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I put this little smiley face here, so you’ll feel comfortable. And you do, right? Because if you’re a writer, you might not really want to think about math so much. And statistics? Yuck!

At least that’s how I once felt. Stats and I have never been great friends, but the more I learn about it, the more I like the subject. Really.

And that’s a really good thing, since much of my writing requires statistics.

No, I didn’t say sometimes uses or is strongly suggested. I said requires. And I meant it.

The reasons are pretty darned obvious, really. In fact there are three really good ones.

Good Stats Inspire Trust

When you add the right numbers to a story in the right ways, your readers will come right along with you. Readers don’t want to be overwhelmed with numbers, but well-placed figures will help your reader believe what you’re saying.

It’s not enough to say, for example, that incomes have risen in a particular geographic area. How do you know that? And if a source told you so, how can you confirm that information?

Of course, if your readers can’t trust the statistic, they can’t trust you either. It’s critical to learn how to judge data, how to assess if the numbers make sense. You’ve also got to learn how to sprinkle in the data without losing readers. (There’s an entire chapter in my book, Math for Writers, that shows you how.)

Good Stats Keep Your Story Honest

So many times, the story I end up with is not the story I expected. Here’s an example: when I set out to write about methamphetamine use in Maryland for my local alt-weekly, I never expected to find out what I did. Compared to West Virginia, Virginia and Pennsylvania, my state had shockingly low meth numbers. I looked at the information three ways to Sunday, and I came up with the same conclusion: Maryland did not have a meth problem.

If I hadn’t looked at the stats, I might have written a very different story. I could have focused on the very few meth lab busts in Maryland, painting the all-to-common and vivid picture of destruction and death. I could have interviewed a handful of gay men who were tweaking on the stimulant regularly.

Instead, I compared the number of meth lab busts, treatment centers, injuries and deaths to those in surrounding states and found the totals to be much, much lower. It was such an astonishing difference, I realized pretty quickly that I had a very different story on my hands. (And boy was that a blast to report and write!)

Even if you think you know the stats, get them and look at them carefully. Do careful comparisons with like numbers. That little bit of effort and thought will keep you honest.

By the way, stats keep editors honest, too. Many times, we writers are assigned stories by editors who think they know what the angle will be. I’ve had to prove to several editors that their assumptions are off base. Numbers help.

Good Stats Help You Land Great Stories

There are editors out there looking for writers who don’t run in the other direction when math enters the story. After turning in a numbers-heavy story to a national publication a few weeks ago, I asked the editor for more assignments like it. She was so happy to hear that I was willing to tackle stories that relied on statistics for the reporting. Her stable of writers is pretty darned thin when it comes to writers like me. That works in my benefit.

And if you can be the writer who finds a new angle on an old story, thanks to stats, you’ll be a hero to many editors. Digging into the numbers a little more than other writers can help you uncover a gem or two. Don’t take the press release at face value. Figure out if there’s more to the public relations pitch. Call up the researcher. Google the topic and make some comparisons. Then include those hard numbers in your query. Editors love that stuff.

Whether you love math or hate it, if you’re a non-fiction writer, you will use statistics. You might as well get a better handle on those numbers and what they really mean. Then you’re free to do what you really want to do: write.

Photo credit: mpclemens via Compfight cc

Each year, I take a bus up to New York City and stay in a swanky hotel, just to hang out with my great colleagues of the American Society for Journalists and AuthorsThe workshops and speakers are amazing. But best of all, I get a big dose of confidence and inspiration — just enough to propel me through the following months.

Want to go? Check it out!

Last year, I had my trusty video camera with me, plus a few white boards and markers. So I asked attendees: How Do Writers Use Math? Of course, this creative bunch had a lot to say. Take a look!

If you want to know how to pump up your math skills for your writing business, check out my book, Math for Writers. It’s full of great ideas on how to tell a better story, get published and make more money.

As a writer, how do you use math? Can you think of any ideas that my colleagues didn’t mention? Share in the comments section!

One of the things that excites me the most is seeing someone make a living out of their passion.  I had the privilege of interviewing Susan Weiner today.  She has been in her profession for more than 20 years and is living her passion.  She’s a freelance financial writer and author of Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients.  She blogs atInvestmentWriting.com/blog. I highly recommend that you check out her work. First, let her tell us a little bit more about what she does and how it involves math.

Can you explain what you do for a living? (Be specific!)

I write and edit white papers and investment commentary for financial firms. You know how some people have great ideas but lack the time or skill to put them into writing? I interview them—and use their data—to put their ideas into persuasive writing. Some of their data include numbers generated using math.

When do you use basic math in your job? 

