The Business Rusch: Writers—The Overview
(Changing Times Part Seven)
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
I’ll be honest with you: I would not have started this series on the changes in the publishing industry if I had known how much bizarre e-mail it would generate for me. I hadn’t realized that I had entered an area that for some writers incites a fervor that borders on religious.
I have been a reporter, historian, and a fiction writer my entire life. I think the impulses that led me to those three fields have been exactly the same: I believe that once people have information, they will use that information to improve their lives.
That’s the impetus behind my Freelancer’s Survival Guide which you can still get for free on this website even though I have finished it and now have both trade paper and electronic copies for sale. I know that some of the people who need the information contained in the Guide the most can’t afford to buy a copy, so the free version is for them. A lot of you have written to me and told me how the Guide has helped your freelance business, and that means a great deal—primarily because that was what I hoped for when I started the Guide.
So what did I hope for when I started this series on the changes in the publishing industry? I’m writing a blog on business for the general business reader, and I felt I would have been remiss if I hadn’t discussed my own industry, particularly now that it’s stuck in the throes of the largest change it has gone through in my lifetime. I discussed some of this in my first overview post seven weeks ago. But it’s good to mention that again because I’m going into the section on writers. And writers, it may shock you business readers to know, as a group do not understand the industry they work in.
Honestly, it’s not entirely their fault. Writers as a class aren’t stupid people; in fact, they’re quite bright. Some believe that they are artistes and need to be taken care of, but that’s a personal problem. The rest try to find out how the business works, and generally fail.
I know how hard it is to discover this information based a bit on personal experience, but also because of the classes that Dean Wesley Smith and I teach for professional writers. Our students, who are highly motivated to learn, have only caught glimpses of the industry before they come to our classes, despite having searched for information about the industry itself.
Part of the problem is that the publishing industry, like many industries in the arts, has divided itself between the “artist” camp and the “business” camp. Most of the teachers exist in the artist camp, and most of those teachers do not make a living at their art which is why they teach. Somewhere along the way, those teachers have convinced themselves that only a select few make a living at art which is a false assumption.
People fail to make a living in the arts for two main reasons:
1. They don’t try to make a living. They get another profession and spend their time at that profession, treating their art as a hobby. The folks who eventually make a living as artists (whether that’s as a writer, musician, filmmaker or painter) get jobs that enable them to put food on the table while they pursue their passion. Often those jobs are part-time. Certainly those jobs are the kind that you do not take home with you—no papers to grade, no post-shift phone calls or e-mails, and no 60+ hour weeks. These jobs are not professions. These artists understand that their profession—even if they’re not currently being paid for it—is their art; their day job is what makes sure they have a roof over their heads.
2. They fail at the business side of their profession. Succeeding as an artist is all about knowing how to thrive in a business environment—at least in capitalistic societies. Yes, those societies often have art grant programs, and honestly, the artists who manage to get grants repeatedly—enough so that they never need “real” jobs—are just pursuing a different business model than the commercial model I discuss in my blogs. There is a system to the noncommercial side of the art world, one that has its own rules and regulations, and some artists learn how to operate effectively in that world.
But that’s not my world. My world is commercial, and that’s what I’m dealing with here. Again, I’m using “artist” here to refer to someone whose profession is in the arts, because this holds not just for the writer, but for the dramatic, musical, and visual artists as well.
Early on in our careers as artists, we all have met more artists who have failed to keep their careers alive than artists who have succeeded. Part of that, again, is the nature of teaching in the arts. Unlike those who teach at—say—some of the most prestigious law schools in the country, those who teach in the arts do not need to have practiced that art in a viable way ever. So that means that your creative writing professor does not need to have published any form of creative writing, although he might have published papers on how to write creatively or how to teach creative writing. To teach creative writing at the college level in the United States, you need—at minimum—a Masters Degree, preferably in Fine Arts, but English will do in a pinch. At best, however, you should have a PhD in creative writing or English. Being published commercially is not a credential and is viewed, in some institutions, as a hindrance.
So by definition, 99.9% of the instructors an aspiring writer will have at the college level will be someone who has not had an actual writing career. (I did not know this when I was in college, and was shocked when the head of the English department coldly informed me of that fact.) If aspiring writers end up with a professor who has published books commercially, those writers are the lucky few. And even then, they do not ask a question they should ask: Why is that professor teaching writing to make a living?
The answer is pretty simple: most of those writers had short-term commercial success, but not enough business savvy to survive in the cutthroat publishing industry. Those writers retreated to academia to put food on the table.
A few, like Joyce Carol Oates and Joe Haldeman, teach writing at prestigious universities to counter this trend. They don’t need the money that teaching brings in. Both Oates and Haldeman also have the necessary educational requirements as well as (in spite of?) the publishing credentials, so they’re a relatively easy hire. They also have big names in their respective fields, so they’re a coup for their universities. And neither of them teach full time.
