Monday, October 28, 2013

Scary, Satisfying, Work for Hire with Kris Bock



Don’t Quit Your Day Job.

How often have you heard that? And yet how many writers would like to do exactly that? But writing full time is scary. You can’t possibly survive just from your writing… can you?

In truth, many writers make a living from writing, including thousands whose names you wouldn’t recognize. Most of these writers don’t have the luxury of only working on their own fiction, however. They may offer editorial services, give writing workshops, do school visits, or write articles or work for hire (WFH) books. A combination of these can bring in a relatively steady income, whereas trade fiction tends to have more ups and downs. It’s the “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” technique, especially good advice when the basket is as unstable as publishing.

People may use “work for hire” to describe different kinds of work. For writers it usually means freelance work done as an independent contractor. A contract should clearly describe who holds the copyright (usually the employer). Most work for hire pays a flat fee, although some projects may earn royalties. (The US copyright office has legal information on “Works Made for Hire” online: http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ09.pdf)

While some people assume that WFH pays poorly and cheats the writer, some projects pay thousands of dollars and a few even pay royalties. Many successful writers make a satisfying living with WFH. There are other advantages – building a writing resume, getting experience working with editors, making industry connections, learning new things (which you may be able to use in your personal writing), and even having fun.

Former technical/business writer Carol North says:

“Beginning in 1983, I was represented by agents and agencies that found me work for hire (WFH) gigs. I worked constantly; was fully supported on the WFH income; and was sent all over the U.S. on writing assignments; including to Orlando, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Houston, Denver, Atlanta, and on and on. I was living in Chicago at the time. I traveled the country on someone else’s dime and made a lot more money than their full-time employees did. Also, I made a lot more money selling my work than I would have retaining the copyrights and self-promoting."

“I wrote short stories in airports, planes, hotels. They’re published. I’m now semi-retired and completing my fifth novel. I enjoy fiction but miss the money I made in tech and business writing. In addition, the techniques, grammar, and style I learned in WFH have proved invaluable in writing fiction."

“My advice concerning WFH is ‘If you can get into it, do it.’” 

Some writers may be concerned about WFH because they don’t get to choose the topics (although you can always turn down jobs). You do need to be flexible, interested in a lot of things, and willing to do research. I’ve written articles and test passages on science topics, even though I have no science background. My WFH books include topics ranging from magnets to the environmental movement to the history of cell phones to dyslexia. If you like learning about new things and are comfortable doing research, the variety of WFH is an advantage.

Another option is specializing. If you have an unusual area of expertise, look for magazines and book publishers that focus on that topic. Publishers often pay better if they have a harder time finding writers, so if you have a background or strong interest in, say, chemistry or construction, you could be in demand. Loretta Hall, who writes for publications such as Concrete Décor and Traditional Masonry, says, “One of the best ways I have found to develop new markets is to attend trade shows in my areas of specialty, engineering, construction, and space exploration.”

Work for hire can also involve fiction, everything from “licensed property” books for kids (those tied into TV shows and movies) to series genre novels for adults. Payment can vary dramatically, but $6000 is the number I’ve heard/received for a novel of 150-300 pages. You might get more from a big publisher, but probably not from a small one. The key is that you need to be able to write these books quickly. Not only will the deadlines likely be tight (a few months), but your hourly rate goes up dramatically if you can finish a book in two or three months rather than a year. As for royalties, only a small percentage of novels ever earn royalties anyway.

Educational publishing also offers many work for hire opportunities. These can include fiction and nonfiction books for the school library market, articles, and assessment passages for state tests. Teachers have a head start here, as the work typically requires an understanding of what kids learn about in each grade and writing to a specific reading level. However, I’ve done plenty of this kind of work without a background in education.


Kris Bock writes novels of suspense and romance involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. Whispers in the Dark involves archaeology and intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. What We Found is a mystery with strong romantic elements about a young woman who finds a murder victim in the woods. Rattled follows the hunt for a long-lost treasure in the New Mexico desert. Connect with her at GoodReads, Facebook, and Twitter.


