Chip MacGregor

February 18, 2014

How can an author create a career?


If you are unaware, there is a ton of discussion going on right now over a report on author earnings done by a self-published author, what he discovered when he did some research, and how authors, agents, and publishers have responded to his findings. I’m in the midst of studying the whole schlamozzle before I respond, but all the discussion basically comes down to this question: How can an author have a career in today’s publishing climate? 

I have a background in organizational development — that is, the study of how an organization grows and changes over time. My graduate training was in organizational theory, and during my PhD studies at the University of Oregon, I had a Graduate Teaching Fellowship to work at the Career Planning office, helping create tools to assist those graduating, particularly those getting graduate degrees in the arts. During my studies at the U of O (Go Ducks!), the focus eventually was on helping people  in the arts map out a career plan, and that experience allowed me the opportunity to apply the principles of organizational theory to the real-world setting of  trying to make a living via one’s art.  In my job as a literary agent, I’ve found that experience has proven helpful when talking to writers about their careers. You see, my contention is that some people pay lip service to “helping 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 “having a career plan” to some authors is equivalent to “having a book contract.”) 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 she brings to the process? Does she speak? If so, where? How often? To whom? To how many? On what topics? Dos she write? Where and to how many readers? Does she 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? Without knowing an author’s experience, comfort zone, and message, it’s hard to know how best to help map out something.

Second, I want to find out about the author’s past – the significant events and accomplishments. What was his best work? What writing did he do that he liked best? What writing had the best response from readers? I also like to make sure I’m clear on things like strengths, gifts, burdens… all of that helps give me context when discussing career paths. Once you find out where the author has been, you start to get perspective on where he or she wants to go in the future.

Third, we have to talk about perspective – what is important to the author? What is her message? Her life purpose? How does she define success? What does she need to change? What does she want to accomplish? What are her expectations? Some authors want to write full time, others want to keep it as an avocation. One author will have a story in her head, and she simply has to take the time to write it down; another might have six ideas she’s pursuing at once, and wants to figure out a plan for getting them all done in a year. Finding out what’s important to the author is essential to helping him or her move forward.

Fourth, with a new author I insist we sit down together (or talk on the phone), and 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 a filing system to keep track of the various pieces? Do they have a writing calendar, so they know what  and when they are working on each project? I encourage authors to also create a budgeting calendar — something that is very important to every working author. 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 year? The next two or three 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 the spouse in agreement with it all? Is the author going to pursue traditional publishers? Niche publishers? Indie publishers? Does she have backlist or original pieces she wants to self-publish? How much does she need to make, and what writing is going to produce that income? Knowing an author is at peace with the overall plan is important if this is all going to happen in the writer’s life. Taking the time to write down one’s goals is essential in making them happen.

These things all work together to create a career map for an author. 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 to get an author to write some grand purpose statement — my goal is to help an author create a workable plan he or she can use to move forward in a writing career. 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, or that it’s going to take considerably longer than we first anticipated. And that’s okay — the goal is to figure out the overall plan. I want the writers 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.

That’s org theory brought to bear on a writer’s career. Do you find that helpful? Feel free to ask me questions.


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  • Donna K. Wallace says:

    Chip MacGregor’s organizational savvy and his willingness to invest in his authors is absolutely the bedrock of my success. I send every writer I know to this blog!

  • Jane Gaugler Daly says:

    Over the past few weeks, I’ve heard parts of the same message, from various sources. The theme seems to be: to make this a business/career, make a plan, both strategically and financially. Thanks for the extra kick in the butt.

  • Lynette Sowell says:

    I’ve found one thing in my career plan I’ve inserted is “Plan for change.” Several years ago, I found myself making the decision: do I want to be a “big book” writer or write more “category” or genre books? Neither road is an easy one; and that plan changed because of the market.

  • Gayla Grace says:

    I love your thoughts – my question this past year has been, “Can an author have a career in this publishing climate?” I enjoyed your conference in Dallas this past week-end and will continue to pursue my publishing goals. Thank you for your efforts to help writers figure out how to make a career doing the thing they love to do in an ever-changing publishing world.

  • Richard Mabry says:

    Chip, All your suggestions for consideration by your clients are great, but with the rapid changes in publishing going on (the rise of self-publishing, for one), doesn’t that make it hard for you to project and plan for the future? Do you take these changes into consideration as well?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I think it’s always been hard to project the future, Richard. The changes in publishing today certainly don’t make it any easier, but it’s still better to have a plan than to not have one.

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