A few years ago, I wrote a blog post for my website called Why Writing is a Full-Time Job—Especially if You Don’t Have a Book Deal. In an effort to better advise my clients, I discovered that some of the challenges I was facing as a freelance editor were very similar to those of unpublished writers. For example, I’d noticed that people with corporate jobs tended not to take our work seriously, as our earnings weren’t on par with theirs.
Established or not, most of us in creative fields put in as many hours as those with traditional day jobs—probably more—but how should these hours be spent? How should writers’ daily responsibilities change as their careers gain momentum? And what if their return on investment is low, or it leads to extreme but short-lived financial success, as it did for this writer?
I asked literary agents Jim McCarthy of Dystel, Goderich & Bourret and Paula Munier of Talcott Notch Literary these and other similar questions. As with all my Q&As, neither knew the other’s identity until after they submitted their answers.
Sangeeta Mehta: Given the demanding nature of this work, even the most prolific published writers usually spend only a few hours a day actually writing, though they might allot additional hours to writing-related projects. For full-time writers who are as of yet unpublished, what should be the priority other than writing and revising? Reading inside and outside their genre? Building a writing community? Creating a website?
Jim McCarthy: I hope it doesn’t sound hokey, but I actually mean this very deeply: the best thing you can do to help your writing career is keep writing. Yes, it can be helpful to have a big social media following. And networking with other writers can prove incredibly useful when you’re looking for blurbs or for people to help spread the word. It can pay off to establish connections with your local booksellers. It’s always a good idea to have a website. But those are truly extraneous compared to the act of writing.
Paula Munier: The most important work of a writer is to write and rewrite. But when you have an eye to getting published, there are certain things you need to do. You need to read widely in your category, you need to know your genre well, and you need to be able to talk about your work within the context of that genre.
Writing to sell means understanding the marketplace, your genre and where your book fits in that genre. It means understanding your competition and how you can position your work against that competition. It means befriending writers of all kinds.
You’ll pay it forward when it’s your turn. But in the meantime, you make friends with those writers who are at your level and beyond so that you can get to know not only what it means to be a writer, but what it means to be an author.
Yes, you should have a website and do social media, but that should be part of your being part of the writing community. Join your genre association, participate in your local writers’ groups, attend book signings and other publishing events.
This way, when you are ready to shop your work, you’re more likely to be shopping a project that not only succeeds on a craft level, but one that has a chance of succeeding in the marketplace.
How should writers’ work differ once they have a book deal in place? Once their book is published? For example, should they focus on attending writing festivals? Doing interviews? Providing endorsements for other writers? How much of a say does the writer have in this decision, as opposed to their agent or publisher?
JM: The writer definitely has a say. They will be involved in helping to choose their delivery dates. The more successful your books are, the more demands will be made of your time. It becomes increasingly important to be aware of your limits and be comfortable giving voice to those limits rather than striving for unachievable goals. If you become a bestselling author, it’s more likely that you’ll be asked to travel and give talks and work with book clubs and give blurbs. The most important thing becomes your ability to prioritize what is most important to you and your work. What changes most is that things that sound like a lot of fun (which often ARE a lot of fun) can become a drain when they’re part of an aggressive schedule.
PM: Once you have a book deal in place, your first order of business is to follow your editor’s suggestions to make that book as good as it can be before it hits the marketplace. Then your job is to decide along with the help of your marketing and publicity team—whether that’s your own or that of the publisher—who your audience is. That is, who is most likely to buy your book? Which readers of which books by which authors already out there succeeding in the marketplace could be counted on to buy your book as well?
Once you figure out who your audience is, you have to figure out where those readers are and how to connect with them. Are they online? Browsing bookstores? Attending festivals? This is where knowledge of your genre and writing community comes in.
In the old days, you had to rely on your publisher to do the sales and marketing and publicity. Today you don’t have to rely on your publisher, but there’s an expectation and even an obligation for you to do that on your own. So, you have to decide where to spend your time and money and effort: What kinds of marketing and publicity appeal to you? Social media? Lectures? Events? Which will drive readers to your books? Which are going to actually boost sales?
