Writers Chatting: Chapter 5

Lars Leber Photography

Lars Leber has become one of my favorite local photographers. Above is Grand Prismatic Spring Sunset (Yellowstone National Park, WY)  – a late summer sunset.

There were quite a few requests on publishing last time. I put out a call for advice on all aspects. This week we’ll start with Paul Wartenberg’s advice on securing an literary agent.

Let’s also talk about where everyone is at with their works. What stage are you at? How is it feeling?

Don’t forget you can click on the Authors In Our Midst under the quick links to see all the great advice in the writers chatting threads (and all 0ur great authors, too!)

Now from Paul:

There are superheroes in the world, people with Talents, and the ones who choose can get to train and suit up to work the streets fighting crime and saving lives.

Body Armor Blues can be found here and Paul’s author page is here.

I’ve taught a class on self-publishing at my library a couple of times, and I start with describing the three (and a half) methods of writers getting published. The first method is the traditional route: getting signed by a major – or small press – imprint such as Penguin or HarperCollins.

Going that route has the hardest steps but the biggest rewards. The major imprints aren’t kind to new or emerging authors, but it’s because they’re swamped by hundreds of wordsmiths banging at their door. And they’re swamped because the major imprints have the greatest reach to every market: the retail stores, the libraries, the schools that can purchase hundreds if not thousands of copies of your work. The large publishers can market your book everywhere it can, set up deals for bookstores to display your covers, get you interviews and signing tours and reviews. Everybody (usually) wants to sign a contract with one of the big guys, because that’s money up front, that’s a solid chance of making the bestsellers lists, that’s playing in the major leagues.

Thing is, those large publishing houses will not meet with you or even glance in your general direction without someone drawing their attention to you.

This is why if you want to take that traditional route – even making a deal with a small press imprint – you need to get an agent first.

Literary Agents help in a lot of ways: they understand the structures of good deals and what kind of contracts you should sign. For those agents – or their agencies – that have been in the business long enough, they get a reputation with the major publishers that can ease any introductions and line up deals with a few calls and handshakes. Agents also see the market trends, what publishers are looking for, and can guide you towards making your pitches stick.

There are rules – and tricks – on getting Literary Agents as much as there are rules on getting published. So you need to be aware of this much:

Watch out for any agencies that ask for fees up front, or for you to pay for things. Literary Agents ought to be working on commission: they won’t get paid until you get a contract (they’ll then take 10-20 percent off from that).

Agents work in certain fields and literary genres. Don’t rely on an Agent who handles Romances to get your Mystery Horror novel to market.

Be patient. It takes time for an Agent to get publishers interested in you.

Have some works already finished by the time you reach out to find an Agent. You need a portfolio of work to show off and give your Agent an idea of how to pitch for you (and what to pitch with).

You need to have not only a portfolio of work, you need to create a Query letter – a pitch – to send prospective Literary Agents / Agencies. There are standard formats for Queries, although each Agency may have their own quirks in the format. This is why you’ll need to research to find what Agencies are out there, and how they want you to approach them. There are several references out there, the one we tend to have at our libraries is “Guide to Literary Agents” published by Writer’s Digest. It should include a directory of Literary Agencies (with a subject index) and a how-to chapter on writing Query letters.

One other way to find Literary Agents is through a local or regional Writers’ Association. Agents like to keep in touch with the writers’ groups within particular genres. I know from personal experience that the Florida Writers’ Association has Agents at their Annual Conferences in late October, and they can arrange for writers – for a fee – to meet with Agents to 1) work on their pitches and 2) get an Agent’s actual attention.

In short, if you want to go the traditional route to get published, it’s:

  • Finish a novel as well as a portfolio of other works,
  • Find an Agent in your genre market (check your library for guide resources!),
  • Make a pitch with a Query letter, and make a good impression,
  • Work with the Agent who signs you to get a Publisher interested,
  • Sign a contract and wait a year for the book to get published (remember, publishers are swamped: they’ll have their stable of established authors getting printed as well as the 1-4 new writers like yourself to get printed in the mix).

That’s if for this week. Enjoy and be kind to one another – TaMara

81 replies
  1. 1
    WereBear says:

    As I understand it, the “slush pile” basically no longer exists. An agent now acts in that role.

