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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Now it's Time to Sell: How I've Been Promoting my POD Book

Regardless of whether you choose a traditional or POD publisher, promoting and selling your book is your job as an author. (The time-consuming nature of doing so is one of the main reasons I've chosen to focus on ghostwriting and coauthoring books.)

There's no shortage of books and websites that tell you how to promote your book, and many POD companies now offer marketing services to authors as well. The bottom line, though, is that works for one book won't work for another. Your understanding of your readership--who they are and how you can connect with them--is key to deciding how you'll spend your marketing time and dollars.

Goodbye Byline, Hello Big Bucks is aimed at a fairly narrow audience--freelancers and book authors who want to add ghostwriting to their repertoire, or want to learn more about this field. Those are my potential book buyers. So how do I reach them and promote my book to them?

  • I launched this blog last year, when I started writing the book, to help build a (hopefully) loyal readership and promote the title when it came out.

  • I added an "Author" page to Facebook to promote myself and got on Twitter. (Follow me at #kellyjamesenger.) I limit my Tweets to the subject of succeeding as a freelancer/author.

  • I asked for, and received, a cover blurb from Marcia Layton Turner, founder and executive director of the Association of Ghostwriters.

  • I pitched articles on ghostwriting to a variety of writer's publications, and wrote a six-page feature on ghostwriting that ran in the April, 2011 issue of Writer's Digest. I also wrote several articles for Writing for Dollars.

  • I participated in teleseminars with sites like to reach potential buyers.

  • I wrote guest posts for a variety of writing-related blogs.

  • I requested that my book be reviewed by The ASJA Monthly, where it received a positive review.

  • I sent emails to former expert sources, letting them know about the book and that I'm actively looking for new ghosting clients.

  • I sent emails to editors and former clients, telling them about the book.

  • I mentioned the book at all of my speaking gigs, and brought copies so attendees could buy their own copies.

  • I agreed to speak at writers' conferences, where I sold my book and/or presented sessions on ghostwriting.

  • I asked for readers who got in touch with me after buying the book to post reviews on

That's just the beginning of what I've done, and will continue to do. (Check out Caitlin Kelly's excellent post about how she's promoting her new memoir about working in retail, Malled.)

However, as GoodBye Byline is my 12th published book, there are a lot of things I'm not doing this time out. Next post, I'll share some of the promotion tactics that I've tried in the past and haven't been worth the time.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Six Months of POD Sales: An In-Depth Look

Last year I made the leap from a traditionally published girl to POD. I had strong reasons for doing so, but had no idea of what to expect in terms of actual sales. (For point of comparison, I sold about 4,600 copies of Six-Figure Freelancing the first six months after it was published--not bad at all. However, sales after that first six-month period slackened, and I have yet to earn out--though I think I will in the next three years or so.)

After considering a number of possible POD options, I chose CreateSpace for several reasons, including the overall cost, the services it provides, and its ability to turn my book around on an expedited schedule. I spent about $650 upfront (not including the cost of a proofreader, who I hired on my own) for layout, cover and interior design, and limited distribution of Goodbye Byline, Hello Big Bucks: The Writer's Guide to Making Money Ghostwriting and Coauthoring Books. Obviously I want to recoup my investment, make a profit on the book, and eventually attract more ghostwriting clients as well.

And how do I do that? By selling the book to readers. But I admit that the first six months fell a bit short of my expectations. In the first six months since the book was published in October, 2010, I've sold the following:

October, 2010 24 print copies/5 Kindle editions (including one at 35%)
November, 2010 12 print copies/3 Kindle editions
December, 2010 12 print copies/3 Kindle editions
January, 2011 1 print copy/5 Kindle editions
February, 2011 15 print copies (including 3 expanded distribution)/4 Kindle editions
March, 2011 19 print copies (including 4 expanded edition)/6 Kindle editions

That makes 83 print copies (including those sold through expanded distribution) and 26 Kindle editions, for a total of 109 copies in the first six months. Not quite the numbers I was hoping for, but considering that most POD books average this number of total sales, I'm considering it just the beginning.

Now that we have sales numbers, let's talk money. Goodbye Byline is priced at $14.95, the same price as Six-Figure Freelancing, my traditionally-published book with Random House. But what I actually make per book sale depends on what edition was sold, and another factor--how and where it was distributed. Here are the hard numbers:

For each print copy sold through or, I make a "royalty" (though it's not a true royalty) of $5.32.

