What to Do When the Assignments Stop Coming
Cal Orey, Guest Author
Imagine: The phone doesn't ring, you find yourself amid a pile of rejection letters, and money's tight. It's been more weeks than you care to count since you've gotten an assignment or book contract, you've got serious reservations about your writer's status, and last but not least, the fear of never getting a new gig haunts you like a spooky Stephen King sci-fi tale.
If you're like me and most writers, at some time you'll probably hit a plateau - the point when it seems you just can't pull out of a big, unfortunate S-L-U-M-P. What gives?
Blame it on your fave book publisher downsizing, your pet editor(s) going AWOL, or karma. But the good news is, you can reprise your role as a prolific writer. So if you're down, on the verge of suffering through a sales lull or trying to find a way out, get prepared to write yourself out of a slump. It can be done. I'm living proof.
Whether you need a jump-start or want to make a comeback, the following slump-busters suggest some strategies for boosting your number of assignments, revamping your rebound strategies and coping while trying to end a bad streak.
1. Market, Market, Market - Yeah, it's frustrating to send stuff into what seems like a black hole. But note: The key is to market more, not less. Just ask Patricia Fry of Ojai, Calif., a seasoned journalist and author of 15 books. "When I feel like I'll never get another assignment, I contact all of the editors and publishers I've worked with before and offer my assistance," she says. "I let them know that I'm available and I suggest a couple of new article ideas." Play the number game: The more queries you send out, the better your odds of success.
2. Recycle Reprints - While marketing can give you hope of ending a slump, actually selling your published work is, of course, the faster moneymaker. During one holiday season, I had a pile of relationship quizzes published in Complete Woman magazine. I faxed a bunch of them as potential reprints to a large magazine publisher, Australian Consolidated Press (www.ACP.com.au), and prayed for a Christmas miracle. Two weeks later, both Australian Women's Weekly and Cleo purchased reprint rights to several of my articles, with a payment of nearly $1,000.
3. Spread Your Wings - Now is the time to break out of your comfort zone and go to Plan B. "As I watched several of the mags I was writing for go under, I noticed that the tech mags were growing and even multiplying," Fry says. "I studied technology magazines, came up with some ideas, began sending out query letters and landed quite a few assignments I was comfortable writing about." Translation: Teens, couples and women in tech businesses kept this writer working. P.S. I confess. I also migrated toward this money trail.
4. Get Local Business - In Lake Tahoe, where I live, real estate is hot stuff. I boldly called the owner of a luxury real estate firm and offered my copywriting services. And I was home free. First, I rewrote nine newspaper ads (less than 200 words each for a total of $1,800). And that's not all. I revamped the company Web site's agent bios ($35 to $65 each) and developed articles on 15 Tahoe-area communities ($1,200). Then, I created fun articles on Tahoe's favorite beaches and golf courses ($400 each) and restaurants ($800).
5. Go Global - My writer pal, Larry Tritten of San Francisco, has taken a different path, too. "If the road you're on is muddy, take a detour," says Tritten, a veteran writer who has experienced the ups and downs of the market. His gift for sensory detail has been his ticket to faraway lands like Rio de Janeiro, Malta and the Caribbean. Tritten gives kudos to the Travelwriter Marketletter (at www.TravelWriterML.com) for giving him a ticket to see the world. "For seven days, I recently had designer rooms in two resorts, slept with sliding doors wide open to warm nights, the sight of coconut palms and sound of surf from sea only 50 yards away. Very strange to live like a millionaire for a week, then back to a more conventional lifestyle. I'm living in high style and getting paid to write about it," he says.
6. Promote Yourself - While Tritten is globetrotting, I continue booking out-of-town book signings for my latest book, 202 Pets' Peeves: Cats and Dogs Speak Out on Pesky Human Behavior. These fatten my ego - and pocketbook. Not only do big bookstores make me feel wanted, all of the publicity helps boost my confidence and book sales, pays off my book advance, and can lead to a lot more. . .
7. Consult on a Book Proposal - For example, in Reno, Nev., a woman came up to my book signing table and asked me how she could get her personal health story published. One week later I presented to her a book outline and details of a number of options appropriate to her situation, including having her book ghostwritten or done as an "as told to," as well as the benefits of self-publishing. I charged a flat rate of $400 for three hours.
