How Do I Make Writing a Career?

The President and Executive Director of the Authors Guild field questions from emerging writers in an epic Answertime session

Electric Literature and the Authors Guild are partnering up to launch the Emerging Writer Membership program, which for the first time will allow writers just starting out in their careers to join the country’s oldest and largest professional writers’ organization. As part of the effort, we decided to put on the Guild’s first ever Tumblr Answertime session. Over the weekend, 2,000 questions came in from emerging writers, and earlier today, Authors Guild President (and acclaimed writer) Roxana Robinson and Executive Director Mary Rasenberger came by Electric Lit to knock out some answers.

For a full record of their literary and professional wisdom, you can check out the Tumblr page. But in the meantime, here are the day’s highlights, from how to find an agent to freelance tips to the one piece of advice all young writers should keep in mind.

How do I find a publishing company that’s good for me?

You should be looking for a publisher that publishes the kind of books you write; a publisher who believes in your work and will work as your partner in bringing it to market and selling it; and a publisher whose contract with you reflects that partnership.

[A question in multiple parts…] 1. How does one get started as a freelance writer? What are some websites and resources that provide this information? 2. When inquiring to an editor abt submitting a piece for compensation what are things a novice freelancer should know?

1. To get started as a freelance writer, you need to consider what the kind of writing you want to do demands. Nonfic/commentary requires monitoring a beat, and writing and submitting constantly. The turnaround from writing to publishing doesn’t happen as fast for fiction and poetry, so you need to set yourself up with enough time and resource to give sufficient focus. Whatever kind of writing you want to do, to make a living off of freelance writing is a hustle, so real talk: make sure you have some savings in the bank before you quit the day job. Or maybe just keep the day job.

The Authors Guild provides up-to-date information–see this post about what the Trump presidency will mean for authors–and services/resources such as liability insurance to support working writers. The Freelancers Union also has practical information and services, for instance how to buy affordable health insurance under Obamacare. Some of the best resources will be your fellow writers, and programs such as the Emerging Writers Membership at AG will provide both support and bring you in contact with other working writers.

2. When it comes to inquiring about compensation, just be up front. You should not work for free. When you’re starting out and looking to create a name and readership for yourself, publicity can feel like a fair swap, but it’s not. There’s enough free content on the internet that if you’re getting published through a legit platform, you should get paid. A way to think about it is like this: the way you ask about compensation should reflect the effort you’ve put into your work. For nonfiction writing (including essays/commentary/reviews) have a standard payment rate in mind in terms of word count. For copywriting, have a standard rate by hour. These rates can increase as you become more experienced. Also have an invoice template prepared with your banking info, and always add a deadline for when you should receive payment (a good turnaround is two weeks to one month).

When you’re starting out and looking to create a name and readership for yourself, publicity can feel like a fair swap, but it’s not.

On a scale of one to ten, how hard is it to self publish?

It’s very easy to self publish: let’s say a 1 or 2. However, finding readers for your work is a 9 or 10 level of difficulty. Marketing your self-published work can be a full time job, and the Authors Guild has some great resource for self-published authors: www.authorsguild.org.

Can you break down some of the pros and cons of pitching your work to an agent, going directly to publishing houses, or trying to publish through less traditional routes?

If you aspire to publish a book with a major publishing house, you’ll need an agent to submit your manuscript. However, as you alluded in your question, there are other ways to publish. Many independent presses hold contests, the prize for which is publication. Some independent and “micro” presses accept unsolicited query letters or manuscript submissions. If your primary desire is for your writing to be read by your personal network of friends, family, and your community, self-publishing may be a good choice. Self-published authors do not have the support of the marketing and publicity staff provided by publishers, so if you are part of a reading or writing community prior to self-publishing, it will be very helpful to finding readers for your work.

Does an agent cost me money?

Agents generally take 15% of your earnings, and 20% for foreign sales; they do not charge an upfront fee.

Some assume that the “short story” is dead, or that short story writing no longer draws in readers (or income) unless you’re already an established author (such as King or Oates). Would you agree with this sentiment? Is the art of the short story extinct?

