Kristine Kathryn Rusch

The Business Rusch: Bad Decisions and the Midlist Writer (Changing Times Part 15)

Written By: Kristine Kathryn Rusch - Jan• 26•11

The Business Rusch: Bad Decisions and The Midlist Writer

(Changing Times Part Fifteen)

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Last week, I ended my blog with this happy thought: “Looking in my crystal ball, I worry that the writers who will get scammed, who will lose actual fortunes, won’t be the beginners or the bestsellers.  It’ll be the established midlist writer.”  As I sat down to write on Wednesday morning, after a trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee which involved a lot of discussions with writers plus a ton of e-mail/questions/reading when I returned, I realized that I needed to change this week’s topic just a tad.

I had planned to call this segment “Scams and the Midlist Writer,” but really, seriously, the problems that midlist writers will have—are having if the truth be told—go beyond scams.  The problems come from bad decision-making, and an inability (deliberate or not) to understand the publishing business, particularly the publishing business as it pertains to midlist writers.

If this post is your introduction to the series, please read the previous three posts on midlist writers, starting with this one, which defines the midlist.  I’d love it if you go back and read the previous 14 posts, but I know you happened to be pressed for time just like the rest of us, so those three posts (plus the introduction to the entire series) should get you up to speed.  I’m assuming, of course, that if you came to this post via someone else’s link, you’re an established writer, and these posts are for you.

As for the rest of you, who have been with me from the beginning of this series (and from The Freelancer’s Survival Guide), supporting me with comments, donations, and e-mails, thanks ever so much.  You’re already up to speed and don’t need to think about losing any more time. (She writes with a wry grin, rather astounded at how this mini-series has grown.)

In the past fifty years, a strange business model developed in publishing.  Established—and beginning—writers expect to be taken care of.  They don’t have to worry their pretty little heads about business.  They only need to write.  Because artists, you know, are sensitive types, and not suited to business, and will only screw it up.

Two “innovations” in the publishing industry fed this myth: the rise of university creative writing programs which, oddly enough, seem dedicated to proving that you can’t make a living at writing, and the rise of the literary agent.  University creative writing programs, taught primarily by PhDs and MFAs who have never even tried to make a living at their chosen profession, have increased 800% since 1975.   Every college or university has a creative writing program, teaching wannabe writers to write one story per semester and to revise it to death.  No one can make a living at writing by writing one short story every six months, and very few writers—I don’t care who they are—have the skills to both write a story and to revise it properly.  Those are two different skills.  Usually writers ruin their stories by revision—and I say that as a writer, a woman who has taught writing, and as an award-winning former editor.  I can tell stories—and indeed I did at Chattacon last weekend—about writers who nearly lost their first story sale to me when I edited at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction by their inability to take instruction, and revise only the small thing I asked them to revise.

The writer who goes through those programs and buys into the myths perpetuated by the wannabe-writer professors who teach them almost never have careers. Those writers might sell a short story or two, or even a novel or two, but they never have a long-lived freelance career—perpetuating the myths yet again that a writer can’t make a living in this business.  I only know a handful of professional working writers (who support themselves on their writing) who have an advanced degree in English, let alone an MFA or a PhD in Creative Writing.  (Most professional writers with advanced degrees have them in business or history or science.)

The reason I’m dwelling on this is because this myth that you can’t make a living coupled with the myth that the artist is sensitive has set the stage for an entire industry: literary agents.

Let me state here and now that there are good, professional literary agents.  I have one.

But let me also state that this industry is completely unregulated, and anyone can establish himself as a literary agent simply by proclaiming that he is an agent.  Writer J. Steven York has a very funny blog proving just this point.  He set up his cat as a literary agent, naming her Bad Agent Sydney to lampoon the lack of regulation in the industry—and was shocked when a handful of writers quite seriously queried this malapropism-using, abusive creature asking her to represent them.  (A number of other writers are in on the joke and ask questions just to get her riled—which is easy.)

Agents are the people who handle a writer’s entire career (if the writer lets them) from sales to negotiation to contract to money, and there is no regulation at all.  Yet writers sign up with scam agents without vetting them all the time, lose years to crooks, lose sales, lose money, lose careers.  These bad agents in particular feed the myth of the “sensitive artist.”  I actually had one of those agents (who embezzled from me early in my career—and yes, is still in business) who actually told me not to worry about anything.  He’d take care of it.  I was too young and too stupid to realize that was a gigantic red flag.

If you want to understand how insidious this can be, look at my husband Dean Wesley Smith’s blog titled Killing The Sacred Cows of Publishing. He has several posts on agents, followed by hundreds (literally) of comments, mostly about scams, bad legitimate agents, and terrible agent practices in this unregulated world.  In fact, if you’re a professional writer or you want to be, and you’re not reading his series, you’re doing yourself a disservice.  You might not agree with Dean, but he’ll make you think—and that’s something writers, stuck in the myths of publishing, don’t often do.

I’ll be honest here.  It’s really, really nice to have someone offer to do the hard work for you.  No matter what writers tell you, writing is fun.  It can be hard, but it’s not hard the way that fire-fighting or brain surgery is.  Writing is a challenge, and writers are airheads primarily because we live in our own little worlds most of the time.

Having someone else to do the business, the work of the real world, is just lovely.

And it’s a fantasy.

No one cares about your business more than you. No one works harder for your business than you do.  No one understands what you’re doing better than you do.  No one will defend it better than you.  I covered this a great deal in The Freelancer’s Survival Guide.  Read the sections on employees—or as I define it, people who work for you.  Agents belong in that category.  You, the writer, do not work for them. They work for you.

Why am I bringing all of this up now? Because writers who believe they need someone to take care of them will make terrible decisions in this brave new world of publishing.  Right now, established writers are just beginning to catch a clue that they  might be able to earn money from their backlist, but the scammers and those who know how to make a quick buck have already set up shop and are beginning to pluck naïve writers away from their potential earnings.

It makes sense.  Remember that in gold rushes of the 19th century, the people who earned the most money weren’t the miners, but the people who supplied the support services.  Many of the  miners went home broken and poorer than they’d ever been.  The people who provided support services got so rich that we’re still familiar with some of their names.

