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Category : The Business of Writing
BY CHIP MACGREGOR
Someone recently wrote in with this question: “When someone is hired and allowed to acquire, are they trained or do they just ‘go and do’? Is this something they do individually or as part of a team (observer, etc.)?”
An acquisitions editor has usually spent time with the company and has a feel for what he or she should be acquiring. And yes, personal tastes will shape the books they bring in. Therefore, a publishing house gets reshaped by the editors who work there. Few editors (just a handful of senior editors) have the authority to simply go acquire.
The system looks like this:
Step one is that the editor must like the presented idea. He or she works with the agent and author to sharpen the proposal and make it as strong as possilble.
Step two is the idea is taken to the editorial board or team. In this meeting the merits of the book are discussed, several people read it, the team evaluates it, petty politics come into play, etc. They may ask for further changes, they may reject it, or they may decide to continue the discussion. If the team likes it, the project then moves on to the next step.
Step three is yet another committee, known as the publishing board (or publishing committee). This is the decision-making body at most every publishing house. It includes the top sales people to talk about market response, a representative from marketing to suggest ways the company could help get the word out, somebody from finance to count the beans, the publisher of the line to give strategic direction, some senior management types, maybe a sub-rights person, and various others. The editor presents the proposal.
The participants read it, discuss it, explore sales and marketing potential, check their horoscopes, and do everything else possible in order to try and figure out if they should do the
BY CHIP MACGREGOR
A new writing conference is fast approaching — and you’re invited.
On Saturday, February 15, I will be speaking at the Dallas Writers’ University. It’s a one-day event, with a rather intensive agenda:
- I’ll speak on “developing a book proposal that sells,” and the focus will be on giving practical, hands-on help to writers who want to create a proposal that will get noticed.
- I’ll also be speaking on “creating your long-term publishing strategy,” with an emphasis on traditional publishing, niche publishing, self-publishing, and alternative strategies for writers to make a living.
- Michelle Borquez, bestselling author and entrepreneur, will explore “building a platform around your concept.”
- There will be a Q&A time, and everybody there will have a face to face meeting with me sometime during the day.
- Finally, Michelle and I will be talking about the secret to success in contemporary publishing.
I’m really looking forward to this opportunity. I’ve largely taken time away from conferences the past couple years, but I love talking to authors about proposals and strategy. And you’re invited. Again, every participant gets face time with me, where we’ll be reviewing proposals and talking about next steps in a one-on-one setting. That means our space is limited to just 30 people.
Here’s the thing . . . there are a hundred conferences you can go to in order to get some basic information on writing. But if you really want to join a small group and find out how to create a book that will sell, make some money, and gain entry into the world of publishing by talking to some experienced people in the industry, I hope you’ll consider joining us. I don’t do many conferences anymore (and rarely do a writing conference), so I’m excited to be asked to be part of this one.
The event is going to be in the Dallas area, at a church in White
I sometimes hate reading people’s predictions for the new year, since they tend to be incredibly safe (“a new author will arise and start selling well”) or so obvious a moron could have guessed it (“it will rain a lot in Oregon”). But I enjoy the notion of trying to guess what will happen, since I’ve spent my life in this business, and I tend to try and stay ahead of the curve. So here are my un-safe, non-obvious thoughts on what may happen this year…
1. Amazon is going to start a chain of stores. Maybe it’ll be in airports, maybe they’ll start micro-stores like the kiosks you see selling headphones and chargers in airport terminals, but Amazon NEEDS to find an outlet for their Amazon-branded books. No brick and mortar store will touch them, and they need a presence in paper somewhere.
2. Barnes & Noble is going to be sold but remain in business. Okay, I don’t have ANY insider information, even though my wife worked for them for years. We all know B&N is struggling. They may sell off their Nook business (and I’m a huge fan of my Nook, as I’ve noted on this blog several times), but I don’t think America’s largest book retailer will go under. Instead, I’m wondering if the good folks at Microsoft (who propped up the Nook with an infusion of cash two years ago) might buy the entire chain. Someone will.
