How to make the most of being a noncelebrity author

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

One of my clients, Janet McHenry, sent me a Reader’s Digest humorous article entitled, “I’m a Noncelebrity–Buy My Book” by Mike Reiss. Mr. Reiss is a children’s author who finds his books competing for shelf space with Queen Latifah, Queen Rania of Jordan and Sarah Ferguson among many other famous folks. His conclusion: He’s fighting for attention against two queens and a duchess. And, because of the alphabetizing of books by authors’ names, his titles rest on bookstore shelves between stories by Carl Reiner and Leann Rimes.

Why, he bemoans, does everyone have to write children’s books?Chess Stock Photography - Image: 3711112

Don’t you just know how he feels? While new authors are working their hearts out to be noticed, and mid-list authors wonder how they’ll ever get out of the neutral zone and into the noticed zone, publishers are eager to sign up all the usual suspects for yet another rewinding of the same basic material they’ve been writing for years. It gives “there’s nothing new under the sun” a whole new meaning.

Not that the best-selling author didn’t work hard to get there and doesn’t continue to work hard. Most do.

But some come by success easily and hold onto it loosely. Success isn’t always a gift when it comes to developing character or the writing craft. But, hey, we all know life isn’t just or simple to understand; it’s complicated.

So what did Mr. Reiss do in the face of every celebrity in the world having a children’s book to add to their list of accomplishments? He chose to look at the up side to the trend.

One day he received a phone call from a publisher. Not to ask if he’d publish one of his children’s books with them, but to explain that they had a contract with an African American superstar whose manuscript was unusable, even by celebrity standards. “They asked me–a Jewish kid from suburban Connecticut–to write a book about growing up as a poor black kid in the slums of New York,” Reiss wrote. “And they wanted it the next day. I informed them huffily, ‘A children’s book is not a fast-food hamburger, and I am not McDonald’s.'”

Then they offered to pay him $10,000.

His response? “You want fries with that?”

While we can chuckle over the humor of his story, there’s gold in them thar hills. Reiss demonstrates what some authors don’t want to recognize: Sometimes we do what makes sense in the moment. Reiss didn’t dream of writing for a celebrity; he dreamed of being a celebrity–at least in the minds of the kids who read his books and loved them. His passion doesn’t reside in pumping out a book in one day; it’s in honing a great idea into a fun book with each word carefully chosen. And then rewriting until it’s as good as he can make it.

But when an opportunity comes to make $10,000 in one day, well, pragmatism wins over passion. And that’s not bad. Some authors who are stuck and can’t get momentum going in their careers need to make a pragmatic move. That might be to write for Love Inspired for a season, letting sales numbers grow and learning from editors how to create a more compelling plotline. It might mean teaming with someone who has an inspiring message but not the ability to write it in a competent way.

One of my clients used to turn down opportunities to write as a collaborative author; but then money got tight–really tight–and she decided she’d rather save her house than wait for a publisher to recognize her creative genius (which I truly think she has). She has kept busy and financially afloat ever since, and the last book she co-authored hit the best-seller list partly because of the name of the person she partnered with but also because my client wrote a beautiful book on assignment. And she carves out time in her busy schedule to work on a novel that’s all hers that she’s passionate about.She just finished writing that manuscript, and I’m about to shop it. Imagine how much stronger the possibilities are that I’ll find a good home for it now that I can say she’s recently written a best-selling book?

Making the pragmatic decision doesn’t mean giving up on the dream; it does mean being willing to pursue that dream in ways you might not have anticipated. Setting aside your labor of love and establishing your name in other ways may be the most direct route to fulfilling your dreams.

Are you open to pursuing opportunities that don’t look anything like your dream so that you can get to your dream?

How do you balance what you want to do with what is given you to do?

How do you keep the dream alive during the time you’re “diverted”?

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62 Comments

  • Happy Monday, Janet!

    I recently sent in a pitch to be a humoUr columnist with an industry blog.
    I know, me. Calm, sheltered, poised, collected, refined ME.
    Even if I don’t get the un-paid gig, at least I gave it a go. Because why not, right? No road to a goal is ever straight, there is always a flower to admire or a sunset to watch as we meander along toward our goal of publication.
    Diversions happen at the most thoroughly unplanned moments, but it’s how we treat them that makes them lessons or obstacles.

