The Business Rusch: Modern Writer Survival Skills (Changing Times Part 18)

The Business Rusch: Modern Writer Survival Skills

(Changing Times Part Eighteen)

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

I was going to title this installment “Beginning Writers Part Three,” but I think that title is too exclusive. Because all writers are going to need the skill sets I’m going to describe below to get through these changes in publishing.

My crystal ball is refusing to tell me whether or not it’s best for beginning writers to continue to pound on the doors of Big Publishing or to go it alone.  As many commenters on last week’s post noted, it’s not an either-or choice, for any writer.  Right now, I’m walking both paths—doing frontlist titles with Big Publishing and with a small publisher that I’m involved with.  I’m also bringing my backlist—all of it—back into print, which is helping my frontlist and vice versa.

I suspect that’s the way to go. But events like this week’s bankruptcy filing from Borders Books make me nervous. Borders filed for Chapter 11, which is reorganization.  In other words, Borders hopes to survive these changes. But if you look deeply at Borders, you realize how much of a “hope” that is.  Read this article before you comment on Borders troubles below, because The Wall Street Journal did a good job on Saturday (before the news was official) of delineating all of the problems Borders has had—and most of them have nothing to do with e-readers and everything to do with extreme mismanagement over more than a decade.

Many publishers continued to ship to Borders throughout the financial troubles and are now eating hundreds of thousands of dollars that Borders cannot and might never pay.  That doesn’t even count what will happen to the distributors, whose debt to Borders is even higher.

Borders implosion will have a ripple effect throughout Big Publishing: any company that was working on a tight margin will either need some cash infusion of its own or will need the help of its conglomerate (which just might cut it loose) or will go out of business.  You’ll see the effects in the next six months, no matter what happens to Borders.

Publishers I’ve been talking to who work in Big Publishing say they’re scrambling to replace brick-and-mortar bookstore income with e-book income.  It’s not a one-to-one parity, but the rise of e-books while brick-and-mortar stores decline will help a lot of those marginal companies I mentioned above survive.

Why do I worry about the shift from one model to another when I say that Big Publishing will survive these changes? Because when I say that Big Publishing will survive, I am talking about Big Publishing as a single entity.  It really isn’t a single entity at all.  It’s made up of many publishing companies, with many different business models.  As Big Publishing struggles through these changes, some of the publishing companies that comprise Big Publishing will go down.  Others will rise.  That’s how it works, that’s how it has always worked, and always will work.

If you don’t understand this or if you’re one of those gloom and doomers who still think that Big Publishing will collapse, then please go back and read my earlier posts on Big Publishing, just to get a concept of the size of all of this.  I used the TV analogy before: I said that the networks didn’t go away because of the rise of cable, although the networks’ audience share reduced.

But in a comment last week, I might have made a better analogy.  The TV and Movie industry didn’t implode because YouTube started.  In fact, those industries now use YouTube to their own advantage.  Think of it in those terms.

So, if I don’t believe Big Publishing (the entity) will collapse, then why am I worried about the financial ripple caused by Borders and the inevitable loss of some distributors? Because the books written by some writers will get caught in publisher bankruptcies, and that, my friends, will be ugly.  (And no, that bankruptcy clause in your contract probably won’t protect you even if the bankruptcy judge decides to honor that clause, which he probably won’t.)  Predicting which publishers will go down is almost impossible, but if you’re worried about getting trapped by Big Publishing, then go only to the very biggest companies, the ones that have international conglomerates behind them. Those conglomerates will close or sell off parts that don’t make money, instead of struggling and filing for bankruptcy.  It’s the medium-size players in Big Publishing that might have trouble.

Or not.

It all depends on how quickly publishing companies can move to the digital world and—even more important—how good their internal money management is and has been.  And that’s stuff you the writer won’t be able to see until the announcement gets made. (For other issues that will come up during the Borders bankruptcy, see C.E. Petit’s blog on the various ramifications.)