  2. 2
    Mnemosyne says:

    I’m going to a large local romance writers’ conference the weekend after I get back from Disneyworld and an editor from Avon will be critiquing the first 8 pages of my novel. Nervous but excited.

    I will also be pitching my novel to either an agent or a different publisher — they’re still working out that schedule. I’ll let everyone know how it goes!

  3. 3
    germy says:

    I’ve linked to this before, but it’s a valuable resource.
    Writer Beware

  4. 4

    In my experiences thus far, self publishing is more profitable than traditional publishing for the majority of writers doing it… and that if you make a lot of money self publishing, the trads will seek you out.

    Plus you get control of your product.

  5. 5
    Greg says:


    Basically. Some houses will do open calls once in awhile. I’ve hit a few of those. They’re expecting the massive pile of slush so they’re braced for it. Response is probably faster than traditional unsolicited manuscript.

    I’ve been buying how to get published books since I was fourteen. It’s interesting to watch the shift from you can submit then find an agent to fifty-fifty to get ye an agent puny wordsmith.

  6. 6

    @WereBear: I think that’s true with big houses, although I do know one person who just submits directly to editors. She’s not supposed to but she figures the worst that can happen is they say no. Sometimes they read the manuscript though I don’t think anyone has bought.

    Some conferences invite agents and editors to give talks and often as part of that, editors even at big houses will accept manuscripts directly from attendees.

    I think any writer has to decide what they want in terms of publication. What will make them happy? What satisfies someone else may not be what a different person needs.

  7. 7

    Novelist Jim Hines did a survey on who makes what kind of money. It’s self reported data, so beware, but it’s interesting. I’m linking to part 5, so you need to backtrack for the rest if you’re interested.

  8. 8
    Peter says:

    @Joshua James: It can be, but distribution and PR are expensive and/or a lot of work. So your margins are higher, but only if you sell.

  9. 9

    @Joshua James: I think the next topic is going to start to cover self-publishing and if you want to send me a little something on your journey to be highlighted, that would be great!

    That goes for everyone – whether self-publishing or traditional, I’d love your stories to highlight going forward.

  10. 10
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:

    Hi, everybody…

    I just submitted an essay to American Scholar. Completed a first draft screenplay and two YA’s that I need to now review/revise. Working on multiple other projects, too, including a blog.

  11. 11
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:

    I have a sister who signed with an “agent”… I think it was a scam. The contract indicated he’d send the ms to six houses. He did. No responses. For that he pocketed a thousand dollars.

  12. 12
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:

    Agents are supposed to make their money on sales, not effort, is my understanding.

  13. 13

    @West of the Rockies (been a while): Oh god. That is a scam.

    No legitimate agent takes money up front. They take a percentage of sales–usually 15%. If they don’t sell the book, they make no money.

  14. 14

    @West of the Rockies (been a while): Wow. You’ve been busy.

    I have two short stories and a YA novel out right now.

  15. 15

    I’m still in the ‘building a portfolio’ part of the process. I have one completed novel and another that is two thirds finished. I’ve got a few more in varying stages of outline / research notes. Gaining constructive feedback seems to be the toughest part the process right now. I’ve turned to self publishing as a way to at least get something out there and get some feedback, but what I’m really looking for is professional advice, and I’m still uncertain of the best way to get that. There is no shortage of professional editors advertising themselves… it’s finding ones with a proven track record and a willingness to take on new clients that seems to be the challenge.

  16. 16
    WereBear says:

    I have limited energies as I recover from a serious illness, but I did manage to break my writer’s block on the rewrite; through the unusual step of creating the proposed book cover.

    While I live with an Art Director, the process turned out to need a subtitle, and in crafting the subtitle, I realized what the book needed! A revamp of the first 5-6 chapters and I’m back on track again.

    This is a non-fiction book about hot to have a happy relationship with your pet cat. And I have a built in audience through my cat blog, so I am self-publishing.

  17. 17
    Marina says:

    I’ve finished an upmarket commercial women’s fiction novel, written the synopsis, have 57+ evolving versions of a query letter, and am now researching agents and querying. You can spent hours researching these (mostly young, mostly female) agents (talk about a pink-collar ghetto.) There are ‘agent speed-dating’ events called twitter pitches where you query them during a twitter event, drop-down menus on agent websites where you list all your claims to fame (zero), and word count limits that make your synopsis a series of headlines.

