Archive for the ‘Collaborating and Ghosting’ Category

If you could have lunch with an agent…

April 8th, 2014 | Agents, CBA, Collaborating and Ghosting, Current Affairs, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Questions from Beginners | 4 Comments

So I’m taking the month of April and asking readers to send in some specific questions: If you could have lunch with an agent, sit down face to face and talk, what would you ask? Here are some of the questions that have come in…

Recently a publisher stated that he thinks an author ought to plow some of their advance back into marketing — which upset me, since it seems wrong-headed to expect authors to bear the financial burden of book promotion. Why pick on the weakest financial link in the chain? Am I hopelessly naive? Or is that the new normal?

I saw that interview, and I was surprised. Certainly every author is throwing himself or herself into their own book. Let’s face it, NOBODY has more at stake in a book than the author. Nobody knows the story better. Nobody has spent more time on it. Nobody is counting on the the success more than the author. So I think it’s easy for a publisher, who is hopeful for the book to do well, but not inherently tied to its success, to say, “The author ought to take his advance check and use that money to pay an outside publicist.” And maybe there are times where that’s exactly what needs to happen. But it came across as out of touch and unrealistic, since most authors are trying to live on advances. I mean, I can’t imagine saying to a publisher, “If you want to be more successful, you need to reinvest your paycheck into training your people.” So no, this is not the new normal. That said, publishers are certainly expecting more out of authors when it comes to marketing. The publisher isn’t in charge of marketing your book — YOU are. The author is going to have to take the lead and complete much of the work. And that IS the new norm.

You’ve said recently there are some lousy agents out there. What makes a lousy agent, and how would we find about about them?

There are a handful of websites that track unscrupulous or illegal agents — Preditors and Editors is the best known, but Writer Beware (which was put together by the Science Fiction Writers of America) is also a good one, and there is an Agent Research and Evaluation service that tries to keep track of things. However, my criticism was aimed at some of the people who have started calling themselves agents, but who don’t really know what they’re doing. Think of it this way: If the agent has never worked in the industry, or never worked directly for a good literary agent so as to get mentored by him or her, it’s hard to take them seriously. (And if they worked for another crappy agent, it’s also hard to take them seriously.) I’ve seen several writers announce they’re becoming agents, and watched a bunch of people with no background in the industry announce that they are representing authors. Often times their experience is either (a) they’ve written a book in the past, or (b) they were part of a marketing campaign in the past. But they don’t really have any connections to publishers. They don’t know how the economics of publishing work. They don’t know how to negotiate a contract, or how to evaluated a contract. They can’t speak to trends in the industry. They don’t know how to give career advice. Then they say stupid things to authors, who are stuck with lousy contracts and bad decisions because a crappy agent told them something was true when, in fact, it was not. And I find this to be particularly true in CBA. (Yeah, I’ve been dealing with several of these things recently, and I’m a bit chapped about it.) Let’s face facts: If you check the Publishers Marketplace database of deals, or if you simply talk with a bunch of acquisition editors at publishing houses, you’ll find that 90% of the publishing deals at established CBA publishing houses are done by about fifteen agents. Most of the rest are pretending.

And there’s something else to note… When an agent joins the Association of Author Representatives, they commit to a code of ethics that says “we don’t charge fees or sell services to our authors.” So if you’re considering an agent, take a look at their website. If it says something like, “We offer author representation. We also sell editorial services. And we sell marketing advice. And we might charge you for career counseling…” That’s a sure sign you’re dealing with somebody is not a member of AAR, and is probably trying to scam you. Why? Because an agent doesn’t make money from their authors. They make money through author earnings, not by charging them fees. When you charge people fees to look at their work, or you try to sell editorial services on the side, everybody is a potential customer. There’s no reason to ever say “no” to anyone. And that is rampant in CBA. Run away. Find a real agent who knows what he or she is doing and won’t be asking you for money.

I posted the first few chapters of my manuscript online, just to get feedback from writer friends, but was told agents and editors hate that. Is that true?

Not in my view. I think that’s become very common. It used to be that publishes would stay away from a manuscript that had been posted online — that is clearly no longer true.

What would you recommend for a writer who wants to start working with speakers, to help them do books?

You need to establish some sort of track record, in order to prove you can do it. So start small — offer to do a shorter piece for them, or a study guide, or articles and blog posts. When I started collaborative writing (which was, admittedly, a couple decades ago), I offered to write some pieces for free, just so the speaker would know I had the chops to get it done. I actually hunted down possibilities, going to conference speakers and pastors and popular university profs so I could say, “Hey – this is good stuff… you should do a book!” Be aware that doing a book is not simply doing a series of articles — make sure you understand the logic and argument that is inherent in a complete book. But every collaborative writer I know began by doing shorter pieces, then eventually hooking up with bigger speakers. I represent a handful of writers who make a full-time living doing collaborative books with others, and they all started on the journalism side, doing interviews and articles.

Do you have any handy MacGregor tips to help authors identify the target audience for their book?

If you’re doing a nonfiction book, you need to think problem/solution. Most nonfiction is written to offer solutions to problems people are facing (there are exceptions: history, humor, memoir, biography, but the vast majority of nonfiction is all about presenting answers to questions that are being asked). So your target audience includes everyone who is facing that problem, or everyone who is asking that question. If you are doing a novel, you need to think about setting, characters, and story elements. Readers of a feather flock together, in a manner of speaking. So people who like political thrillers tend to like other political thrillers… which is to say, if you’re planning to write an Amish historical novel, you may want to see where Bev Lewis’ readers hang out online, since they will tend to be very similar to your target audience. Does that help?

