The Business Rusch: Beginning Writers Again—Sort of
(Changing Times Part Seventeen)
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Wow. The changes keep coming, dozens in the space of a week. I have watched this kind of change from the outside for years in other industries, studied it in my history classes, continue to read about it in my history books. I know that paradigm shifts are hard on everyone involved, and I’ve often wondered what it feels like to be in the middle of one. Would I know? Would I take action? Would I take the right action?
Well, I’m discovering the answers to those questions right now because of the rapid change in publishing. I do know that the shift is happening, and am rather startled at the long time professionals who are trying exceedingly hard to ignore it. So I guess I can say that yes, in this instance, I know. I am taking action, and I started a little late, in my opinion (two years ago April), although when I really step back and evaluate, I realize I wasn’t that late.
Would I take the right action? That’s the hard question. It’s easier for me to answer than it is for beginning writers. My answer—at the moment—is a heartfelt I think so. But as I said last week, I’m struggling with what kind of advice to give beginners. I have a lot of concerns. Most of us who have long-term writing careers have concerns about what to tell beginners. And most of us are fumbling with our answers—or changing them as the news changes—or worrying about things that we have absolutely no control over.
The things I discovered this week include things that David Wisehart posted on my blog, things that I had somehow missed. He mentioned the New York Times much ballyhooed digital list won’t include self published titles, and then provided the links so that I could reference them for you. Amanda Hocking announced in USA Today that she had made 450,000 book sales in January. January. Remember the bestseller numbers I posted in the section on bestsellers? Many of the folks who hit the pre-digital New York Times hardcover list did not have 450,000 book sales in a single year. Granted, Hocking’s books are mostly digital and they’re cheap (99 cents to $2.99), but still. These are significant game-changing numbers, and I’ll discuss why in a minute.
On the sad end of the spectrum, Powell’s Bookstore which is—bar none—my favorite bookstore in the United States, announced that it would lay off 31 workers, which comes to about 10% of its non-management workforce. Powell’s is a force here in the Northwest. Its flagship store used to be a car dealership, and covers an entire city block. It’s an amazing, fantastic wonderland of books, and apparently it has seen declining sales for the past three years.
In making her announcement, company president Emily Powell cited a variety of factors including increased health care costs (how many bookstores do you know that can afford to pay their employees health care at all?) and the recession. But she also cited the rise of digital books and that paradigm shift I mentioned at the top of this post. She said, “Sales for this fiscal year are down and we expect this trend will continue. The largest decreases have been in new book sales. We see this as a clear indication that we are losing sales to electronic books and reading devices. Given the company’s declining sales, combined with industry data on the rapid growth of electronic book sales, we expect to see continuing erosion of new book sales over the next few years. While we believe we can compensate for some of the loss with solid used book sales and growth in gift sales, the erosion of new book sales will continue to take its toll.”
She’s right. I still drop about $200 whenever I go to Powell’s. But I don’t go as often. I get most of my new fiction titles on Kindle, unless I really love the author and want to hold the book itself. I’ll read nonfiction on Kindle under duress, mostly because I read most of my nonfiction for research and (Collectors, prepare to cringe in unison!) I write in the books. Right now, you do that digitally, but it’s just not that efficient.
I was stunned with the Powell’s news. It is a behemoth and it seems solid. But as the friend who provided the initial link said in his post, the dinosaurs seemed stable until the asteroid hit.
Also, this week, my own personal paradigm shift which I’ve been struggling over for the past few months has culminated in the publication of my first original title. Right now, The Death of Davy Moss is only available electronically, but the trade paper version will appear in a month or two.
The book has made the rounds of traditional publishing (and then some!) and it garnered some of the best rejections of my career. Editors loved this book, but the sales force at Big Publishing hated the very concept. Books about music don’t sell, they said, and then they’d force the editor to pass. I’d love to prove those guys on the various sales forces wrong. But I honestly don’t care if Davy Moss ever reaches “successful” Big Publishing sales figures. I’m just happy to have the book out for readers.
