The Business Rusch: Even More Writer Survival Skills (Changing Times Part 20)

The Business Rusch: Even More Writer Survival Skills (Changing Times Part Twenty)

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

This past week also saw a lot of changes in the publishing industry, most of which I did not have time to process. Also, I’m not sure if these changes are simply steps along a path leading in a direction we don’t entirely understand yet or if these changes are significant.  I’m going to list a couple of them and let you decide.

First, Random House decided to join the other publishers in a pricing structure called “the agency model.”  Essentially, what this means is that the publisher sets the price, period.  This was what the big fight between Amazon and Macmillan was about last year, and Amazon caved with a petty reaction in its Kindle store.  All Agency-priced books have this snarky comment along the bottom: “Price established by the publisher.”

Do realize this is a change in the retail model, not just for books but for most goods.  In the past, the retailer got charged a certain amount to place an item in the store. But once that item was in the store, the retailer could give it away for free if he wanted to, so long as the manufacturer received that certain amount.

I would have said that this agency model always raises the price to the consumer, but some book companies are now using discounting as a strategy, as Random House did in February in order to get one of its e-books (Lisa Gardner’s Alone) on that newly established highly bogus New York Times e-book bestseller list.  The Times won’t list free books on its list, so Random House set its book price at 99 cents.  (Even that caused a momentary controversy, quickly resolved.) Once the book hit the list, the price got raised, but such strategic pricing enabled the publisher to get a run at the list. (Of course, the book’s quality had to be high enough to hit the list.  Not every book will sell well enough to hit any list, even when that book is priced at 99 cents.)

The other big news of the week? HarperCollins has decided to limit library downloads of e-books.  Now, any Harper e-book purchased by a library may only have 26 downloads before that library license expires.  The library must purchase again (at a lower rate).

In response Overdrive, which supplies e-books to libraries, has taken Harper out of the regular catalogue and placed them in a separate catalogue.  HarperCollins is calling foul for Overdrive’s behavior, but libraries are calling foul at HarperCollins’s.

I suspect such fights will continue for the next two or three years as we slowly determine what is “customary” and “expected” in the e-book marketplace.

And finally, for those of you still having trouble with my previous post, let me add a few words.  First, all of you debating on a particular list serve—um, no, I haven’t peered into the “abyss” of e-publishing and lost my mind.  I have believed what I wrote about voice, style, story, and writing fast for more than two decades.

To back up what I said about focusing less on the words and more on the story, let me bring in Elmore Leonard.  Over the weekend, the students at our workshop gave me and Dean a lovely book: Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing (with some snappy illustrations by Joe Ciardiello).  (Thank you, everyone!)

Inside, I found this: “If proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.”

Now, Elmore Leonard initially wrote this in 2001 for The New Yorker and at that time, no one was staring down the abyss of electronic publishing and losing their mind.  So if you choose not to believe crazy old me, perhaps you should listen to one of our best stylists as well as a bestseller and damn fine storyteller who happened to be writing for the magazine that stands as the arbiter of literary style in this country.  Just sayin’.

(Ooops. Sorry about the grammatical error there. Must’ve been the abyss speaking.)

Okay-doke.  Now that we have that weekly stuff out of the way, let’s return to our regularly scheduled blog post.

In the previous two weeks, we’ve discussed what it takes for a modern writer to survive in today’s ever-changing publishing environment.  If you haven’t read those posts, now’s the time.  Here’s the link to the first and the second.

For those of you who’ve been following along week to week, here’s a short review.  First I discussed some of the business skills a writer would need.  Those are:

1. Flexibility

2. Forward-thinking

3. Business Savvy

4. Entrepreneurial Spirit

Then I moved away from business and ventured into craft.  I said writers with these tools already in their craft toolbox will do better in the modern publishing era.  The tools are:

5. Write Fast

6. Storytelling Ability.

7. Voice.

The last few skills I’m going to mention can apply to both craft and to business.  Frankly, the past five decades in publishing have made the following skills somewhat obsolete.  Writers with these skills found publishing much more frustrating than passive writers who believed all of the myths (you can’t make a living; you must write slowly; you cannot write more than one book every five years or you’re committing crap; avoid genre at all costs; avoid clichés at all costs—you get the idea).

To survive in the modern publishing era, writers need to be:

8. Risk-takers.

I wrote two separate posts on taking risks in the Freelancer’s Survival Guide. I’m going to link to the second one here, but both are worth reading before you get too deep into this discussion.

The old system removed the element of risk from the writer’s hands and put it in the hands of the publisher. The publisher then tried to tame risk, control it, and pretend that books were widgets instead of little pieces of individuality bound in cloth with a pretty cover.

