Category : The Business of Writing

  • January 11, 2013

    How can I make a living as a collaborative writer?


     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

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  • January 2, 2013

    How are literary agent's roles changing in the new world of publishing?


    I’ve had a number of people write to me in response to my recent post about 2013 publishing predictions, asking how I felt the role of literary agents is changing. It used to be that an agent basically offered four benefits: (1) an editing/sounding board for writing and ideas; (2) access to publishers; (3) contract and statement assistance; and (4) some type of career advice. There are a bunch of other ideas people bring up (such as “maximize the advance!” and “be the tough guy when things get ugly!”), and no doubt several other iterations of the ideas above, but I think those are the four big content areas in which agents have generally served.

    But now we’re in a new era. The way books are produced, marketed, delivered, and sold to readers has changed considerably over the past few years. The sales channels are completely altered. Publishers have overhauled their staffing and methods. New jobs exist that didn’t used to exist, and old ones have faded out of existence. The advent of digital publishing has not just created this new product called “e-books,” but have helped reshape the entire industry. So it only makes sense that a literary agent shouldn’t be doing his or her job the same way it was being done ten years ago. To that end, I thought I’d try to offer thoughts on how I see an agent’s role in contemporary publishing.

    First, a good agent is still doing editing, but perhaps even more book and project concepting. Idea development and packaging are an essential part of the role now. Your agent needs to be talking with you not just about “how to do an ebook,” but how various projects and packages fit into your overall business plan.

    Second, I think the notion of an agent giving an author access to publishers has evolved into an agent as interactor — networking with various publishing types,

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  • December 31, 2012

    My Publishing Predictions for 2013


    Okay, time for my big publishing predictions for 2013…

    1. Some of the large publishers will buy up the smaller micro-publishers who have succeeded in niche markets. (This only makes sense. Penguin/Random House are merging, and want to expand their reach. Hachette is perhaps the most forward-thinking of the companies, and must see the opportunity. It’s possible HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster will combine forces, and they are two companies who have always sought to maximize niche markets. MacMillan does as well. So look for some of those guys who started in their garage a couple years ago to cash out.) 

    2. Literary agents will re-define themselves. (This has already begun to happen with some multi-person agencies. The growth of e-books and the opportunity authors have to self-publish means an agent, to demonstrate value, has to prove he or she can assist with self-publishing, with marketing and sales planning for a wide variety of projects, with career development for authors who are working with traditional publishers as well as publishing their own books, with contract evaluations in an age of significant intellectual property rights changes, and with business management. An author isn’t just a writer any more — he or she is a self-proprietary business person, and good agents will re-define themselves in order to assist with that change.) 

    3. E-book royalties will grow. (E-publishers are already paying in the 50% neighborhood, so traditional publishers are going to have to be competitive. I can see one of the Big Six boosting e-royalties to 30%.)

    4. Several of the major and mid-major publishers will move to strictly digital catalogs and royalty statements. (Think of it: At many of the larger houses, they’re still hiring people to print off stacks of paper and stuff them into envelopes. Welcome to the 80’s! This is a change that’s way overdue. And there’s limited value in expensive book catalogs any more — a digital
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  • December 21, 2012

    Is it legal to strangle my publisher?


    Someone just wrote to say, “I can’t believe it! I spent an entire week writing a piece for a digital magazine that insisted they needed it on a tight deadline, skipped my daughter’s play, ignored family meals, then stayed up all hours writing. I got it done, turned it in, and the publisher is saying they’ve decided to run it… next month! Will I go to jail if I shoot him?”

    Ah, the joys of the writing life.

    True story: A publisher once hired me to do a fast-fix on a book. “I need this by Thursday morning,” he told me. “If I don’t have it by Thursday, I could be out of business.” His exact words. 

