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Maintaining Your Writing Career

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When I bought my first home, it was a co-op apartment in New York City. Got a leak? Call the super. Bulb out in the hallway? Call the super.

Then I moved to the suburbs in San Diego, CA. Big, new house, two new cars in the garage, and a baby. You know what I've learned? Maintenance sucks. Time, that is, and your will to live. Even in the big, new house, things have to be taken care of. Mildew grows. Carpets and grout get dirty. And counters need to be sealed and polished. Not to mention what it takes to maintain the cars. Honestly, it makes me miss my super.

Okay, you ready? Here it comes. The big segue to the book business. Your publishing career requires maintenance. And while your agent might be a good candidate to be your super, sometimes if you want the job done right, you'd better do it yourself, or at least keep an eye out to make sure it's getting done.

As an agent myself, I've likely just invited myself to be stoned by my compatriots in this business. But I live in San Diego and most of them are in New York. They'd have to have really good arms to hit me from there. Seriously, though, let's assume you are a published author with a few titles under your belt. Ask your agent exactly how many times he talked about you this month. How many domestic editors did he chat with about you and your works? How many blog entries did she write about you or your works? How many of your royalty statements did he carefully review and then ask the publisher for more information? How many web pages did she build to promote you or your works? How many emails or phone calls did he have with his foreign agents about you or your works?

In Hollywood, agents are all about the deals and managers are about all of that other stuff. But in publishing your agent is likely as close to a manager as you are ever going to have or you have to be your own manager. Or hire one. I don't know any managers who specialize in books, but it's an interesting concept. And I don't mean those agents who name their companies "Jane Doe Literary Management." Because I've never heard of even one of those firms doing anything more than a regular agent does.

So what's an author to do? If you aren't a seven-figure author whose success means your agent will work nearly full-time on your behalf and you're not a big enough client to attract a firm with an army of agents and support staff, how do you make sure the maintenance gets done? The short answer is you have to do it--or pay for it--yourself. Here are a few things every author needs to be paying attention to in order to "take care of business:"

If you are an author and you don't have a professional-looking website, you might as well toss in the towel. You can get a professional site built for a few hundred dollars and write it off as a business expense.

Next, you need to have a presence on Facebook. Other social media sites like MySpace could be worth having, too, but I haven't logged on to my MySpace account in months. I'm on Facebook daily -- make that hourly. I have a professional account by which I am connected with other agents, editors, and authors. I have a personal account for my family and high-school friends. And I have another professional account for my other business. All it takes is different email addresses and a bit of organization. You can have both a personal page and create an official Facebook Page for you-the-Author and maintain it for all of your fans.

Organize your records. I am shocked by the number of authors who can't find their old contracts and royalty statements. Is it really that hard to binder all of it? For each of your contracts, you should know your delivery dates and the official publication dates of your books. Publishers will not tell you when your book is out of print. If you are a Random House author, you can often tell by the rate of movement by month shown on your statements. Otherwise, you need to check Amazon.com and BN.com every quarter and make sure your book is still available from both. If it's not, that's a good indicator your book is out-of-print. Request that your publisher reprint it or revert the rights.

Track your royalty statement due dates and check in with the agent or publisher if you haven't seen them within thirty days of the due date. This includes foreign publishers, who are notoriously late or non-compliant in sending statements. Also track your contract termination dates. US book-publishing contracts are usually for term of copyright, but audio and foreign contracts are usually for a term of five, seven, or ten years. If you know a book has earned out and the book is still selling, you want to get onto that licensee and negotiate a new deal.

Get a good accountant. Being an author generates a lot of paperwork and royalties are reportable after ten dollars in earnings (and advances are royalties). A good accountant is going to be able to maximize your tax-saving strategies with regard to your expenses and income. You know that international thriller you just sold? Well, that trip to France for research could be deductible. An accountant can also tell you if you should incorporate. If you look inside a Tom Clancy or Clive Cussler novel, you'll see they are copyrighted in name of the authors' corporations. I don't know at what point that really makes sense, but it could be sooner than most authors realize.

Further, a good accountant should be able to look at your statements and, if necessary, ask the appropriate questions and even do an audit.

Consider the value of a publicist. Hiring one to promote your new book can easily cost you $5,000 per month and you'll probably want them for four months, bracketing your month of publication. Otherwise, prepare to be your own publicist. There are several good books on the subject, so you can do it, but consider whether having a pro who has already gotten people on Oprah or the Today Show is worth it.

Depending on what kind of book you have, it might make sense to invest in a radio specialist instead of or in addition to a publicist. Radio specialists work to get you on the talk-radio shows, which sell a shocking number of books.

Get some media training. If you have a book that might actually get you on some talk shows -- TV or radio -- consider getting some media training to ensure you don't present like Albert Brooks in BROADCAST NEWS. You want to look and sound crisp, calm, and confident. I once had a client who looked none of those things and it was very, very painful to watch the reaction of the news anchors when they cut back to them. My client was excited, sweating, and almost immediately started to sound a little out-of-control. The interview quickly ended. With a little media training, it could have gone very differently.

You might be thinking by now, What is the point of having an agent if I have to do and/or pay for all this? Well, it's kind of the point of having an accountant prepare your taxes. You still have to do a lot of work before the accountant actually crunches the numbers and fills out the forms.

Most agency agreements address the representation of your work, i.e., the licensing of your works to publishers, audio companies, etc. Agents, generally speaking, are not committing to editing or publicizing your works, nor are they committing to providing legal or accounting services. And in the latter matters, they shouldn't, unless they are attorneys or accountants. An agent should know the elements of a good publishing contract and what points require negotiation. He doesn't need to be a lawyer for that. But let's say there's an actual breach of that contract. Your agent can't file a lawsuit; you need an attorney for that. And agents aren't publicists. That's a full-time job, as is being an agent, so you can't really expect your agent to do two jobs, or three. An accountant is far better equipped to go in and do a formal audit. Not that agents don't sometimes do them, but the best ones are done by accountants that specialize in audits.

At the end of the day, being an author is like being the apartment building I first mentioned. And while a super can do a lot around the building, sometimes you have to bring in the specialists, like the plumber, the painter, and the boiler guy, to keep the building maintained and running in top form. And authors have to also, if they want to maintain their careers in the same top form.

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