Right now, established writers are standing on the starting line of a brand new gold rush.  Unfortunately, writers as a class are stupid about business.  Those who understand business have already cut in front of the writers and have set up shop.

So what do I mean exactly?  Why am I worried about this?

Here’s the hard truth: for the first time in my lifetime, a midlist writer can make bestseller money without having a bestseller and without writing 6 or 8 or 10 books per year.  The rise of e-books, the availability of print-on-demand publishing, and the growing use of internet bookstores like Amazon make it possible to sell backlist titles that could earn a writer tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of dollars per year.

The sales numbers on these backlist titles are relatively small when considered from Big Publishing’s point of view, but they’re large from a writer’s point of view.  This is what has others—the nonwriters who want to make money off writers—excited.

Let’s look at the numbers one more time.  In last week’s post, I did the math and assumed that if a writer with one backlist title sold it for $4.99 she would earn about $3 per book sold (factored over the various sites).  So if she sold 1,000 copies of that single backlist title, she would earn $3,000 in that year.

Now imagine if she has 10 backlist titles, all of which sell (on average) 1,000 copies per year. She’s earning $30,000.  If she has twenty, she’ll earn $60,000.  If she has thirty, like so many of us do, she’ll earn $90,000 per year.

Over ten years, without writing another word, that’s almost one million dollars.

See why the agents, the service providers, and the scammers are excited about this?  It’s pretty common for an established midlist writer with a career that spans a decade or more to have published 30 novels, and it’s likely that most of those novels are out of print, which means the writer retains those rights.

So if she does the work herself to get those 30 books into electronic format and print on demand, then she’ll make $90,000 per year if she sells 1,000 copies of each book.  Imagine what happens if one book sells 5,000 copies.  Or a series sells 10,000.  The numbers grow astronomically.

Here’s the problem, however.  An established midlist writer already  has a career.  She probably has books under deadline. She’s already tap-dancing as fast as she can.

If she’s like me, adding a self-publishing business seems impossible without adding another twelve hours into a twenty-four hour day.

So she looks for a shortcut.  Here’s where agents are coming in. They’re offering to do the formatting, book design, covers, copy edits, and the actual publishing to put the book into a “package.”  Then the agents will publish that book under the agent’s publishing house imprint for anywhere from 15% to 50% of the writer’s earnings—as long as that book is in print.

Which will probably be long past the writer’s lifetime.

In other words, for doing work that will take a few hours or a few days at most, the agent will receive payment for decades.  In our hypothetical example above, our writer will pay her agent $9,000 per year for two days’ work.  The next year, our writer will pay  her agent $9,000 for doing nothing.

Nice income on the part of the agent, particularly if he (like my previous three agents) has about 100 clients.  You can do the math on that yourself, I’m sure.

What does that agent do that the writer can’t do? Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.

What the agent has done is this: He’s hired an editor, an artist, a book designer, a copy editor, and someone to format the books for a flat fee per project.  Some agents have had this system in place for years, and actually have people on salary doing this work.

No writer should ever ever hire an agent to do this work. If your agent decides to go into e-publishing and print-on-demand, fire that agent immediately.  I am not kidding about this.

Why?

Because…

1. Running a publishing company (even if it is disguised as a packaging company) is a conflict of interest for the agent.  The writer has hired the agent to be the writer’s advocate with publishing houses.  The agent should be on the writer’s side. The moment the agent becomes a publisher, he is no longer on the writer’s side.  It is actually in that agent’s best interest not to sell the writer’s next book.  It’s better for that agent’s bottom line to publish the book himself.

2. Agencies are struggling to survive.  I suspect that in the future, an agent will be irrelevant for the working professional writer because that writer will know enough about business—and have the access (which used to be the reason to hire an agent)—to do the work herself or with the help of an intellectual property attorney.

Agents are smart enough to realize this, so they’re struggling with new models.  Mary Kole of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency wrote a long post about this on digital book world that scared the crap out of me.  What she suggests in this post is very, very, very good for the agent’s business model and terrible, awful, horrible for any writer who signs on.

If any writer agrees to the models Kole suggests, that writer will guarantee that he will not make a living for the rest of his career—unless he lucks into a bestseller.

The phrase in her blog post that scared me the most? This one: “In fact, I’ll argue that agents should start treating their clients’ business like a tech start-up.”

She then expands on this as if she actually knows what she’s talking about.

Think this through, people.  “Tech start-up.”  It all sounds well and good. But agents have 50-100 clients.  That’s 50-100 tech start-ups.

Anyone who has run a business knows that one start-up takes 24/7 focus.  No one can juggle 50-100 start-ups—let alone 50-100 businesses—in a single year.  Not and expect to do a good job.  Not and expect to do even a half-assed job.

The only reason Kobe and other agents can even suggest this model is because the amount of work they’re proposing to do for their clients is minimal.  It will take a few days per book at most.  So our writer with the 30 novels will take a little over a month of concentrated effort on the part of the agent so that the agent can then earn money for the rest of the book’s existing copyright.  Life + 70 years.  Got that?

3. Agents are unregulated.  Let me put this in clear terms for you: The mortgage industry, which has screwed and is still screwing millions of homeowners, is regulated.  Bernie Madoff and the lesser fish in the financial services pond who stole every penny from their clients were regulated.

Agents are not regulated.  There is no oversight committee.  There are very few laws on the books that will put away an agent for shady behavior.  Agents—just like anyone else—can be charged with embezzlement and fraud, but in those cases, the money is already spent and gone.

So imagine this: A writer signs on with the agent’s book packaging service.  The writer agrees to let the agent take 15% of the book’s earnings over the lifetime of that book for putting the book into print-on-demand and into e-books.  By doing this, the writer agrees that the agency’s packaging program will put the books online and into the system.

Which means that the earnings reports go to the agent first.

There is no system that guarantees that the agent has to report the earnings accurately to the writer.  So if that book earns $3000 in its first year, and the agent is due 15% or $450, there is nothing to stop that agent from reporting to the writer that the book only earned $500.  The agent would then pocket the $2500 with minimal chance of ever getting caught—particularly if she is good at fudging paperwork.

The writer, who did not put that book into the system, is not entitled to the earnings reports direct from Kindle or CreateSpace.  So there is no way to check to see if the earnings reports from the agent are in any way accurate.

