Posted on Dec 20, 2023
Panel Discussion — Book Coaching
Below is the transcript from our live panel on December 11th, 2023, where three of Reedsy's top book coaches — Pam Sourelis, Kim Long, and Laura Joyce — talked about helping authors achieve their writing and publishing goals. They shared their insights on how to find your first clients and how to organize the workflow when book coaching.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Skip to 3:56 for the start of the talk.
Book coaching basics
Martin: Kim, from your perspective, what is the job of a book coach and what type of writer do you think benefits most from your coaching?
Kim: I look at book coaching a bit differently for the beginner writer than getting a developmental edit. Most of my clients have an idea for a book and have maybe written 10 or 20 pages. It's almost their first foray into trying to complete a novel and they're really stuck, confused, or lost.
I have a Zoom call before they even accept the collaboration, where we can talk about where they're at. I try to find their baseline knowledge. Do they know what a character arc is? Do they know what a plot is? Do they have any idea of the basics to writing craft?
Then I try to come up with a collaboration that would be most useful for them, that includes a wide array of things. I usually do it on a monthly plan for a monthly fee. I've had a couple writers who, after going through the process for about a month, realize this is a bigger task than they thought it was going to be.
You can gauge what their experience is, their level, and their level of commitment. If you have a full manuscript, get an assessment or a developmental edit.
Pam: Sometimes I'll get somebody who comes to me for a developmental edit. I'll look through it and find that there are too many holes in the craft. I don't want to take their money in that case. Sometimes I do the edit and it takes half the time I thought it was going to take, so I suggest doing some coaching.
[Most of my clients are] people who are just starting, who wrote a little bit and got stuck, or who realized they have big holes in their understanding of craft or process and don't know how to continue. They're not keeping to a schedule. They have all kinds of judges in their head telling them they don't know how to do this.
Laura: I also agree with everything that Kim and Pam have been saying. I think many of us find ourselves going between editing and coaching: that sometimes someone will come to you asking for one service and you'll immediately see that they require the other. Or they ask for many services and you see the one that they actually need.
It's part of our job, I think, to help people understand the difference between different services. Authors do genuinely need someone that is between a disciplinarian and a cheerleader. I think the word discipline can sound harsh, but sometimes it's what people are looking for: that regularity.
If they know that I'm telling them “Here's our deadline, here's what I'd like you to do” etc., they can actually do the work because someone's asked them to. It might take 10 years if someone didn't give a deadline. I really believe in that motivational power of discipline and accountability.
But as both Kim and Pam have said, there's definitely an element of teaching in addition to the coaching and support. There are often craft gaps, but, to pick up on what Pam said, I quite often work with people's psychological or even emotional blocks, where they have a whole crowd of people telling them they're not good enough, real and imagined. It can be about breaking that down and almost working out what their story around writing is so that we can work productively and they can actually get those pages turned in.
It's a long answer to that question, but I was really inspired by both what Kim and Pam have been saying.
Martin: If you see that clients are lacking on the craft level, do you have to fashion a “syllabus” that will get them up and running to write their manuscript?
Pam: I have taught writing workshops for many years, which is an advantage going into this, but I've always called myself a facilitator, not a teacher. Maybe that's nitpicky, but it's not a syllabus. I can do a 15 minute lesson on what a scene is and pull books down from my shelf and show them. Most authors don't know what a scene is; a lot of new folks are telling a story, but there are no scenes. So we look at [examples] and then I ask them to write scenes. Then they come back with scenes. So, I do mini lessons on scene, on setting, and on the narrator [but don't offer a full syllabus].
Martin: Kim, do you find that a lot of the writers you encounter may be vaguely lost? They know they want to write a book, they know what a good book looks like, they know the story they want to tell, but because they don't have structure, they're just flapping in the wind, waiting for someone to help?
Kim: To some extent, and I find this even with developmental edit clients. I'm surprised by how many people want to write a book who don't seem to read a lot. I find that a lot of people just have ideas and they're not sure how to form them. They never thought about it in the way you're telling them.
I always say that editing is a writing craft. It's like being a pitching coach — I used to play softball — where you have to keep trying until you find something that clicks for them, where they get what a character arc is, for example. I'll take a paragraph of what they've given and I'll rewrite it and tell them, “this is just my voice, but I want to show you how you can make this paragraph more of a scene or dialogue.”
