It was a late Monday night in December, and I was sitting in a West Village classroom for my last writing class of the semester. The professor was talking about the publishing process, explaining how to query agents and what happens after you sign a book contract. She threw around phrases like “advance against the royalties” and “non-compete clause,” but she didn’t say a word about money. When she finally opened the floor for questions, I timidly raised my hand and asked:
“What might a first-time author expect in terms of… you know… the money?”
Right away I knew I had stepped in it. Half of the class looked horrified, while the other half leaned in, as though they too were wondering the same thing but hadn’t had the guts to ask.
When it comes to the topic of money, the publishing industry is weird. I have worked in various industries and I have to say that publishing’s relationship to money is often counterintuitive and convoluted. On one hand, publishing is a business, which means strategic decisions need to be based on fiscal analysis. But this industry also has one foot in the art world, in which success can be unpredictable at best.
It doesn’t help that there are a lot of conflicting expert opinions on the subject of writing and money. Some experts say you should treat writing like it’s your job (even if you have another day job), while others claim you’ll only succeed if you go “all in” and quit that day job in favor of your craft. And while some writers demand to be paid for each and every word they write (you wouldn’t ask your plumber to work for free, right?), others advise taking on any opportunity even if it is unpaid.
There are as many opinions about money as there are writers. Plus, money is a charged topic for many and it can bring up feelings of shame, inadequacy, or anxiety. Further complicating this problem is that many of us are brainwashed into believing that this topic is taboo, that it’s not “genteel” to talk about money. The problem is, though, if we don’t talk about the money, we writers are the ones who get hurt.
Not talking about the money means we have no basis of comparison. We won’t know what industry standards are and what we can reasonably ask for in terms of compensation. (I’m sorry, but the Publisher’s Marketplace deal key is so last decade. Read agent Kristen Nelson’s explanation here.) Plus, book negotiations involve more than just a dollar value for the advance. A writer might not get as big an advance as they would like, but that might not be an issue if they have other ways to monetize their writing.
This year—despite all the chaos of current events, virtual schooling, and emergency surgery right before the lockdown—I’ve seen DIY MFA have its biggest growth yet. This has come, in large part, because I and everyone on my team have focused on a few key things.
Progress happens where you put your attention.
It’s inevitable: when you focus all your attention on one thing, that is the area where you make the most progress. So, focus on ONE THING. Seriously. Just one. Weigh every decision against that one thing, and use it as a litmus test when accepting or rejecting other projects. One thing might not seem like a lot, but if you finish or achieve one thing per quarter, that’s four things per year. This means you can make HUGE strides in just one year.
Every year, I write a word on a slip of paper and put it in a chalice I have sitting on my desk. I call this chalice my “holy grail” and it’s where I note and store the one thing I will focus for the coming year. Throughout the year, whenever I have a decision to make or I am considering a new project, I look in the chalice and remind myself of that one thing. If the project doesn’t align with or contribute to the one thing, then I don’t do it. This relentless focus makes decisions easy. It gives you permission to say “no,” and being able to say “no” is the first step in smart negotiations.
Protect your IP.
You are a writer, which means IP (intellectual property) is your biggest asset. Maybe it’s because I’m married to a patent lawyer, or it’s my mama-bear instinct kicking in, but I’m fiercely protective of my IP. I treat my IP like it’s one of my children (because, let’s face it, it sort of is) and if someone tries to harm my IP-baby… watch out!
What does it mean to protect your IP? First, I watch the web for any mention of my intellectual property. You can set up a Google Alert for your name or book title as a starting point. I also periodically search for my IP in an incognito web browser. If you’ve done a good job building your platform, the first few pages in a browser will likely be legitimate mentions of your name or book. You’ll need to dig a bit further back into the bowels of the internet to see if there’s something amiss.
If I do notice something that might be infringement or just doesn’t seem right, the first thing I do is record everything with screenshots. After that, I consider a few things:
- How recent is this post or web mention? Is the site still active and updating? (If the site is old and inactive, and it’s buried 20 pages in on a Google search, it might not be worth the trouble.)
- Is the other party being malicious, or are they just clueless and inexperienced? (Honestly, the latter is the case more often than not. In this case, I’ve found it’s often more effective for me to reach out writer-to-writer and say: “Dude, stop.”)
- How badly will this breach of my IP harm my bottom line?
There have been some instances where the infringement has been of the latter category, in which case I’ve brought in a lawyer (not hubby) who’s an expert on trademarks and copyright to advise me on the situation. The main thing I’ve learned when it comes to legal issues, though, is that you don’t have to fight all battles. As lawyer-hubby has said to me time and time again, your IP is only as strong as your willingness to defend it, but you have to weigh the benefits against the cost. Before calling a lawyer, I always pause and ask myself: “Is this battle worth the fight? Is this a hill you want to die on?”
Be strategic with your rights.
If your IP is your biggest asset, then how you manage the rights to that IP is a crucial strategic decision. Read all contracts carefully. Don’t rely on an agent or lawyer to anticipate all the problems that might come up in a deal. I know it seems like we writers have to wear a million different hats, but this is one area where you want to keep an eye on things yourself.
