Archive for the ‘Career’ Category

Ask the Agent: Which e-book publisher should I choose?

September 15th, 2014 | Career, Current Affairs, Publishing | 17 Comments

I’ve been one of those agents encouraging writers to consider becoming hybrid authors (that is, publishing with traditional publishers, as well as self-publishing some titles). That has brought me this question from several people: Which e-book publishers do I need to consider? 

There are a number of choices for authors who want to indie-publish a book. Everybody tends to immediately think, “I’ll just post it myself on Amazon,” but we’ve seen countless error-filled books done on Amazon, so if you want to take a step forward, there are some options to consider. Of course, you need to know what you want in a publisher. For example, do you want to pay extra for marketing help? Does your non-fiction book need photos or maps in the text? Will you want the capability of adding an audio version of your novel? There are a bunch of choices, so let me suggest some places to consider checking out.

1. Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (you’ll find them at kdp.amazon.com). This can be a great choice, since it’s quick, easy, and fast. KDP will make sure your book is available on every Kindle and every computer or phone with the Kindle app, it allows you to be part of their unlimited lending program, and has some special features such as their “countdown” deal and their free book program. KDP pays you a royalty of 35% of the list price on most sales, with the opportunity of a 70% royalty if you follow some pricing guidelines. They pay monthly, and can do direct deposits. It’s a great way to go for many authors… but the big drawback is that they will have some Amazon-only restrictions. That means people who don’t own a Kindle won’t even be seeing your book. Still, KDP is great for reaching the Kindle crowd, which is roughly 60% of all ebook readers.

2. Smashwords (www.smashwords.com). This is who we almost always recommend to authors who want to reach beyond Amazon. Kindle is great, but Smashwords will get you into the iBookstore (for readers with iPads), the Nook bookstore (for Barnes & Noble devotees), the Kobo bookstore (which works with indie bookstores in this country, but is a big deal overseas), and Scribd. So instead of having to upload your titles to every company independently, Smashwords takes care of all the non-Amazon e-tailers, and converts your text into the various formats you’ll need. They also have nice extras such as free marketing help, and they’ll even suggest who can help you with the required formatting. They pay 70%, will send you checks quarterly, and we’ve never had a problem with the accounting at Smashwords. This is a company we trust, and if you do both Smashwords and self-publish a book on Amazon, you’re reaching all the major markets.

3. BookBaby (www.bookbaby.com). This is a fast-growing company that makes it easy for authors. They offer three packages, charge you a flat fee, and take care of everything — formatting, distributing to all the e-tailers, and even helping with marketing. They have some great extra features (like an author bookstore page, or good cover design assistance) that cost more, but the authors I’ve spoken with have been very happy with their experiences at BookBaby. This is more of a one-stop shopping — so while posting your book on Amazon is free, the convenience of using BookBaby will cost you, but it might be worth it to you. They pay 85% of net. BookBaby isn’t as fast as the others, but they have good customer service, and offer some really nice extra features (that you’ll have to pay for, of course). We think they’re a good option for the right authors.

4. Kobo’s Writing Life (www.kobo.com). This one might be new to you, but I mention it because it’s huge in other countries. Kobo currently says they are the world’s second-largest e-bookstore, and that they’re doing book in nearly 70 languages, reaching into almost 200 countries (that’s from their website, so I’m taking their word for it). I’ve known authors who have worked with them, and they rave about how easy it is — you upload a file, Kobo converts it, they pay you 70%, and they’re now starting to offer some marketing helps. But the big news is that they’re working closely with ABA bookstores, which means all those indie bookstores will be helping you to sell your titles. This is one of those companies you might be overlooking, so make sure to check them out.

There are certainly others. Apple has iBook Author (which people have complained is cumbersome to use, but can be great for children’s books, cookbooks, and projects with a lot of photos), NookPress (which replaced PubIt, and is easy to use, but only for those who own the floundering Nook), Vook (which can work with all the e-tailers, but works on a different economic model than the others), eBookIt (the competitor to BookBaby in terms of being a one-stop shop), and BookTango, iUniverse, Trafford, and Lulu, who are all owned or in partnership with the folks at AuthorSolutions. To anyone looking at an AuthorSolutions company, I always say, “Do your research.” There are good programs and bad programs, but understand that AuthorSolutions is too often accused of being there to sell services to you, as the author, not to necessarily sell books to consumers. 

My question to you: Which of these have you worked with, and what are your impressions?  Leave a note in the “comments” section for who you liked and why (or who you didn’t, and why not).

Thursdays with Amanda: How to Get a Publishing Job

September 11th, 2014 | Agents, Career | 8 Comments

Publishing JobAmanda Luedeke is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Thursday, she posts about growing your author platform. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaluedeke or join her Facebook group to stay current with her wheelings and dealings as an agent. Her author marketing book, The Extroverted Writer, is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

I’m going to deviate from talking marketing this week and instead will address a question that I get asked A LOT.