You spend a lot of time talking about making money at publishing, but is there room in the industry for an author who doesn’t want to make it a career? I have a day job that I like, but I enjoy writing historical romance on the side. Is there room for me?

Absolutely. In fact, most novelists in this country are either working or married to someone who is — that’s the only way they can survive. Not everybody is driven to be a full-time writer. And that’s not even the dream for everyone who writes a book. I tend to focus on full-time writers because that’s the core of my business, but I represent plenty of people who have day jobs. Beth White and Jennifer Johnson, two novelists I represent, are both full time teachers. Mike Hingson and Sheila Gregoire, two bestselling nonfiction writers I work with, do speaking and consulting. Shane Stanford is a pastor. The wonderful novelist Jim Kraus runs a division for a publisher. Ira Wagler, who wrote a nonfiction book that has now sold more than 100,000 copies, runs a building supply company. And one of the up-and-coming novelists I’ve been working with, Kim Gillis, is the coroner for Sacramento County (a fascinating job for a thriller writer, don’t you think?). Not every writer will be moving toward a full-time career writing books.

More questions came in over the weekend, and I’ll be trying to catch up. If you’ve got a question you have always wanted to ask a literary agent, here is your chance. Send it in, and we’ll get to it this money.

Engineered Bestsellers, Rock Star Pastors, and Rosie Ruiz

March 21st, 2014 | Books, CBA, Collaborating and Ghosting, Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Marketing and Platforms, Religion, The Business of Writing, Trends | 5 Comments

by Ghostwriter [While this says it's written by Chip MacGregor, it is not. It's written by a professional collaborative writer who is a friend -- Chip just posted it.]

Hi. I’m Ghostwriter and I’m the collaborative author of an engineered bestseller.

The news that Mars Hill Church paid ResultSource about $200,000 to get Mark Driscoll’s book Real Marriage on the New York Times bestseller list shocked a lot of people. For me, that news solved a mystery.

As I already mentioned, I am a collaborative author and occasionally a ghostwriter. Although I am a published author in my own right, I learned long ago that I could earn a much better living helping other people write their books. It’s a good life, and I enjoy my work. Nevertheless, I still hope that someday I’ll see one of my books on a bestseller list—any bestseller list.

This explains my obsession with Amazon rankings and sales figures.

I know, I know…

You have to take Amazon numbers with several hundred grains of salt. I get that. But I still enjoy checking my author page and seeing how many copies of my books have sold in the previous week. Generally, the numbers are unremarkable. Sometimes they are depressing. But a while back those numbers astonished and mystified me.

I’d collaborated on a book with a megachurch pastor and, although it was a contract job for which I received a flat fee and no royalties, I asked for and received cover credit. Because my name was on the cover, I was able to list the book on my Amazon author page and track its sales statistics. Even though I wasn’t going to receive royalties for the book, I was still curious to see how well it was selling.

So I set the book up and waited for the launch date. The first week’s sales stats took my breath away. The book went from zero to 10,000 sales virtually overnight. I must confess that at this point I was kicking myself for not asking for a percentage of the royalties. I figured we had a runaway bestseller on our hands.

Since Amazon posts BookScan sales figures weekly, I spent a week eagerly looking forward to the next report. But when the stats were posted, not only was I disappointed, I was puzzled. In one week, the book’s sales crashed from 10,000 to about 200. The next week it dropped off even further—to about 50.

You read that correctly.

Fifty.

If you do the math, that amounts to about a 99.95% drop off in three weeks.

At first, I thought the church had purchased a bunch of books, maybe to sell in bookstores on their various campuses. But I checked the geographical sales figures, and they were literally all over the map. Ten copies here. Twenty-five copies there. Sixty in another place. Almost every state in the U.S. was represented. I was flummoxed — until I heard about Mars Hill Church’s arrangement with a marketing firm known as ResultSource. Then all the puzzle pieces fell into place.

The pastor I collaborated with had mentioned that he had a “consultant” who helped his previous book get on a major (not the NYT) bestseller list, and that he planned to use them again. In my naïveté, I assumed the consultant was a publicist who helped market the book. Now I believe it was either ResultSource or a similar company.

Like it or not, I am now the collaborative author of an engineered bestseller.

How does that make me feel? It makes me feel an uncomfortable kinship with an infamous long-distance runner named Rosie Ruiz.

Ms. Ruiz won the 1980 Boston Marathon in the women’s category with the fastest time in the history of the race. However, her celebration was short lived when it became clear that she did not run the entire race. She wanted the glory of winning the Boston Marathon, but she wasn’t willing to put in the hard work required to do it legitimately. Even if she had put in the work, she might not have been good enough to win. Rosie wasn’t willing to take that risk. She wanted glory and fame. She wanted a guaranteed win. So she took a shortcut — she cheated.

That’s what’s happening when megachurch pastors, conference speakers, and big organizations hire companies like ResultSource to “help” their books attain bestseller status. Like Rosie Ruiz, they want the glory. They want a guaranteed win. So they take a shortcut. They cheat.

Is this done all the time in the publishing industry? Chip MacGregor says no, and I agree with him. This is not a publishing industry problem. I believe engineered bestsellers are symptomatic of an evangelical Christian culture that worships success and elevates megachurch pastors to rock star status.

Boston Marathon officials disqualified Rosie Ruiz and stripped her of her title. Unfortunately, no one is going to strip these pastors and Christian leaders of their phony “bestselling author” status. However, one can hope that the embarrassment caused by the Mark Driscoll fiasco will make them think twice before paying for another engineered bestseller.