Of course, these same arguments can be made for start-ups working in e-publishing, even the gateway sites that get you to Kindle or Pubit without you doing the work yourself.  Those sites are even shakier because they’re newer, and they’re often owned by one person or a handful of people, who might or might not be good at running a business.

So…I guess what I’m saying here is this: Uncertainty rules right now.  And uncertainty favors a certain type of personality, one who can do the things I’m going to list below.

What Writers Need To Survive The Changes in Publishing

1. Flexibility.  Writers who need things to be just so, writers who must follow every single rule to the letter, aren’t going to thrive in this new environment.  The publishing world is shifting, sometimes daily, and it takes a flexible person to survive.

That person must be able to surf the changes.  But to surf them well, that person needs to be aware of the changes—and be willing to move when the opportunity arises. Not all moves will be successful, but the writer who tries and fails will have a lot more success than the writer who clings to “the way it is” and doesn’t try at all.

2. Forward-Thinking.  Writers who will survive will need to look ahead.  They need to be constantly evaluating new technology, new opportunities, and new challenges. This goes back to flexibility in that as things change, the writer has to be willing to try something new.  But the writer can’t jump whole-hog into that new change without testing it first.  The writer will need to be able to assess the risk of each new thing without jeopardizing the writer’s entire livelihood.  Sometimes that will mean working in the old system while moving to the new. Sometimes it will mean trying a variety of different tech providers for the same product. And sometimes it will mean the writer has to wait until the market shakes out a bit more before making her move.

If you’re not good at extrapolating the future from the present, then find folks who are.  Read their blogs, listen to their advice, and then do what’s best for you.  Just because it’s good for me or Dean Wesley Smith or J.A. Konrath or Scott Turow doesn’t mean it’s good for you.

3. Business Savvy.  Writers who don’t understand business will get screwed in the new publishing environment.  During any time of great change in an industry, the people who understand how business works do much better than those who just labor in that industry.  It’s even better if the writer understands more than his own business.  It’s better if he knows the patterns that start-ups follow, what happens in bubbles, how boom-and-bust cycles work.  The more business history that a writer knows, the better off he will be—provided that history doesn’t make him too conservative or too much of a risk-taker.

If you understand the patterns of business, then you’ll understand the changes going on around you. And don’t learn one model.  Publishing may imitate television in one instance and the tech industry in another.  So learn about the changes in other industries—from the beginnings of those industries.  (In other words, don’t just look at the music industry of the last ten years, but look at its entire history; you’ll see where technology impacted it and where it didn’t. Because tech change altering the music industry has happened since the very beginning of the 20th century.)  Read, learn, think.  Learn to think like a businessperson, not like some take-care-of-me-please artist.

4. Entrepreneurial Spirit.  The writer who will survive will need more than business savvy. She’ll need to recognize that she’s an entrepreneur.  For those of you who aren’t entirely sure what I mean by this, an entrepreneur is a person who sets up and finances a commercial enterprise (or commercial enterprises) for profit.  There are two keys in that definition.  An entrepreneur establishes a commercial enterprise for profit.

The days in which an artist with no business savvy can make a living as a writer are gone.  And honestly, good riddance.  The know-nothing writers who missed their deadlines by years because the book wasn’t perfect or who screamed at their editors (their advocates in a publishing house) or hired scam agents made the business so much harder for the rest of us.  It always insulted me that I got lumped into the category of know-nothing by every new editor/publisher I worked with because the majority of their experiences with writers were terrible on a business level.  I am a professional, unlike so many of these “artists” who lucked into a career because the times allowed it.  I act professionally in an industry where most of my colleagues do not.

Now that has changed and will continue to change. Those who will make a living at writing, maintain a career, and perhaps get wealthy will know business. Those “artists” who write one book every five years will need day jobs for the rest of their lives—if the book even gets published. And even if that book becomes a bestseller, the “artists” won’t understand how contracts and financing work. The “artists” won’t make money on their bestsellers but the agents, managers, and digital management companies like the start-up mentioned last week will get rich off of the work that the “artists” produce. Why will the agents, managers, and those management companies get rich? Because they know business and they’ll leverage hundreds of books into millions of dollars.  These people won’t care about the “artists” except to exploit them.  And if the “artists” refuse to learn business, they’re the ones at fault for the exploitation.