Even if the agent is a good person (note I didn’t say ethical, because he’s moved into this side of the business), there’s nothing to stop his employees from running the same scam.  Bookkeepers can and do fudge paperwork, particularly if their employer is trying to keep track of 30 novels from every single one of their 100 clients.

Scared yet?  You should be.

Again, any writer who signs up for these programs is foolish at best.

But I watch writer after writer after writer sign up.  These writers clearly don’t know business and clearly want someone to take care of them. The writers do not want to learn how to publish their own novels.  Or perhaps the writers believe they lack the time.

Agents are at least trying. They’re trying to save their business in an age where they’re becoming irrelevant.  They’re doing this with both their own and their clients’ business at heart.

Most everyone else who wants to publish a writer’s work for a set lifetime percentage is a scam artist.  Do not ever hire these people.  Dean has done a great blog post on the scams that have emerged so far in this new publishing world.  When you finish this post, go to this link immediately.

I’m sure more and more scams will show up as time goes on—all because the bulk of established writers want someone to take care of them.  My sad prediction is this: these writers will go out of business. They won’t be able to live on the money they’re earning.  You’ll see a lot of writers complain over the next five years that they can no longer earn a living, that e-books are a crock, that the changes in publishing hurt writers.

Realize that these writers do not know business and volunteered to get screwed.

So what should the responsible writer do?

She has three recourses:

1. She can go to an established publishing company that is willing to pay her a set royalty rate on her books in exchange for doing the work, maintaining the website, doing the promotion, etc.  In this case, at least, the writer is able to see the financial earnings paperwork directly.  This is, in my opinion, the worst of all of the options.  The writer had better make sure she signs a very good contract with that established publishing company, with an excellent out-of-print clause.

2. She can start her own publishing company or band with others who are doing something similar and pay the salaries of employees just like those agents are doing.

3. She can hire individuals for a flat fee to do the work that makes her cringe (covers, in my case), while she does the rest of the publishing work as well as her writing.

4. She can learn to do the work herself in addition to her writing.

This last, point 4, is the best.  The problem most writers have is that they’re in a gigantic hurry to get their backlist up. There is no hurry. This isn’t the produce model of publishing any more.  Take the time, write your projects, and get the backlist up slowly.  That’s the best.

So…what am I doing? A combination of 2 and 3.  I’m lucky enough to have a regional press in my small town that works with me on all of this.  The press hopes to grow through my reputation (and Dean’s).  I use my old publishing expertise to help the press.  We’ve got a fantastic co-publishing arrangement, but I’m still exceedingly hands-on.  I’m doing a lot of work—approving cover proofs, going over copy edits, preparing manuscripts for digital layout—all in addition to my own writing.

Dean is doing a combination of 1, 2, and 3, because he has the art background to do many of his own covers.  He loves that sort of thing.  Me, I can barely handle stick figures.

I know this sounds like a lot of work for those of you who are used to being taken care of.  You need to learn everything from copyright to negotiation, from distribution to the way all aspects of the industry works.

But here’s the thing, y’all.  It’s your business.  You should have learned this stuff years ago.  Seriously.  The days of having someone take care of you and still earning a living are gone.  (See the first midlist post on what’s happening to midlist careers in Big Publishing, then imagine remaining in the publishing field for more than a few years.)

I’m officially kicking you out of the nest.  Learn to take care of yourself.

It’s the only way you’ll still be a full-time professional writer in ten years.

Here are two resources to help you survive your fall from the nest: The Copyright Handbook, published by Nolo Press, and my own Freelancer’s Survival Guide, which is free on this website or can be ordered as an e-book or as a print book.  Seminars like Kevin J. Anderson’s Superstars or the marketing workshop through the Oregon Writers Network, blogs like mine or Dean’s, will also give you some guidance.

I’m deliberately not plugging some websites that provide freelance services like copyediting because I haven’t vetted them myself.  But they exist.  If you need help, hire someone who charges either a flat hourly rate or a fee per service.  Never ever ever hire someone by promising to pay them a percentage of the book’s earnings.

I know I’m being harsh, but I have your own best interests at heart—and mine too.  I love to read, and I suspect this change will silence too many great voices.  Don’t be one of them.


“The Business Rusch: Bad Decisions & The Midlist Writer” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

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50 Comments

  1. What a great column! Having finished it, I’m glad I had the experience almost 20 years ago of self-publishing my little travel booklets. I learned a thing or two then, and I continue to do so. It’s a shame more authors don’t have (or get) a better understanding of the business and who to trust. Writing is so much more than just putting words together. {Sigh.}

  2. John Walters says:

    Kris,
    Thanks for another great post. I’m not a mid-list but a part-time writer – I have to teach English here in Greece to pay the bills – but I wanted to say one thing about preparing books for electronic and POD publication. Having done it once (a collection of previously published stories) I have to say that it seems scary at first but it is really a lot of fun. I’m so eager to do it again that I have to make sure I schedule time for original work too. It takes time, sure, as does anything worthwhile, but it is a creative endeavor itself and as such when you see it come to completion it is very rewarding. There is plenty of help online too. At Smashwords Mark Coker has a great step-by-step guide to formatting, and Kindle and Amazon both have online help. A quick search through Google or Yahoo can help resolve any technical issues that crop up. I confess that for the book I had someone else do the cover, but when I put up the individual stories I did the covers myself. As far as cover photos, there are millions of photos in the public domain. Wikipedia has a long page devoted to public domain photo sites; some of the best are US government sites such as NASA. Well, enough detail – but what I am trying to say is that there is help and anyone can do it and it’s fun.

  3. Gee, Kris,
    You’ve convinced me I’m in the wrong business. Yes, I know how to run my own writer business and make a living at it (for 50 years now), but I need to adapt, so I’m going to become an agent and live off the work of 100-200 writers. I’ll be rich, rich, rich!!!

    Just kidding, really. Please don’t write to me asking for me to become your agent. Bad Agent Sydney is a much better agent than I am. At least Sydney will give you your full percentage of what you earn (that is, zero).

  4. I love every single aspect of my indie business and what I can’t do, I am willing to trade for, pay for, or learn. I’ve always believed I am better than my publishers at selling my books for one simple reason. I care more than anyone else. I am the happiest creatively, the most successful financially, and the most optimistic I have ever been.