And maybe, just maybe, they will remove the phrase, “bestselling author,” from their bios and websites until they attain that status legitimately — through people actually buying, reading, and sharing their books.

What’s wrong with buying your way onto the bestseller list?

March 14th, 2014 | Author News, Deals, Books, CBA, Collaborating and Ghosting, Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Religion, The Business of Writing, Trends | 113 Comments

Last week I made a point of saying that I think a guy who buys his way onto the bestseller lists is a weasel, and I had a bunch of people write to ask me why. This is a worthwhile topic for everyone in publishing, so let me offer some background…

Mark Driscoll pastors a large church in Seattle. Last fall he was accused of plagiarizing the words of another author, Peter Jones, in his latest book, and in addition there were other examples given of him plagiarizing, including pages of text recreated  word-for-word from a Bible commentary and stuck into one of the church’s publications. The people at Driscoll’s church made the situation worse, first claiming it was okay because one of the obviously plagiarized documents had never been sold, then changing their story when it turns out it had indeed been sold, but saying they hadn’t made much, then blaming it all on un unnamed research assistant (even though it had Mark Driscoll’s name on it), then taking pains to criticize the “haters” instead of owning up to their own ignorance and laziness. The whole thing was a mess. Driscoll clearly plagiarized (whether you want to cut him slack and call it something else), and his publisher examined the book and released a statement that admitted there were “inadequate citations,” but defending him for handling the situation well. In the end, the entire mess faded away. I was a bit surprised, since I’ve seen books get cancelled and editorial careers get ruined over less than this. Still, we all moved on.

Until last week, when it was revealed that Rev. Driscoll had paid a marketing firm, ResultSource, more than $200,000 to get his book onto the New York Time bestseller list. The scheme included hiring people to purchase 6000 copies of the book in bookstores, then ordering another 5000 copies in bulk. They even made sure to use more than 1000 different payment methods, so BookScan couldn’t track all the purchases back to a single source. In other words, they cheated to manipulate the system, got the book onto the list (for that one week), and did it so that Driscoll can refer to himself as “a New York Times bestselling author.”

I was critical of him for doing it, since I don’t think gaming the system is the right thing to do. It’s unfair. It’s lazy. It’s dishonest. And it’s basically nothing more than rampant egotism. But I had several people write to me, or post on Facebook, that this is common practice. A couple people said “everybody is doing it,” and some claimed “publishers are doing that all the time.” My response: Bullshit. Sorry if that offends, but we need to call it what it is. This is NOT standard practice. Everybody is NOT doing it. I used to be an associate publisher with Time-Warner, and this is not something we ever did, nor could I conceive of us doing it. I’ve also worked with every one of the Big Six publishers, as well as dozens of smaller publishers and every CBA publishing house, and I’ve never known one of the respectable legacy publishers to pull this sort of schtick.

Are the bestseller lists rigged? Perhaps, to a small degree — certainly Amazon seems to include an inordinate number of their own titles on the Amazon bestseller lists, and occasionally we’ll all be surprised at how a book with modest sales somehow wound up on a bestseller list because of the strange (and secret) way some of them account for the books. But for the most part, the books showing up on the lists are there because of sales. Honest, straightforward sales. Sometimes we get shocked when a crappy book (say, for example, Fifty Shades of Gray) suddenly starts showing up everywhere — but it showed up because, in spite of the boring story and fourth-grade writing ability, the book SOLD. Like it or not, that book wasn’t snuck onto a list dishonestly. Um… do we really want a PASTOR cheating his way onto the NYT list? And, matched with the fact that his name was on books that he now claims he didn’t actually write, what does that say about the guy? 

I find the whole thing incredibly lazy, and was shocked to discover the church itself admitted they didn’t know if church funds had been used to pay the bill. (Really? They spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars to stroke the author’s ego, and they don’t know where the money came from? Let’s just say that stretches the bounds of credulity.) This is the sort of news that is bound to come out, and will hurt you, since it demonstrates your laziness and need for attention. So no, I’m not one of those in the “he’s just spreading the Good News camp.” That’s baloney. If Mark Driscoll just wanted to spread the good news, he could have purchased $200,000 worth of books and given them away. This was done to make himself feel important, and in doing so, he does potential damage to honest authors, who work to write and market their books.

So today Mark Driscoll admits, in an interview in Charisma, the scheme was cooked up and a bad idea… but, of course, he’s not to blame. Nope. He explained that “outside counsel advised us to use ResultSource.” So those pesky outside counselors are to blame, like that pesky unnamed research assistant who plagiarized is to blame. Not Mark. Not the guy with his name all over stuff. Huh-uh. Instead, his board made a statement that they appreciate his “endurance through false accusation.” Um… excuse me, but what exactly was the FALSE part? His book contains the un-cited work of another writer, which his own publisher acknowledged was inappropriate  He had clearly plagiarized materials with his name on it. A company was paid a pile of money to pump his book and dishonestly get it onto bestseller lists. Those are all facts. What exactly is the “false” part? Well, except for the part where Mark claims he actually wrote any of this, I mean. I’m fairly certain that part is false. 

What’s wrong with buying your way onto the bestseller list? It’s an expensive, short-term ego stroke for the lazy and dishonest, and it excludes real writers from actually making the list. My two cents.

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You can find out more information on Mark Driscoll, plagiarism, and buying your way onto a bestseller list by going to World Magazine, Slate, the blaze.com, and the writings of Warren Throckmorton. You could probably also go to Mark Driscoll’s site, but be aware that, even though it has his name on it, he probably didn’t write it, and if there are errors it’s somebody else’s fault. 