3. We’re going to see a bunch of publisher mergers. Hear me out: the rise of ebook readers led to a flood of category novels. That in turn led to the creation of countless smaller publishing houses — start-up companies that focused on one genre. But with ebook sales gone flat, and dedicated e-readers failing due to tablets, a bunch of those semi-successful smaller houses are about to be taken over by the Random Houses and HarperCollins of
So we’re in a state of revolution in publishing — a season where everything about books is changing. The writing, the editing, the production, the marketing, the sales channels, even the way we read books is different from the way we did five years ago. In the midst of all that change, there has been a lot of debate over the state of the industry, with some people decrying the changes and other embracing them. Some folks (see the letter from Richard Russo that I shared on the blog last week) are worried about the decline of bookstores and the takeover by a handful of conglomerates. Others (see Konrath’s harangue via the comments section) are celebrating that power has begun to move from publishers and bookstores to writers. There are strong feelings on each side, and no doubt some truth to be gleaned from several sources.
In the midst of all the noise, I thought it would be good to review some of the biggest publishing stories of the last year (before we all start making predictions about what will happen in 2014).
Before I offer my thoughts, let me just state that I’m of the opinion there’s never been a better time to be a writer. There are more readers than ever before. There’s moire training available than ever before. The industry is producing more books than ever before. And the web has created more opportunities for writers than ever before. So consider me an optimist when it comes to the publishing future. With that in mind, here are what I consider the ten biggest publishing stories of 2013:
1. Flat sales for ebooks. While it’s true we’ve watched ebooks capture a huge percentage of the market over the past five years, the expected rise to a 50/50 split between print books and ebooks hasn’t materialized. Instead, ebooks make up about 20 to 23% of all books sales… and
It’s all changing, right before our eyes. Not just publishing, but the writing life itself, our ability to make a living from authorship. Even in the best of times, which these are not, most writers have to supplement their writing incomes by teaching, or throwing up sheet-rock, or cage fighting. It wasn’t always so, but for the last two decades I’ve lived the life most writers dream of: I write novels and stories, as well as the occasional screenplay, and every now and then I hit the road for a week or two and give talks. In short, I’m one of the blessed, and not just in terms of my occupation. My health is good, my children grown, their educations paid for. I’m sixty-four, which sucks, but it also means that nothing that happens in publishing—for good or ill—is going to affect me nearly as much as it affects younger writers, especially those who haven’t made their names yet. Even if the e-price of my next novel is $1.99, I won’t have to go back to cage fighting.Still, if it turns out that I’ve enjoyed the best the writing life has to offer, that those who follow, even the most brilliant, will have to settle for less, that won’t make me happy and I suspect it won’t cheer other writers who’ve been as fortunate as I. It’s these writers, in particular, that I’m addressing here. Not everyone believes, as I do, that the writing life is endangered by the downward pressure of e-book pricing, by the relentless, ongoing erosion of copyright protection, by the scorched-earth capitalism of companies like Google and Amazon, by spineless publishers who won’t stand up to them, by the “information wants to be free” crowd who believe that art should be cheap or free and treated as a commodity, by internet search engines who are all too happy to direct people to on-line sites that
When my new book, Grace’s Pictures, released, I knew I needed to do all I could to promote it. But at the time I faced a challenging rewrite of my next novel, a long planned for overseas trip, and my son’s wedding. The solution seemed to be finding someone to help, but I couldn’t afford to pay for an assistant.
The answer came when I realized that my writing was indeed a business and I needed to think of it that way. Corporations employ interns not only to provide young people an experience that will help them when they enter the job market, but also to get things done. I couldn’t pay someone to help me, not with money. But I did have something to offer. Since I’ve learned some things along my writing journey, I could pass some knowledge on to a student who was considering entering the publishing field.
I had no idea how to do this. I had no internship myself when I was in college. But I did not let that stop me. I decided to go out on a limb and ask questions. Since there is a private liberal college not too far away, I Googled and discovered they have a wonderful Creative Arts program. I emailed the professor in charge and to my surprise she emailed right back and said she had a student in mind who would be perfect.
Like most things that sound too good to be true, it turned out not to be that simple. I had to follow up twice to find out this student had changed her mind. The professor went back to the drawing board, but also suggested I check with a larger university. I did so, and they advertised for me, but my intern ended up coming from the smaller college. She was a freshman with little understanding of the publishing world, but she was willing
Vilfredo Pareto was a Paris-born Italian, from a prominent exiled Genoese family, famous in his own day as a social economist. He is often referred to as the first modern economics professor, and he more or less developed microeconomics as a discipline. But what he’s best known for is the principle of factor sparsity — what we usually refer to as “the 80/20 rule.” Pareto noticed that 80% of the peas in his garden came from about 20% of the pea pods. He determined that 80% of the wealth in Italy was held by roughly 20% of the population. And, when looking at the Italian tax structure, he noticed that 80% of the government’s income came from just 20% of the taxpayers.
