Promoting Your Prose

By Mary Emma Allen

Promoting Your Books At Writers’ Conferences

When I mentioned to a colleague that I’d sold eight of my writers’ resource books and another on Alzheimer’s at a writers’ conference, she remarked that she didn’t know writers could do that. It all depends on the conference, but these are good places to network and to let others know about your books even if you’re not one of the speakers/teachers.

You’ll find that writers’ conferences vary. Some don’t have this opportunity available to attendees. Some allow only members of the organization coordinating the conference to sell books at the members’ book table. Others only sell the books of workshop teachers and keynote speaker.

Check Out the Possibilities

However, when you’re planning to attend a conference, check out the possibility of book sales and opportunities to sign books. Inquire whether they have sales and signings and who can participate.

Also, check to see whether the coordinating organization takes a percentage of the sale. Some offer this as a service to those attending and don’t take a fee. Others will ask for a 10% to 20% donation.

If you don’t have a book to sell or aren’t allowed to sell your book at a conference (some simply don’t have space for book sales), inquire whether there’s a table where you can leave literature and business cards. Most conferences like to have freebie material for the attendees to pick up.

I frequently get requests from conferences for literature about my books and, when I published a newsletter, guidelines and information about it.

Types of Books

It’s difficult to determine what type of book will sell at a conference. However, at writers’ conferences, I’ve found that my Writing in Maine, New Hampshire & Vermont is popular, along with my manuals for writers.

When I give talks about Alzheimer’s at conferences or nursing homes, When We Become the Parent to Our Parents is the book attendees pick up. However, I have sold these, as well as my anthology of children’s stories, at writers’ conferences.

If you’re one of the speakers or workshop teachers, just about all of your books will be of interest. However, if you’re speaking on a particular writing topic, anything you’ve written about it usually will be more popular.

Working at the Book Table

Volunteering to work at the book table enables you to meet the attendees, answer questions about your book(s), and autograph your books. Also it’s fun. I enjoy meeting the other authors as they check their books at the table.

This also gives me an opportunity to network with more of the attendees, to meet them, and to make newcomers feel welcome at the conference.

Inquire About Guidelines

Whenever you’re registering for a conference, check to see if they have a book table where you can display and sell your books. Then inquire about the guidelines.

*Who is hosting the book table?

Committee members or a local book store? At one conference I attended, a local book store checked in the books and took care of sales. A couple weeks later they mailed me the check for my books sold.

*How many books can you bring?

Limited space often restricts the number of titles an author can display.

*Do you bring change for sale of your books or does the organization make change?

Let them know whether you’ll take checks from individuals purchasing your books.

Even if you don’t sell many or any books (and it’s difficult to predict beforehand how many and what types of books will sell), you’ll have an opportunity to let more people know about you and your writing. Have order forms to leave on the literature table so that if someone cannot buy your book the day of the conference, they can order it later.

Explore the possibility of selling and promoting your books at conferences. It’s also an enjoyable way to network and meet more writers, editors, and publishers.

© 2002 Mary Emma Allen

Mary Emma Allen, an author of books for children and adults, also offers a workshop, “Marketing Your Books & Manuscripts.” She teaches writing classes online, at a local college, and in elementary and high schools. Visit her blog Mary Emma’s Potpourri of Writing.

Interview: Miriam Goderich, Vice President Jane Dystel Literary Management

By Laura A. Hazan

The song New York, New York goes something like this: “If I can make it there I’ll make it anywhere. It’s up to you, New York, New York.” That pretty much sums up the feelings of many writers, too. Breaking into the elusive New York publishing world equals success, and the highly sought after New York literary agent is the first step to making it there.

Obtaining a New York agent isn’t easy, but it is possible with concise, error-free queries, a well-written story and a professional demeanor, advises Miriam Goderich. She should know—she is a New York literary agent. Goderich, Vice President, Dystel and Goderich Literary Management (DGLM), started as an assistant to Dystel and 13 years later is her partner in the agency. DGLM has over 300 clients, between 100–150 are active.