 

Should I help my friend write her cool personal story?

April 3rd, 2013 | Collaborating and Ghosting, Questions from Beginners | 15 Comments

A writing friend sent this question: “I have a chance to do a book with a celebrity. Does a project like that really help my writing career?”

I have a rule for collaborative writers to consider: If you come across a story that involves celebrity or heavy media attention, you might want to listen to the idea… but don’t fall in love with celebrity. Those are about the only “personal story” books with a chance of actually creating a payday for you, but it’s not automatic. A buddy of mine was approached by a well-known guy who owns a famous chain of stores, and was invited to “tell the story” behind all that success. He wrote the book, which was self-published and sent to all the franchise owners and managers for staff to read, plus they sell a few in their stores. But the book never made it into bookstores, didn’t break out, didn’t really move the writer’s career forward, and didn’t make him a lot of money. In many ways it’s sort of a paean to the owner’s celebrity status. So be wary of saying “yes” just because someone is a celebrity.

I’ve had more than one person write to ask about “helping my friend do a book” or “helping my pastor do a book. “ Again, if you feel you owe the person a favor, that’s your decision. Or if you feel “called” to somehow do this project… well, God outranks me. But be aware you don’t have to do a book with your friend just because she has a cool story, or with your pastor just because he is in a position of authority. It’s easy to get caught in the trap of “helping” people who have no ability with words — and nothing is more frustrating to a writer.

My solution: If somebody comes up and asks you to help them write their book, learn to keep it businesslike: ”Well, I charge $300 to review your manuscript, and I’m paid a minimum of $1500 to help you with manuscript development. Which sounds like it would be better for you?” That line, said with all politeness and sincerity, will usually drive away the beggars and wannabes. (And I apologize if it sounds cold…but I approach this as a business, not as “Chip’s Helpful Writing Service for the Poor and Orphaned.”) If it doesn’t work for you to help, suggest they get in touch with a professional editorial or critique service — they’ll pay a couple hundred bucks and get lots of good writing advice.

And one additional question: my friend also mentioned he’d been “invited to do a family reunion book” and wanted to know what I thought.

In the words of medieval cartographers, Here dragons dwell. NEVER take on a “family writing project” if you can possibly help it. These are books done for family reunions, 50th wedding anniversaries, 75th birthdays, and the like. I did two of these, was well paid both times, created two beautiful hardbound books, and proceeded to get yelled at by just about everybody involved. Why? Because the principals are old, and memory is a creative thing. So Grandpa Joe’s recollection of events won’t jibe with Aunt Sarah’s. And Uncle Henry’s reminices about the family might be colored by time (or by his good friend Jack Daniels, depending on the family). And you can bet that Cousin Bob ain’t gonna like you revealing that his mama got married in April but had her first baby in October. Yikes. When asked to do one of these, run the other way.

Okay… this all sounds overly negative. The fact is, you may stumble upon a personal story and want to tell it. That’s fine — just be aware that the probability of even a great personal story seeing print is fairly small. Our world is filled with funny, exciting, and hopeful stories of people. They’re just hard to sell in book form these days. If you’re a newer writer looking for good experience, consider interviewing these folks and writing them up in an article for a magazine or website. Because while telling these types of stories in books is a tough market, the worlds of magazines and e-zines and newspapers are filled with great personal stories, usually with a strong undercurrent of humor or romance, and an ending filled with hope and joy. Besides, the process of interviewing, finding a voice, and boiling a long story down to 500 or 1000 words will prove invaluable to your writing future.

Happy writing!

How can I make a living as a collaborative writer?

January 11th, 2013 | Career, Collaborating and Ghosting, The Business of Writing | 7 Comments

 Someone asked, “What advice can you give those of us who want to make a living as collaborative writers?”

You may not know this, but I made my living as a collaborative writer for years. I was successful at it, and learned some important lessons, so I’m always happy to talk with writers who want to do some collab work. There are a couple lessons I learned…

First, writing speed matters. You see, not everybody works at the same pace. I can bang out words by the pound. It’s obvious Cecil Murphey can. Susy Flory, David Thomas, Mike Yorkey, Steve Halliday, Kenny Abraham, and the other folks in the business who make their living as collaborative writers all write with speed. (True story: When Harvest House Publishers came to me and asked if I’d write a “Y2K” book, I called a writing friend and we banged out 256 pages in 17 days. It sold more than 60,000 copies and, let’s face it, SAVED WESTERN CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT. If it hadn’t been for my book, we’d doubtless all be sitting in the dark and learning Chinese right now. You can thank me later.)

Anyway, most collaborators can bang out words quickly. And not every writer is built like that. It’s certainly not a bad thing if your writing speed is a bit slower, it’s just that you’ll have a harder time making a go of it as a collaborative writer, since being able to produce a lot of words quickly is essential. I find that most writers have a natural pace, and if you try to speed them up too much, they lose focus and quality. Writing fast is probably a necessity for most full-time writers, but it’s not some sort of saintly gift. Many great authors need adequate time. Lisa Samson, one of the best literary novelists in the business and an author I’ve long represented, is a fabulous, decorated writer who, like many successful novelists, normally takes about twelve months to create a novel. Given the choice, she might take even longer. And that’s fine — in fact, to try and “speed her up” isn’t part of the plan. A writer who is creating their own fiction often needs time to create the story. A write who wants to make a living as a collaborator doesn’t have that option. 

Second, writing a clean first draft is essential. Most writers take Anne Lamott’s advice to heart, and create a bad first draft — but a draft that they can edit, change, and improve. (Every experienced writer knows that it’s easier to edit words than to create them.) But a collaborative writer basically needs to be able to write  a draft cleanly, as well as quickly — a tough combination that few can manage successfully.