    The process feels like an exercise in futility and frustration. I read my queries aloud to myself, but nonetheless sent out a query recently that failed to mention the genre or word count. (I sent out an addendum, like that’ll do the trick…) The plot of my novel is mostly linear, there’s narrative pull, recipes (my heroine finds self-worth through baking), and it’s funny (bitter, not ha-ha), it’s also so violent, explicit, and disturbing that I’m embarrassed by it. The only reason I’m querying is because if you’re written something and not sent it out, you didn’t have the guts to cross the finish line, take the final step, whatever. Meanwhile the dishes, the laundry, and the medical bills are all piling up…

    I read a nice piece about handling rejection: if you’re thin-skinned, why you put yourself out there? If boiling your novel down to 140 characters feels humiliating, why do it? Also, it’s not you, it’s them (the agents, the publishers, the remnants of the public that still read); maybe what you wrote isn’t mediocre enough… remember, everybody’s looking for the next E.L. James, and you’re not her (praise be), so deal with it.

    So that’s where I’m at.

  18. 18
    Greg says:

    @West of the Rockies (been a while):

    Money flows to the author. Reading fees, or anything else an agent charges outside of commission is, at best, highly questionable and usually a scam. Agents get paid when they sell your work, not before. The Writers Beware link higher in the thread is a good source of info for scams like this and a place to report them.

  19. 19
    Tom Levenson says:

    A few thoughts:
    I’ve been agented since the start of my book-writing career; I’ve dallied with the idea of self-publishing, but for my genre (non fiction, science focused) the approach hasn’t worked for better known and better-selling types than me, so I’ve never gone deep into the process.

    Which is a way of saying that self publishing seems to be very genre dependent, and the areas in which it has seemed to this outsider to have greatest impact is for those genres that have strong fan communities: Romance, Sci Fi, perhaps Mystery…and so on.

    So a question: that dovetail with the experience of those working in such forms?

    My only other thought/advice about agents is the same one I give to aspiring free lancers pitching magazine/web stuff to editors: when your addressee reads your stuff she/he will see it as the best you can do. After working with someone for a while, it’s fine to pitch in a phone call or a quick email, but when introducing oneself, the writing has to be as excellent as it can be, the ideas sharp, and so on, for both the pitch letter and any materials you send.

    I know that sounds like (and is!) a penetrating glimpse of the obvious, but I’m still stunned by how many people — really good, smart, professionally accomplished folks with a genuinely good idea — don’t get that a busy agent or editor won’t recognize the background of all the cool stuff that’s implicit in a not-fully-worked-out pitch.

    ETA: +1 to everyone above saying that an agent who asks for fees up front is a scam artist to be avoided and named as such to any writer friends you care about.

  20. 20

    @Tom Levenson: The writers I know who do best at self publishing are in romance. Something like half the novels sold in this country each year are romances. The supply has trouble keeping up with the demand.

  21. 21
    WereBear says:

    @Tom Levenson: I’m glad it’s working for you, Tom; I’m sure it does not hurt that you are a college professor and have other bona fides to offer.

    Crucial in non-fiction; one of the reasons I got exasperated with the query process was that I “only” have decades of cat rescue experience to offer in my field. This meant nothing to the people I was querying; had I been a veterinarian, it would have been entirely different.

  22. 22
    Mnemosyne says:


    I took a lot of screenwriting classes (an understatement since I have an MFA in it ;-) and I think what your Twitter pitches need to be is what they call a “logline.” Basically, it’s the one-sentence summary that gets you to change the channel to see what that program or movie is about.

    Since TV Guide doesn’t really exist anymore, a good source to look at loglines is the TCM website. The one for Vertigo is: “A detective falls for the mysterious woman he’s been hired to tail.” Does it tell you the whole plot? No. But it gives you just enough to say, “Hmm, that sounds potentially interesting,” and that’s the purpose of a logline.

  23. 23
    Peter says:

    @Tom Levenson: I know some food bloggers who self-published e-cookbooks; those with sizable followings can do pretty well that way and build a successful brand that publishers are much more likely to jump at. Those with smaller followings can get some attention and establish a (virtual) paper trail of quality work. And at a buck a pop, they don’t have to be massive tomes.

    There’s no question that agents and publishers love it when you have a big social media presence; it’s worth remembering that pretty much everyone wants you to do their job for them so the better known you are the easier it is for them to sell your work.

