Chip MacGregor

August 17, 2012

I want to be a career writer…


I was at a big writing conference a couple years ago, and there was a glob of literary agents yakking it up on a panel. We were asked about the role agents play in the contemporary publishing industry, and one of the agents who spoke made a point of saying, “The most important thing we do is career planning for authors.”

I almost laughed out loud. She happened to be an agent who…um… I want to put this delicately: She has no idea what she’s doing. One of those people who can’t seem to figure out what this job actually entails, besides sending emails and collecting checks. So to hear her talking about “career management” made me smile. It’s not that I disagreed — I happen to think that assisting authors with their careers is probably the most important piece of what I do. It’s just that I believe to some agents “career planning” can be defined as nothing more than “find a deal for my author.” In other words, a writer who doesn’t have a book contract simply needs a deal in place, and he or she will have a “writing career.” But anybody with a lick of sense could figure out that a book contract is sort of expected if you’re going to make a living as a writer of books. I mean, every author who signs on with an agent expects to land a book deal.

So, for an agent, there’s a bit more to it. In my view, a career plan for an author is created by helping the author figure out (1) where they are now, and (2) where they want to be in the future. Because, you see, “success” is going to be defined differently for each author. There’s no one level we reach that equates to “success” for every writer. Some people really want to make their living writing; others don’t care about the money so much as that they write regularly. One author may see success as making just enough to be financially feasible (say $3000 per month on average), while another author defines success as replacing her corporate job (making a minimum of $5000 per month). So part of this first stage is to simply figure out where you are and begin to define where you want to go.

It can take a while to get to that place — you have to think about your past, your desires, your schedule, your personality, your platform, your calling. What’s the message you feel has been given you? What are the books you simply HAVE to write? Do you know your voice? Do you know yourself well enough to recognize what your strengths and weaknesses as a writer are?

An author also needs to think about keeping life in balance — having a career is more than just making money. Sure, you have to consider how much you’d like to earn and where it will come from, but you also have to think about how you can maintain healthy relationships, stay physically fit, and have friends and a vibrant personal life. All of this has to get written down somewhere, so the author has a document from which to work.

THEN you start thinking about the steps to take in order to move forward. Sure, if you’re unpublished or between contracts, most likely the first thing you need is a deal. But that’s not the ONLY thing an author needs. One of the reasons I’ve tried to get the authors I represent to think through a written career plan is so that they can begin the process of noodling on their writing careers. A couple people have emailed their plans back to me with a note that said they’ve come to realize they don’t want to be full-time writers. That’s fine — it’s just nice that they have clarity. Others have found that writing things down has helped them get a better picture of where they are weak. An author with no platform is hoping the salability of her idea and quality of her craft will carry her to success… but that’s become tough to do in today’s market, so taking steps to build a platform may be necessary in order to move forward.

I each writer has a unique calling. But I look around, and I see that this business allows one writer to have modest success and another to make a million dollars. Sometimes that can be traced back to a great idea or a great title or great writing or great marketing — but other times it seems to be nothing more than dumb luck, or the sovereignty of God, or whatever force one wants to blame. Maybe that’s why one author believes she has to write a romantic comedy, and another believes he has to write a thriller. One isn’t better than the other; they’re simply different. Or, to put it another way, one person feels called to run a business of ten thousand, and another to run an organization of ten.  I don’t believe the person running a big organization necessarily has better talent, or received a greater reward, or is any more or less obedient… sometimes we are just called to different things. Great art may be recognized or ignored. Or, to say it another way, God isn’t just calling people to success; He’s calling people to obedience. Each writer must learn to use his or her gifts, whether we sell 5000 copies of our book or 50,000.

My reason for writing all of this is just to encourage you to think carefully about your career. As an agent, I want the authors I represent to feel as though they’ve got a plan in place — something more than “I owe my publisher another book.” Clarify where you are and where you want to be, and think through the steps to get there. On this blog, I want us to talk through things like how many books you ought to write in a year, and how much money you need to make, and what steps you could take to improve your sales and visibility. Think about what you need to study or improve or build in order to move your writing career forward.

Sorry if I sound like I’m preaching. I was just going over notes to myself from some recent conferences, and had to ruminate on this issue a bit. I want the authors I’m working with to know they’ve got some sort of plan in place. When a fellow writer asks one of the authors I work with if they have a career path, I want my author to feel comfortable saying, “Yes, I do.” Maybe I’m just tired of hearing people talk about writing as a career without stating clearly what that means.

So, in case you’re not sure, a career writer, in my view, is one who makes a living from writing. You probably need to figure out what it means to make a living in your world, taking your community, your family, and your financial needs into consideration. And having a career plan means you’ve got a step-by-step plan in mind to move there from where you are now (or, if you really don’t see yourself making a living at writing, at least you’ve figured out where you DO want to be, and what steps you’ll take to get there).