 One of the best pure writers I’ve ever worked with was Mary Jenson, who wrote beautiful words that made readers stop and ponder (read her book “Still Life” or “Leaving the Empty Nest” sometime, and you’ll see her craft). But Mary is so careful, so methodical, that though her words are wonderful, she’s probably never going to bang out a book a year. She needs time to polish and improve. Brennan Manning was the same way – I represented him for several years, and he was never in a hurry to churn out books. He wanted to make sure it was good, not fast. That’s how most writers are. The “writer as creator” has to take the time needed to do the best book they can. BUT the same isn’t true of collaborative writers. To be a collab, you’ve got to be able to write fast, and have it turn out cleanly. The fact is, if writing fast and clean doesn’t come easily for you, it probably means you need to consider maintaining some other source of income and not focus on collaborations.

Third, keep in mind that there are all sorts of other writing jobs besides collaborating. I wrote magazine articles, newspaper articles, travel articles, book reviews, product reviews, marketing copy, newsletters, speaking summaries, study guides, sidebars, interviews, I looked up quotes, I evaluated manuscripts, I created indexes, and I did copy editing. All of those jobs paid me something, and helped me move from part-time writer to full-time writer. Many of the people reading this just want to have somebody discover their fabulous novel, sell it for them, and turn them into a millionaire (the writing equivalent of hanging out on the corner of Hollywood and Vine). There’s nothing wrong with that — in fact, it’s sort of the dream that keeps many writers going. But I want to point out that you could decide to pursue some alternative writing jobs and turn yourself into a pro by looking for smaller writing projects that don’t require you creating an entire book.

So here’s a hint: If you have a non-profit company or some sort of organization close by, go ask them if you can help create their newsletter, or edit their website. If you know people in an industry, ask about their industry journal. If you are close to a manufacturing company, ask if you could try your hand at creating catalog copy. If you are involved with a mega-church, set up an appointment with the pastor and find out if he has anybody creating sermon outlines for his web site, or turning his sermon series into study guides, or even turning them into a book. That’s basically how I moved from wannabe to actual writer. Yeah, it’s hard work. And what job doesn’t take hard work to achieve success?

The great baseball pitcher-cum-philosopher Satchell Paige once said, “Seems like the harder I work, the luckier I get.” Great advice. He was probably Scottish.


Can I make a living with freelance writing and editing?

December 1st, 2012 | Career, Collaborating and Ghosting, The Business of Writing | 7 Comments

Lately I’ve been besieged with questions about writing and editing for a living. Let me tackle a handful of them…

One person wrote and said, “I’ve been writing for six years, and I’m trying to establish myself as a paid freelance editor with a book publisher or magazine. I hear companies are outsourcing a lot of editing. What advice can you give me for getting started? Is it possible to break into an industry that relies so much on in-house connections and networking?”

Publishers seem to always be on the hunt for good freelance editors. Just this week I spoke to two Associate Publishers who both expressed the need for more outside copy-editors and proofers. In these tough economic times, publishers are going to be sending even more projects to outside editors — thus saving themselves the cost of paying benefits to employees. So if you want to generate some extra income doing editorial work, the first thing I’d suggest is that you become a proficient editor. Make sure you can copy-edit quickly and thoroughly, then contact publishers to begin looking for work.

It’s true publishing relies on networking… which makes it just like every other business in America. I don’t think publishing is any different from any other industry — all of us do business most often with those we know and trust. So that means if you want them to hire you as a freelance editor, you need to invest in networking with publishers and editors. Go meet them at conferences. Introduce yourself at industry events. Email them a friendly note and ask to introduce yourself over coffee. Get face to face and let them see you’re a normal, friendly, capable person. Then show them your work or ask to take their in-house editing test. Most houses have either a copy-editing test, or a developmental editing test, or both. Once you’ve shown them you’re able to do the work, ask them to try you out on a small project. (When I was getting started, I told publishers I’d do the first job for free, just to show them I could do it. They all insisted on paying, but at least they saw me make the offer and have the confidence to suggest it.) You will  probably need business cards, stationery, and a bank account in a company name (“Danielle’s Editorial Service”). That makes it easier for the accountant types to prove you’re legit at tax time. Be willing to take on small jobs at first — especially copy-editing jobs. If you prove yourself able to do the work, and charge a reasonable amount, you can begin to develop regular business with certain houses.

Another writer asked, “You once said you had worked with speakers, turning their speeches into chapters. I’m in the midst of doing that myself for the first time as a freelance writer — can you offer some helpful tips?”

Yeah: Invest in technology so you can start and stop the speaker and catch everything they say. Learn to type fast. At first just get all the speaker’s words down onto the page, then go back through it and reshape it so that it reads like a chapter instead of a speech. (This is important. You probably own a lot of self-help books. How many books of speeches do you own? Not many.) As you write out each paragraph or section, read it out loud. Your ear will tell you where it doesn’t sound right. As often as possible, try to keep the speaker’s outline and sequence of thoughts. Don’t bother typing in asides or extraneous comments the speaker makes. Be aware that most spoken stories seem to ramble when put onto a page — you’re going to have to tighten those up. And many spoken jokes don’t translate well into print, so make sure any joke you include is both funny and clear.

Keep in mind that every speech should have a beginning, a middle, and an end… Your speaker is probably fine on the middle content, but you may have to punch up the beginning and the end to make it work in print. Once you’ve done this and have it at the draft stage, run it by the speaker to make sure he or she is happy. Skip over the speeches that requires you to reshape the arguments — leave those until the end. If you gain the speaker’s trust doing the easy chapters, you’ll find you have a lot more leeway to reshape a weak speech into a strong chapter. Remember that you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear — a lousy speech isn’t going to make a great chapter, no matter how hard you try.