Goderich and the three other agents at JDLM receive 300–400 queries a week. “People overdo it,” Goderich said. A professional one-page query letter with some precise details about the project and relevant information about the author, free of typos and grammatical errors, will be given proper consideration. Complete submission requirements are available on

Goderich feels that the query letter is one of the most important documents in the publishing process. She recommends having letters, outlines and synopsis proofread and critiqued just like a manuscript. Many of JDLM’s queries are unsolicited; others come from referrals and contacts made through conferences. Be patient, JDLM will respond to every query they receive, but it may take 3–4 weeks.

Goderich knows she wants to see the complete manuscript when that one letter “sticks in my mind. If I’m still thinking about the concept or the character a day or two later I know I need to see more.” Once JDLM receives the complete manuscript it may take up to 6 months for them to decide to represent it, especially for an unpublished writer.

“It is harder to sell them to publishing houses. Publishers want return on investment,” and with new writers there is little guarantee that will happen. New writers also present other challenges, such as “educating them on various aspects of the industry” Goderich explained. “Like any business, with some experience you know what to expect, what to ask and what to do.” Unpublished writers simply need more guidance.

Nonfiction works dominate JDLM’s client list (available on “Nonfiction is about 80 times easier to sell then fiction,” Goderich said. Most agencies survive on their nonfiction sales. As a writer of nonfiction “all you need is the proper credentials and a good idea,” Goderich explained. Fiction needs a compelling storyline, terrific characters and, to show that the rest of the novel will hold up, it “really does need a good opening. A great opening is not always about the writing, it can be about setting or characters,” Goderich said. On rare occasions if a manuscript has a strong character but a weak story or vice versa, Goderich might make suggestions and ask to see the manuscript again. She has even come across manuscripts with solid writing that don’t work for the agency at that time and “told the writer that I would love to see anything else they do.”

JDLM sells about 90 books a year. Together with their clients, JDLM agents edit and revise manuscripts to ensure that a strong project is being presented to the marketplace. They are currently marketing mainstream and literary fiction, and their nonfiction areas of interest are parenting, cooking, nutrition, politics, health and women’s issues. “The market is great, we’e done well this year. Even fiction is doing better,” Goderich stated. Occasionally “publishers come up with ideas and call us looking for a writer,” Goderich said. While this is not a common occurrence, it demonstrates the importance of a well-connected agent.

Goderich advises writers to do their homework before contacting an agent. Read the agency’s listing in Writer’s Market or check their website– make sure they market what you write, and if possible, stick with agents that are members of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR). “AAR is a good way to weed out fly-by-night agents and those that charge reading fees. As a writer you should never pay reading fees. AAR will also answer questions you may have about an agency,” she stated.

Goderich also suggests writers read everything, to help keep current and generally aware of what is being published. She also recommends reading other recent works of fiction and nonfiction because reading good writing often benefits the project a writer is working on. “We even have a book club in our agency to help us keep up on newly published works,” she said.

“The center of the publishing community is New York. It is an old-fashioned sort of business with a lot of face-to-face meetings and lunches,” Goderich explained. That sort of networking is why a New York literary agent is so important.

Keep sharpening those queries and maybe you will find yourself represented by a New York agent and one step closer to making it there.

After years of being surrounded by books in her career as a librarian, Laura Hazan has taken a hiatus to write a book of her own. Laura is currently working on her first novel and pursuing opportunities in freelance writing.

Ten Common Submission Package Errors

By Rudy Shur
Excerpted from the book How To Publish Your Nonfiction Book

Over the years, I’ve seen literally hundreds of submission packages. Some of them inspired me to immediately request more information from the author. In other cases, however, I could not send the package to the kill pile quickly enough. Throughout this chapter, I’ve mentioned several submission package don’ts, but these warnings bear repeating as long as authors keep making the same mistakes. If you avoid the following errors, you will, at the very least, avoid raising a red flag. Here are ten errors that commonly occur in submission packages.