    For example, listening to a RATHER loud parent from the other hockey team drone on and on and ON…I know, right? WHY take a breath between words when you’re cheering non-stop for an hour, even during the intermissions…Well, that *little* distraction gave me a chance to have a spontaneous Spanish lesson right there in the stands. For everyone to hear.
    In Spanish.

    And I’ll pretend it was a chance to re-work a scene with a verbose adversary. Yeaaaahhh, that’s it.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Being a humor columnist might not involve pay, but it certainly puts your name out there to a new audience, and that’s worth gold. One never knows where that diversion might lead, too.

  • Lisa says:

    I am learning this lesson right now. Sometimes those diversions might open up doors you never knew existed. :) God is teaching me to hold onto my dreams loosely and trust him to know the right way to get me there.

  • Wow, Janet. This has been my life the last few years. Except for the best-selling co-writing. Can’t claim that!

    Before we moved from Chicago to Kansas for my husband to become a head pastor, I was a stay-at-home mom. I wrote every afternoon for four to five hours. I finished my second book, got a good agent, and spent a few months acquiring very encouraging rejection letters.

    When we moved, we knew I would need to bring in some income to make ends meet. We were hoping a book contract would bring in that part-time money. Didn’t happen.

    But I’d started a freelance editing company just before we moved, and it took off shortly after the move. For the past five years, I’ve been a work-at-home mom with three kids. I help people with their fiction part time. I love it.

    But it left me with no time for writing. And late in 2011 I felt that it was time for me to go back to my writing somehow.

    I prayed about it, and God answered. He helped me figure out a schedule that gives me a few hours each day to write–without neglecting my editing business that helps us pay bills. He’s even provided a steady corporate client which blows me away–I know that was all Him.

    My point here is that God did it all. We were doing what we felt He wanted us to do. And He came through. Not in the way we expected or hoped–I was looking to start that fiction career. But I’ve gained valuable experience. I’ve gotten to meet some neat writers. And I think I’m a better writer than I was five years ago. So it’s all been worth it.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      There’s nothing like editing other people’s writing to hone your own. It’s so easy to see how someone else’s sentence could be tightened. Then, when you turn to your own writing, suddenly you see yourself committing the same errors you’re consistently correcting for others. Funny how that works…

  • I truly needed this point, Janet. After yesterday, I was so discouraged. A ghostwriting project I worked on hasn’t turned out the way I thought it would. I just found out my next book is probably two years from publication. And there were challenges with my most recent release. I’ve also unsuccessfully been job hunting for two months.

    Can anyone say, “Do you want some whine with that cheese?” :)

    God tests us, and we’re not always sure why, but now is the time for me to turn lemons into lemonade. This post has encouraged me to sit down and prayerfully see what the next step is.

    Many blessings.

    • Jeanne T says:

      Ahh, Cheryl. I’m sorry for the disappointment, but I love your approach to it. I hope as you squeeze those lemons, add a little sugar and a whole lot of water, that your lemonade yields sweetness in your spirit and depth in your writing.

      I like what you said that we don’t always know why God tests us. Good for you, not giving up, but looking for the way work through the disappointment and pressing forward.

    • Larry says:

      Each authors’ journey is as unique as each authors’ book is from that of another. That is why I do not know how best to offer advice, but know that you do have my support, and that of every other writer here, Cheryl.

    • Blessings to you, Cheryl. You are in my prayers. And a little whine with friends now and then is good. As Larry said, you have the support of all of your friends here. :)

  • What great advice, Janet. Right now, I have to work full time so my husband and I can pay off school debt. It’s practical for us to do this now, before we have children, but it also cuts into time I spend writing. I know a lot of writers have to work on top of writing, but it definitely takes extra motivation when you’re tired from working all day. But I just have to keep moving forward at the pace that I can, because at this time in my life, my writing can’t be as much of a priority as I’d like it to be. But, that doesn’t mean I’m not moving forward toward my dream. It just might take me a little longer to get there. :)

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Good point, Lindsay. You might not be moving forward as fast as you’d like, but you ARE moving in the right direction.

