The Business Rusch: Popcorn Kittens!
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Last June, my friend, the marvelous writer Dayle Dermatis, sent me a kitten video. Now, this exchange of cat videos is not uncommon among a certain group of us. Yes, we’re the ones that keep all the YouTube cat videos in the top 100.
Anyway, this video has become important because its title has wiggled its way into the lexicon of a rather large group of writers. First, watch the video even if you don’t like cats or cat videos. I promise this little moment of your time will have more value than simple entertainment.
The key reason Popcorn Kittens worked its way into our lexicon was timing. The video arrived in my e-mail box as I started to realize that this indie publishing thing was going to work. The problem with that is…I have a million projects that suddenly clamored for attention.
No longer was I bound by the rules of traditional publishing. I have a dozen novels that I couldn’t sell because they crossed genre lines or (in the case of science fiction) they had been done in 1965, and so of course we couldn’t do that same old thing again. (Nonsense! If that were true, then the entire romance and mystery genres wouldn’t exist. People falling love? It’s been done. A murder in a back alley? It’s been done.)
Then there were the series that I had to abandon because of the changes in publishing. In the 1980s and early 1990s, book publishers loved series. More than that, they loved poaching series from another publisher. Publisher A couldn’t make your series work? Publisher B was happy to snatch up the next book—mid-series—and prove to Publisher A how stupid their marketing department was.
But with the collapse of the distribution system in the late 1990s, the consolidation of publishing houses, and the layoff of countless employees, suddenly this poaching practice stopped. A series wasn’t doing as well as it could for Publisher A? Well, then no other publisher would touch it. A series was doing passably well for Publisher A? Then no other publisher would want it mid-book, because they’d have to grow the series—and that wasn’t a guaranteed bestseller.
I had one series die in that mess, but I saw the warning signs on the wall, so I wrapped up as quickly as I could. I sold three other series in that time period, and they continued for years—into the new century, when a new problem struck with two of those series: they weren’t growing fast enough.
I’ve mentioned this before in my blog, because I think it’s the stupidest trend in traditional publishing. Series after series—and not just mine, but dozens of others—get abandoned by their publisher because the sales figures, while increasing, aren’t increasing by some set percentage established arbitrarily by bean counters somewhere. In the past, any smart publisher would have been happy with a one- or two-percent increase per book. Suddenly, the books needed 10% or more. (I had one poor editor tell me that 10,000 new readers coming in to the print edition from a promotion one of my subsidiary rights publishers was doing “wasn’t enough” to sustain the series. Um…what?)
Two of my new series fell to that silliness. And the third, well, the publishing house so mismanaged that series (to the point of sending me on a book tour but not providing the books to the bookstores) that they effectively murdered it. This series, which is a bestseller overseas, was making me crazy, because I wasn’t sure how to sustain it now that the American publisher had abandoned it.
Enter indie publishing through the side door.
Let me pause here, and repeat something I’ve said in previous blogs (which a lot of you ignore, but here I go again): By indie publishing, I do not mean just e-publishing. I mean paper books as well. Indie publishing has grown easier for the writer. She can put her books up as e-books, but she can also make a trade paperback available through many, many retail outlets. See my husband Dean Wesley Smith’s blog series titled “Think Like a Publisher” for examples of how to do both effectively.
I started looking at indie publishing in the spring of 2009. That’s when I began posting regularly here on my blog, thanks to help from Scott William Carter and Michael J. Totten. I took the plunge so that I could write a book that I felt needed to get published at the beginning of the recession, and I knew that no publisher would even look at the manuscript quickly enough, let alone buy it, publish it, and support it, to get it out in time.
So I wrote the book chapter by chapter online. I finished last summer, then published it. The book is my Freelancer’s Survival Guide which is available as an e-book and as a trade paper as well as free here on this website. I discovered some freedom as well. I buy a lot of business books, paying full price when often what I want is just a single chapter. So I decided to put up parts of The Freelancer’s Survival Guide as individual e-books, organized by topic. For example, if all you want is the section on negotiation, you can read it on the blog or you can order the separate short e-book.
I would also like to revise at least one chapter of the Guide, because circumstances have changed my opinion over time. When I get the chance to do that, I can turn in the revision, and within days, the revised Guide will be for sale again.
But when I’ll get to that is anyone’s guess….because, well, you’re seeing a popcorn kitten here. And I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Freelancer’s Guide convinced me that indie publishing was a viable road for my own special projects. I knew that indie publishing would be part of my writing income, but I figured it would be a small part.
Then, in January, we put up three novellas, one connected to my Diving universe books (The Spires of Denon) and two connected to my Retrieval Artist universe (The Recovery Man’s Bargain andThe Retrieval Artist). We did no advertising. Because we were learning the format was bad and the covers were worse. (We have since fixed most of them.)
