So You Wanna Be a Writer — Part 2 By Adam Rocke
Assuming my grey matter hasn’t turned to mush, I recall leaving off with your decision to take on the literary world—or literally take on the world, which is pretty much the same thing since the entirety of your living expenses will now hinge on people paying you for your creativity.
First, let me say: Good for you! That’s a courageous undertaking and I applaud your moxy. Now let’s ditch the kudos and get to work.
The first question you need to answer: What are you gonna write? That question’s more potently loaded than a sawed-off 10 gauge! There are plenty of markets to choose from—greeting cards, articles (print and digital), website content, advertising/marketing copy, books, teleplays, screenplays, telemarketing scripts… Enough opportunities to make your head spin around faster than Linda Blair’s!
Every market has its pros and cons, along with a different pay scale and, as you’d expect, a different payment process. Those aspects definitely need to be taken into consideration when answering that all-important What should I write? question. For if your daily existence is wholly dependent on money earned from writing, unless you have a nest egg to nibble on, or a trust fund to sponge off until those writing-related checks start rolling in, undertaking a second job (or a third or a fourth or …) will be required. So let’s run through some of the markets and see if this helps narrow your focus.
Greeting Cards — I have ZERO experience in this arena, but I’ve been told companies pay anywhere from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars for a single card’s content. The submission process could take weeks (unlikely) or months (likely) and, unless you are employed directly by the company, anything you submit will be on “spec” basis (short for “speculation”). In layman’s terms, it means there are no financial guarantees attached to your efforts. It’s like fishing. You toss out a baited hook, hoping to catch something.
*Necessary segue—Writing on spec is a huge part of the literary game, for any market—at least until you establish yourself as a writer who will consistently deliver the content you’re being hired to produce. The major downside to writing on spec is the simple and unavoidable fact that you will submit material to various markets and it won’t be accepted, oftentimes without any clear reason as to why it was rejected. Thus, you need to have a thick skin. You must learn to deal with rejection and, perhaps more importantly, not allow rejection to negatively affect your writing. No matter what a publisher, an editor, or any prospective buyer tells you about your work, you mustn’t let it alter your belief in the quality of your work. That’s not to say you shouldn’t listen if they’re taking the time to offer a critique, but you also shouldn’t feel compelled to change your work—not unless you find merit in their suggestions. Self-doubt can kill a writing career before it begins. My first book, a funky mixology guide that combined zany Hollywood bartending stories with various categories of cocktail recipes (Atomic Bodyslams to Whiskey Zippers: Cocktails for the 21st Century) needed 87 (yes, eighty-freakin’-seven!) query letters before a publisher took a chance. Despite some mean-hearted reviews from jealous bartenders, the book did pretty well—and led to six more published titles with Surrey Books, all illustrated by renowned “kitsch culture” artist, Shag. The moral of this story: Keep writing!
Articles—While print publications are disappearing faster than Donald Trump’s mental health, the Internet has more e-zines than you can count. In my experience, payment for articles varies from $.01/word to $10,000+ plus expenses for a big cover feature, and authors are usually paid upon publication. Choose topics that you have legit expertise in or those on which you can write authoritatively (and are well versed in the associated verbiage/lingo). My literary career kicked off doing “participatory” stories for hip men’s lifestyle publications (Maxim, Stuff, Razor, Robb Report, Playboy, etc.). Before long, the running joke among editors was that if they had a story idea that could get a journalist maimed or killed, I was the one to call. Either I was just too crazy (pronounced “stupid”) to say no, or too desperate for the work. In truth, it was a combination of both! Eventually, I worked my way up the pay scale and was earning between $2 and $3 per word for 2,500-word features, and all reasonable expenses (and medical bills) were covered. Over the years I took on some truly insane assignments—swimming with great white sharks without a cage, jumping out of a plane without a parachute, playing poker in Mexico with a Juarez drug cartel kingpin, hunting poachers with mercenaries in Africa… Good times!
Web Site Content—With so many sites looking to bolster their content, work is readily available. The pay isn’t stellar—often just a few cents per word, as many sites are simply looking for high volume SEO content—but it is plentiful. My advice: Don’t undervalue your time or your skill. That’s not to say you should scoff at the work if you’re looking to build up your literary resume while picking up a little beer money, but be wary of allowing others to profit handsomely (selling ad space on their site, for example) off your sweat equity.
