Friday, July 29, 2011

Staying Afloat in Today’s Market

With the economy the way it is today, it’s become harder and harder for freelancers, like myself, to stay afloat. The age-old doggie paddle just won’t work anymore. Sure, by kicking your feet you’ll keep your head above water, but little else.

So what can you do to make sure the Big Bad Wolf doesn’t come knocking at your door. The answer is diversify. Regular businesses learned this long ago, so it’s time that you as a writer learn it, too.

Before you cut the cord to a full-time job and seek work as a freelancer, you need to figure out what kind of financial base you have from which to operate your freelance business. Yes, that’s right, I said “business.” Every business has some sort of backup plan for tough times, and you should, too.  Thoroughly do your homework so that you’ll have the confidence to know about the writing markets before you begin.

I started out slowly, writing on Sunday afternoons. Then as I got better and got some assignments, I worked at night after teaching school all day. Soon I was writing as much as I was teaching. But I really didn’t do enough research, so when I did quit teaching, I didn’t have much to fall back on.

I decided that if I was going to do this, I would see work in areas that used the knowledge I had gained from the subjects I wrote about. I began teaching continuing education classes about travel destinations—I was an aspiring travel writer—at a local community college. This led to teaching writing classes. After all, I was both a writer and a good teacher, so why not combine the two.
But I still wasn’t making enough.

I sought out a part-time  job at a travel agency since I did know a lot about travel and world destinations. That gave me a regular paycheck with enough time to continue writing. Eventually, I got a full-time job at a better agency while still writing. But that put me back in the same position I was in as a school teacher with one exception. I had learned a lot about the travel industry working in these agencies and this gave me the knowledge and experience to write for travel trade magazines. Once I started doing that, the assignments kept coming in. By the time I had moved to a third agency, I knew I was in a rut. So one day I quit.

But now I had travel trade assignments and articles published weekly in five local newspapers. Plus I was teaching more continuing education classes in the evenings which left my days free to fulfill my assignments. I was on my way to freelance success.

Today, my company, Bob Brooke Communications, encompasses several different areas. Besides writing articles and books, I also have a fairly packed continuing education course schedule. My interest in photography led me to learn as much as I could about digital photography and now I teach that at several locations several times a year. I have also developed a modest lecture circuit which pays well for the time involved. To get material for lectures, I use the information I gather for articles on various subjects and combined with my photography, turn them into lectures.
But to fill in the voids left when writing markets go astray, I began designing Web sites, mostly for small businesses. I began with my own site, then developed three more informational sites. I’ve designed over 25 sites to date. These I do occasionally, but the pay is good enough to tide me over.

So if you have to seek out other work, make sure it’s related to what you write or that you can learn information that will be useful in your writing. My continuing education courses and lectures are all based on what I write. My technical expertise, which I developed solving my own computer problems and designing my own site over the years, has helped me tremendously in my web design work.

Remember, don’t work at anything that will take away from your writing. Work only at jobs that complement it–if you have to seek outside work at all.

Friday, July 22, 2011

So You Want to be a Writer

Over the years, many people, especially my students in my Creative Writing classes, ask me the age-old question, “How do I become a writer?” Writers aren’t born, they’re made—by the writers, themselves.

Since writers work with words, they have to love them. And the key to loving words is reading. It’s surprising just how many writers, when asked, don’t read very much. What they don’t realize is that by reading as much as possible, especially the kind of writing they wish to do, they absorb words and phrases that later on may appear in their own writing. Writers learn by example.

Unfortunately, students aren’t taught that in school. Instead, they’re led to believe that all they have to do is sit down at a computer and the words will just flow out into their fingers as they type. The human brain needs to be fed information just like a computer. That information may come as facts, experiences, or observations. All give the budding writer the resources to create.

The second thing to consider as a writer is what to write—fiction or non-fiction. Some people only consider fiction writers true writers because they’re the only kind of writers they hear about. They read Web pages, magazines, and perhaps a newspaper–if they can find one—every day but don’t consider where the articles come from.  Each type of writing has its merits. Some writers work in both areas.

What about education? Believe it or not, a writer doesn’t need to study “writing” to write. In fact, that may be a deterrent. Outside of school, writers write in a conversational style which is as far from academic or school writing–reports, term papers, and theses—as they can get. What a writer needs is information and that comes from a variety of courses. The more a writer knows, the better prepared he or she will be to write.

A lot of people say to be a good writer you have to have talent. Talent is such an elusive thing. A talented writer is one who can get organized and write faster—a person who is brimming with ideas. But with perseverance anyone can become a writer. The key is not so much talent as having something to say and the ability to say it well.

Every writer dreams of the big successes of famous authors. But only a very few make it to this level. And it’s not because they aren’t good writers. In this business, it’s often who you know, not what you know or write. Believe it or not, luck often plays a big part in a writer’s success. Being at the right place at the right time may land a writer a juicy article or book. And knowing more about a subject than the next writer definitely helps, even in writing novels.

Taking all of the above into consideration, the most important thing a writer needs is discipline. Good writers don’t just write when the spirit strikes them. As long as they have a good topic and something to say, they can write any time. They communicate with their readers. They make those readers feel as if they’re writing only to them.

There are no secrets to becoming a writer. It just takes lots and lots of hard work to make the grade.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Just How Much Can You Make on Book Royalties?