Remember: an agent might know the publishing industry and an IP lawyer will know the law, but only you know what projects you have in the pipeline and how they relate to the deal you’re considering. This is extremely important because if a contract has stipulations (like a non-compete clause) you need to be careful that the deal you are signing doesn’t pigeon-hole you for future projects. After all, the last thing you want is to sign a contract for one project only to realize that you’ve painted yourself into a legal corner.
Some Points to Consider:
- What is required of you? Make sure you are 100% clear on what you are required to do to uphold your side of the contract. If there’s something you absolutely will not—or cannot—do, circle back and negotiate.
- What will the publisher (or other party) do? Don’t assume anything. If it’s not written in the contract, you’re better off thinking that they won’t do something and be pleasantly surprised than assuming they will do it and wind up disappointed. If something is an absolute must for you, put it in the contract.
- What is the compensation schedule? Most people are so focused on the amount of compensation that they overlook the timing, but the latter is critical if you want to build a self-sustaining career as a writer. Make sure you know exactly when you can expect payments to come in, and what provisions exist if there’s a delay.
- Does this contract impact other creative projects you might have in the works? This usually comes up as a non-compete clause, and it often comes up in freelance or speaking contracts as well as book deals. At face value, this type of stipulation can make a lot of sense. The idea is that you won’t publish another work that could potentially cannibalize the success of the work under contract. The key is making sure that this non-compete provision has some sort of deadline attached to it, otherwise you might end up in literary limbo with subsequent projects.
- When do the rights revert back to you? This is especially important when it comes to freelance writing but also applies to book deals. If you grant a publisher rights to your work, when do you get the rights back? Magazines often require a three-month window before you can reprint your work. Websites generally ask for a much shorter window. With a book deal, you need to know what happens if the publisher drops the ball on your project or decides not to go forward. You need to be clear about how long you might have to wait before the publisher no longer has claim on those rights and you can do something else with it.
Remember, if a deal doesn’t look good, you can always walk away. As lawyer-hubby often says: “Having no deal is better than having a bad deal.”
Diversify your publishing investments.
Like any industry, publishing has its ups and downs. Stuff happens. Imprints go under or get acquired. Editors change jobs and agents move agencies. Just as you might diversify your investments in terms of where you put your money, you want to do the same thing with your publishing strategy. In other words, don’t put all your literary eggs in one publisher’s basket.
Once you get that very first paycheck for your writing, start keeping track of where your writing income comes from, and how much comes from each separate source. Next, think about ways you can diversify your sources of income. Are you only getting freelance jobs from one or two publications? Maybe it’s time to branch out. Think also about whether there are other ways you could use your writing skills to supplement your income, such as copyediting, proofreading, or book coaching. (By the way, check out the Announcements section below for info on a free webinar all about book coaching!)
The more different sources of income you have, the better prepared you will be if one or more end up changing or disappearing altogether. Publishing also tends to operate on a “feast or famine” model when it comes to paying the writers. This means you may only get royalty payments a few times per year. If you have different projects that bring in income at different times, you can cobble together a more consistent income stream.
Don’t be an ROIdiot.
Return on investment (or ROI) can be hard to quantify, especially at the beginning of your career. Is a particular conference “worth it”? You might not know unless you go. Does a paltry publication fee justify the time spent writing an essay or short story? Maybe, if it’s a project you would have undertaken anyway.
ROI is different for each writer, and will likely also evolve as your career grows. Opportunities you would have jumped at when you were a newbie will be less enticing as your career develops. This is why I rely on the Trifecta of Success.
Trifecta of Success = Experience + Satisfaction + Money
Every time I consider a new project or consider a business decision, I think about the Trifecta. I ask myself: Will this project give me experience? Satisfaction? Money? Then I use the Trifecta to help me understand how the project aligns with my personal and professional goals.
If a project gives me none or only one of these three, I decline. In some cases, it might make sense to work mostly for the experience (I certainly did so early in my career), but this pattern is not sustainable for the long haul. It can be very hard to achieve all three of these elements, at least at first, but two out of three ain’t bad. You just have to figure out which one of these three you’re most willing to let go.
Money = Data
One of the biggest mindset shifts for me with regard to money was to think of money as a form of data. Just as I can use word count as a way to measure my overall productivity as a writer, money can serve as a metric for whether I’m investing my time and energy into the right activities. Not only does data help us quantify and measure the success of our writing-related efforts, it also serves as a record of what works (and what doesn’t).
My agent once said to me: “Don’t tell publishers what you’re willing to do to promote your book. Tell them what you’ve already been doing to build your platform and promote your work.” What you’ve been doing is data. You can study trends, see what works, and can make decisions based on that past information. If you don’t track data, you can’t tell if what you are doing is effective.
This leads to a “garbage in, garbage out” scenario, where you may repeat the same approach over and over, but it doesn’t actually yield results. Instead, you need to analyze what you’re already doing and see if it’s leading you in the direction you want to go.
Gabriela Pereira is an author, speaker, and entrepreneur who wants to challenge the status quo of higher education. As the founder and instigator of DIYMFA.com, her mission is to empower writers, artists and other creatives to take an entrepreneurial approach to their education and professional growth.
Gabriela earned her MFA in writing from The New School and speaks at college campuses and national conferences. She is also the host of DIY MFA Radio, a popular podcast where she interviews bestselling authors and book industry professionals and author of the book DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community.