July 27, 2009

The Publishing Business Outside-In

Before I took the plunge into self-employment, I worked for a leading children’s book publisher. My first position was Associate Editor, and in time I was promoted to Senior Editor and then Manager of Editorial Services. After almost twenty years of working in-house, I wondered what it would be like to experience the publishing industry from the other side of the desk. I didn’t have to wonder for long. When the company moved its editorial offices to another state, I was left without a job. Freelancing was a predictable next step. This August will mark my twelfth year as a freelance writer. I’ve managed to support myself from my writing, and I’ve also learned what it’s like to experience the publishing industry from the outside in.

Plotting the course. I understood that freelancing would be risky. As an editor, I had weeded through enough slush piles to know that only a small fraction of manuscripts make it to publication. I didn’t have the financial resources to write and wait. So, with that in mind, I decided to write work-for-hire.

Setting up shop. In my publishing job, I had the task of hiring freelance writers. The most successful ones were those who considered the business of writing as much as writing itself. I had learned from them. I created a marketing plan and a unified “look” for my promotional materials, and then I set out to find publishers who routinely hired freelancers. I specifically targeted children’s publishers, and the foundation of my marketing plan was experience.

Experience counts. I was fortunate to have a strong résumé and also contacts in the industry. Much of my prior experience was with licensed properties: Sesame Street, Disney, Warner Bros., and others. I had written for a wide variety of formats, everything from activity books to audio scripts; I clearly understood the need to revise and revise again without taking criticism personally; and I was well aware of the importance of deadlines. All of this helped to land my first freelance writing gigs; however, I still had to prove myself. I was naïve to think that experience alone would lead to an abundance of work. Soon, I realized that the other side of the desk was crowded with competitive freelance writers, and somehow I had to set myself apart.

Exploring new territory. In the beginning, most of my freelance writing assignments were to create various children’s activity books. That was where the bulk of my experience was. I enjoyed the work, but I worried about being labeled. In my editorial jobs, I often chose freelance writers for one specific kind of writing. Joe is great with crossword puzzle books; Kate does an awesome job concepting text for workbooks. I knew that I had to break into other genres. If I was to be a successful freelancer, I needed to demonstrate that I could write beyond my proven experience. The next step was to explore a number of possible markets and identify those that best fit my background and writing skills; I decided to shift my attention to educational and Christian publishers.

Persistence pays off. My undergraduate degree is in elementary education, and I’d spent several in-house years helping to develop a line of children’s educational products. I gathered writing samples from those years, created a portfolio and then contacted as many educational publishers as I could find. I was reasonably persistent, without being a pest, and before long I was hired as a contributing freelance writer for a series of K–6 ELA textbooks. That assignment led to others, and soon I was not only an expert at writing kids’ activity books, but I was an educational writer as well. The same thing happened when I sought work with Christian publishers. I had strong knowledge of Biblical principles and a writing style that fit the genre. Thomas Nelson Publishing took a chance and hired me to co-write / ghost write children’s books with leading Christian teachers and authors: John Maxwell, John MacArthur and Thomas Kinkade. Those publications opened the doors to writing assignments from other Christian publishers. I had broadened my diversity by persistence; yet I wasn’t content to sit back and coast.

Leaving my comfort zone. I love writing for children, and that will always be my core business; however, writing text for sales promotions also interests me. I’d been successful marketing myself as a work-for-hire writer, and I was curious to know if I could succeed at writing marketing copy. To qualify I needed further education, so I enrolled in a local technical college and took enough classes to earn an advanced certificate in Technical Communication. Since then, I’ve done sales promotion writing for several small graphic design firms. It has been an interesting sideline business and one that I hadn’t given any thought to when I was working in-house.

Looking to the future. I never stop thinking about the business of writing. I’m always tweaking my marketing plan to fit industry treads and my own interests. Earlier this year, I finished four preteen mystery novels for Barbour Publishing. (I’ll be writing more about them in future blog posts.) Mystery was a new genre for me, and I thoroughly enjoyed writing the books. I’d like to do more of them. I also want to write devotional books for the adult Christian market. (Heads up to any publishers who might be reading this!) I’ve created another blog called In the Compost Pile where I’ve been writing about the ways God enters into the little things in everyday life. Maybe someday that will lead to a book.

I always think of freelance writing as an adventure, but it also has its drawbacks: It's hard work, and the work is sometimes sporadic. Paychecks don’t arrive on a regular schedule, and I miss the camaraderie of being on a team. Still, exploring publishing from the outside in presents me with an ongoing challenge. It makes me stretch, and I like that.


Elizabeth said...


I don't have a writing background, but as a botanical artist I find your self marketing strategy/journey both interesting and motivating.
Maybe you could even consider being a career coach!

Jean Fischer said...

Thanks, Elizabeth. I hadn't thought of career coaching. You've given me something to think about.


Kevin Spear said...

Some great thoughts. I noticed you got a great start with educational publishers. Writer's Market and other books seem to have sparse information on ed publishers. Is there a good resource for finding them?

Jean Fischer said...

I don't know of any one source for finding educational publishers. I rely on Internet research. Most educational publishers use book packagers. It can take some digging to find them, but you have a better chance of landing freelance work through them than by contacting the publisher directly.

Here's a link that provides more information on what a book packager does: