Archive for the ‘The Business of Writing’ Category

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?

Can you explain how my agent gets paid?

July 16th, 2014 | Agents, The Business of Writing | 7 Comments

Someone wrote to ask, “Can you explain how an agent gets paid? Does the publisher send the author’s checks to the agent? Or does the money go to the author, who writes the agent a check? And is all this done before or after taxes?”

Happy to explain this. Traditionally, when it was time for the publisher to send money, they would send the entire amount to the agent, who would then deduct his or her commission (the standard is 15%) and send a check for the balance to the author within ten days. This was the system that was in place for years, and many agencies still work with that system. The strength of it is that the agent knows the author has been paid, and paid the full amount. This is all pre-tax money, so at the end of the year the agent would send a 10-99 form to the author, detailing how much money was paid.

When I started working as an agent 15 years ago, I was working for Alive Communications in Colorado, and they used a different system — divided payments. With that system, the publisher cuts TWO checks. The first is sent directly to the author, for 85% of the deal. The second is sent to the agent, for 15% (along with some sort of evidence that the author has been paid his or her amount). To my way of thinking, that was a better system. The author got paid faster. There was less bookkeeping for me. I didn’t have to fill out the 10-99′s. And, most importantly, I would never get a phone call from an author saying, “Hey, you big doofus — the publisher says they sent you my money two weeks ago! Where’s my check?!” I’ve found too many fights in business occur over money, and I prefer that the authors I represent feel as though we’re on the same side, and we have no reason to fight over money. (That’s why I’ve never charged back any expenses to an author… I don’t want to have to call anyone and say, “Um, gee, do you think you could maybe send me that seventeen dollars and fifty-two cents?”) So when I started my own company eight years ago, I decided to keep in place the “divided payments” system.

Both work. Neither is better than the other — they’re just different. Think of it like this: some agents are great at editorial work, others are great at contracts and negotiations, others are really strong at marketing, others are strongest at career development. Nobody is great at everything, and you want to find the agent that fits your style. It’s the same way with payments — either system can work well. I use the one I’m most comfortable with.

By the way, I’ve occasionally heard other agents say that not everyone will do divided payments. But in my 15 years of doing this full time, I’ve had exactly ONE US publisher refuse to cut two checks (it was Overlook, a fine small publishing house in New York, and the woman who bitched and moaned about it there retired soon after that deal was done). Few of the foreign publishers want to be bothered with cutting two checks, so if your agent is doing foreign deals, that money will most likely be paid to the agency and forwarded on to you.

Back to getting paid: Publishers used to all pay your advance half on signing, half on delivery. Now most pay a third on signing, a third on delivery, and a third on publication (with the people at Random House fighting to pay a quarter on signing, a quarter on delivery, a quarter on publication, and a quarter when the book flips from hardcover to trade paper… sigh… another sign of the apocalypse — they’ll soon be asking for a quarter to be paid upon the CEO becoming eligible for social security, no doubt). Of course, an advance is all recoupable against your royalties, so with each book sold some money is credited to your account. You earn back your advance with royalties, then when the book earns out the publisher starts setting your money aside and will send it to you either quarterly or semi-annually, depending on your contract.

What other questions do you have about the money side of book publishing?

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.)

Ask the Agent: “How am I paid on my book contract?”

June 18th, 2014 | Career, The Business of Writing | 11 Comments

Someone wrote me to ask, “Can you explain how money is paid on a traditional publishing contract? I’ve got a contract in front of me, and I don’t understand it.”

Happy to explain it. First, when you sign to do a book with a legacy publisher, most authors are paid an advance against royalties upon signing the contract. There’s a long tradition of publishers paying advances to authors, since it allows the author to survive while he or she is working on the book. This isn’t free money — it’s sort of a no-interest loan that will be earned back after your book releases.

Let’s say the contract calls for a total advance of $20,000. Typically you’d get one-third of this on signing, another third upon turning in the completed work, and the last third upon publication. (That said, there are a million ways to divide the advance. Some pay half on signing, some pay a percentage when the author completes the bio and marketing forms, Random House wants to pay a portion when the book flips from hardcover to trade paper, etc.) So when your book releases, you’re now in the red $20,000 with the publisher. You’ve been paid that amount, but you haven’t earned anything back yet. Again, that’s not a loan that needs to be paid back, but it’s advance that needs to be worked off — or, in the parlance of the industry, it needs to be “earned out.”

Second, as your book sells you are credited with money for each sale. That’s your royalty money, and with each sale it slowly reduces that $20,000 debt. Most trade publishers in the general market (that would include Random House, HarperCollins, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, etc.) pay a standard royalty on hardcover books: 10% of the book’s retail price on the first 5000 copies sold, 12.5% on the next 5000 copies sold, and 15% thereafter. Royalties for most trade-paper books are 7.5% of the retail price, and mass market books pay a bit less than that. Be aware: Many newer publishers, including most CBA publishers, don’t pay on the retail price of the book — they pay on the net price, which is the amount of money the publisher actually receives from the bookstore. And you negotiate royalties on each book. Though those royalties may seen higher, you’ll have to do some math to determine which method will pay you more money.