I use math when I write investment portfolio performance commentary. If you own a mutual fund, you receive semiannual reports about your fund’s performance. Some of that commentary is based on data called attribution analysis. It identifies which investments contributed to positive returns and which investments detracted. This data is reported in percentages.

Let’s consider an example. A stock fund increased in value by 5% over one year. Where did that come from? How much of that was from specific stocks that the fund manager bought or sold? How much was from overall market growth or the performance of a specific industry? The percentages generated by the attribution analysis software explain which decisions helped and hurt the fund. By looking at lots of these numbers and finding patterns among them, I develop an objective basis to write about why the fund performed as it did.

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math? Why or why not?

I sometimes use Excel spreadsheets to rearrange the attribution numbers to make them easier to analyze. For example, I may sort the list of stocks so that the largest contributor to performance is at the top, followed by other contributors in descending order.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

Without math, I wouldn’t have any objective data to inform my understanding of fund performance. With math, I can form and test hypotheses by looking at the data. When I get a chance to interview the fund manager, I can ask questions that test and expand on my hypotheses. The numbers don’t tell the entire story, so it’s important to get input from the professionals who manage a fund.

How comfortable with math do you feel? Does this math feel different to you? (In other words, is it easier to do this math at work or do you feel relatively comfortable with math all the time?)

I don’t love math, but I like how numbers make my job easier by providing insights. I do what’s necessary to obtain those insights.

What kind of math did you take in high school? Did you like it/feel like you were good at it?

I stopped after algebra and geometry. I did not take calculus, although now I wish that I had forced myself to struggle through it. Math did not come easily to me.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job? Or was it something that you could pick up using the skills you learned in school?

The skills that I had to learn weren’t mathematical. When I studied to earn my credential as a chartered financial analyst, a credential held by many fund managers, I learned about financial analysis. I also learned about Excel spreadsheets, which help me format the numbers to make them easier to analyze.

Anything else you want to mention?

Don’t underestimate the power of learning to write well about the numbers generated by math. That got me one of my first job offers in college, when my statistics professor asked me to help students in his class. Today, writing about numbers helps me to help my clients communicate better.

It sounds like even if you don’t love math, you can learn to respect it and get along with it like Susan does.  Interested in knowing more?  Let me know, and I will make a connection with Susan for you.

Photo Credit: humbert15 via Compfight cc

I am so excited to announce that I’ll appear today at 2:00 EST on a teleseminar hosted by editor and book designer, Jill Ronsley. I’ll be talking about Math for Writers, my book that’s coming out later this month. The event is free  and live! Just call in using the details below.

Jill and I will talk about how math can be useful to writers — from making the most of numbers in reported stories (and even fiction) to getting published to earning more money and making better business decisions. You won’t need a calculator or a slide rule or even a No. 2 pencil. Just listen in.

Hope to “see” you there! Then come back here to ask more questions and continue the discussion. Here are the details.

Leaders in Publishing Series

Hosted by Jill Ronsley

Guest Speaker: Laura Laing speaks on “Math for Writers”

Date: Jan 7, 2013

Time: 11:00 a.m. PST (2:00 p.m. EST)

To attend the live call:

Dial into the conference: 1-712-432-3066.

Enter the conference code: 652681

Did you attend the Leaders in Publishing Series teleseminar? Do you have more questions? Ask them below. We can continue the conversation here, or perhaps I’ll devote an entire post to your question.

Behind every author is a great editor. And I was dang lucky to have Jennifer Lawler as my editor for Math for Grownups. What I didn’t know was that I’d helped her out, too. Who says English majors can’t do math? Here’s her story:

A few years ago, I was working as a book development editor for Adams Media, the company that published Laura’s Math for Grownups, and I was assigned to edit the book. While I was looking forward to working with Laura, I was also a little nervous. Although I’m pretty good with basic math operations, I’m not that confident and tend to second-guess myself a lot. I just hoped that when I asked Laura questions that she wouldn’t give the dramatic sigh that my seventh-grade algebra teacher used to do when I expressed confusion.

Fortunately, she didn’t. Laura, like her book, is a kind and supportive person. It was fun to see that aspect of her personality show up on the page. And it was a project that helped me learn more about math than I did in junior high and high school combined. I don’t mean I memorized a bunch of formulas. I mean I learned a new way to think about math.

One of the first things Laura discussed in her book was the various ways people use to arrive at an answer to a problem. For years, I’d felt like I was doing math wrong, even though I was getting the correct answer, because I had a bunch of little shortcuts and methods I used that I had never been taught by a teacher in school. Laura showed how that is just fine—and she also emphasized the point that often in life we don’t need to be exact, we just need to be reasonably close. We can estimate, another habit I have that I always thought was somehow wrong of me to be using.

