Friday, October 27, 2006

Q and A with Two Custom Publishing Editors

Taking a break from your questions to delve into the world of custom publishing. (Ooh, does that make it sound sexy?) I'm a huge fan of writing for custom publications, but a lot of writers don't really know what this is, so I thought I'd pick the brains of two of my favorite editors, Casey Casteel and Michelle Reneau, who manage many of the magazines published by American Airlines Custom Publishing Division. (Please note: this is NOT a call to pitch them. They were kind enough to answer these questions, so please be respectful of the fact that they're already being more than generous with their time! PLEASE. I cannot stress that more. I plan to do Q/As with more editors, but won't do them if I hear that editors are being overwhelmed with queries from this blog - I'd just feel badly for them and wouldn't want to impose.) For more on custom publishing, including other custom publishers, check out the Custom Publishing Council.

Also, do check back next week! Taking this brain-picking concept one step further, I've asked a dozen or so successful writer friends to answer a few questions about the industry/freelancing world, so I'll be turning the blog over to their insightful answers...I think it's always good to offer fresh perspectives, just in case you were getting sick of moi. :)

Okay, without further ado, Casey and Michelle:

1) What exactly is "custom publishing?" How many clients does AA Custom publishing have?

Here’s the canned response from our website: Custom publishing is the art of tailoring marketing messages—via magazines, e-content, or other channels—to make them meaningful for their intended audience.

The thing is, a custom magazine can tell a story that an ad can’t. It can educate, position the company as the authority, and expand the typical reach of their message. It also allows companies to develop relationships with their customers, positioning themselves as leaders in their particular field. It’s another way to win brand loyalty.

2) How do you come up with the story ideas for each magazine? (i.e., do you sit down with the clients or develop them in-house?)

It depends on how involved the client wants to be. Generally we have story idea meetings within our group and then present the lineup to the client. Every so often the client will have a specific topic they want us to cover, but we always go to them with our ideas first. However, at the end of the day they have the final say on the editorial lineup. Then we have them sign off on the agreed-upon lineup before we assign anything.

3) Do you often accept pitches from writers or do you tend to assign out to them?

It’s nice to get pitches because we run out of ideas. But because of the nature of the business, unless the magazine is open to topics besides client-driven stories (for example, My Home Life or IN: Mind, Body, Life), we usually already have all the ideas in place.

4) Along those lines, how does a writer get in your good graces?

Well first I’ll be selfish and say it gets old hearing “How do I get my foot in the door with American Way?” But other than that it’s the simple graces: turn the story in as complete a format as possible, get it in on time, and be open to changes or rewrites if it’s necessary. We don’t have many rewrites, but sometimes they’re inevitable. You have to know we feel terrible asking for them, so we really appreciate writers who don’t give us a difficult time about it. We’re all pretty easygoing here and we like to keep the atmosphere the same way.

5) How does writing for a custom publisher differ from writing from a consumer magazine? If at all!

Again, because of the nature of the business, we usually have the contacts for sources. We also pretty much have the direction of the story laid out, which makes it easier on the writer a lot of times.

6) What can a writer do to impress you and/or ensure that you'll work together again?

Same rules apply as to question 4.

7) Any tips for breaking into custom publishing? Should a writer have a specific background in the magazine you publish (i.e. automotive for a car magazine) or do you care more about his or her previous writing credentials?

Well, it definitely helps to have a background in the areas we cover, but it’s not essential. If you don’t, just do your research on our clients. For our regional publications, we pretty much are tied to using local writers, but that’s not a deal-breaker either. So, really, just keep in touch with us. We may not have something going on at the exact moment you write us, but when things come up, we tend to lean towards people we know and have had good experiences with.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Figuring Out Your Finances

Admin note: double post today guys! So keep reading after this entry. :)

How did you learn the business side of writing? Whether or not to incorporate? Intricacies of running your own business, billing, making sure you get payment, keeping track of it all for taxes? Can you suggest any resources?

I learned the business side through trial and error, frankly. For example, the first few years I freelanced, I didn't think to pay estimated taxes. Whoops. Got married, got a proper accountant and promptly corrected that.