8. Cook up an Idea - While that first consultation did not lead to a book, it did prepare me for my next book signing - and hitting a jackpot in Las Vegas. A cooking expert, Roe Valenti, approached my table at a bookstore there and told me she had written a cookbook, sort of. I offered to take a look and we connected: I was hired for $4,500 to rewrite and coauthor an innovative, self-published cookbook I titled Just Cook It! How to Get Culinary Fit 1-2-3 (iUniverse).
9. Sell Your Books on the Side - I realized that peddling comp copies of 202 Pets' Peeves to Canada geese on the beach during off-season at the lake wasn't going to pay my bills. I took advantage of the fact that a book contract with a traditional publisher or self-publisher will often allow a writer to buy books in bulk at a discount rate, though they cannot be sold in bulk. In my case, I discovered that it doesn't hurt to sell signed books one-on-one to acquaintances who will spread the word about an animal-lovers' book. That way, you can make extra money selling your stuff and pay off your book advance, too. It's a win-win situation.
10. Hang in There and Live Life - No matter how bleak things look, don't fall victim to the "out-of-work" blues. Keep a move on and embrace what moves you. Before John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, he observed firsthand the real life of migrant workers. Jack London's two classics, The Call of the Wild and White Fang, were drawn from the author's northland adventures. Both authors learned how to adapt and survive in the best and the worst of times. Famous writers like these experienced life and wrote about their experiences. Go ahead - open up your heart, and take a risk, too. (Refer to Slump Buster #5.)
11. Be a Pro - The fact remains, a writer's slump can hit anyone, anytime. But hey, if you practice being a professional during the up times, it might help you sail through the down times. "Meet your deadlines, follow guidelines, be reliable and easy to work with," Fry suggests. And it's these tips and tricks that have paid off for her. She had written for one magazine for years on a regular basis. "One day the editor asked me if I'd like to bid on a major job for their international organization," she says. "I'm happy to say that my good track record paid off and I landed this lucrative job."
12. Network with a Capital N - Ever think you're too busy for the writing world? Think again. Fry is also the president of SPAWN (Small Publishers, Artists and Writers Network), which offers links to research sources, publishers, printers and the media. Get up-to-date market information at www.spawn.org. Organizations like this can help you get and stay connected. Another good online networking source is www.MediaBistro.com, where I've landed some nice assignments.
13. Hug Your Agent (or get one!) - Literary agents can help you as well, even on gloomy days. Ah, trust me, it's bliss to have your agent send you an e-mail saying, "Hang in there." And think how good it must feel to know you've got someone in your corner marketing your words of wisdom. To find a perfect fit, check out www.Writers.net.
14. Pamper Yourself - As you go through a dry spell, chill out. It helps me to look at inspirational articles and books I have written or that are due to be published. As a health and fitness writer, I also know too well that pigging out on a carton of ice cream and playing couch potato doesn't make for a comeback. Instead, try nourishing your spirit by walking or reading. Healthy activities like these help me fire up the creative juices, and they can get you through a rough patch.
15. Keep a Can-Do Attitude - You'll recover faster. That means, return messages ASAP when that Type-A editor calls with an assignment due yesterday. Yesterday, I accepted a magazine assignment via e-mail, interviewed two Realtors® for agent bios, quickly dished out a new pet-related idea on command to a book editor, slated another book signingwhen the PR person called me, and did edits for Just Cook It! Whoo! Jump on opportunity when it strikes.
And stay geared up for action. Take care of your computer, supplies and contacts during signs of a rebound. Among the welcome signals that you're back in business, I can attest, are an editor's e-mail requesting fresh ideas, call-waiting beeps, or a satisfied client wanting you to expand a project. (Read: more money.)
As you pick yourself up, and you will, think of Paul Newman in The Color of Money. Just repeat his character Fast Eddie's confident words, "Hey, I'm back!" And take a bow. You survived a writer's slump. Congrats!
Cal Orey, M.A. is an author and journalist. Her books include "The Healing Powers"
series (Vinegar, Olive Oil, Chocolate, Honey, Coffee, and Tea) published by Kensington.
(The Healing Powers of Honey and Coffee are offered by the Good Cook Book Club.)
Her website is http://www.calorey.com.