The Business Rusch: Plan For The Future (Surviving The Transition Part Four)
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
For the past month, I have geared my blog toward established writers. Starting with the post, “Writing Like It’s 1999,” I have discussed the rapid change that the publishing industry is going through, change that most working professional writers haven’t really noticed yet.
Working professional writers, those who make a living at this profession and have done so for decades, often have book contracts that control their publishing destinies for years. As of right now, I have book contracts with traditional publishers that extend into late 2012. In traditional publishing terms (pre-1999 terms), that’s a relatively short time period. I have had publishing contracts that have extended over three books and four years.
The reason I’m not as tied up now is that I’ve been avoiding long-term contracts, because I think the industry is changing too much to tie myself to something that might not be relevant to my plans three years from now.
Other writers have contracts that extend three to five years. Some of those contracts won’t come up for renewal for another two years. So the changes in the publishing industry don’t matter as much if you’re fulfilling existing deadlines, with no contract renegotiation in sight.
I’ve been gearing the last few posts at those writers, the ones who really haven’t paid attention, because I don’t want them to come to contract renegotiation time and to feel like Rip Van Winkle, returning home after a magical sleep to find everything that they had once known was gone.
The thing I stressed in “Surviving the Transition: Part One” is that most established writers have time to determine what kind of transition they want to make. Do they want to spend the rest of their careers in traditional publishing? Do they want to self-publish their backlist as e-books and continue selling their frontlist to New York? Do they want to continue having an agent represent them, given the change in agency models? Do they to explore doing everything on their own? Or do they want to do nothing on their own? If they want help with all aspects of their career, how do they manage that and still make money in the new world?
Those are all valid questions that I tried to give quick answers to in the past few weeks. In addition to my posts, the Passive Guy, a lawyer who is no longer practicing, is doing a series of posts on publishing contracts. I suggest you check them out, particularly the recent ones dealing with agents.
If you’re one of those lucky writers with a number of existing book deadlines, then you have the time to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your career. You need to educate yourself on the changes in the industry as they pertain to you, from contract terms to the changes in agents to the way that royalties are now being paid.
Take the time. Look at these next few months or years until your deadlines are up as graduate school. Do homework every week on the changes in the industry, so when the time comes for you to make a choice as to what direction your career will take in the future, you will make an informed choice.
One of the biggest parts of your future will concern the way you receive your writing income and how you manage that income. Most established writers don’t have a day job. We make our living off our writing. We get lump sums every six months or a year, and we make those sums last. If we’re really lucky, we get royalties off our books as well, although most book contracts are now structured so that the advance is in line with the number of copies that a book sells. The mid-list writer almost never runs royalties on her books. The bestsellers usually do.
Established writers also follow a rule that Dean Wesley Smith and I teach our writing students: Money flows to the writer.
In the traditional publishing model, writers do not spend a dime out of pocket. If you’re in a traditional publishing model, and someone asks you to cough up money to read the book or publish the book, then that someone is scamming you.
Remember: this is the traditional publishing model.
If you decide to remain in that model, then always keep that rule foremost in your mind: Money flows to the writer.
However, this rule gets in the way when you are starting your own publishing business. Publishers spend money to ensure that a book comes out.
If you go into self-publishing, then you will need to spend some money to put your books on the market.
Too many writers confuse the traditional publishing model—in which the writer puts no money out of pocket—with the self-publishing company that they’re starting. Any new business, which is what a publishing company is, spends money out of pocket. That’s why many small businesses need capital to start up, whether that capital comes from small business loans or from investors or from the business owners’ pocket.
It is this distinction between the rules that established writers are used to from the old traditional publishing model and the rules governing any small business that is causing so many established writers to give their work over to companies that charge them no up front fee and a percentage of the earnings.
These writers think they’re being clever because they aren’t investing up front. In all of those cases, the writer is thinking like a writer stuck in the 20th century instead of like a person running her own small business. That mistake in thinking guarantees that they’re going to overpay in the long run by factors of a hundred for a service that would only cost a few hundred dollars if the writer thought like a business person.
As I’ve said in previous posts, traditional publishers have made it easy for established writers to concentrate only on the writing. If a writer self-publishes her backlist, she must concentrate on the business as well even if she never does any of the actual publishing work.
So…how do you go from a business model in which you’re paid to do one job and do it well to a model in which you must pay to get a job done?
You need to figure out how to fund your transition.
A handful of established writers, such as those at Bookview Café, are bartering skills with each other. One with graphic design experience will trade a book cover design for another writer’s copy editor skills. These coops are starting up in the various genres. I don’t participate (I’m not someone you want in your organization, rabble rouser that I am), but I know many writers who do and swear by this method.
Two different writers I spoke to on my trip in May are seeking investors to fund their publishing companies. One of these companies will be a self-publishing company and the other a more traditional publishing company. The self-publishing company is owned by a big name, so there’s a built-in market that will entice investors.
But most savvy writers are paying for the covers and edits out of their own pocket. They’re paying the flat fee as a start-up expense to get their self-publishing business off the ground.