I've spoken with a lot of freelancers about how they track their payments, invoices, etc, and most of us agree that keeping things simple is the best method. There's no need for elaborate Quicken software or anything like that. Instead, I use an easy Excel spreadsheet in which the columns are broken down by Magazine, Assignment, Due Date, Payment Received Date. Whenever I get a new assignment, I log it in the spreadsheet, and ideally, as soon as a check comes in, I log that in too. (Of course, sometimes I forget, and I have to backtrack through my deposits to see if I really have gotten paid, but most times, I'm on top of it.)

And this method has paid off for me - literally. Just last week, I was adding in another assignment, and took a quick glance over the spreadsheet to see how many outstanding payments were lingering. Turns out that I hadn't yet been paid for several stories that I'd filed many, many months ago, so I promptly emailed my editors, and they hopped to it. Without some sort of system like my Excel sheet, I'm confident in saying that I never would have been paid, which would have been a loss of several thousands of dollars - sometimes, invoices and payments fall through the cracks, so it's up to you (unfortunately) to stay on top of them. The sheet is also great for assessing how much estimated tax I have to pay. Since I can see exactly when each check came in, and in which quarter it arrived, I don't have to play a guessing game as to how much I owe Uncle Sam.

As far as invoicing, some magazines ask for them, some don't. The best way to find out is simply to ask your editor whether or not she requires an invoice for payment. And then file that when you file your story. If not, it's too easy to forget. (Trust me, that's the one area that I'm lax in: I often forget to send in an invoice, which explains several of those delayed payments.)

Very few writers I know have incorporated, so I can't speak much to that, but maybe some fellow readers can.

Finally, some resources: I picked the brain of
Diana Burrell, co-author of The Renegade Writer, which contains a chapter on finances and freelancing. In addition to her fabu book, she suggested that you pick up Kelly James-Enger's fantastic resource, Six-Figure Freelancing, which has an excellent chapter devoted to the subject, as does Margit Feury Ragland's Get a Freelance Life.

So how do you guys keep your finances straight? Any good suggestions?

More On Competitiveness

I got so much feedback, both on and off the blog, about my post on dealing with competitive writers that I wanted to toss in an addendum. I truly didn't realize how many writers are bothered by petty comments on other forums and sites: it takes a lot to rile me, so I probably just ignore these comments more than most people, and I'm so sorry that so many of you are frequently demoralized by these insipid remarks by small-minded, competitive writers.

That said, here's the thing: whenever they make you feel insecure or demoralized or have you considering abandoning your writing career, know that everyone starts somewhere. Including these idiots. If they're slamming someone for signing a crappy contract or for taking on a seemingly poor-paying assignment (who are they to judge what your time is worth??) or for asking a silly question, know that all (okay, most) of us took shitty assignments at one point in our careers. That's just how it works. Establishing a career in freelancing is a snowball effect: you start small and build momentum. Did I start off with $2 assignments in my pocket? Hell to the no. Did I start off taking on stories that made my eyes glaze over? Hell to the yes. Did I start off asking plenty of dumb (to more experienced writers) questions? I think we all know the answer to that one.

And in case I need to drive this point home even further: as I've said plenty of times on this blog, remember that my first novel did not sell. No one wanted to bite. Is there anything more demoralizing than spending four years on a project and finding out that have to toss it out the window? Short answer - NO. So...could I have crumbled and tossed the fiction thing aside entirely, and instead glumly read the listings on Publishers Marketplace and fumed with raging jealousy and insecurity? Sure. But where would that have gotten me? Instead, what I did was decide to suck it up and keep at it. And then I churned out TDLF. Which is exactly what I was talking about in the previous post when I said that it really only pays to be competitive with yourself.

Look, I got a great book deal. But I see bigger, splashier deals posted every week on PM, but what am I going to do about it? Nothing. I wrote a book I'm immensely proud of, and that's all I can do. Regardless of your line of work, there will ALWAYS be someone who makes more, is more successful, is more famous, is more, is more, is more. Seriously - unless you're like, the President (not a job I aspire to), there is always someone who is succeeding on a bigger platform. So, again, my advice is to just aim to be the best you can be (do I sound like an ad for the army?) and screw the people who are trying to bring you down. A $1 a word assignment might be peanuts to one writer and and the mother lode to another. If someone tries to tell you that it's peanuts, but you know that it's the mother lode to you, then gracefully ignore them and get busy writing.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Juggling Your Balls (That Doesn't Sound Quite Right, Does It?)