    It took a year of shedding old thinking, ignoring conventional wisdom, and accepting responsibility for my work and my job of connecting with readers. Now the main obstacle is cleaning up all the past wreckage and mistakes that shifted me out of the driver’s seat for so long. But that, too, is another learning experience.

    The biggest mistake you can make is giving complete power over to someone who will never care as much as you do. Thanks, Kris.

    Scott Nicholson

  5. Nice work, Kris! Good for you!

  6. Sarah Allen says:

    Brilliant. Thank you for this advice. For me one of the greatest advantages of the internet is that I have been able to get such incredible, beneficial and life-saving advice such as this before I have even finished writing my first novel. Thank you.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  7. “In fact, I’ll argue that agents should start treating their clients’ business like a tech start-up.”

    I must have missed this when I first read Kole’s post. I don’t know the exact stats, but having worked at a few tech start-ups, I know that most of them end in bankruptcy.

    No thanks.

    (The start-ups which do well usually succeed by being bought out or bought into by a large established company.)

  8. More and more I realized that having started my own (non-writing related) business in 2003 was the best thing I could have done for my writing career.

  9. I’m doing version 4, working on getting my backlist up slowly on my own while I continue writing my contracted projects. There is indeed a lot of “hurry, hurry, hurry, get those backlists posted electronically now, now, NOW!” zeitgeist… And I don’t understand it.

    After all, we’re not talking about a finite market; we’re talking about a market that’s expanding and likely to keep expanding for a long time to come. It’s not as if there’s $X I can potentially make in this market, but I can =only= make that sum if I get my books posted by 02-15-11 or whatever.

    Yes, it would be nice to earn money sooner rather than later. But–hang on!–I AM earning money sooner rather than later: with my book contracts. Writing full-time means I only have a little time for getting my back list up so, yes, it’s going slowly. (I have just recently my first e-book. And I must say, it was a process that REALLY makes me appreciate my publisher. OTOH, I hope that first book was the steepest portion of the learning curve, and that subsequent experiences wil be less migraine-inducing.)

    And while not understanding what all the URGENCY is about, I also don’t know what my backlist e-books will earn, so I am discinlined to get into the red by spending money on my backlist (i.e. by paying for freelance services) for the sake of speeding up this process.

    I did investigate the possibility of working with an e-publisher, since just writing the book and leaving the other tasks to the publisher is the business model I’m most familiar with (and writing is the -task- I’m most suited to). But it didn’t strike me as a good business decision, at least not for myself. At a major house, I benefit from the resources of a major corporation, and I still find they’re worth their percentage. But in the extremely limited publishing resources and marketing efforts of the various e-publishers I researched, I didn’t see anything that I felt merited the earnings/split they were offering.

  10. [...] Bad Decisions and the Midlist Writer — Kris Rusch with more on the changes in publishing. [...]

  11. Ilsa J. Bick says:

    Wow, Kris, what a fabulous post. I agree with every single one of your points and this serves as a reminder that I do KNOW how to run a business, but I DID have to teach myself. A bunch of things you talked about apply to what I had to do to be successful, and how hard I worked at it and KEPT doing so in order to remain viable. The same principles you outline explain why so many docs are abdicating control to hospitals and corporations.

    One thing no one ever teaches you in med school is how to run your bloody business. At this point–and I can only speak for the U.S.–most MDs don’t even consider solo private practice. Many join group practices and even more are now joining hospital staffs doing only hospital-based medicine precisely because the hospital promises to take care of everything, all the ancillary stuff, and leave the doc alone to take care of, you know, actual patients rather than paperwork and haranguing, disembodied voices from managed care companies threatening to kick out your patient because he doesn’t have a noose around his neck THIS SECOND. And a ton–a TON–of doctors are abandoning small towns, solo private practice . . . that kind of stuff.

    Why do I think of this when I read your post? Because I keep forgetting that I’ve been there. Having run my own small business–and I mean, managing everything as a solo practitioner–I know how exhausting that can be because, at the time, I didn’t have the money to hire out for a lot of services. I couldn’t conceive of taking on an employee because I couldn’t even pay myself. By the time I did have enough, I was so used to doing it myself that it seemed stupid to part with my hard-earned cash. And I liked calling the shots and not dealing with messy personnel issues. Untangling patients’ problems and interfacing with other providers was tough enough.

    And it was all exhausting. Bad enough to be on-call 24/7. Worse is to be on-call 24/7 while your boss stares at you from the mirror and grouses about why the hell you haven’t finishing typing up that last set of interview notes instead of wasting your time sleeping.

    That’s when it dawned on me: hello, you are suffering from a case of MD-itis. You have forgotten that MD does not stand for Medical Deity. You can NOT do everything well. So figure out what you DO do well and hire out for the rest because otherwise–honey–you’re going to KILL YOUR BUSINESS!!

    When I started in with the writing, I was really tired out. Just drained. I remember Dean asking me once, kind of incredulously, if I really wanted to give up doctoring. Well, yeah and no. I’ll always be a doc. But I didn’t want to be an office manager.

    So I loved the fantasy of someone taking care of me for a change. You know, that fabulous, wonderful team of editor and agent and publishing house that would see me as “the talent” and bring me slippers and tea and clean my house and tuck me into bed after a hard day sweating over that keyboard:”There, there, you poor creative darling, we know how HARD this all is . . .” It gave me such a nice, soft, fuzzy, warm feeling–and I’m PISSED that it’s a fantasy. This became clear when I went through contracts (and asked for advice–thank you, thank you, Dean, and yes, I paid attention in class); this became clearer when I visited my publisher’s website and queried them, anonymously, about their various ebook formats and got back an INCOMPREHENSIBLE reply which I then shared with their VP of digital marketing because I CARE and we don’t sell ebooks if the customer service people don’t understand the bloody MEDIUM and why the hell isn’t my book on Kindle and B&N and . . . etc. This became crystal-clear, incredibly, when doing copy-edits. Because no one DOES care more about my work–how it’s presented and what it looks like–than me.