How many times have we seen just pages of dialogue where there's no interiority at all? You break it down and show them and then they get it. Little things like that are more conducive to book coaching[than editing] because you can walk them through it.
Best practices on book coaching format
Martin: I want to dive into the nuts and bolts of book coaching. Laura, what is the structure of your collaborations?
Laura: I tend to work with the client on what they need at the beginning. So our contract will tend to be driven by both our initial conversation and then quite a detailed intake form that I ask them to complete.I can work out what they do know and where the gaps are. Then I figure out how to help them achieve what their goals are and find a realistic goal for us to work towards.
Quite a lot of that work happens at the beginning. When I understand what they need and what I think would be the most beneficial way to deliver that, I'll plan for either three or six months — I tend to work in batches of three or six — and we'll have a word count every two weeks. They'll submit on a certain date and I will send that back to them and then they'll book a call.
We use the call in three ways. One is to go over the feedback, one is for more wide-ranging discussion about anything that comes up, and then one part is to plan their next assignment. In some ways it's quite rigorous, and it always follows roughly that [structure]. But the detail and the content will be driven by what the client needs and what I see as their caps and goals.
If they're writing a crime thriller, for instance, we'll work a lot on very specific tropes. If they're writing a literary novella, we'll do something quite different.
Martin: Pam, do you also tend to book in longer stretches?
Pam: I really consider myself more of a writing coach, which is the same thing, but not exactly. Clients have to purchase four hours, which they can use over a period of two months. We often decide in the discovery call — I talk to them before we ever decide to work together — how they are going to use that time.
They can use it by sending me work that I give feedback on (not editing), and they can use the time on Zoom calls. They tend to do both: send me work that I comment on and send it back, and then we talk about it and move them forward [in a call]. We always decide then when the next meeting is —it's usually two weeks — and what they're going to be working on next.
A lot of what I'm doing is asking them to explore and go off the path that they're on. I give journal exercises for discovering characters, for instance. It all comes together at some point. Some people then purchase another four hours. Others go off on their own.
I've had three [clients] come back for more months later when they've gotten somewhere and we can reassess. It's very much client-driven: what they want and how they want to do it.
Martin: The way you describe it almost feels a bit like therapy. Whenever I speak to developmental editors, especially if they're working on novels or memoirs, they also mention having to drill down a little bit. It's a strangely intimate conversation and interaction. Kim, how hands on are you with the manuscript as your clients are writing?
Kim: I would say I'm more on Pam's side. I think it's probably because the book coaching clients I've gotten through Reedsy have really been on the beginner level. I would feel bad making them pay for three months [right away] and find out, like one did, that he's just not up to the task of writing a book.
I usually start with a month. After that, we can decide if they want to continue. Based on what I get from them in that first month, I complete an outline for the characters, plot, and scenes. I have them write an opening page and end page and can evaluate everything from where they're at. Once I give them all that feedback, we have our zoom call. At that point, they can decide what will happen in another four to six weeks.
I'm not a huge deadline person because I know what it's like to write when you have a full time job or kids and you have all these things pulling you in different directions. I don't want to be in a situation where they're turning something in that's not written with intention.A lot of times it is just 20 pages every two weeks then a zoom call.
I advise everyone to be careful about email communications. I had one client who was emailing me 10 times per day about every little thing. It just got too much. You have to set some boundaries for yourself, but in the beginning, it's really just about getting a feel for what you think could help them the most and devising a plan for the initial four to six weeks.
Workload and boundaries
Martin: Laura, how much time do you devote to reading new work that client sends you? Is that included in your rates?
Laura: To be completely honest, this is the work that pays me the least overall, because I probably do as deep an edit as I would in a developmental edit but in very small chunks, which obviously has a different kind of rhythm to it. There's a possibility that I might be over-feedbacking and that's something that I think I might need to consider as I'm [setting rates].
Before I get into the rhythm of the pages, I do a month of book outlining as well. I have eight things for the client to think about and very many things about the difference between third and first person and what perspective is. Then it quickly becomes clear whether or not this is going to be viable for the more intense work.
Martin: If you can communicate these types of details about your services on your Reedsy profile, you should be able to command a higher rate, considering the amount of work that goes into it. We’ve found that few editors on our marketplace have raised their rates and regretted it.
Pro tip: Remember to outline what is included in your book coaching services — how involved the process is and to what extent edits will be offered — on your Reedsy profile to set the right expectations for your collaboration.
