Friday, August 18, 2006

The (News)Paper Chase

I would like to do some freelance writing for the local paper back home here. I was wondering two things.
1) Should I have my article written before I query the editor? Or should I wait to see if they're interested?
2) How much do I charge for that?

1) I touched on this earlier in the week in one of the "comments" sections, but I thought I'd reiterate this here. Never, ever, EVER send in a completed story before you've received an assignment. Never. (Was that clear enough?) The only exceptions to this rule are essays and some travel pieces.

Why not? Wouldn't this save everyone some time? No. Here's why.

An editor is there for a reason. Part of his job is to choose which stories will work in his magazine (or paper) and why. Thus, when you send him a germ of an idea, it's only a germ. He's the one who gets to choose the angle, advise you how to write it, and assess how it can best blend into the rest of the magazine. If you've already written the whole piece, how on earth can he do this? Believe it or not, every magazine strives to differentiate itself from its competitors. You might think that SELF, SHAPE, FITNESS, WOMEN'S HEALTH, and HEALTH are interchangeable, but trust me, the editors at each magazine do not. (And as a writer for these mags, neither do I.) In fact, a story works for SELF might not work for FITNESS...I'm not talking about the story idea, I'm talking about the completed story. Yes, they're both going to cover weight loss, but SELF might do it by running a piece that features tips from real women, while WOMEN'S HEALTH might do it by featuring top experts in the field and breaking it up into body type. See where I'm going with this? Unless you've permeated your editor's brain, there's no way that you can know how they want a piece covered. Maybe they like your story idea but have recently covered a similar angle - they'll want to take that story idea and come up with something fresh. Or maybe the angle is working, but they'll want you to list which experts you'll interview before they give you the green light. Who knows? There are a million variations on these hypotheticals...the bottom line is that if you've already sent in the completed story, you're not giving the editor a chance to make the piece fit his particular niche. And he'll shoot you down faster than you can say, "Jack Bauer."

Finally, I should note that sending in a completed piece is a blatent sign of a newbie. Because it's so verboten, seasoned writers would simply never do it...and those who do wave their beginner flag all too clearly. So take my advice: draft a kick-ass query - detailed enough to grab the editor's attention, complete with why this story is right for him, why it needs to be told now, how you would tell it, and why you're the one to tell it, then send it off. That should impress him just fine.

2) Payment. You don't tell him how much you charge, he tells you how much he pays. Which doesn't mean that there isn't room for negotiation, only that the editor/paper/magazine sets the standard and you use this as a launching point. (There are some exceptions for this - start-ups might ask me how much I usually get paid, but again, they're the exception, and I'd never pitch a story and add in, "I expect $XX for this piece.") Newspapers don't pay that well - I'll be blunt. I don't write for them, but I'd guess that you'll get a couple hundred bucks for a story - max, somewhere in the ballpark of, say, 10-35 cents a word. But that's not the point for you right now. You want to build clips, as well as your portfolio, and local papers are a great way to start.

Anyone out there write for papers and want to share his or her general rates?

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Co-authoring Conundrums

I am working on a book with a famous beauty expert. We are only at the proposal stage (still doing some revisions)... We just got an agent (both have the same one), and I have not signed any sort of collaborative agreement yet. Was just wondering if you might know the answers to the following:
a) If I need to get a lawyer
b) How much an advance for a non-fiction book might be (any sort of ballpark number??)
c) As a "writer-for-hire" how much % should I consider asking for without looking like a idiot?

a) Do you need a lawyer? Hmmm, it's not a bad idea, but I guess it depends on what you want to use him for. If you want the lawyer to look over the collaboration agreement between you and your collaborator, then yes. I'd do it. But your agent will be the one who can look over the contract from the publisher, so you wouldn't need a lawyer for that. I guess it depends on how well you know your collaborator and how much you trust him. Even never hurts to have a lawyer look over the fine print and make sure that you're not getting screwed. You can never protect yourself enough. (I speak from personal experience here.)

b) The advance question is SO tough - and I'm really just guessing here. So take all of this with a grain of salt. Depending on the size and scope of your collaborator's platform, the advance could be anywhere from 10k to six-figures. It also depends on how many offers you get: this seems obvious, but if you're able to generate an auction, the $$ is obviously going to be bigger than if you can't.

