how to have the best writing year

Why a goal setting system is more important than the goals you set, and my favorite realistic and easy goal-setting system for writers who want to publish books. Affiliate links may be included below.

I keep looking at it in my calendar. It’s highlighted, in bold type, and has way too many exclamation points. It says:

Goal-Setting Day!!!!!

It’s the most wonderful day of the year.

We spend so much of our time in the thick of things, so busy getting everything done, that we straight forget what we are actually trying to accomplish across our whole life.

We see the immediate to-dos looming today and tomorrow. We see the tasks waiting for us at home and at work. When we look into the future, it’s a blur of vague hopes. When we look back, it’s a blur of already-forgotten days. Man, it’s stressful.

And the busier life gets, the harder it is to remember what we already accomplished and what we are trying to accomplish.

This is especially true of writers and creatives who work for ourselves or have a side hustle. There’s no boss to sit you down at the end of the year and grade your performance. And there’s no mandated time to set goals for next year and think about the big picture of your career and life.

 literary agent blog goals for writers lon

That’s why you need to take goal-setting time for yourself.

Because the truth is, no one is going to tap you on the shoulder and nag you until you schedule in goal-setting time. (I’ll nag you a little right now, but only because I love ya!)

I can’t stress enough how important this is for writers, bloggers, everyone. If you’re involved in any creative endeavor, even if it’s just a side project, then you owe it to yourself to be intentional about how you spend your time.

Even more, you owe it to yourself to celebrate your accomplishments of 2017 and get excited about the adventures of 2018.

Your creative life will feel richer and more meaningful if you can see the big picture of why you do what you do. It’s an easy way to become mindful of your strengths and weaknesses, and to be thoughtful and intentional about what you want to accomplish and what you will set aside.

Do you know how to set goals the right way?

The problem is: most of us have no idea how to set goals the right way. (And yes, there is definitely a right way.)

Yet, goals are high-stakes. We feel awful when we don’t meet them, and we feel amazing when we crush them.

So setting them at all becomes a highly emotional process. How do we know our goals aren’t too easy? How do we know if they’re unrealistic? How many goals should we be setting? And the big one: how do we actually accomplish those goals? (Because we all know it’s not as easy as making a list of things we’d like to do.)

The truth is: no one is born knowing these things. Just because you’ve successfully knocked out goals in the past doesn’t mean 2018 won’t throw you some curve balls. Just because you’ve missed some goals in the past doesn’t mean 2018 won’t be the year you hit it out of the park.

But as I talked about here, books and classes pull us off the isolated island of our own experience and immerse us in the stream of collective learning. There’s no reason we have to struggle on our own when there are hundreds of resources out there for learning important life skills. And you betchya that goal-setting should be one of them.

So this year, I highly recommend making “Set up a system for making and meeting goals” as one of your goals.

Yes, a goal about goals. It’s weird. But I promise that it’ll be fun to learn a new goal-setting process, and it’s going to lay the foundation for many, many years of accomplishments.

Personally, every year I get excited all over again about one goal-setting system: Michael Hyatt’s Best Year Ever. I’ve been a huge fan of all things Hyatt for many years (he was the former CEO of Thomas Nelson at HarperCollins), and he builds better resources for advancing your career and creative life than anyone out there.

The thing that really amazes me about BYE is the success stories: you hear everything from people losing 30+ pounds, to tripling their income, to finally setting things right in their relationships. This is hard stuff we deal with, and if you ask me, we can use every bit of help we can get.

I’ll let Michael tell you more about the class here (reading that makes me excited all over again!), and if you feel like it’s right for you, you can sign up here. Enrollment closes this Monday, December 19th, so check this off your to-do list now! And at least that will be one goal you’re already crushing. 😉

Click here to sign up for Best Year Ever!


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What I’m Reading

How to Land a Book Deal (Me on the Food Blogger Pro podcast): The nice folks at Food Blogger Pro (one of my favorite resources!) invited me to be on the podcast to share the inside details of how to get a book deal. As much as I find the sound of my own voice weird (are we all wired to think that?), I hope you’ll at least find it a helpful listen!