If your book is a $25 hardcover, and you’ve got a traditional book contract with a legacy publisher, you’d be making $2.50 for each of the first 5000 books sold. (Did you see how I got that figure? $25 x 10%.) What happens is that the publishing house keeps track of that figure, and applies that as a credit to your account. So if you sell one book, you no longer are in the red $20,000 — you’re now in the red $19,997.50. After the first 5000 copies have sold, your earnings jump to $3.12; and after 10,000 copies have sold, you are earning $3.75 per book. With every book sold, they credit your account the appropriate amount. Eventually you erase the $20,000 debt (you earn out), and you begin making money that will be sent to you a couple times per year. Now you’re in the best possible situation — a company is going to send you checks on a book you finished a year or two ago. There’s no better feeling than getting a healthy royalty check and remembering that you’re making on a project you’re no longer working on.

Third, keep in mind that each version of your book will have a different royalty, so the industry standard ebook royalty is 25%, which sounds great when compared to print royalties, but in effect is low in terms of the percentage of profits. And remember that different companies will offer different contracts. So a hardcover book with, say, Tyndale House Publishers, doesn’t use a traditional royalty structure. You might negotiate a deal for 16% of the net price. So if your $25 hardcover book is bought by Barnes & Noble for $12.50, you’d be making $2 per book ($12.50 x 16%). If WalMart buys a slug of them for $10 each, you’re only making $1.60. In other words, the financials on a net contract are completely different than on a traditional retail sales contract. You have to negotiate them, and keep a close watch on your royalty report. AND, just to confuse this even more, many of the new era publishers are paying more often, or paying a higher royalty. Some of the start-up companies are paying authors 50% of net on ebooks, and anywhere between 10% and 50% of net on printed books. It can seem like the Wild Wild West at times — you have to make sure you’re comparing apples to apples. Amazon is paying authors 70% of the sales price on most self-published titles, and they’re sending the author a check every month (which means it’s a great deal if you can sell books). Many ebook publishing companies are paying authors 50% of net. And some of the smaller print houses are paying a very small royalty on print books.

Fourth, understand that every company will have its own payment schedule. Some publishers pay once a year, some twice a year, and some four times per year. Whether or not your book has earned out, you should be receiving a royalty statement from the publisher for each pay period, stating exactly how many copies of your book sold, what your earnings are, and either (A) the amount of money you are being paid or (B) the amount of money you’re still in the red. And by the way, I’ve used the terms “debt” and “in the red,” but again, an advance is really not a loan, in that you’re not generally required to pay back an unearned advance. And the rise of ebooks has created a decline in overall advances, making it harder than ever for an author going the traditional route to make a living. Advances are down, but opportunities are up, and that means authors have more choices to make and more things to consider when trying to map out a career.

Does all that make sense for the basic economics of getting paid? Feel free to ask me follow-up questions.

The Biggest News at BEA?

June 3rd, 2014 | Current Affairs, The Business of Writing | 29 Comments

Just got back from a week in New York, seeing all the books and publishers and figuring out what direction the industry is moving. There was a great spirit at Book Expo this year — none of the angst and worry that has dogged the show the past few years. They tried something new this time at the Javits Center — opened up the floor to the public on Saturday, sold tickets at $20 a pop, publicized a ton of author signings, and watched 10,000 people buy their way into the show. (For the record, it was apparently all teen girls, looking to get their YA and romance novels signed, or to catch a glimpse of a celebrity like Cary Elwes signing copies of his latest tome.) But the biggest topic of conversation? The dispute between Amazon and Hachette. No question.

You may or may not be familiar with the issues, so let me offer an outsiders perspective…

1. There is some bad blood between Amazon and Big Six publishers. On the one hand, the publishers know that Amazon is their biggest account, so they want to keep the relationship healthy. On the other hand, the publishers know that Amazon is predatory, and is on record as having said that they could live in a world without publishers. So while they’d like things to continue, the relationship is not without some problems.

2. If you’re an author who doesn’t pay much attention to the news, the Big Six publishers were all taken to court last year for using an agency model (and, in essence, for looking suspiciously like they were colluding to keep ebook prices high). The Department of Justice sided with Amazon, the publishers all paid big fines, and agreed to modify the way they do business.

3. Each of the Big Six publishers have some sort of term contract with Amazon, that clarifies things like discount rates, returns, etc. It just so happens that Hachette’s contract is up first, so they’re the ones who are currently in negotiation with Amazon — and it has gotten nasty.

4. We don’t know all the disagreements Hachette and Amazon are having in their discussions, but one of the biggies is that Hachette does not want Amazon to sell books for less than they bought them. In other words, if Amazon buys a book for five bucks from Hachette, then the publisher wants assurances the book will be sold for at least five dollars — NOT as a loss leader at $3.87. Why? Because doing so puts other booksellers at a severe disadvantage. Amazon can afford to lose tens of thousands on a loss leader to draws in customers, but Mrs. Weinstein at David’s Bookshop cannot.

5. Here’s why that is important to publishers: The Big Six publishers recognize the need to keep small booksellers in business. If independent booksellers all go out of business, Amazon will have a monopoly on book sales. And that, in turn, will drive publishers out of business.