For each print copy sold through what CreateSpace calls "expanded distribution" (e.g., your local brick-and-mortar bookstore), I make a royalty of $2.33.

For each Kindle edition sold in the US, UK, or Canada, I make 70% of the cover price, which is $9.99--that's a royalty of $6.95.

And for a Kindle edition sold outside of those three countries, I made 35% of the Kindle price of $9.99, or $3.49.

(Oh, and if I choose to purchase print copies of the book directly from CreateSpace for my own "hand sales," they cost me $3.65/each. )

So, in the first six months, I've made $408.67 in print book sales through CreateSpace, and 178.33 in Kindle sales, for a total of $587. Yet I've actually made more than that thanks to the book--and next post I'll tell you why.

Readers, what do you think? Is seeing specific numbers for a POD publisher helpful to you? If so, let me know or share this post with other authors, both budding and experienced.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Coming Next Week: Straight Talk about Book Sales

Thinking about going POD for a book project? There are pros and cons to opting for POD over a traditional publisher, and last year I decided to take the leap and use POD to publish Goodbye Byline, Hello Big Bucks: The Writer's Guide to Making Money Ghostwriting and Coauthoring Books (Kindle edition).

You may already know that regardless of whether you choose to go with a traditional or POD publisher (or skip both and choose an ebook instead), writing the book is the easy part. Selling it is what most authors find challenging.

So next week I'll share actual sales figures (similar to when I shared a recent royalty statement) and talk about some of the ways I market my books, as well as what has worked for me and what hasn't. (I've got 10 years+ as a published author, and am always experimenting with ways to get more readers/buyers of my work.)

Tune in if you're a book author--or hope to be. You'll find it worthwhile.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Query Critique Week: Rites of Passage Query

Welcome back to Query Critique Week! My comments are in green:

Dear Ms. Kovacs and Ms. Bickle,

Like lots of women, Teresa Barile still remembers her first pair of earrings. And it’s no wonder –they weren’t ordinary store-bought posts. “The day I turned twelve my mom took me and my best friend to have our ears pierced. The best part was that I got my Grandmother's earrings from Italy. I felt so grown-up and proud to be receiving a part of our family history.” [Nice anecdotal lead, but I'd include Teresa's age. ]

In every child’s life there are moments like this. For my seven-year-old son the big day came this past summer when he learned how to build a campfire. As his parents, we made sure that Jason didn’t just learn about matches and fire safety; he also learned about responsibility. The next time we go camping, he’ll be in charge of making the fire, with his dad’s help, of course. [Nice. I actually think the writer could cut the first paragraph and open the query with this anecdote.]

Family educators and youth experts know that rites of passage like Teresa’s and Jason’s are essential for healthy youth development. Says Ruth Ettenberg Freeman, licensed social worker and founder of Positive Parenting, “Kids need to feel that they are a part of something larger than themselves. Parents can help by identifying every day rites of passage and creating family rituals to celebrate them. This helps tremendously with kids’ self-worth, with peer pressure and with keeping them from engaging in risky behaviors.” [Good job of showing why readers will care.]

Trouble is many families today are caught up in what amounts to a game of “rites of passage Monopoly” where all a kid needs to do is “Pass Go,” hit a milestone birthday and collect a privilege. But instead of basing privileges on age, “Parents should communicate their expectations clearly and set up a system of things that kids need to achieve that will tell everyone – the parents and the kids – that they’re ready for the privilege,” says Ruth Ettenberg Freeman. [I like this concept, but I think I'd use the word "prize" or "award" instead of privilege. The quote is a little awkward; if I were writing this query, I'd take it out of quotes, revise, and attribute to Freeman. She needn't repeat her full name.]

For your “Behavior” department I propose an article about rites of passage and their importance in healthy youth development. Drawing on current literature and expert advice, Moments That Matter: Creating More Meaningful Family Rituals, will show parents how family rituals and rites of passage help children develop and exhibit personal responsibility. The article will also include family-created rituals and modern twists on traditional rites of passage. For example:

Celebrate everyday accomplishments When it comes to milestones, parents and kids usually think of the big-ticket items: starting kindergarten, turning thirteen, getting your driver’s license. But, the seemingly insignificant triumphs matter just as much. Did your six-year-old finally learn to flip a pancake? Celebrate with a special “all-you-eat” breakfast cooked by your young chef.