I look quite young (okay, I guess you could say that I AM young, but 30 is also considered middle age, so…). Because I look young, I’m always fielding questions as to how I got in the business, how one becomes an agent, whether or not this is an internship (yes, I’ve heard that one), etc.

Though I must admit these questions are coming at me less and less (probably indicative of me looking older and older), they still pop up, and I can see the wheels turning as folk try and figure out how a 24-year-old (this is the age they typically give me) could possibly be an agent AND have been in the industry for five years AND have held a marketing career before that AND worked in higher ed AND be married.

Fact is, there are lots of people in the business who are much younger than I. I once talked with an editor at Penguin who was 24 at the time. 24!!! 

Young Publishing Professionals

Me with fellow youngsters in publishing!

 

So HOW does one get a publishing job? There are a few different tracks.

1. THE COLLEGIATE TRACK. Many young people are getting into the business these days by pursing publishing or editing or writing or marketing or design (or pretty much any kind of program that would be useful in a publishing setting) in college and then doing internships. The internships then lead to jobs or at the very least, recommendations. The 24-year-old Penguin editor I mentioned had done an internship at a major agency. She got a recommendation that landed her the spot at Penguin.

2. THE NETWORKING TRACK. In this instance, people get into publishing because they know someone who makes it happen or at the very least whose name gets them an interview. This business is very much about who you know, and it can be a tight-knit group with editors jumping from house to house and very little room for names to be pulled from the endless HR file. If your plan is to apply to a publishing job and sit back and wait, it’s probably not going to happen. You need to be able to name drop to get noticed.

3. THE “I FELL INTO IT” TRACK. You’ll many times hear publishing professionals say that they weren’t planning on a career in publishing. It just happened. Maybe they happened to be sitting by an agent on a plane and one thing led to another. Maybe they started in the warehouse and worked their way up. Maybe they sent a note about a book to a publisher that resulted in the publisher hiring them as a freelance editor (haha, not sure that has ever happened, but hey!). This track is hard to force, because it’s all a matter of being in the right place at the right time and then saying YES to the doors that open. (That last part is key…so many people say no because they feel they don’t have the time…or they don’t want to work for free for awhile, etc).

My journey was an “I Fell Into It” example. I was happily working in higher education when I met Chip, who happened to be serving as a visiting professor. He took an interest in me, gave me some side projects to do, and it grew from there. It wasn’t easy, though! For THREE YEARS I maintained a full time job while spending my evenings and weekends doing work for Chip and building an agent list. I finally got to a point where my side job could no longer be a side job if it were going to grow. It was then that I went full time as an agent. Fall of 2011.

Did you catch that? I juggled two jobs for three years. But I knew what I wanted and so it was worth it.

PURSUING YOUR DREAMS CAN BE HARD WORK

Agent Publishing Job

Me with my first agented book!

Many times, we want the path to be easy. We want to be able to fill out an application, get interviewed, and then get the job. But gosh, if it were that easy then everyone would be chosen! And these jobs wouldn’t have value.

If you’re wanting a career in publishing and if you’re still in school, I highly urge you to do as many internships as possible! Go out to New York. Get in with the big houses. It may cost money and it may be out of your comfort zone, but the collegiate track is where it’s at for young people.

If you’re wanting a career in publishing and you’re out of school, then I recommend surrounding yourself with industry professionals. Attend conferences. Make connections. Be polite, give space, but figure out a way to keep the conversation going.

book marketing

Get a head start on author marketing!

What was YOUR road to publishing? Or what questions do you have in terms of how to get there? Let me know!

 

How I tried to market my memoir and ended up starting a small business (A Guest Post)

August 1st, 2014 | Career, Marketing and Platforms | 2 Comments

UNL_0031Lisa McKay is an author with MacGregor Literary.

One of the things I’ve heard Chip McGregor say more than once when talking about marketing is this: “Find your audience, and then figure out how to go and stand in front of them.”

In 2012, when I published my memoir, Love At The Speed Of Email, that is exactly what I tried to do.

Love At The Speed Of Emailtells the story of two humanitarian workers who mckay_fin_online_72dpidefy the uncertainties of distance and the isolation of working in some of the world’s most remote and challenging corners to build a long distance relationship entirely via email. As they risk love, the narrator struggles to better understand the legacies of her nomadic childhood and find a satisfying answer to that simplest of questions, “where’s home?”

In my thinking, there were two obvious “specialty” audiences for this book – third culture kids (people who grew up like I did, moving a lot) and those in long distance relationships. So one thing I did to try to “stand in front” of people in long distance relationships was self-publish another little book called 201 Great Discussion Questions for Couples in Long Distance Relationships.

201_comps_72dpiThis book is exactly what it sounds like – 201 discussion questions for couples, a bit about my own story, and an excerpt from my memoir. I wrote it and put it up on Amazon with no fanfare, about four months after Love launched.

Much to my surprise, it then started to sell at a modest but steady rate. In 2013, that one little book earned me more than $2000.

