The Renegade Writer

Renegade Writer Q&A: Peter Bowerman

A couple weeks ago, Linda called me in a state of rabid excitement. “I just read Peter Bowerman‘s new book about self-publishing. Wow, I can’t believe how much good stuff was in there! I’m totally motivated to do a bunch of things he advised.” (Dear reader, you should know that “to do a bunch of things he advises” was a euphemism for “to steal a bunch of his ideas.” And yes, the ideas work, even if you publish through a conventional publisher like we do.) She was so jazzed about The Well-Fed Self-Publisher, her enthusiasm compelled me to head over to Amazon.com so that I could steal some ideas too buy a little of that inspiration, too. (Read Linda’s review of The Well-Fed Self-Publisher here.)

I have a very energetic five-year-old and by the end of the day I’m soooooooo ready for Thorazine bedtime. But when I started flipping through the Well-Fed Self-Publisher one night, I simply couldn’t put it down. I decided that I wanted to interview Bowerman for our next Q&A so we could learn even more from this Ultimate Renegade. At the end of this post is a special deal Bowerman offered our blog readers. We started our chat by dishing on the state of starving writers [db]:

So why do you think so many writers are starving?

For several reasons. First, I don’t think most writers value their skills, and seem to be content working for peanuts. Well, maybe not content, but perhaps not convinced they could actually make a good full-time living at it. I think that can lead to a resignation of sorts, which can make them lazy (reason #2). And all the proof you need of those two reasons is to go over to some of the online job boards, and see all the zillions of writers bidding on a finite number of jobs, driving rates down to nothing.

I also think that a lot of writers are enamored with the whole romance of writing and don’t focus enough on the business of writing. It’s first and foremost a business. And if your goal is to make a handsome living as a writer, then you have to go where the money is. There’s not a thing wrong with wanting to write magazine articles or short stories for literary journals, but if someone wants to be the proverbial “well-fed writer,” and they don’t have a lot of experience, those two arenas just aren’t going to get you there.

Obviously, I’m biased toward commercial writing, which if high income is your goal, is a faster, more expedient way to achieve that. Hourly rates are $50-125+ and all your time counts, unlike the magazine world, where flat fees for potentially vast open-ended commitments of time is pretty much the norm. So, with healthy rates like this, it can give you the time and space to purse the writing that really does turn you on without having to count on that writing to pay the bills. If your kids are starving, sometimes you have to do the work that pays better.

Your first two books (The Well-Fed Writer and TWFW: Back For Seconds) are aimed toward commercial writers. Why is commercial writing such a lucrative market for wordsmiths?

As mentioned, it’s where the money is. Businesses have more money and put a high value on good writing. Magazines don’t have the budgets, unless it’s a top magazine and you’re at the top of your craft. Right now, I’m working with a $250 million company, and paying me $125 an hour to get a job done right is a no-brainer for them. Those $50-125 an hour rates are just the norm in the commercial field; that’s what it pays!

I have a friend who’s a successful magazine writer who does a healthy amount of commercial writing as well. As she sees it, commercial writing doesn’t take as much writing skill as magazine writing. While I think you have to be a good writer to do well in the commercial field, by and large, I agree with her. Plus, as a rule, you don’t have to fight to get your money in the commercial arena, something far more common in the magazine world. I have never in my 13 years of commercial writing not been paid. In the overwhelming bulk of cases, I see my money in 30 days or less.

What do you say to writers who may be conflicted between pursuing journalism and commercial writing?

There are different rules around journalism and commercial writing. In journalism, objectivity is at a premium — though as we know (laughing), the theory and practice of that are two different things. In journalism, people are far sensitive to real or perceived conflicts of interest. Commercial writing, on the other hand, isn’t designed to be objective; it’s all about highlighting a company’s strengths. So, if you’re going to play in both arenas, you have to understand the rules of the game, and what’s required of both types of writing.

Another issue is this: people who email me and ask, “What if I don’t feel good about promoting this product?” If you have an ethical problem with a company — maybe a tobacco or liquor company, then don’t write for them. But when people say, a bit piously and melodramatically, in my humble opinion, “I’m not sure I could write for a company I don’t believe in,” I must confess, I roll my eyes a bit. Assuming you don’t have an ethical problem with what they sell, why couldn’t you write for, say, a mortgage company or a software firm? Do you have to believe fervently in mortgages in order to write about it? Especially if someone’s willing to pay you $75+ an hour to do so?

Then there, the whole journalism/PR struggle, something journalists-turned-commercial writers often struggle with this. As journalists, they were constantly hit up by PR people, whom they often held in low regard — and now that they’re on the other side, they sometimes are in a position to have to woo these people to get work. My advice? Build good relationships with everyone in whatever job you have because you never know where you’re going to end up.

What led you to the renegade idea of self-publishing your first book, The Well-Fed Writer [all three of Peter’s books are self-published]?