We spoke briefly on this idea of boundaries, making sure you're protecting your own time. Pam, do you have any rules for how often you respond to messages?
Pam: That's why I charge by the hour. You buy four hours to start and you may use them any way you like. I track time and write it down on paper. When I spend 20 minutes reading something, I mark it down and I tell them.
Nobody's complained. They all like it, and they will often [top up their hours], but I charge where they are so I don't get cheated. I think it’s time to raise my rates though.
I invite them to message me on the platform as they don't have my email. If they have a quick question, there's no charge and nobody has taken advantage of it. If it's a big deal they are asking me, then I mark it down on my little piece of paper. I have pretty strong boundaries.
Martin: Every time you have a call, do you tell them what their balance is?
Pam: Yes. They don't ask me every time, but they'll know how much time they have left. The calls tend to be either half an hour or an hour.
Martin: Kim, what’s your response rate?
Kim: Based on experience, it takes anywhere from two to four weeks to do an outline. If clients need more time, they can let me know. Then it'll take me three to five days to get back to them and do extensive feedback on the outline.
I ask them for an opening chapter or the first 10 or 20 pages [if they’re applying for book coaching].The thing that surprised me was that I had a client who thought that hiring a book coach meant I'd beimmediately available to to answer their questions. After that, I got a little bit wearyand did some research into how other book coaches handle emails and messages.
I have no problem answering messages to clarify something or to help them through a part they don’t understand, but [asking my opinion on a piece of their writing or an idea they have] requires more substantive feedback.
Laura: I haven't had that experience with anyone else. I would agree that the majority of people are really respectful and will ask questions that are relevant. If I get back to them and say, “that's a great question, let's discuss in our next call” or “ it’s going to take me a week to get back to you,” people are generally absolutely fine with that. I always say it's going to take 48 hours maximum, usually quicker, and everyone's happy with that.
Why consider doing book coaching
Martin: Sometimes when we set rules and standards, it tends to be for edge cases that rarely ever happen. I want to dive a bit more into your experience of this type of work. Pam, what part of the coaching process do you particularly enjoy?
Pam: I prefer developmental editing. You make more money because you're focused on one project. But I love coaching because you get more of each other, and I just love watching clients grow. I love watching people let go of their limiting thoughts. I'm not a shrink, but I have given journal exercises for getting a judge to shut up while you're writing, and people have thanked me for them’. I had a woman who was so happy about learning what a scene was, she kept messaging me how thrilled she was.
Watching people just grab onto something and run with it and having them say, at the end of the four hours, “I'm good now, I'll see you later”is awesome. They've grown as writers. There's nothing I don't love about it.
Kim: It's just nice to work one-on-one with someone through a process. You can see when they start to get it. I love it when people say “thank you, I think I'm going to try this on my own now.” That's kind of the goal: to get them to the point where they're confident and comfortable enough to do it on their own. We all struggle when writing. I struggle too. It's not just a beginner thing, but it is nice when you can take those people who have doubts and let them know they're not alone and they could do it. Then you give them the tools to help them get better.
Martin: Laura, have you had any euphoric angel's choir moments that let’s you know why you do this job?
Laura: All the time, honestly. I feel like it is euphoric, even though that was a humorous remark. But I used to be an academic. I used to teach in universities for more than a decade and it frustrated me so much how little I had to spread myself. I might see someone who was trying to write a novel twice a semester or something like that. I couldn't help the people who were really talented and I couldn't help the people who were inexperienced and had potential in the way that I wanted to.
Now I can help people go from an idea to a book, to an agent, to a publication, and that is just the most incredible feeling: to take them from not knowing whether they can write or not, all the way through that journey. And it's not just someone who goes all the way through. Sometimes it's just someone who says, “I now have an hour a week where I write in my journal and I protect that,” and that excites me just as much.
Martin: Sounds great. There have been people asking in the comments about rates. Pam, how do you base your rates and what do you tend to charge?
Pam: I charge $100 an hour, and there's a four hour minimum.
Kim: Just from my research, people charge between $400 and $600 for a package and it's usually four weeks to six weeks. I'm within that range, probably toward the lower end, and my clients pay up-front. A lot of my work happens at the beginning of the collaboration, like developing an outline based on what they want to write, talking to them in that discovery Zoom call, giving feedback on their pages. That’s why they pay everything in advance.
In the second or third month, it'll always be in that range. But again, each project is a separate Reedsy collaboration and I'm very specific about what services are going to be offered during that time period. That's something that's discussed with the client in our Zoom call.