If you believe the myths, and so many writers do, then writers should never quit their day jobs, write only in their spare time, commit only a few books in their lifetime and hope for the best.  No risk, really, because the writer doesn’t have a career; she has a hobby.  Her career is whatever her day job is.

The publisher determined if those handful of books that the writer wrote were “worthy” of publication.  Of course, no one can know what will make a success in publishing—no one has ever known—so what this really means is that the publisher looked at previously published items, tried to figure out if the new book was similar enough to attract readers, and then the publisher guessed.

The difference between a publisher’s guess and a writer’s guess was a matter of scale.  The writer (who had an income thanks to the day job) lost a bit of time and some ego if the book didn’t sell (either to the publisher or to the public once the book appeared).  The publisher (who hoped to make a slight [4%] profit on the book) lost a minimum of $200,000 up front money if the book didn’t sell.  If that publisher had too many books that didn’t sell, the person who made the publishing decision lost his job.  And if the publishing company had too many books that didn’t sell, then the publishing company went belly-up.

The publisher assumed the bulk of the risk and received the bulk of the reward. The writer made that trade-off in order to fulfill her dreams and to be published.

Early on, we all bought into that system.  Some of us learned ways around it.  Others got crushed by it.

However, a lot of writers survived in that protective bubble because the publishers (and agents) treated writers like children, protecting them from the “realities” of publishing.  Sometimes this protection came in the form of withholding information (like never really telling a writer how well her book was selling; obfuscating royalty statements; refusing to answer phone calls), and sometimes this protection came in the form of active lies (“yes, of course, you’re doing well” when the writer isn’t).

Publishers didn’t believe that this behavior had a significant impact on the writer because most writers had day jobs.  So yes, writers went away, but mostly writers just moved to other publishing  houses where they were no longer the first publishing house’s problem.  Writers could still feed their families and if they couldn’t, then who did they think they were? A New York Times bestseller? Why didn’t they get a day job?

I call these passive writers “take care of me” writers.  For the sake of brevity, we’ll call them TCM writers.  TCM writers often behaved like spoiled children, having tantrums when they heard the word “no,” never turning their books in on time, behaving badly at conventions and writers conferences and always indulging in their bad-boy artistic behaviors.

The rest of us who worked fulltime as writers were constantly told by the people who were supposedly our publishing partners to “be realistic” and get a real job so that we “had a base” underneath us.  We were told that we had a good run but it wouldn’t last forever.  We constantly had to prove our professionalism. And we were often treated like beginners when we had decades more experience than the “publishing professionals” we worked with.

But we put up with it, because we had only one way to publication.

That’s changing now, and the writer who can stomach risk is the writer who will make the best decisions for her career.

Risk-takers have a tolerance for taking the path less traveled.  They don’t want someone to tell them what to do. They want help making an analysis of the possible roads, then the risk-taker will follow the road that’s right for her.

No longer is there simply one way to get published.  Now there are several, and those paths fork at various points along the way. As someone mentioned in the comments a few weeks ago, which fork you take depends on who you are.

Sometimes, though, the easy way is the way that will cost you the most, not just in money but in time and in the possible destruction of your dreams.

Risk takers know how to assess the risk versus the reward. Risk takers don’t take the greatest gamble; in fact, studies have shown that risk-takers often take the least risky option. But risk-takers actually have done the assessment themselves and know what that least-risky option is.

On Monday, Publisher’s Weekly published a guest blog by Terrill Lee Lankford which is a prime example of what I’m discussing here.  Lankford, a self-proclaimed midlist writer, has had two book contracts under negotiation since August.  Initially, his editor told him that e-book rights were highly negotiable.

But Lankford has been keeping an eye on the business and he knew that e-rights were becoming hot properties. So as the negotiations progressed, he asked what the current e-book split was.  His editor told him, as I have been telling you, that in Big Publishing, the e-book split is this: the publisher takes 75% and the writer takes 25%.  (This is of the net, by the way).

I loved Lankford’s response.  He said, “Do you have that backwards?”  And when his editor didn’t respond, he wrote an e-mail saying, “I’m serious: was this a typo? Does the publisher actually take 75%?”

His editor answered yes, and Lankford wrote one final e-mail.  “This amazes me.  No amount of ‘platforming’ can justify this. If that’s the rate they expect me to accept, I’m going to have to pass.”

He did.  He’s heading into the realm of self publishing. The rest of the post explains why.  I think he has very good points.

But the key point, and the reason I bring it up here, is that he knew what he wanted.  The risk to him was not losing a publishing deal. The risk to him was being underpaid for the e-rights to his novels.  He did a very good financial and emotional assessment of the choices ahead of him and then he made his decision.

He writes: “This is a huge gamble for someone in my position. But I can’t sign away my financial legacy to my children in this fashion.”