  1. The author claims that his book is unique . This statement is the kiss of death, because editors don’t want a unique book. They want a book that fits into an existing category and meets the needs of an existing audience. At the very best, this statement implies that the author doesn’t understand the market for his book. At the very worst, it indicates that the book is, indeed, unique– and therefore either has no audience, or has an audience that is difficult to reach.
  2. The author claims that his book is for everyone — professionals, teachers, students, and general readers. Again, book should be written with a specific audience in mind, be it a trade (general) audience, an educational audience, a professional audience, or a scholarly audience. This is true for a number of reasons. First, educational, professional, and scholarly books all have certain characteristics that are off-putting to the general reader. Professional books, for instance, are written in the jargon of the appropriate profession—a jargon that is unfamiliar to the general reader. Educational books may include review questions and other features that are not usually included in trade books. And scholarly books are often heavily footnoted and referenced. Second, as you learned in chapter 2, different types of books are marketed in different ways, and are placed in different areas of bookstores. That’s why publishing companies demand that every book be designed to suit the needs of a specific audience.
  3. The author states that the book has already been finished. Few editors want to help an author rework an existing book so that it fits the needs of their particular publishing house. They want to begin guiding the author’s work at an early stage, and set it on the right course. Therefore, even if your book is complete right down to the index, tell the editor that you are in the process of writing a book.
  4. The author fails to include his address and phone number. Believe it or not, this silly mistake is made all the time. If the editor doesn’t know how to reach you, you can’t expect a timely response—or, for that matter, any response at all!
  5. The submission package is sent to the wrong type of publishing house. Authors have been known to submit their novels to houses that publish only nonfiction; to send their poetry to houses that publish only cookbooks; to send their cookbooks to houses that specialize in romance novels; to send their ideas for coffee-table art books to houses that print mass-market paperbacks. To avoid wasting your time and theirs, do your homework, and send your submission package to the appropriate editor at the appropriate publishing house.
  6. The submission package is the size of War and Peace. This returns me to one of my original points: Editors are busy. They simply don’t have time to wade through a stack of paper, no matter how riveting the material may be. By submitting a package that provides the desired information in a concise manner, you will optimize the chance that your package will, at the very least, be read.
  7. The submission package is triple-wrapped and sealed with packing tape. As my opening vignette showed, editors usually don’t keep power tools in their offices. Unless you are dropping your package out of a helicopter, place it in an easy-to-open envelope.
  8. Out of fear that the editor will steal the author’s idea, the author only hints at the contents of the book. This may sound incredible, but it does happen. Authors have told me that they have found the cure for a terrible disease, that they have found a foolproof weight loss technique, and that they have discovered an amazing secret about the Kennedys– but that they cannot tell me what it is unless I agree to publish their book. I think you can guess what my response was.
  9. The author wrongly implies that he has spoken to the editor, and that the editor asked for a copy of his manuscript proposal. Over the years, I have received countless cover letters that began, “Thank you so much for your interest in my project,” or, “Per your request, I am enclosing a manuscript proposal . . .” These opening lines would be perfectly appropriate—if I had ever spoken to the author and actually requested the material. Some authors feel that because editors are so busy, they can be tricked into thinking that they asked for the submission. Don’t fool yourself. We’re busy but we’re not that busy, and, in the absence of any prior contact, an opening statement like this is almost guaranteed to put a negative spin on your proposal.
  10. The manuscript is filled with spelling errors, grammatical errors, and awkward sentences.Happens all the time. Keep in mind that, in addition to selling your expertise in a particular field, you are selling yourself as a writer. Therefore, it pays to read over your submission several times, to use the spell-check feature of your computer, and to have others read the material over carefully, looking for problems. The material you are about to send is relatively short, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to polish it up. The time you take to make this package the best it can be will definitely pay off.


Rudy Shur is the publisher of Square One Publishers, and the author of the book How To Publish Your Nonfiction Book, part of the “Square One Writers Guide” series. Rudy Shur began his work in publishing as a field representative for Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company and William C. Brown Publishing Company. He later founded Avery Publishing Group, where he was responsible for the acquisition of over 1,000 titles, many of which became bestsellers. Currently, Mr. Shur is the publisher at Square One in Garden City Park, New York. He was interviewed by Absolute Write.