Writers conferences have a better batting average of successful to unsuccessful commercial writers than universities do, but it depends entirely on the conference’s genre focus as to whether or not the successful writers outnumber the unsuccessful ones. In mainstream writers conferences—those most likely to be tied to universities—the ratio of successful to unsuccessful favors the unsuccessful. That’s primarily because those conferences often pay their speakers well, and successful writers don’t need the money. They also don’t have the time.
(I am not deliberately bashing universities here: I’m proud of my University of Wisconsin education. Two of my three siblings are university professors, my father was a university professor, and my brother-in-law is a professor. It’s a noble profession. The key, however, is that I’m discussing the arts [most particularly writing] as a profession, and professors, whose profession is teaching, are generally not commercial writers. This is just one of those burdensome facts about the publishing industry. There are many such burdensome facts. And that’s part of the problem I’m having with this series.)
Genre writers conferences—or genre conventions—have a better ratio of successful writers to unsuccessful writers, primarily because those conferences become business meetings for established professionals. Many of those conferences have two tiers—the tier in which the readers and the unpublished writers go to panels to listen to the experts talk; and the tier in which the established writers and publishing professionals have their business meetings, conferences or (in the case of Romance Writers of America’s national conference) their own programming tier. At these conferences you can mix and mingle with successful professionals—if you can find them and if they’re willing to give you a moment of their time.
Generally, however, the successful professional writer isn’t visible at all. Most of us don’t have the time to attend more than one or two conferences a year. Only a few of us “give back” like Dean and I do by teaching writers who need to learn the business. Again, some of that is time. I’m under so many deadlines at the moment that I should be writing seven days per week at a minimum of 3,000 new words per day. Still, I give up one or two weeks out of a quarter to teach because it’s important to me. Understanding this business is how writers have long-term careers, and yet very few people help writers get that information.
Why aren’t more successful writers giving out public information? First, some don’t have the teaching gene. Second, many of these writers don’t have the time. Third, a few of them don’t understand how the industry works any more than the aspiring writer does. But the real reason is this one, the fourth reason:
Successful writers get attacked a lot from within our own profession for our success. We are repeatedly told that we “don’t understand the problems of new writers.” We “know the secret.” We’re “unbelievably lucky” We’re “hacks.” We have “no respect for art.” We’ve “sold out.” If you don’t believe these attacks happen, then look at my husband’s blog, Killing The Sacred Cows of Publishing. Dean’s blog, by the way, is a great resource on how publishing really works, and it’s aimed at writers. (Unlike this blog, which is aimed at general business readers.) Dean gets a lot of great comments in his comment section, but routinely someone will post an attack.
Most of the attacks come in private e-mail, and some are even anonymous. It’s shocking to me, a person who loves information, that someone would attack someone else with experience and a willingness to pass on their knowledge for sharing that knowledge. But it happens all the time.
It has happened to me in private e-mails since I started these publishing posts.
I do understand the impulse to attack in part. Aspiring writers are operating in the dark. There are no career-track university programs for writers who want a career in commercial fiction, although Seton Hall is striving valiantly to set one up. Aspiring writers have to wander in the writing book section of the bookstore or troll the internet looking for information.
The problem is that there’s so much misinformation out there. Much of the misinformation comes from agent blogs. These agents, who have the time to blog (very few good agents do), perpetuate the myths that help the agents attract clients for the agents’ business, not to enable writers to learn the business themselves. The handful of blogs written by publishing executives are geared toward other publishing executives and make no sense to the aspiring writer. And the writer blogs, for the most part, are about craft, not business.
So what I’m saying here is that it’s often not the aspiring writer’s fault that he doesn’t know how the business operates. But as the writer gains experience in the industry, it becomes his duty to learn how the business works so that the writer can survive. The number of professional writers who wrote to me privately to tell me that Big Publishing is Evil after one of my Big Publishing posts shocked me to my core. Why would you want to work in a profession in which you believe the very group you’re supposed to partner with to get your books to bookstores is evil?
I guess I am naïve at times. Or maybe I just don’t understand human nature.
But I do understand human nature enough now to realize that I’m about to wade into the deep end. Today’s post is both an overview and a warning. I am about to do a miniseries inside the long series about how the changes in publishing will impact writers. And I know I’m about to get hit with a firestorm of private criticism and anonymous letters. So I’m trying to head them off at the pass by telling you what I plan to do over the next few weeks.
Here it is:
I spent some of my earlier posts describing how publishers are not the same. They are not part of some gigantic conspiracy, nor are they all governed by the same rules and principles. Large publishers work on a vast level and small publishers work on a completely different level. Even those differences are not absolute. Publishers can go from small to large, from large to gigantic, from gigantic to nonexistent, all within the space of a few years.
Writers are not the same either—especially when it comes to business. A sidebar here: On a craft level, we’re often dealing with similar problems from insecurity about our abilities (I just read an interview with Philip Roth in which he discusses this) to how to finish a novel to how to make a character come alive.
But on a business level, my concerns differ from Philip Roth’s or from Stephen King’s or even from my husband’s. Mid-list writers differ from bestsellers on a business level. Aspiring writers have a whole different series of business concerns.