Have clear expectations “In our house,” says Clare Koontz, we have a rule: No lace-up shoes until you can tie them yourself. We let the kids practice on our shoes. Once they’ve learned how, they get to pick out a pair of sneakers.” For Linda Stephens, mom to two tweens, communication is essential. “My son was eight when he first brought up the subject of dating,” says Linda. “He giggled when I asked what he meant by date. I told him that when he’s able to have a serious conversation about dating that’s when I’ll know he’s mature enough. Until then, no dating.”

Link everyday rites of passage to service Is your middle schooler pining for the latest gadget? Then make sure she uses her tech skills to contribute to the family’s well-being. “We told our daughter, now that you’ve got an iPad, you can use it to create our weekly grocery list,” says Sharon Siegel, mom of three. “She feels great about helping me out and I can make sure she’s using technology responsibly.”

Share your legacy Passing on a treasured heirloom – Dad’s boyhood fishing pole, Grandma’s secret recipe, Uncle Will’s catcher’s mitt, Grandpa’s pocket knife – is one way to celebrate your child’s new status in the family. “I have a box of keepsake clothes that I plan to give my daughter when she’s older,” say Eimear Harrison. Objects like these not only acknowledge a child’s accomplishments, they also show you value your family history. [The writer has done a great job showing the editors how she'll approach the piece and that she's already down plenty of legwork--but I think she has too many examples. I'd cut several.]

I see this as a 700-word piece, but that is flexible, according to your editorial needs. Possible sidebars include Pivotal Moments, a timeline of important, yet often-overlooked milestones for each age and stage of a child’s life, and Risky Rituals, tips for helping kids avoid negative rites of passage, like teenage dieting among girls. [Good but I'm wondering how she's going to get all this into just 700 words? I'd cut the sidebar ideas--or better yet, pitch a related idea to another market at the same time.]

By way of background, I’m a freelance writer and mom of two boys. I am a contributing writer to Washington Parent and have published pieces (clips and links to three of my stories are attached) on parenting and education in over two dozen magazines, including Language Magazine and New Jersey Monthly. [Nice.]

Every child grows up eventually. Moments that Matter: Creating More Meaningful Family Rituals will help families create rituals to celebrate the big and the little rites of passage along the way. [I'd cut this; writer's already covered this.]

May I have this assignment for Today’s Parent? [Nice.]

Thank you for your consideration.

Overall, a strong query; however, I'd do some cutting/editing and tighten it overall before I sent it out. Readers, let me know if you agree. The best thing about the query (other than the idea, which is compelling) is the amount of legwork/research the writer has done. Even if this idea doesn't sell, she's demonstrated her professionalism and has a good chance of being considered for other assignments. Don't you agree?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Query Critique Week: YA Series Pitch

Today's query critique is for a YA series; it's aimed at an editor or agent. My comments appear in blue:

I am writing to query your interest in my Middle-Grade series, BIG SISTER BABYSITTER. I have read your bio in CWIM and thought my book might suit your representation style. [It's good to open with a "why I'm pitching you" but I'd like to see you mention specific books or series that the writer's series is similar to. Also, the wording a bit awkward--.e.g "suit your reprentation style." Why not just say "you may be interested in repping/publishing my book"?]

One day on a peaceful island Lake Ashley Payton, (also known as LA) hears some life changing news that rattles her world. “I am going to be a WHAT?!” she wails in fear of the worst. LA captures her every moment making a video diary, while she curiously learns the process of human development and uses Bible verses to help her through the emotional struggles. The true adventure of her blended family is just beginning when LA becomes a big sister and something happens that teaches her many lessons about love. [The language is a bit over-the-top, and I'm a little confused about the "true adventure". If this is fiction, it's not a true adventure. Also, certain words like "curiously" jump out at me. I'd rework this paragraph a bit, and include another line or two about LA so we know more about her as a character/person.]

BIG SISTER BABYSITTER is a 29,000-word middle-grade entertaining series written for fun, curious and youthful girls wanting to learn more about Christianity, human development and blended families. [Again, "fun, curious and youthful" doesn't work for me. I'd rework this sentence; also, is this one book which is 29,000 words or a series of books? It's unclear. Also, get rid of "human development." Why not say something like, "written for middle-school-aged girls dealing with issues of identity and families, especially those in blended families."]