Because Math for Grownups was meant to be a review of  mathematical concepts for people just like me, I figured that any question I asked Laura was a question that a reader like me might have. So for the first time in my life, or at least since seventh grade, I didn’t feel embarrassed about asking math questions. “I’m doing it for the reader!” I told myself, and then Laura would either explain what I had missed or add a note or a sidebar to address the question. As the process continued, I felt more and more confident about my abilities. And I stopped beating myself up for making a mistake. Do I agonize over a typo in an email I dash off to a friend? No, because I know I’m a good writer and so I don’t feel defensive about it. But I used to beat myself up for simple math mistakes that anyone can make. That just made me feel even worse about math.

Laura pointed out that even mathematicians make mistakes in simple computations. For some reason, I hadn’t made that connection before. If I, a professional writer, can make a spelling error in an email, then of course even a mathematician can sometimes multiply 9 x 9 and come up with 72.

One of the things that working with Laura taught me was to ask myself questions about my results in order to catch those simple mistakes—questions along the lines of, “Does this answer seem reasonable?” So, if I’m doubling a recipe, and my calculation for the double batch shows an amount smaller than for the single batch, I know I’ve done something wrong. This is the math equivalent of proofreading, and once I understood how it worked, I was a lot more confident about my answers.

By the same token, I learned that I could look it up, just the way I do for a word I can’t remember how to spell. There’s nothing shameful about not remembering the formula for calculating volume. And I’ve dog-eared many pages in Laura’s book where I can find formulas I use a lot but can never seem to remember. I can never remember how to spell “occasionally” (have to look it up every.single.time) but I don’t think that somehow makes me a bad writer. Working with Laura taught me how to apply this same type of thinking to my math skills.

My greatest reward? Now I deal with math like a grownup, instead of like that frustrated seventh-grader I once was.

Jennifer Lawler is the author or coauthor of more than thirty nonfiction books as well as sixteen romances under various pen names. Her publishing experience includes stints as a a literary agent and as an acquisitions editor. She just released the second edition of Dojo Wisdom for Writers, the second book in her popular Dojo Wisdom series. She also offers classes in writing book proposals, planning a nonfiction book for self-publishing authors, and writing queries and synopses for novelists at www.BeYourOwnBookDoctor.com (under the “classes” tab).

And have you heard? I’m working on a new ebook, Math for Writers. Stay tuned for details!

Do you know Bear of Bear Snores On and Bear Feels SickOr Pip of Where is Home Little Pip? If so, you also know my very talented friend, Karma Wilson. Karma has been a published author for 12 years (not including the three years it took for her to get published the first time). She is the author of 30 books, and begrudgingly, she admits to using math from time to time. 

Can you explain what you do for a living?

I write — specifically for the 4- to 8-year-old set. It is my goal to write engaging books and poetry for children that is also appealing enough to adults that they don’t hide it under the hamper lest it be requested again. To accomplish this I utilize rhyme, alliteration and two-tier humor that is directed to children on one level, adults on another.

When do you use basic math in your job?

I wrote a rhyming counting book (Frog in the Bog), does that “count”? It only went to five, which gives you a good idea of my math skills. Seriously though, in my line of work there is a lot of math that my literary agent mostly deals with. I have to pay him 15% of my income. My royalties are usually 6.5%. My publisher holds out profits from sales in case of large returns on my books, and that’s usually 25% of my royalties. All this adds up to a good reason for me to have an agent!

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math?

If I have to do math I generally do use calculators, mainly because I’m a very wordsy, artistic type and math has never been a strong suit for me. In case of serious math questions I panic and turn my friends who know math, like the amazing Laura Laing!

Karma Wilson

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

Well, for me the biggest way is with word counts. If I have a story that goes over 1000 words I better darned well subtract a bunch of those words. Wordy picture books don’t typically sell very well. Also, my words need to fit into a formula, which translates to a 32-page book with end pages that have no words. It’s important that the words to my stories fall naturally and rhythmically into that formula, which sometimes requires a break down of words per page. Luckily, I am sort of “savant” in that area, and rarely do book dummies, but I know a lot of picture book writers who are lost without that breakdown.

How comfortable with math do you feel?

I don’t feel comfortable with math at all. The math that accompanies my work is relatively simple, so it doesn’t give me panic attacks. But for my taxes and running my corporation (Karma Wilson Books Incorporated) I get a little math-addled.  That’s when I turn to people who are more comfortable with math than I am, like accountants and agents.

What kind of math did you take in high school?

The highest I got to was pre-algebra. I was pretty horrible at it. That letter x never needed to fear I would discover his or her secret identity. Ha!

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job?

Since I have an agent who does the hard math for me I was able to skate on my pre-algebra level skill set. However, if you’re in this industry trying to figure out the contractual stuff without an agent, you should at least have some basic accounting math skills. Otherwise, you’ll be lost in royalty rundowns and not know if your contract was fulfilled or not. It really is that important.