7 Crazy Successful Instagrammers You Should Pay Attention To (Deidra Romero for Platform University): I loved this list because I, for one, learn by watching. I instantly followed some of these Instagrammers so I could be inspired by the best.

How to Find and Attract Editors for Pitching Articles (Devra Ferst and Dianne Jacob): One of the best ways to build your author platform is to start building your writing portfolio and collecting bylines at top media outlets. This is a great piece with practical insider tips on how to start getting “yeses” on those pitches.

Printable bookplates for all your gifting needs (cooks & books): Here are two nice things to do this holiday: gift a book and donate a book. Either way, a nice inscription is always welcome, and I love using these free printable bookplates for it. (After all, some people are a little funny about writing directly in the book!)

A Book Launch Plan for First-Time Authors Without an Online Presence (Jane Friedman): Don’t know where to start and don’t have any online base? Well, Jane is here to walk you through what you can do, even if you don’t yet know your Instagram from your Twitter.

What We’re Eating This Week

We are hoommee! Thank you to all you sweet folks who wished us safe travels to El Salvador last week. I got a little sappy in an Instagram post about how much the trip meant to me and how grateful I am for the work Habitat for Humanity is doing in the world. I won’t prattle on about it, but if you’ve ever thought about doing a build with them, I’d love to talk your ear off about it!

nonfiction books blog

Now, let’s eat:

Monday: Well, the whole eat-less, work-more plan for El Salvador didn’t quite work out because pupusas and beer. So Monday we threw together a sheet pan dinner of brussels, mushrooms, and sausage and another one of drumsticks and cauliflower. All I could think about was pupusas.

Tuesday: Salad! We did it. A healthy thing. I’ll pat myself on the back for a month now.

Wednesday: The Stonesong team is off to celebrate two clients: Julie Gaines of Fishs Eddy who is hosting a signing for Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen. We love making connections, talking food, and doing dishes.

Thursday: Please send Chicken Lo Mein and Wonton Soup to Desk #4, Stonesong Offices, NY, NY.

Friday: Home and out to dinner with friends! We’re trying Jose Andres’s China Chilcano for the first time. Methinks me will likey.


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4 unexpected ways to make your book a perennial bestseller

The 4 best takeaways and a book review of Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work That Lasts by Ryan Holiday–plus a free downloadable PDF art print to inspire you to become a perennial seller!

“That book has taken on a life of its own.”

I blinked at this—what did that mean? It was 2009, and I was working at a Big 5 publisher in New York.  I had asked one of the senior editors about a backlist book that was still selling and selling, even after 10 years.

The book was a perennial seller for the publishing house. It had built momentous word-of-mouth and now needed almost no help from the author or publisher to keep it selling steadily.  You can recognize these books because they wave you down with numbers: “2 million copies sold,” “now published in 15 countries!”

how to write a perennial seller book 1

What I wanted to know was exactly how that book had become a perennial bestseller. Was it the author’s platform? Was it the idea? Had they marketed the heck out of it?

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How to get a book deal with your blog

How to go from blog to book–the 3 things publishers and literary agents look for in bloggers!

“Can you give me a number I should aim for?”

I could hear the hopefulness in her voice, the resolution to get started. I shifted in my desk chair and moved the phone to my other ear. I hate this question.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I loved this blogger and her writing. I’d admired her work for a long time, and it had been so much fun to finally talk to her and hear the behind-the-scenes of her blog.

But there was just one tiny problem.

Her author platform wasn’t big enough yet for a book deal.

from blog to book deal

She was doing all the right things—writing consistently, sharing her work, getting to know her readers and other influencers in her space. But I knew publishers would want her stats to be higher for a book deal, and I knew she would need to have a bigger readership to make a book successful.

I squirmed and gently suggested that she wait a little longer to pursue a book deal.

I knew she had a book in her, and I could just see how beautiful and inspiring it would be. But I also know I’m not doing anyone a service if we put a book out too early in an author’s career, before they have thousands of loyal fans who are clamoring to buy it. It’s worth doing a book at the right time in your career.

