The Business of Writing with James Scott Bell

Marcy and I had the privilege of meeting James Scott Bell at the Mount Hermon Writer’s Conference in California last year. He gave us a free critique (part of the conference) and helped set us on a new path to publication that landed us in New York at the Writer’s Digest Conference. And who did we find there? James Scott Bell. He was a guest speaker, so we had a chance to reconnect. Much to our great delight he remembered us. He graciously agreed to give this interview on the business of writing.

Thank you so much, Jim! And to our readers, enjoy. 🙂


LHW: You’re a successful author who’s sold a lot of books, but in support of the writing career you speak and teach at conferences, tweet, blog, give interviews <grin>. What myth would you most like to dispel for new writers about the successful writer’s life?

JSB: That it ever gets easier. In fact, in some ways, it gets harder. Or should. Your standards go up with each book. You know more, you set the bar higher. And you want it to, if you’re a real writer. I have a number of bestselling author friends, and they all feel this way. It’s nice to have a career doing this, certainly. But it’s work, too. Don’t think it’s ever a fluffy ride on a cloud.

LHW: You’ve stated elsewhere that new writers need to focus on craft first – without a good book the rest doesn’t matter. But, at what point in an author’s early career should they begin thinking about the business behind the writing? How does one plan for that? What are the key items to think through, and consider?

JSB: A writer should think about this being a business from the very start. Know how the business runs, what publishers and agents and readers look for, what sells and does not sell. Learn how to plan at least two years ahead. Set goals for finishing projects and getting them out there. Learn about production–editing, cover design, copywriting and copyrighting. This approach establishes its own momentum. You can be doing things every day toward your goals, and there’s a power in that.

At the same time, never think that business knowledge and marketing can cover a multitude of writing sins. One still has to be able to consistently deliver the goods, and that means learning the craft by writing, revising, studying, getting feedback, and more writing.

LHW: You have a wide range of new ‘products’ being offered through ebooks, traditionally published fiction and non-fiction books (at my count you released 9 books in different formats on Amazon in 2011). You’re speaking and teaching at writers conferences, and Donald Maas just announced that the two of you will be doing a new workshop together in the fall. There’s been a lot of doom and gloom talk about publishing lately. In your opinion, is this a good time to be a new writer/author?

JSB: Never a better time to be an author! Ever. Period. Because of choices. It’s always been hard to get published traditionally. And yes, it’s harder at this moment because of the shakeups in the industry. Not impossible. New authors are getting deals. But we have the independent route now that means there’s a real alternative. There wasn’t before. Yes, you could pay a lot of money to self-publish in print, but 99% of the time you couldn’t sell enough to make any real dough. Not only has indie publishing been a boon for books, but also for short stories and novellas. The latter market was virtually non-existant. Now it’s back, better than ever.

Yes, it’s a great time to be a writer.

LHW: A lot of indie authors are telling new writers they must be prolific and produce new content often, 3-5books a year, to be successful. Not many traditionally published authors can manage that kind of output. Looking ahead, what do you predict will be the key factors for a successful writing career? Being prolific? A wide range of ‘products’? Social media clout?

JSB: I love being prolific, but I don’t think you need to put a number on the speed of production. Consistency is a better word. A writer who wants to succeed at this needs to establish a consistent rate of production (I always use a weekly quota of words), and plan projects out in advance (I have enough for at least five years hence). The “keys” to success are quality and consistency, which is why I advocate a systematic studying of the craft of writing for the rest of your life. Some writers sniff at craft study, but they are fooling themselves and others. Would you want your brain operated on by a surgeon who doesn’t keep up with the medical journals? Make craft study a part of the “quality control” of your business–and all writers are in business for themselves.

Social media certainly has a role to play, but if one gets obsessive about it, the ROE (Return on Energy) just doesn’t add up. Recent studies have shown that books are not sold in great numbers via social media. Create relationships with readers in social media, but always remember the best thing to do is write excellent books and let word of mouth take over. Concentrate your energy there.