    So I took it, banged away, and met my deadline. I stayed up all night two nights in a row, grabbing coffee and blearily going through the manuscript line by line, fixing the problems and getting the book ready for publication. I finished at 4 Thursday morning, grabbed a couple hours of shut-eye, then drove an hour-and-a-half to the publisher’s office in order to turn it in by hand as they opened their doors. Mission accomplished. The publisher gave me a hearty thanks as I set the disk on his desk, and I headed to a coffee shop to try and stay awake for my drive home.

    The following Wednesday, I’m at a breakfast meeting in the city, and who do I run into but Mr. Publisher. “Hey,” I say to him, “I haven’t heard from you — what did you think of the manuscript?”

    He looked at me for a second with a blank look, then said, “Oh…you know, I haven’t gotten to that one yet.”

    So I strangled him. Right there on the spot. Shoved several of those heavy restaurant pancakes they’re always serving down his evil throat. (Okay, not really. But I wanted to.)

    The publishing business. It simply works

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  • December 10, 2012

    Why don't publishers want to fast track most books?


    Someone wrote and asked, “Do publishers have a ‘fast track’ for an idea that is time sensitive? Do they leave room for hot topics in their publishing pipeline?”

    Sure, publishers have a fast track, but they use it very carefully. When you turn in your completed manuscript, it’s usually going to sit with the publisher for a year before it hits store shelves. That’s partly because they have artistic and production decisions, but it’s really more of a sales issue — stores order books months in advance. So right now stores are looking at what books they’ll have in their stores next summer. A book that is dropped into a list hasn’t been given much time to create a marketing buzz, it hasn’t been presented to stores to order, and the whole process gets rushed. So publishers don’t want to drop a bunch of new titles into their lists that don’t have support and won’t sell.

    What I’ve found is that frequently an author wants to fast track a book, when if fact it would do better if the sales and marketing types put it through the usual process. Every author feels as though he or she can’t wait — that the book needs to be released immediately in order to capture the moment. In my view, that’s usually a time trap. Most books will do better if they aren’t rushed, and allow  the system to work. So keep in mind that, if you’re going to be working with a traditional publisher, you’re probably going to have to take the long view to get the full benefit of the relationship.

    At the same time, ebooks allow a faster turnaround, which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s possible to get a book out very quickly and speak to an immediate need — but we’ve all seen a bunch of books that were rushed and really not ready for the

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  • December 1, 2012

    Can I make a living with freelance writing and editing?


    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

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  • November 27, 2012

    Does a second novel have to continue the storyline?


    Someone wrote to ask, “How do you handle the ending of individual books in a series that needs each book to stand alone, yet have threads of continuation? Is it possible to conclude the manuscript in the point of view of the antagonist?”

    Fiction series have a tendency to flow in and out like the tide. For a while, publishers wanted everything to be written in two-to-four book series. But then they noticed that the second and third books of a series always seemed to decline in sales from the first book, so they began moving away from series. If you’re creating a series of novels, the most important lesson is that each book must stand on its own. You can’t have a middle novel that feels as though it’s nothing more than a placekeeper — words on pages that spread out the story from its opening to its eventual conclusion. Each book must be able to be read and enjoyed without feeling as though the reader doesn’t have the whole story. So the threads of continuation are typically an unresolved story element or a continuing character, all within the same setting, presenting a similar theme, and offering the same style and voice as the other books in the series. So yes, it’s possible to conclude a manuscript with a short blurb from the antagonist’s POV, or perhaps an extended note or conversation with the character. Thomas Harris did this with Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, and Ed McBain used this device successfully with his antagonist The Blind Man in some of his 82nd Precinct books. The ending left the antagonist uncaught — and ready to go commit more mayhem.

    Another author asked, “Is it true the foreword of a book should be the author’s honest explanation of his or her novel? I ask because the author of the bestselling novel The Shack makes it sound as

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  • November 26, 2012

    Can my second book be in another genre?