But how do you know if your blog can get you a book deal? How can you gauge whether you have enough readers to support a book? What are the blog traffic and social media numbers to aim for?

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7 questions to ask when considering a publisher

It’s a gray, rainy day here today, and it feels so nice. I especially love riding the train up to New York when it’s foggy and gray like this—if you’ve ever seen some of those Northeast corridor water views and murky woods, you know exactly what I mean.

cookbook publishing blog

We had a blast this past weekend doing things like eating too much at The Dabney and Whaley’s and making Mary Randolph’s chicken croquettes.

I was looking through one of our smaller memory boxes the other day, and I found my old business cards from when I worked as an editor at a smaller publisher. I loved working there, but it also reminded me how different the book process is from house to house. And just as importantly, how hard it is for anyone on the outside—especially writers and bloggers new to the publishing world—to figure out what kind of publisher might be right for them and their book idea.

Which, of course, launched me into a loooooong article about the differences between larger and smaller publishing houses. Phew, this one’s a doozy! But that’s because there’s just so, so much to say. There’s more diversity in the industry than most people can imagine, and even among the Big 5 publishers or the smallest of the small presses, there’s no one set way of doing certain things.

So, I thought it would be helpful to share a few key questions that you should ask when considering what kind of publisher is right for you or when negotiating a book contract, especially if you’ve been approached by a publisher already. I also tried to provide the broadest of benchmarks to help you have some context if you do already have an offer in hand and you now want to negotiate for standard book royalties or an advance. Of course, I have to insert one million caveats about how every house is unique—I promise this is not a cop-out; it’s the honest-to-goodness truth—and how every publishing contract can be its own universe of non-standard and standard terms.

But this at least should provide a starting point for anyone who has an offer in hand and isn’t sure whether they should accept, negotiate, look for a literary agent, or walk away.

A real-life case study

That exact scenario happened to one of my authors—she had been approached by a smaller publisher who wanted a certain kind of book from her. She asked around to a few author friends and other bloggers, not sure what she should do. Her asking around led to a referral to me, and we chatted about her existing offer and about what her goals and hopes were for a book.

I love the idea for her book; I thought her platform was ready; and most importantly, I loved her sweet personality and thought we’d have fun working together. We turned down the existing offer, spent 6 months refining her book concept and working on the proposal, shopped it around, and ultimately found her a fabulous publishing home, as well as an advance that was 8x more than what she’d originally been offered.

That is the kind of success story I love—seeing my authors end up with book deals that put them in the best possible scenario for a successful launch, and hopefully, a long career as an author.

We see stories like this all the time, especially in the nonfiction world: a publisher approaches an author; the author gets a literary agent; the literary agent finds or negotiates a far better offer for the author; the author becomes an evangelist for using an agent. I won’t toot the lit-agent horn too much, but I do strongly encourage anyone considering a publishing offer to get a second opinion. You only get one debut book, so it’s worth doing the research to explore any and all options that might be right for you!

Now, let me step off my soapbox (ha!), and let’s talk about the initial questions you should ask when considering a publisher. 

7 questions to ask when considering a publisher

negotiating a book publishing contract

1. Are you being asked to pay them for production costs, or are they offering to pay you an advance?

Most commonly, publishing contracts fall into one of four categories:

  • A traditional contract, where the publisher covers all costs and offers an advance and royalties
  • A hybrid or digital-first contract, where the publisher covers all costs but offers higher royalties instead of an advance
  • A work-for-hire contract, where the publisher covers all costs, but the author is selling her writing services to the publisher for a flat fee and is relinquishing copyright
  • A publishing services contract (these publishers are often called vanity publishers), where the author is covering all costs and essentially paying to have a book printed but will receive little, if any, distribution, marketing, or publicity support

For the purposes of this piece, I’m going to talk mostly about those first two types of contracts, since they’re the two arrangements that authors most often pursue and need help navigating.

2. Now let’s get the big question out of the way: how much of an advance are you being offered? And most importantly, are you comfortable with that amount?

