Where the road leads if you’re serious about writing

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

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14 thoughts on “Where the road leads if you’re serious about writing

  1. Even though I’m a self-published author, I totally agree with you. If a publisher came along and wanted me to do a project that was out of my genre or my niche, I would decline even if it was very lucrative. It would be tempting, sure, but I would not do it. I am reading so much now about authors who land a book deal only to have the publisher tell the author that the publisher must have exclusivity to the author’s next two books, then reject every new novel the author produces until finally they give in and because of contract write something the publisher wants.

    1. That’s the nature of the business, and to give the major publishing houses their due, they actually do know what constitutes good literature; if a book is rejected (even when on contract option) it will be for good reason.

  2. Thanks for the link!

    I do stuff that’s “not my genre” all the time, but articles, not books. A book is a much larger commitment of time and energy. You have to be super passionate about it as it will be something you’re living with for much longer.

    1. Absolutely agree. The related issue of writer brand, which I didn’t raise in this post, is being typecast – something I also try to avoid. I’ll ponder that, might post on it later.

  3. The more I read about the publishing industry, the more I am thankful I am an accountant with some hope of drilling into the figures!

    I am also protective of my brand, especially while I am building it from the ground up.

    Thanks for the tips!

  4. Brand is definitely a key to success in writing. And so is being able to make it a business – something that a lot of writers don’t do. It’s a matter of balancing the ‘art/creation’ with the ‘hard nosed pragmatism’. As an aside, I’ve found the accounting policies my publishers use tend to vary. I believe there is a quirk in New Zealand’s goods-and-services tax laws, for example, which makes unsold stock liable for GST after a certain time, so one of my main publishers has a tendency to pulp their stock at that point in order to avoid the liabilities. Another of them doesn’t.

  5. In graphics it was simple, either I was involved in graphic art or graphic design. Graphic design is where I use my experience, training, skill, etc., to solve someone else’s graphic needs. I started writing a year ago and have completed six novels to first draft. I have yet to really move on getting them published. I could not write outside my brand as you call it. I can see to graphics within design as separate to art. But I could not do so in writing I am sure. Then again, this is NZ ….

  6. Writing is art! In the sense that it is an abstract human creation that can invoke emotion in the recipient. If the writer’s good enough, they can guide that emotion. Just like artists do – I’m thinking impressionists, but of course it’s true for all the genres. Good luck with your writing.

    1. Thank you Sir.
      I only know art in terms of graphic art …. and “there is nothing one can say of art that is better than not saying anything at all” as the quote goes.
      Writing for me is writing, end of.
      So I would need to sit on the fence to allow art on that one, except the top strand is always barbed … that’s life in rural NZ.
      I’m enjoying it immensely … the writing I mean.

  7. I want to self publish instead of go the traditional route (for now, anyway), but I still agree with you about not “selling out”, so to speak. It’s always wise to pick your novels carefully, no matter who, how, or why you publish.

  8. What a great feeling it must be to send a publisher a rejection notice. I dream of such things.

    I would consider ghostwriting a project, if the money and subject matter is right, but it’s not something I could do regularly. Ghostwriting is doing a lot of damage to the publishing industry. If the author isn’t passionate about the subject, the quality of the writing suffers.

    1. I read a ghost-written book recently which was so badly done that the real author, who was pretending to be the guy that had “written” the book, kept mixing up “he”, “we” and “i”. Dreadful. Should have been fixed with some robust editing at publication end – but wasn’t.

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