In all honestly, I’m not sure it’s done much to boost sales of my memoir (which still sells 20 or so copies a month, but certainly isn’t breaking any records despite recently being honored with a Writers Digest award). However, what 201 Questions has done, is convince me that there is both a need and a market out there for long distance relationship resources. It has helped me realize that my personal relationship experiences and my professional qualifications as a psychologist equip me well to address those needs. It has made me wonder whether I can earn some income off of products related to long distance relationships – income that could free me up in the future to invest in writing more novels or another memoir. It has, in essence, prompted me to start my own small business.

I’d love to be able to tell you that it’s going great and that I’m making money hand over fist.

I can’t.

What I can tell you is that I’m giving this a serious shot.

I’ve started a website for couples in long distance relationships called Modern Love Long Distance.

 I’ve also self-published two additional books in the long distance relationship and online dating space – From Stranger To Lover: 16 Strategies For Building A Great Relationship Long Distance, and Online Dating Smarts: 99 Important Questions To Ask Someone You Meet Online.From_Stranger_To_Lover_cover_small

I have plans for several more books or courses relevant to this market. Some I expect to self-publish, one or two I hope to publish traditionally.

All up, I would liketo be making at least $1500 a month off of my long distance relationship products. I estimate it will take another 6-18 months of hard work on my end before I have a chance of reaching or exceeding that goal. Right now, I’m nowhere even close to that, and there’s no guarantee that I’ll get there even if I put in the hard yards.

I’m OK with that.

I figure I win either way. Even if I don’t start making the money that I’d like to be making off this venture I’ll have learnt a huge amount about business, websites, marketing, and relationships. I’ll have spent time trying to help others in an area where my passions intersect with my skills. That’s all a different sort of valuable than money in the bank and, who knows, I may even sell a couple of memoirs along the way.

Your turn now. Do share, I’d love to hear your stories.

What have you tried to market your books?

Have any of your marketing efforts led you in unexpected directions?

 

Ask the Agent: What determines a collaborative writer’s fee?

July 30th, 2014 | Career, The Business of Writing | 0 Comments

A writer I know sent me this note: “I know you represent a number of collaborative writers, who help create books for speakers and celebrities. I have an interest in doing that, since I have a lot of experience with writing, but I’m trying to figure out how I determine what to charge. Can you help?”

Sure I can. There are at least seven things a writer will want to consider when trying to set a price to do someone’s book. (And, just so we’re clear, I’m going to refer to the “writer” as the collaborator who creates the text, and the “author” as the celebrity who has the initial idea.)
1. The WORK – If the author is a speaker who simply hands you some talks on a CD or MP3 file and asks you to create a book from them, that’s much easier than if she asks you to interview him, or hands you bad sample chapters. This sort of work is really done on a sliding scale — does the author expect you to create this from thin air, or does she have materials to get you going? The more work involved, the more the writer needs to be paid. So the amount of the work itself is a consideration.
2.  The TIME – How much time is expected of the writer? This could be a function of the size of the book (a 100,000-word book requires more time than a 50,000-word book), or a function of the process (turning speeches into chapters is much easier than doing an interview and generating all new content yourself). The more time it takes, the more the writer is paid.
3. The SPEED – A book requiring a quick turnaround needs to pay the writer more money, since he is setting aside other projects to hurry this one through. I’ve had writers who were basically paid double their usual fee to get a book done on short notice.
4. The ATTENTION – A great collaborator’s name on the cover can help sell books. For example, Susy Flory hit the New York Times bestseller list with Thunder Dog. Publishers trust her. Cecil Murphey is the collaborative writer who created 90 Minutes in Heaven. Cecil’s name is on a multi-million seller, and that lends credibility and sales. That sort of attention is worth something when it comes time to paying the collaborator.
5. The EXPERIENCE – Simply put, an experienced writer makes more than an inexperienced writer. I frequently work with David Thomas, who has created nearly a dozen well-crafted, well-reviewed books for speakers. He also spent a couple decades working as a newspaper reporter and columnist for a couple major newspapers. David has the experience that book publishers love, and they’re always willing to pay more for that sort of experience.
6. The DEAL – If the author has a six-figure deal in place, he is no doubt willing to pay a bit more than if he is sitting on a $15,000 advance.
7. The MARKET – If the book idea you’re going to be working on it something that’s hot and in the news, or if this is a book that is tied to some sort of important date or event, the project could conceivably pay more than if it’s simply a self-help book the publisher is hoping to see break out.
8. The PITA – If the author is a well-known pain-in-the-ass, the writer can be expected to be paid a bit more, just as combat pay for having to deal with him or her. (And yes… I’ve also had this happen. Remember, I have done numerous deals with professional athletes over the years. There is no more pampered, out-of-touch group of people on the planet than people who have played a sport professionally. I’ve long been surprised Dante, when writing his Inferno, didn’t include a spot for professional athletes when describing the inner circles of hell. But I digress.)
9. The HISTORY – A collaborative writer might start out only earning a few thousand dollars for doing his or her first book. But with some history, that number will grow. Many newer collaborative writers are being paid in the $15,000 range. More experienced collabs are making between $20,000 and $30,000 for creating a book with a speaker. And the best collaborators are making in the $50,000 to $75,000 range per book, with the occasional six-figure payout for a huge book with a major celebrity. The writer’s payment history will help shape the negotiation for the use of their services.
I suppose, if I wanted to make this an even ten things, I could say that the writer’s enthusiasm for the project could affect the amount of money they are paid on a project (a collaborator may say “yes” to a smaller deal than normal just because he believes in the story, or because she thinks the book has life-changing potential). But, in my view, those nine things will probably determine what a collaborative writer is going to make on a project.
Does that help? Feel free to ask me questions if there’s more you’d like to know.