Advertising/Marketing Copy—If you’re really creative at hyping products or services, this could be a great area of writing to pursue. Look at current ad campaigns—or products/services that could really benefit from one—and conjure up a fresh idea or three. Then, reach out to the company’s PR department, or the company that designed the current campaign, and query if you could send your fresh idea their way. Offer to sign a NDA if they’re on the fence. Don’t be surprised if you get a megaton of rejections—again, get used to it; that’s the nature of the beast in the literary game—but if you’re willing to pound the pavement so to speak, your perseverance will eventually bear fruit in some capacity. Beside your creative ideas, advertising and marketing companies are often looking for writers to freshen or rework their current material. While this probably won’t be “soul satisfying” writing, it will still be paid work for a company that you can build a relationship with and, hopefully, secure some better gigs down the road. Many of these companies pay by the hour, but I always prefer to get a fixed price per assignment.
*Hourly Pay vs. Per Assignment—Many literary jobs offer an “X dollars per hour” payment structure. I hate hate HATE these jobs and always try to switch them to a “X dollars per gig” payment. This way there’s no ambiguity. You know exactly what you’ll be paid before you start working. Otherwise, there could be hard feelings on either side of the aisle—you spend more time on something than you intended, or whoever hires you feels like you spent too much time and wants to pay you less. An exact quote for a specific job solves that problem immediately and will leave both parties satisfied, assuming you do a kickass job on the material, that is!
Books—There are two main types of books: fiction and nonfiction. Unless you’re an established writer who can lock up a deal with a mere premise or outline, fiction (novels) are primarily sold on spec. You write it, you shop it, you hope for a deal. An agent will definitely help you with that pursuit, but we’ll get into literary agents in my next blog post. For now, just know that turning your book into a pile of cash isn’t all that easy, and it’s also a long road. Once a publisher agrees to buy your manuscript, an advance (assuming they’re offering one) is negotiated. This can be anywhere from a few hundred dollars to several hundred thousand. Again, it just depends on your previous credits (are you already a bestselling author?) and/or if there were multiple publishers interested in acquiring your latest story. It only takes two entities to spark a bidding war—essentially a fiscal game of chicken. Usually, the highest price offered is the offer you should take, as it represents that company’s financial commitment to the book, though there are legitimate reasons to take on lower paying offers if the perks are better (maybe the house offers $1000 less but is willing to pay for you to do an international book tour, for example). Advances are often split into three payments, and you will get a percentage of your advance when each agreed-upon milestone is reached. For example, the standard in fiction advance payment is for the author to receive ⅓ on the author’s acceptance of the offer, ⅓ on the editor’s acceptance of the completed (edited) manuscript, and ⅓ on the book’s actual release date. Then you’ll get royalties quarterly, semi-annually, annually or, if your book sells like some of mine HAVEN’T, never!
For nonfiction books, unless you’re a household name that can sell a publisher on your new idea with only a phone call or an email, you’ll need to craft a proposal. Nonfiction proposals are fairly formulaic and consist of an overview, an explanation of why you’re the right author for this manuscript, a chapter outline, the audience this manuscript is meant for, comparable and competing published titles, what you plan on doing to market the book, an author bio, and finally, a sample chapter or two. Then, just like with novels, you or your lit agent shop the proposal to editors and wait patiently for a response. Payment for nonfiction manuscripts are the same as fiction—advance (if offered) upon acquisition, a payment once the manuscript is accepted for publication, and a final payment upon publication. Most books are published between nine months to well over a year, depending on how much work needs to be done and how extensive the project. It really just depends.
Screenplays — Hollywood is a tough nut to crack as far as writers are concerned. In truth, it’s very tough to sell a script without an agent. And it’s also very tough to get an agent without first selling a script. FUBAR snafu, right? Well, it is. But it doesn’t have to be. These days, there are many ways to get your work seen. Screenwriting contests are among the best ways to call attention to truly great scripts. Granted, anything and everything in the literary arena still requires opinions that come from someone other than the material’s author to be successful, and opinions are like a**holes—everybody has them and they all stink! But if you’ve written a script that’s truly fantastic, there are enough legit competitions out there that one of them should give your work high enough praise to get it in front of someone (agent, manager, producer) that can help move it up the Tinseltown ladder. Understand, screenplay competitions aren’t freebies. Entry fees range anywhere from $20 to $125. But if you do your homework and fully vet the contest you’re thinking about entering, I’m certain you will find one that’s a good fit for your genre and your wallet. In terms of financial remuneration, screenwriting can be very rewarding. Specs can sell for millions of dollars. Or, as is usually the case, they get chucked into a refuse pile (these days it’s a DIGITAL refuse piles aka email trash bin) and are absolutely worthless. Of course, you could always use your unsold script as the outline for a novel and…
I’ll tell you a fun story about that in my next post. Until then, happy writing!
Check out Adam's first blog post HERE.