Before I was published, I thought of writing as a calling. My stories were my art. I still think these things, but now I understand that writing for publication is also very much a business. My stories are products I’m peddling.
The Business of Writing by Sally MacKenzie
Does that sound harsh? It does grate on me a little, but I try very hard to adopt this point of view when I’m dealing with the business side of publishing. Besides making general good sense, it helps cut down on the psychic wear and tear as my “baby” is evaluated and changed by the publishing/review process.
Let’s look at The Call first, shall we? When I got my first offer, I was ecstatic. My life-long dream had come true. A real, live editor wanted to buy my story. I wouldn’t have paid her to publish it, but beyond that I wasn’t much concerned about money.
Mistake number one. Money is very important, as my lovely editor on the other end of that phone line knew very well. If I’d been agented at the time, Jessica would have pointed that out–but if I’d been agented, the editor would have called Jessica, not me. (When I was touring my publisher’s office with my editor and Jessica once, I asked about foreign copies, saying I was more interested in seeing the covers than the money. Jessica politely pointed out that I was also very interested in the money.)
It’s an editor’s job to acquire manuscripts that will sell and make her publishing house buckets of money. Maybe little tiny buckets given the current economy, but the goal is definitely to land in the black. Yes, she should love the story, but chances are–at least in commercial fiction–she’s offering to buy your manuscript because she thinks it will sell well. Jessica or Kim would know better than I since they’ve been editors, but I imagine an editor’s career is on the line somewhat with every book she acquires. Buying one or two manuscripts that sink like a stone when tossed into the bookselling pond probably isn’t the end of the world, but an editor with enough such stones to build an underwater castle will likely soon be looking for other work.
When calling to offer for your book, the editor may well start off telling you what a wonderful writer you are and how wonderful your book is, but before she hangs up, she’ll mention the advance she’s willing to offer and that might not be so very wonderful. This is where the real business fun begins if you’re a good negotiator. (And this is one reason I have Jessica–I’m more like the dog you meet that will just turn over on her back to get her belly scratched. I am NOT a negotiator.) You won’t be talking about character development or pacing, but about such very important business-y things as advance amount and payment schedule, royalty rates on print and e-book formats, delivery dates, and option clauses. If you reach an agreement, then you’ll get a contract in the mail. Chances are reading that will make your head hurt. (And even though I have Jessica, I always do read my contracts very carefully.)
Here’s something I learned about contracts. The acquiring editor may well tell you the contract she’s sending you is boilerplate. This is true. However there are different boilerplates. The boilerplate contract your publisher has negotiated with Bookends, for example, is different from the boilerplate they’ve negotiated with Curtis Brown which is different from the one with the Nelson Literary Agency. The boilerplate contract for an unagented writer is the worst of the publisher’s contracts.
Writing becomes very much a business once you have contractual deadlines. You can’t write only when the muse moves you; you have to write in whatever fashion will permit you to hand your manuscript in on time. If you miss your deadline, besides being in breach of contract, you may cause a number of problems for your publisher and their other authors.
But there’s more to the business than making deadlines. You need a career plan.
I sold by accident, so you may all be much more prepared for the transition from hopeful writer to published author than I was. To say I found the change a shock is a bit of an understatement. There are many levels to this transformation, from dealing with book production–editorial edits, copy edits, page proofs–to pulling on your big girl (or big boy) panties when you get your first negative review. One of the biggest shocks–pleasant, but frightening–was that I was supposed to keep producing. Ever since I was in grade school, I’d had this dream of publishing a book. That was the prize, the top of the mountain. I’d never looked beyond that first sale to publishing a second book and a third.
My first contract was for two books, which meant I had to write book number two in months rather than years. I’d started a futuristic before I’d sold, but that wouldn’t suffice. My publisher didn’t do futuristics, but more importantly my readers probably wouldn’t follow me from the regency to some future time on a distant planet.
Devising a career plan is more than a little tricky given the unpredictable nature of publishing. Much of the business is out of your control, and it’s often harder to get a second contract than it is to get the first. So you have to be flexible, and you may not be able to plan far in advance, but you should still plan. Here are some questions to consider.
What subgenre do you want to concentrate on? It’s possible to write in multiple subgenres–regencies and futuristics, for example–but building a readership and “brand” identity is harder that way. And while I don’t advocate writing to trends, I think it’s wise to consider the market when making this decision. In my case, regency historicals are a bigger piece of the romance market than futuristics so following that path had a better chance of leading to success, at least by some measures.
How fast can you write and still produce quality work and maintain some kind of sane, non-writing life? Some writers can write multiple books in a year; some can write multiple books only by risking serious mental and physical health issues. Sometimes you might have to turn down an offer; however, if you can only manage a book every two years, you might not have a future in commercial fiction.
Where do you want to be in a year, five years, ten years? Aiming for the big lists probably isn’t a good goal–that’s something that’s largely out of your control–but I think you do increase your chances by focusing on writing one type of book. Do you want to stay with your current publisher or would some other house publish you better? Are you and your agent on the same page?
If you want to stay in the game, you need to look ahead even while you’re working your way through your current contract. What will you write next? You’ll probably have to do a proposal for a new book or series while your current book is in production if you don’t want a large gap between releases. Do you want to do connected books or standalones? If you vote for connected, how many in the group? A trilogy? Four books? More?
And then there’s all the other business issues–promotion, taxes, reversion of rights, the need for a literary executor, and the thing that’s bedeviling me currently–stuff management. (Where to store all the author copies, foreign copies, backlist, and promotional materials, oh my!)
The business of writing can get overwhelming, but when I feel that happening, I take a deep breath and remind myself that writing the best book I can is my very best business decision.
USA Today bestselling author Sally MacKenzie writes funny, hot Regency-set historicals for Kensington’s Zebra line, and her books have been translated into Czech, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Russian. Her sixth book, The Naked Viscount, arrives on bookstore shelves today. A native of Washington, D. C., she still lives in suburban Maryland with her husband and whichever of her four sons are stopping back in the nest. To find out more about Sally and her books, visit her website at www.sallymackenzie.net.