December 13th, 2013 | Career, Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, The Business of Writing, Trends | 12 Comments
When my new book, Grace’s Pictures, released, I knew I needed to do all I could to promote it. But at the time I faced a challenging rewrite of my next novel, a long planned for overseas trip, and my son’s wedding. The solution seemed to be finding someone to help, but I couldn’t afford to pay for an assistant.
The answer came when I realized that my writing was indeed a business and I needed to think of it that way. Corporations employ interns not only to provide young people an experience that will help them when they enter the job market, but also to get things done. I couldn’t pay someone to help me, not with money. But I did have something to offer. Since I’ve learned some things along my writing journey, I could pass some knowledge on to a student who was considering entering the publishing field.
I had no idea how to do this. I had no internship myself when I was in college. But I did not let that stop me. I decided to go out on a limb and ask questions. Since there is a private liberal college not too far away, I Googled and discovered they have a wonderful Creative Arts program. I emailed the professor in charge and to my surprise she emailed right back and said she had a student in mind who would be perfect.
Like most things that sound too good to be true, it turned out not to be that simple. I had to follow up twice to find out this student had changed her mind. The professor went back to the drawing board, but also suggested I check with a larger university. I did so, and they advertised for me, but my intern ended up coming from the smaller college. She was a freshman with little understanding of the publishing world, but she was willing to learn and try.
The drawback to this kind of thing can be that you have to spend time figuring out what you would like the intern to do and then explain it. So this does take a little bit of time, and I was short on time. In the end, however, it was worth the investment because she did land a radio interview for me, assist at a couple of signings, and talk up my book. She gave me a list of all the media she contacted as well so I could follow up later. In return she learned how hard authors have to work to promote their books, and she learned about the many fields in publishing that she might want to pursue in the future. Her college also gave her some credit for the time she spent working for me. All I had to do was fill out an online evaluation. (And now I’m on their list for internships as well!) At the end of her time with me, I arranged a conference call with my agent (the kilted one!) and she was able to ask questions and get a bit of advice for exploring the field of creative writing and publishing. She was very grateful, and so was I. I love mentoring and teaching, so this was perfect for me. It probably would not work for every author, but for some, this out-of-the-box thinking could be very rewarding.
Have you ever thought of taking on an intern?
Cindy Thomson is the author of Grace’s Pictures, Brigid of Ireland, Three Finger: The Mordecai Brown Story, and the forthcoming Annie’s Stories. She’s a whiz at Irish stories, loves her Cincinnati Reds, and has a soft spot in her heart for the Chicago Cubs, who she notes “haven’t won a World Series since my cousin pitched for them in 1908.” We appreciate Cindy stepping in as a relief pitcher while Chip is on the bench with an illness.
Vilfredo Pareto was a Paris-born Italian, from a prominent exiled Genoese family, famous in his own day as a social economist. He is often referred to as the first modern economics professor, and he more or less developed microeconomics as a discipline. But what he’s best known for is the principle of factor sparsity — what we usually refer to as “the 80/20 rule.” Pareto noticed that 80% of the peas in his garden came from about 20% of the pea pods. He determined that 80% of the wealth in Italy was held by roughly 20% of the population. And, when looking at the Italian tax structure, he noticed that 80% of the government’s income came from just 20% of the taxpayers.
Sometimes referred to as “the law of the vital few,” the Pereto Principle is found in many of the organizations you belong to. For example, 80% of the work done at your church is performed by about 20% of the members. 80% of the money raised by the non-profit you belong to is donated by 20% of the givers. And, if you work in publishing, 80% of the income your publisher makes comes from 20% of the books. (Which, if you think about it, means there is significant factor sparsity in book publishing, since 80% of the titles released this year will produce very little income for publisher and author.) Pareto noted that most every element tied to finances is ruled by a vital few (which he referred to as “the elite,” thus popularizing the term), and that it’s the success of those vital few that allows the rest of the category to persist.
Here’s why you need to understand that as an author: Your publisher is going to release a LOT of books this year. A mere 20% of them are going to generate 80% of the publisher’s income, so of course your publisher is going to invest a lot more marketing dollars into those few titles. But you don’t want to decry that. The very fact they’re doing it makes them successful, and allows them to have the ability to do all those other titles… including yours. So don’t be discouraged when the next James Patterson book gets a million dollar marketing campaign, and you find it hard to get the publicist to send out review copies of your book. Just thank your lucky stars they’ve got a James Patterson novel, and that you live in an era when marketing avenues are wide open to all (not just the elite), so you can give your own book the royal treatment. You can do blog tours, go onto social media, generate reviews and buzz, write articles, do interviews, support it with media, buy ads — the list of potential marketing opportunities is endless to the contemporary author.