This is my first middle-grade book. BIG SISTER BABYSITTER has been inspired by my own personal life growing up and my adoring husband and three amazing children. In this story captures the true voice of a youthful girl in a blended family. It is distinct because its’ humorous character learns in a Christian why what every little girl wonder’s about, but no one will talk about. [Again, a few words threw me off, like "adoring" and "amazing." It's fine to say that it's inspired by your life, but I'd focus more here on your platform/ability to sell the book. That's what editors/agents care about these days. A few lines about your connections/ability to market the book will make a big difference. Also, there are are some mistakes/typos in this paragraph, which is a turnoff.]

This is a simultaneous submission. Thank you for your time and consideration. [Good; you always want to let agents/editors know about simultaneous submissions.]


[Overall, this query needs some work before it's ready to send out. Agents/editors don't care what inspired your book; they care about what kind of book it is, who the audience is, and how you'll sell it--in other words, what your platform is. That's what sells books today.]

Stay tuned for at least one more query critique this week!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Query Critique Week: Shyness Query

Welcome to Query Critique Week, and thanks to all my readers who submitted queries. While I won't be able to include them all, I appreciate you submitting your ideas.

Our first query is a pitch to Parenting (though it could work for just about any parenting magazine). My comments are in blue. Overall, I think it's a good idea but the query is too long, could use more specifics, and needs some judicious editing. Here it is:

Dear Ms. Fernandez,

I have been one of those moms. I have sat perched by the door of the ballet studio and waved reassuringly to my daughter during her ballet lesson. I have stayed at birthday parties to help my child feel more comfortable socializing and I’ve hosted numerous play dates at my house. [I like the lead but I'd add a little more to the last sentence; e.g., "and I've hosted numerous play dates at my house to make it easier for my children to make friends."]

Finding a babysitter that my kids were comfortable with was a struggle of legendary proportions. I know I’m not alone. There are legions of us out there – the moms of shy kids who are no longer adorable toddlers. [I'd probably cut this paragraph; or work the idea of millions of shy schoolaged kids into the query in one of the next two paragraphs.]

Our society pushes kids at a young age to get out and get thrown into new situations – from Santa at the mall to preschool for everyone. [I don't like the phrase "preschool for everyone" but I like the concept of pushing kids, even those who are "slow to warm up." I'd develop a little further.] But as they get older, the challenges increase. Grade school kids can’t climb into mom’s lap for a hug. Parents need to actively teach their older children coping techniques, more than avoidance tactics, to help smooth the way for them to make friends and adjust to new and uncomfortable situations. [I'd change to "Grade-school-aged kids" can't just climb into mom's lap for a hug--not that they'd be willing to, anyway" or something a little punchier. I like the concept in the last paragraph but would add some specifics--like what kind of uncomfortable situations?]

In the past 30 years, experts estimate that shyness has increased in children. A study done by Lynne Henderson, Ph.D. and Philip Zimbardo, Ph.D. of The Shyness Institute at Stanford University reveals that while in 1982, 38% of fifth graders said they were shy; today those rates are as high as 61%. And people don’t necessarily outgrow shyness. Nearly 40% of adults suffer from chronic shyness, that is, shyness poses a problem in their lives. Shy students are often afraid to ask a question in class or play games on the playground. Shy adults tend to have a more difficult time finding a job or going on dates. It’s important to help kids learn good coping skills early on. [Good research here, but I'd change the first sentence to something like, "Despite all those texts and Myspace postings, experts estimate that shyness has increased in children over the past 30 years." The rest of the paragraph shows strong research, though I'd like it to flow a little better; it's reading a little pedantic to me.]

I’d like to write an article titled, For the Love of Shy Kids: Being Shy isn’t a Disability but You Can Help Them Feel More Comfortable. This article will give parents concrete techniques for appreciating a shy child’s point of view and helping the shy child navigate new situations. I’ll explain how to recognize and embrace the positive aspects of shyness and how, by allowing your child to be who they are naturally, parents are removing the anxiety trigger that brings on shyness. Some concrete tips for how to help shy children adjust include those same reward charts that worked so well in preschool. And by helping children develop a natural interest in an activity, they gain confidence and meet people with whom they feel comfortable. I’ll also talk about the importance of getting to know other kids their age and how parents who get involved and learn their classmates and their classmates’ parents can be a big boon to their child. [I'd cut "I'd like to write an article" and get right into the pitch--e.g., "My article, "TK" will give parents concrete techniques..." The working title/sub is too long--make it shorter and punchier. And while the rest of this paragraph has good info, I'd tighten it a bit and make it more specific if possible. Are there studies, for example, that show that outgoing kids do better in school than shy kids, etc? Back it up with research when you can. And tell the editor where you think the story belongs and how many words you estimate for the piece.]