While my specific line of work isn’t all that math intensive, the times that I’ve wanted to understand my royalty statements were severely hampered by my fear of math. I strongly encourage every adult to refresh their math skills so they feel more confident discussing numbers with professionals in their industry.

Karma is on tour right now, promoting her newest book Bear Says ThanksHer next stop is Denver CO at the Mountains and Plains Bookseller’s Association Author Tea on 9/21/12 at 3:45 p.m. 

Anyone who knows anything about baseball knows that math plays a pretty big role. From how the pitcher releases the ball to the many stats that help rank the best players, the game depends on numbers. No one knows this better than Charlie Vascellaro. He’s been a freelance baseball (and travel) writer for 20 years. Here’s how he uses math in his work.

Can you explain what you do for a living?

I write baseball and travel feature stories for magazines, newspapers and web sites. A lot of my baseball writings are historical retrospective pieces that include statistical analysis and comparisons. In a recent story on this year’s National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, Barry Larkin, I compared his batting statistics to those of other shortstops enshrined in the Hall of Fame. I also write spring training preview stories on major league baseball teams that rely heavily on statistical information used to explain each teams relative strengths and weaknesses and how they compare to other teams. I use this information to measure each teams’ relative prospects for the upcoming seasons. Last spring I wrote a feature story on current players chances of being elected to the Hall of Fame based on statistics produced so far and projections for the future (see excerpts below).

Jered Weaver, 29, had what could be described as a breakout season in 2011, reaching a career best with 18 victories and a 2.41 ERA. In six seasons, Weaver has compiled an 82-47 record, for a very Hall-of-Fame-like .632 winning percentage with a 3.31 ERA.  The 300-victory-pitcher is fast becoming an endangered species, and consequently, not a necessary prerequisite for the Hall, but Weaver would still have to maintain his current pace, and actually improve upon it a bit, to merit consideration for Cooperstown; a 20-win season or two would certainly improve his chances. 

            Of the current White Sox players, slugging first baseman/DH Paul Konerko compares favorably with Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda in similarity of scores posted on Baseball-Reference.com, and although he has not quite reached 400 home runs, (he’s currently at 396) he probably will this year. Konerko’s numbers are also similar to what Reggie Jackson’s were at the same age, and his .282 batting average is 20 points higher than Jackson’s .262 career mark. Jackson hit 39 home runs at age 36 and 99 home runs in his last 5 years on the field. Konerko hit 31 last year at age 35, and will probably end up pretty close to Jackson’s 563. In today’s age of inflated offense, Konerko’s eventual career statistics might be on the cusp of Hall-of-Fame-worthiness, but I like his chances. 

When do you use basic math in your job?

Oftentimes while I am writing a baseball story I will consult the www.baseballreference.com website to research statistical material. Sometimes I might have to tally up home-run and runs-batted-in totals and divide them by the number of years to decipher the average numbers per year.  I do a lot of multiplication and division to figure percentages. For example, a player’s batting average can be figured by dividing the number of hits by the number of at bats. Three hits out of 10 at-bats is 3 ÷ 10 or .300.

Earned run average (ERA) is a measure of a pitcher’s relative effectiveness and is often referenced when writing about pitchers. Earned run average is the number of earned runs scored against a pitcher, divided by the number of innings pitched multiplied by nine (the number of innings in a regulation game). Earned runs are scored without the assistance of a fielding errors. ERA is represented with a number followed by a decimal and two percentage points explaining how many runs a pitcher gives up in an average nine-inning game. Here’s an example: In 1985, Dwight Gooden of the New York Mets gave up 47 earned runs in 276 and 2/3 innings pitched for a National League leading ERA of 1.53, a number which has not been reached by any starting pitcher since Gooden accomplished the feat. Prior to Gooden’s stellar season, no pitcher had recorded an ERA as low as Gooden’s 1985 figure since Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1968. (His ERA was 1.12.)

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math?

I use the calculator on my computer, which I can move around on top of the statistical information, so that both are visible to me at the same time.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

Math and baseball are inseparable. Mathematical measurements are employed to explain batters’ and pitchers’ relative success and failure. Individual and team statistics are used by writers to explain what has transpired during the course of a baseball game, a baseball season and a baseball career.

How comfortable with math do you feel?

I was not very proficient at math in high school or college. In fact I struggled with high school algebra which is as far as I have advanced in mathematical skills and could probably not solve an algebraic equation today. I would like to strengthen my math skills.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job?

Thankfully, I have been figuring batting averages and earned run averages since I first became a baseball fan. Fortunately I can still get by in my baseball writing with the rudimentary math skills that I have. However, statistical analysis in baseball has become much more complicated and there are certain statistical formulas that I do not understand.

