What is work for hire?
Work for hire is when a publishing company develops a book or series idea and then hires an author to write the book. There are many variations on this theme, but here are two of the most common forms.
School and Library nonfiction. Have you ever wondered how all those books about space and dinosaurs get onto the library or classroom shelves? Educational publishers like Capstone and Amicus specialize in creating series of 4 to 8 books focused on a single topic like robots or the Bill of Rights. The publisher drafts guidelines that specify the book titles, page count, word count, reading level, and format of the book. Then they hire writers to research and write one or more of the books in the series.
Licensing. Many trade publishers build chapter books and early readers around licensed characters. Think Power Puff Girls or Star Wars. In some cases, the publisher develops its own characters and hires writers to create the books. As with school and library nonfiction, the publisher comes up with the concept, writes the specs, and hires the writer. From the Mixed Up Files has a great blog post about this type of writing here.
To further complicate things, sometimes book packagers serve as the middlemen for this type of writing. The packagers come up with the book ideas, hire the writers and illustrators, and edit the books, which are published by well-recognized publishers. Well-loved books like The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew were written this way. Here’s an interesting article.
What’s in it for the writer versus the publisher?
Copyright. In work for hire, the publisher does a lot of the legwork, like creating the characters or developing the idea for the series. Therefore the publisher, not the writer, typically holds the copyright. Because the publisher has done much of the up-front work, the book publishing process moves much faster. I may write a book in the fall and hold that book in my hands six months later. Trade publishing, on the other hand, can take years.
Payment. Payment too can be much faster. Rather than earning an advance plus royalties, many work-for-hire contracts are flat fee. Often you receive some of the fee when you turn in your first draft or maybe when you sign the contract. You often get a final chunk when you’ve approved the layout with both your text and the graphics/photos.
No marketing risk. Because you aren’t earning royalties, you get paid the same amount no matter how many copies you sell. You are free to do as much (or as little) of the marketing as you like.
What sort of skills do I need?
Work-for-hire writers must be willing to write to tight deadlines. I normally get one to two months to write a book, depending upon the length, but sometimes deadlines are much tighter. When you are juggling multiple books with conflicting deadlines, it can get a little hectic. Staying organized is critical.
Flexibility is key too. Editors love writers who are easy to work with and don’t view their words as too precious. You’ll be asked to make changes, and plenty of them. Have a sense of humor. Work for hire is a team sport. If you are too difficult to work with, the editor won’t ask you to write again.
Curiosity helps too. I’ve written topics well outside my comfort zone, but I’ve always appreciated having a chance to learn about something new.
How do I start?
One of the best books for breaking into work for hire is Laura Salas’s Book, Writing for the Education Market. It’s free with Kindle Unlimited. If you are serious, I would make sure to read it. She covers much of what I talk about in far more detail.
Writing samples. You will need writing samples that fit your target market. Do not send an English term paper or an article for an adult magazine if you want to write for second-graders. Write a sample that is similar to type of book you want to be hired for. I started out by writing for children’s magazines. Then I used those articles as my writing samples. I did a few posts about breaking into magazines in 2013.
Finding publishers. There are many places to look for work. Evelyn Christensen has a great list of Educational Publishers (and children’s magazine markets too). Writing for the Education Market is another great source. If you are an SCBWI member, The Book has a list of educational publishers. You may find opportunities in other freelance writing marketplaces as well. Finally, you can contact book packagers directly.
Cover letter. Publishers will require writing samples and an introductory letter. You’ll want to specify the types of topics that interest you, as well as the reading levels you are interested in writing for. If you have educational credits, work experience or other expertise in particular topics, list those in your introductory letter. They can help you get your foot in the door.
Patience. Publishers typically work with writers they know over and over again. They hire new writers when someone turns down a book project or they’ve exhausted their list of experienced writers. In the meantime, publishers and packagers file away your letter and writing samples. Waiting is difficult, but don’t bug the editors more than once a year.
Many publishers assign projects all year long, but others work on a school schedule, assigning books in August and January. In my opinion, August and January are good times to send out packets.
For me, the joy of work-for-hire is the same as any other kind of book publishing. There’s nothing like seeing children reading my books and telling me how much they love them.