    So here I am, again, looking at the digital arena, deciding which parts of the biz I can do, and which I can’t, and what I need to hire out. I haven’t gotten as far as you guys in terms of moving into this, but I know I need to do it (just as soon as I get through my other bloody deadlines) and I’m moving in the right direction. Like you, having had a small business–and having thoroughly wrung myself out trying to be and do everything–has taught me that there are some things better done by someone else, and I’ve identified what they are. I’ve already hired out for some services, and I’m getting ready to hire out for more–but I want to and will retain control of my business.

    The first couple years of my practice, I was in the red. It was scary. There were times I wondered if I should chuck it and join a group. The fantasy went something like, “Please, someone take care of me, please. Just give me a paycheck and I’ll be good, I promise.” Then I figured out what I needed to do in order to spread my name around and get referrals. I had to do something else besides JUST being a shrink, and I had to learn. So I went to a couple business seminars; I took a couple, very successful group-based shrinks to lunches and dinners, and pumped them for information. I ate salad and water; they had steak and cabernet. Worth every penny.

    Because, eventually, I figured out what needed to get hired out and what could stay with me–and all of it was under my control. I went into the black and stayed there, and I was the only solo practitioner like me–not affiliated with a network, free of insurance constraints–other than some very old-time, established analysts.

    Would I have the same success today? I don’t know. I started over 20 years ago when managed care was just getting off the ground. But I did adapt enough to stay in business, and the same principles apply here.

    Fabulous post. Thanks for reminding me that I’ve done this before and I can do it again.

  12. Ilsa J. Bick says:

    Oh, and try to tell a kid who’s been through a college creative writing program NOT to go back for a masters or that PhD? That he’s buying into the SCAM that this will help him make a living as a writer? That he might try, you know, driving a school bus and actually writing stories that he sends instead of submits for a grade?
    Hah. Fugeddabadit.
    At a certain level, the programs themselves perpetuate the myth because fostering the idea that you will do better with more of this kind of education provides a nice cushion, too. You’re still in school; school is perceived as a time-out where you don’t have to make money because you’re learning how to make money from professors who don’t make money writing but DO earn a living teaching you how to get an A in creative writing.
    What these young writers don’t understand is that sending to an editor IS the same as being graded. Not as nice, and you get a helluva lot of Fs, but you’re graded nonetheless.
    And we’ll just overlook the other piece of the scam, so nicely summarized in this article from The Economist–http://www.economist.com/node/17723223?story_id=17723223–that if all else fails, you can always teach college.
    Uh . . . not.

  13. Thanks, Kris, for your candor here. One thing I always value about your articles is that you don’t sugar-coat things, but present a “fair and balanced” analysis of the situation. Must be your journalistic background showing through!

    When a friend came to me a couple of months ago and offered to pay me to format her books for epublishing and post them for her (because I knew how, and it was more than she felt capable of), I almost refused. After some discussion, I agreed to do the formatting work (this time) and teach her how to post her books herself (one learning curve at a time!). I told her then that it’s so easy to do that, while posting the first book might seem daunting, the second would be easier, and by the time she posted the third book, she’d know what she was doing and be able to manage her own list from that time forward. (We’ll work on teaching her to prepare the manuscripts next.)

    Honestly speaking, yes, there is a learning curve to epublishing. And there are times when it might seem more convenient to just pay someone else to do the work – to “take care of you”. But I cannot see paying someone a lifetime percentage for the minuscule effort involved. I can see paying a flat fee, maybe, for that service, if you’re really busy or seriously tech-challenged, but a small one at best!

    When it comes to cover design, there’s a place where it might be worthwhile to spend a little money – but even there I say “might”, because I’ve seen some truly awful covers produced by graphic designers with otherwise excellent portfolios, and some very nice covers created by total amateurs. Cover design is a tricky thing, and you have to look at a lot of covers to start seeing what works well in terms of balanced layout, effective use of text, and the all-important aspect of how well the image works at thumbnail size. Still, if you’re paying for cover art, or for a designer to do the layout for you, again I absolutely agree with you that you should go for a flat fee, not royalties, for the work. Anything else, and *you’re* going to be the one having to track and calculate royalties for the now-indefinite life of your book. I don’t know about anyone else, but that’s not something I want to be doing, when I could be spending my time writing!

    (And since I’ve got a deadline of my own looming menacingly overhead, I’m going to sign off now and get back to work!)

    • Kris says:

      Great posts, everyone. Thank you! I hope those of you who are reading this continue to share your experience in this new way of publishing because that’s the only way we’ll all learn. Leigh, great post on cover design. I’m very hands on with mine–just avoiding the art & layout part, but saying “no” a lot or asking for changes as often as I can. Fortunately, I’ve done the art direction before at Pulphouse, so I know what I can and can’t do. I can’t do layout, no matter how hard I try, but I can find folks who are very, very, very good at it. (And I still run things through Dean who has the training and the eye.)

      Ilsa, Alex, excellent points about the way running other businesses help with this one.

      Alastair, you made me laugh. You’re absolutely right. Wish I’d thought of that!

      And so are you, Laura. I think the hurry, hurry, hurry with e-pub comes out of left-over produce model thinking. It would be better to have it all up now because that’s how we’re trained through Big Publishing. I wanted all of mine up when I figured this out last summer. So far, lots of practice short stories (fortunately, the folks I’m working with were smart and wanted to start small), and–as of last night–five novels. Three as of last week, five as of this week. It’s coming together. But it takes time for all the pieces to hit. I announced Heart Readers this week because I know it’s finally on the biggest three of the many sites. But the other two novels–the ones that went up this week? Dunno yet when I’ll announce (except a mention here: the Grayson Completely Smitten paranormal romance and it’s exact opposite, the graphic/scary Sins of the Blood. It takes time–and that takes getting used to. Instead of a “launch,” there’s a slow introduction. Which is just plain hard for me to wrap my brain around, but I’m trying. :-)

  14. Laura Hile says:

    Thank you so much, Kris, for your generous advice. No small amount of thought (and time!) is involved here. I’m a beginning writer (3 novels published) with a long way to go. Thanks for encouraging me to stand on my own feet and learn this business, no matter how scary it seems or how inadequate I feel.

    • Kris says:

      You’re welcome, Laura. The more you learn about the business, the longer you will survive–in traditional publishing or the new publishing world. So glad I can help.

