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?

42nd Annual Mount Hermon Writing Awards

Each year, the Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference hands out awards. We aren’t sure of all the rules, but from what we could gather, except for the teen category, you needed to be a previous attendee of Mount Hermon and have a published book. Winning writers received awards ranging from $100 to $1000.

So here are the winners for 2011:

Most Promising Teen Writer – Nicole Buzzelli

Poetry Award – Sarah Wood

Most Promising New Writer – Cheri Williams

Pacesetter Award – Randy Ingermanson

The Lauren Beyenhof True Grit Award – Marci Seither

Special Recognition Award – Sally Stuart

Writer of the Year – Sarah Sundin

Our tale of the journey to Mount Hermon will come to a close tomorrow when we publish our final blog from California–the one where we at last tell all about what happened here, what we learned, and what this means for the future.

Mount Hermon Critique Day

Day 2 at Mount Hermon means one thing–you find out exactly what’s wrong with what you’ve written. Not only are the pre-conference submissions returned, but the walk in critiques open.

Mount Hermon offers each registrant two free pre-conference submissions. You can either request a manuscript critique by a freelancer or an editorial review by an agent or editor who will then tell you whether or not they want to represent/buy your work. If you submit for an editorial review, you receive a little slip telling you if they’re not interested or if they want to meet with you to learn more. Some lucky folks get a handwritten note. 

If you’ve watched our video, you know that we submitted three copies of our current novel for editorial review.

So what happened? Well, we’re not going to tell you–yet. In part because we’re not quite sure ourselves yet. Before you jump to conclusions (we know how the rumor mill can run), we didn’t get offered a contract. We’re writers after all, and what kind of a story would this be if there was no conflict. You’ll have to stay tuned to find out what all these enigmas mean.

This afternoon, both Lisa and Marcy also took advantage of the walk-in critiques. From 4 pm to 6 pm each afternoon, you can wait in line to have a professional freelancer offer suggestions on your work. James Scott Bell, Randy Ingermanson, Gayle Roper, Joseph Bentz, Mona Hodgson, Karen O’Connor, and Christine Tangvald made up this year’s critique team representing expertise in everything from article writing, novels, childrens and YA, and poetry.

The biggest benefit of this service is that you get a professionals’ first gut reaction to your work. And because they’re there to help, part of their job is to be honest. We’ll admit, it’s a touch intimidating sitting across from them and trying to guess from their facial expressions what they think. They laughed! Does that mean I’m funny? Or really, really ridiculous?

A couple areas that we saw for improvement is that it’d be helpful if the critiquers jotted down their thoughts on the manuscript or made a few notations. It’d also help to have signs in front of each critiquer listing their areas of expertise (and we’re not a fan of the waiting in lines – signing up for a time slot would be preferable in our opinions).

Tune in with us on Day 3 for more blow by blows, another hint about the results of our pitching efforts, some insider advice from Vicki Crumpton, executive editor of Revell/Baker publishing house, and more.

Snacks and 50lbs of luggage

Our planner-and-panster-go-to-California adventure started this morning at 4 am with a 2-hour drive to the airport and a 1 hour 20 minute flight to Minneapolis. The original plan was to grab brunch in the Minneapolis airport, but our flight was delayed. By the time we landed, we faced two choices: find a meal or catch our flight. So we went hungry.

Almost four hours later, we touched down in San Jose, and pantser Lisa no longer mocked planner Marcy’s suggestion to pack snacks as a contingency plan. Then she got her revenge when, upon reaching Mt. Hermon, Marcy needed to haul 50 pounds of luggage up the steep hill while Lisa easily carried her two small bags. Marcy consoles herself with the thought that should another unexpected event arise, she’s prepared.

The shuttle from the airport weaved through the agressive Cali drivers and saw Marcy sandwiched between two very kind but enthusiasic Texans with the best accents. We’ve wondered how we sound to them.

We saw Steve Laube in the lobby and have resisted the temptation to lurk – because that would just be creepy. And we’re not nearly desperate enough to stoop to creepy yet. We’re now settled into our accomodations, we found food, and we’ve checked our email (Lisa was going through withdrawal – Marcy was also going through withdrawal and unwilling to admit it if we’re being honest!)

So, here we sit trying to recap our adventures so far.

As we flew over the mountains of Colorado and the deserts of I don’t know where and the hills and valleys of California, Lisa commented on the awesome beauty of the earth God created for us, and how deep and diverse that land is. Snow-capped mountains led to barren wastelands and deserts with lines of roads stretching across the expanse.

Watching the shadows of clouds pass across the land, it was like seeing His fingerprints everywhere. And between the mountains were cities. And on every flat spot across California was a house, or a suburb, tailored for the different environment. The two-story homes that we’re so used to were replaced by low-lying stucco-roofed homes that would be too expensive to heat in Ontario. We saw a high school track team training as we flew over San Jose. Life continued everywhere oblivious to our descent, bustling and bursting.

And in the midst of the empty expanses, two thoughts struck us: the wonder of God’s creation and man’s creativity.

So tonight, as we’re feeling a little overwhelmed and a lot tired, it’s those two things we want to focus on. Writing gives us a means to follow in the footsteps of our Creator, and surrounded by His handiwork, be creative ourselves.

Marcy and Lisa