Saturday, June 29, 2013

Do You Need an Agent?

Do you need an agent? The answer could be both yes, and no. Today, with a lot of writers heading into self-publishing, over half the books published go to market without an agent’s help. Even if you work with a traditional publishing house, you can place your book without an agent.

While it’s true that every writer gains some prestige by having an agent, having one doesn’t make you any better a writer. If you don’t produce quality writing, having an agent won’t help you. Agents save editors time and money. Editors know that agents, if they’re competent, weed out the bad material, so basically an agent vets the material for the editor, so whatever an agent sends in is usually given preference in being read earlier than material that comes in “cold." But in no way does it guarantee that the work will get published.

A good agent knows which publishing houses are in the market for what sort of book or project. He or she knows which publisher will release which rights and what the probable bottom line on other negotiations will be. And agents like to deal with certain editors.

A good agent should also be a good friend who can also be objective. He or she will be part salesman, part lawyer, part literary critic, and part father/mother-confessor.  Agents get calls from writers who can't pay their bills, from writers who are drunk or who have been arrested for one thing or another, and from writers who just want to hear a reassuring voice.

Of course, once you place your book or book proposal in an agent’s hands, you may hear nothing for a long time. Busy agents are in constant touch with those who buy ideas, books, movies, scripts for TV miniseries, book excerpts, and subsidiary rights, as well as with their clients. And remember, you won’t be the agent’s only client.

What agents are good for is negotiating through the maze of book contracts and subsidiary rights, both foreign and domestic. These include sales to book clubs, special sales, film and T.V. options, syndication and reprint rights, and so on. Depending on the arrangement you make, your agent may handle all of your works, only your books, or only certain kinds of books. Some agents will tell you at the beginning what they’ll handle and what they won't. If they don't, ask.

You may want to give an agent only certain kinds of writing and sell the rest yourself. Some writers feel the advantage of a large literary agency lies in the specialists who negotiate film or T.V. rights which can be lucrative. But most good agents who have been in the business any length of time will have some sort of representation in this highly specialized area. It's rare  these days for agents to handle magazine articles or short stories. If they do, it’s usually because you’ve made money for them through your books and have gained some notoriety.

Agents also help negotiate solutions to conflicts between you and your publisher. They push for timely payment of advances and royalties. They keep accurate records of your sales. Some agents are also lawyers, or have lawyers in their company, and can review alleged abuses by a publisher, alert a writer to possible problems stemming from something he is about to publish, and act as a knowledgeable go-between for the writer. Some agents act as middleman by finding the right author to write a book on an idea an editor or publisher has.

Should you attempt to publish your book with a traditional book publisher? Even if you manage to get an editor’s okay, you may want to consider getting an agent to handle the contract. Book contracts can be sticky business. In fact, some publishers have been known to send outrageous contracts to beginning writers, who don’t know any better. Book contracts can be 30 pages or more with lots of fine print—important fine print that if not read correctly and dealt with could end up costing you a lot of money in lost subsidiary rights and even fees. A good example is requiring you to create an index for a non-fiction book—something you’ll end up paying for out of your advance.

And while it’s possible to sell a book on your own, you may end up spending a large part of your time doing so—time you could have spent actually writing. It’s for this reason that an agent’s 10 percent is often worth it.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Is Writing a Pastime or a Business?

For many writers, perhaps yourself, writing starts off as a pastime. People dabble in it as much as in photography, cooking, painting, and sculpture. It’s funny, but they don’t seem to dabble in medicine or law or engineering. Do you ever wonder why that is?

For the latter subject fields, you need extensive education. But for the former ones, albeit those centered in the arts, you need little or none. In many cases, writing, photography, painting, and sculpture, and even music come naturally. This is where talent enters the picture. But it takes a lot more than talent to earn a living in any of the arts.

Because the arts come easily to so many people, society considers them pastimes. Doctors, who study for years to practice medicine, think nothing of dabbling in writing or photography, for instance, when they retire. They see it as fun. And they’ll be the first to laud over you the many years and tons of money it cost for them to go into practice.

