I’m just back from our MacGregor Literary Marketing Seminar in Chicago, had a wonderful time with more than 50 authors we represent, and enjoyed the Windy City. One of the discussion points that came up at the gathering was the topic of career planning for writers.
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. You see, 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 she done in the past? What other writing is the author doing that could boost the platform?
Second, I want to find out about the author’s past – the significant events and accomplishments. I also like to make sure I’m clear on things like strengths, gifts, burdens… all of that helps give me context when discussing career paths.
Third, we have to talk about perspective – what is important to the author? How does he define success? What does she need to change? What do they want to accomplish?
Fourth, we sit down together (or talk on the phone), and we talk about personal organization. Every author needs a TIME to write, a PLACE to write, and a GOAL that he or she is writing toward. Do they have a plan in place? Are they moving forward? Do they have a project they are working on? Do they have a filing system to keep track of projects? Do they have a writing calendar, so they know what and when they are working on each project? I encourage authors to create a budgeting calendar — something that is very important to every working author. Of course, each writer is unique – what they are writing and how fast they write it will be different for each person. But knowing their financial goals and what sort of help they need from me makes my role clear.
Fifth, we start to talk about an actual writing plan – what will the writer create over the next two years? The next five years? What plans are they making? Do those plans reflect their values? Does it all match up with their life purpose? Does it maximize their strengths? Is their spouse in agreement with it all? Knowing an author is at peace with the overall plan is important if this is all going to happen in the writer’s life.
These things all work together to create a career map for an author. Various documents are derived from this information — a writing calendar, a budget, a wish list, maybe a statement of purpose. But my goal isn’t to get an author to write some grand purpose statement — my goal is to help an author create a workable plan he or she can use to move forward in a writing career. I aim to keep writers results-focused. I’ll sometimes ask an author questions such as, “What person would you most like to invest in this year?” or “What single thing would you most like to purchase this year?” or “What obstacle seems to be holding you back right now?” In talking through issues like this, we start to gain some clarity as to what an author wants to accomplish.
And, to be completely open about this, sometimes an author will work through the process and decide she really doesn’t want to be a full-time writer. And that’s okay — the goal is to figure out the calling. I want the authors I work with to be crystal clear in their two- or three-year career plans. That way an author can understand what “success” is, and each one has a means of measuring progress. Feel free to ask me questions.