Ask yourself 1) what you’re most comfortable with and 2) what’s most productive in terms of both reaching your audience and fueling sales, and then find a happy marriage between the two that works for you.
When considering new clients, are you sometimes leery of writers with strenuous day jobs who might not have time to make the revisions you recommend? Writers who are unlikely to have flexibility at the pre- and post-publication stage, when publicity must be factored into their schedule? How do you distinguish potential clients’ enthusiasm for being published from their ability to commit to this endeavor?
JM: I give everyone the same benefit of the doubt. I have clients who have become successful enough that they’ve left demanding jobs behind. Or miraculously balanced an intense workload. I also have clients who write full time who can’t make a deadline. I don’t really believe it’s possible to know how someone will be about working on deadline until they’re already there. If there is some magical question to ask that would reveal the answer, I haven’t found it yet, so this isn’t a consideration as much as it is something I keep an eye on as our work together moves forward.
PM: Most people have demanding day jobs, whether they’re raising kids at home or running companies outside the publishing sphere. The majority of my clients have demanding day jobs—doctors, lawyers, educators, scientists among them. I don’t think that matters, because it seems to me that that old adage if you want something done, give it to a busy person holds true.
What I really look for is writers who are ready to become authors. Writing is a solitary endeavor, but being an author is a very public endeavor. It requires a willingness to go to events, a willingness to do social media, a willingness to get the word out about your book in any and every way possible.
I do meet writers who tell me, “I just want to write books. I don’t want to have anything to do with selling them.” Those are not people I can work with. I need people who are going to commit to being authors as well as writers, people who want to be career authors in this for the long haul.
On this same note, should writers be apprehensive of agents with side jobs, whether within a literary agency (selling rights or managing royalties) or outside the publishing field? If an agent is running an editing business for extra income, or they have their own book contract to fulfill, could this be a conflict of interest? Detract from the agent’s ability to represent and advocate for their clients?
JM: As someone who was able to start agenting only because I had a salaried position at the agency working on financial and royalty management, I don’t think there’s any reason to avoid someone specifically because they have another role at their agency. My colleagues who continue to balance their salaried positions and their client lists are some of the best agents I know.
On the other hand, having a job outside of their agency but within publishing? That’s tricky. Anyone who is charging to edit while also looking for clients has a conflict of interest in my mind unless they make it extremely clear that they will not consider anyone that they edit for representation.
As far as agents who are also authors? I have never understood how they do it, but some brilliant agents have published books and managed the workload seemingly without conflict. A tip of the hat to them for managing what must be an incredibly brutal schedule.
PM: Full disclosure: I’m an agent and an author. I’ve been a published writer since college, and I was also an acquisitions editor for many years. I think all that experience benefits my clients. In this era of declining advances where making a living as a writer is even harder than it used to be, making a living as an agent is even harder than it used to be, too. That’s why many agents have more than one income stream, just as many small business owners (not to mention many writers) do. I wouldn’t hold that against them. What’s most important is that you work with an agent who has a solid plan for the marketing of your work and has a track record executing such plans successfully.
When talking with an agent, consider these questions: Is this agent enthusiastic about your current project? Does this agent sell in your genre? Does this agent have the relationships with the editors who buy projects in your genre? Does this agent understand and support your career goals? These are the questions you have to ask yourself.
Conventional wisdom holds that writers should never quit their day job until their royalties exceed their salary. But given the demands involved in being a writer, including self-promotion, is there a point at which they should reduce their hours or take a leave of absence? For those who aren’t in a position to compromise their current job, would you recommend hiring an author assistant to help them with social media, for instance? Or an independent marketing firm to work with the publisher’s marketing department?