Just like in any industry, the larger a business, the more resources it will have at its disposal. So generally, smaller publishers tend to pay more modest advances, while larger publishers can offer a broader range of advances. An offer from a small publisher can range from a no-advance offer to $1,000 to $5,000 to $10,000 or more. An offer from a large publisher, such as one of the Big 5 publishers, can also start at no advance (most often for digital-only imprints) but range as high as the $65 million the Obamas just received for their two books.

Of course, what matters most is whether that advance it right for you. Some books, like cookbooks and other heavily photographed books, require upfront capital to pay a photographer, or to cover ingredient and travel costs, and so an author may be looking for an advance that will cover both his costs and the value of his time. For fiction, the manuscript is usually completed at the time of sale, and so an advance could be used to pay back an author’s time, to cover the value of her time during the promotion phase, or to re-invest in her author brand.

It’s also worth finding out whether you’ve received a fair offer–as in, an offer that’s on par with other comparable authors in your genre or category. For this, it’s helpful look for a literary agent who has experience in your category or genre.

However! It’s extremely important to note that the advance itself isn’t nearly the whole picture. Typically, the advance is directly correlated to the back-end numbers that can most influence the success of your book—numbers like how many books they’ll print and how much money they’ll put into marketing and publicity.

Wait, so the advance isn’t the most important number?

Yes and no. The dollar amount of the advance matters in that it allows you to invest in your business and in the success of your book. But the symbolic meaning of the advance—the level of investment a publisher is making in you, and the print run and marketing/publicity budgets that come with it—matter just as much.

Essentially, advances are more modest at smaller publishers because the print runs are typically smaller. Rather than a print run of, say, 5,000, 10,000 or 20,000 copies, a smaller publisher may project a printing of 1,000 or 2,500 copies. At smaller publishers, their profit projections (the P&L) are often run using only the small initial print run, because there’s no guarantee there will be a second print run if the first doesn’t sell. (All this can be true at larger houses, too.) Therefore, a lower initial print run will always result in a lower advance. This allows the publisher to test out the market for a book in a less risky way, before deciding whether they’ll go back for additional print runs. However, this also means that your book may only have a few thousand copies printed, and that if those move slowly, that initial print run may be the entire lifespan of your book.

By contrast, if a publisher is able to project a larger total printing—and have the confidence that they can sell those copies—then the P&L will allow for a larger advance, as well as more copies of your book in existence.

Generally, a publisher won’t share the details of their P&Ls, as each house has a proprietary calculation, so you may not know what the projected print run is. But again, the size of the advance and the context that an agent can provide can help you make a good guess.

3. What kind of royalties are being offered?

Royalties can vary drastically from publisher to publisher and project to project, and so I can’t give a very accurate range and fair range here. This is another place where working with a literary agent can be very helpful, as she should be able to tell you what’s standard across the industry, what’s standard in your category or genre, and what’s standard from that particular publisher, as well as be able to negotiate the best possible rate for you.

But, what you can determine is whether the royalties you’re being offered are being paid on the retail list price of the book or on net (i.e. the author receives a percentage of the net revenue). Of course, the definition of “net revenue” or “net amount received” can vary by publisher, as can the actual percentages offered, and what is standard can also vary drastically from publisher to publisher, as well as from genre to genre. And 7.5% of list price is very different from 10% of net!

Be mindful of this difference, and in particular, look to see if there’s a clear definition (one you actually understand!) of either list price or net in the contract, depending on which is offered. If not, this could be a red flag.

4. How long will you have to write the book?

Again, the timeline for manuscript delivery varies so drastically from publisher to publisher and book to book. But very generally, smaller publishers work on more accelerated timelines, which allows them to move more quickly to get trend-driven or timely books into the marketplace. This is great if you’re not too excited about waiting 18 to 24 months between contract signing and publication, which is the timeline at many medium and large publishers.