What does all of this change mean for beginning writers? Well, I’m still struggling to give my answer. I know last week’s post discouraged some of you, and encouraged some of you. I suspect all of these posts will do that. And I do think one of the results of this paradigm shift will be that different kinds of writers will succeed in the new publishing world than the writers who succeeded in the old one.
Before I go further, I need to add some information for those poor folks who got discouraged by last week’s post. I know of three beginning writers whose Big Publishers are launching them perfectly. None of these three writers got blow-out money, but they all got advances in the low six-figures for three books. Blow-out money, in my opinion, would be an advance in the low six-figures for one book, not divided by three books. (And even that isn’t blow-out money by the standards of the 1990s. <sigh>)
Two of these new writers have written YA novels. One is writing a large fantasy series. The publishers are doing everything from sending a very personable author on an extended book tour (with major media) to pre-publication packets of cool stuff designed to get bookstores interested to sending review copies to everyone, including the bookstore owners’ mothers and their mothers’ dogs. (Okay, I made that last part up, but you know what I mean.)
In other words, Big Publishing can—and still does—pull out all the stops when they have a potential bestseller on their hands. And in all three cases, three different Big Publishers believe they have a potential bestseller.
I also need to note, for those of you who are discouraged, that in all of my years of publishing, I have never personally known three beginning writers who have gotten such marvelous treatment in the same year. The dream via Big Publishing can happen. It might happen to you.
Or it might not.
And that’s no different from the way it has always been. Even writers who get the big money early on have no guarantee of success. Because ultimately, it’s the book that decides whether or not the writer succeeds. It doesn’t matter how much money the Big Publisher puts behind the book, or how hard the Big Publisher launches the book, the book must still stand on its own. Readers will either love it or hate it. They’ll buy it or they won’t. They’ll recommend it to friends or they’ll warn friends away from it.
That’s no different than it was in the 19th century, no different than it was in the 20th century, and no different than it is now in the digital age.
Books that sell well remain in print. That’s a good thing. I know some of you thought my comments last week were all negative—and in some areas they are. Writers who go through Big Publishing will get significantly less money on their digital rights than writers who go it alone, but if a writer is in publishing for the money alone, the writer is in the wrong business.
I personally want readers and I want as many readers as possible. More readers equal more money—of course—but more readers also equal a long-term career. If my book is in print from a Big Publisher, then theoretically the book is attracting readers. If my book is in print from my self-publishing arm or an indie publisher, then theoretically the book is attracting readers.
And that, my friends, is really what matters.
In June of 2010, I wrote a blog post for the Freelancer’s Survival Guide, called “Giving Up On Yourself (Part One).” To date, it’s the third most read post on my blog, which is why it still appears on my home page in the most popular category, which is automatically generated by the web design program. In that post, I worried about new writers going to self-publishing too soon, and that self-publishing might be a sign that those writers are giving up on themselves.
I still worry about that. I worry about a lot of things concerning new writers. Right now is a particularly tricky time to be a talented beginner.
As many of you could tell from last week’s post, I am leaning toward telling new writers to self-publish rather than go to Big Publishing. The contract terms concern me and so do the agents, particularly those who have gotten into digital publishing. Scams and business practices that will harm writers are growing like mushrooms in a dark damp room.
In publishing, people who understand business have more opportunities right now to screw people who don’t understand business than ever before.
I’ll be honest. If I were the head of a big publishing company, I would contractually lock my new writers down so that it would be virtually impossible for them to write for another company under the same name. I would do a lot of the things that big corporations do when they lock down their employee’s intellectual property both on and off the job. Established writers with business savvy wouldn’t sign those contracts.
Most beginners would.
Fortunately, the folks in charge of Big Publishing’s contract departments are more ethical than I am and either haven’t thought of this or have ruled it out as too cumbersome.
But a lot of agents have already thought of this and have taken their clients entire oeuvre and are locking it down under the agent’s publishing imprint. As I mentioned before, this is a conflict of interest, and any agent who is operating in these conditions should be fired—even by (especially by) a beginning writer. These unethical agents are taking a percentage of their clients work for the lifetime of that work. They’re funneling the money through the agency with no means to accurately track the funds. Please see my earlier post on this topic because it’s important. Read the comments as well. This is one very bad business practice all writers should avoid.
