A funny thing happened on my way to MacGregor Literary …
June 3, 2009 | Written by admin
I've been thinking a lot about how my experience as a freelance writer prepared me to help guide authors who are working hard to find their way in this tight market.
Before I met Chip and turned to the dark side to join him as an agent, I freelanced for a living. One of my most steady gigs was for a national trade publication. When I first began writing there, my job was to take the dullest stories the Director of Communications needed covered and do my best to bring them to life. After a year of proving that I could be trusted with the mundane pieces (trust me – mundane is generous here) he began to come to me for new ideas. I was thrilled because this meant I got to follow my own interests (within reason) and research areas about which I had at least a shred of curiosity. I'd write up a quick pitch; get a yes, no, or almost; make adjustments; and then dive in to researching and writing. After a year of working this way, I got the sense that he was growing tired of even this much back & forth, so, in an effort to make his job easier – and help guarantee that mine would continue – I did a little digging and put together a list of article topics with suggested publication times based on seasons, themes, and events in the industry I was covering.
He was greatly relieved, and I was off & running for another year. Not only had I taken a naggy task off his plate, but I'd proven to him that all his trust in me during the previous two years had not been ill invested. My job, too, became easier because I knew what and when I was going to be writing. This made it so much easier to plan my time. And, because I had a plan, I found I had more mental space and less stress when he asked me to step in and write bigger articles and take on feature pieces for their high profile, glossy (and better paying) consumer magazine – the assignments which, if I'd chosen to continue there, would have helped me build a very serious portfolio and continue not just to make a living as a freelancer, but to make a good living at it.
Did I start by pitching feature pieces? No. I started by writing the basic stuff no one else wanted to do. Did I love it? No. But, my hope was that it would lead to bigger things — and guess what? It did.
While I was researching and writing those smaller articles on topics about which I new absolutely nothing, I was developing my interview skills, learning to write tight, satisfying my curiosity, keeping my writing muscles in shape, and stretching the boundaries of my writing comfort zone. Most importantly, though, I was bringing in consistent money, and building bylines and credibility.
I know I'm talking about articles here, and that there are distinct
differences between magazine and book publishing. Hopefully, though,
you can also see the parallels.
The message I'm hoping to convey is that if I'd been silly (brave, foolish, naive, faithful, hopeful – you pick) enough to pitch this editor with the idea
of a feature piece for his premiere publication when he had no idea who
I was or if I could pull it off, he would have had every right to laugh and
hang up on me.
I'm hoping to inspire you to think about is the notion that writing for the smaller, independent publishers and category imprints still, and will always, offer opportunities not only to build credibility, but to earn a living. We naturally tend to target the big houses; the well-known imprints, thinking if we strike it big at first, we'll be able to coast from there. It's just not true – and, as hard as it's become to break in and/or find spots on lists at this level, (especially now when they've all hunkered down and, in some cases, cut back titles) it's also not realistic – even for established authors – to make a good living only writing "big" books.
If you're trying to make a living at this, or simply trying to break in, now is a good time to study what the small and/or independent houses are doing well.
I need to acknowledge that I know we often advise authors to stay true and write that which you are called to write. That's still true. But, while you write for love, it's also possible – and perfectly okay – to write for the sake of building credibility, and your bank account.