    • Jan Thompson says:

      The workplace can be a good place to observe human behavior, that all important element in fiction. Your post reminds me of Jane Austen, who, in the circumstances that she was in, was an astute observer of human character, which all ended up in her novels…

      :-)

      • Jan Thompson says:

        Oh and one more thing… After you pay off the debt, whatever you earn from your writing career will be debt-free: you can keep all your royalties. Nice!

      • Jan, being in the workplace can pull back the curtain to how people respond to different situations, not to mention providing a plethora of observable mannerisms to file away for a story.

  • Sue Harrison says:

    Oh, I love this story and this blog post, Janet.

    I guess that we authors want to apply a geometric principal to our writing careers – the shortest distance between 2 points is a straight line. And wouldn’t it be so great if we could write our dream book and get it published, no diversions, no forays off that straight line? Wow.

    Thank you for opening our eyes to the possibility that the long way there holds more rewards than that touted straight line!

  • Wow…this is a tough subject to swallow, Janet. I must admit it, but it’s necessary.

    Thank you for forcing our sometimes (okay, most of the time) head-in-the-glory-of-our-story minds back to reality.

    God has to direct our paths first and foremost–no matter where it leads us from “our” plans…and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  • Sarah Thomas says:

    I have a very definite dream. The problem with that is NONE of my dreams have worked out just the way I imagined. Experience tells me if I’m dreaming about being a famous author living in a remodeled farmhouse in Appalachia with a desk in a bow window where I write, write, write the ONLY thing I can be sure of is that exact dream isn’t going to happen. Maybe a variation? Maybe? But my experience also tells me that the reality God has for me will exceed my dreams. So I say, bring it on Lord. I can’t wait to see what you have in store!

    • Jeanne T says:

      Such truth in your words, Sarah. :)

    • Sarah, I relate to what you said about none of your dreams working out the way you imagined. Sometimes (especially right now) it feels like none of my dreams have ever worked out. Period. But I believe that, even though the journey hasn’t gone as I planned, God doing good through me somehow. I love your “Bring it on, God!” attitude.

      Blessings :)

  • I’m definitely open to pursuing any opportunity, Janet. Writing is still writing, right? The thrill of placing word after word until the story is just right is still there. I’ve thought about exactly what you mentioned, submitting to Love Inspired for the experience and to get a book under my belt. But would that brand me as a Christian romance writer? I would give it 100% and enjoy it, I’m sure, but Christian romance is not my ultimate goal. Would I be able to publish women’s fiction at some point in the future?

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Meghan, I think every publisher realizes that sometimes writers go through the door that is open to them, not the door they aspire to. Once inside, opportunities may arise that you’d never find if you kept knocking on the door of women’s fiction. Pragmatism has a place in every writer’s life, and publishers appreciate pragmatic writers.

  • Elissa says:

    To me, flexibility is the most important survival skill a person can learn. When a dream cannot be bent and shaped to fit the dreamer’s circumstances, it shatters. BUT- a dream that is allowed to shift and follow the twists and turns of the dreamer’s life will take that dreamer to places she never imagined.

  • Jeanne T says:

    What a timely post, Janet. One of the things that struck me about it was how Mr. Reiss was able to look beyond the challenge of “competing” with celebrities to other opportunities. And what an opportunity. :)

    For me, I’m open to “pragmatic” writing opportunities before my dream contract comes in. I haven’t looked very hard for them, though, as I’m still finding the balance between real life and writing life. I see the value of being open to doing something I hadn’t considered. God brings the unexpected across my path fairly frequently, so it may very well happen on the writing journey, too. And when He allows that, He uses it in a multi-faceted way further down the road in my life. Great, encouraging thoughts today. Thank you.

  • Larry says:

    I echo the others who appreciate the wisdom in todays’ blog post, Janet.

    While I certainly am the first to point out the need for higher quality writing and a less crazy industry, I will also be the first to point out if you can put bread on the table by following ones’ passion, then by all means do so! Not every painter wants to paint portraits, I suppose, but if it means they can simultaneously work at being a better painter, and be able to buy dinner, all the while working on what inspires them, what is there to complain about?