      And scared? Inadequate? I think that’s the writer’s dilemma. We all feel that way. I know of no writer, published or unpublished, successful or not, who doesn’t touch on both of those emotions each and every day.

      Thanks for the nice comment.

  15. jeff vandermeer says:

    Kris:

    I love your posts, as you know, and they’re very informative. Here, I just think there’s a bit too much emphasis on agent-bashing. And a midlist writer more than likely has most of his or her e-rights for books contracted to publishers already, so it’s not an issue that’s going to need addressing right away, except for writers who’ve been doing this more than 15 years. (Yes, I know your calculations re the number of books writers produce per year, but your production rate is actually very fast and not the norm.)

    I know lots of agents I trust, who are good people, and the only problem with this post and a couple of others is that I feel as if you are so gung-ho about a particular ideology that you are skewing the numbers a bit on how many agents are dishonest.

    I don’t want an agent to take care of me. I think that phrase is very misleading as to what an agent does. I won’t go into what an agent does do because I’m assuming you’ve covered it elsewhere.

    Further, there’s an element of needing to have patience because this is a renewable resource beyond what is discussed here. And I mean the kind of patience that works out not just the best strategy but the best *entry point* into doing your own e-books. I don’t see just uploading stuff to Amazon/Kindle as a strategy. There are a lot of other things, including timing issues, to consider. (Forgive me if you’ve covered this elsewhere.)
    JeffV

    • Kris says:

      Agent bashing? Jeff, I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and as I said, I still have an agent. I know of more writers who have allowed agents to destroy their careers than writers who haven’t. And it all comes back to being taken care of. Even if the agent is good–especially if the agent is good–the writer gets lazy about business. I have seen several thousand contracts in my years in the business, most of which were negotiated by agents, contracts from my friends, students, and colleagues. Some agents know what they’re doing. Most do not. Contract negotiation is the most important part of their job, yet the modern agent–who started as a book editor–doesn’t know this part of the business at all. In fact, many add clauses that are detrimental to the writer because the agent (coming from the publisher point of view) believes that clause necessary to the contract. These are reputable agents at big houses. You can call that agent-bashing if you want. I call it alarming.

      Go read the links I posted to the employee section of the freelancer’s guide. You’ll understand where I’m coming from.

      As for speed, you’re wrong about that being too fast. In most genres except the literary mainstream and science fiction, three books per year is the norm. Some writers, like romance writers, write 4-5 books per year. Getting that many published in this current environment is the problem.

      By the way, it’s pretty clear you haven’t read the entire series here. So I suggest you start from the beginning so you can see my points in all parts of the business on e-publishing.

    • Kris says:

      And Jeff..um, what? “Further, there’s an element of needing to have patience because this is a renewable resource beyond what is discussed here. And I mean the kind of patience that works out not just the best strategy but the best *entry point* into doing your own e-books. I don’t see just uploading stuff to Amazon/Kindle as a strategy. ”

      I’m not talking about Kindle/Amazon alone. I’m talking about all e-book formats and there are many. I’m also talking about POD. I don’t understand your point about patience or timing. If a book is long out of print, no Big Publisher will want it. Why shouldn’t the writer put it out there and start making money immediately? Your “timing issues” thing means you’re stuck in the produce model of publishing (and if you don’t understand that, then you really need to go back and read my earlier posts), and has very little to do with the changes in publishing that have happened in just the past few months.

      Most midlist writers who had good agents or knew the business did not sell their e-rights. It became a deal-breaker only last year.

      Everything you have said in your post is filled with myths. It’s time you start researching the changes and challenge your own thinking on these things.

  16. Joel Bancroft-Connors says:

    Thank you for this.

    I’ve been writing freelance for a small game company, mostly because it was fun and it essentially paid for the hobby. But recently I’ve begun to realize I can do something more and I started looking around.

    Finding your site in my early investigation has definitely helped me a lot.

    Thank you again,
    Joel BC

  17. Hello peoples!

    Sydney is always amazed that peoples think that agents can’t be bad agents because they is nice peoples. Just because you likes having drinks with somebody at convention bar is no reason to sleep with them without protections (this is all hypotheticals of course, Sydney is “fixed”) or make them signer on yours checking account.

    Look at Sydney. Sydney is bad agent, sures (and prouds of it!) but she is also sweet little kitty. Warm and soft. Purrs so loud you can hear in next state. Likes chin rubs, scritches, and warm laps. But down deep (okay, no so far down in Sydney’s case!), self-interest rules!

    Sydney wants treats. Sydney wants litter box cleaned. SYDNEY WANTS TUNA! And when Sydney wants, what you wants is not toos important! Sure, Sydney is nice little kitty, but if Sydney is hungry enough, and yous lay on the floor still long enough, SYDNEY WILL EAT YOU!! This is way of the world, silly peoples!

    So many, maybe most bad agents start out as good people. But one day the cash is short, the electrics bill is overdues, the rent is behind, and agent needs moneys for postage. And there is foreign rights check in in-box. Client doesn’t even know it is theres, and agent knows plenty of cash coming down pipeline to pay back! Where is harm! For writer, money in two weeks will still be money out of nowhere! They still thrilled! Agent is hero, and bills get paid! Where is harm!

    Except next week, needs more money to pay back other money, and there is other checks sittings in inbox, stupid hopeful writers pounding at door who would be happy to pay reading or editing fees, and royalty statements that could just “disappear.”

    Always, what is harms? Just a little here and there. Always intends to pay back. Agent surely deserves it for all things they do! Just “borrow” for a few days, a month, a year, until “things turn around…”

    Sydney does not know if power really corrupts, but it sure doesn’t hurt! And many writers gives their agents absolute power over their money and affairs. Is very, very tempting, even for “nice peoples.”

    And now business is changings. Agents’ future place in world us uncertain. EVERYBODY is hungry. And there is all these writers, laying there — very still.

    Yum.

    Is good to be me… PURRRR!

    (Hey, this is good post! Why wastes heres on crazy Rusch-lady’s blog? Sydney steals for her own blog at http://www.BadAgent.me! Sydney even steals from self. Damn, shes is good!)