Read a few of Charlie’s stories:

The Real Indians of Baseball

The Living Spirits of Sports Legends

The King and I: Remembering and Writing about Dave Kingman

Do you have questions for Charlie? Ask them in the comments section, and I’ll let him know they’re here. Do you remember learning math through baseball when you were a kid? Share your stories below.

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn't he danced his did

So goes my very favorite poem, written by e.e. cummings. In my senior year of high school, I wrote a term paper explicating the verse, and I fell in love. At the same time, I was taking two math classes, and somehow the process of solving a system of equations was similar to understanding cummings’ strange syntax and playful turns of traditional poetic forms.

April is not only Math Awareness Month but also National Poetry Month. In a facebook conversation with another writer, I found myself offering to show the connections between math and poetry — a task that is surprisingly simple but (if similar articles and blog posts are any indicator) could be very contentious. I like a challenge and a good intellectural fight, so here goes:

Symbols

I’ve long asserted here that mathematics is a language that describes the physical world. Without mathematics, we cannot describe physics. And mathematical models allow us to predict the future or see the invisible. Math also depends heavily on symbols — variables, Greek letters and characters that represent operations like addition and division.

Clearly, symbolism is the very basis of poetry. When Robert Frost writes, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, / And sorry I could not travel both” he doesn’t mean that he is literally sorry that he cannot literally travel two literal roads. Nope. The yellow wood represents the later years of the poet’s life, when he’s considering the choices (roads) he could have made (taken). (For sure, there are many versions of this interpretation.)

The same is true for the symbolism in math. When you graph a curve that represents the steady increase of your take-home pay over several years, the curve is a symbol of your financial (and perhaps professional) success. But you can interpret or apply the curve in a variety of different ways, and the curve doesn’t tell the entire story.

Patterns

You can’t deny the patterns found in mathematics. All you need to do is list multiplication facts for a certain number, and a structure will jump off the page or computer screen. (Eventually.) Then there are a variety of sequences and series, like Fibonacci’s Sequence (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, …) or a geometric series (like 1 + 2 + 4 + 8 + …).

The patterns in poetry are often found in meter and rhyming schemes. So the first line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 is in iambic pentameter: “That time of year thou mayst in me behold.” We know this because it features five two-syllable feet that are expressed as non-stress, stress. (In other words: “That time of year thou mayst in me behold.”) Along with iambic, traditional poetry may follow trochaic, spondaic, anapestic or dactylic meters — but there are endless more styles. Cummings’ “anyone lived in a pretty how town” is generally considered to be a ballad, which, when you know the key that unlocks the poem’s meaning, makes perfect sense.

Symmetry

The idea that two halves are symmetric is not mandatory in mathematics or poetry, but often times it takes center stage. In math, we have symmetric shapes, like circles or isosceles triangles. Symmetry is also critical in solving equations, as you must do the same thing to both sides of the equation.

And in poetry, symmetry is often found in the ways that verses and stanzas are structured. “The Road Not Taken” features four stanzas with five verses each.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Many mathematicians and poets have pointed out even more similarities (some that, in my opinion, suck the life and art out of both math and poetry), but these are some basic ideas. I’ll leave you with what Einstein said on the matter: “Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.” To which I say: math and poetry are designed to give the illogical some kind of logical shape.

Have you entered the Math for Grownups facebook contest yet? We’re getting some really interesting examples of math in everyday life. Check in and submit yours today! (Here are the complete rules.)

Another book editor? Well, there’s a lot that goes into this process — from figuring out layout to determining what which book will be profitable. 

Andrea Rotando has been a book editor for Barnes & Nobel and Sterling Publishing since 2001. She’s also an experienced travel writer and the editor of Luxury Cruise Bible. In our interview, she talks about calculating the profit/loss for a book — a reality check for any book author!

Can you explain what you do for a living? 

I always knew I wanted to be in a creative field, but I never guessed that I’d end up in book publishing. I moved to New York City in 1991 with a music degree under my belt. I worked at recording studios until I segued into the magazine business by way of Pro Sound News and Musician magazines. Those experiences jump-started by passion for publishing and in 2007 I segued from magazine publishing to book publishing.

I joined Barnes & Noble in 2007 as a senior editor. I acquire, develop, and shepherd the production of projects for the Sterling Innovation and Fall River Press imprints. Both of those Sterling Publishing imprints exist with the express mission of creating proprietary books and kits (book + components) for the value section of Barnes & Noble stores.

I look to acquire books that will appeal to a broad section of Barnes & Noble’s customers and I also license existing content to create new packages of old favorites from third-party vendors. I work on a wide variety of topics, from crafts to cookbooks to light reference to military history.