Thursdays with Amanda: I’ve Done Everything to Market My Book and No One is Buying It

July 17th, 2014 | Career, Marketing and Platforms, The Business of Writing | 10 Comments

2013amanda2Amanda Luedeke is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Thursday, she posts about growing your author platform. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaluedeke or join her Facebook group to stay current with her wheelings and dealings as an agent. Her author marketing book, The Extroverted Writer, is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Ever paid for a book ad that did nothing for your sales numbers? Or maybe you scheduled some book signings that saw only a handful of people in attendance. Or you ran a giveaway only to see a few measly entries. Or you got some big-name Tweeter to give your book a shout-out, but it resulted in … crickets.

Sound familiar?

I wish I could say that marketing, no matter what the strategy, always pays off, but I can’t. Many times, authors find themselves spinning their wheels, frantically trying this or that, hoping that SOMETHING will stick. And you know what? Large companies do the same thing. Sure, they have the money that allows them to have some marketing successes, but for the most part, marketing is a gamble. It’s a risk. It’s time and investment in a strategy that no one can be sure will pay off.

If you’re a self-published author, you have a much better scenario going for you, because you don’t have a publisher breathing down your neck, waiting for those sales to hit.

If you’re a trad-pub author, well… Sure, you get a boost from store distribution and a some other perks the publisher may off you, but if sales are bad you have to deal with the fact that your publisher may not want to do another book with you right away…or they may be talking about putting your book out of print…or they may…just…go… dark…

So what do you do in this time of frustration and panic?

First, remember these things:

  1. It’s likely that your marketing efforts made your sales better than they would have been had you done nothing at all. So yeah, 2000 copies sold probably feels pretty dismal…but it’s a whole lot better than 1200 copies sold.
  2. You’re planting seeds and cultivating relationships. We live in a world in which consumers want to have a relationship with the brands and artists that they enjoy. By being present on social media and doing some other promo things, you’re getting those relationships started. Keep at it, and it will pay off.
  3. A tiny number of first-time authors see great sales. A majority of authors have to get a few books under their belt before they hit their stride and begin to see a fanbase take place. So keep that in mind when you’re beating yourself up over the small sales of your first or second book.
  4. Your publisher is not the beginning and end of your career. And neither is your agent. You may get dumped by either one if you have (and keep having) low sales numbers. But that does NOT mean you’re down for the count. Other agents and publishers may be interested in you! Remember: just because one publisher failed to give you wings, doesn’t mean that it’s a lost cause. All publishers know this. What doesn’t work for one house may work for another. And of course there is always the self-pub option should you want to go that route.
  5. You’re not alone. I think every author feels like they’re failing in one way or another. Like they’re getting the bad end of the deal or like they don’t know what they’re doing. But they don’t want anyone to know this! So when authors get together, they tend to make everything sound great. Greater than great, even. They will say things like “my agent got me blah blah blah” and “my publisher is doing this or that” and “I demanded x and they delivered” and “I found out that if you do y, then you get z!” Basically, everyone acts like they’ve got it figured out and that this publishing thing comes easily for them. But as an agent, let me tell you…every author feels a bit of panic. Every author wonders if they’re doing it right. Every author has a list of things that they’d change or would do-over or are just plain nervous about. And every author is worried about sales…maybe not every moment of every day, but even authors who are wildly successful have a fear that things will suddenly go south. It’s only human. So remember…YOU’RE NOT ALONE. Even if it feels like you are.

Feel better? I hope so. Though I know there are a few of you who are like “okay this is great and all, but tell me what to DO.” So for those of you who are practical to a fault (myself included!), here are some questions you can ask yourself to see if perhaps your marketing train is a bit off track:

1. Have I been limiting promotions to friends and family? If yes, then this is a problem. Friends and family will make the decision to buy (or not buy) your book within the first months of release. So if you are still targeting them four months after the book has come out, you’re wasting your time. It’s now time to find new audiences. New readers.

2. Have I been spreading promotions out over time instead of hitting it hard? If yes, then this is a problem. Some authors do an ad here, a radio spot there, a blog post here, an event there. This can lead to low sales, because consumers rarely buy books on impulse. Instead, they buy books that they have heard/seen/read a lot about. So you want your marketing to hit it hard, providing lots of potential touch points with your readers. This will get them to buy.

3. Have I been too quiet about my book? If yes, then this is a problem. Tell people you have a book! Most are really excited to hear such news.

