readingthedark: (Default)
A writer I know sent an email, first in a while, asking for guidance because someone wanted him to write their biography. They sent him five questions and he wanted suggestions.

I went with:

* * *


Good to hear from you.

Writing is lagging a bit because other things are on the front burner. A story is coming out in an anthology that Random House is doing. Eventually I'll finish the novel-in-progress and see what happens. If I had my act together, I'd submit stories. At the end of the month, I hope to have a week off to hunker down, scribble and send some stuff out.

I'm going to be ridiculously honest, since I don't have time to filter. I trust you can work with that spirit.

These "please write the story of my life because I'm so interesting" gigs are often stupid. The key is to get paid well up front. My suggestion would be to ignore any idea of future earnings or later percentages. It's approx 99.9 % or worse that the book will never see print, or even lousier, get self-published.

That means it won't hurt to sell all rights and make them pay extra for you to ghost-write (not have your name on it). Unless it's Paris Hilton or someone with a cure for cancer, you can put it on your bio if you have to but don't need to take public credit. It's a work-for-hire type of gig. Depending on how demanding the client is and how long you'll be working on it, we're usually talking a few thousand and up. If you're going to be rushed and they want quality it goes up. If all you're going to do is twenty pages, it goes way down.

1. How do you propose to work?

Once the money's in place, the other person is usually useless except for information. I recommend calling them once a week and interviewing them, recording it then regurgitating it in words like theirs, aka "capturing their voice." If it sounds like I'm recommending transcribing interviews with them, sorting the recollections into chronological order and adding some filler, it's because that's what I'm recommending. But only because I'd be thinking about how no one would ever be reading it anyway.

2. Do you have to write the whole book and then submit it?

For your sake, contracting the whole thing is almost certainly the way to go. Doing a sample chapter and an outline would only work if it's a big-time celeb (has been in major magazines or national media a lot) or if a killer agent already reps one of the parties. (Again, not to be negative but just to make the odds clear: 90% of all published books lose money.) You can submit a book proposal on a napkin, but that's probably useless on this one. If you're in it for cash, be in it for cash.

3. Do you have a connection to an agent?

Anyone with a well-written and marketable long piece can get an agent. The misperception implicit to her question is that agents represent people. In this day and age, they mostly represent projects: a book, not "a person's writing ability or potential." Too many books sell for "meh" amounts of money (a few grand or less) for an agent to focus on every idea an unproven writer might have. (This changes once a writer has proven their earnings and / or writing potential, but a newbie writer selling a memoir about an unknown person on spec sounds impossible unless it's insanely lurid, tear-jerking and already in production as a tv-movie. On the other hand, a flawless query, proposal and a first chap by someone who "writes like an angel" has sold flimsier material.)

Point blank: Half of all agents are in the bottom half. Every profession has bottom-feeders. There's no point in using or having one for the sake of having one if all you've got is a run-of-the-mill story that's not written yet. More info about the subject (victim?) would help me (or an agent) figure out how well the subject would do on the talk show circuit, etc.

4. How do you get reimbursed?

Trust me, you want cash on the barrelhead. The whole project will be speculation and even a big chunk of nothing still equals nothing. I get people who want me to write their life story a lot. The second I want fifty bucks an hour (or whatever, I tend to think fifty bucks an hour or more, estimate the whole project then divvy it up by wordcount, then offer a pay schedule based on start, midway and completion...people get sketched by the idea of "by the hour" because they think you'll pad the numbers but I certainly view a work-for-hire gig by the hour...) they decide it's too expensive for them. I've learned that a lot of people view having their life story written up as a household chore. They figure they can give you twenty bucks a week like the neighborhood kid who mows their lawn.

5. Financial arrangements?

I guess I discussed this question above. What do they want? How long? By when? What is in the marketplace that they like and / or what is their target niche? How hard will it be to give it to them? How many hours will it take? Then an iron-clad contract that makes it clear what they're buying, what you're selling and that leaves little room for irrational quibbling.

If I were in a really snotty mood, I'd compare jobs like these to cons or prostitution. You want the client to pay you and be happy, but you're probably peddling a dream of publication that's unlikely at best -- by my previous estimated figures, the odds of the book it sounds like you're considering writing turning a profit for a major publisher, all else being equal, are one in ten thousand.

And you're selling your writing skills when you could be writing something more fulfilling or lucrative. Sometimes you're getting paid to be their confidant, friend or to type up something that validates their life -- but memoirs that sell are a form of confessional escapist drama that's hard to come by.

(Some of my favorites are: Mary Karr's The Liar's Club, Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life and Frank Conroy's Stop-time. All three are tough yet literary stories of growing up. The trendiest at the moment are about wacky, messed-up families played for comedy that, inexplicably, after a prolonged adolescence, end with the damaged child growing into a happy, healthy fully-functional adult -- but then on the publicity tour the author accidentally proves that they're still messed up and the conclusion of the memoir was tacked on to make the story sound good.)

In other words, if it's the perfect story and it's going to be highly marketable like the memoirs (or power-broker inspirationals by titans of industry) that fly off the shelves, you should get them on Oprah or Jerry Springer first, then sell the book, then write it.

But most of these are people who want you to write it for some mystical "future earnings." Worse, sometimes (despite their complete lack of skills or qualifications) they want to cowrite it. If they want to cowrite it, I think you should charge more.

So maybe I've misread the situation... You didn't give me much info to go on so I'm guessing based on my sense of the biz. I hope I'm wrong. I hope someone with lots of money and a clear understanding of publishing has reached out to you and is offering something that will actually help pay the bills. And, just so I've said it, there's nothing wrong with writing something because you want to write it. I'm not one of those people who thinks that writing should always lead directly to money. But, goodness, it sounds like a stranger wants you to write their life story. Plenty of people want that.

All told, I'm presuming you just want to make some money writing. Therefore, my answers are quite skewed in that direction. Best luck with it, though these things often fall apart, drag on and are fraught with peril, usually because the person doing the paying has a misguided sense of the industry and how these things work.

Best wishes,


readingthedark: (Default)

May 2009

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