The Business Rusch: You Are Not Alone
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Maybe the stars have aligned poorly. Maybe the various impending international debt crises have us on edge. Or maybe it’s this season’s abundant natural disasters. Or maybe it’s as simple as this: I’ve been blogging so people are writing to me.
But what I’ve seen this past month from established writers is an abundance of despair. I got a sad phone call from a friend, had a lot of sit-down conversations with writers who were ready to give up their dreams, and a nine-page single-spaced e-mail from a hell of a writer of dozens of published books, wondering whether or not to quit altogether.
Books that would have sold five years ago don’t sell now. Series that are growing are getting bounced from their publishers for not growing enough. Agents, unable to sell product, are telling their mystery clients to write romance novels and their romance clients to write thrillers. Other agents are starting backlist e-pub companies and robbing their clients blind. Still other agents are blaming the writers for the fact that nothing is selling well and encouraging them to sign terrible book contracts.
Bookstores don’t carry paper books any longer. New York Times bestsellers can’t find their backlists in stores. American authors with bestselling novels overseas are being told that foreign countries never pay the promised royalties, only advances.
Traditionally published bestselling writers look at their royalty statements, see that their e-books sell only 30 or 100 or 200 copies in six months, and wonder how the hell upstart self-published writers whose books have ugly covers and whose interiors need copy editing manage to sell tens of thousands of e-books each month.
Editors who once had to tiptoe around their biggest authors are telling those writers to change what they write because their sales have decreased, and clearly, their writing has gotten worse over the years. Writers whose rabid fan base numbers 10 or 20 or 50K get told that their books no longer sell to that fan base even though the writer is constantly getting e-mails from that base and is signing brand new books for that base.
Publisher sales figures are impossible to get. An estimated laydown of 50,000 becomes an estimated 17,000 one month later. On the royalty statements issued six months after that, that laydown then becomes 5,000 books with another 5,000 in the reserve against returns. But, that same book, tracked by Bookscan (which only covers 50%-70% of the book market [and maybe less now]), shows sales, sales (not books shipped), of 30,000.
But even if Bookscan’s numbers are true, the book’s editor says, thirty thousand is pretty insignificant for that genre or for that particular series or for that particular writer. The writer will have to take a smaller advance and accept worse contract terms. Or the writer doesn’t get offered another contract period.
And of course, of course, it’s the writer’s fault. The writer misread the numbers, wrote down the wrong amount in the initial phone call with the editor on the laydown. Oh, it wasn’t a phone call, but an e-mail? My bad, the editor says. It was a typo. I didn’t mean 50,000. I meant 5,000.
So, the writer says, if you only printed 5,000 and I sold 5,000 and the book is still in print and still being ordered, then my book is doing well, right?
Wrong. We overpaid your advance, the editor says. We never ever should have paid that much money on a book that would only sell 5,000 copies.
Sound familiar? It should to many of you. I get letter after letter delineating problems like this all the time. If I hadn’t gone through something similar five years ago, I would be thinking, “What the hell?” But I’m not thinking that because I know how it feels.
One writer said that on her bad days, she wonders if she needs a tinfoil hat to confirm her craziness. Another wrote on a blog that the despair from all of the changing facts made her contemplate suicide. Still a third took all of the blame herself, and started writing vampire romances even though she hates them, thinking that her award-winning, bestselling romantic suspense novels had somehow gone horribly downhill and she hadn’t realized it.
What I write back each and every time or find myself saying in conversation (often to a weeping writer) is this:
It’s not you. You’re fine. Your writing is as good as ever. The business is changing and you’re caught in the crossfire. It’s not personal, even though it feels personal. You are caught in the middle of a nightmare. The rules are changing, and no one knows where any of this is headed. Talk to other writers. You’ll see. It’s happening to all of us.
Believe it or not, knowing that it’s not personal helps. It gives the writer a chance to breathe, to look around and see that the changes in the industry are happening, and they’re hurting all of us.