6. Amazon, on the other hand, doesn’t care one bit if small booksellers go out of business. They’re in business to make money, and they’ll do what they can to be the biggest bookseller on the planet. If that means using loss leaders, so be it.

7. So it’s gotten nasty. In February, Amazon stopped discounting nearly all Hachette titles. You know how you could usually go to Amazon and find a $23.99 hardcover on sale for $18.99? No more. In March, Amazon started slowing down all Hachette sales. You used to order a book online and receive it within a few days — now the page will say the book will be available within four to six weeks. In April, Amazon stopped discounting Hachette ebooks, or in many cases simply not listing the ebook at all on their site. So while the average Hachette ebook sold for roughly $7 a few months ago, it’s now about twice that… if you can find it at all.

8. So Amazon, a company that used to pride itself on being customer focused, is deliberately choosing to treat customers badly, in order to try and force better terms from Hachette. (In addition to wanting to sell books at a loss, they want more marketing dollars from Hachette, and of course are pushing for greater discounts. This fight is ALL about money.) There’s no debating that Amazon has played dirty — dirty enough that they’ve made Hachette, who is a multi-billion dollar entertainment conglomerate in France, look as sympathetic as a wounded soldier.

9. At the same time, Hachette is getting support from other Big Six houses — which is odd, when you think about it, since the other Big Six houses are the competition. But the publishers recognize that Amazon is perfectly happy to see all the publishers go out of business, so publishers recognize they’re in a major battle here. So far, they’re holding fast, explaining the situation to readers, and pleading for them to buy their titles through other outlets.

10. Who Hachette is not getting support from is small publishers, who sell all their books on Amazon. To them, Hachette is just another big company fighting over a few bucks. They don’t feel sorry for Hachette Book Group at all.

11. And all this has led to a sales bonanza for WalMart, who has stepped in and sold more Hachette titles than ever. Books-a-Million (BAM) has also sold more Hachette titles. And I’m expecting to see B&N.com use this as a boon for their Nook business. In fact, the discussion has been that all the Big Six publishers could conceivably walk away from Amazon and start doing business with BAM or B&N.

12. The problem with that solution is that the US Department of Justice is freaking in love with Amazon. They’ve fallen all over themselves to support Amazon’s position (read Judge Cote’s decision in the previously mentioned case, and you’ll see — she makes huge pronouncements about technology that she, um, appears to know very little about). So right now the word among publishers is that the US DOJ is visiting all the publishers, asking to look at emails and letters, to make sure the Big Six aren’t colluding with each other, which would be a restraint of trade. (My prediction: They’re going to charge the publishers with collusion eventually. I mean, the DOJ just can’t stand to see publishers act badly… though they can live with Amazon acting badly.)

13. Know-it-all-pundits like Joe Konrath and others are rallying to the side of Amazon, of course. These are the people who see all publishers as evil — which is stupid, though they’ll never admit it. Amazon is a business, not your friend. I love Amazon, and appreciate what they do for the authors I represent, and want them to continue selling books and making a profit. But I DON’T want to see them create a monopoly. Why? Take a look at the audio book industry. Once Amazon gobbled up every independent audio company, they immediately slashed the royalties they were paying authors. Why wouldn’t they? They’re in business to make money, so if they can pay less to authors and generate more profits for the company, that’s exactly what they’ll do. But that’s a lousy deal for authors, and it’s why we have laws preventing monopolies in this country. When there’s a monopoly, retail prices go up, and royalty payments go down — and there’s plenty of historical evidence to support that notion.

14. I’m not siding completely with Hachette in this situation, by the way (though I should probably tell you that I used to be a publisher for Time-Warner Book Group, which is the former incarnation of HBG). I understand that this is basically a fight over money, and it’s a LOT of money, and both side in this fight are worth billions. I laughed at bestselling novelist James Patterson telling everyone at BEA that publishers aren’t making much money. The publishers are doing fine. But I’m going to remind you of something… As an author, you don’t really want the publishers to go out of business. Sure, some authors have made a fortune indie publishing on Amazon, which I think is great. But for all the writers posting books on Amazon, it’s a very small percentage who are making significant money. And legacy publishers, whether you like them or not, continue to help get some authors started, publishing and publicizing them, and helping some authors to make a living. Sure, it’s a small percentage, just like on Amazon, but it happens, and I’ve got authors I represent who have benefited greatly from working with publishers (just as I have authors who have benefited greatly from indie publishing). In other words, publishers offer a choice, an alternative, and for some it’s a valid choice. The world of publishing isn’t going to be stronger if big publishers go out of business, or if independent booksellers go out of business, or for that matter, if agents go out of business. For all the blather about each part of the process, each still can bring value to an author’s career, and having choices is a good thing.

So what happens next? It would be interesting to see Hachette, Penguin/Random House, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster all leave Amazon and throw their weight behind BAM or B&N.com. Competition would be a great thing for Amazon, who has clearly forgotten the value of the customer. But I don’t think that will happen. Eventually, they’ll settle on a number, the folks at Amazon will realize they’re better off selling books instead of NOT selling them, and the argument will get settled.