Sometimes referred to as “the law of the vital few,” the Pareto Principle is found in many of the organizations you belong to. For example, 80% of the work done at your church is performed by about 20% of the members. 80% of the money raised by the non-profit you belong to is donated by 20% of the givers. And, if you work in publishing, 80% of the income your publisher makes comes from 20% of the books. (Which, if you think about it, means there is significant factor sparsity in book publishing, since 80% of the titles released this year will produce very little income for publisher and author.) Pareto noted that most every element tied to finances is ruled by a vital few (which he referred to as “the elite,” thus popularizing the term), and that it’s the success of those vital few that allows the rest of the category to persist.
Here’s why you need to understand that as an author: Your publisher is going to release a LOT of books this year. A mere 20% of them are going to generate 80% of the publisher’s income, so of course your publisher is going to
Over the past few weeks we’ve been talking about “making a living at writing.” In addition to the advice I’ve doled out, I’ve heard from several people with wisdom to add to the discussion, and I have a few other tips to share, so I thought for the Thanksgiving weekend, we could share the best advice we all have for those looking to make a living at writing. Some of my thoughts:
—Keep your mornings protected for writing.Â Move the other work to the afternoon, but write every morning.
—Group similar activities.Â If you do all your phone calls back to back, you’ll get through them faster. Ditto emails, snail mail, project planning, looking over proposals, etc.
—Organize your day first thing every morning. If you have a plan, you’re much more apt to stay focused. Having a “to do” list helps most writers immensely.
—Take a day off one each week.Â Getting away from writing one day each week allows you to recharge your batteries and get your mind refreshed. Hey – even God rested.
—Kill the muse.Â That is, forget the concept that you have to be in a certain mood to write, or find exactly the right space to create words. Just sit and write. I’ve long appreciated Ernest Hemingway’s writing idea that you end each day in the middle of a sentence. That way, when you sit down the next morning, you don’t have to figure where you are, or get yourself into a certain moody, or work up to it. All you have to do is to finish the incomplete sentence you’d left yourself, and you’re off and writing.
—See the value of shitty first drafts.Â Too many writers tie themselves in knots because they think they need to make their manuscript perfect. But for most novelists, what they really need is to
We’ve been talking about making a living at writing, and I’ve talked about the importance of having a place, a time, a project, a writing goal, and a calendar (among other things). Let me suggest there’s one other thing you’re going to have to learn to do if you are to take the next step in your writing career: think quarterly.
It can be daunting to think you need to earn $1000 this month. It’s much less daunting to think you need to earn $3000 in a quarter. The fact that you have the extra time allows you to shift your priorities around, and give yourself enough breathing room that you can earn the money. So don’t think the pressure is on you to make all the money NOW — assume you’ve got a three-month goal.
The federal government already thinks that way — it’s why they ask self-employed writers and editors to pay quarterly taxes instead of monthly. 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.
In essence, I’m suggesting the conversation with yourself becomes something like this: “I’m going to make $3000 this quarter. It’s going to come from three sources — my completion money, my royalty check, and those magazine articles I’m completing. 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).
When I was given this idea from an experienced freelance writer, I found it took a bunch of pressure of my shoulders. 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
If you’re going to make a living at writing, you’re going to need to consider creating a writing calendar. This is, you need to have a document that details what you’re going to write each day. Think about buying a big paper calendar, and jotting down a writing goal for each day of the month. For example, perhaps on Monday you’re working on chapter five of your book, Tuesday you’re completing the chapter, Wednesday you are creating that article you’ve wanted to do for the writing magazine, Thursday and Friday you are doing a paid edit. In each day on your calendar you’ve got something that focuses you on the task at hand.
To figure out what you put into each day, you look at your “to do” list and do some prioritizing. If you’re one of those writers who has been stuck at “writing 1000 words each day,” but not ever feeling like you’re actually moving forward in your career, you should try this. There’s nothing wrong with having a word count goal, of course, but sometimes it’s better to know which project you’re working on, and how long it’s going to take you. You’re going to have plenty of other things to do, of course — there will be phone calls related to your work, and seemingly endless emails, and forms to fill out, a friend’s piece to critique, some social media to participate in… but at some point you just want your writing life to have a focus — getting these pieces written so I can make some money.
And that’s why you don’t just write down the goal for each day and stop. You then go back and add in a dollar figure, so each project is seen as contributing to your budget. For example, that article you’re writing for the writing magazine? How much is that paying you? Let’s say it’s $150 — you write