You don’t believe me about the changes, about the ways that publishers are shifting the world beneath our feet as we try to walk forward? Then read this blog by agent Kristin Nelson about Random House’s most recent royalty statements. Random House has decided unilaterally to pay its authors 25% of net on e-books even if the author’s contract calls for something else, like 50% of gross. After you read her post, read what the Passive Guy, an attorney who no longer practices, has to say about this behavior.
Or what he writes about the rights grab that Harlequin is making. Read my post about the industry changes, “Writing Like It’s 1999,” or my post from two weeks ago about Barnes & Noble, which has since been confirmed by B&N employees and some other links you’ll find in the comments section.
What’s worse is that the people we once thought were our advocates—our agents and our editors—can’t help us any more. Both agents and editors are suffering in their jobs, but in different ways. Agents—who are savvy about business—have realized that they can no longer make money in traditional ways, so many of them are looking for other ways to make money. And often, those ways hurt the writer. See what agent Peter Cox says about this, about the way he’s fighting to keep some semblance of decency in his profession.
Editors have another problem. They’re overworked since so many of their colleagues have been laid off. Editors love books, and love finding new writers, and that crazy-making stuff I listed above—the thing with the shifting numbers?—it happens in a publishing house too. The editor is often the last to know how well one of her books is doing.
She’s told by the sales department that the laydown will be 50K, then discovers that only 17K was shipped. She goes to make a new deal with the author only to be told by the publisher that in-house numbers show that the book sold less than 10K. She checks, finds out that the book went back to print for a second time, which means that the 17K should have sold. When she asks about it, the publisher ignores the protest, saying, Make your offer based on the 10K, and if the writer doesn’t like the pay cut, then let her go.
Evidence to the contrary—Bookscan numbers, previous letters, second-and-third printing marks inside the books themselves—don’t matter. The editor must do her publisher’s bidding or lose her job. And eventually that wears the editor down. Either she doesn’t care any more or she gets angry at the writers (and their agents) who are the only people she can safely get angry at and still have a job.
She’s feeling pinched, because if none of her authors sell well, then her job is on the line. And the books might be selling well, but she doesn’t know it any more than the writers do.
But the editor can talk to her colleagues and realize that they’re going through the same tough times. The agents see this happening to client after client and know it has nothing to do with the agenting, so it must be the writers themselves.
But the writers—oh, the writers—they work alone. And often they have no one to talk to. Many writers don’t tell their writing colleagues because these writers don’t want to be perceived as failures. When the writers tell their fans that the next book in a series won’t appear, the fans blame the writer.
The writer is often all by herself, struggling to make one-tenth of the income she made just five years before, confused as to why her once-popular books aren’t selling to publishers despite evidence that the fans still want the books and the books are selling. Her agent is telling her to write in a new genre. Her editor won’t take her calls.
And she can’t escape to her writing, to those stories she always made up to give herself joy or comfort, because her writing is the problem.
Is it any wonder so many writers use the word “despair” these days when discussing their writing life? Is it unusual for so many writers to walk away from a decades-long career and return to teaching or bartending?
I wonder just how many writing casualties there have been in the last decade, writers who silently walked away from their computers. Writers who’ve decided to give up writing for a salaried career. Writers who no longer tell people that once upon a time they published five novels. Writers who can’t even read any more because they don’t want to think about how they failed at the very same thing.
I don’t know about you, but I often look through my bookshelves, searching for some favorite writers, trying to see if they have a new book out, and I don’t see anything since 2003 or so, nothing new, no hint of anything new, no write-up in the “Where Are They Now?” section of RT Book Reviews, no website, no blog, no Facebook page. No obituary. No nothing. Ten years ago, they were writing book after book. Now they don’t seem to be writing anything.
I could have been one of those casualties. I almost was.
Three things saved me. First and foremost, my very patient husband who kept asking me this: If you’re not going to write, what do you want to do? He promised to move if I needed to go to school, to help fund my education or new-business startup, whatever I wanted to do, knowing full well that the word “want” was the key. I didn’t “want” to do anything else. I wanted to write.