How many assignments do you juggle at once? I new to freelancing and feel like I'm always too busy or really slow, and haven't figured out how to find the balance.

Ah, welcome to the feast or famine world of freelancing! The ebbs and flows are enough to drive even the sanest among us bananas, and yes, that includes yours truly.

However, I have definitely found a way to pace myself over the years, but it did, indeed, take some time. Here's my biggest problem, and if you're like me or like most freelancers, I'm guessing yours is the same: I cannot say no. I mean, I'm capable of it, it's not as if I don't say no to my son or my husband a million times a day, but when it comes to turning down an assignment, that simple little word rarely, if ever, slips through my lips. Which means that if an editor brings me work and I'm already swamped...I'm likely to become even more swamped because you can bet your booty that I'll be accepting the assignment.

But just because I'm incapable of turning down work doesn't mean that I always work at a frenzied pace. What I've learned to do is really only pitch stories that I'm truly interested in, and, as I've developed real relationships with editors, I have a pretty firm handle on what will or won't fly with them. Thus, for example, I'm not going to throw out an inane story on sexual technique just to have something to occupy myself with, and I'm not going to throw 10 ideas at one of my editors and hope that one will stick. Earlier in my career, I did plenty of both - which generated a lot of work (and helped me create those critical relationships with said editors), but didn't necessarily keep my brain juices flowing. NOW, I'm satisfied when I'm working on a few juicy features - let's say 4-6 a month, rather than a stack of FOBs, several features that didn't require much mental energy and one or two that did. So this method has not only slowed down my work rate a bit (which is a good thing), but also ensured that the stories I'm working on are engaging. Am I making sense? (I'm asking that seriously...I'm not sure if I'm being clear.)

Now why, you might ask, would one pitch a story that she's not really interested in? Well, for a million reasons, not least being a paycheck, but also because freelancers - like actors- get anxious if they don't have a well full of assignments. So, in the past, maybe I'd read some new research and understand that there was a good story there, even if that story didn't hold a lot of interest to ME. So I'd pitch it. And then be saddled with writing it. UGH.

Another way that I've whittled through the madness is by sticking with editors with whom I enjoy working. Now, I realize that this is a luxury that not all freelancers can afford (literally), especially early in their careers. Because I'm not casting as wide a net with my pitches, I'm definitely limiting the number of assignments I could potentially pull in. But again, for me, it's quality, not quantity these days, and I have no regrets.

Finally, when things are about to get really slow (ergo, famine time!), I make sure that I'm on my editors' radars. I'll shoot them notes saying, "hey, wrapping up some things, let me know if you need anything from me." Sometimes they have nada, but sometimes, they have plenty. The key is being organized enough to look at my deadline schedule and realize that I'm hitting a dead zone in, say, two weeks, THEN sending the emails, rather than waiting until I'm watching Laguna Beach because I'm so bored. By capitalizing on this lag time - time when I'm still working but anticipating the slower future - I usually stay in a pretty busy cycle.

So how do you guys ward off the feast or famine syndrome?

ETA: Holy crap! Have you guys seen the trailer for the new season of 24? I'm freaking out! Go Jack Bauer!! (And thanks to Larramie for the heads-up!)

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Sizing Up the Competition

I lurk on a writers board where a few of the posters are subtly competitive with the other writers. Every time I read their posts, I can't help but feel bummed out. A) Because they're quite successful writers and b) because it makes me think that this is a dog-eat-dog industry, and that writers work against each other to get to the top. So...there is a question in here somewhere...have you found this to be true? And if so, how have you dealt with it?

Okay, well, first of all, there are a few things to address here. The fact that their posts bum you out is the first issue. I've said this before and I'll just reiterate: in order to thrive in the publishing industry, you need to develop a thick skin. So what if these a-holes are posting snarky, holier-than-thou advice and posts? So what if they're successful writers? Whether or not they're rude OR successful has absolutely no bearing on whether or not YOU could be successful. I can't reiterate this enough. Don't get me wrong, I loathe competitive writers (more on that below), but what I might loathe even more than competitive writers are jealous writers...and yes, you do see plenty of them in our industry. But here's the thing that both sets of groups need to learn: there is more than enough work to go around, and if you're armed with either chip on your shoulder - the ridiculously competitive one or the ridiculously envious one - you're likely to sink yourself, not your competition. Rather than salivating over another writer's portfolio or workload, why not send him or her a note and ask her how she does it? Or ask her if she's willing to mentor you? Or ask her if she can refer you to a good book on writing.

