Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Business of Writing by Sally MacKenzie

The Naked Viscount
Publisher: Kensington Zebra
Pub date: June 2010
Agent: Jessica Faust

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.

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.


Heidiopia said...

Great advice, Sally! The "planner" in me thanks you and I'm sure I'm not alone.

Creepy Query Girl said...

Holy Cow! Thank you so much for this insight into the 'business' side of it all. Most of these things had either never occured to me or I just didn't know where to look for information. I found this really really interesting. Thanks so much for sharing!

anita said...

Thanks so much for the wonderful advice, Sally, and for the insight into the world of deadlines and career planning. Very informative post!

Congratulations on all of your publishing successes!

steeleweed said...

Thank you for this great post. Most business-related posts come from from agents, with a few from indie publishers. These are informative but often miss the author's POV. Most author posts cover the creative side only. It's nice to see one that balances both sides of what is, after all, a business.

I been in the art world for many years and found some of the most talented artists are still working their day jobs because they are focused 100% on the creative side. Those who learn the business side - just as they had learned the creative side - are financially successful. Beyond that, marketplace demands also forced them to grow as artists. We're all a bit lazy. Having something external hold our noses to the grindstone helps us in the long run.

Thank you

Anonymous said...

I learned most of that from being a blogging book reviewer, through observation and interacting with authors.

One thing though. If you've been slugging your way through Queryland for a while and the economy goes into the toilet, you're going to move into the old proverb-

"Beggers can't be choosers."

Then, you're gonna be tempted to grab whatever contract comes your way.

I'm stacking up requests for Fulls right now and it's kinda scary. What if an offer comes from a reputable ePublisher while a Full's still out with an uber-agent? I can't help but think, "Hey, that agent's going to reject anyway, if she responds at all."

Rula Sinara said...

Thanks so much for this post. It's always helpful to hear, first hand, what an author has to tackle after their first call. It gives us an invaluable peek at what to expect...especially regarding the business side of things.

I think all college students should be required to take a few business classes, regardless of their major. It doesn't matter if you plan on being an artist, doctor, teacher or writer...there's a business aspect to all professions.

Thanks again for your insight.

Sally MacKenzie said...

I have to say my business side is constantly evolving. I admire writers who embrace all the business stuff enthusiastically from the get-go, but I'm a little more of a foot dragger. I think everyone has to strike the balance that's right for them. We can't ignore that we are CEOs of our small businesses, but we still have to protect our creative wells. For example, blogging may make good business sense, but I can't maintain a regular blog and still get my contracted writing done. Others can.

Anonymous 9:09, I don't know how it works with offers from epublishers--it used to be that agents rarely were involved in those deals, but that could have changed--but when I got an offer from my NY publisher, I called the agents who had expressed interest in my work. Jessica moved quickly to read my published book and offered representation. If you don't have an agent, I'd suggest having a literary attorney look over any contract before signing as it is possible to severely tie up your career with a legal false step. I didn't do that with my first contract, but I got lucky. Relying on luck is generally not a great business plan.

Samantha Rose said...

Thank you so much for all this insight. I'm still a student, and trying to work on my first novel. I'm pursuing an English major but I may consider taking some business classes if I can. Now it's time to decide whether to give up from intimidation or press ahead with this newfound knowledge. I hope to succeed from the latter! Thanks again.

Kate Douglas said...

Sally, you have nailed SO MANY important points in this post! I wish I'd seen something just like this before I sold my first book. It's all excellent advice, but when you figure out "stuff management," please let me know what works?

That's one that's WAY beyond me!

Kristan said...

"The acquiring editor may well tell you the contract she’s sending you is boilerplate. This is true. However there are different boilerplates."

VERY interesting, I had no idea. Thanks for a great, informative look at the business side. It's very helpful.

Sally MacKenzie said...

Samantha, don't be intimidated! Write the book--and then write the next one and the next one.

Kate, yeah, I'm drowning here. I'm supposed to get two sets of author copies this month--the antho that's coming out in mass market (it was in trade last year) has arrived, but the Viscount is still missing. And all those books we get at conferences! I'm having to steel my heart and give most of them away unread.