4. Have I been “creating” more content instead of promoting what I already have? If yes, then this is a problem. When marketing, it’s tempting to create materials in an attempt to use them for marketing…but then you discover that you have to market the materials that you created! Videos, digital short stories, PDF downloads…all of these require their own marketing plans. They aren’t a marketing plan in and of themselves.

5. Have I been ignoring the data? If yes, then this is a problem. Sometimes it’s impossible to know what has succeeded and what has failed in terms of marketing. But by analyzing sales rankings and Google Analytics, you’ll get a pretty good idea! If you aren’t monitoring these things, then you run the risk of spending time repeating tactics that don’t work.

How do you deal with these kinds of author burdens? Any tips on handling the pressure?

Ask the Agent: “If I already have an offer, do I need an agent?”

July 14th, 2014 | Agents, Career, Questions from Beginners, The Business of Writing | 7 Comments

Someone wrote me to say, “I was just offered a contract on my novel. Since I don’t have an agent, should I seek one at this point? Would it be better to have the agent simply review the contract for a fee?”

There’s quite a debate about this issue. I know several agents who would say, “If you already have an offer — call me!” I mean, they’d be happy to get 15% for a deal they’ve done no work on. But I have some doubts about the value in that type of situation. Let’s say you got a contract offer featuring a $10,000 advance. If the agent steps in, he or she takes $1500. Is the value of their work worth that? You can ask a contract service to review your contract for around $500. (But be careful… there are good and bad authors, good and bad agents, and good and bad contract review services. Make sure to ask questions, so you get someone who knows what they’re doing and has done it before.) A contract service won’t negotiate for you or improve the deal — they simply evaluate and report back to you. So if you have a bunch to negotiate this may not be your best choice.

You can also talk with an intellectual property rights attorney, but be cautious — they’re generally paid by the increment, usually by the six-minute increment for every phone call, email, conversation, or reading you ask them to do. It can add up fast. A good attorney can certainly help, and should be able to strengthen the contract. But in my experience you want to be careful who you’re working with — I’ve had too many situations where the goal of the attorney seemed to be nothing more than to keep the clock moving (though expect some attorney to come onto the comments to claim that never happens). The longer it takes them, the more they are paid. I know of several authors who ended up paying more to have a top-flight entertainment lawyer review the contract than they were paid in advance dollars. Yikes. Generally speaking, your family lawyer won’t have enough experience to really help you with a publishing contract — the guy doing grandma’s estate or your last real estate closing probably doesn’t know much about current publishing contracts.

As for getting an agent, I would say that you want to make sure the agent actually does something to earn the commission. He didn’t help craft the idea, didn’t help you polish the proposal, didn’t shop it to editors, so ask what exactly he’s going to do in order to bring value. Review the contract? Negotiate better wording and royalties? Assist with marketing? Shop your dramatic and foreign rights? Handle potentially sticky situations? Help with long-term career advice? Assist with other services, such as helping you self-publish your backlist? I’ve often had authors come to me with offers in hand, and I’ve frequently told them to pay for a contract evaluation, since it’s less money. I have sometimes agreed to take on an author, but usually for a reduced commission. And I would encourage you to think long term — Is there someone you want to work with? Is there an agent you like and trust, who can help you with your career, and not just this book deal? A good agent may be willing to take less in order to work with you. My advice: I don’t think it’s fair for me to take the full commission on a book I didn’t sell, but not every agent out there agrees with me, so talk with others and solicit some opinions. Congratulations on getting the book deal, by the way.

By the way, on a related note, someone asked, “Should I worry about a literary agent who turned me down, but suggested I work with his editorial service?

Absolutely you should worry. Here’s how this commonly works — you send a manuscript to an agent, who says, “I really like this, but it’s not ready. However, we have an editorial service here who can help you. For just $500, they’ll get this proposal ready for us to represent…” The agent sends you to his editor co-worker, then pockets half of that “editorial fee,” so he or she is making money off the author. That’s a total violation of ethics for literary agents (and I’d argue the reason we’re seeing some agents do this is because we’ve had a group of people jump into agenting who don’t really know what they’re doing). The Association of Author Representatives has a clear canon of ethics printed on their opening web page which precludes an agent from doing this very thing. It’s ripe with potential for abuse, since it’s too easy for a slimy agent to say to every author, “Hey, this has potential — let our editor work on this for a fee!” It turns authors into marks. Look, I have a bunch of freelance editor friends, and I will frequently say to writers, “This needs considerable editing. I can send you the names of some editors I trust, but what you work out with them is between you and the editor.” I don’t get a fee for recommending anyone, so I’ll send them three to six names of editors who are probably a fit for their type of manuscript. But we’re not an editorial service, and we don’t charge for that type of work. My advice: If an agent tries to cross-sell you some other literary service that charges you a fee, stand up and walk away. You can find a better agent.