Some of these writers have day jobs. Others are bestsellers with the money to invest. (One such writer, when I told him the fees he would face to self-publish a thriller he wrote, called the fees “pocket change.” To me, the money was significant. To him, it was a sum he barely had to think about.)
However, most established writers run out of money long before the next check comes in. Yes, that writer’s house is probably paid off and she probably paid cash for her car. But she’s waiting for the next part of her advance to give her a cushion again.
That writer is easily tempted by these no-money-up-front percentage services.
And those are the writers who can least afford those services. If the writer put out a few hundred up front, she would be making a profit within a year, instead of losing 50% or more of her earnings to a company that might or might not accurately report the income.
So how does this type of writer afford the fees? Contact one of the companies that will provide a menu of services for a flat fee, and then figure out which services she’ll need. See how much money it will take to publish that backlist book and then save up for it.
Because, remember, as I said at the beginning of this post, most established writers have time. They have time to save money, time to research the services they need to hire, time to compare prices and benefits.
I know some of you who are older mentioned that you’re feeling the press of time because of health and life issues. Still, I would recommend that you go about this change methodically and that you document all that you’ve found so that the people who will help with your writing business down the road understand your plans.
In fact, everyone should do a variation on this, because we all will leave our writing businesses to our heirs one day—and we don’t get to choose that day. That day might be tomorrow, no matter how old we are.
Many established writers, including me, are combining traditional publishing with self-publishing. We have backlist that’s been out of print for a while, and are putting it up ourselves.
We have a secondary transition to make, one that happens in the way we think about what we do.
Let’s talk money first. With self-publishing, the writer moves from an advance model that pays in large lump sums every six months or so to a model in which a little bit of money comes in every month, which is much more like a paycheck.
The writer, used to getting thousands of dollars per check, will often think a few hundred per month is a tiny amount of money. But it’s not when multiplied over a decade. Because the self-published book never has to go out of print unlike most traditionally published books.
Traditionally published books only stay on bookstore shelves for a few months at most. Even bestsellers with large backlists only see their most recent five or six books on a bookstore shelf in any given month. E-books are changing that dramatically. Books never leave the virtual shelf.
So when calculating a book’s earnings, the self-published writer can look at the income as it will accrue over years instead of months. Suddenly, earning $500 per month becomes a much better number. That’s $6000 per year or $60,000 over ten years.
And as I mentioned in the promotion blog, the more books and stories you have available, the more chances a reader has to find you. If your books come from multiple sources, like traditional publishing houses and your own self-publishing company, then all the better. Traditional publishing will get you into markets you can’t get to yourself and, oddly enough, self-publishing now puts you in markets that your traditional publisher can’t.
(For example, my most recent traditionally published novel, City of Ruins, doesn’t have an e-book edition yet. Even when that edition comes out later in the year, it won’t be available in all English-speaking countries. Only in North America. Yet when I self-publish an e-book, it goes out worldwide. That’s a change from just a few years ago.)
Established writers who have the luxury of time—and that’s most of you—need to plan for the future now. Plan everything from how you want to proceed from here forward. Figure out if you want to be entirely published by traditional houses or if you want to self-publish some projects that traditional houses won’t take. Figure out if you want to self-publish your backlist, and if you do, how hands-on you want to be.
Save money so that you can afford flat fee services. Do what other small business owners do and comparison shop. Don’t just go with a friend who happens to have an e-pub business. Make sure that she provides the best deal and the best work for the price.
And plan for change no matter what route you chose. Your agent may retire. Your publishing company might decline to take your next book. You might hit the New York Times bestseller list with a series in which half the books are out of print. (This happens to mystery writers all the time.) If that’s the case, decide beforehand if it would be better to sell your backlist to a traditional publisher or do the work yourself.
Ask yourself all of these questions and more. The good questions—“what happens if I become a bestseller?”—to the bad questions—“what happens if my traditional publisher goes out of business tomorrow?” Answer those questions honestly. You don’t have to show those answers to anyone other than yourself.
Figure out what you want to do, how you will survive the good and the bad, and most importantly, what you envision for your career five years down the road.
Once you have the answers written down, then start planning. Set goals. Not just work goals, but financial goals as well. (In my Freelancer’s Survival Guide, I have a post on how to separate goals from dreams.)
Figure out how you can attain those goals. Figure out how you can afford to pay up front on some backlist self-publishing without taking time from your writing or much-needed income from your household. Figure out what you’d do if you find yourself in a situation, like so many established writers often are, when your next book won’t sell to any traditional publisher. Figure out how you’ll handle your money if your most recent novel becomes a number one New York Times bestseller.
Now’s the time to think about the future. Publishing is changing, and whether you like it or not, your writing career will change with it. Do what you can to be prepared. If you have the time, do the research. Plan. Make smart decisions.
Don’t just do what everyone else is doing. Do what’s best for you.
“The Business Rusch: Plan For The Future (Part Four)” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.