Every so often I'll fill this space with some of the more common questions I hear from freelancers looking to start their careers or take them to the next level. As this is the first of these very irregular installments, I'm going to start with questions I've been asked over the last twenty-six years. Shall we?
Q: What makes a real writer?
A: The thing about writing is that there's no professional entry code or membership card. I suppose if you have your MFA from the University of Iowa, you might consider yourself a "real" writer, but we're talking about making a living, not just writing words. My definition is simple: if someone's paying you on the regular to write, you're a real writer.
Q: Do I need a literary agent?
A: If you want to get publishing deals, yes. A good literary agent is a writer's best friend, assuming you're in the business of writing books. Your agent will not only shop your work, but will get you access to the top publishers, give you valuable feedback, handle your contracts and rights so you don't get screwed, and will maximize your career opportunities. That's well worth a 15% commission.
Q: I want to make a living, but I also love writing novels. Can I do both?
A: You can, but it's not easy. The world is full of aspiring novelists because many of them believe, erroneously, that the only way to be a "real" writer is to write long-form fiction. That's nonsense. However, it means the signal-to-noise ratio in the fiction world is absurdly low, with millions of would-be novelists clamoring for the attention of editors, publishers, and agents every year. That makes it hard for even good work to get noticed. My advice: write something you're good at that pays you a livable wage, and write your novel on the side. That way, you're writing, honing your skills, and doing what you love. If one of your novels hits, bonus.
Q: Are all self-publishing services rip-offs?
A: No, but many are. The trouble is, there are a lot of starry-eyed wannabe authors out there and they're vulnerable to believing it when a publishing company tells them their book is wonderful and they want to "partner" with them to publish it. "Partner" is publishing talk for "You're going to pay us to publish your work." When you hear that, know that you're going to be expected to cut a check. For self-publishing, I prefer companies like Book Baby, which don't pretend to be publishing houses.
Q: Someone told me I should never pay to publish my book. Is that true?
A: No. Sometimes, paying to publish is the right move, especially if you have a built-in audience (a big social media following or a whopper email list, for example). In those cases, paying to publish can be a smart move. There are different kinds of pay-to-play publishers: vanity presses and hybrids. Vanity presses don't market your books and don't get them in bookstores, and should be avoided. Hybrids function like legit publishers but charge authors for their services. They do marketing, get books into bookstores, and pay royalties, usually much higher royalties than traditional publishers. But as with all things in publishing, you have to be careful. This is a terrific resource for learning how to spot shady vanity presses, and here you'll find a wonderful article from Reedsy about the pros and cons of hybrids.
Q: If I freelance, am I an independent contractor?
A: Yes. For tax purposes, that means you can deduct all sorts of expenses: reading materials, Internet service, your computer, part of your phone bill, the cost of a co-working space, and so on. You're also a self-employed sole proprietor (unless you create an LLC for your writing practice), so you'll pay self-employment tax instead of Social Security tax. If you do go freelance full-time, make sure you have a tax preparer who understands the unique nature of the tax laws in your state affecting the self-employed.
More questions and answers to come next time. Now, go write.