He is clearly aware of the risks he’s taking. But he also has his eye on the reward—his children’s financial future.

Risk versus reward will be different for every single writer. Before it was pretty straightforward: you played with the big boys or you didn’t get published.  Self publishing didn’t count because your book didn’t get distributed to bookstores.  Here’s how publishing worked just as recently as  a few years ago:

Writers provide content (product) to Publishers.

Publishers distribute that content to Distributors.

Distributors distribute books to Bookstores.

Bookstores distribute that content to Readers.

If you want to understand how this all works, see the second post in this series. Now, however, distribution has become much easier, which makes the road ahead harder.

There are no simple decisions, and anyone who tells you otherwise can’t see beyond their own navel.  I’m finding that my decisions now go case-by-case.  Will this book do better in the Big Publishing world? Will losing the e-rights to that book for decades be worth the tradeoff? Will this book benefit from a quick push (the produce method)? Or is this book a slow-grower, a word-of-mouth book?

Suddenly I am balancing a thousand decisions whereas in the past I only had to make a handful. And I’m not alone. Every writer I know is making tough choices, and we’re consulting with each other over the risks versus the rewards.

Ultimately, though, the decision rests with us.  And we have to take responsibility for that decision’s success or its failure.

Which brings me to this…

To survive in this modern publishing environment, writers need:

9. A Willingness to Try.

That sound so simple.  You need to try.  But trying something requires you to go outside of your comfort zone, and everything in the modern publishing world is outside of our comfort zone.

When publishing changed the last time, fifty years ago, the TCM writers became the norm. Those changes indulged the lazy writer’s desire to ignore anything “painful” or “hard” because “writing is hard.”  The TCM writer wanted to “focus on the work,” not realizing that part of the work is taking risks, learning business, and not letting someone else take care of you.

Those fifty-year-old changes made everything outside of the average writer’s comfort zone, from paying bills to managing money to discussing business, from running a website to writing cover copy to designing a cover.  Mention to these writers that they have to learn new skills and to a person, they all have an excuse as to why they can’t.

Mostly, they search for someone else to take care of them, and those someone elses are making a large fortune off writers who can’t even afford to quit their day jobs. Expect that phenomenon to get worse instead of better for the TCM writer.  Expect that myth that writers can’t make money to grow instead of recede.

This is all because TCM writers won’t try.  They will say they can’t before they will say that they can. They close their eyes, click their heels together, and wish to go home—back to the days when publishing moved slower and TCM writers ruled.

We’re in the land of Oz now, folks, and writers who try new things, even if they fail, will do so much better than writers who don’t try at all.

My motto in all of this? It’s okay to make mistakes.  I just don’t want to make the same mistake twice.  New mistakes—fine.  The same old mistakes again and again.  No way.

Giving myself permission to fail is a way to give myself permission to try.

And finally, the writers who survive in this new publishing world will be

10. Nonconformists.

Writers who need rules, who need to be told what to do, who need to know where to stand and where to sit and what clothes to wear, simply won’t survive.  Many nonconformist writers were browbeaten over the past several decades into conforming, damaging their spirits and making many of them quit.

But the nonconformists are the ones who will survive now.  Nonconformists take risks; nonconformists try.  But most importantly, nonconformists want to know “why.”

Why can’t they publish their own work? Why can’t they write fast? Why can’t they manage their own money? Why should they listen to editors/agents/sales departments? Why should they take a 75/25 deal that favors the publisher?  Why? Why? Why?

In some ways the most successful writer in the modern environment will have a three-year-old’s creativity and endless curiosity combined with an adult’s business savvy and the intelligence to balance risks as well as rewards.

Sound scary?

For people who need to be told what to do, who worry about what others will think, and who can’t color outside the lines, it is scary.

For the rest of us, this new world of publishing is freeing.  Finally, it’s okay to march to your own drummer.  Your drummer might take you to that Carnegie Hall-like structure that is Big Publishing or your drummer might lead you to a small smoky nightclub at the end of a winding road.  Or you might follow your eclectic drummer to gigs at both.

The key is: you must follow your own drummer now.  And that’s what’s new about this modern publishing world.

The control is back in the hands of each individual writer.  We make or break our own careers—with the quality of the books we write, with the way we market them, with the choices we make on craft and storytelling, as well as the way we choose to publish those books.  Our business decisions are as important now as the genres we chose.

And that’s a very, very good thing.

The more involved I get in this new world of publishing, the more I enjoy it.  I like the interaction that happens every week when I write this blog.  I appreciate the comments, tweets, e-mails and donations.  I also appreciate the way you folks make me think—and think hard—about the various topics we’re discussing here.  So thanks.


“The Business Rusch: Even Modern Writer Survival Skills (Changing Times Part 20)” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

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