    Like that McDonalds’ analogy Mr. Reiss used, I can imagine the mid-list or unpublished author who has a newspaper, magazine, editing, or other such industry gig bemoaning their need to W-O-R-K instead of being a literary rockstar doesn’t sound quite like an “injustice” to the guy or gal flipping burgers and can’t quite get the smell of fry-grease out of their clothes when they sit down the write!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Good point, Larry. All opportunities to be engaged in writing have long-term benefits that are a little harder to find with burger flipping. Although I suppose one could create a pretty humorous story about life inside a fast-food chain.

  • Diverted. Isn’t that the alternate word for “life?” I’m amazed at how many times I’ve set my foot in one direction, only to end up stepping in another. I think that’s why the Lord tells us to make our plans, but be prepared to flex and change according to HIS will and purpose. (Prov 16:9)

    Fun post today, Janet – something to think about as I make my plans….

    Blessings,
    Becky

  • Love this post. About a year ago I was griping to myself (and maybe a little to God) about the struggle in developing a platform for the book. At the time I was going back for the second day of a 2-day Christian workers conference that I’ve been speaking on various for several years.

    I sensed/heard the saying “I have given you a platform, it just isn’t a direct path.”

    Indeed, a ‘side ministry’ we started in 2009 was promoting Christian films, and out of that has come a number of acquaintances in that industry, a regular 60-second radio program on our local Moody radio (with opportunity and permission from the recording station to expand to others), and an upcoming short booklet (first as an ebook) “Regional Movie Ministries: Kingdom Building through Networking, Faith, & Film”.

    Is it the heart of my book that I “wanted” to be the first – no, but it is closely related and provides a great opportunity to not just connect, but to HELP groups wanting to grow the success of Christian films in their communities – and is close enough to my passion that it can all work together.

    We need to be open to the fact that the opportunities God gives us may not look just like our dreams, but being faithful with what He provides is the foundation for the plans He has for us.

  • My owner, Donnie, sometimes tells me he thinks I’m a celebrity in my own mind. Actually, I see nothing wrong with believing something – that is true.

  • I started my career off by writing fiction for one division of Focus and non-fiction for three other departments. That opened the door to write for several magazines. Then I began ghost-writing for a prominent psychologist on counseling issues and wrote for print media(including 9 magazines), television and radio for him. That being said, I’ve developed a lot of strong relationships with magazine editors and can get a writing gig with almost anyone pretty easily. I’ve always made the best money and gotten paid the quickest by writing for magazines, so that’s my plan B. Also, depending on the publication and topic of the article, I can kick out a piece pretty quick. For example, writing fiction stories or humor for Focus on the Family took me twenty minutes or less usually and I’d make $150 minimum. That’s a nice return.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      And, Leslie, as you write each new book, you have some great venues for which to create articles that will promote your book. It’s a beautiful circle you’ve created–and made money in the process as well as learned about writing on deadline, within the given word count, etc.

  • Donna Brennan says:

    I enjoyed your post, Janet. As I read it a famous quote was rattling around in my brain, but I couln’t remember the exact words. So I searched the internet and found that John Lennon was the person who had said it. “Life is what happens to you while you are busy making plans.”

    Yes, I’d like to have my novels published, but there are a lot of “distractions” that have gotten in my way. Some of thoe distractions have turned into stepping stones. They have led to me getting short stories and articles published and making some great contacts. Because of these “distractions,” I have also begun to teach about writing at conferenes, local writing groups, and libraries.

    Some might call it a distraction distraction (it certainly has cut into my writing-time for my novel), but I believe this is the path God has in mind for me. I am at peace with it. I’ll get “there,” with “there” being wherever God wants me to be. If my novels never get published, I still enjoyed writing them and my beta readers have enjoyed reading them. I know my short stories have touched people, and I’ve received good feedback on some of my nonfiction as well. It’s not enough to live on (thankfully my husband has a good job), but it’s enough to encourage me that I am on my way. Final destination may be uncertain, but I am enoying the journey.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Thank you, John Lennon (and Donna), for the quote. That pretty much summarizes the truth of the matter, doesn’t it? I like that you used the word “steppingstones.” Often disguised as distractions, these events lead each of us to the next logical “step.”

  • Thank you, Janet. I loved Mr. Reiss’ story and his sense of humor.

