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Category : The Business of Writing
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
We’re doing “Ask the Agent,” when you can ask anything you want of a literary agent. Someone wrote to ask, “What do I do when I get a negative review on Amazon? I just got a terrible review on my most recent book, and it’s not fair.”
It’s one of the things unpublished authors don’t realize… once you put something into print, it’s there forever. If you say something stupid, you’re stuck with it. You can go to the person and apologize, but the words are still out there, waiting to be discovered by millions of other potential readers who will never get to hear your personal explanation or apology. I know… I’ve been there.
Writing is a scary thing.
I’ve often done fairly blunt assessments of books and events in publishing, and at times I’ve hurt people’s feelings. But I never set out to do that. I mean, it’s not like I saw the book, didn’t like the author, and decided to toast them just for fun. When I’ve said something was weak or badly written, it was because I was trying to offer an honest evaluation of a project. But that’s not universally practiced. Let’s face it — plenty of people ONLY want you to stay something nice. Or to say something awful.
So if you’re asked to review a book that’s bad, what are you supposed to do? Lie about it? It seems to me like the best thing to do is to be honest but as gracious as possible, speaking the truth (or at least the truth as you see it) in love.
Unfortunately, a bad review like that can hurt an author’s career (to say nothing of the author’s feelings). So I find that when I’m asked to review a book for a friend, I tend to simply stay away from reviewing a book I didn’t love. That means the title will get a falsely-positive
Someone wrote to ask, “Can you explain how an agent gets paid? Does the publisher send the author’s checks to the agent? Or does the money go to the author, who writes the agent a check? And is all this done before or after taxes?”
Happy to explain this. Traditionally, when it was time for the publisher to send money, they would send the entire amount to the agent, who would then deduct his or her commission (the standard is 15%) and send a check for the balance to the author within ten days. This was the system that was in place for years, and many agencies still work with that system. The strength of it is that the agent knows the author has been paid, and paid the full amount. This is all pre-tax money, so at the end of the year the agent would send a 10-99 form to the author, detailing how much money was paid.
When I started working as an agent 18 years ago, I was working for Alive Communications in Colorado, and they used a different system — divided payments. With that system, the publisher cuts TWO checks. The first is sent directly to the author, for 85% of the deal. The second is sent to the agent, for 15% (along with some sort of evidence that the author has been paid his or her amount). To my way of thinking, that was a better system. The author got paid faster. There was less bookkeeping for me. I didn’t have to fill out the 10-99’s. And, most importantly, I would never get a phone call from an author saying, “Hey, you big doofus — the publisher says they sent you my money two weeks ago! Where’s my check?!” I’ve found too many fights in business occur over money, and I prefer that the authors I represent feel as though we’re on the same side,
We’re doing “Ask the Agent” this month — your chance to ask that question you’ve always wanted to discuss with a literary agent. Someone wrote me to ask, “What does an average first book deal pay? And can you explain how money is paid on a traditional publishing contract?”
Happy to explain it. First, when you sign to do a book with a legacy publisher, most authors are paid an advance against royalties upon signing the 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 the 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 $15,000. 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, Random House wants to pay a portion when the book flips from hardcover to trade paper, etc.) So when your book releases, you’re now in the red $15,000 with the publisher. You’ve been paid that amount, but you haven’t earned anything back yet. Again, that’s not a loan that needs to be paid back, but it’s advance that needs to be worked off — or, in the parlance of the industry, it needs to be “earned out.”
Second, it’s really tough to determine an average first-book deal. Nobody shares the numbers. And the deal points have so many factors: the author platform, the potential media exposure, the timeliness of the topic, the bigness of the idea, the quality of the writing, etc. I’ve done first-book deals for as little as zero (no advance was paid)
We’re doing “Ask the Agent” for the entire month of April, so you have a chance to send in that question you’ve always wanted to discuss with a literary agent. The other day someone sent this: “What does it take for a book to transition from being self-published to being picked up by a traditional publisher? If an author wanted to make that transition, what would you recommend? Do I take down the manuscript and pitch as fully revised?”
Great questions (and there were a bunch of other questions asked by this author, which I’ll try to speak to in my answer). Let me try and cover some important ground with ten thoughts…
First, just to be clear, I am very supportive of indie publishing. We represent more than 100 authors, and all of them have heard me say that I think they need to at least consider self-publishing as a means of helping to make a living in a competitive and changing publishing environment.
Second, I don’t believe that indie publishing is second class citizenry, and that traditional publishing is necessarily the preferred means of making a living. I think authors need to look at all their options. (For the record, I also don’t believe in the myth that all you have to do is post your book on Amazon, and watch the Publishing Fairy show up and sprinkle you with golden coins. Both traditional and indie publishing can work — but both can also fail. Making a living writing is a lot of damn work.)
Third, if you’re successfully self-publishing, selling books and making money, you’d have to think long and hard before transitioning to a legacy publisher. The benefits they offer include giving you potential distribution in stores, more marketing muscle, and obviously taking on the production, warehousing, and order fulfillment of your books. But you’ll make less per book, and have less control over things like
The month of April is set aside for “Ask the Agent” — your chance to finally ask that question you’ve always wanted to run by a literary agent. In the comments section the other day, someone asked, “If you’re writing a series of three books, how do you find an agent and publisher that will take on all three if they only have the manuscript for the first one? Are there things they look for — outlines of the two remaining books, rough drafts, notes on where you’ll be going with the series?”