But agents aren’t the only ones setting up companies that seem good but ultimately won’t benefit the writer at all. One of my readers pointed me to this startup, mentioned in the New York Times. I recognize the name of everyone involved in this organization—all reputable publishing folk—and I can tell you right now that the only way this company with such high-powered people will make money is if they charge a percentage for their services. They will act like a publisher, taking a large percentage of a book’s digital earnings.
In the past, a company like this would provide access to markets and readers that a writer couldn’t get to on her own. But nowadays, a writer can get to those markets and those readers cheaply and easily without help. In other words, the company is going to take a large percentage of a writer’s sales for work the writer could easily do herself. Only writers who don’t understand the new business models or writers who want to be taken care of or writers who wouldn’t do the work anyway will go with companies like this one. And that’s a real shame.
This week’s game-changer for me, the thing that is changing my mind about advice to new writers, is Amanda Hocking. I noticed about two weeks ago that her novel Switched was number 3 on the Kindle paid bestseller list, sandwiched between Lisa Gardner and Stieg Larsson. I know what Larsson’s e-book numbers are: they made news several months back, and nothing has changed. The fact that Hocking is right there beside him told me her books were selling at least 100,000 copies on Kindle alone.
The nice thing about Hocking is that she publishes her numbers. She sold 99,000 books in December (with only a few distribution channels reporting) and 4.5 times that in January (again, with only a few distribution channels reporting).
Why does that change the game for me? Because, as I mentioned in this very series only a few months ago (maybe only a few weeks ago), I believed that the only way to sell 100,000 or more copies of a single title was to go through Big Publishing. I figured that would remain the same for a few years at least.
But with Powell’s layoffs, Emily Powell’s comments, Borders troubles, and the fact that some distributors are going out of business suddenly a 100,000 paper one-day laydown becomes harder. And if a self-published writer can sell that many copies—which is bestseller numbers—in a book form that isn’t yet available to 85% of the reading public, then we’re truly in the middle of a revolution, one that’s shifting faster than I expected.
Also, the indicators of what makes a book successful are changing. USA Today will list self-published Hocking on their weekly bestseller list. The New York Times will ignore her. The Times has always tried to control the type of books that become bestsellers, first by only letting certain bookstores report sales (not all bookstores) and then by cannibalizing their lists, removing J.K. Rowling from their adult bestseller list when it seemed that her fans were buying too many copies of her books and knocking “worthy” books off the list. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer and other legitimate bestsellers were sent to the kids’ table—the children’s and young adult bestseller lists—so that they wouldn’t interfere with adult conversation.
When the Times did that, they moved closer to irrelevant. But if they’re going to ignore publishing phenoms like Hocking, who has turned down Big Publishing offers (as she should), then the Times has just tarnished the integrity of its “bestseller” list—in public for everyone (not just those in the know in publishing) to see.
Why are these things game-changers for me and for beginning writers? Because I truly believed that the only way to make a name in publishing—a large name, outside of a little niche—was to go to Big Publishing. The events of this past month have knocked that assumption out of the water.
(And no, you gloom and doomers, I still don’t believe that Big Publishing will go away. I do, however, believe it will morph into a different kind of business, but that’s a topic for another day.)
So here I sit, still struggling with the kind of advice to give to beginning writers. I’m lost in my concerns, flailing in the dark, leaning toward advising you all to self-publishing while worrying that doing so might harm you. But I also worry that going to Big Publishing might harm you. And I worry that you’ll hook up with a bad crowd, one that will hurt you in the long run.
I had planned to advise beginning writers to do both: try for Big Publishing and try self-publishing, using some strategies I’m watching some successful new writers employ. But I’m not sure that’s good one-size-fits-all advice.
I’m not sure there is good one-size-fits-all advice. So rather than tell you how to go about getting published, which is becoming more and more of a personal decision each and every day, I’m going to discuss the skills a beginning writer needs to survive in the new publishing environment.