  18. Jon Guenther says:

    Kris, thank you for an evocative and informed blog, and for sharing your experiences and insights on these important topics. You and Dean are tops in my book. What much of this boils down to is simple exploitation. It’s sad that mid-list writers, or any writers old or new to the field, have to worry about these kinds of things. Unfortunately, it’s been going on for a very long time now and has turned publishing into an elitist playing field. What never ceases to amaze me is than when innovations have come along that would give authors more control over their work (and earn them the largest percentage of the profit from it, which is how it SHOULD be), the traditional publishing evangelists have countered with little more than unsupported rhetoric. Remember when print-on-demand got started? They did a bunch of hand-wringing about quality. When the eBooks started to take off, they tried to grab the rights by stating the books were “still in print” after dismissing the future markets as a “fad.” Now Joe Konrath and a bunch of us are proving them wrong about being successful publishers and maintaining creative control of our works. The world is changing and as an author with almost fifteen years behind me, I’m personally glad to see it.

  19. L. M. May says:

    Having done bookkeeping for an elementary school PTA, I want to emphasize just how important Kris’ message is about the coming bookkeeping headaches.

    As PTA Treasurer, I only handled about $30,000 a year in income and expenditures for a school with an extremely active PTA. I shudder to think of the data entry hours that are going to be involved with tracking the data of 50-100 clients selling across 7-11 different e-platforms–let alone the time needed in dealing with client reports and getting out the checks. The tracking costs WILL NOT be cheap.

    Embezzlement happens in every industry and profession. It is NOT “agent bashing” to point out flaws in how client money would be handled in a potential agent e-packaging system. I spent many hours when I was a treasurer chatting about flaws in how money was handled in an unprofessional manner by some small non-profits. Did my criticism of lousy accounting practices by small non-profits make me guilty of “treasurer bashing?”

    Lousy accounting practices are lousy accounting practices are lousy accounting practices.

    It deeply disturbs me that as a lowly unpaid PTA Treasurer, I was under more oversight and controls than what I see coming in the “e-book packager” agency-writer business model being proposed. Remember what Kris said about not having access to the Kindle or Createspace royalty statements? Not to mention that a yearly general audit is considered out of the question.

    As Treasurer,
    - I had to have a co-signer on every check I wrote;
    - another Board member had to rip open all the mail from the bank and initial it first before it could be given to me;
    - the Board had embezzlement insurance;
    - I had to keep detailed bookkeeping records of all deposits and expenditures;
    - I had to report to the Board each month on all incoming and outgoing funds;
    - I had to hand over all the records, checkbook, and bank statements to a CPA for an audit on a yearly basis.

    Was I “offended” by any of the above controls, thinking that it showed a lack of trust in me? No. These controls were put in place to protect not just the PTA Board, but the Treasurer as well–a records trail to prove that I had not embezzled funds during my term in office in case I was accused of doing so.

    I repeat–I ONLY HANDLED $30K A YEAR IN CASH AND CHECKS, AND I WAS UNDER *THAT* MUCH OVERSIGHT. That $30K is peanuts compared to the money sums involved in what Kris is discussing.

    A lack of controls and oversight over money flow is a lawsuit waiting to happen.

    Everything in Kris’ post is just plain old common business sense.

    • Kris says:

      Thanks, Lisa. Fantastic post. I hope everyone gets a chance to read this.

      And, um…there’s such a thing as embezzlement insurance? Really? I had no idea. (Off to investigate now.)

  20. [...] to avoid to become a mid-list author, with all the mistakes I could do (check Dean’s wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, on the subject. That couple of professional writers is really an eye-opener! [...]

  21. Jim Johnson says:

    Thanks for another informative post, Kris, and thanks to you and Laura for the comments and the reminder that going in to ebooks doesn’t necessarily have to be done RIGHT NOW. I’ve been working on my business plan for delving into ebook writing and have been feeling like the train’s left the station and I was going to miss it, but your comments reminded me that not only has the train only just started up, it’s also really really long.

    • Kris says:

      Great point, Jim. It is long and getting longer. Did you see Amazon’s news this week? 115 e-books for every 100 paperbacks (or every 100 books–I’m not sure, but I’m just drinking my caffeine this a.m. and am too lazy to look for exact numbers). Still, quite fascinating. And shows that e-books in some form will be around for a long time.

  22. L. M. May says:

    The embezzlement insurance (which was for $25K) was one of the benefits of the insurance policy package put together for the PTA Board. The insurance company sold the package to various school non-profit organizations across the country. I don’t know if this kind of coverage is available to small businesses.

    To keep the embezzlement coverage active, the PTA Board had to meet certain requirements, like having a Board member rip open all bank mail to initial the bank statements before the Treasurer could have them.

    • Kris says:

      Thanks, Lisa. I’m going to check into it. Whenever someone other than the boss handles the money, there’s risk of something going wrong. Insurance (at the right price) might ease a little of the burden. (And enforce good accounting practices.)

  23. L. M. May says:

    The money geek in me compels me to share one more story in the hope of educating readers. I happen to know a couple of guys who went on to found their own Wealth Management Firm–they now regularly show up each year on Barron’s “Top 100 Independent Advisors of America” list and Forbes’ “Top 100 Most Dependable Wealth Managers.”

    A strict rule they had from Day 1 when they founded their firm was:
    No client money shall EVER pass through our hands.

    So they went to the trouble of setting up their client accounts through an independent third party (in this case Fidelity was used). Various paperwork was done between the firm & clients & Fidelity to provide limited access by the firm to manage the stocks and bonds in those client accounts, as well as working out that Fidelity would on such-and-such a day in a quarter deduct such-and-such amount from the client account to pay the firm’s fees.

    They set this system up because they planned on success–that their firm would grow and someday be dealing with hundreds of millions of dollars of client assets. Having a third party handle their clients’ money means it’s harder for their employees to steal from clients behind their backs.

    So when all those investments scandals broke three years back, this firm became even more appealing than ever to potential clients because of their squeaky clean reputation, smart money management skills, and their “checks and balances” accounting system.

  24. L. M. May says:

    Oh, and thanks again for doing this post Kris. I’m sorry it got you some flack, but it will help some writers big-time financially down the road.

    • Kris says:

      Thanks, Lisa. Honestly, I expected more flak. When you say the word “agent,” you’re inviting trouble. For some reason, writers want to defend a bad business practice. I don’t understand it at all.