So the writer with entrepreneurial spirit will understand, even intuitively, that she’s the one in charge of her career.  Everything she writes will promote her brand or her brands.  If she writes under a pen name, that pen name is a brand.  If she writes under a dozen pen names, each pen name is a brand. Those brands are all part of the writer’s personal company, which she will run.

(I am not saying here that writers now need to go out and advertise their books.  Or do a million book signings or go to a million conferences to “promote” their work.  That is not what writers do. Writers promote their work best by writing and publishing new work.  I’ll explain that in detail in a future post.)

Writers have always been responsible for their own careers.  When a writer signs an agreement with a publisher, that agreement is between the writer and the publisher. The agent who negotiated the agreement does not sign the agreement, nor does the editor who represented the publisher.  If the agent negotiated a bad agreement and the writer signed the contract, then it was the writer’s fault, not the agent’s.  If the editor promised something, but the writer failed to get that promise worked into the contract and that promise never got fulfilled, then that wasn’t the publisher’s fault.  The publisher might not have known about that promise at all. The fault was with the writer, who failed to get that promise in writing in the legal document that ties the writer to the publisher.

But in the past (and in the new systems with agents, managers, and those marginal management businesses), it was always easier for the writer to blame the agent or the publishing company for the writer’s mistake. One reason it was easy to blame the others was because the writer could survive such mistakes and still make a living.

With the changes in publishing contracts mentioned in the comments last week and in the body of my post the week before, the ignorance of most young agents, the greed of many of these new hybrid companies coming in, ignorant writers will be a money machine for other people.  Ignorant writers will no longer make a living at this business.

Which leaves the rest of us, those who are—whether we call ourselves that or not—entrepreneurs.  We know that our books are our products, and we know that they funnel money into our businesses.  If the books fail for whatever reason, that failure falls on our shoulders.  If the books succeed, then they will succeed because of our work.  It’s a simple—and as daunting—as that.

Too many writers looked at publishers as their patrons and not as partners in business.  Writers who survive in this new world will understand that they’re working in a commercial system, designed to make a profit and will act accordingly.

Now before those of you who think that commercial equals crap jump on me again this week, let me say clearly and for the record that I’m not telling writers to write crap.  Art takes care of itself.  The writers whose work we still read now were the bestsellers of their day (with one or two bestsellers who became bestsellers shortly after their deaths). I’m not saying that writers should copy Twilight or to try to be anything but who they already are artistically.  I’m not saying be a copycat or try to follow trends.

I am saying that writers need to recognize when they write a book that will appeal to a large number of readers and recognize when they’ve written a book that will appeal to only a handful of readers. It’s okay to produce both kinds of book. But to expect a novel written in iambic pentameter about a man who spends an afternoon gazing at butterflies to sell millions of copies is to set yourself up for disappointment, no matter how lovely the prose, how perfect the iambic pentameter, or how deeply and beautifully described the butterflies are.

Like it or not, writers, you live and work in a capitalistic system, and your product, your art, your novels, have to appeal to a goodly number of readers in order to thrive.

The new system will bring down the size of the audience a writer needs in order to survive.  As a number of commenters said last week, the profits a writer makes when doing this on her own are great enough that she doesn’t have to sell 50,000 copies of her novel to make a living; she can sell 5,000 and still live off the profits.

And that, for the business savvy entrepreneurial writer, is a good thing.  Ironically, the ones who would benefit the most from this—the artists who want to write lovely and difficult novels without great sales potential—won’t even try.  They’ll get eaten by the system, leaving the innovation in prose and style and storytelling to come from the writer/entrepreneur

Which really isn’t a surprise, because entrepreneurs have been in charge of innovation in this country since the beginning of the Republic more than 200 years ago.