Laura: I don't charge for the initial call or the initial feedback on the intake. Then, for each month I charge $500. And that includes up to 20,000 works (sometimes more), two zoom calls, and some feedback on ongoing exercises as well.
Martin: I guess there are different ways to go about it. Laura, you work with clients who have an end project in mind. Do you find that those clients are less likely to bail after three months stretch and stick it out to the end?
Laura: Yes, I have found that. Either people drop out almost immediately before we start — it seems obvious we're not a good fit for each other — or they stick to the landing. It seems that most of the dropping off happens in that initial discussion intake process for me.
Martin: Pam, you seem to be agreeing with that one. Are there certain red flags that you see in those initial calls that give you an idea that maybe this one isn't for you?
Pam: Yes, I think it's mutual. First of all, they don't all want to do the call. You say “would you like to do a call?” and they disappear. If they come to the call, we're usually okay. But I had a very young man today who realized he really didn't know what he was talking about. He wasn't ready. I didn't need a red flag, it was mutual. I don't usually turn people down by the time we have a call.
Kim: I am pretty detailed in the messaging before we set up that call. I'll even give them a sample outline. I want to give them an idea of what the first month is going to look like. It helps me as a coach going forward too because as I read their pages, we both have an idea of where their book's headed, what's supposed to happen, and what the characters are doing.
That's why I do that initial outline. It's work for them to do before. They're not just sitting at a blank page. I think it helps them, and gives a comfort level as well. It's not completely outlining it. They still have room to change things, but often for the beginners, it gives some idea.
A lot of times, I just let them know all of that and then you weed out people who aren't that committed before you get to the call.
Laura: I was just going to say, I think I would agree with that too. Mostly when you do get to talk to someone, I'd say 99 percent of the time you will end up working with that person. It would have to be a very off-putting call on either side for that to change. It has happened but I won't go into specifics.
There have been red flags occasionally, including people who just want to get you off Reedsy.That's the biggest red flag for me.
Pam: I've always done calls for developmental editing too. It's like, “why would you want to give me your work? You don't know who I am.” So I do a lot of calls, and that's how I get clients. because you want to check your energy connection, not to be woo woo, but I'm very direct.
Martin: Excellent. Before we get to the Q&A, I want to take this opportunity to get a bit of feedback from you all. I sent you this question ahead of time, but we're constantly trying to make improvements to the system to make your lives easier to make sure you get better requests.
One thing we implemented recently was to make sure that people can't send book coaching requests in tandem with anything else. Kim, is there anything you would like to see on the platform that would make your life easier?
Kim: I can't think of anything. I didn’t know about that recent change, though. That's a great one because I still get people asking for copy editing, and then I explain to them what developmental editing is, and they're like “that's what I want.”
Pam: You've got this great blog post with the prices on it and the explanations of the types of editing. It's so helpful. I sent people and I wish more people could see it, but we also need one for coaching. We're all different, so it might be hard to write one, but I'm getting a lot of people asking for book coaching who are just clueless.
Martin: It's something that we're working on. Laura, do you have anything that comes to mind?
Laura: It relates to what Pam was sayingabout preparedness for the service. I think understanding what it costs, what it involves, and where you need to be would be really helpful. I also think having something along the lines of the free Reedsy email courses for preparing someone for book coaching might be really helpful.
Laura, I'd love to hear more about what you have on your intake sheet. What specifics are there?
Laura: I have three sections.The first section is about their process: what they do at the moment, how they keep track of what they've got, their writing history, any experience they have and any particular interests, and what they know about the genre they're writing in. The second part is about the book itself, or the project. I have them explain various arcs, and the subplot as best they can. The final set of questions is around publishing goals: if it's for an audience, what kind of audience, what their timeline is, how much time they have to dedicate and what their budget is to spend on the project as a whole.
It gives me a really big overview of all the things that are quite helpful to know for collaboration.
How often do you have conversations with clients about expectations of selling their first book? I've dealt with a few folks who thought their first book would make them millions.
Kim: I always fall back to “let's make this book the best it could be.” I even get developmental edit requests where they say that “this will be my bestseller and then I'm going to move to self-publishing.” I have never had someone bring that up once we've started a coaching collaboration. Even in developmental editing, I've never had someone bring that up.
I always say that the goal is to make this book the best it could be. Maybe this one gets you self-published or traditionally published, but if not, it'll give you the tools to write the next book. And I just leave it alone at that.