As a hands-on editor, I’m involved in every aspect of a book’s creation, from contract negotiation to manuscript development to supervising copy editors and proofreaders and being the liaison with the production, design, and sales teams. I also supervise and mentor junior editors on the team.

Andrea Rotondo

When do you use basic math in your job?  

Basic math comes to the rescue in so many ways in my job. One major way I use math is to devise and monitor project schedules. One of my responsibilities is to make sure books arrive at each Barnes & Noble store on time. This is incredibly important since promotional tables for our products are set up at the front of each store on a certain date each month and a new batch of books are displayed. If a book doesn’t hit that table on time, the company loses sales. Not only don’t we earn money for that book, we’ve undersold the capability of that table and that means our department will be under its revenue goals for the month.

I use math to calculate the length of time each part of the book creation process takes and I assign those tasks accordingly. When something goes wrong, I look at the timeline and see where it can be expanded or contracted.

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math?  

Sterling Publishing uses a proprietary online profit and loss (p&l) system. This is where we can log on to create or update the p&l statement for each book. The p&l includes fields for costs such as the advance to the author and his or her royalty rate as well as hard costs like editing, design, printing, and freight. The system automatically calculates the margin of the product. If the project doesn’t hit a certain acceptable margin, we don’t move forward.

I have to admit though that I often whip up “back of napkin” p&ls before going to the official system. This helps me get a sense of where the product margin is and where I have to work to trim expenses before committing to official paperwork.

How do you think math helps you do your job better? 

Math is like insurance. As long as I have the raw data about a project (advance, royalty rate, number of first printing units, print costs, etc.), I can calculate if that project will be a financial success (i.e., “make its margin”). Without math, there would be a lot of guesswork as to which projects would earn out and which wouldn’t.

How comfortable with math do you feel?  Does this math feel different to you?  (In other words, is it easier to do this math at work or do you feel relatively comfortable with math all the time?) 

Math has never been one of my strong suits but I like numbers, especially as they relate to the economic health of a project. I love being able to look at a project’s data and see where the opportunities are for the author and company to make a buck.

What kind of math did you take in high school?  Did you like it/feel like you were good at it? 

I don’t feel that I received an adequate education in regards to math while in high school. The courses were very basic. In college, I struggled with calculus. I’ve definitely become more comfortable with math, but I wish I had a more solid foundation from which to build.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job? Or was it something that you could pick up using the skills you learned in school? 

A basic knowledge of addition/subtraction is really all any editor needs.

Any questions for Andrea? Ask in the comments section!

Welcome week three of our month devoted to publishing and media. If you haven’t previous posts, what’s stopping you? So far, we’ve looked at book publishing and on-air meteorology (television weatherpersons). This week, it’s time to look at writing. Today you’ll meet Craig Guillot, a freelance writer in New Orleans, who specializes in finance writing, among other things. Craig is the author of Stuff About Money: No BS Financial Advice for Regular People, an ebook, which he says will be available in April. (I’m a source for one section!)

Bottom line? Math helps keep Craig profitable. So if you’re a budding freelance writer–or looking for ways to leave more on your bottom line–listen up.

Can you explain what you do for a living?

I’m a non-fiction freelance writer. My specialties include business, personal finance, retail, real estate, travel and entertainment. I’ve written for publications and web sites, such as Entrepreneur, CNNMoney.com, Washington Post, Nationalgeographic.com and dozens of trade publications. I also have a personal finance book Stuff About Money: No BS Financial Advice for Regular People.

When do you use basic math in your job?

In the actual writing, not much. Just like any other writer or journalist, I interview sources, research, take trips out in the field, gather information and write. I occasionally do a little photography and video too. I do use math on occasion in some of my personal finance work to demonstrate and calculate different things related to retirement and investing.

But I use math a lot in the background. Writing just happens to be my trade. Like any other self-employed person, I am ultimately running a business. As a freelancer I sell my services to editors and corporate clients. I have a lot of regular clients, but I’m constantly taking on new projects and new deals. I need to be able to carefully estimate my time and expenses to give a client an accurate quote.

To me, everything is about the hourly rate. I need to use this as a basis for building my income. And while my overhead isn’t much, I do have to know what’s going out to pay taxes, what’s going into savings, retirement and everything else. It may seem like part of my personal life but I consider it all part of my job. When you’re self employed, you have to constantly think about all of these things.

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math?

I’m not sure I even have a calculator in my office anymore, but my main tool is Excel. I use it for everything, and I mean everything. It’s a calculator but so much more. There is no problem that can’t be solved, no analysis that can’t be made, in Excel. When you learn how to use it and how to write the formulas you need, you can do anything with it. I use it to analyze my revenues, analyze the profitability of certain assignments. Like everyone else, I use Quickbooks, but I also use Excel for background stuff.