  25. Chuck Emerson says:

    This just now showed up on your RSS feed on my MyYahoo home page. It’s labelled 2 days old, which is correct from when I saw mention on DWS.
    Just thought you’d like to know.

  26. Zoe Winters says:

    Hey Kris,

    Thanks for this awesome post! This stuff makes me SO glad I decided to self-publish. I watch some of the authors around me having problems with their agents, having creative differences with their publishers, having little control over anything, and I just do not see the appeal. I’m glad I decided to forego people seeing me as a “real author” for a little while. If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be making a living writing fiction. I don’t know if I have the staying power necessary to KEEP making a living writing fiction, but I really hope so.

    What I do know is, I will stay in control of my business and I will be making the decisions. I’ve spoken with agents before, but though one of them was very nice and I’d have coffee with her, having coffee with someone isn’t equivalent to trusting them with important business matters. I think I’m definitely more suited to working with an IP attorney should the time ever come.

    • Kris says:

      Thanks, Zoe. I’m constantly thinking about all of this, and my thinking is evolving from minute to minute. But the best part is exactly what you’re saying here: the writer is in control. That’s important, and scary for some writers. For me, it’s unthinkable to work any other way.

  27. There’s a workshop to add you your slate–how to turn your books into ebooks and get them distributed on Amazon, Nook, iTunes and so forth. Thanks for writing these. They’ve been helpful.

    • Kris says:

      Diana, we did one last fall, and called it the New Technology workshop. It just about killed Dean & Scott William Carter, who taught it. But everyone benefitted. I’ll mention it to Dean for this fall, and see what happens.

      Glad the posts have been of assistance!

  28. Kris — A reader referred me to your excellent series after I posted a preliminary report on my own experiment of self-repubbing some of my backlist books. (It’s at http://starrigger.blogspot.com/2011/01/so-hows-it-going-with-ebooks-anyway.html, if people are interested.) My sales are modest but growing, and I decided to post actual numbers of how my self-repubbed books are doing compared to another part of my backlist that’s out via an agent-founded backlist program, and the few ebooks out from my print publishers. The preliminary numbers argue persuasively toward getting backlist books up yourself whenever possible, just as you said.

    That doesn’t mean you’re going to see Konrath-like numbers, but it can indicate the beginning of something that will grow (one hopes). Also, it can help to band together. A group I joined called Backlist Ebooks consists of folk just like me, traditionally published writers who are getting the backlist up on their own, helping each other through encouragement, advice, and common promotion.

    It’s an unstable but very exciting time in publishing, isn’t it?

    • Kris says:

      Jeff, thanks for the report. I checked your link and your sales are working exactly like mine started. I think there’s a tipping point, and wonder if Konrath’s early sales worked the same way. Those of you who are thinking of the various benefits of putting up your backlist in e-book format, check out Jeff’s numbers and the comments section.

      One other thing: do consider print-on-demand as well. It’s just as easy as doing an e-book and the fans who like print-only will order.

      It is an exciting time to be in publishing. I’m enjoying it immensely.

  29. Jon Guenther says:

    A note for Diana, Kris: I did a short series on HTML for writers and how to format your book for Kindle that begins at http://ctrlaltpub.blogspot.com/2010/10/html-for-writers-part-1.html. Additionally, I’m a technical professional by day so if if Dean needs help this year let me know. Be happy to lend my expertise.

  30. Bob Mayer says:

    Exactly. My motto is Lead, Follow or Get The Hell Out Of The Way. Adopted from my Infantry days. But agents, editors, publishers, everyone in the way are terrified. Writers produce the product. Readers consume the product. Everyone else really needs to add to this or become unemployed. I’ve been in publishing for a long time and the way midlist writers have been treated is coming back to haunt all the in-between people. Agents trying to straddle selling to the Big 6 and trying to publish their authors’ backlist on their own isn’t going to work. Inherent conflict of interest and, frankly, we don’t need you to publish us.
    There is so much propaganda being put out by ‘industry experts’ none of whom are midlist writers. Of course agents and editors are going to blog about how important they are. They’re not any more. So just get out of the way. I love my agent. I hope she sells my next book huge. But if she doesn’t, I’m publishing it at Who Dares Wins Publishing, my company, and will watch the money roll in from Kindle, PubIt, LSI and direct sales. I already make more in a month from my own sales than my backlist at Random House, where I’ve sold over a million books.
    Digital Book World was a joke. Michael Hyatt’s last blog about how ebooks were going to be 10% of sales by the end of this year is ludicrous. They’re already 50% of sales.
    It’s the rise of the author and the demise of those who didn’t see the author as important. Author to Reader. That’s the future.
    Write It Forward.

    • Kris says:

      Great post, Bob. I’m thinking the same thing. And I’m happy about it. I didn’t realize how much the system had beaten me down until I started to assess for this new world. It’s fascinating. And I find myself contemplating all kinds of revolution…some of which will be on this blog. I try to keep a level head, but as a writer as well as a reader, I’m just thrilled by all of this.

  31. Colton Goodrich says:

    I can definitely echo the feelings on the first part in regards to creative writing courses and teachers who haven’t published anything. This is why I consider myself lucky. I’m in Brandon Sanderson’s writing class that he teaches at BYU, and one of the first things he emphasized was something Dave Wolverton taught him years previously which is: you can make a living at writing. It’s unfortunate that you can’t install a best-selling author at every university to do so.

    Good read, definitely. A friend turned me to this blog and I’m now hooked.

    • Kris says:

      It’s wonderful that BYU let him teach. Joyce Carol Oates teaches at Princeton. I doubt she tells writers they can’t make a living.

      On the other hand, I know of two bestsellers turned away from teaching at my alma mater because they didn’t have higher degrees. (And my school was just voted the 3rd best MFA writing program in the nation. ) And some professor friends of mine tell similar tales about the schools they teach at.

      Glad you’re enjoying the blog.

  32. DensityDuck says:

    The “you have to learn to do it yourself” idea is interesting, because Victor Hugo–who basically invented “copyright” as we know it today–didn’t *want* authors to have to deal with any of the business side of things. That’s why “copyright” under the Berne Convention is automatic, worldwide, and lifetime. No registration, no bureaucracy, no fees, no renewals; just go out there and write!