Book coaching, developmental editing, and beta reading have interesting similarities. I'm curious about the major differences. How do you draw those lines differently?
Pam: The most obvious answer is developmental editing. There's a manuscript, and it's completed, for the most part. First, second, third draft or whatever. With book coaching, there’s no book yet. That's the distinction that I draw.
I get quite a few people that have partial books, so I suggest an editorial assessment, which I think is a beta read in the States. Then we might roll into coaching, [but I first want to see what they’re doing].
Martin: How would you say your style differs between the developmental editing and the coaching? Do you find yourself being a little bit more encouraging on the coaching side?
Pam: I'm very direct but I'm always encouraging and I make suggestions rather than tell them “this is what you need to do.” In a developmental edit, I write comments on it like a reader. Then I have a separate page where I summarize [my feedback] in categories.. Then I give a 30 minute call. After they've had a chance to go through everything, they can ask questions and sometimes they then roll into coaching from there.
How do you approach situations where the quality of the writing poses significant challenges despite extensive editing and coaching?
Laura: To be honest, for book coaching specifically, when I have a client who has either self-publishing or traditional publishing [as a goal] or an agent and they'll be querying, I would have that conversation with them at the very beginning. I would tell them whether I think it has the potential and how long I think that might take.
I would usually not get into a coaching process with someone whose goal was traditional publishing if I thought they weren't going to be able to do that at the stage they were at. That's where the intake process helps. If something goes wrong during the process, I will have an honest talk with them about either taking a break, reassessing, or the fact that there might need to be further drafts, further assessment, or developmental editing in order to get it to the stage they want to.
Most people have gone through many drafts already or have at least written previous books by this stage. It's not a huge surprise, but I think it's always about being as honest as you can, as early as you can, and not asking people for money when it's not ethical.
Do authors have a way of seeing which editors are charging lower, or higher rates, or do they gauge by the profiles alone?
Martin: Unless you are stating outright what your rates are on the profile, nobody knows. What we tend to do is encourage freelancers, both in their responses and in their profiles, to demonstrate the value of what they're giving. Tell them what they can expect from the experience. A lot of these folks are first time authors, and they are excited by the prospect of working with a coach or an editor, so you have to show them what that looks like.
If you're working every hour God sends you, it probably means you're not charging enough and you should start experimenting with charging a bit higher. Everyone's profile can look superficially the same; you've got to make sure the profile doesn't look like a mess. We keep telling folks that you have to look at your photos to make it at least look clear. If anyone's got an underlit photo or something artistic, it's been known to reduce the number of requests you get. So make your shop front look good and demonstrate the value of what people are going to get, what they can expect from you, and you can certainly start charging higher.
Do you ever advise on specific agents to contact or make introductions?
Kim: There was one career synopsis — actually not book coaching but something I did recently for a project — where I thought I actually had a couple names in mind, but I don't want to go down that road of making a referral. Like Martin said, they know your full name. It's not like I had a close relationship with that agent anyway. But it is a service that I was wondering about because some people don't want to do the work of trying to find agents that are a match. I was wondering if that could be in addition to the query service, how many people would be interested in that?
Martin: I can tell you if we put that service out, we would sell a lot of it for the first few months at the very least. But the trouble is that with editing, we can help your book become the best it is, not we help it become a bestseller. We can help you get your query letter to be as appealing as industry standard as possible. We can't actually have them request any full, complete manuscripts.
One thing I think we're thinking of introducing is a consultation service. Because I do get the sense that a lot of folks send requests where they're asking for editing, developmental editing, copy editing, proofreading, book coaching, and so on.Usually, I think they click everything because they don't know what they're supposed to be doing and to have someone who can have that single consultation with them, give them a plan to go down, would be fairly useful. But any surface that offers promises in the traditional publishing world feels like it'd be tough to deliver on.
Kim: I have done that service as an add-on to the query letter review where I've literally done the research for someone. I've made suggestions based on agents that I know and from research that would be a good fit and then crafted each individual submission package to those agents.
I wrote like 15 specific letters. It was exhausting and I would never do that again. I think it's a heavy research job and a writer needs to buy-in themselves because I can send out letters on their behalf but that's just not the same thing as them really connecting with the idea of an agent or an agency. I'm happy to give a name or two that I think is a good fit, but we're not ghostwriters, we're editors or coaches, and I think that's crossing the line.