Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Work-for-Hire: The Joys and Challenges from One Writer’s Perspective

Meet Kara Laughlin, Children’s Nonfiction Author
By Julie Phend

Kara Laughlin with her books  Photo by Jim Ferry

Kids love fact-filled books they can read themselves! While these books are a huge piece of a young child’s reading experience, their authors often go unsung because the publisher has contracted them as work-for-hire.

Meet Kara Laughlin, who has been writing books for children on a work-for-hire basis for the past ten years. Kara is the author of over fifty nonfiction children’s books, including Sparkle and Shine! Trendy Earrings, Necklaces, and Hair Accessories for All Occasions, a series called In the Deep Blue Sea (as Juniata Rogers), and Guitars and Recorders.  

I asked Kara to share the joys and challenges of her work and give us some advice on how to get started in this field.

GROG: How would you define contract writing?
KARA: Contract writing, or work-for-hire (WFH) is when a publisher hires an author to do a specific job for a flat fee, which pays for the work and all rights. For me, contract writing has meant the publisher tells me about a project they’ve designed. Sometimes they give me sample texts to emulate. Other times, they specify what they’re looking for in a contract or spec sheet. All of my work has been in nonfiction, but there are WFH opportunities for fiction writers as well.

GROG: How did you get your start?

KARA: In 2009, an online friend needed to turn down a book contract from a publisher who wanted someone to write about craft for children. I had a craft business, so I got in touch. I didn’t get the job. A year later I got an email from an editor at Capstone Publishing, offering me the opportunity to write craft books for them. They’d saved my name all that time!

GROG: What topics and age groups have you written about? How many books have you published?

KARA: I’ve written for all ages from tween to kindergarten on a broad range of topics: animals, weather, sports, crafts, and most recently, a set of phonics books. I have 52 books currently published, plus two coming out this fall, and a contract for six more. When I started, my husband joked that someday I’d be the author of 100 books. I laughed. Now it looks like it could happen.


GROG: What are the particular challenges of WFH/contract writing?

KARA: It can be a lot of work—and if an editor wants changes, you have to make them. You work under tight deadlines, which you absolutely must meet, and you have to write according to the brief, so there’s not much room for creative flights.
It’s also important to write to the specified reading level, and it can be difficult and time consuming to distill down complicated information using one- and two-syllable words. But that’s a challenge I find satisfying. 

You have no control over the final product. A couple of my craft books arrived with completely new projects swapped in, and there was nothing I could do about it. 

On a personal level, I sometimes let contract work get in the way of my own creative work. And I get the impression that, in some circles, this kind of writing "doesn't count." It's not a high status or glamorous gig. 

GROG: What are some of the joys/satisfactions?

KARA: There are so many!

It's thrilling when I find the perfect way to explain a difficult concept in five one-syllable words. It can lead to moments of poetry. That's what this writing reminds me of most--formal poetry. You have all these constraints, but they force you to find creative solutions. And that's so satisfying!

I also love learning about new things. Sometimes, I annoy my family with trivia from my research. I wrote a series on sea creatures, which led to some pretty interesting dinners as I talked about all the brutal and disgusting ways invertebrates hunt for and eat their prey.  

But I think the real reason my heart leaps up when I see a new contract is that this work feels important. There was a moment when I realized, “Some first-grader is going to pick this book up, and it might be the first time s/he learns about this topic.” That feels like a profound, meaningful way to spend my writing time.

The best surprise is when a child excitedly says, “I read your book! I got it from the library!”

GROG: How can a writer break into the WFH market?

KARA: Many school/library publishers are open to working with new writers. Check their websites for how to apply. Usually, they want a resume, cover letter and writing sample. The sample doesn’t have to be published, but it should be appropriate to the age you want to write for, and in a subject you are qualified to write about.


GROG: Talk about what to do when the contract comes.

KARA: The first thing to do is to sign the contract and send it back to the editor. Often your contract will pay you 50% on signing and 50% on completion. If so, you should send an invoice right away.

Then, get those due dates on your calendar!

 If you have more than one title to deliver, find out if your editor prefers them spread out or all at once. If you’re contributing to a series with other authors, make sure you understand the voice they want and any structure/content issues that must be consistent. Be sure you know what age group you’re writing for.

GROG: What steps do you take to complete the assignment? 