Second, I don’t just write in one genre or one length. I’ve always been a writer first. I write nonfiction, short fiction, mystery, romance, fantasy and science fiction. I have written advertising copy and screenplays. I have ghost-written novels and ghost-written business documents. If my novel career died—and for a few years there, it looked dead—then I could fall back on other types of writing.
Finally, I’m good at business. I did the math and realized that no matter what else I did—teaching, editing—I would never earn as much money as I did from short fiction or nonfiction sales. It helped that the local radio station was looking for a news director at the time, a job I was eminently qualified for (probably overqualified for, considering all my radio credentials). That job paid double my last radio job. But I would have been working 60 hours per week, and making less than I did if I just wrote nonfiction and short stories. I didn’t have to sell another novel. I could make a living wage in other ways.
I was lucky. My crisis came early in this publishing shift, and I had a way out of it that included writing. In rapid succession, I fired two different agents and learned just how much they got in the way of selling subsidiary rights. I started getting Hollywood deals. I started selling foreign rights again. I hired another agent, an ethical one, and learned through him that the problems I was having were happening across the board.
I sold nonfiction. I sold short stories. And I persevered. And about the time everything started collapsing for other writers, I was able to rebuild my novel-writing career. In addition to the under-contract novels with traditional houses, I had some other good fortune. My own personal downturn left me with three growing series that no publishing company wanted, so I was able to experiment with indie publishing. Venturing into indie publishing was easier for me and Dean than it was for others; we’d already owned a publishing company back in the dark ages before all the technological advances, so we weren’t afraid of giving these new opportunities a try.
Within three months, we learned through publishing novellas related to just one of my series that the “fact” that “no one” made money in electronic publishing was not a fact at all, but a lie, caused by ineptitude and numbers manipulation. (See Kristin Nelson’s blog or this post of mine.)
Now I have more work—both indie and traditional—than I can possibly do this year. But only because I survived the despair. As I tell my students, it doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked to the ground. Nor does it matter how long you remain there. What matters is whether or not you get up.
I know a lot of you are feeling this despair, and I know you need help getting back on your feet. I’m not a counselor, career or otherwise, but I do know a few things because I’ve been there.
Think about these things:
1. Realize that what you’re going through is not personal. Even if your agent told you that you aren’t the writer you once were. Even if your traditional publishing editor says no one wants to read your work. Those things are not true. They’re excuses to cover up something that’s going on in the agent’s office or in the publishing house.
What is happening to you is happening to all traditionally published writers right now, from New York Times bestsellers to writers who’ve sold only one novel. The flux in the industry has had a huge impact on your career because the flux has had a huge impact on the traditional publishing industry.
What you’re going through feels personal because you can cite examples of things that have happened that are unique to you. You have a different career than I do. You might publish in a different genre or you might have been in the business longer.
But realize that all of us have seen our traditional sales decline. All of us have been told that you can’t make money off your e-rights. All of us have been told that the reason our books aren’t selling to expectation is because of us and not because of the changes in the industry.
Bullshit. Walk into a Barnes & Noble like I did earlier this month, and then tell me why midlist book sales are down. Look at the rise of e-readers and ask why your agent—who can’t sell your new novel to a traditional publishing house—is so eager to reissue your backlist electronically.
Realize that it’s not personal, no matter what your agent and your editor tell you. Then realize that this change is having a financial impact on you, and if you want to continue to make a living as a writer, you need to understand the changes.
2. Feel sad. It’s okay to be down. The industry we learned as young writers doesn’t exist any more. It’s a different industry. Learning how to survive in a different environment is hard. Recognize that. And it’s okay to feel sad about the changes.
3. Learn the new world of publishing. As I said in “Plan For the Future,” it will take time to understand what’s going on. Take the time to learn it.
It will also take time for the flux to settle down. I don’t know what kind of publishing industry we’ll have in 2016. No one does. We don’t know which traditional publishing companies will thrive and which will fail. We don’t know what kind of e-reader we’ll be using then, but we know that we will use one. We don’t know what kind of work people who once called themselves agents will be doing. We don’t know—and we won’t know for a while.