The easy answer is that I’m a control freak. I didn’t make much more than a half-hearted effort to find a publisher for The Well-Fed Writer. I actually didn’t set out to make a lot of money with the book, although happily it turned out well [50,000 copies in print of his first two books, and a full-time living for five-plus years]. For starters, I wanted to keep control of the process, and not have someone tell me, for instance, what my cover was going to look like. I wanted to control the timetable as well. From the time a conventional publishing house accepts your manuscript to the point where there are books in the bookstore can easily be 18 to 24 months. With my last two books, from finished but unedited manuscript to “books in hand” was about five months, and that included a galley run [authors use galleys to send to first-round book reviewers and to land “blurbs” for the final edition]. Self-publishing is just much more expeditious.

In addition, while a self-publisher can design a marketing plan tailored specifically to their book, a conventional publisher doesn’t have the time, resources, or money to optimize and maximize the marketing of every book they put out. Also, you keep the rights with self-publishing — not the case with a conventional publisher. In fact, I advise writers that if they do publish with a conventional publisher, they should write into the contract that if the publisher abandons marketing the book, the book’s rights revert back to you. Finally, with self-publishing, you keep most of the money. My books go for $20 apiece. Through a conventional publisher, I’d make maybe $1 to $1.25 on each book sold. But as a self-publisher, I make four, five, six or more times that amount on each book, depending where it’s sold.

Do you think going through an agent and getting a conventional publisher is ever a good idea?

You have to ask yourself, “What’s my goal here?” If you just want to get published, and be able to call yourself an author, but have little attachment to making a lot of money with your books, feel you aren’t good at marketing or don’t want to market, then a traditional publisher might be a good bet. IF you can land one — something that’s getting harder all the time. But be warned: authors picked up by conventional publishers are constantly and unpleasantly amazed to find out how little marketing support they actually get from their publisher, and how much is expected from them. And given all the other minuses to the traditional publishing model, it explains why so many people are taking a closer look at self-publishing.

If you do fit the profile of the un-marketing savvy, non-money-motivated author above, and you can’t land a publisher, you can always go the print-on-demand (POD) route, where your upfront costs are fairly low. As will be your profits as well. But, it might help you eventually attract a publisher, IF that’s your goal. It never was mine.

But that’s a somewhat superficial answer. The other question writers need to ask themselves is this: Why do you think you’re not good at marketing? In my new book, I assert that marketing isn’t what you think it is, and it isn’t as hard as you think it is. I maintain that success is more about a process than an aptitude; it’s more about a lot of things you have to do, rather than some way you have to be. If you’re a reasonably successful magazine writer, you already know how to sell yourself; every time you send out a query letter or speak to an editor about a story, you’re marketing. It’s simply transferring that innate sense into a new arena.

All that said, self-publishing isn’t for everyone and for every situation. Fiction, for example, is very hard to self-publish successfully, though it has been done. Or perhaps, you don’t have the cash to cover production costs, which at the lower end may be around $8K. A traditional publisher will foot this bill for you. But if you ARE going to throw that kind of money at a project, you’d better be prepared to do the marketing. As I say in my new book, 5,000 books sitting in your garage is an ego-boosting experience for about two hours. Tops.

It seems like there’s been a huge (positive) change in how self-publishing is perceived since your first book came out. I see your books everywhere — certainly no one can sneeze at what you’ve accomplished!

I’m not going to take credit for changing perceptions. I’m just one small part of a movement that’s gaining respect and prestige because the quality in self-publishing keeps rising. Associations like PMA (formerly Publishers Marketing Association, now called The Independent Book Publishers Association) and SPAN (Small Publishers Association of North America) provide much needed support for all independent publishers. And every year, PMA holds The Ben Franklin Awards that honor excellence in independent publishing. Some of the big publishing houses come to the awards ceremonies and actually hunt for authors. Some people self-publish to attract a publisher, and hey, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve been approached by two publishing houses, including one pretty big one. I was able to say, no thanks. Which was kind of nice because I am doing pretty well on my own. I’m not out of the gate without a paddle. I know what I’m doing. I have my base, a name, some traction, and a platform. Why would I want to change anything?

***

Peter has generously offered Renegade Writer blog readers a 20% discount on his books. All his books come with free U.S. shipping and your choice of one of two ebook bonuses.

Discount for The Well-Fed Writer titles.

Discount for The Well-Fed Self-Publisher.

Nov 6, 2006 Writer Q&A

6 Responses

  1. LindaFormichelli says:

    Diana, fabulous interview! And thanks to Peter Bowerman for sharing his expertise and for the generous discount.

    Linda

  2. DGClark says:

    Great interview. Many thanks. But when I tried the “discount” well-fed publisher link, it went nowhere.

  3. DianaBurrell says:

    OK, the problem is fixed. Somehow WordPress truncated the link.

  4. happy to hear peter’s thoughts on corporate vs. magazine writing, especially since i subscribe to the commercial cash cow philosophy myself. then i’m free to pursue that anthology essay or humor piece on spec (or via long-shot query) without financial worry…

  5. Love what Peter has to say. It motivated me to explore self-publishing as an option for a proposal I have languishing. I just bought his book. Thanks, renegades!
    Judi

  6. Amy says:

    I surfed directly from this interview to the book site, bought it, and am devouring the bonus downloads. They’re so good I can’t believe the book is better, but I can’t wait to find out! (It’s on its way, media mail, so I hope to have it by Thanksgiving :)

    Thanks for the great feature!

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