    I love to write and, in all honesty, I would be thankful for ANY opportunity to write, ghostwrite, write copy, etc. Currently I teach writing, which gives me a lot of joy actually. I love to teach and writing is my passion so it’s wonderful to watch others grow to like it (my students having scored high enough on a placement test to take college writing, so they take my class to improve their skills). Still I would love to be able to share my writing with more people. I don’t need to be famous, but I would like to be a published professional. And if I got paid for it, so much the better. :)

    Happy Monday!

  • Sharyn Kopf says:

    Thank you for this post, Janet. I can certainly relate to Mike’s story. Over the years, I’ve had a few people ask me if I’d write their book/story. My response was always that I have too many of my own ideas to focus on. When I had time to write, I wanted to work on my stuff.

    Then, three years ago this month, I was laid off, and it wasn’t long before I needed money. Funny how that makes you re-think your work philosophy, isn’t it? So, when I was offered a co-authoring job that fall, I took it. And what a great experience it turned out to be! The book became available in December and, according to my client, has received great reviews/response.

    Since I’m still unemployed/self-employed, it helped me get by a little longer. Add that to three book-editing projects and several other God-provided writing and teaching opportunities, and I have been able to continue to update my résumé while improving my skills.

    All of which, by the way, gave me the time I needed to finish my novel.

  • I love ghost writing, Janet. I find it a fun challenge to get inside someone else’s head and write in his or her voice. Pays the bills, too.

  • Hi Janet, As a Christian, I’ve always wondered about the integrity side of being a “ghost writer.” I’ve loosely been approached about the idea and have not had the time to seriously consider it, but that was my initial thought. How would I feel about allowing someone else to pass off my ideas as their own? Thoughts on this?

    • Jan Thompson says:

      Can you list it in your query letter? I think if I can list it in my query letter to help me get my own books published, then I would be OK with it. Especially if that book you ghost-write becomes a bestseller. One never knows.

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Jan Thompson » You would want to specify in your agreement with the author that you may add it to your list of publications for publishers only to see.

  • Minkee Robinson says:

    I’ve spent too many years putting off sharing my writing for reasons both pragmatic and personal, but now that the leap of faith has been made, I appreciate any opportunities that come my way.
    ~Minkee Robinson

  • Jan Thompson says:

    This is an interestingly timely article. I’m primarily a fiction writer, but just a few days ago, an opportunity was presented to me to edit some non-fiction books for the next several years. And part-time, to boot. Unexpected addition to my resume? Maybe? Or taking up my time?

    I wasn’t going to take it, because I wanted to “guard” the precious little time I have to work on my novels. But since I’m unpub/prepub, perhaps I need something more than my other career to list in my query letter, so this editing option is now looking like an unexpected boon…

    Thank you, Janet!

    :-)

  • Yvette Carol says:

    Hi Janet, I have the ultimate distraction in my home, every day, that of two boisterous boys to raise. I long to sit at my computer and work on my book, but I can’t until they’re asleep at night. However what I find is that they provide inspiration a lot of times that I couldn’t have come up with on my own!

  • Lyn says:

    So, I guess in some ways, ‘pragmatism wins over passion’ is a bit like ‘when life hands you lemons make lemonade.’ The thing we need to be careful about though is that we don’t surrender our Christian principles in order to ‘make a fast buck.’ Sometimes, that can be a very thin line and needs lots of ‘knee-mails’ to be sent and received :-)

  • Julie Nilson says:

    Heh heh. I had something similar happen to me with a corporate client’s book project. My editor called saying that she had a disaster of a manuscript from an author who only did 25% by the final deadline and most of that 25% was garbage. They needed a completed ms ASAP.

    I was thinking “Oh, so now I’m under the gun because someone else didn’t do their job?” when my editor said, “We’ll pay you $10,000.” So I said, “Just tell me when you need it finished.”

    (I had some sleepless nights in those weeks, but they were worth it!)

  • Romeo Besen says:

    ecoming a successful ghostwriter demands two things: discretion and the ability to work quickly based on someone else’s outline. Ghostwriting may not be the most creatively satisfying opportunity in the general field of freelance writing. Many writers don’t like slapping someone else’s name on their words; however, freelance ghostwriting can pay well, and can provide you with some much needed income and networking contacts during lean phases of your writing career…^

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