I just did a quick search the deal section on Publishers Marketplace for books that would be similar to yours, and it looks like most of the deals are for less than 50k. But that doesn't mean that yours couldn't go for more, especially because of your job (note to readers: this email came in from a writer with a good platform, so that's what I'm to referring to here). I'm not sure what the average non-fiction advance is, but the average fiction advance is very small - around four figures small, and certainly no bigger than 10k. But because you guys have a platform, you'll probably get more...I certainly did for my novel and this was in no small part thanks to my platform and the auction.

But you just can't count on it, you know? When I was younger (and stupid), I agreed to collaborate on a book (more about this below), because the agent promised me that it would sell for at least 75k. Ha! Looking back on it today and now that I'm better versed in what is and isn't industry standard, she had no idea what she was talking about. (More on that below!) Not only did the book NOT get 75k, it never even sold!! So...I'm just wary about shooting off numbers, and any decent agent would be too.

c) Ok, the terms of the contract are where I REALLY went askew in my collaboration agreement. The above agent strong-armed me into a 60-40 advance agreement (with me getting 40%), and NO royalties. I argued with her, but she wouldn't budge, and I didn't know any better. I rationalized that doing the book was more important than the money. Now, in your case, it sounds like your collaborator is bringing a lot to the table, in terms of name recognition, but in my case, this was simply an unknown (more or less) M.D., and in retrospect, I was the one bringing all of my contacts and my platform to the table. After doing some research in the past few years, I probably should have gotten 75-100% of the advance and then some portion - up to 50% - of the royalties. Yep, I know that sounds like a lot, but most of the other writers I know who have co-authored books with (unknown) experts have gotten something around that...not least because the bulk of the work of writing the book falls on the writer. Now, in your case, you both have a lot to offer, so I wouldn't settle for less than 50% of the advance and 50% of the royalties. I'd think that you wouldn't feel short-changed with this agreement.

Two other quick thoughts: You can also specify that you won't write the book for less than a certain amount: if, say, you expect the advance to be 75k, and the offers dribble in at about 20k, you're not tied to a lot of work for not a lot of money. OR, and many writers do this as well, you can insist that you're paid for writing the proposal, regardless of if it sells. I can't tell you how much I regret not doing this in the aforementioned situation. I simply didn't know any better, but it's actually pretty standard. After all, why should you work for free?

Has anyone out there co-authored a book? Want to weigh in on your contract terms or have any other advice for this writer?

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Who, What, Where, When and Why, Or...How the Hell Does a Book Get Sold Anyway?

Everyone says that getting your book published is nearly impossible, but I'm curious why. Once you have an agent, shouldn't this be an easy process? Don't they just have to find an editor who likes it too?

Ha! Excuse me while my husband breaks out the defibrillators because I just nearly died laughing.

***insert zapping sounds here****

Okay, now that I've fully (or nearly) recovered, let me explain how the process works, taking you from pitch to (hopefully) sale. Sure, to answer your first question: having an agent helps. No doubt. Without an agent, you're swimming upstream and likely to drown. With an agent, you're lucky enough to be in a boat, but you're still heading upstream, and who knows if your boat has paddles. Which is to say, that representation aside, selling your book is still damn hard. Here's why.

Once your agent deems the ms ready to go out, she (or he) compiles a list of editors whom she suspects will adore your book. She calls them and pitches the book. Some of these editors might not adore your book at the very sound of the premise and will decline the ms, but most - if your agent has done her homework - will say, "send it on over. I wait with baited breath." So she sends it on over within the next few days.