When I worked at a smaller publisher, we often asked authors to deliver manuscripts in 2-4 months, and we were able to go from idea to finished book in anywhere from 6 months to 12 months. And while crash schedules can definitely be done at the Big 5 publishers (I did one crash-schedule book last year!), they largely look for an author to tell them how much time they need, rather than pushing for a quick turnaround.

The important thing here is to figure out what’s right for you. You want to make sure that you’re giving yourself enough time to write a book that you’re truly proud of. I’ve seen book contracts where the author is given 4 weeks to turn in a manuscript—and that was for a manuscript they hadn’t even started yet! This means that the author had to set aside nearly everything else in her life to work full-speed on the book for a month. And some authors love this! It’s entirely about knowing yourself and how you work best.

But typically, unless an author tells me they like to work on a condensed schedule or we have a strategic reason for rushing the book into the marketplace, I recommend authors take between 6 – 12 months to write their book. That’s because I don’t want my authors to lose their minds during the process and to be so burned out on writing the book that they have no energy to promote it.

It’s important to remember that everything else that makes up your daily work—the platform-building, the business-running, the speaking, the social media—is also laying the groundwork for the success of your book. If all of that comes to a screeching halt as you write the book, your platform will be weakened when you most need it. Also, your family will miss you a lot.

Luckily both small and large publishers may be open to negotiating the timeline, so don’t immediately take their proposed date as the final word.

5. What will the publisher do for publicity and marketing?

Many authors don’t realize it, but the publicity and marketing budget for a book is typically integrated into its P&L. It’s helpful to think like a publisher (or any other business owner) when trying to understand the way publishers make bets on books. If you spend a greater amount of money acquiring project, then naturally, you’re going to spend more money promoting the project so that you can recoup your investment.

A great advantage to working with a traditional publisher of any size is that your book will be assigned to an in-house publicist, who will write a press release, send review copies of your book, and do everything in her power to get press for the book.

But small differences may exist in the process, depending on the publisher and the publicist herself. Some campaigns may include a mailing of finished printed copies; others may only send digital copies of the book in order to cut costs. Some publicists have personal connections with magazine and online editors and producers; others may be cold-pitching. Either way, this is essentially free publicity for you and your book, and it can go a long way in helping you grow your business.

The same principle applies to marketing: campaigns will differ, but generally, the bigger the budget, the more they can do to spread the word about your book. Smaller publishers may only do limited campaigns with standard practices like SEO-optimizing the online retailer metadata and including the book in the publisher’s catalog. Other publishers may buy space at tables at bookstores, run multi-platform ad campaigns, or create landing pages and shareable assets. While a publisher likely won’t tell you exactly how much they’ve budgeted for marketing and publicity, they should share the details of their campaigns and how you can support them.

The most important thing to remember is that you can, and should, take the lead on the marketing and publicity for your book. The publisher’s role is to support your efforts and share best practices, but it’s ultimately the author who should be the driving force for brainstorming ideas and executing them. After all, publishing a book is a masterclass in learning how to convert fans into customers, so don’t miss any opportunities to experiment and learn about what works for your particular audience.

6. Where will the book likely be distributed? Where will it be pitched?

This is another extremely important point to discuss with a potential publishing partner: where will the book be distributed? As I mentioned, some book deals are for digital-only editions, or they’re for digital-first. Make sure you understand both where the book will be distributed digitally, and if there’s potential for a print edition later on, which metrics will be used to determine whether your book will be published in print.

If your book will be published in both print and digital, ask the publisher which accounts they almost always distribute to and which they will try for, but can’t guarantee. Most publishers can get most books into the main bookselling outlets, such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-a-Million.

Most publishers will also pitch the books that they think are a fit to the non-bookstore outlets, which can include the mass merchandisers (Wal-Mart, Target, etc.), the warehouse stores (Costco, Sam’s Club, etc.), the specialty retailers (Anthropologie, Williams Sonoma, Whole Foods, etc.), but there’s never any guarantee that an account will take them. The same is true of independent bookstores—because they’re typically smaller stores, it’s much more difficult to have a book picked up by an indie bookseller.