It’s hard to exist in continual transition, but that’s what our industry is going through. The writers who will survive will surf the change, constantly watching the waves, and trying to figure out what works. Will those writers crash and burn? Sure. Surfers do every day. But these surfing writers will also be the ones in the position to catch the right wave and ride it all the way into to shore. Be one of those writers. Don’t get stuck pining for the past. Exist in the present and scout the horizon for hints of the future. You can do this. You can survive it.
4. Have a back-up plan. Traditional publishing was once the only game in town. It is no longer. We’re still used to thinking that it is. So when folks in traditional publishing tell you that you can no longer be a writer, you tend to believe them. So indulge your fears. Believe those folks for a minute and ask—like I did—what else you can do.
Then do the math. Can you make more money doing that other thing? Do you want to do that other thing? Do you need a vacation from writing? Do you need to try something else for a while?
If you do need to try something else, then go for it. But remember: only one thing will destroy your writing career, and that one thing is simple. If you quit writing, then your career is over. Are you willing to destroy your career all by yourself by giving up or are you willing to fight for that career?
If you’re willing to fight, then ask yourself a series of questions: can I write in more than one genre? Can I write under more than one name? Can I write short stories or nonfiction or novels? Can I learn indie publishing? Am I willing to invest in my own writing by paying flat fees for covers and editing, and then uploading the books myself?
You took a chance when you became a writer in the first place. Now the industry you’re in has changed, and the times call on you to take another chance. Your fans want you to write another book or finish that series. Your fans don’t care if you get published by Bantam or by your own press, so long as your fans can find the book.
So believe in your readers. Trust them. They like your work. They want to read it.
The new world of publishing has given you the opportunity to get your work back in print. Take that opportunity. It will benefit you.
5. Have fun. Do whatever it takes to make writing fun again. Maybe it’s as simple as writing that book of your heart, as the romance authors call it, that book you’ve always wanted to write but your agent/editor told you there was no market for.
Or maybe you should write a book just for you. Promise yourself that you’re not going to show that book to anyone. Just use it to get your groove back. Play. Experiment. Become the joyful writer you were before you had an agent or a book contract or a published novel, before you had a reputation that needed guarding or fans who had expectations.
We all got into writing because we love it. We would write on our days off. We would write in our downtime. We would write when our friends went on a picnic or to the movies or to a football game. We would write because we wanted to write.
The key to surviving in this business, the key to turning the despair around, is to find a way to have fun again.
Me, I’m enjoying the hell out of the fact that I can write anything I want. If a traditional publisher doesn’t want it, then I can publish it myself. If I don’t want to license it to a traditional publisher, I don’t have to. If I want to write it because I want to write it, then I do.
For years, editors and agents and well-meaning friends crowded into my office, telling me that this story wouldn’t sell or that I needed to write that kind of novel “to make my name.” Now, the new world of publishing has enabled me to silence those voices. The only voice in my office is mine—and, um, that of the occasional cat who wants cuddles or dinner.
And that’s how it should be.
We have opportunities here. It’s hard to see them when you’ve been pushed and shoved against a wall, when you’re crowded into a corner, and people are telling you lies to further their own interests. Shut down the voices. Remember who you are and what you want.
Then pull yourself up a little and look around. Take a few steps forward. Therapists say that the best cure for that feeling of helplessness, that feeling of despair, is to take action.
The changes in publishing have made taking action in your career easier. You don’t have to go through an agent or an editor. You can do it yourself if you want. And if you want to remain only in traditional publishing, go back and read my blogs about surviving the transition. Realize that the industry is going through massive change, and don’t take any of it personally.
In the last ten years, almost every working writer has felt that despair that so many of you contacted me about this month. The despair is understandable. It’s survivable as long as you remember that it’s coming at you from the outside.
Your writing is as good as ever. The industry is what has changed. If you don’t believe anything else I’ve told you, believe that.
It’s not personal, even though it feels personal. The rules are changing, and no one knows where any of this is headed. Talk to other writers. You’ll see. It’s happening to all of us.
“The Business Rusch: You Are Not Alone” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.