And there’s something important that needs to be added: If the speaker asks you to insert a bunch of our own material to strengthen and fill out the body of the text, insist on a writing credit. Don’t be bullied, and don’t buy into the argument that ”having a collaborator’s name on the book will weaken sales.” That’s bull. I used to make my living writing collaborative books, and on more than one occasion I had a high-profile speaker ask me to include my own material. He then published it in his book under his own name, and got credit for my work. After a couple times, I wised up. If it’s the speaker’s content, I’m happy to reshape it into a book, take my check, and be happy. But if I’m adding content, I’m the writer, and I should get credit for writing. There is zero evidence to suggest that having a book cover read, “Howie Hendricks with Chip MacGregor” will sell any worse than having the cover with just Howie’s name on it. In fact, if you look at most general market books by celebrities, you’ll find they always include the collaborator’s name. Insist on getting the credit so that it furthers your writing career.

By the way, if there is an easy way to make a living at writing & editing, I’ve yet to find it. So for all the folks who have written to ask, “What’s the easiest way to make a living at writing?,” I suggest the answer is simple: Write a bestseller. That’s the best idea…

Should I write my friend’s memoir?

September 25th, 2012 | Collaborating and Ghosting, Questions from Beginners, The Business of Writing | 8 Comments

After yesterday’s post, I had someone write and say, “I’ve been approached a couple times to collaborate on a book, but I’m not sure I want to go that route with my writing career. Any advice for me?”

1. Collaborating writers come in four basic packages: COLLABORATORS (they take the miscellaneous meanderings of a smart or interesting person and shape it into coherent text, often finding pertinent material to supplement the content), CO-AUTHORS (they add their own content and generally get some credit for having a mind of their own), GHOST-WRITERS (they create the material, which is often used by a putative “author” with an ego too big to acknowledge the use of a writer), and EDITORS (they simply re-shape or sharpen the cogent thoughts and writings of the author).

2. What’s most important? Clearly define your roles. No sense writing for someone who really wants you to edit. (This has happened to me on more than one occasion. I do great work…and they toss it out so that they can use their own, lousy wording and feel better about themselves.)

3. What’s also important? Clearly define your agreement. “I will do THIS for THAT AMOUNT OF MONEY. It should take me THIS much time, so if you give me the material you’ve promised, I should have it for you on THAT date.”

4. One more thing: Define what “success” is. If they’re paying you for a rough draft, produce it. If they’re paying you for a polished manuscript, produce that. If you don’t define success, you’ll find that YOUR expectations may not match up with the OTHER’S expectations.

5. Make sure you can do the job. I love writing, and I love learning new things, so I always enjoyed taking on collaborative projects. I learned about guns, about investing in stocks, about fathering, about history — writing collaboratively was as good as any class I ever took in college. (Not that I was paying attention in college anyway…I was a theatre arts major. We just emoted a lot.) If you don’t like this sort of thing, or if you don’t enjoy trying to mimic someone else’s voice, you should stay away from collaborating.

6. Don’t take on the project if you don’t really understand it. Preachers have a saying: “If it’s a mist in the pulpit, it’s a fog in the pew.” Same goes for writing. If it’s a bit misty when you’re just talking about the topic, you’ll find yourself lost in total fog when you’re trying to write.

7. Don’t take on the project if you don’t like the author. Never. Ever. No matter how much they’re going to pay you. EVER. You get my drift? 

8. By the same token, don’t take on a project if you don’t agree with the basic premise. True story: I was once hired to write a study guide for a famous Southern Baptist pastor who preached an entire sermon on the notion that “Jesus didn’t really drink wine.” I thought it was one of the hokiest, most contorted uses of bible verses I’d ever seen. But I did it. And I’ve felt guilty about it ever since. To this day I’d like to have it back so I can destroy all copies of that stupid document. Save yourself the trouble. If somebody asks you to write rot, say no.

9. I might have been different from some of the other collaborative writers, but I didn’t always feel a need to develop a close relationship with the author. Instead, I felt a need to write well so I could (a) get paid, and (b) get another author or publisher to hire me to do another one. Becoming everyone’s best friend wasn’t my goal. I’m sure that shocks you.  So understand that you’re going to have to accept the fact that, as a collab or invited co-author or ghost, you are not going to get the credit. All the credit will go to the celebrity. Just accept that fact now, because nobody is going to want to hear you whine later, when you explain that life ain’t fair, and you should have received the invitation to go on Larry King, and you’re really the brains behind the whole shootin’ match. Too bad. If you can’t live with somebody else getting the credit, don’t do the job. 

10. Sooner or later (probably sooner), you’re going to be approached by somebody with a great personal story. Something fabulous happened to them. When they tell it at the Rotary Club meeting, old ladies weep. And now they’re going to want to hire you to write their book for them. They won’t be able to pay you much, but it’s a dynamite story, and soon they’re sure they’ll be able to sell it to a publisher, who will in turn put it on the bestseller lists and make a movie out of it, probably starring George Clooney. The individual approaching you will be nice. He or she will be earnest. They may even tug at your heartstrings. Say no. Don’t explain, just say no and walk away. Trust me on this. If you want to do it as a gift to help a friend, that’s fine. If you have a couple hundred writing hours to waste on this sort of project, by all means go ahead and leave the real jobs to the rest of us. But listen carefully to this well-meaning crank: THERE IS NO MARKET FOR PERSONAL STORIES. Yeah, yeah, personal stories are supposed to be growing in the digital market. And I love reading about them once in a while in a magazine. And maybe if you could transport that person around the country, so that he or she could explain the story to every potential book buyer… well, it probably still wouldn’t sell. So forget it.