And, since I”m on a roll, one other question: “I signed with an agent, but wasn’t happy. I fired that agent, and moved on to another. But now my first agent is claiming that anything I ever talked with her about is her responsibility! She claims that if I ever get a publishing deal for the projects she represented, she is to be paid the agent’s commission. Is that legal?”

This is another one I can’t fathom. I understand getting paid if I’ve done the legwork. Let’s say that I’ve worked with an author to develop a project, showed it to publishers, and started to get some interest. If the author hears about the interest, fires me, then approaches the same publishers to try and get the deal and save themselves the 15% commission, I should still get paid. I state in my agency agreement that if I’m working with a publisher on your behalf, I’ll still get paid even if you fire me and do a deal with one of those publishers I was just selling your work to. But I’ve seen the situation you’re describing a few times lately — an agent claiming that if you EVER sell the book they represented, they’ll still get paid. I’m not a lawyer, so I cannot give legal advice, but I would think this would be awfully tough to have stand up in court. My advice: read any agreement carefully before you sign it. If the agent has a clause that’s incredibly restrictive like this, ask to have it altered.

Does a beginning writer need an agent? (and other questions from authors)

July 11th, 2014 | Agents, Career, The Business of Writing | 5 Comments

Someone wrote to ask, “In your opinion, does a beginning writer need an agent?”

In my view, it depends on the writer. There are some authors who are well connected in the industry, don’t mind dealing with contracts and negotiations, understand career direction, and can survive without an agent. But in my experience, it’s rare to do those things well while maintaining a writing career. I used to tell people that I’m not an evangelist for agents, and over the past 15 years or so I’ve tried to maintain a balance — I haven’t always believed that every writer needs an agent in order to succeed. But in light of all the changing issues in publishing today, I’m now changing my tune. Most legacy publishers require you to have an agent or they won’t look at your material. And most traditional publishers have moved toward relying on agents to be the first filter in the system, reviewing proposals and weeding out the chaff. Working with an agent professionalizes the relationship — an agent is not as emotionally tied to a work as an author, so he or she can be more dispassionate about discussing a project, and the agent is going to be more familiar with the business of contracts, so ostensibly things will move along better for both sides.

I recognize that some have said the future is in self-publishing, so that means authors won’t need agents. I think that’s completely wrong-headed. If you’re going to be responsible for your book, you might think about working with someone who knows the industry already and can help you. Think of the way realtors have changed the home buying market: You can still sell your home by owner, but it’s gotten considerably more complex to do so. You’ve got to know the market, understand how to show your home, know how to get the word out, feel comfortable negotiating a price, and perhaps most importantly, understand how to fill out the mountain of paperwork that goes along with every home sale. (My wife and I sold three homes on our own, and another five homes through realtors, so I understand the difference a professional can make to a deal.) There are still plenty of small publishing houses that prefer to work directly with the author, but any publisher of size will want to work through an agent. And if you’re going to go indie, an a good agent ought to be able to help with your career, your self-publishing decisions, your marketing, your dramatic rights, and your foreign and other sub rights.

All of that leads to the question, “How will I know I need an agent?”

If you’re a novelist, but you don’t have a completed manuscript yet, you probably do not need an agent. (And, to be completely honest about it, you’d have a tough time landing an agent.) Most fiction writers will need a polished draft of their first manuscript completed before landing an agent. If you’re a nonfiction writer, having a great idea and great writing in a proposal is essential, and bringing some sort of strong platform to the table will help a lot. The bottom line is this: if you have something that is worth selling, then unless you know how to sell it and who to sell it to, you maybe be out of your depth and need an agent. If you have a great book idea and a solid proposal, you probably should at least consider interviewing potential literary agents. Again, you can learn to do some of this on your own, if you want to put the time in.

And that leads to the obvious question, “What should an agent do for me?”

The answer depends on your needs. My relationship with one of my authors (say, bestselling novelist Vince Zandri) is quite different from my relationship with another one of my authors (let’s say a first-time nonfiction writer). Each author is going to have a unique set of needs. But, generally speaking, an agent should help you evaluate ideas and discuss publishing trends and the salability of your manuscript. He or she should help you create a dynamite proposal, tweaking it as necessary and working with you to make the writing as strong as possible. (You get one shot with a publishing house, so don’t turn something in that’s only 80% ready.) A good agent will help you improve your work, understand the industry, suggest editing or writing help if you need it, introduce your work to key acquisition people, and sell your proposal for you. He or she will negotiate a good deal on your behalf, paying special attention to key contract issues, and help you create a partnership with your publisher. The agent should ensure contract compliance, help you maximize your marketing opportunities (something that’s becoming more important in the current marketplace), be a pain when you need someone to kick things into gear, read a royalty statement and spot errors, be your biggest fan and encourager, and work through your marketing plan with you. Most importantly (at least in my view), a good agent should assist you with career planning, champion your projects, and grow with you over time.

So the follow-up question probably needs to be, “What do YOU need in an agent?” Because your needs may be very different from your friend’s needs. And every agent is different. Some are great editors. Others are great contract people. Some are basically sales people. Others are negotiators. And still others are life coaches. If you figure out what you need most from an agent, you’ll be better equipped to find the agent that’s right for you.