Kristan, the boilerplate thing really twisted my brain around at first until I finally got it sorted out. I was talking to agents and it was like we were both speaking English, but we weren't really speaking the same language. It makes sense, though, now that I get it. An agency takes the publisher's basic contract--the version most favorable to the publisher--and works at changing the clauses to better serve a client. When the next client comes along, agency and publisher don't go back to square one, they start at square two. Unagented author starts at square one and, in my case at least, probably doesn't have have the business sense or experience to even recognize the issues.

Kelley Vitollo said...

Wow. What an incredible post. Thank you so much, Sally. There is a lot of good information in here. I really appreciate it.

April said...

Great advice, thank you! I'll probably have to hunt this down years from now when I get published! It's interesting, though, to see what it's like once you're at that point in the road, and it's good to know what I have to look forward to!

R.M.Gilbert said...

Sally, thank you for taking the time to give us a peek at the business end of things. It sure shines a light on the complexity of being successful author.

Amy said...

What you said about looking at your writing from the business point of view is great advice.
I was struggling with this exact thing. I started getting back a few rejections from the queries I sent out, and I didn’t handle it like I thought I would.

I knew I would get rejections; I even made a special folder to store them in. It was just a different ballgame when they actually started rolling in. I guess it felt like a direct attack on the material, which did nothing for my confidence in my work.

So I just told myself, “Self. Those agents are way swamped. They don’t have time to read every query, so they have to form reject a few. Just remember, that rejection letter is not a direct attack on your work; it’s a reflection of the agent’s taste, client load, and whether or not they were hung over from drinking wine all night while reading great fulls.”

LOL, that’s what I tell myself anyway. I’d argue with anyone who told me differently, ha ha.

wry wryter said...

When I was 23 I too 'sold by accident' my first book; without an agent...I was without a clue.

I thought that moment was my brass ring, providing me unending rides, to a writers life.
Duh !

With my advance I purchased a used White Cadillac that drank more gas than an uncommitted member of AA and I bought a white German Shepherd dog that ate sticks and bit anything that moved, including me.
The car broke down, the dog was hit by a pick-up and died and I did not deliver. The book was never published but Thank God I did not have to pay the advance back.
Since then, I've been published many times,(not books.)
It has been many ass-kicking years years since my big screw-up.
Now, with one book done and another almost finished I am in query-for-an-agent-hell wondering if I should take up knitting.

Sally,thank you for your incite.

To all you young-uns out there heed her words, I just wish she was around when I went to buy my Caddy and Cojo.

Sally MacKenzie said...

Amy, tell yourself anything that gets you to keep writing. I pretty much don't read reviews any more because they mess with my head too much. Yes, we all need to develop a thick skin, but we also need to protect ourselves so we can keep creating.

Wry writer, I probably was around, pecking away at my electric typewriter as clueless as anyone--more clueless that most today as those were the years before the internet. I had a few "almost solds" when my kids were young and I was writing picture book texts--and then I quit writing for publication for about eight years when I was heavy into the carpool scene. I'm thinking very, very few, if any, writers have a smooth, straight path. As far as I can tell, there is no job security in this biz.

Amy Nichols said...


Thanks so much for the reminder. I'm trying to look at this as a business and start those "business habits" now with writing schedules and such.

Looking forward to reading about your Viscount.


Vatche said...

Really interesting post, Sally. It is good to know what to do and not to do when it comes to selling a book, especially for me (being only eighteen years old and needing all the hints I can get).

Thanks for all the helpful tips.

Write on!

Nicole MacDonald said...

It's great to read posts like these. Especially when you just got a no to your partial *sigh* But I will face it like business and the re-write will make it spectacular and I WILL get published.

blackwatertown said...

Good useful post. So much to think about beyond the writing, dammit.
I have finished book no.1. But I'm not sure whether to go with my next first idea, or to come up with something that follows on from the first book in sequence. decisions, decisions.