  24. 24
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:

    @Iowa Old Lady:

    I’ve spent a lot of time writing, not nearly enough time on the business of writing. Time to get busy businessing or get busy crying.

  25. 25
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Iowa Old Lady:

    I went to a romance author panel at the Festival of Books last year and there was some interesting conversation between the traditionally published authors and the self-published ones. It really seemed to come down to how comfortable a person was with doing the constant work of marketing herself. The self-published author estimated that she spent about 50 percent of her working time doing marketing and promotion, but she felt it was worth it because she got a good return on her writing sales, but that also meant that she only spends about half of her time actually writing.

  26. 26


    That sounds great, and best of luck to you!

  27. 27
    Peter says:

    @Mnemosyne: Yes, this, exactly. Promotion is another, separate job.

  28. 28

    @Mnemosyne: I once heard an agent say that querying, promoting, etc are parts of a writer’s job and, as always, you like some parts of your job better than others. That helped me get a more detached sense of the stuff I cringe from (though I still cringe at promotion).

  29. 29

    @Joshua James:

    Biggest setback I’ve found with self-publishing, however, is the high need to self-MARKET. I’ve talked with a good number of local writers – some of them self-published as well – who all point out the heavy lifting involved in getting works recognized and sold. Not every book review source covers self-published works, for example, and getting yourself mentioned in something like Publisher’s Weekly involves a fee.

    One sad truth is that a lot of writers are not that great at self-promotion or marketing. If there were a solution for this – say, a business that can handle the marketing for authors who can’t – I would love to see it.

    Both traditional and self-publishing routes involve time and money, I will grant you that. Self-publishing involves a lot more money up front and that can be a problem for people.

  30. 30
    WereBear says:

    @Mnemosyne: It really seemed to come down to how comfortable a person was with doing the constant work of marketing herself.

    Yes, exactly. One has to be one’s own publishing house in all ways; editing, proofing, establishing a brand, getting the word out, etc.

    Then again, trying to get an agent interested is considerable work in itself.

  31. 31
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:


    I think I’ll spend some time summarizing my projects into one sentence. Sounds like a good focus-sharpening exercise.

  32. 32


    Cookbooks are actually a decent market. I had a self-published author who spoke about how his best sales were with How-To books. If you can write up a How-To on an obscure-yet-important topic, you can claim a niche and a reputation on that topic.

  33. 33


    Agents also call it “The elevator pitch”. You got one ride on an elevator car with the person you’re pitching the idea to, and it’s gotta be an idea that’s concise and intriguing to make the target say “hmm, tell me more.”

    P.S. Don’t pitch “Aliens.” it’s been done.

  34. 34
    Mnemosyne says:

    @West of the Rockies (been a while):

    Here’s a direct link to this month’s TCM schedule for inspiration. IMO, they do a great job of boiling a 90-minute movie down to a single sentence.

  35. 35
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:


    Paul, I’ve read several times now that publishers really only spend significant marketing on already-established authors, that otherwise a book has to jump out if the nest and fly on its own or go to the remainder table (the rendering plant).

    Is that untrue?

  36. 36
    Mnemosyne says:


    I had business cards made up for this conference and put my elevator pitch on the back. Hopefully I’ll be able to hand out at least a few of them!

  37. 37

    @Iowa Old Lady:

    Romance: it’s a big market, but you gotta do it JUST right.


  38. 38
    Tom Levenson says:

    @WereBear: FTR: when I got my first agent, back in the stone age, when we wrote w. chisels on slate by the light of a flickering fire fueled by camel dung — and liked it! — I was in my twenties, working at an reporting job at a (good) science magazine. It was a much easier time in publishing (the mid eighties), at least in the popular science niche, and the kinds of qualifications and affiliations (and social media reach) valued now weren’t such a big part of the game.

    That said, one of the nice things about non-fiction is (a) you don’t have to write the whole book before you try to sell it and (b) the idea can captivate agents/editors enough that experience/status can matter a bit less.

  39. 39
    Peter says:

    @PaulWartenberg: They are; like romances and other genre fiction, they continue to do well. I certainly hope mine does.

  40. 40
    Tom Levenson says:

    @West of the Rockies (been a while): Leaping in for Paul…my experience is that this is largely true. I’m a moderate selling author (to put it kindly) and I get marketing support from my publishers but not a huge marketing blitz.