The short story isn’t at all dead, it’s thriving! Every year, anthologies of great short stories are published, among them Best American Short Stories, The O.Henry Awards and the Pushcart Prizes. If this form interests you, buy those books, read the stories, and have a look at the back of the books, where there are lists of literary magazines that publish great stories each year. Find a literary magazine that publishes fiction which you like, subscribe to it (you need to support the community that you hope will support you) and start sending your stories to it. Start learning about the community that publishes them: the short story is a great literary form.

Does having an MFA in Writing make you more attractive to a publisher? In your opinion, does it better your chances?

Good question; it’s one that the writing community discusses often. Great writing will always speak for itself, so the simple fact of having an MFA won’t necessarily make your work more attractive to a publisher. On the question of better chances, however, an MFA does help emerging writers build a support network that includes fellow writers, and connections through professors and alumni who can direct you to good agents and publishers. But if you choose to not go the MFA route, organizations like the Authors Guild also offer programs and support networks for writers, emerging and established alike.

While teaching creative writing, my students and I have read a lot of advice to use a pen name when a writer has a ‘foreign’-sounding name. What are your views about discrimination in the writing industry? Is it as common as this advice implies?

That’s a really good question. A certain amount of discrimination exists in the publishing industry, but more and more voices are being heard from outside the mainstream. It’s important to be part of the push against discrimination: let readers know who you are and what your community is.

Does it feel more like a hobby or more like a job when you write? I want to become a writer but it feels like if I write too much I’ll lose interest

It’s a job; if you are serious about making a career out of writing, you have to treat it like a job.

How do you avoid someone stealing your ideas if you send it to them for reviewing?

Ideas in and of themselves are not protectable, and few if any publishers would agree to a condition that they not be allowed to use ideas you submitted. In fact, in the film industry, the studios often make writers who submit screenplays agree that the studio can later use the idea. We’ve started to see some publishers who receive unsolicited manuscripts do that too. It protects them since they may receive the same ideas from others. But once you have expression — that is words on a page — you have copyright protection, and have the right to prevent others from using your words or any story line that goes beyond ideas. Distinguishing between ideas and expression is admittedly a complicated area of the law, but I always recommend that you submit as much expression (ie, words on the page) as possible.

Do you know of any specific resources for LBGT+ writers and/or writers of color to get support and funding throughout the writing and publishing process?

Lambda Literary is a good place to start for LGBT writers, and Kimbilio Fiction for writers of color. Grants are available for writers from the NEA, as well as from many state arts foundations, and some grants may be specifically focused on diversity.

Do you think ebooks are bad for authors? Particularly regarding their revenue.

E-books are great, though in the current publishing climate, the major publishers aren’t paying adequate royalty rates for e-books, in the Authors Guild’s opinion.

What is the most common mistake beginning authors make?

Not being persistent enough and not revising enough. You need to be prepared for lots of rejection without getting discouraged and just keep at it. And you need to edit and re-edit. It’s hard work, but needs to be done. Good luck!

What do you do when you have writers block?

Everyone has to deal with this at one time or another — you just have to write through it. Give yourself a goal of writing a certain number of words each day, and make yourself reach that goal. You’ll throw away a lot of work, and at times it will seem as though you are going nowhere, but you are going somewhere. At some point you will reach a place in which you feel yourself really writing again — flying along in the upper airways.

How long is the editing and publishing process for a manuscript?

A book is typically published within a year after the manuscript is turned in and the contract is signed. This timeline usually includes two rounds of edits.

What is your opinion on audiobooks? Is it dying out or blossoming more now than ever with platforms like Amazon and iTunes? What do you look for in an audiobook reader?

Audiobooks definitely are blossoming since it is so easy to listen on your phone or wherever. A lot of reader are discovering them for the first time. Personally, I love listening to books while driving. The choice of readers is really personal.

What do you wish someone had told you about writing when you started out and what is one thing you’ve learnt about writing from personal experience and want to share?

I think the most important thing is that nothing changes when you publish. You still face the same problems each time you sit down to write — the same fears, the same confusions, the same uncertainties and excitements. So don’t think that once you are published, or once you’ve reached some mythical plateau, that you will find that your problems evaporate. They will never evaporate; on the other hand, confusion and anxiety and uncertainty are part of the great throng of things that drive us to write. They are endlessly interesting and galvanizing, so writers should not hope they disappear. They’re part of the writing life.

— For more of the Authors Guild Answertime session, go to the Tumblr page.

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