When I meet new people and tell them that I work as a book editor, they usually ask me which publisher I work for. Sometimes I mention the publishers I used to work for—Little, Brown and Simon & Schuster—and they’re impressed, want to know what it was like, if I’ve met any famous authors. If I specify that I’m a freelance book editor, though, the reaction is a little different. People ask if I would consider getting another corporate job, or they try to set up a coffee date on a weekday morning; I guess they assume that I don’t earn a great deal of money and don’t have to go to the office, and they would be right.
What they don’t know, however, is how hard freelancing is. Sure, I set my own hours (a huge perk), and no, I don’t have to answer to a manager (a relief), but I am responsible for every aspect of my business: putting together quotes for prospective clients, marketing, billing, and of course the actual editing. During the day I’m so engrossed with issues indirectly related to my business that I’m rarely able to do the work I’m actually paid for, so I tend to edit at night and on weekends, just as I did when I was in-house.
In the same way, if you’re an unpublished writer, you probably work as hard—maybe harder—than a published writer. This doesn’t mean that published writers aren’t busy; they are. They’re finishing their next manuscript or writing endorsements for debut authors or speaking on panels or teaching workshops or all of the above. But most traditionally published writers have a built-in community of support: an editor, a publicity team, a literary agent helping them leverage the next step of their writing careers. And these writers have the advantage of being able to say they’re published; they have validation, at least externally.
Here’s an overview of what I do outside of actual editing, and what I think most unpublished writers are doing—or should be doing—when they aren’t working on their book. Unpublished writers looking to self-publish, also known as “authorpreneurs,” have even more on their plate, as they have a business to run in addition to honing their craft. Being a creative professional is a lonely and underappreciated job, and it offers neither the pay nor the perks of a typical corporate position—no tuition assistance or 401K contributions or paid vacation—but if this isn’t full-time work, then I’m not sure what is.
I don’t read nearly as much as I should, but I do read middle grade and young adult fiction (my specialty); literary fiction (for my book club and my own interest); contemporary bestsellers (it’s fun to figure out how they become bestsellers); books on the craft of writing, books by friends, works-in-progress by friends, and of course client manuscripts. Reading would be relaxing except that, most of the time, I have a pen in hand.
Similarly, all serious writers I know read extensively in their chosen genre or category and beyond. In WRITING DOWN THE BONES Natalie Goldberg says, “If you read good books, when you write, good books will come out of you.” Stephen King no longer reads to study the art of fiction but still plows through seventy or eighty books a year. His advice in ON WRITING is a bit more blunt: “The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen,” he says, adding that “if you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write.”
I don’t consider myself a writer, but writing is a significant part of my business. I tend to write and rewrite editorial letters several times. Sometimes I “kill my darlings,” reinstate them, and then I start over from scratch. I also write articles for publishing and digital media expert Jane Friedman’s website.
With daily word counts to reach and research to do, writing a book is a huge project in itself. But most career-minded writers also have a writing gig on the side: They write book reviews; contribute to sites like Guernica or the Millions if they write literary fiction or Bustle or the Hairpin if their focus is women’s fiction; they guest blog for other authors; they maintain a blog of their own. These writers aren’t usually compensated but know that bylines can lead to tremendous exposure. Agent Joanna Volpe noted at her talk for SCBWI Metro New York that every one of her clients does something other than just write books—it’s how they build their platforms.
Being active on social media:
I spend so much time on Twitter that one of my New Year’s resolutions was to cut down my Twitter hours. But while it’s a distraction for some, Twitter is my main source of industry news, besides Publishers Weekly and Publishers Marketplace. It’s on Twitter that I go through the latest articles from book-related journals and websites; where I find and share tips from agents and publishing experts I know by name but have never met; where I gain insight about what’s new in the self-publishing world. I also have a Facebook page for which I write a weekly report called “this week in book news.”
There are writers who eschew social media, like Jonathan Franzen. But many respected writers embrace it: Teju Cole, Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell. Authors of this caliber probably use social media to interact with their fan base, but unpublished writers can use it to learn from others and, more important, form their tribe. As agent Mary C. Moore says, “In the current market… authors are expected to be self-promoters, indeed have to be to survive.” She also recommends that writers create a website before they publish; I’d add that it’s best to update it regularly, though I’m very behind with my own (if only I could receive overtime pay to do this!).
Sending out queries and pitches:
I don’t send out actual query letters, but I do query agents, usually to ask if I can write an article about them. It’s a great way to stay in touch with agents I’ve worked with in the past. But if I’ve never met the agent, it can take me days to write a single email. What should my opening line be? How do I personalize my note without sounding mawkish? You’d think I was preparing to be interviewed instead of the other way around.
Some of my clients struggle more with writing query letters than with writing their manuscripts. This makes sense to me, because I know how tricky it can be to come up with a query that’s personalized, shows some familiarity with the marketplace, and stands out. And since it often takes sending out dozens of query letters to get a single hit, the querying process can be very time-consuming. As Writing Barn’s “Rejecting Rejection” and Writer’s Digest’s “How I Found My Agent” series attest, the path to finding an agent is precipitous (as is the path to winning a writing contest, or receiving a grant or residency), but if you’re determined to land a book deal, there’s no choice but to soldier on.
Attending conferences and networking events:
Although I enjoy finding out about publishing trends and making new contacts, attending conferences can be exhausting. It can also be expensive: Unless I volunteer or am invited to speak (another lost corporate perk), I have to pay a steep registration fee. For this reason I’m often pitching ideas to conferences and workshop organizers, and only once in a while does it work out.
Most writers I know dread the idea of networking. But our field is constantly changing, and one of the best ways to stay on top of it is by attending conferences, book festivals, writers’ retreats and the like. Not only will you have the chance to glean wisdom from experts in the field, but you’ll also meet likeminded writers who probably have the same questions as you do. And making new connections is always a plus.
Being a creative professional isn’t easy. As Elizabeth Gilbert puts it in her new book BIG MAGIC, “It sucks, and I hate to say it, but it’s true. You will take creative risks, and often they will not pan out”—not financially, not emotionally. Will all the reading, writing, tweeting, querying, and networking lead to enough success to justify an early retirement? Probably not. Will it lead to a regular paycheck? Maybe. Is it worth it? We all know the answer to this: Absolutely.