    Someone asked a second-book question I’ve heard frequently: “If I’m writing a series, is it unwise to venture into a different genre? For example, if my first book is a fantasy, should the second book also be a fantasy, or is it acceptable to write a chick-lit? Will it be like starting from scratch, since I’d have no sales figures in the new genre?”This is a question every novelist must think through. Here’s the way I view it: An author must consider what he or she wants to do with a writing career. If you intend to make a living writing novels, you’ll find it best to figure out your voice, then write to the particular genre that fits it. In other words, as far as the marketplace is concerned, you’ll do best if you pick one category and stick with it. If you’re at the start of your career, you may be floating around a bit, trying to find your voice, so you may try a couple different genres. But eventually, most successful writers pick one area in which they write, and stick to it. That may change over time, as their voice develops and they decide to branch out, but for the most part, this is how we see a writing career develop. Of course, all the talk about “branding” lately can be tedious. A publisher telling a new author to “decide on an audience and write your books to them” seems like good career advice… but what if the writer doesn’t have enough experience yet to know where he or she should write? Or what if the novelist is multi-talented and feels she has stories to tell in various genres? I represent Lisa Samson, who many people believe is one of the best faith-based novelists in publishing these days. Lisa publishes her adult novels with Thomas Nelson, and she doesn’t really have a clear genre.
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  • November 16, 2012

    What makes a second book successful?


    An author wrote and said, “I’ve been told that you’ll never sell your second book in New York if you don’t do well on your first. Just how well do you have to do? How many copies is considered a success?”

    I don’t really think this is a hard-and-fast rule. Many authors have started small, done a good job, sold a modest number of their first book, then gone on to build an audience. Sure, it’s harder to do another book if your first book completely tanks, but sometimes that’s more a reflection on the sales expectations than the quality of the product. And while there’s not a magic number to hit that makes you automatically “successful” in the eyes of publishers, for years we’ve known that a novelist who can routinely sell in the 12,000 to 20,000 range can expect to publish for a long time. Now, however, that number seems to be rising. Expectations are greater, and I think most larger publishers of trade fiction really want to see a basement sales number of about 14,000 for an established novelist (that number is much higher for a major author, for a book that had a big advance, or for a mass market or subscription house, of course). And that’s a bottom number — the expectation may well be in the 20’s, depending on the size of the house (keep in mind economies of scale — a small regional publisher will have a very different definition of “success” than HarperCollins, for example). Still, if you can create a couple books a year, and sell in the mid-to-high teens, you can expect to have very steady work for a long time.

    I have an author who wrote a good first novel, then spent months promoting the book. The author did everything the publisher asked, and sales numbers for the first year were about 8500 copies sold. Not great — but

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  • November 14, 2012

    Why is your second novel so important?


    An author wrote with this question: “What would you say are the common areas of neglect you see in most second novels? Weak plot? Poor characterization? Underdeveloped themes?”

    Love this question, since I tell the authors I represent that “your SECOND novel will be your most important.” You’ve doubtless spent years getting your first novel completed, then worked to edit it, got all sorts of advice, and went through the process of shopping it with an agent. It’s polished and ready to go after three or five years of working on it. Then you get a deal, and suddenly the publisher asks you to write another one in five months. Ack! You race through it, and it comes out disappointing. That can be a career killer, since you want your second novel to build off the sales of your first.

    The biggest pitfalls in a second novel? A small idea (your first book was big; your second was hurried and not thought through as well.) Small characters (your first book contained characters you knew intimately; your second has people you don’t know as well). Less sense of place (your first novel is in a place you’ve spent considerable time exploring; your second is just a place). Less passion (your first novel grew out of a story you felt compelled to tell; your second is simply another book). You see the problem?

    You see, your first novel sets a baseline in the marketplace. Retailers will be looking at your second book to decide if your audience is growing (and sales are up) or your audience is shrinking (your sales are down). They’ll take that as a sign of your future potential in the industry. Like it or not, that’s the tendency in today’s market. So you can’t scrimp on your second novel — it’s got to be as good as your first.

    Someone else asked, “Should a novelist be thinking ‘sequel’

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