But the books started selling at numbers that, while small, were significant. And Dean, bless him, did the math. (See his post on the math here.) We realized even without a blow-out bestseller, like J.A. Konrath had, we could make a lot of money indie publishing. In fact, the math showed that not only was economically viable to continue the three series that New York had passed on, it was one of the soundest business decisions we could make.
At the same time, I sold my novel Wickedly Charming to a traditional publisher, reviving my Kristine Grayson career. And then I sold six more books to the same publisher—four of which I had to write. I sold two more novels to my sf publisher in the Diving universe, both unwritten.
I also had promised short stories to various outlets, and of course, I had my blog.
And, and, and…suddenly I had more work than I had had in years. To make things more complicated, the moment I decided to continue the older series, the subsidiary rights publishers wanted them and were willing to contract ahead.
Deadline after deadline, project after project—and, and, all these other projects, the books that hadn’t sold, the sequels to those that wanted to be written, the short stories I hadn’t yet done because markets for that type of short fiction had dried up, and and and…
Into that mental mess, the Popcorn Kittens video arrived, and it perfectly illustrated my state of mind. Those kittens, on that tarp, represented my viable writing projects. They milled about in my brain—free at last from the prison that traditional publishing had relegated them to—and they all wanted attention.
One would jump, then another, and then another. Occasionally one peered at the camera longer than another.
Each time I realized I could write this project, I got distracted. Then a moment later, I realized I could write that project, and I got distracted all over again. This weekend, a writer who hadn’t heard the popcorn kitten analogy described the experience using her dog as an example: She’d be working along and then—squirrel!—she’d get distracted like her dog would outside and then — squirrel! — she’d get distracted all over again until her brain became squirrel, squirrel, squirrel.
It’s a great problem to have, and one that’s caused by a freedom I’ve never had as a published author: I can write what I want, and it’ll be published guaranteed. In the past, I could also do what I wanted, but I risked working for months on a project that never sold. As you can see from my mention of unpublished inventory above, it happened to me often—especially in the last several years.
Granted, what I write and publish might not sell well by New York standards. Or hell, I don’t know, it might all take off. But I do know that I have thousands of fans per series who have been clamoring for the next book. Those fans, at least, will be happy when the next book arrives.
I also get to stretch my wings and continue projects that I started for the love of them, but couldn’t continue because no publisher wanted to take a risk on them. And I’m seriously considering side projects on existing works—things I know are not marketable in traditional publishing, but would be fun as hell to write.
And, and, and—
(Breathes deeply as she tries to control the popcorn kittens, suddenly springing up inside her brain—Squirrel!)
I’m not the only writer experiencing popcorn kittens. Most writers who understand what kind of freedom this new publishing world gives us are also experiencing their own version of popcorn kittens. Established writers are joyful and overwhelmed. New writers are frightened, overwhelmed, and relieved that they no longer have to play games to get their novels read—and they’re worried about rising above the noise. (See my post on promotion to answer that problem. [link])
I’ve had the popcorn kitten problem for a year now, and it’s finally starting to ease. It’s not abating, not really, and I still get overwhelmed with what I want to do.
But I’ve mostly got it under control.
First, I built a schedule. It has the firm deadlines on it—the ones that come from outside forces like traditional publishers or subsidiary rights houses. It has the internal deadlines on it—when I need to have a story to coincide with a new book release or when I need to have background work done.
And it has time built in for all of my various projects from short stories to stand-alone novels to series novels to nonfiction. I’m happily busy. My biggest worry these days isn’t whether some editor in New York will buy one of my books. My biggest worry is pacing myself so that I don’t burn out. I want to continue enjoying my work.
So I adhere to the schedule (mostly) and sometimes I have to remind myself that the project I’m working on is one I really wanted to write so that —Squirrel!— I don’t lose focus and move onto the wrong project too quickly.
I’m also careful to make sure that the only voice in my office is my own. I know that my Kris Nelscott fans want the next Smokey Dalton novel, and my Kristine Grayson fans (who just got Wickedly Charming) want the next Grayson novel ASAP, and my Diving fans want the next Boss novel (January: It’s called Boneyards) and the Fey fans want the Place of Power novel, and, and, and…
If I think about that too much, I won’t write the surprise novels, the ones that might please the Fey fans as much as the Smokey Dalton fans. And if I have too many people’s voices in my office, I won’t get anything done. I work at home, alone, for a reason.
And that reason is so that I can let the creativity flow uninterrupted. I thought the creativity was flowing uninterrupted before. I tried to keep market considerations out of my office, but apparently they had crept in anyway, like Carl Sandburg’s fog, on little cat feet.
Now that they’re gone, I — Squirrel!
Ah, heck. Go watch a kitten video, think about the freedom we can all have in this new world of publishing, and realize that this freedom is a really, really, really good thing.
“The Business Rusch: Popcorn Kittens!” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.