I break everything down to a formula or percentage. This includes my monthly income goals. It doesn’t have to be that way. I don’t imagine it’s that way for many other writers but it works for me and helps me make the optimal decisions. I’ve used Excel to track, analyze and compute things in my regular life as well. I used it in the remodeling of our house, in tracking my net worth, in monitoring my investments, planning retirement, planning trips. I sit down, make up a spreadsheet, build some formulas, input the data and then use it to help make decisions. I run marathons and even use it to track my training runs and races. The more you learn how to use Excel and write formulas, the more uses you find for it.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

One way it helps me is with analyzing my hourly rate and profitability. Whenever I take on special projects for a corporate client or a custom publisher, I use it to give a quote. I prefer to work on a project rate. I give them a single number but behind that is a lot of math that I have used to arrive at that number. They don’t need to know any of that.

I may also build in a variance. It will let me know if I might be able to live with a cut in that number. So if they want to try to negotiate that down a bit, I know that I can drop by 5%, 7%, 10% or whatever it might be for me to still make what I need to make.

I also need to factor in opportunity cost. That is what else I could be doing with my time. Do I take this project which will tie me up for three weeks or do I decline it and go after smaller but potentially more lucrative projects that will make my time more flexible? I use math to figure all this out.

How comfortable with math do you feel?

In relation to personal finance and business math, I feel very comfortable with it because I use it so much and see the value in it. But all the standard stuff you learn in school? I really don’t remember any of that. I’d have to pull out a book and look up some formulas if you wanted me to calculate cubic volume or something like that.

What kind of math did you take in high school?  Did you like it/feel like you were good at it?

Just the basics. Algebra, geometry, standard high school stuff. I wasn’t particularly good at it, I was just average. But I majored in business in college and took a lot of accounting, finance and business math classes. I always excelled at those and had a stronger interest in them. Math dealing with money just felt real to me. There was an instant connection of “Oh, I could actually use this someday.”

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job? Or was it something that you could pick up using the skills you learned in school?

I did pick up some new skills, but a lot of the business and personal finance math I used today can be traced right back to college. The fact that I actually enjoy this kind of math really helps.

Anything else you want to mention?

Yes. I believe that many of our growing financial problems in this country—like people getting into mortgages they couldn’t afford, our lack of savings, our failure to put enough money away for retirement, our problems with credit card debt—can be traced partly to our failure to use math in our financial lives. People buy homes and cars on emotion but rarely run the numbers. They wouldn’t use debt to overspend if they really knew the long-term consequences. There is a numerical answer for everything in your finances. You have to know why that number is important, how to calculate it and how to use it.

Any questions for Craig? I’m sure he’d be happy to answer them!

Photo courtesy of shutterhacks

So you’ve got a brand new book on your nightstand or electronic reader. Or maybe you have a book idea that you’d love to get published. How on earth does an idea get translated to pages or bytes? A book editor could play a big role. Jennifer Lawler was my editor for Math for Grownups, and these days, she’s the imprint manager for Adams Media’s new direct-to-ebook romance imprint. Today, she answers the big question we have here on Mondays: How do you use math in your job?

Can you explain what you do for a living?

I’m an imprint manager for a book publishing company, which means I acquire books from writers based on what we think our readers will want to read. Then I shepherd the books through the entire editorial and production process, which includes everything from negotiating contracts to approving cover design to making sure the publicity department is doing its job. My job constantly switches from big-picture items like “How  does our imprint differentiate itself from other imprints like it?” to nitty-gritty items like “did that copy editor ever send over her invoice?”

When do you use basic math in your job?

I have a set budget for producing each title, but not all titles are alike, so they require different amounts of money. I have to make sure that each book gets what it needs without going over the budget as a whole, and also without being really out of whack for any one title. This is very similar to keeping a household budget and balancing a checkbook.

For nonfiction print books, I have to calculate how to make them fit into the allotted page count we have for them. At my company, page count is determined at the time a book is signed, based on the type of book it is, what the cover price will be, and other factors. Since nonfiction books are sold on proposal, not finished product, the finished product can vary significantly from what we assumed it would be at the time of signing. So I have to figure out what we can do to make the book fit. Can we add pages to the index, or subtract pages from the index? Can we add or subtract front matter? Can we go up to 2-page chapter openers or down to 1-page part openers? We can’t go over or under more than 16 pages for any project. Usually it’s not a big problem but sometimes you should see my desperation!

Do you use any technology to help with this math?