And there’s the other rub. Except for extreme cases, it doesn’t take much money to get started in the arts. Look at writing. All you need is a pen and paper—or in today’s world, a laptop computer or tablet. The rest comes out of your head. If you have any talent for writing at all, you’re on our way.

So then what’s the difference between a writer who dabbles in it on nights and weekends and one who puts his or her heart and soul into it every day? Nothing really—at least on the surface. But underneath, the writer who works at writing every day has a different mindset.

Too many writers view writing as a divine pastime that shouldn’t be tainted by money. Not so long ago, society considered non-fiction writers as hacks because they got paid for their work. It accepted the idea of them working as journalists, but doing it on their own was folly. Fiction writers, on the other hand, rested high on a pedestal, put there by generations of students whose English and literature teachers instilled in them the lofty attainments of the greatest writers of all time—all, by the way, writers of fiction.

Times have changed thanks to writers like Truman Capote and John Updike, to name just two. Both experimented in crossing the border between fiction and non-fiction, thus graying the line.

Writing is hard work, even if you’re just dabbling in it. But if you’re serious, then it’s time to move up to a higher plane. It’s time to make all that hard work pay off.

Because it’s so easy to get started writing, many beginning writers think they can catapult to the top overnight. Some lucky ones have done just that. But of the thousands of writers out there, only a handful have done this. The rest have had to work long hours to get their pieces recognized and published.

If you want to work towards writing full-time, then you have to start slow, in your spare time. But keep that goal of getting paid for what you write in the forefront of your mind. In fact, make a sign and pin it up over your computer reminding yourself that your intent is to get paid. You might even want to do what many small business owners do—they frame their first dollar.

Friday, June 14, 2013

One Plus One Doesn’t Always Equal Two

At some point in your writing career, you may have entertained the thought of collaborating with someone on a book or other writing project. Collaboration can take two forms—working with  another writer or working with someone who’s an expert in a particular subject area.

Writers, agents, and editors all feel strongly one way or the other about collaboration, depending on whether their own experiences with collaborators have been positive or negative.  Rule Number One: Consider what may lie ahead before you get involved.

If you collaborate with a friend, you can ruin your friendship. Or it can be the stimulating experience that keeps both of you working at top form. Looking at collaboration from a strictly business point of view, there are advantages—pooling resources, contacts, and efforts. However, you’ll also need to share the proceeds whether they’re good or bad. 

Before starting work on a collaboration project, draw up a contract specifying who will do what kind of work, how moneys are to be divided, and so on. You’ll both need to think out this agreement thoroughly. After all, it will be a legally binding agreement. If it’s for the long term, you should discuss it with your accountant, lawyer, or agent to help iron out any negative parts prior to signing. Be sure to include a buy-out or phase-out clause in case you or your partner have a change of heart.

A collaborative writing effort means two people agree before-hand what kind of contribution each will make to a given work. The problems aren't the same as those involved in ghostwriting for a non-writer—a scientist, a doctor, or any other professional—who wants to have his or her thoughts or discoveries published. But problems will crop up, even though the neither of you has have no inherent disagreement. Each is bound to react differently, for instance, to what an agent or editor or publisher says about a book, for instance—how it looks, what sort of publicity it gets, and so forth.

In most cases, a writer works individually on a piece, thus deciding what should or shouldn’t be included. In a collaboration, each partner will want his or her own say. And each will have more expertise in one job or another.

One, for example, may be better at research and writing the first draft while the other is better at editing, asking for clarification or amplification where needed, making suggestions, cleaning up the language. With two pairs of eyes looking over the manuscript, it should be in much better shape when you finally send it off to a publisher than if just one of you worked on it.

In this type of working arrangement, the second partner, the one not involved with writing the text first, approaches the manuscript cold, and will see and comprehend it as a reader would. If parts are confusing or there are voids, this partner will find them. Also, working with someone else, especially another writer, will force you and your partner to work to higher standards.

A different set of problems may arise when working with an expert in a given field. While the expert may know his or her subject matter, they may not be able to relay it clearly to the reader. As a writer, you’ll be in the best position to accomplish this. However, the expert partner may think they know how to write, based on the academic writing they learned in school. This can and often does create conflicts in writing style. Let’s face it, the style of writing you work with as a professional writer is often very different than what’s used by academics. You won’t be producing a thesis, but your partner may approach the project as if you are.