From there, you'll wait anywhere from several days to several months for feedback. The rate at which you hear answers largely depends on a) how well your agent pitched the book (i.e, if they're frothing at the mouth, they'll most likely read it asap) and b) how much other interest is generated and how quickly that comes in. For example: when we sold TDLF (The Department of Lost and Found, my novel, for newbies), we were lucky enough to have a few editors request a sneak peek over the Christmas holidays, and when everyone returned to their desks on January 3, we already had really positive feedback. You can bet your butt that my agent was then on the phone letting all of the other editors know this...which meant that everyone else read within a week.

Regardless of when your ms gets read, if the initial editor likes it, that's just the first step. Getting published is not unlike a hurdle race: you have to jump over a hell of a lot of them before you reach the finish line. From there, this editor sends it to 2-4 (on average) "second reads:" other editors at her imprint who have to agree with her enthusiasm in order for the book to move on. Additionally, if this editor is a hardcover editor, she needs to get the paperback editor to adore the book as well. (Though the paperback editor might also be one of the second readers.) of now, we have anywhere from say, 3-5 people who all have to greet your book with unbridled passion. Don't believe me? Here's an example: we got a very positive first read from an editor at a huge imprint at a huge house. From the get-go, both my agent and I thought she'd be perfect. Her second reader agreed. Her third reader agree. Her fourth reader, "liked it, but found it a little depressing." Guess what? Ding! The buck stopped there. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.

Okay, but assuming all of the second reads fawn and flutter over your ms, what happens next? An offer, right? Nope. From there, the ms or concept (as well as your platform - remember, we discussed this last week?) is run by marketing, who assess how likely your book is to actually sell and if it will sell, how well it will sell. If you've written about a lesbian Eskimo who decides to venture to the mainland and have a sex change, and marketing decides that no one wants to read the saga of a lesbian Eskimo who decides to venture to the mainland and have a sex change, then...ding! After all, money talks in this industry. (You might not actually know that they've dinged you immediately, however, because - and I'm not 100% clear on this - I believe that the marketing team presents their opinions at...the all important acquisition meeting, which we're moving on to below.), we're up to what? At least half a dozen folks who have to be smitten with the book. See how this gets tricky? And now, we're into the all important acquisition meeting. You've cleared all the aforementioned hurdles, and this is where the original editor lobbies to buy the book. Should be a breeze, right? Ah, not so much. See, publishers only buy so many books and they only have so much money to spend, so they literally go in front of their peers and argue why the imprint must. have. this. book. now. If this editor is armed with strong second reads and positive marketing feedback, she'll likely get the green light. But not always. Again, real life example. A few days before my offer deadline (the day that my agent had set for all offers to be on the table), one editor insisted on calling me to "woo me" to her imprint. She was rabid for the book. Her second readers backed her up. Marketing was on board. Slam dunk. My agent was hesitant - normally, you don't speak with editors until they've decided to definitely offer - but this editor's enthusiasm spoke for itself, so my agent passed her my number. The convo went swimmingly. I was elated - this imprint would be my new home! I was sure of it.

Guess what? Said editor (for whom I harbor no ill-will - this really wasn't her fault!) got into the acquisition meeting and couldn't get her boss - the head of the imprint - to sign off. He "didn't want to publish a book about cancer." Ding!

The good news is that if your editor can push your book through the acquisition meeting, you'll get a call or email from your editor with a formal offer. And there's nothing sweeter.

Whew! I'm exhausted just posting about this whole process. You can see how tough it is, and why, in my opinion, most books that get published really do deserve some respect - it's not an easy road to navigate. (Which doesn't explain your next question: how does so much crap slip through the cracks? I dunno. But there must be a market for it, so maybe some editors buy crap because they know that crap sells.) Frankly, it's hard to imagine, given the diligence of this process, that anyone gets published at all! I mean, what are the chances that everyone at a given imprint is going to love your book? Slim, right? Right.