Many of you writing wannabees on the outside of publishing most likely entertain the idea that all authors get rich, based on the handsome advances and royalties paid to some of the top stars. Unfortunately, that is far from the truth. In fact, the average percentage of royalties hasn’t changed since before the 1980s! Can you think of anyone whose salary hasn’t gone up at least a little in all that time. Even those earning minimum wage get a hike every once in a while.

So what is this elusive thing called a royalty? Essentially, a royalty is a sum paid for the use of a patent or to an author or composer for each copy of a work sold or for each public performance. Sounds easy enough, but it’s far from it.

First, royalties are basically a percentage of the retail price of books actually sold by the publisher. And in today’s market where booksellers can return unsold books for a refund, the amount a writer actually gets can be quite puny. Currently, the author of an adult hardcover book can expect to receive a 10-12.5 percent royalty for the first 5,000-10,000 copies sold. Big name authors might receive 15 percent based on increased sales volume. If you're negotiating a deal for a paperback, you’ll most likely receive 5-10 percent, with 10 percent more common.

Traditionally, publishers computed royalty rates and the author's earnings from the list price of all copies sold. Thus, if they sold 2,500 copies of a book listed at $15, the author's royalty earnings would be $3,750.  However, some publishers sell books at less than list price through chains of bookstores, supermarkets, and other outlets. As a result, they compute royalties on net proceeds from book sales rather than the number of copies sold. Then again, the larger volume of wholesale sales may compensate for a smaller per copy earning.

Try this. Compute what you would earn if your publisher paid you a royalty based on the list price of your book. Compare that to your royalty earnings the net amount many publishers today use. Then decide if it’s worth negotiating for a higher royalty rate or a higher advance.

Publishers usually pay authors advances against future royalties. How do you figure how much money you might earn from your book? For this you need to study the market for it, rather than take out your calculator. If the subject of your book is a hot one and potentially lots of readers will buy it, then you should negotiate a higher royalty percentage against future sales. However, if the subject is one that may not attract lots of readers, then you should negotiate for a higher advance.

An advance is an up-front payment against which royalties are set. If you fulfill your part of the contact—that is write the book as ordered—then you don’t have to refund it. If your book sells poorly, you’re ahead. And if your book sells well, you ahead based on the amount you’ll get in royalties after you have earned enough to make up the advance. Most beginning authors get three or four-figure advances. So don’t think you’ve hit the big time just because a publisher says her or she will publish your book.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Greatest Adventure of My Life

It’s been a while since I posted anything to this blog. That wasn’t because I didn’t have anything to post but that I was in no condition to post anything. Right after the holidays, I contracted a nasty virus that eventually lasted for a couple of months. This can be a bad situation for a freelance writer, for not feeling well also affected my ability to think and thinking is an inherent part of the writing process.

The symptoms of this virus–beginning with an ear infection and eventually ending up in my chest as acute bronchitis–eventually took me to the Emergency Room at a local hospital. As part of the check-in process, they did an EKG. At the time, everything seemed okay, heartwise. The doctors gave me a prescription for a strong antibiotic and sent me on my way.

A few days later, I got a call from my regular doctor, telling me that the hospital recommended I see a cardiologist as soon as possible. I went to one two days later. Little did I know that I’d be in the hospital for the next two weeks and have three operations to correct blockage in most of my main arteries. It turned out that most of my main blood vessels were 90 percent blocked. The scary thing about this was that I had no signs of any problems–my blood pressure and cholesterol were normal. My cardiologist said I was a walking time bomb.

Medical technology has sure come a long way. After snaking a tiny camera through my blood vessels during arterial catherization, they found the problems and immediately began working to fix them. First, they inserted four stints into my two renal arteries (those going to my kidneys), an artery below my left shoulder, and one in my right leg. A few days later, a surgeon cut open my neck to “clean out” my left carotid—artery (the main one leading to my brain) and two days after that he did the same thing to the one on the right side of my neck.

Two days later, I found myself laying on a cold, narrow steel table, much like the ones they use in the morgue–I watch a lot of the CSI shows—looking up at a myriad of bright lights. Around me were what seemed like an army of machines waiting for the surgical team to plug me into them. For I was about to have my chest cut open and my sternum broken, exposing my heart to what I hoped were skilled hands. In a few moments everything went dark as I fell into an anesthetized sleep in preparation for coronary bypass surgery. To say this scared me to death is an understatement. But for some strange reason I felt unusually calm.

While under the anesthesia, I dreamed I was in FedEx Office’s print shop, having recently had a cookbook printed there. I saw the number “3209" on the wall and tried to figure out what that meant—perhaps it was the number of the next print job. Suddenly, a dapper fellow dressed in a pinstripe suit and a bright-colored natty tie popped in to tell me I was all right and that everything had gone smoothly. At first I thought this can’t be happening, I must be dead, and then I realized it was the surgeon who had operated on me. Now I was really confused. It turned out he had a meeting to attend. It took another 20 minutes to figure out that I was in an Intensive Care Unit room in the same hospital, and now had a myriad of tubes stuck in my chest. This was truly uncomfortable.

And that was the beginning of what has turned out to be the greatest adventure of my life. The recovery process has been a long one, but at 10 weeks this past Friday, I seem to be doing a whole lot better than most in my situation.  And many of those had only bypass surgery. After all those procedures and operations, I should be a lot worse off. But I’m a survivor. I’ve worked just as hard to get through this as I have with my writing over the years. I didn’t make it freelancing for 26 years without a lot of effort and discipline.

For those of you who might be considering freelance writing as a career, remember this: It takes less time to recover from open-heart surgery than it does to become successful at writing.