C.L.E.A.R. the Comfort Clutter

By Michelle Gardner

Maybe it’s because the writing life is a lonely one that we surround ourselves with comfort clutter. Or maybe it’s because we always have a story or stories in various forms of completion that causes the research notes to spill into each other. Or maybe it’s because we want to have everything at hand should an editor need an article ASAP on the very topics consuming the carpet and credenza. Whatever the case, a writer needs to be organized enough to be efficient in the day-to-day. Daunting as it can be to attack the stacks of books, magazines, folders, papers, office supplies, coffee cups, and anything else that has made its way into your writing domain– you can overcome the clutter.

As an acronym aficionado, I have devised the C.L.E.A.R. method to help me with overcoming office space clutter. It’s an easy way to take things in small doses to avoid organizational overload. Remember, it took more than a day for your workspace to achieve its current look. It will take more than a day to bring it back to a model of efficiency.

  • Clear everything off your desk, bookcases, credenza, filing cabinets, and floor.
  • List everything you need to do your job.
  • Evaluate your workspace needs and wants using your list.
  • Assemble essential tools and supplies in your cleared workspace.
  • Remove and Return daily (if possible) any items, such as files and books, brought out for use on current projects.

The first step is easiest if you just throw everything into a box, but it will be harder and more time consuming when you get to the Assemble step. I have found that a three-box approach is best. One box for gotta have items, one for gotta file items, and one for gotta toss items. Once you’ve divvied up your collection, it’s time to use that vast expanse of clear desk space to write out on a sheet of paper what you need to do your job.

Listing is useful in two ways: It gives you an opportunity to think about those tools essential to your work, and it is the document you can refer to when things clutter up — and they will — in the future.

With list in hand, you now can evaluate how all of the puzzle pieces will fit together. You’ve already determined your needs, now you can open up to the wants aspect of designing your personal workspace. When I did this, I needed to have my computer, a work light, space for pad of paper and pencil, and a copy easel on my desk. My wants list included a framed poem from a friend, an anniversary clock from my previous employer, a paperweight that reads, “A deadline is the ultimate inspiration,” and my kitschy hula dancer statue that shimmies when I print documents. I know I can make this scene more efficient by hanging the poem on the wall, putting the clock on a shelf, and losing the paperweight as no great winds blow through my office, but the hula girl stays!

Assembling everything should be straightforward by this point. You have already cleared the way for the gotta have items on your list and have evaluated what needs to be where for efficiency’s sake. So, working from the gotta have box first, you can remove only those items that made the workspace cut. Anything else will be reassessed for placement elsewhere. The gotta file box, in my case, is always a work in progress. I take it in small bites by filing only a few items at a time. Some days I go crazy and file the whole thing when I’m procrastinating on an assignment.

All assembled; now the real work begins. Keeping your workspace clutter-free is like adopting any habit — it usually takes about a month to get into the routine. The last step is the one that will be the most difficult, but is the key to success with this process. Remove and Return any items to their respective homes at the end of the workday. My office is in the basement so my R and R mostly involves the collection of teacups and water glasses that need to be taken to the dishwasher. I’m also a recovering stacker of mail and magazines and have purchased a bill sorter and several magazine file stands from the office supply store to help me stay on track.

Admittedly, my journey to clutter-free writing is only beginning but now that my path is C.L.E.A.R., I don’t trip over unnecessary and unimportant items along the way.

Michelle Gardner is a former aviation publication editor who currently writes for trade publications specific to the construction, transportation, and wine industries. She was a regular columnist for The Brentwood Recorder, of Brentwood, England, as well as an editor of a monthly newsletter for expatriates living in the United Kingdom, and has been featured on BBC radio for her articles. You can find Michelle Gardner on LinkedIn.

Copyright Law

By Jodi Brandon

As writers, we must be concerned with copyright law — both sides of the law: not infringing on others’ copyright when writing as well as upholding and protecting our own copyright. See if you know the answer to these three true-false statements.

  • Shakespeare would be able to sue the writer of West Side Story for copyright infringement of Romeo and Juliet.
  • Copyright infringement is legal as long as it’s unintentional.
  • A work needs the copyright symbol (the © in a circle) to be protected by copyright law.

