Mark Terry

Friday, February 04, 2011

Taking Risks

February 4, 2011
As I may have mentioned a while back, I was working on a nonfiction book proposal. Then I started querying agents about it, because the agent that handles my fiction doesn't handle nonfiction. One of the agents I queried I've had discussions with about other things and I suppose you could say we had a potential business relationship (versus an actual business relationship). She liked it, felt it needed a slight tweak, then we discussed expectations for money, which knocked me on my ass a bit. I told her I was going to think about it.

Then I got hit by a blizzard and a broken tooth, plus I was busy with some projects, so I put off making a decision. I also had a brief discussion with another agent about the project, in which the reaction was, "Great idea, but I'm working on a project with a client that's similar." Which convinced me, actually, that I should stop screwing around. (And for the record, I say, patting myself on the back, the agent that's going to take me on was only the second I queried).

So I went back to the agent and told her that if she was still interested, I was all in. And she was and we are.

Much of this came down to my willingness to take a risk. First, I spent time researching and writing the proposal in the first place. I could have been concentrating on magazine queries or other job postings (which I did, but not as intensely as I would have) or contacting other clients about work. But I have an idea of where I want my writing career to go and I'm working on moving it in that direction.

Second, I have to overcome the here's-the-reality-of-the-book-market talk that my agent was giving me. She's managed to sell four nonfiction book proposals in January alone, a couple of them for big bucks, some for not as much. So there's still a market, but--it's unpredictable. I'm taking a risk, although a fairly small one, in going ahead with this. What happens if I'm offered a contract that only pays a couple thousand upfront? Can I afford to do this? We'll see.

Some of you probably think I'm crazy or whining, but in that I'm a full-time writer, these are the sorts of calculations you have to make in order to make a living doing this. What you're selling is your skill/writing, but also your time, and if you're giving away your time, you get in trouble.

But the whole thing made me think about risk-taking. Leaving my decent-paying job with benefits and paid time off to be a full-time writer was a risk. It was a calculated risk, to be sure. I'd made decent money freelancing on the side and broken into some good-paying markets. I was able to go part-time on the job for a few months to see how it went. My wife has a good job with excellent benefits, so it wasn't like we wouldn't be able to eat or make the house payments. Also, I was working in a field, clinical cytogenetics, where if it didn't work out I had a high likelihood of picking up a job fast, or at the very least, picking up contingent work at one of the labs in the area.

If my father had been alive I think he would have had a stroke. Had my mother not been fairly deep into Alzheimer's at the time, I think she would have had one, too.

My parents were not risk takers. My father started out after World War II as a freelance photographer, had problems with it, quit and took a job at Fisher Body in Flint, then went to Citizens Bank where he retired some 35 or 40 years later. He still did the photography on the side, but not, as far as I can tell, with the intention of doing more than supplementing his income and fulfilling a need for creative activity. Steady pay, benefits, and stability were the priority.

That's okay, you know. Although freelancing full-time has worked well for me, I don't think it's for everyone. And I don't really think I'm much of a risk taker. And most freelancers, having taken a risk, tend to then create some sort of form of financial security around themselves with regular clients or regular gigs.

But sometimes you need to be a risk taker. Sometimes you need to say, "What's the worst that will happen?", realize not that much, and take a risk. That doesn't mean I'm in the least ways suggesting you quit your job with the intention of becoming a full-time novelist. But it is saying, "Maybe you should think about what risk you might be taking by trying something different."

Write something different. Approach it differently. Take a risk by marketing it differently. Birds don't fly by staying in the nest, babies don't walk and run by staying in the crib... blah, blah, blah.

Like I said, I don't think I'm much of a risk taker, but I'm all too aware that as a writer, I seem to have had the most success by taking some level of risks. Not all of them have worked out, of course, but enough have that I think a certain level of calculated risk is a really good idea.



Anonymous Stacey Tobin said...

Thanks for this post - I am also not what you'd call a risk taker, and I have also taken a baby-steps route to becoming a full-time freelance writer. I am slowly building my freelance business with side jobs while I keep my part-time job in advertising...but I haven't been able to justify taking that last big step and shedding the office job for good. Although it seems I do an internal risk assessment almost daily, I just can't seem to let go. It's nice to hear about someone else who has taken the plunge.

7:50 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

It's a big step. I had a lot of good reasons to try it and being able to work part-time while I really tried it was very useful. I was only part-time for about 4 months.

11:18 AM  

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