I recently had someone send me this question: “I feel stuck — you can’t get an agent unless you’re published, but you can’t get published without an agent. Help! What’s the best way to go about finding an agent?”

You’re right — it’s not fair, and you’re screwed. Sorry! The most important step in finding the literary agent that’s right for you is to make sure you’ve got a great idea, expressed through great writing, and you can back it all up with a strong platform. Those are probably the first things you need to have completed. Once you’re ready to start looking for an agent, you can begin by looking in any of the “find an agent” books that are on the market. Check with Writers Digest books, and look at B&N for a book that lists literary agencies. Next, you can meet agents at writer’s conferences, book shows, or at publishing functions like BEA or ICRS. These are still the best places to get 15 minutes of face-time with an agent. It allows you to get a feel for him or her, and see if you think the two of you might work together. At some writers’ conferences, you can send in your material ahead of time and sign up for an appointment. If you’re going to do that, remember to create a good presentation — after all, you are selling yourself. Put together a cover letter that tells about your life and work. Include your previous writing and book sales. Show the agent a great proposal, and make sure it’s as strong as you can make it. Be ready to talk about yourself, your books, your ideas, and your platform. An author who shows huge potential for the future is much more likely to garner interest from a good agent.

Got a question for a literary agent? Send it to Chip (at) MacGregor Literary (dot) com and I’ll get you an answer. It may or may not be correct, but at least it will be an answer.

What if I’m a part-time writer, part-time something else?

June 30th, 2014 | Career, The Business of Writing | 6 Comments

A friend wrote to say, “I have a degree in teaching, and I’ve taken classes in a professional writing program… but I feel stuck between two careers. What do I do?”

If you’re trying to make it as a writer, you’ve got an uphill climb. But so does everybody who wants to make a living with art. Making a living in the arts (ANY art) is hard. Here’s an example I’ve used several times: I’m a pretty good ballroom dancer. (Really. Publishers love it when I come to their publishing balls, since there will be 300 authors and 6 guys who know how to dance.) I took lessons, was in dance classes, and hoofed it in musical theater. If you saw me on the dance floor at the Harlequin ball, you might think I was head and shoulders above most beginners. But I realize there’s a huge gap between being pretty good at the local dance club and asking people to pay $80 to come watch me dance in a show on Broadway. There’s a gap between being “pretty good” and being “a professional.”

My son is a good guitar player, but there’s quite a leap from playing in a garage band and asking people to plunk down $18 for your latest album on iTunes. My daughter Molly could act and was in the plays in school — but there’s a big gap between “being pretty good in the high school comedy” and “asking people to come see me at an equity theater.” All of us who grew up in churches have heard really good singers over the years… but there’s a big gap between the woman who is pretty good with a solo in the Christmas concert and the professional singer who has been granted a record contract.

So just because someone is a pretty fair writer doesn’t mean she can expect a reader to pay $25 for her latest novel. There’s a gap between amateurs and professionals. And that’s true with music, with dance, with acting, with painting, with anything. It’s tough to make it in any art. Writing included.

Therefore, what do you do? You work at it. You get better. You study the craft. You take classes. You join a critique group. You locate a writing mentor. You pay a professional editor to review your work. More than anything, you sit your butt in a chair and write a lot. Because nobody gets good by “thinking about” writing — you get good by actually writing a lot. (The same holds true with all those other arts I mentioned earlier.) Most novelists don’t get their first book published — they write several novels before hitting on a story that’s salable, and having the writing chops to be able to tell it well. I once had a chance to teach writing courses in Taylor University’s excellent Professional Writing Program, and I was surprised to find so few older or non-traditional students in the classes. Most everyone in my classes was in the 18-to-22 year range — which is fine, since I loved the students, and enjoyed teaching them (Taylor is where I met Amanda and Erin, who now work with me). But I would have loved to see more returning students who were trying to move forward in their careers, and who had enough life experience to bring depth to their writing.

I’m sure you’re familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hour Rule,” in which he argues that certain people (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, the Beatles, Robert Oppenheimer, etc) became great at what they did because they invested 10,000 hours in their roles. Basing his theory on a study by Anders Ericsson, Gladwell offers a theory as to why some people become “great” in their roles. It’s fascinating stuff, and I think he makes a very compelling argument for writers (if you’re interested, download a copy of the book, Outliers, published by Little-Brown). But his basic argument is that a person needs TIME AT THE CRAFT to become really good.

So back to your question, my friend… what to do? I think it depends on your passion, your motivation, your calling, and your innate ability. Some people need to work full time at a job and write when they can. Others need to write part time and work some other job part time. Still others write full time and maybe do some fill-in work as needed. I don’t know your situation, so I’m not going to offer any career advice, other than to say, “What do YOU think you should be doing with your life?”

(Regular readers of this blog will feel they’ve read these words before. They did — I took this blog post from a c couple years ago and updated it. Just didn’t want you to think I was cheating.)