I plan to interview Dr. Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute and professor of psychology at Indiana University Southeast. He has been studying shyness for the past 30 years and has written numerous books on the topic, including Shyness and The Shyness Breakthrough: A No-Stress Plan to Help Your Shy Child Warm Up, Open Up, and Join the Fun. I will also interview Dr. Stephanie Mihalas, the founder of The Center for Well-Being: Psychological Services for Children, Youth, and Families in Los Angeles, and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University. In addition, I will offer real life insights from parents of shy children as to what works and what doesn’t. [This is good, but again I'd tighten a little bit. Shows that you've done your research though; nice.]

A potential sidebar could be “When to worry about shyness,” which would look at when shyness becomes debilitating and problematic. According to Dr. Lynne Henderson, director of The Shyness Institute at Stanford University, shy individuals are frequently physically self-conscious and report having negative thoughts about themselves and others in social situations – seeing themselves as inhibited, awkward, physically unattractive, unfriendly and incompetent. I will offer up some suggestions, such as relaxation techniques, role playing and exposure therapy, along with resources for parents to help their children cope with everyday life. [It's always good to suggest a sidebar but I'm thinking that a lot of this would probably be included in the main story. And I feel like you're going into too much detail here for a sidebar, which tends to be fairly brief.]

I am a frequent contributor to Chicago Parent and my writing has been published in more than 45 regional parenting publications, including Atlanta Parent, San Diego Family, Montreal Parent and Portland Family. In addition, I write and edit weekly stories for an edition of the Chicago Sun-Times. I have attached some recent clips. [This is fine, but remind the editor of your experience as the parent of one or more shy children and how that will allow you to bring a unique perspective to the piece.]

I look forward to hearing your thoughts or questions.


***Readers, what do you think? Do you agree with my comments/edit suggestions? For a whole chapter's worth of first queries from new freelancers that sold, and why, check out my book for newbie magazine freelancers, Ready, Aim, Specialize! Create your own Writing Specialty and Make More Money (Kindle edition).

Stay tuned for more queries...

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Too Depressed to Write? That's no Excuse...

If depression is hurting your productivity, check out The Renegade Writer's interview with Julie Fast, author of Get it Done When You're Depressed. It's a great Q & A and includes tips that are relevant for any writer who wants to boost his/her productivity.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Query Critique Week is Back!

Remember last year's query critique week? Well, it's back...I'll be critiquing query letters on my blog next week. I've written hundreds of queries, and edited hundreds of others for freelancers, and I know what works.

Want personalized feedback on one of your pitches? Here's how to play:

1. Send your nonfiction query to kelly at by Monday, April 18, 2011. Make sure you put "Query Critique Week" in the subject line.

2. Cross your fingers and hope that your query gets picked to be critiqued here on my blog. (I'll only be able to choose a few.)

3. Tune in next week!

That's it! For a look at the queries from last year's query critique week and my feedback on them, check out these posts:

Fitness pitch

Swiss chard pitch

Street harassment pitch

Memoir pitch

Declutter pitch

By the way, if you wrote one of these queries last year, please let me know what happened with it!

**All of my books on freelancing include plenty of templates to save your time--and help you sell more of your writing.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The 24-Hour Rule and Why it Works

I've written before about the importance--and power of--setting specific, performance-related goals. At the Annual Writers Institute this weekend in Madison, I shared with attendees one of my most effective specific goals that I used as a fledgling freelancer--the 24-hour rule.

You'll find more about the 24-hour rule in Six-Figure Freelancing, but here it is in short:

Within 24 hours of receiving a rejection, or "thanks, but no thanks" (what I call a "bong") from an editor, I would do two things. First, I’d resubmit the query to another market; I call this a "resub."

Second, I’d send a new query to the editor who had rejected me, starting with language like, "Thank you very much for your response to my query about women and weight-lifting. While I’m sorry you can’t use the idea at this time, I have another for you to consider." Then I’d include my new query.

The 24-hour rule transformed each rejection into two new opportunities. Getting my original query idea out to another possible market (typically a national magazine) increased my chances of selling it. But even more important, getting back in touch with editors immediately helped me build relationships even before I’d written for them!

