So You Want to Be a Full-time Writer? Take These 5 Steps First
As a kid, Christine wanted to be a writer, but she always heard it was just a hobby. So when it came time to choose a career path, she went to MIT and became an engineer (a pretty solid fallback plan.)
For decades she worked steady jobs with solid paychecks (who can blame her), but as an MIT interviewer she kept encountering a problem that just nagged at her: high school seniors had lost their love of reading for pleasure.
Christine knew she had the right combination of skills, passion and commitment to make it work, so she left her cushy corporate job to follow her heart and become a full-time writer.
Today, she’s the award-winning author of more than 80 commercially published books and speaks at schools, library conventions and literary festivals year round. She’s here with actionable advice on pursuing your own entrepreneurial journey and a deeper look into her story:
Christine Taylor-Butler, Children’s Author
Kansas City, Missouri
1. Be prepared to think of yourself as a business owner with skills.
Most people don't think of writing as being an entrepreneur. Either your writing is a hobby, or it's a business. It can't be both. You have to decide. If it's the latter, be prepared for a large amount of time and money invested in your business before and after you publish.
If you’re going to step out and take the risk to start your own business, you must have the skills to back up your bravado. Writing is not easy in general and is not "intuitive." Writing for children is much harder because it involves understanding the target audience, the age of the reader, scaling the text to fit reading levels and reading lengths, as well as navigating multiple consumer bases and sales outlets. If you don't develop the skills to become a good writer or if you don't respond well to deadlines, your business is dead on arrival.
2. Be prepared to do the work with no assurance of a return on your investment right away.
This is a process and a journey. Not everything you do will work. Figure out what doesn't and adjust. This is true in all industries, but especially true in publishing.
Trade publishing is different from mass market publishing. Both differ from publishing for the school and library market. Each have their own subsidiaries within publishers, with completely different rules and specifications. Editors in one division don't necessarily know or work with editors in another division.
I chose not to self-publish. That meant I needed to find commercial publishers whose body of work matched my interest and were accepting new manuscripts. I made mistakes and learned from a senior editor that once you locate a publisher you must locate an editor within that publishing house that has an affinity for the work you do. When I first started, I didn't know that editors specialized and not every editor edits every type of story. Publishers intentionally make that information hard to find since thousands of aspiring authors are sending manuscripts the publisher didn't ask to see. The "slush" piles are so large that many publishers now require your work come through an agent.
Finding an agent is harder than finding a publisher. But having an unskilled agent, or one that isn't compatible is worse than having no agent. Don't settle unless the person is experienced, wants to develop your career and understands your work and work method. I have enough "street creds" that I don't need an agent, but may in the future as I expand my "product line" in terms of genres of books.
3. To make it work, you must learn, learn, learn.
Take classes and attend specialized conferences. Go to networking events, "listen" and take notes. Learn what you don't know and add those skills to your toolkit. Build a contact list of like-minded people.
I turn to writers and editors but also entrepreneurs from unrelated industries for inspiration. I have a network I can turn to for advice now. Publishing is a large industry but still very intimate. You learn that even the most famous people are struggling with rejections on their more recent manuscripts, or that contract terms are getting tougher. You also learn that people you admire for their success or fame are just normal business people with the same bill-paying concerns we all have.
But in this business, I recommend getting to know librarians and teachers. They're the Swiss Army knife of research and literature knowledge. Early in my career, when I felt stalled, librarians and teachers were my lifeline and my support system. They pointed me toward resources and sent notes of encouragement. Both are grossly underpaid, and unsung heroes in our community.
4. Don't approach more experienced people for mentoring. Work hard, and the right people will notice your work and "offer" the mentoring.
Most accomplished authors get "asked" by strangers several times a day. That's not how it works. Become known for your skill, and in time you'll make the right connections. Sometimes mentors and sponsors are working on your behalf without your knowing it.
A high point was when I met the head of a publishing company who made a point of introducing me to other people in the industry. Those publishers repeated the process by introducing me to peers, including competitors. I gained a reputation for writing fast and accurately. And I was told I was fun to work with even when the projects have tight deadlines and under a lot of stress. One publisher told me they assigned their new editors to me because I was kind and had a sense of humor when mistakes were made.
Those connections helped me grow from 0 books to more than 80 books including several printed in multiple languages. I am now one of the most prolific children's authors in the Midwest. I call my publishers "clients" because they now contact me independently with book projects they need. I learn their specifications and write accordingly. The work is allowing me to put two children through college.
5. Entrepreneurs need to cover all bases. You will be, in the beginning, the content creator, the finance person, the sales and marketing team, the web development team, and everything else including janitorial staff.
Get help, be prepared to pay people for their time and expertise and gain the knowledge you need to do the job well. In Kansas City, there is an enormous network of resources, and sessions built to help entrepreneurs. But they're not going to find you: you need to go out and find them (or just call KCSourceLink: 816-235-6500.)
A few more tips:
---Rejections are a frequent a low point. Even famous authors still get many rejections. But this is a marathon, not a sprint. The business is based not only on skill, but relationship building. New writers often focus on authors who get major awards or best-selling public acclaim. However, the majority of books children read and love are written by people who are not in the public eye or on Oprah. Our books fill the majority of library and personal bookshelves. Most authors walk a road paved with rejection.
---If you can, carve out space in your home or rent a co-working space that is dedicated to your business and nothing else. Dress like a professional even if no one is looking so you can be in the right mindset while you work.
Success is not about money, it's about outreach and making a difference. I wanted to model for my daughters, and for the community, that happiness comes from doing something you are passionate about and doing it well.
Teachers have reached out and contacted me about my stories "turning on a switch" in a student. And recently, two families let me know that they'd caught their children reading a book I authored, The Lost Tribes, when they were supposed to be doing something else. One parent holds it out as a carrot, "Get the homework done and then you can have the book back." That's a writer's dream: when children crave a book without adult intervention and have to be forced to put it down.
The true measure of success is that you, the entrepreneur, feel fulfilled by the process, and that your "product" is well received and making a difference in the hands of the target audience.
Learn more about Christine Taylor-Butler at her website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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