(Actually, let me amend that. I get plenty of random notes from friends of friends of friends who want to pick my brain. And most of the time, I don't mind. However, there are correct ways to go about this and incorrect ways to go about it, know what? This is another blog entry entirely. I'm going to save this for later in the week, and will offer up pointers on how to approach successful writers. Because I'm going off on a huge tangent right now and not answering the original question.)

Anyhoo, to get back to writers competing with other writers. Yes, some folks do this. And yes, it's unfortunate. And yes, I think they're assholes. Why do they do it? Well, I'm not a Ph.D, but I'd guess that it's similar to the reason that underendowed men drive overly-fancy sports cars: in other words, compensation, my friends, compensation. Not compensation for the fact that they're unsuccessful. In fact many of these writers are in the top professional tier. Rather compensation for their poor self-esteem. They're not really different than the bully who taunted people on the playground back in grade school. Only these writers are savvier and more subtle in how they attempt to degrade you and in doing so, make themselves feel better. So...the point of this above paragraph? Their competitiveness has everything to do with themselves and nothing to do with you. Period.

The good news is that there are PLENTY of writers out there who, while competitive, are primarily competitive with themselves, not with others. What does this mean? It means that as a writer, I'm constantly pushing myself to be the best writer that I can be, and I fully understand that this is the only thing that I can control. In fact, many of my writer friends are more than happy to refer me to editors, to help me flesh out an idea, to offer assistance in promoting my book. And you can bet your butt that I do the same for them all the time. Because, seriously, if they come up with a kick-ass idea for, say, Glamour, it's not as if they're pushing out my idea or my slot in the magazine. Their kick-ass idea is their kick-ass idea, and if an editor loves it, then she loves it. See how this has nothing to do with me? And only with the success of my friend? What lands me a story is when I come up with a kick-ass idea: her good fortune isn't tied to my bad fortune at all. And in fact, I'm always thrilled for my friends and colleagues when they do well because it's a sign that a) they're awesome (hee!) and b) I can learn something from them.

Why not all writers feel this way is beyond me, but some don't. That said, I don't know how different this is from any other field: my husband knows plenty of jealous, competitive people in his industry, and we've all surely encountered plenty of petty folks in all walks of life. So my advice? Bunker down and be a great writer. You're the one who will have the last laugh. (Not that you should be laughing since you're not competitive! Ahem.)

So how do you deal with snarky, competitive people?

Monday, October 23, 2006

Timing is Everything

You've mentioned the "six month lead time" a few times in your blog. Can you elaborate on that? Does this mean that you see your stories in print six months later?

What this means is that most monthly magazines work about six months in advance. Now, this can fluctuate from magazine to magazine, and there's no hard line about when an article will come out. Mostly, I think it's a good guideline to keep in mind for pitching. For example, right now, I have several editors who are looking for ideas for April and May. Given that it's late-October, they're scheduling their issues six months pitching an idea for New Year's or even Valentine's Day isn't going to cut it. (Keep in mind once again that I'm talking about monthly mags. Scheduling is going to be quite different for weeklies and newspapers.) I know that it seems weird to have to drum up ideas for next spring, but that's just the way that this industry works. By the time they've done the editing, layout, art, shipping, etc, it's six months later. to when those stories will actually appear, it's anyone's guess. Just last week, I opened up my new issue of SELF, expecting to see my byline, only to discover that my story wasn't there. Turns out it had been bumped for a few months. And looking over my spreadsheet of assignments for this past year, I have no less than seven stories that have been pushed back from a designated issue and are lingering in limbo-land...accepted and paid for but not yet published. I guess the key here is not to get too attached to any one story because while nearly all of them will come out eventually, you never can be certain exactly when they'll see the light of day. In fact, I have one piece that I filed well over a year ago that still hasn't been scheduled. You know what? As long as they pay me, I don't complain. I've fulfilled my end of the contract; they've fulfilled theirs.

So what's the longest you've ever gone from having a story accepted to seeing it published?