Okay… What is easier to sell, a car or a fleet of cars? Normally I try to sell ONE book, then, at some point, see if we can extend the deal. It’s daunting to have someone sit down across from me at a conference and announce they’ve created a twelve-book series (which has happened to me), since something like that is going to be nearly impossible to sell. So focus on one book, and make the manuscript as strong as possible.
Make sure you understand that a true “series” is one continuous story, told over the course of multiple titles. That’s tougher to get a publisher to commit to, since it means they’ll have to do all the books to tell the whole tale. It’s usually easier for a publisher to commit to doing several related titles — not one story told over multiple books, but multiple stories that share a setting and some characters.
Of course, no matter which direction you go, each book in the series has to have a satisfying ending. Each book has to feel complete, so a reader can pick it up and enjoy the novel, even if they never read the other, related books.
Another thing to understand that novel series go in and out of vogue. For a while, everybody wanted series, so it seemed like every negotiation
What is it you’ve always wanted to ask an agent? I mean, if you could sit down for a few minutes over a cup of coffee and ask a literary agent anything — about proposals, or writing, or marketing, or the process, or the economics of publishing, or anything else — what would you ask?
Here’s your chance. Starting April 1st, we’re going to take a month and just focus on the questions writers have for literary agents. What do you want to know? What do you need clarified? What is it you’ve always wanted to ask (or ask again)? I’ll be taking a slug of questions each day and offering my best response.
So come join the conversation! Either go to the comments section below and drop in your question, or send me an email asking the question you’ve long wanted answered. I promise to try and get to all of them in the month of April. Looking forward to seeing what you send me.
Don’t just sit there — ASK!
It’s been said that some people have twenty years of experience; while other people have one year of experience twenty times. The difference? The former keep track of their progress and learn from their mistakes as well as their successes. The latter keep trying something new, and have to re-learn the process every time.
When it comes to marketing, make it easy on yourself — mark your trail. The last step in creating a marketing plan is to make a point of writing down everything you do, so that you can evaluate it later. Make note of what works and what doesn’t. Which parts you enjoyed and which parts you hated. Who you liked working with, which activities seemed to be effective, and what things actually sold copies (instead of being fun, but not making you any money). As you work through your marketing plan, you want to make notes to yourself. Remind yourself of what people responded to, and what seemed like a waste of time. That will help you focus on the good ideas and eliminate the bad ones the next time you’re doing marketing for a book. Give yourself some evaluations. Figure out if you could do something better next time, or tweak an unsuccessful effort in order to make it successful.
Here’s an example: I represented an author who spent a bunch of money and time on a video book trailer. She worked on the script, shot scenes, and spent more than a thousand dollars to create an ad for her book. Um… it did nothing. Nada. It looked great, and she enjoyed it, but who chooses to look at book ads? For her, it was a waste of time. But I represent another author who really got into making a trailer that fit her book, used it as more or less an introduction to her concept, made it seem like more of a news
Now that you’ve done all your research and planning — you’ve figured out WHAT you need to do, WHERE you need to do it, WHEN you’re going to get it done, WHO you’re going to be reaching, and WHY you’re going to all this trouble — now you need to go do the work. If you created a calendar, this is easy… you simply look at the calendar, figure out what needs to be done, then go get the tasks accomplished. Instead of worrying about what steps you need to take in order to market your book, you can begin working through the plan you’ve spent weeks creating. No more seat-of-the-pants, no more guessing what activities to do. You’ve done all the background work; now you need to put it into practice.
Authors tend to come in two types when it comes to marketing… Some will want to take several weeks and just market full-time. They’ll set their current writing projects aside, and suddenly become marketers for a season. Others will want to set aside a chunk of time each day for marketing, leaving themselves with a few hours to continue writing. There’s no “right” way to plan this — it depends on what you’re comfortable doing, and what your schedule looks like. But either way, you’ve got to commit to being a marketer for a season, in order to help promote your book.
I’m frequently asked how much time an author should spend on marketing each day or each week, but of course the answer lies in what your plan calls for. If you do the things that are on your plan, the amount of time required will become clear to you. Some authors set aside an hour or two each day to do some marketing. That time can increase as you have a new book come out — so you might find yourself spending half your time on
At this point, you’re probably wondering what else there is to do with a marketing plan. Take heart — we’re almost to the end of the process…
Once you’ve written down everything you want to do, you need to tie each activity to a calendar and a budget and a person — or, as I like to say, every activity has a date and a dollar sign and a do-er. So, for example, if you are planning to send out a bunch of copies to a “big mouth” list in order to get people talking about your book, you pick a day when you’re going to write the notes, address the envelopes, and get them in the mail. Then you figure out the cost of envelopes, mailing labels, and postage. If you’re planning to write several freelance articles to support your book, you mark down the days you’re going to write them, the days you’re going to query and send them, and the days you’re going to check back on them. If you’re going to hire a freelance marketing consultant to help you schedule radio interviews, you pick the days you’re going to be available for the interviews, you mark the dates you’re going to talk with the consultant, and you write down the costs involved with hiring him or her.
Again, for EVERY activity, you choose a date and, if applicable, the dollar amount it will cost you, then figure out who is going to do it. So if you’re going to try and schedule a blog tour, you write down on your calendar the dates you plan to fill up with blogging conversations, as well as the dates you plan to contact bloggers in order to schedule those visits. If you’re hiring or getting a volunteer to do this, you make sure they have clear instructions, and a script, and a plan to follow. There may not be