  41. 41
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:

    Also, too, one should probably be adept at social media (and have a facebook, instagram, twitter, etc., accounts). Knowledge of SEO would be necessary as well.

  42. 42

    @West of the Rockies (been a while):

    Partly true. Publishers do put SOME effort into promoting new authors, because it’s in their best long-term interest to develop new “major names” to tie their fortunes to whenever their current stable of talent passes away or moves on. First-time authors get a good number of write-ups in the retailer/book order publications like Booklist and Publisher’s Weekly to stoke interest. For the most part, however, the big publishers will focus more of their effort on the established writers. Those are their big money-makers and so they need to make sure the readership knows their latest book(s) are on the shelf for consumption.
    I’d say it’s like 20-80 in the New-to-Known Author ratio.

  43. 43
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:


    Awesome! And thanks for the link! A business card in a bookmark shape might be a good way to go.

  44. 44
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:

    @Tom Levenson:

    I saw Search for Vulcan on the shelf yesterday at my local B&N, Tom. I was picking up Gleick’s Time Travel book, but look forward to buying yours next. It must be a rush to see your book on display.

  45. 45
    Mnemosyne says:

    @West of the Rockies (been a while):

    I won a giant bag of romance stuff at a NaNoWriMo event and swore to never do a bookmark unless I absolutely had to. You get inundated with the things and they all look the same after a while.

    When I met Tessa Dare at the Festival of Books, she gave me a “bodice repair kit” that was a little sewing kit with her name and tagline on it. Now THAT’S a promotional item!

  46. 46
    Marina says:

    Mnemosyne, thanks for the advice–I appreciate it!

  47. 47
    Tom Levenson says:

    @West of the Rockies (been a while): Thanks! Gleick’s book is great. (I reviewed it here, so I’m not just saying that.)

    And yeah — it’s alway nice to see one’s book on the shelf. ;-)

  48. 48
    WereBear says:

    @Tom Levenson: The mid eighties was when I got an agent for my fiction: a highly regarded and well-connected fellow I just adored.

    It was quite a different time.

  49. 49
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:


    Bookmarks are passe then… bummer. Is there a cheap e-book-related item one could produce and hand out?

  50. 50
    Mnemosyne says:

    @West of the Rockies (been a while):

    As alluded to above, I think you should think up something that relates either to your genre or to your specific book. A cookbook writer could do a recipe card. Werebear could have a postcard that folds into a cat toy. Etc. The more individualized it is to you and your work, the more memorable it will be.

  51. 51

    I know authors who go to conventions and book signings who bring promotional materials such as:

    1) plastic bookmarks. paper bookmarks aren’t popular, but the creative knick-knack types still are.
    2) pens. useful, and printing companies can print up your name, book title, and weblink info.
    3) cookies or snacks in wrappings that contain author/book information.
    4) mini-CDs with recorded book advertisements and/or audio chapters from the book.

  52. 52
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:

    Something interactive, something a person can use or he entertained by sounds like the way to go. It’s too easy to 86 a business card or bookmark.

  53. 53
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:

    What are those things schoolgirls make, the folded paper things where you insert your fingers, select a number or word or color maybe, and then work the little geometric paper gizmo to reveal some silly thing about yourself?

    I’m probably wording it poorly, but such a thing with a promotional tie-in might work well.

  54. 54

    Bookmarks do get lost at conferences, but they’re a cheap thing to distribute face to face. My local B&N lets me leave a stack on their customer service counter, and my husband and I both carry them to give out to people any time my writing comes up.

    I got 1000 plastic ones for $55 from Overnight Printing.

  55. 55
    Steve in the ATL says:


    Hitler Lives (1945): This short propaganda film, produced at the end of WWII, warns that although Adolf Hitler is dead, his ideas live on.

    Holy shit–I doubt the makers of this film expected it to be relevant 70 years later.

    Sorry, back to author chat!

  56. 56
    Peter says:

    Somewhat OT, but this is an excellent piece on writing by master craftsman George Saunders.

  57. 57

    God, this all sounds exhausting. What’s the point of going with a big publisher if you have to already have a big following on social media etc.? That’s a lot of work for somebody like me. Way harder than writing.

    I write books with a very strong place presence in localized, real settings. I know that smaller local publishers like that stuff. Is that a thing?

    Curious how Tissue Thin Pseudonym does it. Anybody know if he’s written about it?