Sure, I sold Lisa Beamer’s book to Tyndale and they sold a bajillion copies. I sold Mike Hingson’s wonderful story about being a blind guy on the 78th floor of the World Trade Center, and it made it to the New York Times list. But Lisa was a unique case. She was on every media outlet in the world. Everyone knew who she was, and with her grace and poise, everyone loved her. Mike has an incredible, over-the-top story that everyone wanted to read. That happens about once every ten years. And, having checked Poor Richard’s Almanac, I see that it’s not scheduled to happen this year. So say no. Just smile, nod, and move away. 

-Chip MacGregor

Chosen “Boy of the Year” by his high school graduating class of 1976

(Really! Wouldn’t that make a great book idea? Doesn’t it tug on your heart strings? Let’s do a book!)


Do you have a problem with ghostwriting?

July 6th, 2012 | Collaborating and Ghosting | 7 Comments

Dave wrote to ask, “Do you have any ethical problems with ghostwriting?”

First, I would insist you define the term. To some, “ghostwriting” means doing any sort of writing for someone else without getting credit. I would disagree with that definition — sometimes an author has good ideas that are well-formed, but needs a wordsmith to help move them toward a polished manuscript. I see nothing wrong with that sort of writing. It’s a paid job to shape up somebody else’s work, and I don’t find anything unethical about that. In fact (since I know a lot of CBA people read this blog), you should know that Saint Paul used a ghostwriter (called an amanuensis) to smooth out his words. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the end of his letter to the Galatians. In 6:11, he says, “See what large letters I use as I write with my own hand” — which means he wasn’t writing the earlier portion of the letter. He was dictating it, and the amanuensis was editing and smoothing it out. Then he added his own handwriting at the end to prove it really came from Paul. The early church actually had a tradition that Paul had very bad eyesight, which might have been one reason he had a an editor taking down his words.

My point is just that it’s a lousy argument to somehow suggest it’s wrong for a speaker to use a writer to help shape or polish the written message. It’s not — that’s what a writer does. Presidents use writers to craft their speeches, and nobody says, “That’s not really the president talking!” Judges use clerks to write their decisions (and often to research and create their decisions), and nobody says, “That’s not really the judge’s words!” Corporate leaders use PR firms to create their company communication pieces, and nobody says, “That’s not really Steve Jobs saying that — it’s a marketing hack!” So put aside the prejudice that using a writer to do a book is somehow unethical or unfair. It’s just a flaccid argument made by people who want to use bumper-sticker thinking instead of examining the actual process of writing and editing.  

Second, most of what people call ghostwriting is really collaborative writing — the celebrity has something to say, but relies on a writer to come along side, add material, fill it out, and wordsmith the entire project. It’s similar to a talented singer hiring studio musicians to play the drums, bass, and rhythm guitar on an album — the singer needs professionals to fill in the gaps and make it better. Most great painters have master students who help them create “artist proofs” of their works — basically a giclee that the students go over with a paintbrush to fill in and complete the work. There’s nothing unethical about it. 

Having said that, I understand the criticism of ghostwriting in the classic sense — a well-known celebrity hires a writer to create something entirely out of thin air, so that the celebrity can claim to be a writer, and the actual writer is paid well and gets no credit. That’s something that isn’t as easy to defend. While I don’t argue with anyone using a writer to help them get their book done, if the hired writer creates new content, it would normally be considered appropriate to list the writer as a collaborator or contributor. I mean, why not simply list the collaborative writer on the cover and title page (“Bob Smith with Mary Jones”)? There’s no evidence to suggest listing a collaborator will hurt sales. (In fact, there’s considerably evidence these days to suggest a good collab can boost sales, since it reveals to the potential reader that a real writer has been over the work and made it readable.) To leave off the ghost is something I frequently find misleading, and is usually nothing more than an attempt to shore up the celebrity’s ego. This is why I rarely read books from politicians — they’re nearly always created by ghostwriters, and the ghost is rarely given credit. Somehow, I find it hard to believe Barak and Mitt sat down and banged out those books with their names on them (they were probably too busy asking people to give them money).

Third, keep in mind there are times where the collaborative writer doesn’t WANT to be listed. What if she is writing outside her genre, or it’s a controversial book, and the collaborating writer simply doesn’t want her name associated with the work? Or what if it’s a book aimed at men, and the collab is a woman, and having her name on it might seem awkward? If the collaborator doesn’t want to be listed, that should be his or her own choice. Back in the early 80′s, the great comic Bill Murray was one of the highlights of the movie “Tootsie,” but he didn’t want his name to appear anywhere in the advertisements or trailers for the film, because he felt that his name would create false expectations and draw the wrong crowd. I know a couple of excellent writers who have ghosted projects and explicitly didn’t want their names on the cover — which should be their choice.

The fact is, I find there is far less true ghosting than there was a few years ago. Most authors are willing to give credit where credit it due. And, as I noted, I don’t have a problem with a writer stepping in to collaborate on a project, or to help wordsmith somebody else’s ideas. I do find that some people get way too worked up about this topic without ever defining their terms, Dave. My two cents. Feel free to chime in on this one, everyone.

What if I’m interested in collaborative writing?

