“How big is your advance?” and other nosy discovery questions I ask to help with your book

If you’re going to hire me (or anyone else) to help you writing or editing your book, I’m going to ask a bunch of seemingly invasive questions. There are good reasons for those uncomfortable questions. In fact, I’ll go further: if you’re working with a writer, editor, or coach who doesn’t ask these sorts of questions, you may not have the right partner.

I ask these questions for two reasons. Firstly, they tell me just where your book project is and what challenges it might have. And secondly, they protect me from getting in too deep without knowing what the job might look like. This discovery process will allow me to project the amount of work and quote the job accurately, which is good for both of us. (I don’t work by the hour, I work by the job, because clients like to know what things will cost.)

This process also allows us to feel each other out and figure out if we’re compatible enough to work together.

Here’s a short list of questions, why I ask them, and what your answers will tell me.

What’s your book about?

Why I ask: I’m interested, not just in your answer, but in how quickly you answer and how clear your answer is, because that tells me how solid your idea is in your mind.

If I’ve heard your idea before: You need help differentiating your book from other similar books.

If you rattle it off quickly and glibly: You’ve memorized something but may not have thought deeply about it; I’ll be probing on that.

If you ramble for a while without getting to the point: You’re not sure of your focus and you probably need to nail that down, and I can help. (If you’re all over the map, I might tell you that you need to focus more on your own before working with me).

If you have a focused, but not practiced, description: You’re in good shape on the idea and we can work on other things.

How are you getting published?

Why I ask: Your publishing model tells me a lot about the way you’re thinking about your book and your objectives for the project.

If you already have a traditional publisher: This is a serious project with real deadlines and expectations, and you’re probably ready to engage with an editor or ghostwriter.

If you hope to get a traditional publisher: Let’s get to work on a killer proposal.

If you already have or hope to get a hybrid publisher: You’re already investing significant effort in the book and we can work to make it a reality. This also tells me that you’re likely to be willing to invest at least $10K in writing or editing, because nobody should pay a hybrid publisher to produce a crappy, poorly-edited book.

If you plan to self-publish: Your budget may be limited, and I’ll probe further about how serious you are about quality. If you’re just hoping to sling something out there without a significant amount of effort, somebody like me is probably not the right partner for you.

If you don’t know which publishing model you’re pursuing: I’ll help you understand the alternatives. Advice about publishing models is not something authors usually pay for, but it’s a way for us to learn more about each other and your book together.

Do you have a table of contents?

Why I ask: This tells me a lot about how big the project is and how well organized your thinking about it is.

If you don’t have one: We need to work on that before we do anything else.

If you have one, but it’s poorly organized: We need to work on making it better before we start on writing and editing.

If you have one and it’s well organized: Great — now let’s talk about how you can create the content to fill it.

Do you have a manuscript?

Why I ask: This tells me where to start the project.

If you do: Let’s see if it needs editing.

If you don’t (or it’s partway done): How are you (or I) going to write it or complete it?

What’s your source material?

Why I ask: This tells me if you’re actually ready to write or need to do more research.

If it’s lined up: Finding out where your case studies are coming from and what research you’ve already done gives me a lot of information about your project. It’s particularly important if I’m ghostwriting, since I’ll need that source material to create the manuscript.

If it’s not lined up: We’ll have a talk about what you really need to fuel your book project. And if I’m ghostwriting, the price will go up, because helping assemble that source material will take a lot of my time.

Can I review something you’ve already written for the book?

Why I ask: I need to know what kind of shape your writing is in to scope the project.

If you have nothing: We need to start from scratch, and I’ll price the project accordingly.

If it’s in great shape: I can probably do an editing job quickly and relatively cheaply.

If it’s in poor shape: I can probably help, but I’ll price the project to account for fixing the language and structural problems we’ll need to work on.

What’s your deadline?

Why I ask: I need to know how much of a rush we’re in.

If it’s very soon: If I can fit the project in, and the material is in good shape, great — we can get started and finish quickly. If the material is in poor shape, I’m going to decline the project, because cleaning up big messes in a big hurry is not how I like to spend my time.

If it’s within six months: Let’s carefully scope the work to do and see if it’s possible to complete this. I can easily edit a book a month or so — sometimes quicker — but writing one takes longer.

If it’s more than six months: It’s great that we have a little leeway, but we need to get started soon, because time has a way of slipping away. At least we likely have time to do the extra research if it’s needed.

How big is your advance?

Why I ask: If you’ve already got a book deal, the size of your advance tells me a lot about your — and your publisher’s — expectations for the book. It also helps define what makes sense from a budgetary perspective.

If it’s less than $20K: You’re probably not going to invest a lot in a writer or editor, so I need to assess if we can finish the book quickly on a tight budget.

If it’s $20K to $50K: It’s a midsized project and you’re likely to be willing to invest in a good editor.

If it’s $50K to $250K: It’s a big project for both you and the publisher, and you’re likely to be able to hire someone like me as either a developmental editor or ghostwriter.

If it’s more than $250K: There are significant resources available. Not only can you hire a writer like me, you may be able to hire other useful helpers like a researcher.

Ask yourself these questions

If you’re working with publishers, editors, or ghostwriters, be prepared for questions like these, even if they seem a bit nosy. They’re the basis for quoting a successful project that’s likely to come in on schedule, on budget, and with a minimum of hair-raising crises and misunderstandings.

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