17 comments :

  1. I've given WFH only cursory consideration in the past — maybe I'm missing something here. I look forward to tomorrow's post on this topic.

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  2. I have done a lot of WFH and Kris is so right about it being a good source of regular income. Some of the nonfiction books I did as WFH paid quite well and are published under my name. Then there was all the PR work that helped pay some bills. :-)

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  3. Had to look twice at 'WFH' ... but now that I know what it means, I'll react to it ... and the deadlines that would accompany it ... with that same horror and aversion that that 'other' acronym seems to illicit in polite company. I WFH'd for 30 years in the corporate world and in dang near killed me!

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  4. Christopher, you nut. What if you had been doing something you really liked? I presume you like writing. Kris, welcome to the BRP.

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  5. There are dangers in WFH, and one of them is the temptation to take every job, no matter how busy you already are or how little you'll enjoy the job. You can get stuck in a rut of only doing
    WFH and never your own writing. I typically work on a novel for a couple of hours first, and do the
    WFH after that. But I enjoy almost every job I take on. I get to learn about fascinating things I would never have explored otherwise. Fortunately, I find almost everything fascinating for a few weeks, at an eighth grade level! For me, it would be much worse to focus on a single narrow topic for years. I like the variety of
    WFH, especially in educational publishing, and it allows me to work from home on my own schedule, which definitely be a full-time "day job."

    But yes, Christopher, WFH does at first look like something else.

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  6. Chris/Kris, did I tell you what I noticed first about your writing? The Milton Hershey children's book. My FIL was raised at the MH school. I think I'll get him that book for Christmas tucked into a chocolate goody basket. What do you think?

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    1. I think chocolate always make a good gift! The book should be fun for someone who went to the school.

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  7. Can one actually pitch a WFH idea to a publisher? For example, how to set up a trap-neuter-spay program in your town or neighborhood. And do how-to nonfiction books have a better chance? I'm so "mission" oriented in everything I do, WFH would actually be a good work model for me.

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    1. Some publishers will accept proposals for WFH projects, though many initiate ideas in-house. You could find a publisher that seems like a good fit and send a query about the idea, asking them if they would be interested in a proposal. Nancy Sanders's book Yes! You Can Learn How to Write Children's Books, Get Them Published, and Build a Successful Writing Career has good information about identifying markets and sending in queries and proposals. Though it's targeted at children's books, I imagine most of the advice applies in other areas.

      Nonfiction books do have a better chance, as it's easier for publishers to market them (assuming they fill a niche). For fiction, generally you would identify an existing series you want to write for, send writing samples, and possibly write a sample chapter. Some book packagers will take series proposals for fiction as well, but it has to be a really marketable idea.

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    2. I'm guessing only a large publisher would do children's book WFH fiction, although it seems they could as easily post themes they are seeking and get hundreds of manuscripts to choose from without paying a dime upfront.

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  8. Is this only an opportunity for American writers?

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    1. Since the work is done entirely through e-mail these days, I doubt publishers care where the writer is located. I have done work for Korean companies. You might have to cover a bank transfer fee, but otherwise living in a different country from the publisher shouldn't be a problem.

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  9. Upon reading the instructions for a phone holder for my car, they made no sense whatsoever. I was reminded of the importance of good technical writers to translate foreign language instructions into English. Technical writing isn't glamorous, but it is essential!

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  10. I had an opportunity with a mystery publisher; it didn't pan out for me, but I know a lot of writers who are writing multiple series under different names for a publisher that dictates the "bible" of the book. They're happy.

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    1. That's the key, isn't it? I do mainly nonfiction educational publishing WFH, partly because that's just how it worked out, but I like keeping my fiction creativity for my own projects. Some people will be happy exclusively doing WFH, some people will be able to balance their own fiction and WFH fiction, or alternate between the two. The only right answer is the one that works for you!

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  11. I too know authors who started this way. I went a different route with the editing. But like most creative endeavors in which you start out "for the money," it can be hard to give up the money and start over in a new genre.

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    1. Definitely. The experience can build your skills and contacts, but you may have to give up some of the paid work in order to do your personal projects.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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