half, leading the sales team to SUGGEST THAT VERY IDEA to accounts. Great plan. 

    6. Some contracts have words that basically say, "If we re-sell the idea to other people, we get to keep all the money." I've seen this happen a couple

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  • February 21, 2009

    A Quick Q-and-A

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    I'm WAY behind in answering questions, so I thought I'd try to do some quick questions today (and limit my normally loooooooong answers). We'll see how it goes…

    1. Heidi said, "I finished my first novel, don't have a contract or an agent for it yet, but I'm going to a conference soon to talk with agents and editors. Should I bring a one-sheet for both books? Or focus just on the second book?"

    Huh? Why would you focus on the second book, Heidi? If the first book is completed, focus on that. Right now it's tougher than ever to get your first novel deal, so focus on the book that is complete. If you're unpublished, you're much more likely to get interest in a completed manuscript than a cool synopsis.

    2. Holly asked, "Since I'm pitching a series, should I have a double-sided one-sheet — the front page would cover the first book, the back page for the series? Or should they be separate sheets?"

    I'd go for separate sheets.

    3. Stan wants to know, "If I'm pitching editors at a conference, should I include a proposed cover on my one-sheet?"

    Only if it was professionally designed AND you've test-marketed it (preferably with people who are not relatives). Most author-produced covers are godawful. They start off the meeting on the wrong foot, sending the happy message, "I don't know what I'm doing!" No sense revealing that in the first five seconds.

    4. Karen wrote, "I was in a Lifeway bookstore yesterday, and noticed they have put a sticker on some of the books that says, Read With Discernment. Um…what's up with that?"

    I heard about this from a handful of people, so I checked it out. Turns out the ever-vigilent Protectors Of All Things Correct running Lifeway have put stickers on books from authors like Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and Donald Miller. (You catching a theme here?) So in other words, these

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