  58. 58

    @Major Major Major Major: Absolutely small local presses like that local link. You have to poke around to find them and your sales aren’t likely to be huge, but if that’s okay with you, they’re a good outlet.

    As I recall, TTP had a friend who helped him self-publish. It may have been a service that did it.

  59. 59
    Mnemosyne says:

    Speaking of good writing, if you have a chance to see the touring production of Fun Home, definitely jump on that. It’s all about writing and memory and, goddamn it, I just started crying again over one of the scenes. If you’ve lost a parent, definitely bring some extra Kleenex.

  60. 60
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:

    @Tom Levenson:

    Tom, I’m not sure if you’re still here, but I recall an MIT science writing program five to seven years ago maybe… you needed either an MS in science or an MA in English to get into the one-year $30,000 program.

    Was it successful? Are there enough science writing gigs now to justify enrolling in such a program? You have a Ph.D and teach at MIT. You’re an award-winning writer. You both teach and write still, books, book reviews, etc. I’m guessing that there are very few people nowadays who basically make a living solely as science writers, yes? The big names we all know (Greene, de Grasse Tyson, Sagan) all are/were professors IN ADDITION to writers, yes.

    Any thoughts? At 55, I assume that pathway is long-closed to me, but I have students occasionally ask.

  61. 61
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Iowa Old Lady:

    This was 15 or more years ago, but one of G’s friends was able to convince a small press that primarily did nursing books to publish his horror novel because he was a nurse and the profession was part of the plot.

    Maybe Major^4 could interest the Monterey Bay Aquarium in his book?

  62. 62
    WereBear says:

    @Major Major Major Major: What’s the point of going with a big publisher if you have to already have a big following on social media etc.?

    And from what I have heard from other writers, they don’t do a writer’s publicity the way they used to, either.

    They want to promote someone who is already famous.

  63. 63

    @WereBear: sure seems like, unless you’re a real gem/mediocrity ;)

    @Iowa Old Lady: thanks.

  64. 64
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:

    Chilton (of auto repair fame) published Frank Herbert’s Dune. No connection between the Bene Gesserits and Volkswagens that I know of, but maybe exploring an unlikely writer/publisher union occasionally works.

  65. 65

    @Iowa Old Lady: I don’t care about sales, I want people to enjoy my books and see it on a shelf some day :) if it’s good enough, maybe it can go bigger.

    I know the local community for alt/mystery/urban fantasy (for some reason) is big in seattle. Oddly enough I don’t hear as much down in SF. Maybe all the cool kids moved north.

  66. 66
    EBT says:

    I am actually writing again. As my narative branches it spins off in different directions depending on what the reader wants to read so I kinda write in multiple directions. Currently I have the reader escorting a diplomat to the far empire in the west. Having already (possibly, it’s a branching narative) experienced governmental corruption via a crooked tax collector and local government, next are the less regulated “free cities” or taking the advice of a guide you could meet in the first of them and trying to reach the coast via the grasslands and swampy marshes the freecities occupy.

  67. 67
    Tom Levenson says:


    West of the Rockies (been a while)

    : I recall an MIT science writing program five to seven years ago maybe…

    Yes: it exists — started in 2003.

    you needed either an MS in science or an MA in English to get into the one-year $30,000 program.

    No: A bachelor’s degree in anything is fine, as long as the applicant demonstrated both writing skill and a grasp of scientific ideas/process.

    The tuition, alas, is more than $30,000. As you’ll see at the site linked above, the program runs a full year — two semesters in residence at MIT, plus a 10 week full time summer internship. The total tuition for that is a bit north of $50k, which, added to living expenses, puts the cost of the year between $70,000 and $80,000. We have some money for fellowship aid, and we organize some on-campus writing work, but even with both of those resources it’s still a costly program. (Our long term goal is to raise enough endowment to bring the program as close as possible to being tuition-free, but we are a long way from that now.)

    Was it successful?

    We’re still here. ;-)

    Are there enough science writing gigs now to justify enrolling in such a program?