As a working writer, how do I create a budget?

June 25th, 2014 | Career, The Business of Writing | 0 Comments

Several people read my Monday blog and asked me, “What does a writing budget look like?”

Here’s the basic idea…

1. The author sets a financial goal for the year. It’s got to be something that is livable (if the writer is attempting to make this a full-time job) and reachable (so there’s no setting a goal of “a bazillion dollars”). Let’s say, for someone just moving into full-time writing, the goal is $36,000 per year. Yeah, that’s pretty skinny, but at least it’s a real wage for most writers. So figure out how much you need to earn in a year from your writing.

2. I encourage an author to break that annual figure into monthly chunks — so in our example, the author’s goal is $3000 per month.

3. The next step is to add up what the author expects to earn on the writing they are doing. How much in contracts does she already have? What other writing does she know she’ll be doing and getting paid for? That will help her figure out how much money is coming in, and how much she needs to add. Let’s say an author has a royalty check coming in May, expects to have completion money on a book contract in July, and is expecting to sell a project in October. All you have to do is to figure out the amounts and write them onto your writing calendar. Nothing will give an author more clarity than hard numbers written down on a calendar — it’s a way of saying, “I’m making this… so now I need to work to make that.”

4. The obvious thing to do next is to match up dates and amounts. If you know you’re going to be working on a book in March/April/May, you can write down how much you’re making on that project. By looking at your calendar, you’ll see where the holes are that need to be filled with writing projects. And by looking at your budget, you’ll see how much you need to make in order to fill in the gaps.

5. And here’s an important step: The author should shift his or her budget from a monthly system to a quarterly system. So in our $36k-per-year scenario, the authors stops thinking in terms of “$3000-per-month” and starts thinking about “$9000-per-quarter.” That pushes off the immediate, “How-am-I-ever-going-to-survive” worry a bit. 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. And the government already views your business this way, which is why they ask you to pay quarterly estimated taxes — the system is set up to have you do this.

6. The conversation then moves to something like this: “I’m going to make $9000 this quarter. It’s going to come from three sources — my completion money, my royalty check, and those magazine articles I’m completing or the editing projects I’ve got planned. 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). Again, the government assumes you’re making money quarterly — that’s why they have you pay quarterly estimated taxes. So 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.

I hope this all makes sense. Oh, and I always remind authors of the MacGregor Formula for full-time writing: 24m(s)+4b=RJ (Let me translate that for you… If you intend to move toward a career as a full-time writer, you need to have the next 24 months of writing mapped out with enough money to equal a salary, PLUS the next four books contracted or planned. That will equal a “Real Job.” Once you’re there, you can consider quitting that day job and focus on your book career. If you’re not there, you want to be very careful about giving up guaranteed income. Making a living at writing is a tricky business.)

Yeah, this is a lot to choke down in one gulp. Feel free to ask questions if you need me to clarify.

How can a writer create a career plan?

June 23rd, 2014 | Career, The Business of Writing | 9 Comments

I have a background in organizational development — my graduate degree focused on how an organization grows and changes over time. In my job as a literary agent, I’ve found it’s proven 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 people 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. In other words, I figured out how to walk an author through a real-world career map. 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? If I can get to know an author, I can better help him or her to make wise career decisions that fit their own personal vision.

Second, I want to find out about the author’s past. What were the significant events and accomplishments? What experiences did the author have that she liked or hated? I 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? I think a lot of authors don’t ever feel successful because they don’t ever define success. And let’s face to — success is fleeting in this industry. You complete a manuscript and you feel good… for a day. Then it’s on to something else. You land a contract and you feel great… until you realize that there are thousands of writers who are working on contract. You hit a bestseller list and you’re ecstatic… but it quickly falls off the list and everyone in the industry is focused on the NEXT big book that has released. Success is transitory. But if you never sit down and decide “THIS is what I want to accomplish,” you’ll never have enough perspective to feel you’re successful.

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 an organizational 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, so they can track how much time each project will take them and how much money it will generate for them. 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 significant other 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: platform, past, perspective, personal organization, and plan. And, as you can imagine, 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 really just to get an author to write some grand purpose statement. My goal is to help an author create a workable career plan he or she can use to move forward in their writing life. 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, since 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. And creating a plan is more important than ever in these days of revolution in publishing. Everything is changing. The industry is being reshaped at a very fast pace. If you don’t have an overall plan, you’re in danger of being left behind.

So think this over for your own life… What’s your platform? (Get it all written down so you can share it with your agent or business manager or writing friends.) What were the significant events in your past, and what do they reveal about you? As you try to get some perspective on your writing life, how would you define success? Do you have a clear sense of personal organization, complete with writing goals, a writing calendar, and a budget? And what’s your plan? Can you write it all down and talk about it so that you know what you’re doing and where you’re going in your career?

Thoughts to ponder as you think about your career this summer. Feel free to ask me questions. (And hey, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that you’ve read this before. I was re-reading some posts I read a couple years ago, and realized I wanted to say this again. Hope you don’t mind my repeating myself.)