When I worked for a publisher, we released books in spans. There were maybe 15 books in a span, and we pretty much expected ten of those books to lose money. We expected two of the books in that span to break even, and perhaps two more to make a bit. But we always had one big book in a span — one breakout author or title that we knew would generate enough money to cover the costs of all those other titles, and therefore keep us in business. And on occasion one of those other titles would also bust out, a new star would be made, and that was going to allow us to generate even more books in the future. That’s the economics of publishing in the real world. So don’t fight it — rejoice that there are authors doing great in this business, since they’re helping you keep busy at your art, and then determine to be one of the 20% who work hardest at marketing, in order to make your books part of the “vital few.”
Over the past few weeks we’ve been talking about “making a living at writing.” In addition to the advice I’ve doled out, I’ve heard from several people with wisdom to add to the discussion, and I have a few other tips to share, so I thought for the Thanksgiving weekend, we could share the best advice we all have for those looking to make a living at writing. Some of my thoughts:
–Keep your mornings protected for writing. Move the 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, project planning, looking over proposals, etc.
–Organize your day first thing every morning. If you have a plan, you’re much more apt to stay focused. Having a “to do” list helps most writers immensely.
–Take a day off one each week. Getting away from writing one day each week allows you to recharge your batteries and get your mind refreshed. Hey — even God rested.
–Kill the muse. That is, forget the concept that you have to be in a certain mood to write, or find exactly the right space to create words. Just sit and write. I’ve long appreciated Ernest Hemingway’s writing idea that you end each day in the middle of a sentence. That way, when you sit down the next morning, you don’t have to figure where you are, or get yourself into a certain moody, or work up to it. All you have to do is to finish the incomplete sentence you’d left yourself, and you’re off and writing.
–See the value of shitty first drafts. Too many writers tie themselves in knots because they think they need to make their manuscript perfect. But for most novelists, what they really need is to get a first draft done. Then they can go back and fix it. (Because it’s always easier to FIX something than to CREATE something.) So think “progress,” not “perfection.” See the value of creating a shitty first draft. (And my thanks to Anne Lamott for first offering this bit of wisdom in her wonderful book Bird by Bird.)
–If you’re running a writing and editing business, learn to farm out certain tasks. Let’s face it: if somebody else can do something 80% as well as you, then you need to consider farming it out to them in order to allow you to grow your business.
–Protect your hands. One of the biggest mistakes I made as a young writer was using a cramped keyboard, then not taking adequate breaks or stretching my hands. Now I have a lot of hand problems. There’s a ton of research on things you can do to protect one of a writer’s most valuable assets — ergonomic keyboards, stretching exercises, the proper chair, being careful to not over-tax your fingers, etc.
So… what wisdom to you have to share? As you move toward making more of your living at writing, what is the best advice you can give to other writers?
- See more at: http://www.chipmacgregor.com/#sthash.vHETWVjq.dpuf
We’ve been talking about making a living at writing, and I’ve talked about the importance of having a place, a time, a project, a writing goal, and a calendar (among other things). 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: think quarterly.
It can be daunting to think you need to earn $1000 this month. It’s much less daunting to think you need to earn $3000 in a quarter. 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.
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 anyway, though it’s fair for a writer to plan for a decent paycheck four times per year. So you move your income into quarterly groupings, lowering the pressure and giving yourself a better big-picture view of your budget.
In essence, I’m suggesting the conversation with yourself becomes something like this: “I’m going to make $3000 this quarter. It’s going to come from three sources — my completion money, my royalty check, and those magazine articles I’m completing. And the money is going to go toward these things…” (because part of having a budget is determining where the money goes, not just where it will come from).
When I was given this idea from an experienced freelance writer, I found it took a bunch of pressure of my shoulders. LOTS of writers and other self-employed people have based their budgets on this model over the years. Thinking quarterly will help you survive as a writer.
What are the other tips for making a living at writing you’ve learned along the way?
If you’re going to make a living at writing, you’re going to need to 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 figure out what you put into each day, you look at your “to do” list and do some prioritizing. If you’re one of those writers who has been stuck at “writing 1000 words each day,” but not ever feeling like you’re actually moving forward in your career, you should try this. There’s nothing wrong with having a word count goal, of course, but sometimes it’s better to know which project you’re working on, and how long it’s going to take you. You’re going to have plenty of other things to do, of course — there will be phone calls related to your work, and seemingly endless emails, and forms to fill out, a friend’s piece to critique, some social media to participate in… but at some point you just want your writing life to have a focus — getting these pieces written so I can make some money.