As I said this weekend, when you go to the Gap to buy a new pair of pants, and the first pair are pleated pants that look terrible, the salesgirl doesn't say, "'K, bye!" She brings you more pants to try on. So be the Gap salesgirl, and keep bringing the editor more pants.

Finally, the 24-hour rule also eliminated the question of "what should I do now?" after receiving a bong. I didn’t get derailed by a rejection; I simply applied my 24-hour rule and kept going.

If you're freelancing part-time or you're swamped with work, 24 hours may be too ambitious. Maybe a 48-hour or 72-hour rule will work better. But the idea is the same--that you give yourself a specific amount of time to resub your original idea and pitch a new idea to the editor. A rejection isn't really a rejection--it's two new opportunities for you as a freelancer.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Make the Leap: 8 Ways to Break into National Magazines

One of the questions I hear frequently from freelancers is about making the leap from smaller, regional, and/or trade magazines to national magazines--the "biggies." Here are eight ways to help you make that leap--which may not be as difficult as you expect:

1. Give the editor something she can't find on her own. Don't live in NYC? That's a plus when it comes to pitching article ideas. When you come up with an idea--say a true-life feature on an amazing (and "below the radar") person in your community, that ups the odds you'll get the assignment--or at least attract the editor's attention.

2. Show her you "get" the biz. The majority of pitches national mag editors receive are from would-be writers and/or magazine readers, not from serious freelancers. You fall into the latter category, so demonstrate that fact by querying (not sending the complete manuscript--rookie mistake!).

3. Start with FOB. Many established freelancers don't bother with FOB, or front-of-book, pieces because they're so short, which means you face less competition. And editors at national magazines are more willing to assign an FOB piece to a writer lacking national clips. After you've proven yourself with a couple of FOB articles, you're much more likely to be able to nab a longer piece from the market.

4. Pitch a round-up. Round-ups are pieces that include a lot of different people's opinions/experiences, and they're a pain to write. Showing an editor that you're willing to do that kind of legwork sets you a notch above other freelancers, who may not be interested in writing this type of story.

5. Think "uniquely qualified." As a newbie freelancer, all of my first assignments were articles that involved subjects I had some personal experience with--that's one of the reasons they sold! Remember to highlight the ISG in your query, and pitch a story that you have unique experience with or knowledge of. Once you gain more clips, you can pitch other ideas, but you're trying to get those first few national clips, remember?

6. Follow up. Editors at national magazines are busy, and often don't reply to queries. A short, professional follow-up is essential to breaking in with the biggies. Follow up on every pitch, and you'll boost your chances of getting an assignment.

7. Keep pitching. I've written before about the importance of having an idea in your pocket. You want to have one for each national market, too, because if you get rejected, you're going to pitch again, using language like:

"Thank you so much for your recent response to my query about TK. While I'm sorry you can't use it at this time, I have another for you to consider:

[new query]

If you've read Six-Figure Freelancing or Ready, Aim, Specialize, you know I used the 24-hour rule to crack national magazines including Fitness, Woman's Day, Family Circle, Marie Claire, and Shape. That simple strategy kept me pitching--and those pitches eventually resulted in assignments.

8. Be brave. One of the biggest reasons freelancers don't write for national magazines is because they don't pitch them! I'm serious. Don't be afraid to reach for the "big boys." The only way you'll get an assignment from one of them is if you're bold enough to try.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Talking Taxes: Tips for Freelancers

If you've read Six-Figure Freelancing, you know I divide writers into two groups--those who write because they love it, and those who do it for the money. If you fall into the latter category (and I bet you do if you're reading my blog), you should be tracking your writing-related expenses as well.

According to Uncle Sam, you must report—and pay taxes on—any income you receive. When you operate as a business, not a hobby, you're entitled to deduct legitimate business expenses, reducing your tax burden at year's end. If you’re writing with the intention of getting paid for your work (and I hope you are), you have a profit motive in mind. You don’t have to be freelancing fulltime nor writing solely for the bucks to have a profit motive—the fact that you get some kind of psychic reward from your work doesn’t count against you. Going for the green is a factor the government considers when deciding whether you’re a legitimate business.

In fact, having a profit motive (and treating your freelance career like you have one) is more important than actually making a profit to the IRS. In other words, ending up in the red doesn’t mean your deductions will be disallowed. However, if you don't make a profit and you're audited, the burden will be on you to prove that you're conducting a business, not pursuing a hobby. So, what can you deduct?

