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. 🙂

Lisa

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 www.jamesscottbell.com

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

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Results from Mount Hermon and Revelations

We came to Mount Hermon with three simple goals: to learn, grow, and connect. With a manuscript representing months of hard work, we took the immensely difficult step of presenting that work to two fiction intensive groups, two agents, two editors, and three best-selling published authors.

And the results are in.

James Scott Bell (best-selling CBA author): “This is good. This story is too big for the CBA. Take it to the ABA.”

Janet Grant (literary agent): “I liked this story very much, but it would be hard to convince readers to buy a book about Amazons and Scythians. So while I appreciate your writing–which is very good–I don’t see a market for this book.”

Steve Laube (literary agent): “Very creative but almost too creative…You have a unique setting but it may be too far out of the norm for today’s market…Also the first scene in the bedroom is a little titillating–maybe too much for the traditional Christian reader…And then you reveal he’s also a cannibal. I wanted to stop reading at that point…The writing is fine, but is applied to a challenging storyline. Hope that helps (excerpted).”

Vicki Crumpton (executive editor – Revell/Baker): “Love the story, but we don’t publish historical fiction unless it’s biblical or 18th century. Do you have anything else I can read?”

Julie Gwinn (marketing manager – B&H): “I loved it. I see a market for this as a YA novel.”

Brandilyn Collins (best-selling CBA author): “Excellent story. Excellent writers. But you will face significant challenges, maybe insurmountable challenges, to publishing this novel in the CBA.”

Randy Ingermanson (award-winning CBA author): “I loved it. I would read it. But you’re in no-man’s land–you’re not in the CBA, but you’re not quite in the ABA. You’re closer to the ABA. Stay in touch. You don’t need to remind me who you are (ie. we met at Mount Hermon). I’ll remember you.”

The Look

At writer’s conferences, every meal has people asking you what you’re writing. So, gluttons for punishment, we sat at Steve Laube’s table, after we’d received his note of rejection. We didn’t want to change his mind, we’re not that obnoxious (not publicly anyway). We were just curious. All we said was, “We wrote the Amazon story.” Apparently our story, while rejected, stood out in his memory–clearly. The look on his face was one we’d come to recognize.

“Oh, you’re the ones.”

Our story has made us unforgettable among those who read it. So, mission accomplished…

Dejected Meeting

After receiving our notes of rejection (which we’re not strangers to after all this time, but they still stung), we happened to meet Janet Grant directly after leaving James Scott Bell. She took one look at our name tags and said (again), “You’re the ones.”

But she continued.

“I’m so glad I ran into you. I loved your story. I couldn’t put it down, it kept me up late reading, and you don’t understand how rare that is, but I’ll never be able to sell it in the CBA. Have you considered the ABA?”

That made our day.

The problem wasn’t the writing, but the same obstacle we’ve continued to butt heads against for our entire fiction writing adventure – we don’t fit. We’re misfits. Even when we tried to obey all the rules of the CBA, we failed. This time, not only did we fail, we did it with such flaming gusto that not only did we miss the market conventions, we jumped all over them with glee. We write stories that no conservative Christian wants to read or buy (so they tell us).  Looking back, we agree that this novel isn’t a good fit for the CBA, but in all honesty, a week ago we really thought we’d hit on a winner. Oops.

The advice was unanimous. We should take our newest work to the ABA.

It all left us feeling . . .

Misunderstood. Misplaced. Mistaken. Second guessing. Underestimated.

That’s when we had two surprise encounters with fellow Canucks that gave us fresh hope. We ate breakfast with author Grace Fox, and she listened to our dilemma and ‘gave us permission’ to write for the general market (ABA). She really is good at “leading women in fearless faith.” Her prayer had both of us in tears. How silly to need permission, but we did for some reason. We needed to know we weren’t traitors or betraying our faith by wanting to write for the general market.

Simon Presland, another fellow Canadian, ran into us and asked how our conference was going. Having just finished a critique group where some called our manuscript (we’re paraphrasing) socially depraved and morally reprehensible, our self-esteem had reached an all-time low. We said we were thinking of going to the general market.

He nodded. “Good for you. The CBA has become a little like incest. These conferences should be places you come to learn, to grow, and to be encouraged. We need Christians writing in the general market, that’s what we’re called to do–go out into the world.”

So…

This has led us to a decision that one moment makes us feel silly and like traitors, and the next minute absolute relief and freedom. We’re going to the ABA. 

What our adventure to publish this story in the general market will bring, we don’t know. We have the names of several recommended literary agents who represent successful authors in both markets, so that’s a start. We’ve made some contacts here who believe in us, and believe in our story. We believe we’re doing the right thing. Stay tuned, and we’ll give you the details of our new adventure.

We may be misfits, square pegs in round holes, but we’re going to stop denying who God’s made us to be and see what happens.

Thoughts?

Marcy & Lisa