And that’s why you don’t just write down the goal for each day and stop. You then go back and add in a dollar figure, so each project is seen as contributing to your budget. For example, that article you’re writing for the writing magazine? How much is that paying you? Let’s say it’s $150 — you write down “writing magazine article – $150″ into the square on your calendar for that day. The editing project you’re doing? It pays $300, so write that over the Thursday and Friday squares. Oh, and that chapter you’re creating? You’re expecting to sell that book for about $5000, so each chapter has a monetary value of roughly $250. I know that might seem a bit dreamy at first, but trust me — in time, you’ll appreciate knowing what sort of value to put onto your writing efforts.
Figuring out your writing value isn’t hard — if your goal is to make $36,000 per year at writing, you’re trying to make $3000 per month, or $750 per week, or an average of $150 pr day. You won’t find writing jobs that are quite that precise, of course, so you’ll need to think more broadly as you create your calendar. But knowing the overall amount of money you’re trying to generate, and breaking it down into smaller goals, makes the entire process much more doable.
Nothing makes you look at reality more clearly than a number, so figure out the projects you’re going to work on this month, break them into workable units, get them onto a calendar, and attach a dollar figure to each one, so that you have some sense of what you should be making. That’s how you get started at the business of making a living writing.
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 that you can gauge your success. Novelist P.G. Wodehouse set a goal of writing 1100 salable words per day — something he kept up for more than 60 years, and the reason he published 90 novels and hundreds of short stories.
–A bank account. If you’re going to start looking at your writing as a business, you’ll have money coming in and going out, so you’ll need a way to track income and expenses. This will help at tax time, since none of the money you earn writing will have taxes withheld. Start the business account in your company name, even if it is something simple such as “Janet Smith Writing and Editing.” In time, you’ll find you want to tie a credit card (to track purchases) and a savings account (to retain a portion for quarterly taxes) to this account.
–A website. If you’re going to get the word out on your writing business, you’re going to need to invest in a decent website — something that tells potential customers who you are, what you do, who you’ve worked with, and how to get in touch with you. You’re probably also going to want some business cards, but you probably don’t need a huge stash of them any more, and you can get them cheaply online.
–A filing system. Whatever system you use, you need to have a way to keep track of people, projects, and information without digging aimlessly through old emails or file folders. So learn to track your work and file it in some sort of system that makes sense to you. My grandfather used to say, “Some people have twenty years of experience; others have one year of experience twenty times.” The people who track their work are the ones who don’t have to keep re-inventing things.
–A network. With time, you’ll want to know other writers, connect with editors, meet with publishers, bounce ideas off of others in the industry. So go to conferences, make friends, and get to know other people who are doing this. Much of your work will come from your growing network.
–And, course, an up-to-date computer and software. I hate talking about this, since I’m not a tech guy, and used my first Macbook for six years before I decided to replace it. But if you’re going to work in the world of publishing, you’re going to have to know and use Microsoft Word, and you’re going to have to own a relatively recent version of it. Sure, you can create documents in other programs, but eventually you’re going to have to use Word to work effectively with everybody else. So, yes, Bill Gates owns your soul.
I suppose there are other things you could put on this list (an understanding partner, good internet access, a decent coffee maker), but these are things I’ve found essential to making a living with words. Would love to have you leave a comment with what other tools are essential.
I’ve been exploring the notion of making a living in the new publishing economy, and I want to make sure writers understand the big picture… You’ve got to treat your writing as a business.
Oh, sure, 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.
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.
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, so there’s a market for people who can create good content. You’ll still hear people complain that it’s not easy… but when has making a living with art ever been easy? For that matter, when has starting a business ever been easy? I started a writing and editorial service, built it into a success, and it was a lot of hours and work. I then went to work for publishers and traded my time for a salary, which was also hard work. When I started my own literary agency several years ago, I knew it would be a ton of work — locating good projects, finding authors with whom I was comfortable, building relationships with publishers, spending hours looking at proposals, reading contracts, keeping the books and cutting checks, getting involved in marketing discussions, having career conversations with authors, training staff, keeping in touch with people in the industry through this blog and other sources…. I’m not complaining — I love my job. Love being an agent. Don’t want to do anything else. But it’s hard work; just as setting up and running a writing business will be hard work.