JM: Conventional wisdom is right. Publishing is too volatile an industry to depend on long term for your income until you already know that projected money is GUARANTEED to be enough to support you for at least two to three years. If you don’t have a job and can give all your time to publishing? Great. But that shouldn’t be the standard or the expectation. Writing shouldn’t only be for people who have supportive partners who can carry them financially. It might be slower or more challenging to get books finished if you’re holding down a separate job, but there is zero shame in having to work full time to support yourself while you write. And again, I agree that self-promotion is important, but it’s not the make-or-break that some people make it out to be.
PM: I would never advise anyone to quit their day job. That’s a personal decision, and even if you get a six-figure deal, when you run the numbers it’s not as much money as you think (see the blog post I wrote about this). And you may or may not earn out that advance.
Only you can decide how much time you can spend writing, how much time you need to spend marketing and doing social media and going to events and all those kinds of things. Once you get a sense of what you’re good at, what actually works and sells books and where your time and effort and energy is best spent, then you can decide how to allocate your resources. It’s expected that you’ll spend some of your advance on marketing and publicity—and those expenses can add up fast.
I have clients who’ve hired publicists to do marketing campaigns for them around the launch of their book and hired social media managers and used outside book marketers to do special mailings to libraries and independent bookstores. I have clients who’ve run BookBub promotions and gone on blog tours and started newsletters and done keyword search and on and on. There are all kinds of ways to market books. You have to decide where your resources are best spent. The upshot is that there are all these options.
According to this Twitter thread, writing should be treated like a small business, and it generally takes five to ten years to get a small business off the ground. But most small businesses are forced to shut down if they don’t turn a profit within this time period. Does this same thinking apply to writers? Can writers who invest money into their writing career—in the form of MFA programs, conferences, workshops, etc.—expect to recoup it, either directly or indirectly?
JM: Yes, writing is a business. But is everyone looking at a 5-10 year window to profit? No. That’s an impossible construct for most authors. You have to have a clear idea of what your goals are—how often you want to publish, what you can and should expect financially, and how much time you need to know you have available to you, but I don’t want writers to feel like they have to have it all figured out ahead of time. Or that there isn’t room for people who don’t have enough time to invest five years in their project.
I also am very wary of anyone investing money in their career. Is an MFA worth it? Financially, probably not. But if you have the capital to get one and want to hone your craft, then by all means, go for it. I haven’t really seen any for-hire publicists achieving particularly notable results for authors who aren’t already bestsellers. But I have seen them charge a fortune. I’m skeptical of almost all cost-based “help” in a writer’s career.
PM: I think it’s absolutely true that being a writer is like running a small business, but it’s like running a small business as an artist. Writers are artists, and most artists don’t make a lot of money. That’s just the nature of the arts.
That said, you have to find a way to continue to improve your craft, and that means doing whatever you need to do to take your work to the next level. When I was very young and joined my first writer’s group, the most impressive published writer in the group was an older woman who looked me up and down and said, “It takes a million words to make a writer.” And I sat there doing the math in my head, thinking, Oh God, I have 950,000 words to go. And so I did.
Honestly, expecting that you can attain the level of craft necessary to publish without taking any classes or investing any time, energy, and money into the resources you need to make your work the best it can be is really naive. If you decided to take up watercolor painting, you would take a watercolor class and you would not expect your first watercolor to sell at a gallery or hang at The Met.
There is a level of craftsmanship you have to acquire before you’re ready to be traditionally published, and that means an investment on your part. I’m looking for writers who are willing to make that investment.
It’s not a secret that many people who write full-time—but don’t earn a living from their writing—are financially secure, if not well-to-do. What can the book publishing industry do to elevate those who lack such socio-economic privilege? Create more grants and fellowships? Provide more mentorships? Can you think of any strides the industry has already taken that you’re particularly proud of?
JM: The entire publishing industry focuses in a way that benefits the most financially well-off individuals. I would love to see publishers invest more in grants, scholarships, and mentorships. The most difficult aspect of that is how slim the profit margins are industry-wide. I wish I had a wonderful answer to this. I wish I knew how to raise book prices, get more of the money to authors, and not cause lower sales or damage the ability of libraries to purchase widely.