In the very recent past (a few years ago), writers could be “artists” who didn’t dirty their fingers with business or any of those “trivial” concerns. Writers could just write. They could hire an agent to represent them and worry about all those career-type things, and still the writer could make a decent (if not good) living.
Those days are gone.
The writer who will survive in this new publishing environment will have to be fast, smart, business-savvy, and constantly willing to learn. When Dean Wesley Smith and I teach, we always tell writers that they are responsible for their own careers. In the very recent past, this was news to the writer. Writers often blamed their agent or their editor for career troubles, rarely taking responsibility for themselves.
Those writers will still exist in this new publishing environment, but they will not make a living at their writing. They might make $5,000 per year, but not much more. Part of that will be because of their slowness, but most of it will be because of their ignorance. They’ll sign up with places like the one I mentioned above. They’ll sign a bad contract with a publisher. They’ll let their agent publish their backlist. People they’ve never even met—from the agent’s bookkeeper to someone at a small e-publishing house—will embezzle from them and they’ll never ever know it.
They’ll go to writers conferences, sit in the bar, and bemoan the state of publishing, telling new writers how impossible it is to make a living.
While the writers who have the skills to survive in this new publishing world will be too damn busy to go to writers conferences or sit in a bar, and those writers (if they had time) would simply laugh at the word “impossible.”
In some ways, we have returned—almost instantly—to the days of the pulps. The faster the writer is, the better the writer is at storytelling (not at writing pretty sentences), the more the writer’s works will sell. The better the writer is at business, the more profit she will make from her own writing.
The transition that we’re going through, this paradigm shift, will be particularly tough on the classically trained writer, the one who has bought all the myths about writing slow, about the importance of each word, about how stupid artists are about business. Those writers will have to change the way they think about writing before they can even start learning the tools they need to survive in this business.
Is it smart for the new writer to go into Big Publishing? It might be, if the writer is fast and can produce work on her own as well, so that she can capitalize on all the marketing that Big Publishing will do for her book. Is it smart for the new writer to avoid self-publishing? I don’t think so. I think the sooner a writer learns those skills, the better off she’ll be as books go more and more toward digital content, and more and more traditional readers (those who prefer paper) order their books online.
The skill set that it takes to become a professional writer has changed dramatically in the past year, and it’ll take a lot of writers time to catch up. Some never will. And some will learn the wrong skills. I’m particularly worried about the indie writers with one book who promote the hell out of that single title, and forget to write the next book. Who cares if 10,000 people bought your first book? If it takes two years to finish the next one, they’ll move onto some other writer and probably forget you.
So…unless things change dramatically again during the next week, I’m going to list the skills that a new writer needs to survive in this new publishing environment, and explain why I believe those skills are necessary.
The days of the “take-care-of-me” writer are gone, folks. Those writers will not survive in the new environment. We will lose a lot of talented writers. But as my well-published friends said at that lunch ten days ago now, how many talented writers whose skill set did not match Big Publishing’s rules didn’t survive in the old publishing environment? We wouldn’t know about Amanda Hocking without the changes in publishing. I have a hunch we’re going to discover quite a few other writers who couldn’t get through the “give me Dan Brown crossed with J.K. Rowling” mindset of Big Publishing, writers who are worth reading.
Things are going to be different from now on. Will they be better? I don’t know. But in this week when my “unsaleable” novel, The Death of Davy Moss, has hit bookstores, I’m inclined to say yes, better. And what’s more, I’m inclined to believe it.
As you can see, I’m struggling with these changes just like you are. And because I write this blog every week, my struggles are on the page (in the pixels?) for all of you to see. It’s an exciting time to be a writer. It’s also a time when writers and readers have more opportunities for direct communication, from e-mails to blog posts to comments. That’s why I have the donation button up here, but not on my Free Fiction Monday posts. The donation button keeps me writing nonfiction when I should be finishing the latest novel. That, and you guys with your thoughts and challenges. You keep me thinking—and that’s a good thing. Thanks.
“The Business Rusch: Beginning Writers Again—Sort of” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.