How TDLF got four offers is beyond me. Truly. I mean, I love, love, love my book, but really, I feel very fortunate. One offer is a blessing. Anything beyond that - which means that your agent gets to conduct an auction - is a miracle. I'm not even kidding. Up there with the parting of the red seas.

I didn't write all of this to intimidate you guys or daunt you! Only to inform. It can be done. Just walk into Barnes and Noble if you don't believe me: all of those authors went through similar processes (though, I'm sure, there's some variance from house to house and book to book, etc...I'm not claiming that what I wrote here is set in stone, just a general idea), and hey, they came out on the other side. You can too.

Did I scare you off? Or was this educational? It's good for me to know for future posts!

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

I Want My FOBs

Could you talk about FOB pitches and how you approach those? Samples (if not too much?)
Sure thing. I don't pitch FOBs that often anymore - really just because I don't have the time - but as I mentioned in a previous post, I used to tackle them all the time, and not only are they a great way to break into a new market, they're a great way to prove to a new-to-you editor that you're the real deal.

(Sidenote for newcomers to the blog: FOB stands for front-of-book, and an FOB is one of those shorter stories/blurbs that you'll read in the literal front of the magazine. Thus, the name.)

In the past, I often used new research, studies or books to develop FOB ideas. Since I cover health and lifestyle (and everything that falls underneath those vast umbrellas), I'd troll websites such as newswise, medlineplus, and intelihealth for the latest research. When I'd hit a study that I thought could be spun into a short piece, I'd whip up a fun little blurb and send it into a targeted editor. I'd usually aim to send about 4-5 at a time, knowing that most likely, 1-2 would hit. Another good place to look for ideas is the "upcoming release" section of Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Keeping in mind that most major mags work about six months out, I could often find future books (and their authors) that could be profiled in 200 word FOBs.

Here are a few examples that I sent in a few years ago. I really don't save the published FOBs, so I can't remember which of these made the cut, but regardless, you'll get a good idea of how to write them up and grab an editor's attention.

1. If you can't pass on the ice cream, try the gym. The American Physiological Association reports that after exercise, athletes would rather indulge in salty, not sweet, treats, and that their perception of the sweetness of an item had diminished. You'll reap two benefits: one, you've burned calories and two, the Ben and Jerry's might not be as tempting!

2. Researchers state that volunteering or giving to charity is a great way to reduce stress and improve your happiness. Yet while many of us think it's a great idea in theory, few of us put it into practice. How about, just in time for the holidays, tips on becoming more involved in charity and websites where people can donate to their favorite organizations. (There are some great ones out there that list thousands of charities; you only have to enter a credit card number.) Both December and January are great times to get into the giving spirit and start the year off right.

3. Fast Food Nation: too good to be true? This week, McDonalds announced plans to launch a healthy happy meal, and KFC and other joints have already implemented supposedly "lite" items on their menus. But are they for real? I was shocked to read that the "low-fat" blueberry muffin at Dunkin' Donuts actually has 15 grams of fat. Sheesh, that's hardly good for me! So which items to experts give the thumbs up to, and which are only clever marketing tools? This could be done in the form of a chart.

4. Social Drinking isn't Fun After All: At least not for your brain. Vanderbilt University researchers report that heavy social drinkers, those who consume more than 100 drinks a month, 80 for women, (which given portion size at some bars, may not be that hard and can be deceiving), show the same brain impairments as alcoholics. Only because they're not drinking "heavily," they don't recognize the symptoms. I'd speak with the researchers and get their tips on curbing alcohol intake and recognizing signs of impairment and problems.

Thickening Your Skin

Just a quick follow-up to yesterday's post. Larramie asked, "How do you let the "nos," not bother you?," and I think she got some great answers in the comments section.

I just wanted to add my own two cents. I do believe that certain people are born with thicker skin than others (or develop it as they grow up). In fact, studies have shown that some people are inherently more resilient than others - recovering more quickly from illnesses and events that might leave them grief-stricken. So, for starters, I really think that some of us - perhaps armed with false confidence or I don't know what - simply let rejection roll of our backs easier than others. This isn't better or worse than any other personality trait; it's simply a fact of life. The exact same agent rejection will quickly be forgotten by one writer and internalized for days by another. No real explaining it other than genetic make-up or upbringing.