KARA: After signing the contract and invoicing the publisher, I make a work schedule. Deadlines for this kind of work are tight. Typically, I have about three months, even for a six- or twelve-book project. I put in the due date and work backwards, making my last title “due” a week or two before the deadline. I add dates for rough draft completion, research completion, and writing the back matter.

Next, I research the subject and take notes. Usually, I learn about three times as much as I'll need, but I want to really understand the topic.

Then I write a rough draft in my own words. It’s typically twice as long as it needs to be and at a reading level far above the intended readership.

Finally, I pare it down and simplify the language, editing and re-editing until I’m satisfied.

GROG: What advice would you give writers to succeed in this business?

KARA: Be thorough in your research, and be a perfectionist when it comes to saying exactly what’s true. You can’t sacrifice the truth to your reading level or your word count. Be pleasant and on time. Publishers need to know that you can take feedback, that you’re meticulous about research, and you can write to deadline.

GROG: How can a contract writer build a business?

Photo by Lori Munro
KARA: It’s very possible to do school visits with these books. Nonfiction is huge in schools right now, and teachers appreciate having published authors come in and reaffirm what they’ve been telling their kids: choose your sources well, edit and re-edit, know how to tell truth from fiction. Because there is no royalty agreement, I charge for school and library visits. 

Getting more work from publishers is just a matter of delivering an excellent manuscript on time and putting yourself out there.

GROG: I asked Kara to recommend some resources for people getting started. Here are a few of her favorites:

Hemmingway online for real-time approximate reading level.

Rebecca Langston George has a wonderful article on considering work-for-hire:

This list of work-for-hire publishers by Evelyn Christensen. She also has a great list of resources here:

Thank you, Kara, for sharing your work with us!


  1. Congrats to Kara on her bevy of books! Excellent interview, Julie and Kara, for sharing insights about WFH in the children's literature market. Well done!

  2. I thought I had commented. I love this post and all the great reasons why work of r hire is great and REAL writing. Bravo Julie and Kara.

    1. Thanks, Kathy. It's an area of the kidlit world that doesn't get nearly enough recognition!

    2. Thanks Kathy! I think it's real, too. :)

  3. This is a great post. I, too, love writing WFH. Love what you said, Kara, about realizing this might be the first book a child reads about your topic. And welcome to GROG, Julie!

    1. Thanks, Christy. I think you've written on this topic before, so another valuable resource.

    2. Thanks, Christy. That was a very big moment for me. It's so great knowing that the work matters.

  4. Great interview! I also write WFH. I need to broaden my contacts though. Thanks for sharing about your work! Welcome and congrats!

    1. Good to meet you, Angie. Good luck broadening your contacts.

    2. Hi Angie! I've often thought we needed a Facebook group or twitter hashtag or something. Maybe we should get on that!

  5. Thank you, Julie, for introducing the GROG followers to Kara.

    Your experience with WFH is appreciated, Kara. The step-by-step process and resources are helpful.

    Suzy Leopold

    1. I'm so glad, Suzy. Julie did a great job of sifting through my answers to get to the helpful bits.

  6. This is great advice. Very inspiring! Thank you to Kara for doing profound, meaningful work. Kids need to be educated by BOOKS, not just computer screens.

  7. Thanks for all the resources and advice. All books that reach out to kids are "real writing." Congrats on being able to meet those deadlines with words that encourage kids to discover and find out more!

  8. 52! (+ 2 + 6!) I had no idea it was that many. I am in awe. Great interview.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Thanks, Linda! They just keep slowly adding up--as you know. :)

  9. It's great to hear about this career option! Thanks for the great post.

  10. Thanks, Julie, for doing such a great job sifting through my wordy answers to your questions, and for highlighting a kind of writing that tends to fly under the radar.

    I hope everyone who reads this will consider WFH themselves! It really is a great way to be a friendly, trustworthy voice giving kids the info they need and feeding their passions.

    1. Well said, Kara. I really do admire what you do.

  11. Thank you for sharing this thorough and amazing information, Kara and Julie! I think work-for-hire is a great way to build your writing muscles and your income.

  12. What a helpful post for those considering work for hire. Thanks for your expertise, Julie, and the extra resources you have given us.

    1. Thanks, Sherri. Hope to hear stories from some people who try this route.

  13. Julie - great post! And I love the list of resources at the end.

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  15. Inspirational! Really enjoyed the clarity and focus of the interview. Filled with concrete and specific suggestions for the Contract Writer. Keep up the great work.