All of the statements are false. Did you get them all correct? The reason copyright can get so confusing is because it deals in so many intangibles and case-by-case variables (as opposed to an exact, absolute standard). Despite the uncertainty that often accompanies decisions about copyright, writers are responsible for abiding by the law. To do that — as well as to protect our own works from being used illegally — we must understand the law. I won’t bore you with a history lesson on Copyright Law Through the Ages, though. I promise.

Fair Use

” align=“right” style=Lloyd J. Jassin and Steven C. Schechter put it simply and perfectly in The Copyright Permission and Libel Handbook: Fair use is impossible to quantify. As a writer, you can “copy” another person’s work as long as your use is considered fair use. So how do you know? Is there a magical formula, like an algebraic equation from seventh-grade math class, that writers can use? If only that were the case! There are guidelines. Here are the four factors of fair use to consider:

  • Purpose and character of the use.
  • Nature of the use.
  • Amount and substantiality of the use.
  • Effect on the existing or potential market of the use.

My lawyer recommends the same thing many legal and publishing experts do: that I ask myself the following question before taking directly from someone else’s work: If I were the author of the material I want to use, would I consider my use fair, according to all four of the factors just listed? I hate to simplify such a complex issue, but another way to think about it is this: Treat others (specifically others’ work) as you’d like to be treated. Mutual respect goes a long way. The bottom line is this: If you have even the slightest bit of doubt, get permission. (Don’t just attribute the material to its source; that’s not enough.) It’s always better to be safe than sorry when it comes to copyright infringement.

Requesting Permission

OK, so you’ve decided that your use might not or would not be fair. Now what? If the work is in the public domain, you’re free to use it as you wish. If it’s not, though, you need to find the copyright holder and request permission. Check the work for a copyright notice (e.g., the copyright page of a book). If you can’t find anything, you can search the records at the Copyright Office. Once you’ve found the copyright holder, put your request in writing. Include all the information pertinent to the decision to allow you or not allow you to use the material: exactly what material you’re using, the title and description of your work, the number of copies you expect to have published, your publisher/publication name, and what rights you’re asking for. The more information you can provide initially, the more likely a decision will be made without the copyright holder coming back to you for further information.

Remember that the copyright owner holds the cards here: He or she (assuming it’s a person; it could be a company) can ask for more information before making a decision, refuse your request, charge you for your use, or give you permission to use his or her work free of charge. You’re legally obligated to do what the copyright holder says.

The Other Side of the Fence

As writers, we not only have to worry about infringing upon the works of others, but we have to regulate our own copyrights as well, which can be difficult for the obvious reason that if our copyright is being violated, the violator isn’t going to send us a copy of his or her work with a friendly note to look for our own work inside. That said, we can’t possibly read every work written on every subject we’ve ever written about, can we? Unless we’re superheroes, of course we can’t. It’s possible to police our work on the Internet to some extent. Every once in a while, I type my name into a couple search engines to see what comes up. If there are copyright violators, I won’t find them all, but I will at least find those people who use my work and give me credit without permission. Really, though, you find your copyrighted work infringed upon by chance. The more specialized your writing is, the more likely is it that you’ll come across infringement, as you’re more likely to be reading the same sorts of material that you write. For writers who write on a wider variety of subjects and might not do a lot of focused reading on each particular subject, it’s more unlikely.

When you discover copyright infringement, let the infringer know with a cease-and-desist letter. If you see your work on-line, let the site owner know that your work is copyrighted and he or she needs to either pay you to post it (and include an attribute) or remove it.

Works for Hire

Works for hire merit mention because they’re unique in that writers don’t own copyright to their work. (This is also the case for employees who write something as part of their job, such as a copywriter or a public relations employee, but that’s not really our concern here.) The writers are, technically, the authors of the work, but for copyright purposes, the commissioning agent (say, for example, a book publisher) is considered the author. Obviously this would be spelled out in a contract before the writer begins his or her work. Even more obvious to us as writers, I’d hope, is that work-for-hire situations are not advantageous. Why would we ever want to simply give our rights away, copyright or otherwise?