But if you're not naturally one of those people, I do think, as MTV reiterates in the comments section, that repeating the phrase, "it's just business," can help. Because at the end of the day (or the beginning or the middle), that's all it is. And editor (or agent) isn't rejecting YOU; she's saying, "this idea or this story or this book doesn't work for me." She's not saying that your writing sucks or that you'll never amount to anything or whatever all of those other voices in your head are telling you. She's saying, "hey, for my business, this doesn't cut it." Interestingly enough, I once interviewed a Ph.D. who told me that women are much more likely to personalize business dealings compared to men. And, I mean, isn't that so easy to believe? My husband would never come home from a shitty day at the office and say, "A deal blew up today, and it was clearly because the CEO didn't like me." No, he'd say, "A deal blew up today," and then proceed to list all of the reasons why - that he knew of - that it had. And trust me, none of them would be about him.

Think about this the next time you get rejected. There are a MILLION reasons why a magazine editor, for example, will turn down an idea. Here are some: they recently ran something similar, a competitor recently ran something similar, it doesn't fit their demographic, they've already filled the issue for which you're pitching, another writer has already been assigned the story, she's having a crappy day, her boyfriend just left her, her boss just chewed her out, she never got your email, the study you're basing the idea on has been disproven, her shoes hurt, her mother is driving her crazy...who the hell knows? I could go on for days.

The point is that rejection is almost never about you. And even if it IS about you, you'll probably never know. So why not chalk it up to any of the above reasons and enjoy your day instead?

Monday, August 14, 2006

How YOU Doin'?

Okay, 'fess up: now's the time to detail your progress in the writing/fiction challenge. I'll start. I'm happy to report that I added about 5k words to my WIP since Tuesday. I definitely wouldn't have added anything if not for the challenge, so I'm really pleased with how things are ticking along. Even better, I've started to think about my characters and plot outside of my office, which means that things will really start kicking into gear for me. There's nothing like being at the gym or walking down the street and suddenly realizing exactly what you want to write next.

So, as Joey Tribbiani would say, "how you doin'?"

Taking the Plunge

I totally feel you on the soul sucking office - the bleak beige cubicle make me want to run the other way, but here i am sitting in one, writing you! So here's my question how did you transition from the office to writing full time? Can you talk about how, when, and why you started your career? For me that transition is the most daunting part.

I totally understand: leaving the security of a regular salary and health insurance for a career in which there are no guarantees of success sounds inane. When put that way, why would anyone take the leap? Well, I don't have any better answer other than to say that I've found enormous satisfaction in what I do...but I also recognize that I'm tremendously lucky in the level of success that I've achieved. As I've mentioned before, for every writer in my position, there are plenty of those with similar talent (or whatever word you want to use to describe what I do) who just aren't as successful. did I get here? I'm not sure that my story will be entirely helpful to tell, but I'll tell it anyway. I never intended to be a full-time writer. There, I said it. Not that I wouldn't have LOVED to be a full-time writer - there's a difference - I just never imagined how someone actually made a living at it. I'd always written for high school and college papers, had teachers and professors encourage me to keep at it, etc, etc, etc, but for a seemed too ridiculously hard. I mean, seriously? People paying you to write? Ha! As if. In fact, at one point during my senior year in college, a few people suggested that I should pursue it (back when we were brushing off our finest suits and interviewing for jobs that would eventually bore us all to tears), and to this day, I remember thinking, "What an esoteric and unfeasible dream."