    Most of our graduates work in some form of science writing. That ranges from staff jobs to freelancing to work in public information offices. It’s tough though, no denying that. As to whether the MIT program or any of the other science writing graduate courses are worth it, that depends on too many different factors to answer in the abstract: what do you want to do; what’s keeping you from doing it; do you need an intensive year of writing to bring your craft up to the level of professional employment; and so on. As for doing this as a mature student — it’s a mixed bag. It’s difficult for some to go back to the experience of school, of being evaluated and so on, when you’re twice the age of your classmates and have the same length of life experience as your instructors — and your own expertise as well. Also, bluntly, most of our graduates go from our course into entry level writing jobs — at great places, where they can do great work. But there comes a time when most people feel like they’re done with entry level stuff, even if they’re switching careers. So for an older student to thrive, I think one has to be very clear about one’s goals and expectations, to plan to use the year to really pursue some specific end.

    Otherwise, if you’re already a writer, and you’re looking to switch beats, I’d look more at some of the summer or short-course workshops in science writing. In fact, before someone who’s already had one (or more) careers committed to a year of graduate school and a lot of cash, I’d do that anyway, just to test the proposition.

    You have a Ph.D.

    Nope. Just a B.A. — in East Asian Studies, no less. (I torqued that towards history of science, which makes that a little less weird.) I got into science writing through journalism and one thing led to another.

    I’m guessing that there are very few people nowadays who basically make a living solely as science writers, yes? The big names we all know (Greene, de Grasse Tyson, Sagan) all are/were professors IN ADDITION to writers, yes.

    Lots of people make a living as science writers without any university affiliation. Carl Zimmer; Ed Yong; Maryn McKenna; Mary Roache; the entire science desk at Buzzfeed, headed by Virginia Hughes; Lisa Song — Pulitzer Prize winning graduate of the MIT program and now at Pro Publica; the Inside Climate News team …you get the idea. Some of the best known book authors and TV heads have academic affiliations, and there is certainly a long-standing tradition of academic-popularizers, but they are hardly the only story, nor the most numerous cohort.

    That do you for the time being?

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    WereBear says:

    @Tom Levenson: One advantage of such programs is the incredible networking that comes with them.

    If someone is more “social” than “marketing” it can still be helpful to do things the old-fashioned way.

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    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:

    @Tom Levenson:

    I’ve worn a few hats. Worked at an NPR affiliate as a board operator/producer, I was an evidence tech/CSI, taught English lit and composition, and am now trying to make a go of it as a writer. It makes for an odd resume.

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    Tom Levenson says:

    @West of the Rockies (been a while): Gotcha. For someone with your experience, I’d say grad school was likely a last resort, not the first option. If your nym is a good guide to your location, check out the science writing workshops they hold every summer in Santa Fe.

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    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:

    @Tom Levenson:

    Thank you, Tom. I’m in CA. I received an MA in English Lit from a CSU primarily known for its party reputation.

    I think perhaps if I were a decade or so younger, I might pursue such a career change a little more aggressively. As a father and boyfriend in a new relationship though, I can’t easily disappear for a semester or two and spend a lot of money on myself.

    It may be an unlikely path, but I think I might try to publish in very small venues, build a portfolio, and see where it takes me. Candidly, my thought is that we need as many people as possible who might explain and explore science in a way that still more people can comprehend and appreciate.

    Oh, I know one won’t change Bubba Bob’s opinion on climate change, but doing absolutely nothing in a world that grows ever more fragile seems wrong.

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    Paula says:

    Sorry I missed this earlier today…

    Wanted to note: there are differences in publishing with respect to fiction versus non-fiction. Broadly speaking, non-fiction has an emphasis on credentials and platform; fiction is more about story and genre as well as platform. The road to Agents is somewhat different therefore, or so I believe — I did a lot of research prior to deciding to self-publish.

    In all cases authors are impacted by the consolidation of the publishing industry, the general understaffing that seems to be the norm, and the need for books to make money — or to be seen as likely to make money.

    As someone noted upthread, agents now more or less handle “the slush pile”, and agents-being-required is now more the rule than the exception (some smaller houses or divisions say they accept un-agented manuscripts).

    There’s a host of topics embedded in all of this — we may want to hit them one at a time.

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    Applejinx says:

    I’m down to updating (new chapter) every other week, though I got a solid first act of a screenplay worked out, and that’s valuable to me. A neighbor’s car smashed my porch, my elderly Mom went into the hospital, a kid I’ve been sponsoring (to get clean, from drug abuse) went on a complicated bender abusing several unlikely sorts of medicine cabinet contents, and all in all I hate people about 70% more than usual. Oh, and a circle of friends online is going all flaky and alt-righty, while congregating on a server I pay for :P

    One day I’ll not be insanely stressed and overbooked on Sunday, but it was not this Sunday. :P

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    Has anyone considered forming a virtual balloon-juice writers circle (or circles)? We could share work with each other with the promise of providing constructive feedback. I tried a local face-to-face group, but my work/travel schedule makes it difficult to commit something like that.

