Last weekend I was speaking at the PowWow Festival of Writing in Moseley, Birmingham, and they were interested to hear how a writer of 2017 makes a living.
The first thing to say is that not many writers make a living from their books these days – whether they publish themselves or have book deals.
This is often a surprise to aspiring authors – and not a tad disappointing. It’s not that they expect to be earning like the headline grabbers, but they usually hope their book earnings will become a reliable replacement for other income. It usually doesn’t.
Of course, you’re far more likely to make quantities of £££ if you write prolifically in a popular genre – if that’s you, you might find this post by cosy mystery writer Elizabeth S Craig has useful strategies. You might also have made a serious study of hardass marketing techniques – a discipline in itself. But for those of us who produce more slowly and aren’t ninja marketers, book earnings are much less dependable. Especially the midlist authors – writers who build a steady stream of well-received books outside of the mega-selling genres. These days, authors whose work would be midlist are really feeling the pinch, even those who have book deals. Here’s a post by Kathleen Jones that explains how times have changed.
The short version: Most authors I know have other income streams. I do too, and they’re all connected with writing – which is something the PowWow crowd were curious about. I’m not going to show you pie-charts or anything so crass as earnings tables, but these are the activities that keep me ticking over in the world of books and words.
Things I do
- Developmental editing and mentoring
- Story consultancy (eg for computer games)
All the book editorial processes (copy editing, proof reading, typesetting)
- Speaking and masterclasses
- Surprising one-offs such as helping an author build a website
- Writing and publishing of my own books
- Magazine production
The PowWows’ major question was this: how do you get started in this kind of work?
Let’s take magazine publishing and book production out of the equation, as they came from traditional employment. I was a chief sub for years, and before that I ran the editorial department of a publishing imprint.
But many of the jobs I get now come from another source. Not from people I’ve worked with IRL, but people I’ve met since I started exploring the online world.
And here’s where my experience might give some useful pointers, because my online footprint is generating the majority of my work. For instance, editing – I’ve never pitched for editing work. It’s all come to me. My blogposts have acted as a kind of CV, getting me noticed by influential bloggers and by authors and other people who need book doctors – and they generate a steady flow of enquiries. When I look at my website stats, my consultancy page has more hits than any of my other pages.
And, at the risk of sounding unhelpfully gnomic, I’ve learned that your platform will work for you, but rarely as you expect it to. Just like real life, the contacts you think will be helpful might not come to much. And the ones you weren’t relying on will prove unexpectedly fruitful.
What did I do to build a platform? It was simple, really – and not very calculated. I can’t be bothered to develop grand self-marketing schemes. I did what interested me – wrote blogposts, commented on other people’s blogs, took part in tweet chats, talked equal amounts of wisdom and nonsense with likeminded souls. It began with a blog in 2009. By 2011 I was on Twitter, Linked In, Google + and Facebook. Eight years on, my personal world wide web is working hard for me – and I’ve made genuine friends along the way. (Which just goes to show that the best way to use social media is to relax, don’t think about selling, and just get to know people.) Here’s a picture of a good platform.
On the subject of pitching, one of the things I talked about at PowWow was the value of writing a cheeky letter. If I run across a bookshop or an initiative that says it’s looking for my kind of fiction, or an event that wants speakers in my areas of expertise, I’ll pitch to them. Nine times out of 10 I don’t get a reply. But sometimes it’s the start of something wonderful.
Here’s an example. Last year I discovered the One Giant Read initiative (to get people reading science fiction) so I pitched Lifeform Three to them. They loved it, featured it on their website with an in-depth review and interview. Always be ready to take a giant step.
A cheeky letter also got me started as a book doctor and writing mentor. Years ago, a publisher rejected one of my manuscripts with a form letter, and included a flyer for a literary consultancy’s editing services. So I wrote to the consultancy – but not to request their services. I told them about my ghostwriting experience and asked if I could work for them. Voila – a working relationship that lasted for many years.
And on the subject of ghostwriting? Well, most ghostwriters get their best opportunities from personal contacts. I got my break when I happened to be in the right place at the right time, so I had the chance to prove myself (if you haven’t heard it before, there’s more here). At the moment, I don’t do many ghostwriting projects because my calendar’s taken up by other things, but I’ve noticed in recent years that I no longer have to seek opportunities. My website and blog – again – are acting as a CV and people come to me. So if you’re interested in writing books for others or collaborating, make sure your online home has pages that showcase your style, experience and versatility. (If you’re serious about ghostwriting, here’s my course.)
Social media are ideal for shy writers
Some of the writers at PowWow weren’t sure about social media or how to use them to build a career. Here’s how I explained it. Most opportunities in the writing and publishing world seem to come by networking. People work with people they know. Before we all facebooked, snapchatted, tumbld, tweeted and blogged, writers would get on by going to publisher parties or book launches. If you weren’t in that world, it was hard to break in. And anyway, most of us are not party people. (Certainly I’m paralysed if I’m thrown into a roomful of strangers. I stand in a corner wondering where to start.)
Online, though, writers are at two enormous advantages.
- You can talk to anyone. Anyone you like.
- You can do it by typing. Which is where we’re absolutely in our element.
And, purely as a result of meeting people online (via social media and on my blog), I have contributed to anthologies, spoken at events, collaborated on online courses and given masterclasses.
I didn’t pitch for any of them; they came to me.
Likewise, when I’ve been building a team for an event, I’ve approached people who’ve impressed me with interviews or posts I’ve read online.
Here’s another tip: once you start being offered new types of work, update your website to show people you can do it. Once I put speaking on my website header, I got more offers. Then opportunities beget opportunities.
There’s a saying: ‘build it and they will come’. In most areas of life, that’s disastrous advice. It’s certainly not a recipe for selling a lot of books. But with social media, if you build solid relationships over time, and a website that shows your work to good advantage, a lot of good will come.
And speaking of building something…
I have an announcement. A one-day self-publishing masterclass, taught by selfpub professionals (including yours truly), sponsored by IngramSpark, in London on 23 September. Special early-bird rate of £80 if you book your place before the end of May (spaces are limited to 200 attendees, so grab yours now).
Thanks for the footprint pic pmarkham on Flickr
Okay, back to the post. What’s your experience? Have you noticed that social media has brought you opportunities? How much has been by conventional pitching and how much by more surprising routes?