I was cold-called last month by an agent, representing a publisher, who had a book they wanted me to write. I declined. They came back a few days later. New offer. I declined again.
‘Now,’ you’re thinking, ‘has that Wright idiot taken leave of his senses?’ It’s every author’s dream to have them come to you. Well, yes. But I’ve been in the business in New Zealand a long while, and I’m known. Over the years I’ve been cold-called to write a huge range of stuff, all of which I’ve declined. This has included requests to write histories of a girls’ boarding school, district kindergartens, tractors, printing companies, and another to pick up a half-written history of the NZSAS.
All turned down. Why? I’ll explain – there’s a lesson here for writers. It’s a matter of professional integrity to me – to my brand – that I have a consistent theme to my work. Usually I suggest books to my publishers. Sometimes they’ll tell me about a particular project they have in mind – is that something I’d like to do? There’s an important distinction here. All books emerge as a process of dialogue with the publisher, irrespective of who initiates them; and if a publisher I’ve already written for says ‘how about a book on your home town’s biggest disaster, come back to us with your thoughts’, and I’m given leeway to write my own proposal – making it my project on the knowledge that the publishers are backing it – then maybe. A lot of books are written that way, via the relationship between author and publisher. It’s how the business works.
But I have no intention of descending to the level of a hack ‘writer-for-hire’, penning anything for anyone who calls out of the blue, or ghosting others’ works. There are writers who do, but I’m not one of them. Curiously, last month’s offer was directly in my field and along the lines of some ideas I’ve been pursuing myself with other publishers – basically, they were asking me to do what I’d been trying to do myself for a while. I could have got into the usual publisher dialogue and made it my own project. So why did I decline?
There were two reasons. One was that I have contracts that will tie me up until mid-2013 at earliest. They wanted it sooner. But the other was viability. The project had been budgeted on a shoestring with some of the production costs levelled, one way or another, on the author. A bit on the nose for a commission, and I’d have been declining or rescheduling better paid work to do it. So it would have cost me money to accept this project.
That’s the cruncher. Professional writing has to turn a practical dollar. I’m not the only one to suggest this. Have a look at this post in Caitlin Kelly’s blog for another angle on experience of writing professionally. For me, professionalism means that I have to make hard-nosed calls to ensure modest return on time and that I cover costs. This doesn’t mean being greedy; it means being realistic. Writers should not expect to get rich. But equally, writers should not have to carry others’ costs or lose money on a deal.
It doesn’t reduce the fact that writing is also answering a calling – authors are impelled to do it. Or reduce the necessary artistic input, the creativity, or any of those things that make writing such a fantastic thing to do. But it also has to be a viable business proposition. There is no choice. That’s the pragmatic reality.
I’m sure there are people who will tell me, ‘well, I’d write anyway’. Sure. Know what I do for relaxation? I write stuff that I give away (like this blog) or which probably won’t sell. But I also have to create projects that do sell. The point I am making is that if you’re serious and want to make your life as a writer, that is where the road leads.
Do you have any thoughts on this?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012