According to the IRS, all "ordinary, necessary, and reasonable" expenses that relate to trying to make a profit in your business. For freelancers, that typically includes:

  • PC or Mac used for business;

  • Software/programs used for business;

  • Office supplies (i.e. paper, business cards, pens, envelopes, and the ubiquitous Post-Its);

  • Phone line used exclusively for business (your first or home line is not deductible);

  • Membership fees for professional organizations;

  • Postage and mailing expenses;

  • Internet access; and

  • Travel expenses related to business.

You may also be able to take a home office deduction if you use a section of your home solely and exclusively as your place of business. Having a home office still allows you to work in other locations—say at Caribou Coffee—but you most only use your home office for your writing work. Then you can take a percentage of your rent or mortgage interest and utilities as an expense at the end of the year as well.

Even if you're making little money, it's smart to keep track of your writing-related expenses and maintain receipts for them. Once you do start collecting nice fat checks, those receipts can help reduce your tax liability. Keeping track of them helps supports the fact that you're in the writing business, not a hobbyist, should you get audited. And if any questions arise about deductions, you’ll have proof of what you spent, and when, and why.

You may want to talk to a tax professional about how to set up a record-keeping system. Just remember it needn’t be anything fancy—I keep my expenses in a notebook and then store the receipts in a folder in my office. I don’t necessarily need a receipt for $5 worth of mailing expenses, but if I ever get audited, I should have no problem backing up my deductions.

And remember, you've got two weeks until your 2010 taxes are due, on Monday, April 18, 2011. I hope that 2010 was a great year for you and that 2011 is even better!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Six Tips for Getting the Most from Writers' Conferences

In the coming weeks, I'll be speaking at/attending the Annual Writers Institute in Madison; ASJA's 2011 Writers Conference in NYC; and the OWFI 2011 Conference in Oklahoma City. If you'll be attending a writers' conference this year, here are six simple "dos" and "don'ts" to keep in mind:

Do: Dress like a grown-up.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. "I’m a writer! It’s my words that matter, not how I look!" Not anymore. At a conference, you’re meeting with agents, editors, and others who can literally make—or break—your career. You don't have to break out a suit and tie, but business casual is a good bet. Publishing is a business, after all—you should appear to understand that fact.

Do: Prepare your pitch.
You’re spending time and money to attend this event. If you’re planning—or hoping—to make a connection with an agent or editor, you’d better think about what you’re going to say in advance. Practice what some agents call your “elevator pitch.” That’s your book or article pitch, summed up in a line or two that you could spit out in the time of a brief elevator ride. If you find yourself rambling past 20-30 seconds, work on it until it’s smooth, tight, and practiced.

Do: Speak up.
Chances are that the person you most want to connect with isn’t going to seek you out during the cocktail hour to ask about your writing background. That means you have to make the first move. Don’t be afraid to ask a question of a presenter during the Q-and-A period after a session or introduce yourself afterwards. (Just don’t become a stalker or editor hog as discussed below.)

Do: Network with other writers.
Sure, editors and agents may be on the top of your list, but don't forget to be friendly with other writers. I've made important connections and sold thousands of dollars worth of work thanks to other freelancers I've met at conferences. Swap contact info at the conference and follow up with people you'd like to stay in touch with through email or sites like LinkedIn and Twitter.

Don’t: Stalk your prey.
Editors and agents expect to meet writers at conferences. That's one of the reasons they're there. However, you shouldn't relentlessly pursue your target throughout the day until you can force him or her to listen to you. A brief into and polite inquiry about what the person is looking for is acceptable; following someone into the bathroom or interrupting his dinner is not.

Don’t Be a leech.
There are some at every conference; they're the writers who glom on to an agent or editor and refuse to let the person go, even while others are waiting patiently (or not so patiently) for their turn. Don’t monopolize someone’s time. It’s better to ask if you can follow up after the conference. Then do it.

There are hundreds of writers conferences throughout the U.S. (you can search Shaw Guides for topics, locations, dates, and agents/editors). Conferences can not only help you hone your skills, but can also help increase your chance of getting published and provide opportunities to make valuable contacts with editors, agents, and other freelancers.

I speak from experience: in 1997, my first year of fulltime freelancing, I attended Chicago Editors & Writers/One on One. It was the first time I'd met other freelancers, and meeting them--and seeing that they were making good livings as self-employed writers--gave me the confidence and inspiration that I could do so, too.