Investment or Extravagance? What Writers Should & Shouldn’t Pay For

So you’ve been writing for a while now. Your friends have read your stuff and they think you’ve got a shot at publication. Maybe you’ve begun the submission process, or even had a story or two printed. Now people are asking when you’re going to “get serious” about writing. The transformation from writer to author feels like it’s just around the bend.

For many people, regardless of pastime or profession, “getting serious” implies spending money. After all, nothing good happens for free, right? You have to invest in the future you want. Besides, there are some amazing and necessary resources out there for writers.

Here’s the thing about those resources, though. Writers are a hot commodity. Everyone would like to see their name in print, and savvy marketers know this. All they have to do is sprinkle words like “typewriter,” “coffee,” and “creativity” into their pitch, or print their flyers on aesthetically crumpled notepaper in order to tap into the writing community. How do you know what is a worthwhile investment towards your literary future, and what is an unnecessary extravagance? Here’s a quick guide to help you figure out what writers should and shouldn’t pay for.

Writing Implements

For a writer, the necessary tools of the trade are thankfully inexpensive: a pen and paper, a word processor, access to email. You really don’t need anything more than that. But writers are constantly pitched new and better implements that are said to spark more creativity, productivity, or organization. So which ones should you spend money on?

Do: Invest in a good pen.

There is nothing better than a good pen, one that fits well in your grip and glides smoothly across the page. The best part is, they don’t cost a lot and are easy to find at any office supply store. By all means, invest in a good pen. I wouldn’t wish a life of Bic Cristals on anyone.

Don’t: Drop cash on apps or online writing platforms.

I saw some writers debating whether or not to spend money on a Scrivener license (almost $50, not including upgrading fees). While it would be a nice luxury or a gift for a writer friend, there is no world in which using Scrivener will get you published faster or easier. There are plenty of free ways to organize your writing space in a comparable manner.

There are also a number of distraction-free writing apps that can cost as much as $25, or apps that will disconnect you from the internet for $6.99/month. If you absolutely need an app to do these things for you, or can’t imagine getting to publication without these apps, consider free versions like Poe or ColdTurkey.

Writing Resources

There is such a plethora of resources for writers out there, from job boards to webinar lectures to monthly magazines. While I certainly can’t speak to all of them, the following are my general guidelines when navigating the many options out there for you.

Do: Subscribe to free email industry updates.

A great way to keep up to date on the publishing industry (something many subscriptions will make you pay for) is to subscribe to free email newsletters from organizations like Publishers Weekly or Shelf Awareness. These are amazing resources that I use all the time for my industry news.

Don’t: Sign up for a prestigious literary magazine.

Magazines like Writers’ Digest or Poets & Writers are great if you’ve got the money to spend, or like casually leaving them out to impress guests, but they are not going to be a make-it-or-break-it component to your publishing plans. By the time calls for writers have been processed, published, and distributed, most applicants have already submitted online. Besides, both publications have free blog platforms that are just as full of valuable information.

Do: Spend money on industry databases.

If you really want to spend money on a resource, try subscribing to Publishers Marketplace ($25/month). This is a database of publishers, editors, agents, recent acquisitions, and submission requests. Many literary agents will use this resource to identify which publishers to pitch to, and if you are sending unsolicited submissions, this could be a great way to hone your pitch strategy.

Don’t: Log into that expensive industry webinar.

I’ve been to many a webinar by an industry expert who promised to revolutionize my process. While there was the occasional cool tip or trick, it was nothing worth the money I’d spent. The main reason webinars don’t work is because they aren’t personalized: they are either way too general or far too advanced, and thanks to the influx of questions in the chat, a random stranger with completely divergent concerns can upend a conversation and lead it down an unhelpful rabbit trail. If you’re going to spend money on something, spend it on a one-on-one or highly specialized training.

Writing Critique

Where do you go after you’ve bugged all your friends and family members into reading your manuscript and giving notes? How can you be sure their opinions are objective? (Hint: they aren’t.) Getting your manuscript critiqued is a crucial step (perhaps the most crucial step) on the road towards publication. If you are going to invest in the process, here is where you do it. But be warned: not all critiques should be treated equally!

Do: Sign up for a free story sharing platform.

There are some amazing communities of readers and writers out there, where you will find unbiased support and the critique. Some of my personal favorites are Figment and Wattpad, where you can update your book chapter by chapter and receive feedback from strangers, as well as offer your own two cents on other people’s work.

Don’t: Pay beta readers money for their opinions without research.

Beta readers are an invaluable source of feedback, and every writer should have a strong community of beta readers in their life (Twitter is actually a great place to find them). You should never take beta readers for granted and always offer to swap stories or critiques. But beta readers don’t usually ask for money. If they do, be sure to do your research about why: they may not have the time, training, or commitment to offer you your money’s worth.

Do: Invest in a professional, well-recommended editor.

If you want to pay someone to look at your work, look for freelance editors in your area who specialize in your genre or subject matter. Freelance editors should be certified and/or trained in editing services, and have an extensive knowledge not only of story but of the demands of the industry and genre you are targeting. As a former acquisitions editor, I can guarantee a professionally edited manuscript is ten times more likely to avoid the slush pile. To make sure you’re getting your money’s worth, though, it is usually good to ask for a sample edit of a few pages, discuss how they charge ($/hour is better than $/word, for example), and compare their prices with EFA standard editing rates.

Publishing Services

Well, you’re here. You’ve got a final manuscript that really stands a chance of being acquired by a publisher. Your investments have paid off, and you’re proud of the work you’ve accomplished. Now you just need an agent and a publisher. Be careful here, though: if getting an agent or a publisher is costing you money up front, it’s probably a scam.

Do: Submit your book to everyone you can.

Getting acquired by a publisher or an agent is a numbers game. These people get hundreds of manuscripts flooding their inbox, and most of them will be rejected. Your best bet — after making sure you are giving them the best, shiniest representation of your work — is to submit to as many agents and editors as you can. It can take a long time, and getting rejection letters is never fun, but that contract and advance could be just one more submission away. And the best part is: emailing is free!

Don’t: Pay an agent or publisher to accept your work.

Most agents get paid by commission. That means that they need to work very hard to sell your book to the highest bidder, so that their paycheck (a percentage of your income) is higher. If an agent gets paid right off the bat, the motivation to get your book the best contract is gone.

Likewise, publishers work super hard behind the scenes to make sure your book sells as many copies as possible, gets into all the right stores, has a killer marketing campaign, etc. This is because the more books you sell, the more money they make. If you pay a publisher (often called a vanity press) to print your book for you, they’ve already got their money. They don’t need to sell your book to profit, so they don’t try.

Leveling Up Your Writing Game

Of course, the best way to level up your writing game is to keep doing it! Write, write, write, and read, read, read. Words are pretty much free to create and to consume, which is one of the best parts of the writing craft. If you are looking to expand your toolkit, however, there are quality options available for affordable prices (or even for free). Do your research, compare offerings, and never invest in something just because another writer said it worked for them: every writer is different and every process is unique.

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