July 3rd, 2012 | Collaborating and Ghosting | 2 Comments

Johann wrote to say he’s been approached to do some collaborative writing, and has several questions: “What should I charge? Should I get my name on the book? How long do you think it will take me? And what would the main points of our agreement be?”

That’s a lot of questions, Johann. You should definitely have a written agreement that details:

WHAT you’ll do (for example, “write a 50,000 word book that tells the author’s life story”), 

WHEN you’ll do it (for example, “it will be completed by October 1″), 

WHAT the author’s responsibilities will be (something such as, “the author will meet with me four times, for a full day each time”), and 

HOW MUCH you’ll be paid (the short version: you will probably want to charge somewhere in the $70 per hour range, plus get a percentage if the book is to be shopped to publishers). 

All of that will be put into a legal document — and you can find “work for hire” document examples online or in some “freelance writing” books. You just want everything spelled out, so there aren’t a bunch of surprises later (as in, “But I thought YOU would take care of all that!”). Of course, there will be much more said about the payments. You might ask for a flat fee to do a book proposal, and a larger fee to do the book once it gets contracted. You’ll probably start by charging and hourly amount, but you’ll quickly move to charging a flat fee to complete the manuscript, since it will pay you more. I’ve seen writers charge by the word, by the page, by the hour, by the chapter, and by the project — there’s not really a right way to do it. However, let me offer a tip to determine what to charge… 

Figure out how much you want to make each month through your writing. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that at this point in time you want to make $2000 per month through your part-time writing job. That means making $500 per week, or $100 per day — figures that are probably too low for a full-time writer in today’s economy, but may work for a part-time writer. If you feel as though the book is going to take you about two months to write, you know you’re going to charge about $4000, or two months of your normal fee. (In that case, I’d suggest you charge about $5000, since you want to guesstimate the time it will take, then add 20%, since nothing in publishing ever takes the time we assume.) If the goal is to make more, then your weekly and daily average fees would go up — but the important thing is that you develop an idea for the overall amount you see yourself charging. 

If you’re doing all the writing, you should certainly get your name on the book, unless you or the author have a good reason for not including your name. As for how long it will take you…well, if you shoot for 1000 words per day (a very common goal), it should help you figure out how long it will take you to create the rought draft. A 50,000 word manuscript will take you about fifty writing days, plus another ten days to revise and sharpen. I’m going to suggest that, if you’re serious about this sort of work, you might want to talk to a good agent and ask him to walk through all this with you. A conversation about what works and what doesn’t might help steer you away from some bad business decisions. I hope this helps. 


How can I make money with my writing?

April 3rd, 2012 | Career, Collaborating and Ghosting, Questions from Beginners, The Business of Writing | 0 Comments

Pam wrote to ask, “Can you say more about the whole freelance writing concept? I’m looking for practical ideas to help me make a living.”

A couple thoughts from a guy who would basically write for anybody, so long as they paid me…

1. If you live near a major city, check and see what organizations are located near you. Most nonprofit organizations have a magazine, newsletter, or web site, and they all need content. Check them out, find out what sort of articles, interviews, and sidebars they use, then offer them some material. I sold hundreds of things to companies and nonprofit organizations when I was free-lancing. Nonprofits have to stay in touch with donors, and that means somebody has to write their copy for them. (They also need report writers, researchers, and grant writers, if you want to check into those opportunities.) 

2. Drive down any of your streets, and you'll see businesses on both sides. Nearly every one of those businesses have a website, and they all need content. That's how the internet has changed business — every mom-and-pop shop now has the opportunity to hawk its wares worldwide via the web. And think about the changes in websites over the past few years. You used to see something that resembled a highway billboard — a business name, phone, address, and slogan ["Don's Plumbing of Portland -- Great Service, Low Rates. Call Today -- 555-1234"].

Now if you go to that site, you'll find an introduction to the business, a history of the company, a bio of each employee (complete with photos), a self-help section to fix your own plumbing problems, a link to order specialized plumbing parts, a section on the history of indoor plumbing, and an ask-the-expert compendium. And, of course, somebody has to write all that stuff. Most businesses do it themselves (until they figure out what's they've written is awful, since they are plumbers and not writers), then they go to a PR firm to create copy for them. This is why I've been saying to people at conferences there have never been more writing jobs than there are right now — ask anyone in the industry, and they'll tell you there is a huge need for creators of content. And, if you really check in to it, you'll find they don't teach writing in schools as much as they used to, so this need has arisen at the very time when there are fewer people who can put together a string of coherent, interesting paragraphs. If you can learn to create good marketing copy, you can make some extra money. OR you can specialize in editing other people's web copy, since it all needs another set of eyes on it. (I have a friend who has made a steady part-time living doing "editing checks" of company websites.) This may not be exactly the type of writing you want to be doing, but it's a great way to generate income while you're working on that thriller novel you've got going.

3. If you are friends with academics, think through which professors have popular classes that you could turn into books for them. Frequently a popular seminar speaker will have great content, but will struggle with moving his or her ideas into print.  This is how I got started in the freelance writing business — I introduced myself to a couple profs who had great seminars, but wrote like academics. I simply turned each section into a chapter, and in the end, they had a book.

By the way, if you know any motivational speakers, or if you live near a mega-church with a well-known, charismatic pastor (um…"charismatic" in the classic sense of the word) who creates and sells downloadable or CD sermon series, go in and offer to turn those speeches into book chapters, You can also create study guides to go along with the series. I made great money doing this, thanks to a writing friend who introduced me to some people who were creating these types of projects. 

There are opportunities with both digital and print writing. For all the talk about publishing being dead, the fact is more people read now than ever before. That means there are plenty of avenues for making freelance writing money.