How Authors Should Spend their Time
A pep talk on your writing side hustles.
I want to talk about one of the more awkward scenarios with which authors have to grapple: charging for their time. My writing life mostly revolves around the kidlit world, rather than the adult circuit, so it’s with that perspective that I approach this topic, but I’m sure it applies to any professional writer who has been asked to do something for free.
“Will you read my self-published book?”
“Can you visit my school?”
“Are you able to help me get traction with an agent?”
“Will you attend our festival four states over?”
“Can you help me with my manuscript?”
There are endless favors asked of writers who, in the eyes of the public, have “made it”. I could go into an entire essay about what that phrase “made it” even means in all its various definitions, but I want to focus on the favor part. For some reason, in the literary world there is a plethora of people who believe if they just ask the right person the right favor, they will be seen, or published, or something. I’m not entirely sure where this mindset comes from because I certainly never had it.
Like any other professional experience, I started at the bottom and worked my way up. And am still working.
First, I don’t want to confuse this topic with valid favors from your peers. There are many things we writers do for each other — read and critique each other’s work, ask for blurbs, help each other gain attendance at events, do blog tours, etc. But there is a clear difference here: These are the favors of colleagues. People who are mutually agreeing to help each other out, usually because they already know each other or are good friends. The literary community is a wonderful place full of encouragement and willingness to help each other out. A rising tide lifts all ships.
This post is about acquaintances and strangers mostly, because it happens quite often — on the street, at book events, even through website emails — as well as, how to navigate events and school visits.
This is a tough one for me because
1. It’s nice to be admired/wanted/respected
2. I like doing nice things for people
3. It’s still possible exposure
However. You can’t always say yes and especially not at your expense.
I’ve developed sort of a sliding scale of acceptance for such requests. It primarily comes down to a basic benefit-cost ratio.
Here’s my philosophy:
If they are local, and fit my schedule, I attend them paid or not. You can meet other local writers and you’re building your local and personal community which I believe is important and serves everyone. And these events are just fun! However, if I can’t fit it in, or simply feel too pressed, I don’t feel guilty saying no.
If they require travel, either I have to be paid or reimbursed by my publisher. It’s highly unlikely that I will attend if it has to come out of pocket. And if the invite is paid, I’ll do the math: Will it cover my travel, and food, and will I still have profit after taxes? If not, it’s a hard sell. Unless it was something very special that I’d always wanted to attend, most likely I’ll turn it down. It’s hard to say no to these things but the reality is they can get very expensive.
Similarly for conferences: you often have to pay your own registration and hotel even if you are presenting. I’ve turned down a couple because of this. I really want to attend, and many authors do, but I’m not going to pay upwards of $300 to speak on a panel. It’s not even logical. Now, if the timing of a book coming out coincided with a very popular conference that didn’t require a plane ticket, then I might invest in attended. But see how complicated this can get?
Basically, the same rules as events. I know when I visit kids I’m animated, informative, and truly care about my presentation and having a good rapport with them. I believe in my books and I know I give a decent performance. That being said, I find school visits more stressful than adult events. They can also be tiring for this introvert. So, if a school asks me to visit I weigh the cost/benefits even stricter than events.
The only free school visit I’ve given was my very first visit which was for a teacher-friend and it was perfect practice for me. The kids were in a reading club and it couldn’t have been a better first experience — a mutual exchange between my friend and I. NOT a random favor for a random school.
The rates for school visits vary between authors a great deal. It’s something you have to come to terms with as an individual because there is no chart to base your rates off of. Some authors charge $300, some $3000.
Some schools will say they have no budget or no way to pay an author for a visit, but that’s not entirely true.
Again, this is something you have to weigh, but many schools fundraise, crowdsource or ask help from local businesses and bookstores to bring in their students’ favorite author. This requires advanced planning and effort on the school’s part for sure, but there’s no question that the schools that do this value their guest speaker a great deal. And they should! You’ve worked long and hard to get to there!
Reading/Critiquing Other People’s Work
I was involved in a critique group for years which I highly recommend for writers in all stages who are looking for feedback on their work. Preferably a group where all of the members are at or close to the same career level. My group was four traditionally published authors in various stages of their careers and many varying experiences. This kind of arrangement is mutual, free, and super fun. And it’s such a joy to see all your friends get book deals on manuscripts you’ve all seen!
When a stranger asks me for feedback, I charge them.
Usually another author friend has referred a friend of theirs to me for help and they know they will be paying, or rather investing in their own project, by seeking my input. I don’t take this lightly at all, which is why I charge. I’m serious about it, so the writer has to also be serious about it. Depending on the number of pages it will take me several hours to days to read and critique. That’s all time away from my own writing, or playing with my dog. I also vet projects by talking to the writer first and getting a synopsis. If the writer’s skill level is too low, I suggest a class or critique group. If the writer’s skill is good, I’ll explain my process and let them decide.
Let me make it clear: I did not charge for this service prior to having five books in various categories on contract. Once I felt I could give writers quality feedback, not only on craft but on the business of publishing, I began accepting clients. I treat all clients exactly the way I handle students in my MFA programs so they get a tiny MFA experience when they work with me. This is an earned role not to be taken lightly. I know I have someone’s dreams and hard work on the line and I want to give them my most educated feedback.
Dear writers, if you’re looking for feedback, vet your coach! Make sure they have the education and credit to back up their service.
I have also had a few requests to read books that are self-published and I won’t do that. I don’t see the point. If the writer has already gone on to self-publish and thinks that a traditionally published author is going to help them get “seen”, they are delusional. This actually makes me angry because it shows they’re aware of the clout that comes with traditional publishing, but don’t want to do the time to work toward it themselves. This also does major disservice to the accomplished and talented self-published authors who are doing the incredible amount of work to market and sell their books.
Lastly, consider this, authors — You aren’t being invited or asked for help because you got lucky with a cute book. You are being invested in for years of work, education, and experience in writing, researching, and publishing.
You are being paid for all of the work that brought you up to that moment where you can share with others your journey and determination to make a dream become reality.
If you’re anything like me, you were writing for years, maybe decades. You probably have dozens of manuscripts in your computer. You have a degree or three that you’re still paying off. You interned for literary magazines and agencies. You attended countless conferences, pitched to agents, got rejected a thousand times. You’ve taught all ages. You teach in an MFA program. You’ve freelanced on both the editing and writing sides. You do all of these things and still don’t have health benefits or a salary. You picked yourself up again and again and again until you were finally successful in getting that agent, that book deal, that dream.
You tell me what the benefit-cost ratio is.
Jess Rinker is the author of Gloria Takes a Stand, a picture book biography of Gloria Steinem, and the forthcoming, Send a Girl: The Brenda Berkman Story, due out in 2021, both published by Bloomsbury. Jessica’s middle grade novel debut duology, The Dare Sisters, will be published in Fall 2020 and 2021 by Imprint/Macmillan.