Before you make any final decision about collaborating, be certain you've evaluated your own most important needs. If your analysis shows that two heads are better than one, go for it. But if your intuition tells you that you may run into more problems than collaboration is worth, back off.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Going on a Writing Retreat

In today’s busy world, it’s often hard to focus on your writing. Distractions attack you from every angle—T.V.’s blaring, Internet flashing, cell phones ringing, kids screaming, spouse calling, and who knows what else. If you’re having a tough time getting any writing done, perhaps it’s time to take a break, not from writing but to writing. Perhaps it’s time for you to go on a writing retreat.

Retreats have long been used by religions to help their followers focus on their teachings and the spiritual side of their lives. Basically, to go on a retreat means to withdraw to a quiet and secluded place—away from the stress of everyday life, away from work, away from family.

Writing is difficult enough without all the distractions. And getting away from it all may just help you jump start that new novel, that short story you’ve been meaning to write, or that article that’s been nagging you to be written.

A writing retreat doesn’t have to be a big expensive affair. One writer gets together with other writer-friends of hers once a year at a one of their houses for a week of writing, eating, and sharing. They write during the day in separate areas of the house, taking a break only for lunch. In the evenings, they cook dinner together, talk about their writing, and what’s new in their lives. It’s all done in a relaxing atmosphere that results in stress reduction and more writing being done.

But the key in the above retreat is that the writer gathered with other writer-friends of hers. They all know each other and can help each other by sharing ideas and solving problems. However, in official, commercial writing retreats you’ll find by searching the Internet, you’ll be among writers you don’t know. As often as not, some of them will be very opinionated and want to impress the others about how good they are. This, in itself, creates stress, the very thing you’re trying to get away from.

Some commercial retreats offer a bare bones approach, offering a sparsely furnished room with shared bath and kitchen facilities. Others provide meals and a more luxurious atmosphere. Some require a minimum stay of two weeks. It all depends on how much you time and money you can afford to spend. But do you really need all that?

Most working writers—that is writers working 9-5 jobs—getting away for two weeks takes up all their vacation time. And if you have a family, getting away by yourself for two weeks is all but an impossibility. For most, getting away for two or three days, say over a weekend, is just the ticket. The advantage of shorter retreats is that you can do them more often.

To create your own retreat, find a vacation house, either one to rent or one belonging to a friend, that’s vacant for the time you need. The optimum word here is “vacation.” In order to keep costs down, rent it during the off season. A house at the beach is a great place for writing, especially before it gets to cold to take walks along the surf. Perhaps you can share the cost with another writer or two that you know. The same goes for a mountain cabin.

Another solution is to book a cheap hotel room with a mini fridge and perhaps a microwave. All you need is a desk and a power outlet. You can go out for dinner or get take out. Again, book in the off season. Many include breakfast. A bed and breakfast is another option. However, while these have charm and quiet, they’re usually more expensive than a hotel.

Don’t think that you have to work all the time while on your retreat. Sleep in once in a while or take an afternoon nap or a walk. Try not to work for more than two hours at a stretch. Refueling your body and mind will help your writing and make you more productive.

If you live alone and can’t get away, create a stay-at-home retreat. Plan to work at your writing throughout the day, perhaps in one-hour stints. Between each hour do something else—go for a walk, have lunch at a local diner or café, play with your dog. When you sit back down to write, you’ll find you’re refreshed and ready to continue.

If you can, vary your writing locations. If you have a laptop or tablet, you’ll be able to write just about anywhere. If the weather cooperates, take yourself outdoors and write on the patio or balcony. Take your laptop to a fast-food restaurant or doughnut shop and work while sipping some coffee or iced tea. Some places even have outdoor seating for warmer weather.

Above all, plan your home retreat ahead of time so that you won’t be distracted by sudden phone calls or other duties. And don’t forget to turn off your cell phone. If you’re not used to writing full time, then a retreat will show you how your routine needs to change should you ever wish to quit your job and become a freelance writer.