LHW: Any advice for emerging authors about the business of writing?

JSB: Learn business principles: goal setting, time management, marketing fundamentals, quality control, pricing, copywriting, sales. You can get good books on all of these and study them when you can. I wrote a book, The Art of War for Writers, which covers a lot of this territory, but you can go deeper into each area.

The most important things a writer can do are, in order of importance:

1. Write

2. Keep improving what you write (study craft, get critiques)

3. Sell what you write (via marketing and business principles)

And try to enjoy the ride. I blogged about a new definition of success for writers, where freedom is the operative word. Freedom and responsibility. It’s exhilarating to hold them in your own hands.

JAMES SCOTT BELL is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, and numerous thrillers, including Deceived, Try Dying, Try Darkness, Try Fear, One More Lie and Watch Your Back. He served as the fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine and has written highly popular craft books for Writers Digest Books, including: Revision & Self-Editing, The Art of War for Writers and Conflict & Suspense. Under the pen name K. Bennett he has written the zombie legal thrillers Pay Me in Flesh and The Year of Eating Dangerously. He lives and writes in L.A. His website is

What do you think? Is this a doom and gloom time for writers, or a world of new opportunities?

33 comments on “The Business of Writing with James Scott Bell

  1. Excellent interview, Marcy! And thank you for sharing your wisdom with us, Mr. Bell. I have two of your writing craft books and refer to them often. I find it’s good practice to review basic grammar, story structure, and plotting every six months or so. A good book on the writing craft always excites me!

  2. Kudos, Girls with Pens, for snagging an interview with James Scott Bell and thanks for sharing it with your readers. His list of three most important things a writer can do is simple and straightforward. I’m going to memorize it–or tattoo it on my arm.

  3. Thanks Marcy! I have my own James Scott Bell recent encounter story. In preparation to self-pub a book I wrote, I sent it to an editor friend who pointed out some major weaknesses, especially in the conflict area. I got her feedback at the beginning of January, just before we went on a two-week trip to Maui.

    Knowing I wouldn’t be working on my book anyway, and feeling somewhat clueless and overwhelmed, I decided to give myself more food for editing thought, and downloaded two JSB books for vacation reading (Conflict and Suspense, and Revision & Self-editing). Wow! I learned so much!! I am now working on my edit with a whole box of sharpened tools I didn’t even know existed before I read those books.

    Thank you, Mr. Bell!!

  4. Thanks, Lisa and Marcy, for this great interview. And thank you, James, for being an inspiration and such a wonderful teacher. I have a veritable collage of file cards pinned up all around my desk with the many gems you’ve said in your books.

  5. It’s really gratifying to hear this feedback. I know when I was starting out how much a good craft article or book meant to me. I would soak them up and apply them. It’s nice to know I’m able to give some of that back.

    Keep writing.

  6. Bravo, bravo girls, take a bow!!! And big thanks to James Scott Bell for the interview! I am just now reading P & S, so the timing of this is perfect!

    Who knew that you two were so connected! I just love you guys! You both are fantastic writers and I love reading your posts.

    Thank you so much for this interview!!! I’m a fan! 🙂

    • Awww – now you’re making me blush, Karen. Thanks so much! I love writing this blog and hanging out with all of you. We’ve been very blessed to have a few successful people influence our careers.

  7. Excellent interview girls and James Scott Bell! How exciting is this?

    For a writer, today is full of opportunities if you take the time to learn the craft to give the reader a quality storytelling experience. It’s daunting too because there’s so much to learn not only about writing, but about blogging, tweeting and God knows what else and it can feel overwhelming when we’re sitting alone in front of a screen. Advice on how to manage time and goals is greatly appreciated – I’ve just ordered The Art of War for Writers – since I need all the help I can get.