In terms of what does exist, know that applying for grants is time consuming and requires resources, but they’re out there.
- We Need Diverse Books offers the Walter Grant “to provide financial support to promising diverse writers who are currently unpublished.”
- Lambda Literary has a resource page for writers looking for grants specific to queer writers.
- On a more macro level, there are grants from Arizona Artist Research for state residents, and Kansas City has them for city residents.
I think it’s worthwhile to spend a bit of time googling grants that you may be eligible for and remembering to look for ones based on something as broad as what genre you write in and as specific as where you live.
PM: This is an interesting question. I’m not sure I know enough about it to answer it properly or thoroughly. I can tell you that the writers I meet, the aspiring writers who have yet to publish, come from all kinds of backgrounds and all socioeconomic levels. What they have in common is a love of books and a love of reading and a determination to tell their stories.
Most conferences offer scholarships. Most genre associations have scholarships and grants available to writers as well. It’s important that we hear as many voices as possible. I applaud, for example, Crime Writers of Color and I applaud publishers like Jason Pinter and his new imprint. These are moves in the right direction. But we can always do more to help talented writers get published.
That’s what we agents do for a living. We devote our lives to championing our client’s work—and we don’t get paid until we do. Getting an agent isn’t easy, and each agent can only take on so many clients. I wrote three books on writing because I can’t be everybody’s agent, but at least I can share what I’ve learned along the way.
With all the financial uncertainties that come with the writing life, do you still find yourself encouraging writers to follow their dream and never give up, as the expression goes? How do you reassure those who feel they are investing more into their writing than they are receiving in return?
JM: I absolutely recommend that writers pursue their dreams. But I want people to pursue them responsibly. Having it be a goal that you want to write full time is fantastic, but you need to make sure you can support yourself before you do that. And if you have lean years (as 99.9% of authors do), you should be prepared for that, whatever that means for you—whether having savings you can eat into, other work you can return to temporarily, a partner who can support you. Chase your dreams by all means. Keep trying, and remember that every author has been rejected, and that is just part of the process. But remain clear-eyed about financial realities.
PM: Writing is a calling. It’s a commitment. It’s a practice. Writing is something you do for the love of it, for the want of it, for the need of it. If you’re writing because you want to make money or you want to be on TV or you want to be a “rich and famous writer,” or for any reason other than the absolute commitment to it, then you’re in the wrong business. If you want to make money, you should go be an investment banker.
Which is not to say that you can’t make it—and make it big. As an agent, I’m looking for the next Lee Child or the next Lisa Gardner or the next Stephen King or the next Margaret Atwood. Somebody has to be, and it may as well be you.
That’s what I tell all my clients.
Because I’m living proof. I’ve secretly wanted to be a mystery writer since I read my first Nancy Drew novel as a kid. Fast forward decades later when I’m a grandmother, for goodness’ sake, and I finally publish my first mystery.
I’d given up on that dream, but I’m living it now.
Anything I can do, you can do better.
Jim McCarthy (@jimmccarthy528) is a vice president at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret, where he’s been for his entire 20-year career. He represents adult, young adult, and middle grade, both literary and commercial, and is particularly interested in literary fiction, underrepresented voices, fantasy, mysteries, romance, anything unusual or unexpected, and any book that makes him cry or laugh out loud.
Paula Munier (@PaulaSMunier) is the Senior Literary Agent and Content Strategist for Talcott Notch Literary, where she specializes in high-concept commercial fiction—especially crime fiction and book club fiction—as well as nonfiction. A long-time writer and former acquisitions editor, she’s the USA TODAY bestselling author of the Mercy Carr series from Minotaur. A Borrowing of Bones, the first in the series, was nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Booklist called the second, Blind Search, a “not to be missed K9 mystery” in a starred review. A writing teacher and yoga instructor, she’s written three popular books on writing: Plot Perfect, Writing with Quiet Hands, and The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings, as well as the acclaimed memoir Fixing Freddie and Happier Every Day: Simple ways to bring more peace, contentment and joy into your life.