The Internet

Although I know I promised not to make this a history lesson in copyright law, I think it’s only fair that I mention copyright law and its relationship with the Internet. Think about it this way: You sell FNASR to a print publication. The publication then gets a web site and posts your work on it. Are you happy that your work is getting further exposure? Sure you are, but you’re also a bit miffed that you were only paid for the article to run in print — one time — in North America. Putting an article or book excerpt or whatever on-line changes things. Is your publisher guilty of copyright infringement? Perhaps copyright law isn’t the problem here; perhaps it’s the language in publishing contracts. Either way, it’s an issue that writers will certainly be keeping an eye on in the future.

* * *

Copyright law isn’t the easiest or most fun law to understand and follow, but it is one of the most important to affect a writer’s life and work. We must pay attention to both sides of the law so that everyone’s work is protected, our own included. The Copyright Society of the U.S.A. just celebrated the first annual Copyright Awareness Week in April 2002. This is good news for writers, because the more people who know what the law means, the better.

In her role as president of JBedit, Jodi Brandon has edited and/or contributed to a number of high-profile book projects, including The Barnes & Noble Guide to Children’s Books (3rd Edition), The Buzz on Beer anthology, the Frommer’s Irreverent Guide travel series, The 50 Best (and Worst) Business Deals of All Time, and Copyright Plain & Simple. Jodi Brandon has a website and a blog.

12 Ways to Keep Your Nonfiction Book in the News

By Sandra Beckwith
Publishers are willing to publicize nonfiction books when they’re released, but they rarely do much after the launch to keep books in the news, even though most deserve ongoing media exposure. Here are some easy things you can do to generate continuing publicity for your title. Use a mix of these ideas to develop a 12-month publicity plan that will provide the support your book needs.

Turn the advice in your chapters into a series of monthly tip sheets. A tip sheet is a press release that offers tips or advice in a bulleted or numbered format. Start your tip sheet with an introductory paragraph that explains why the tips you’re offering are important, list your bulleted advice, then tie it all together at the end with a concluding paragraph. Send it to appropriate media outlets; the distribution list will depend on your topic.

Contact the press immediately when your topic is making headlines to offer your expert perspective. This is a sure thing with most local media outlets when it’s a national news story because you’re giving them a local angle. Fax or e-mail (no attachments) your bio and a cover letter explaining your position on the breaking news to the appropriate media contact. If you’ve done enough interviews to prepare for the big time, pitch the national news outlets, too.

Add the media to your newsletter distribution list. The same useful advice or information you offer subscribers in your print or electronic newsletter could be of interest to reporters covering that topic, too. I got a book contract several years ago from the publicity that resulted from adding the media to the distribution list of a newsletter I publish.

Repackage your book content into bylined trade magazine articles. Depending on the terms of your publishing contract, you might need to do some rewriting so it’s “new” material. Make sure the author credit at the end of the article includes your book title.

Capitalize on holidays and special months, weeks, and days by distributing a press release with useful, newsworthy information related to the topic, or by contacting the press to offer yourself as an expert information source. For example, many daily newspapers run articles in December about how the holidays are especially difficult for people who are grieving the recent loss of a loved one or facing the anniversary of a loss. This presents many coast-to-coast interview opportunities fosr the author of a book on grief and loss— but only if the author reaches out to the press. And November 15 is “National Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day”—surely there’s an ASJA (American Society of Journalists and Authors) member who can capitalize on that occasion!

Contact the public relations department of your industry’s trade association to offer yourself for media interviews. Association public relations people are often contacted by writers like us looking for members with a particular expertise to interview. Make sure your association knows about your qualifications and the topics you can comment on, and you’ll get referral calls.

Conduct a newsworthy and relevant survey on your topic and announce the interesting results in a press release. The author of a cookbook designed to make cooking simple and easy can survey people about why they don’t cook more, and release the findings in a press release sent to newspaper food editors and cooking magazines. The release should include information about your book’s connection to the survey topic.

Sponsor an attention-getting contest and announce the results in a press release. To promote my humor book about men, I conducted a “Worst Gift from a Man Contest.” The resulting press release led to nationwide media attention, including a holiday appearance on a national cable TV talk show.