    This interview couldn’t have come at a better time for me. Call it Karma! I have dog-eared copies of Plot and Structure and Revision & Self-Editing which has helped hugely in cleaning my work before it goes out for a crit. And you’re perfectly correct, we need to continue learning to move forward to keep our writing fresh. I don’t think writing will ever become easier for me, from my experience on book three it’s harder. And that’s how it should be.

  8. Love those dog ears and highlights when people show me their copies of Plot & Structure. I have a whole shelf of books, and binders full of old Writer’s Digests, all highlighted. I love to take one down at random and go over those sections as a quick refresher.

  9. Great post, I had the honor and privilege of meeting JSB at Story Masters last year. Still one of the best writers workshops I have ever attended. His “Art of War for Writer” sits in the place of honor on my desk, near my keyboard for easy reference. He is so correct when talking about learning one’s craft. It really makes all the difference in the world. Lisa, the next time you talk to him, ask him to explain “pet the dog.”

  10. Marcy and Lisa–great interview questions! Thanks for bringing us the iconic JSB!

    James Scott Bell–terrific insight! I’ll focus on 1,2, &3. And crack open The Art of War for Writers.

  11. Great interview, Marcy.

    Thank you James Scott Bell for sharing in this interview and in your books.

    I am interested in your comment, “Recent studies have shown that books are not sold in great numbers via social media.” I would love to read more about these studies. Would you be willing to share your source?

  12. Lynette and Louise – you’re very welcome. I had a lot of fun generating questions and posting this interview. So glad you stopped by.
    Thanks JSB for hanging out and answering questions. Above and beyond.


  13. Wow, Lisa, what a wonderful opportunity to interview James Scott Bell! You did an awesome job.

    Mr. Bell, I was one of those lucky dogs who got your Tweet when P&S eBook was on sale for $1.99. Deal of the century! It rocks and I’ll refer to it forever. It’s easy to understand and one of the best books on the craft out there, in my opinion. The introduction, Putting the Big Lie to Sleep, is one of my favorite chapters because it gives us all hope and shows how real you are, how you never let fame go to your head. I’m so glad you gave Lisa this interview. Your answers are very helpful.

    Lisa, I think this is a world of new opportunities for us, as long as we’re willing to do the work required to put out a quality book. Definitely no fluff at any point in our writing journeys, but lots of good times and things to be proud of. Like this interview – Yep, nice going!

  14. Lynn and Matthew, thanks for those very kind words. I do love to hear those stories. Glad to help. I see myself simply providing “translation software for the imagination.” Help you get the story in your head in a form readers can relate to and bond with.

    Keep writing.

  15. “Learn about production–editing, cover design, copywriting and copyrighting.”

    Uh-oh. You’ve pointed out an area where I’m lacking in knowledge. (I hate it when that happens.) I’ve been focusing on learning the writing craft, but I don’t spend much energy on learning the production side of things. My bad.

    Can you recommend a couple of sources?

    Or here’s another idea. Since we all love your books so much, could you just write a book on production? You know, in your spare time. 🙂

  16. Such a great interview, GWP and thanks so much James Scott Bell for the interview. I totally agree with the importance of craft for a writer. No matter how much you learn and how much you develop, there’s always room for improvement and it’s just fun to learn! My bookcase has an entire shelf dedicated to writing craft books and it’s my favorite shelf! 🙂

    Thank you again. Awesome advice!

  17. A very informative interview, Lisa and Marcy!

    Mr. Bell, just like you, I have a shelf of books on craft and Writer’s Digest magazine issues—almost all of them dog-eared and highlighted. Plot & Structure has its somehow permanent spot on my nightstand. I seem to come up with all kinds of questions on writing right before falling asleep. And, so far, I always find a constructive answer in your book. Thank you for publishing such an amazing source of information.

  18. Thanks again for these kind words, everyone. You inspire me. Your dedication to the craft is awesome. It WILL pay off.

    V.V., I am teaching workshops in this area and may do something along those lines someday. Meanwhile, some blog hunting should get you started. Be patient. You’ll find what you need.

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