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    WereBear says:

    @Applejinx: stuff does seem to happen all at once. Thats rough

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    @Thad Phetteplace: I like the idea. Are you thinking of an invitation only blog or a google group or did you have something else in mind?

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    Me: Long time lurker and writer of extremely rare posts. This one is long; sorry. TL;DR version: I’m an indie author because it’s the better business model for me, and see it as the only road to decent profit.

    I’ve been in the indie publishing game since Oct. 2014. My flagship series is science fiction/space opera, with 4½ books out and counting, and working on a 5th even as we speak. I also write fantasy paranormal romance, with one out, and three more planned for next year.

    In early 2014, when I was finishing the manuscript for book 1 in the space opera series, I attended a local writers conference and listened to a panel with agents and trad-publisher editors. An aspiring author asked about the science fiction romance genre (which my series can also fall under), and the panel responded with varying degrees of pity and condescension, because “no one buys that sort of thing.” I’d been leaning toward indie publishing because I wanted my first book out that year, on my schedule, and I had a day job that allows me to invest in my author business, i.e., production of my book. I read the helpful blogs and articles by indie authors wherever I could, and got recommendations for editors, cover designers, and file conversion specialists. I made contacts with author groups on Facebook, and still interact with them regularly, because we all learn from one another on how to handle the ever-evolving marketplace for genre fiction books. I don’t make even moderate money (yet), but I’ve only just hit the threshold where readers will trust me to continue and finish the Big Damn Story Arc that I’ve started in the first 4½ books. I plan to invest in more serious marketing this coming year, with the release of book 5.

    The most tangible difference between trad pub and indie pub is the money. With trad pub, if I negotiated a smokin’ contract, I might get 12% royalties on ebooks. With indie pub, I get 60-70%. The difference is primarily marketing and paper print runs. However, if I’m supposed to come to a trad publisher with an established social media platform and a built-in audience, why should the trad publisher benefit from my hard work in establishing it, and still only pay me 12%? If ebooks result in the highest profit margin, why am I subsidizing the trad publisher’s vertical supply chain business model for paperbacks? A publisher’s customers, by the way, aren’t readers; their customers are bookstore buyers. No reader ever said “ooh, look, a new book published by Random House.”

    The indie author gig is like any startup business, with product and startup costs. Your product is your writing, which is the only thing you can’t outsource (James Patterson notwithstanding). If you have more money than time, you pay people to do the things you can’t (cover design, editor, marketing). If you have more time than money, you can learn to do things yourself, though I’d still recommend hiring a professional editor and cover designer, because it’s the very rare author who can do those things well, and your book will not fare well in comparison to the competition.

    My long-term goal is to be able to support myself with my writing. I’m writing as fast as I can and continuing to learn the business in case the odious popular-vote-loser and his co-dependents in congress tank the government and the economy. I don’t think I’d have that option at all with a traditional publisher.

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    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:

    I sooo wish you had posted this when the thread first opened, Carol. It was dead by the time you arrived. I’d love to discuss your experience and hear what others have to say. The book group meets every two weeks on Sunday morning at 9:30 PST. (What is that, 12:30 EST?) I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts on marketing a self-published book. It seems like breaking into trad publishing, acquiring an agent, etc., is extraordinarily time consuming and arduous.

    Please repost your whole comment EARLY in two weeks.

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    Paula says:

    @Carol Van Natta: Great post Carol!

    @West of the Rockies (been a while): Agree with West of the Rockies — please repost the comment at next gathering — good starting point for discussion!

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    @West of the Rockies (been a while) and @Paula:

    I’ll mark it on my calendar, and repost my deathless prose comment once the thread opens.

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    @schrodingers_cat: I hadn’t really thought the details through. I would be willing to host some sort of opt-in forum on my personal blog, or we could use some other platform if someone has a better idea. I’ll give it some definite thought and bring it up again in the next writers thread. In the mean time, anyone interested can email me at tdphette AT gmail DOT com or drop a message at my personal blog at thadphetteplace.com.

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