So, what I did instead, was act. :) I'm not kidding! You know, because breaking into the acting world is sooooo much easier than breaking into the writing world. Hee. Actually, first, immediately after graduating from college, I worked in PR. Hated it. Hated every freakin' second of it. That was probably because I spent most of my time stuffing gift bags and calling editors to push products that I thought sucked ass, but still, I hated it. I'd always loved to act and done a lot of it all my quit my job (insert heart attack from parents), and hit the boards of NYC. I temped to pay the bills (and, after my parents recovered from their disappointment - I mean, they wanted me to be a banker at Goldman Sachs, not a secretary at Goldman Sachs, they generously offered to be of some financial help), and I eventually found some success in theater and commercials (hello, SAG card!). I'd made my way to Los Angeles and was busy draining my brain out there, when a college friend called and asked for some help launching a website. Maybe I was just fried from the LA sunshine or maybe I just needed to reverse the mental atrophy that had set in, but either way, I packed my bags and moved back to New York to help found and run the site. (This was during the internet boom.)

I wrote all of the web copy and press releases/kits for the site, as well as many of the articles that we had in the on-line magazine, and we got a lot of coverage in numerous national magazines (Self, InStyle, People, etc), so as it happened, a lot of our partners on the site approached me to write their web copy and press releases. So when the site was sold, I'd already built up a list of clients...and never really considered returning to the 9-5 grind. From there, I was fortunate to be hired at Rubenstein PR - a huge PR firm here in NYC - as their lead consumer writer and celeb ghostwriter, but on a freelance basis. So I had a built-in salary from Rubenstein (they paid me for three full days of work per week), plus my outside clients. (And this time, all I was doing was writing, which was 1000000000 times better than my first PR job.)

Ok, so, at the same time, my then-boyfriend finally came to his senses and proposed. I took this opportunity to begin to pitch bridal magazines and sites. I knew that I didn't want to write web copy/press releases forever, so I fired off some story ideas based on what I was going through with my wedding planning. As luck - and I do mean luck - would have it, The Knot was looking for a writer with ghostwriting experience to pen their second book, The Knot Book of Wedding Flowers. They liked my style, so had me draft a few chapters, and then they hired me. To write a freakin' book! I almost died.

The pay was crap and the situation itself turned out to be less than ideal (for long and varied reasons), but with that credit under my belt, I was taken a lot more seriously at the national mags. I landed my first feature at Bride's almost immediately, and from there, worked my way up to where I am now.

See...I told you that my story wouldn't necessarily help because there wasn't an exact moment when I took the leap. However, I still think that there are a few things to be gleaned. 1) I wouldn't leave your day job unless you had a plan - both financial and career - for the future. 2) To this end, I'd attempt to gather a few clips (or clients) before telling your boss to kiss your ass. This ensures that you'll at least have a little work (and some clout when pitching new places) and you won't be sitting on your couch for the next nine months wondering what the hell you were smoking. 3) There's probably never an ideal time to take this type of leap. At a certain point, you just have to jump. 4) Certain personalities thrive in the freelance world; certain do not. I say this not condescendingly; I say it from experience. I belong to a large writers group, and inevitably, the writers - talented as they may be - who deal poorly with rejection, with the ebbs and flows of the marketplace, with self-motivation, and with personalizing business when it's just business, are miserable...and don't succeed. Think about who you are before you hand in your resignation. If rejection bothers you, this isn't the route for you. I can't emphasize that enough. You will get 100 "nos" (at least) for every "yes" you get. That's a lot of "nos"...and each one can eat away at your self-esteem if you allow it to. By the time you've gotten 20 "nos," you're wondering what on earth made you ever think that you'd be successful at this - and you still have a lot more "nos" to go before you hit a "yes." I'm not trying to be grim: I'm being honest. If this is you, there's no shame in it. Not at all. I'd just suggest finding a way to work your love of writing into other aspects of your life, rather than ditching a safer path for something that will likely make you miserable (and chip away at your confidence).

All of that said, I count my blessings every day. And if you're the type of gal (or guy) who lets those nos roll right off of her back and then keeps chugging away, by all means...come join me!

So...who else is thinking of taking the leap? And how did others get their starts?