It ain’t simple. But maybe we could use less general talk about “careers for authors” and more concrete help with establishing those careers.

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  • This has come at a great time. I’ve always only really wanted one thing–to write children’s books that were Newbery quality. But learning to write like that takes some time, and along the way there have been many side alleys that have looked pretty interesting. Some of those side trips might have been needed to help me learn, but I can’t spend a lot of time in those alleys if I want to achieve my goal of publishing general market children’s literature.

  • V.V. Denman says:

    As an unpublished writer desiring to become a career writer, I could use a shot of confidence. Even though I have a definite career plan, I constantly question whether it will ever happen. Sure, I’ll keep writing even if I never make a dime . . . but that is NOT in the plan. 🙂

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yeah, it’s tough when part of the career plan relies on someone else (i.e., a publisher) to make happen. But that’s not unusual for any artist. We rely on readers (or listeners, or viewers, or customers) to determine whether or not we are judged worthy. That’s a tough thing to include in a career plan.

  • I love this! I think a lot of unpublished writers are so fixated on getting a contract that they don’t think beyond that. What’s next? What comes after that? What’s the overarching goal? I don’t think it’s ever a waste of time to ponder those questions.

  • CarriePadgett says:

    Thanks, Chip for the reinforcement. I decided to take August off from writing in order to firm up my career and goals. And to catch up on the ever growing Mt. TBR. I’ve made a dent in the book stack but not so much in the life plan. August is half over, so it’s time to just do it. Thanks!

  • Tiffany Amber Stockton says:

    Ooh, conviction! Reminds me I still have that “plan” document Sandra sent me to complete when I signed with your agency last December. *ducks head and hides* Chalk it up to 2 little ones under the age of 4 constantly underfoot and deadlines up until May this year. Now, I’m without a contract and Sandra is helping me line up some potential ones, but as soon as I finish polishing those proposals and getting them out the door, I should sit down and finish that document so y’all can have it.

    Thanks so much for this needed jolt this morning. Your years of experience in this industry are shining in your posts here.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      It’s fine. That career planning document is more for you than for us, Tiffany. But it might help you make plans.

  • I second everything Jan wrote (except the conference hosting part, since I don’t have that in my career plan). I’ve recently moved into a phase of being able to think of writing as an actual career and not a sideline passion. Your post is very timely for me, Chip. I’m going to get to work on writing a business plan.

  • Judith Robl says:

    Thanks, Chip, for the clarity. I wish I’d had this advice this clearly thirty years ago. I still have a “career plan” but it’s vastly different from what it could have been. Writing has become my retirement career – if I ever really retire.

  • Livia Blackburne says:

    Career planning seems really interesting, though I find myself wishing for some examples. So here’s a humble idea for a future blog post. Perhaps a few theoretical case studies about different types of career plans? I, for one, would find that very interesting.

  • I gave up writing for every magazine or web job that came my way last year to regroup. Michael Hyatt spoke to our church during the same time on “Living the Legacy You Want to Leave Behind.”

    I realized that I didn’t want to write for the sake of saying, “I’m a writer.” I was missing out on some important times with my kids.
    Giving it up was tuff, who doesn’t like a paycheck? But letting go eliminated a great deal of stress from my home life.
    My husband and I will be making our 24th move this spring, becoming an empty nest. I started writing about all our journeys, for our children. Joy in writing returned. Maybe it’s because I’m writing what God intended for me to write this time.
    I’m taking to heart your post and appreciate your time and direction. A plan will be in the making, I’m not done with writing yet!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yes. Writing is one of a series of choices we make. Appreciated reading your note, Cindy.

  • Jan Cline says:

    Whoo hoo! Am I glad I found this post! No, wait, I am soooo glad you wrote it! This has been my dilemma. I know now what I need is some serious redefining, stepping back and redefining again. When writers bounce through the doors of my conference, I first see anticipation and excitement. By the end of the first day, I see the glazed over expression of “what in the heck am I doing?”. I think what you have shared here needs to be a workshop at the beginning of day two to put things in perspective!
    To be honest, I never thought about writing as a “career”. I only know I want to write all the time and I have a genre I am totally passionate about. Of course I want to be published and have people read my work – I feel I have some important things to say. I’m trying hard to make myself ready to say them well. If “career” only refers to financial gain, then I can’t relate. But if it means making a plan to focus my writing into some form of success and doing it the rest of my life – I’m there.
    Wonderful post…so much to think about. Thanks Chip.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      You’re welcome, Jan. I hope things become clear for you as you start to map things out.

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