Push your publisher’s publicist to monitor ProfNet for reporter queries related to your topic all year. Alternatively, subscribe to ProfNet via its PR Leads reseller and respond to appropriate queries. A $99 per month subscription via is more affordable than a ProfNet subscription.

Monitor ASJA forums for source requests . ASJA members frequently post requests on the magazines and newspapers forum for interview sources.

Tell the media when you’re visiting their market. Reporters love to interview experts who aren’t local, so if you’re in another city for any reason, contact the appropriate media people two weeks before your trip to offer ideas for articles they can write based on an in-person interview with you. If you’re in town to speak, send an announcement press release several weeks in advance and offer to do a pre-event telephone interview.

Repurpose your best tips into a free booklet. Write and distribute a press release that describes the booklet and how people can get a free copy; make sure both the booklet and the release include information about your book, too.

Generating ongoing publicity is work, but it’s not rocket science. Invest the time so you boost sales while contributing to your author platform. You’ll see the rewards at the end of the year.

Sandra Beckwith, the author of Streetwise Complete Publicity Plans: How to Create Publicity That Will Spark Media Exposure and Excitement, teaches the online “Book Buzz” class for Freelance Success. Learn more at

Profit Vs. Pleasure: IRS Rules Strict on Losses

By Julian Block

Those obliging folks at the IRS allow write-offs to ease the pain for losses you suffer in ventures entered into make “profits.” But long-standing rules disallow deductions for losses incurred in pursuing “hobbies.”

Because of that distinction, the feds program their computers to bounce returns that show full-time salaries and other sources of income offset by losses from sideline undertakings that turn out to be hobbies — writing, photography, and painting, to cite just some of the activities that are likely to draw the attention of the tax collectors.

How do IRS examiners determine whether your intention is to turn a business profit from, say, your writing — or just to have fun? They get their cues from Internal Revenue Code Section 183, which provides guidelines on how to distinguish between a hobby and a business. To take advantage of Section 183, you have to establish a profit motive.

To cut down on disputes, the law presumes that you are engaging in a business rather than a hobby — with the IRS as partner who is entitled to a portion of your profits — as long as you have a net profit in any three out of the last five consecutive years. Net profit is IRS-speak for an excess of receipts over expenses. (By the way, Congress, in its wisdom, decided that writers and the like are not as deserving as individuals involved in the breeding, training, showing, or racing of horses. It conferred an easier standard on the latter: two out of seven years).

So, usually, not to worry when you have at least three profitable years during the last four. Satisfy that stipulation and you are entitled to fully deduct your expenses this year, even if this is a loss year.


What if you have red ink in more than two out of five years?  A much misunderstood point is that flunking the three-out-of-five test is not fatal. You still can establish that you conduct a “for-profit” business, provided you pass an IRS “facts and circumstances” test.

These are some of the circumstances that the IRS takes into account in determining your intention to make a profit:

  • The way you conduct your writing activities — for instance, membership in writers’ organizations.
  • How much time and effort you expend in the conduct of your writing career. The burden of proof to establish that is on you, not the IRS. To back up your deductions, in the event of an audit, save such records as queries to publishers and programs from writers’ conferences. Note, too, that employment full time in some other field (as is the case with most freelancers) does not trigger an IRS refusal to classify you as a professional writer.
  • Your success in carrying on other business endeavors.
  • The amount of occasional profits, if any, that are earned.
  • The elements of personal pleasure or recreation.
  • Your history of income or losses from writing. In particular, is there a string of losses?

Your activity has to be real work; you can not use a hobby that has no income and lots of expenses to offset other income. If you want to write the Great American Novel and have been at it 30 years, if there is no income, there are no deductions.

Copyright ©2004 Julian Block. All rights reserved

Julian Block is a syndicated columnist, attorney and former IRS investigator who has been cited by the New York Times as “a leading tax professional” and by the Wall Street Journal as an “accomplished writer on taxes.” This article is excerpted from his Tax Tips For Freelance Writers, Photographers And Artists. His publication covers key changes introduced by the 2003 tax act, shows how to save truly big money on taxes — legally — and explains the steps you should take to reduce taxes for this year and even gain a head start for future years. Julian Block has a website. His books are available on Amazon.