Of course, the stronger of a track record a publisher has with a particular account, the higher the likelihood they’ll keep ordering new books from that publisher. If seeing your book in a particular store is very important to you, I highly recommend visiting a few of the stores in that chain and seeing which publishers are represented there. As always, the more research you can do on the market, the better you can craft your own book to succeed in that space!

7. How much creative control will you have over the look of the book?

This is so important. It’s one of the key concerns writers and bloggers have when I talk to them, and I totally understand why. There’s nothing worse than pouring your heart and soul into a book only to have the final package leave you feeling deflated.

Unfortunately, this is also the area that can be most difficult to navigate without an agent. But a good place to start is to look at the existing books on the publisher’s list and determine if you like those. Are there any you don’t like? Any you do? Try to engage the publisher in a conversation about how much creative control you’ll be given.

Yet, even in cases where there are specific creative-control clauses in a contract, it can be helpful to have the leverage of an agency behind you when discussing the tricky matter of design. We can step in and make sure the author’s feedback is taken seriously. While no publisher wants to print a book the author hates, it can sometimes be helpful to have a little extra nudging for one more round of revisions or a few more tweaks that the author might want.

But the most common scenario I see is authors who don’t love the design of their book, but they’re not sure why. That’s where we can also step in and help them pinpoint what they like and don’t like, as well as translate those feelings into the kind of design terms that designers can best act on.


While I don’t want to portray that this is a comprehensive list of everything you should discuss with a potential publisher, I do hope it’s a good starting point for thinking through your goals and priorities. And as you can see by how incredibly long this piece is, this stuff is complex! But that’s why I love what I do–it feels good to help authors have the best possible shot for making a difference in the world with their books.

What I’m Reading

How to Smartly Evaluate a Small Publisher (Jane Friedman): To tie in to our conversation about comparing different kinds of publishers, here’s a fantastic run-through by Jane Friedman of how to evaluate a small publisher. Definitely read this piece if you’re considering an offer but want more insight and another perspective!

Publishing a Cookbook: How We Got Started (Thriving Home): And in one more tie-in, here are my authors Polly and Rachel sharing a bit about what it was like being approached by a smaller publisher and how we ended up working together.

How to Land an Agent for a Self-Published Book (Jane Friedman): This is a must-read if you’ve self-published, but you’re also interested in working with a traditional publisher. Every last bit of advice is spot-on!

5 Ways to Expand Your Platform for a Book Deal (Nicole Gulotta on Stonesong author Nicole Gulotta shares fantastic advice for growing your platform so you can get a book deal. And take a look at her book, Eat This Poem! It is so, so lovely.

Richard Bolles Dies at 90; Wrote ‘What Color Is Your Parachute?’ (Paul Vitello for the New York Times): I was sad to see that beloved self-help author Richard Bolles passed away this week. If you’re looking for a self-publishing success story, here’s one for the record books: “Mr. Bolles (pronounced bowls) originally self-published his manual in 1970 as a photocopied how-to booklet for unemployed Protestant ministers. In 1972, he recast it to appeal to a wider audience and found an independent publisher in Berkeley, Calif., willing to print small batches so that it could be frequently updated. Since then, “Parachute” has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and has never been out of print.”

What We’re Eating This Week

Travel, travel, busy, busy, what’s a gal to eat? Well, here’s the real and true story of a cookbook agent eating not much of anything worth reporting. Ha!

Monday: So tired, so Monday! I added more butter (hahaha, oh yes I did!) to Mary Randolph’s tomato sauce and tossed it over some spaghetti, with some sautéed green beans on the side. It was simple; it was easy; it was all the things you want on a Monday.

Tuesday: Dinner at my Yaya’s, aka, How Much Rice and Beans Can One Human Eat in One Sitting: A Novel.

Wednesday: Eating out, or takeout, or desk dinner, or another form of #survivalfood.

Thursday: If I’m lucky, soup from my favorite soup spot in the Garment District. If I’m not lucky, something vile from the Amtrak Café Car.

Friday: I don’t know! But it’s Friday, so mealtime angst can be easily cured by a gin and tonic or twelve.


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