So…since we’re on the topic of craft, let’s go one farther and look at the elements of craft that will help a writer survive in this new environment.

5. Write Fast.  Yep.  That whole writing slow myth that Dean so effectively deals with in this New World of Publishing post.  The myth was designed to slow writers down so that they could function in the publishing environment of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.  In other words, Big Publishing didn’t know how to publish a writer who wrote more than one book per year. Big Publishing’s system (back then) couldn’t handle the cost of putting out more than one book by a writer in a single year. Bookstores were smaller then, and only had so much shelf space.  (This was before the big box stores.)  So even if a writer wrote fast, she couldn’t get her work into the stores because the bookstore owner would say, “We already have her new book.”

Solution? Slow the writer down.  Writers bought this myth hook, line, and sinker, and still repeat it (some on my blog last week. <grump.>)  That’s not how art works.  Art improves with practice.  Practice does not mean playing the same piece of music for one year; practice means learning that piece of music and another and another for a concert this week, and then more music for the next and more for the next.  Writing is a physical skill, just like athletics.  Imagine the basketball player who has perfected his jump shot, but never even tried to dribble.  Would he have a job in the NBA? Not likely. But that’s what Big Publishing confined writers to—for a period of 30 years—and then that business practice got turned into a myth by wannabe writers teaching creative writing classes.  And on it goes.

Note that I said this had changed by the 1990s. At that point, the gigantic chain stores had come in with their huge shelf space.  Harlequin’s subscription service trained romance writers to write four and five “category” books per year, and by 1990 or 1991, it became acceptable again for a writer to publish 4 and 5 books per year under the same name.

Go read Dean’s post: he talks about why writing fast improves a writer’s skills. Then realize that except for that thirty-year period, our best writers (the ones we still read—like Shakespeare and Charles Dickens) wrote fast.

So that’s the craft level.  Why will writing fast work on a business level? Think of it from the reader’s perspective.  The reader has finished The Great American Novel by Really Good Writer.  Now the reader wants to read the next book by Really Good Writer. So the reader goes to the bookstore or logs onto or opens his e-reader, and tries to find another book by Really Good Writer.

And there isn’t one.

Really Good Writer spent all year promoting The Great American Novel. Then Really Good Writer spent two years writing Another Great American Novel.  The second book gets published three years after the first.  By that point, the reader has gone onto other writers, writers who have a backlist.  The reader has forgotten all about Really Good Writer.

Nora Roberts has proven over and over again that readers will read hundreds of books by the same author provided the readers like that author’s work in the first place.  James Patterson is showing the same thing.  Readers even follow these writers from pen name to pen name, genre to genre.

This happens on a smaller scale with other writers—me, included.  Readers want to read more by their favorite author,  not less. And the readers will promote your work for you, simply by ordering the next work. The algorithms on the online publishing tell you that “readers who bought this book” also bought this book, that book, and this other book.  If the writer only has one book, the follow-up books are all by other writers.

If the writer has written more books, chances are the follow-up books are by the same writer…leading the readers right to that writer’s work because the writer has a lot of work in print.

Okay…I am now past my personally imposed word limit for these blogs (I try not to go over 3K, and I went by that a while ago).  I’m not going to get to the other things a modern writer needs to survive in this week’s post.  I will get to them next week, even if I have to start out talking about various changes in this rapidly shifting industry.

So tune in next week for the next installment….

And thanks to everyone who commented, e-mailed, and donated.  The e-mails were particularly heartfelt as some of  you described the deal-breaking contract terms you faced in the last year.  <shakes head> I knew it was coming; sorry to hear that it’s here.  For those of you new to my blog, the donation button keeps me writing posts instead of writing the fiction that pays my bills.  So if you found this (or previous posts) useful, please donate a few bucks.  It’ll keep me coming back to the nonfiction week after week.  Thanks.

“The Business Rusch: Modern Writer Survival Skills (Changing Times Part 18)” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.