We use a special calculator based on trim size to estimate how many words per page, taking design considerations into account (lots of sidebars or illustrations mean fewer words on each page). For the budget, I just use a spreadsheet. This just helps make sure simple errors in addition or subtraction don’t through the whole process off.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

On a fundamental level, if I don’t do the math right, the company and everyone in it suffers. We miss our projections, we overrun our budgets, we even screw up our earnings. That’s a big deal. It also helps me be creative and to make better judgment calls. If I find myself saying, “Well, it doesn’t really matter if this one book doesn’t fit the page count, I can just get the publisher to change the page count,” I know I’m being lazy. Maybe that is what has to happen sometimes, but that type of change directly impacts our profit-and-loss statement for the title, so it has to be the last resort. Same with the budget. “Well, the publisher isn’t going to kill me if I go over by a little bit.” That’s true, but it’s a lazy way of thinking. Doing the math makes me think about what I need to do differently to hit the budget. In some instances, yes, the budget simply needs to be bigger. But it could mean I need to watch what I acquire so I’m not picking up things with potential but that require a ton of editing. It could mean I need to streamline a process somewhere or develop a template instead of doing some type of custom approach each time.

Math adds a lot of clarity to my work—something I never thought a book editor would say!

How comfortable with math do you feel?

I am pretty comfortable with math except when I am put on the spot (like someone asking me point-blank to answer a math question). I find the math at work to be easy in the sense that I’m confident about not making mistakes with it. I do it in the privacy of my office, so if I have to check my calculations five different times to make sure I’ve got them right, I do it.

What kind of math did you take in high school?

I got as far as Algebra II and felt like a complete idiot by that point.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job?

I had to get over my fear of “oh my god I will screw up the math and they’ll kick me out and I love this job!” Other than that, though, the math is straightforward—definitely something a high-school kid could do. Probably a third-grader could do it

Thanks for playing with us today, Jennifer!  If any of you dear readers are interested in writing and publishing a book, check out Jennifer’s great book proposal class.  (I can recommend it from personal experience!) Or feel free to ask her a question in the comments section.

I like to cook and bake (especially pies and bread), but the idea of developing a recipe that others can use makes my hands sweat.  To be honest, I don’t really understand the difference between baking soda and baking powder (except that soda interacts with vinegar in a really cool way), and figuring out how long to keep something in the oven — and at what temperature — is a mystery to me.

So when my friend and fellow writer, Brette Sember let me know that she has a cookbook coming out, I jumped at the chance to feature her here.  It should be no surprise that math is a critical ingredient of all recipes.  The Parchment Paper Cookbook is no exception.  Her recipes offer easy ways to cook healthy meals without pots or pans. You can get a taste of her recipes at her blog: No Pot Cooking.

What do you do for a living?

I write books, blogs, and articles, and I also do indexing, ghostwriting, and copyediting.  One of my specialties is recipe development and food writing.

When do you use basic math in your job?

I have one cookbook out, The Parchment Paper Cookbook, and The Muffin Tin Cookbook is on the way. I’m finding there is a lot more math involved in writing cookbooks than I expected! When I was just cooking for my family I did a lot of dumping of ingredients, but now that I have to record my recipes, I have to do a lot of measuring. And I also have to do a lot of conversions of measurements.

Test recipes are much smaller than the ones I publish in my cookbooks.  So, after testing a recipe, I have to convert the ingredient amounts for publication. This gets a little complicated when you’re dealing with teaspoons and tablespoons.  For example, if make a test recipe with 3 tablespoons of an ingredient and I want to quadruple that to make a full batch, I would multiply by 4 to get 12 tablespoons. But I have to express that as ¾ cup.

Do you use any technology to help with this math?

Yes definitely. I don’t trust myself to get it right, and it absolutely has got to be accurate.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

I’m able to give readers the most convenient measurement possible for them.

How comfortable with math do you feel?

I have to admit I don’t feel very comfortable with math. This is kind of funny because from 7th to 11thgrade I was in a special gifted math program where I went to the local university for math with kids from other school districts in my county. We learned a creative approach to math. Regardless, I never felt comfortable with math. So, no, I guess I would say I don’t enjoy the math aspect, but it’s essential to what I’m doing so I am careful to do it right.

Did you like the math you took in high school?

I got great grades until I took a traditional calculus class with college students in 11th grade. I got a D! I dropped out of the program then. I didn’t have to take math in college, because I had earned so many credits through that program.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do this math?

It is pretty basic, but I had to refresh my memory for some of the conversions.

Thanks, Brette, for appearing in today’s Math at Work Monday.  Readers, if you have questions for Brette, feel free to post them below.  I’ll be sure to let her know and ask her to come by for a quick response.  And if you’re looking for a great holiday gift for someone who is too busy to cook and clean up, check out The Parchment Paper Cookbook.  Or pick up a copy for yourself!