As the writer/editor Michael Seidman once said on a panel, everyone wants to trade up for someone else’s problems. The thing is, at every level, writers do have problems, and many of those problems concern business.
When Scott Turow said on the Charlie Rose television show that the coming e-book revolution will harm writers, Turow is absolutely right—for the kind of writer that he is. When J.A. Konrath says on his blog that the e-book revolution will be the best thing that has happened to writers, he’s exactly right—for the kind of writer that he is.
While I can’t cover every type of writer, and each variation within some subset, I will endeavor to cover the most obvious kinds of commercial fiction writers. I put the emphasis there because I am a commercial fiction writer in a variety of genres. I used to edit commercial fiction. And I used to own a mid-size publishing house that sold commercial fiction. I know the business of commercial fiction, and I’m constantly striving to find out more.
I do not know as much about commercial nonfiction because I only dabble in it. And I know less about textbooks than I used to because I’ve been out of that game for about twenty-five years. So I’m strictly limiting my discussion of writers to these types within commercial fiction.
1. The long-term bestseller. I’m not going to deal with the one-hit wonder. Just like in music, the one-hit wonder is in a category all its own. The one-hit wonders often are lucky and often are not in the publishing business for the long haul. I want to deal with the career novelist, the one who has repeated success, year in and year out, with books that sell millions of copies over the books’ lifetime.
2. The long-term mid-list writer. Here’s where the myths start coming in. There are a lot of us mid-list writers who make a full-time living at writing. And not just a small five-figure living, but a real honest-to-goodness six figure (or more) income year in and year out. Often, the long-term mid-list writer—a writer whose career has spanned decades—knows more about business and survival than anyone else in the publishing industry. We have to. Someday some of us might become bestselling writers. Some of us have chosen not to (believe it or not). And many of us will remain mid-list writers until the day we die. The mid-list writer may have had one or two bestsellers, but we don’t camp out on the bestseller list year in and year out. We might have books that sell a million copies, and books that sell 10,000 copies. And we might have them in the same year.
3. The beginning writer. By this I do not mean the writer who has just started to write. I mean the writer who has just started to publish. Whether she has one book or three, this writer has yet to prove that she will have a long-term career. The trajectory of most writers’ careers in commercial fiction is less than ten years. Most of these writers are the ones you meet at writers conferences or, if you’re not an aspiring writer but that all-important reader, these writers are the ones you hear yourself asking about: What ever happened to…?
Usually what ever happened to that writer is that she never bothered to learn her business and therefore when a crisis hit (and we all have a crisis in our careers, whether we’re writers or not), she didn’t know how to survive it. So her career imploded.
In this category, I’m not dealing with those whose careers have imploded, but with those whose careers are underway but by no means established. These writers might be the hot young things, the meteoric stars who are winning all the new writer awards. Or she might be the one whose novel has just appeared without much fanfare. She’s at the beginning of her career, hence the term “beginning writer.”
4. Aspiring writers. For the sake of this blog, I’m going to assume that aspiring writers aren’t people who believe they can write a book but haven’t yet tried. I’m going to consider the aspiring writer to be someone who is actively working at a career in fiction, completing at least one book per year (preferably more), marketing that book and/or a number of short stories, and working hard at understanding the business. These writers tend to focus on breaking into the business, because that’s where they’re at—they’re at the window of the candy store, peering in, unable to find the door. The persistent ones will find that door, and then they’ll move into the other three categories—although not necessarily in the order in which I’ve listed those categories.
Initially I had planned to just dive into writing these sections. But I soon realized that I would be spending all my time in the comment section, defending this position or that position. I will, of course, encourage discussion in that section, but often (especially after the first post), I will say that I will get to a particular argument or topic in a future post.
It’ll take me a month of Thursdays to get through the impact on writers caused by the changes in the publishing industry. I want to state here and now that I am not trying to say that one type of writer is better than another type of writer. Nor am I saying that everyone should behave the way that Writer X is behaving because Writer X is having a certain amount of success.
What I am doing is what I’ve been doing since the beginning of this series on publishing. I am talking about the changes in publishing and the impact they’re having on everyone in publishing at the moment. If I revisit this series next December, I might write an entirely different group of posts. That’s how quickly all of this is moving.
But I’m using the facts as I understand them right now.
And next week, I will begin this discussion of the changes and writers by dealing (in general) with the long-term bestsellers.
Since we just came out of Thanksgiving, I have to tell you all that I gave thanks last week for my Business Rusch and Freelancer’s Survival Guide readers. You guys have supported me while I’ve been writing these posts with donations, great questions, many tweets and retweets, and yes, the occasional challenging e-mail. You’re forcing me to think about issues as well, and for that I’m grateful. Even though I complain about the goofy e-mails, the bulk of the mail I receive is positive and supportive. I appreciate that. And you give me that all important thing for a freelance writer—a deadline. So thanks for that too.
Have a great holiday season.
“The Business Rusch: Writers—The Overview” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.