On the other hand, there are numerous pluses to starting a writing business. There’s no big overhead — you need a computer and internet access. Business cards and a website are helpful, as is a professional wardrobe and some people skills. You’ll discover that, like marketing your novel, running a writing business is basically a sales job. You’ll need to get the word out and increase your visibility, but that will help you when your book releases. You’ll need to know how to tell your story, in order to sell people on your skills. You’ll need to have a dedicated time to write, so that you balance the marketing with the actual writing. And that keeps you writing regularly, so that you begin to see writing as the task you’re doing every day, rather than a hobby to try when the mood strikes, or you’ve found your muse. (As I learned to say when I was working for a newspaper: “Screw the muse — write the words.” Though the editor who taught me that phrase might have used more colorful language.)
One last thought on treating your writing as a business: Learn the value of a three-legged stool. The metaphor of a three-legged stool has long been used with small businesses. If you only have one product, you have one leg to your stool. That works fine so long as your product is popular, but when popularity fades, you’re left with one product that isn’t making you any money. That’s why bookstores don’t just sell books — they sell cards, puzzles, games, journals, bookends, fancy pens, stuffed toys, t-shirts, jewelry, and anything else that might appeal to book lovers. If you’re running a writing business, you may want to think about adding other legs to your stool. If you write books, perhaps you can collaborate and help others write books. Maybe you can edit other people’s manuscripts, or copy-edit, or do the developmental book connecting that’s so important with fiction. You might be able to teach writing, or speak at writing conferences, or help with some free-lance book marketing. You can’t do all of these things, of course, but figuring tout the tasks you CAN do, and creating a business that involves several of them, will give you a more stable financial base.
I’d love to know what you’re found helps you make a living at writing. Share your thoughts with me in the “comments” section.
I’ve been talking about authors trying to make a living at writing recently, and a couple people have written to ask me, “When can I know I’m 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. I think you have to pick an amount based on your own situation. 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?
When I started free-lancing, I was working other jobs (I hosted a radio show called “On the Record with Dr Chip MacGregor,” and taught some classes). At first my writing income was slim, but over time I had more writing and editing projects coming in, and I saw my monthly income from writing move from $100 to $300 to $500 to $1000 per month. I had a big jump from $1000 to $1500, then to $1800 per month. When I began making an average of $2000 per month, I realized I could make more money if I gave up my part-time jobs and just focused on the writing and editorial work. Granted, this was a number of years ago, but I had three kids and a mortgage payment, and making more than $2000 each month was enough to live on.
So, as you look at your situation, how much do you need to make? You may choose to set a small goal from your writing at first, then grow it over time as your writing career moves forward. You have to begin to see “words” as “money” — that is, your writing having value. One of the things you’ll discover is that when you look at words that way, there are an enormous number of avenues for you to make money with words. Maybe you can teach writing classes, or start a collaborative writing business. Perhaps you can do freelance editing (every publisher is looking for good copyeditors, in my experience). You might be able to do some work for your local organizations, who will pay a writer and editor to help with newsletters and online information. Or you can write for your local newspaper, or check into local or regional magazines — even mid-sized cities often have monthly or quarterly magazines that feature tourism and business news about the local area, and what every magazine publisher will tell you is that each edition is a monster that has to be fed. They need content to fill up pages, and nobody is going to feel sorry for them if they don’t have enough words with interesting stories to fill those pages. The days of e-zines have pushed many of the print magazines to the background, so while you may find at first that e-zines aren’t paying much, the real money on the web is in business…
Every business and organization in America has a website, and they all need content for those sites. (Quiz: Who writes content for most websites? Marketing companies. Which is to say, “a lot of high school grads.”) When the web first started (or, “when Al Gore first invented the internet”), websites were similar to billboards along the freeway –”Don’s Plumbing: Great Service, Low Rates – Call 555-1234.” But businesses quickly learned there was no reason for readers to ever visit again. So if you go to the website for Don’s Plumbing today, you’ll find the company history, a profile of each plumber who works there, a section where you can make an appointment, another page where you can order parts, a fix-it-yourself guide, and a history of indoor plumbing. Um… SOMEBODY has to write all that text. And then somebody ELSE has to go back and edit it, because the first version of it was probably terrible. So writing and editing online content for businesses and organizations is a huge market right now, as is any sort of marketing writing. (And the concept of marketing writing requires its own blog posts, but probably for somebody else’s site.)
As I noted the other day, there are more people reading than ever before, and more opportunities to read than ever in the history of the world. So… don’t get stuck into the mindset that all your writing income must come from books. Set a financial goal, start to work toward it, and look for opportunities to generate some income from your writing skill.
By the way, Michael Hyatt posted a great interview with author Max Lucado on the subject of writing today — have a look at http://michaelhyatt.com/max-lucado-on-writing.html
As always, would love to hear what writing is working for you, and where you’re finding avenues for making money with your words. Jump into the conversation by posting some thoughts in the “comments” section.