Sales Tracking: New Ways to Drive Yourself Absolutely Crazy

By Karyn Langhorne

Just when there’s no more re-writing and revising . . .

Just when the book is finally on the shelves . . ..

Just when the efforts at promotion seem to be finally paying off . . .

There’s something new to worry about.

Sales. And a fresh crop of ways to drive an author attempting to build a career completely crazy.

Let’s start with the one of the most-widely known and easiest to become utterly and completely obsessed with:

As most of you know, Amazon ranks books on its site according to number of copies it has sold. When you research a book on Amazon, you’ll find a little number that indicates its sales rank in comparison to the other million or so of books listed on this mega-sellerÆs website.

On the first day of its release, A Personal Matter/cite> ranked 1.3 million—dead last, or close to it, I’m willing to bet. A few days later, the book had risen to a rank of 52,000. A few more days later, it jumped up to a ranking somewhere around 8,000. When it climbed to a number in the 4,000 range, I started imagining myself making the top 100, seeing myself in reach of the Holy Grail—Amazon’s numero uno

Until it fell back to 8,000-something the very next day.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, that same day, I learned that Ingram Book Group, the book wholesaler responsible for supplying many libraries and independent bookstores, has several tracking tools authors can use to monitor sales . . . and drive themselves even crazier.

Apparently, Ingram tracks the Top 50 Titles by Demand in a number of categories. Since A Personal Matter is classified as a romance novel, there’s the Most-Requested Romance List, a weekly run-down of who’s hot . . . and who’s not. I haven’t figured out how to access this one yet, but when I do, I’m sure I’ll just have to add it to my weekly “things to do” list. You can also call Ingram and check out your progress through their automated stock report line. (1-800-937-8000, then press 4, then press the ext # 36803.)

You can learn lots of useful things with a simple phone call. The automated stock reports hotline can tell you: whether Ingram had to reorder your book (which is always a good thing); how a new book is selling compared to a previous one; whether demand for earlier books increases when a new book comes out.

New York Times top ten bestseller Sherrilyn Kenyon, author of Night Play and the upcoming Seize the Night, recommends that obsessive authors making their first call to Ingram’s stock line need to call in before the book hits Ingram to see what the pre-order is. The average midlist author will have a preorder that falls between 700-1500 copies. While she adds that there are a few authors who are above 5,000 — and even some above 10,000 — there aren’t many who fall into that category. Armed with the pre-order numbers, an author can use Ingram’s stock line to get an overall look at how the book is doing.

But Sherrilyn is quick to remind excited newbies (like me) that Ingram, as an on-demand distributor, is just a small part of the overall market and while the information is helpful, it’s like looking a single slice of pie and calling it the whole.

Of course, I had to try it. Had to. Right away.

It was too late to check on the preorder — my book had already been available for a month when I found out about Ingram and this automated stock line. So I just had to dive in and find out what I could. I dialed tentatively, with the same hesitation I now feel when I visit Will the news be good? Or will it indicate that there’s no demand for my book whatsoever?

I learned that Ingram has 219 copies of A Personal Matter in stock . . . and that it shipped 13 this week. Since August 31 (release date) it had sent out 384 copies.

Thank goodness — someone bought a few copies of the book!

But beyond that, I understand the caveats of my betters. I’m not exactly sure what this information means . . . any more than I’m sure of what the ranking numbers (beyond, let’s say, the top 100) on Amazon really tell an author about how a book is doing in the wide world out there.

Which means I’m going to have to ask some more questions.

Next Month: The skinny on how publishers track author sales.

Karyn Langhorne is a “recovering” lawyer and a long time writer, who recently signed a two-book deal with Harper Collins. Her first novel, A Personal Matter, will be released in September, 2004. She has also written several screenplays and a play, Primary Loyalties, which was produced off-Broadway and was optioned by NBC-TV in 2000. Karyn Langhorne has a Website.