The Business Rusch: Odds, Ends, and More Slush Pile Truths

The Business Rusch: Odds, Ends, and More Slush Pile Truths

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

It’s amazing how much can change in a week. Since I wrote “Common Sense & The Writer” in an Idaho hotel room last Monday, this (and more!) has happened in the field: Indie e-book bestseller John Locke made a “distribution” deal with Simon & Schuster for the paper rights to his books; the Passive Guy hung out his shingle as an attorney for writers and in doing so, revealed his secret identity; and settlements have started in the case of the agent who died and left his estate to family members who had no idea how to run the business.  In my personal life, I went to the World Science Fiction convention where I saw many old friends and did more business than I expected. And then a close friend died.

And everything stopped.

Dean’s handling the estate.  Even though my friend’s life and assets were relatively straightforward (unlike ours), it’s still a complicated and somewhat chaotic process.  Having gone through the death of both parents and several friends, I’m come to believe that such chaos is normal after the death of someone important. Unless that someone was incredibly anal, very organized, focused on the future, and willing to fight all the cultural denial, the death duties—from financial to practical—take time and understanding.

Understandably, I’ve been preoccupied. In addition to the added pressure of solving estate issues now, I have two do-not-miss deadlines, and several others that need attending to. Of course, I explained this to my various editors and one of them said, bless her, that “sometimes life and deadlines are not compatible.” Amen.

I have a list of things I was going to write in the next few weeks, but not enough brain power to concentrate on them. One of those things was—believe it or not—estates. Since we’re getting some hands-on experience (yet again), I’ll save that post for November, when (theoretically) all of this will be over.

In the meantime, I’m going to address something that came up at Worldcon, something that I don’t have to research too heavily, since I’m pressed for time.

In Reno, a lot of folks came up to me and thanked me for writing this blog. I know some of the people I spoke to, and others I met for the first time. Most had a thought or two to share about the ways the blog has helped them. A few made observations about it and a couple more had suggestions for future blogs which, believe it or not, I managed to write down in the middle of a hectic convention.

First, let me say thank you to everyone who mentioned the blog. As I often say at the very end, I keep going at this because I hear from y’all about how much this is helping. Or what a difference it has made to you. Such comments are as important to me as the donations I get to keep the blog going. One feeds my cranky critical brain—letting it know that the blog is doing some good—and the other feeds my family. Both are equally important.

I had a long talk over a rather hectic impromptu lunch with a reader who mentioned that I’m the only one who is talking about the paradigm shift that’s occurring in publishing. He then clarified: Everyone is talking about the changes; I’m the only one (he says) who has identified the change as a paradigm shift.

I doubt that I’m the only one—Mike Stackpole, for example, has been discussing the paradigm shift for much longer than I have (and is doing it well)—but I try to keep a more balanced approach than some bloggers do. Some are still stuck in traditional-think, including an influential blogger whom everyone says is brilliant and who simply pisses me off because he can’t seem to look beyond his traditional publishing training. And no, I won’t include a link here, because he’s not alone. I simply can’t mine his column for the gold that everyone—including my husband—says is there. (I only include links I find useful.)

On the other side of the equation are the all-indie-all-the-time folks who ignore (or perhaps don’t understand) that traditional publishing will never leave us. Traditional publishing will remain the gold standard, partly because they have so much gold.

Let’s look at network television for a moment. Network television has significantly fewer viewers than it had thirty years ago.  As Rob Lowe said in his autobiography, Stories I Only Tell My Friends, “Today any network would kill to have our numbers [for his first TV show A New Kind of Family]. In 1979, if fourteen million people watched you, you were at death’s door. Today, a huge smash like Two and a Half Men averages about that.” [P. 80-81]

Yet recently, when a well-known Hollywood producer optioned a novel series of mine, he told me that he had interest from a cable channel, but he was also talking to some network executives because “network still has more money and viewers than most cable channels combined.”

The same change has happened in the music industry. In fact, the music industry might be even more striking because so many big-name artists have gone indie over the past twenty years. (Some, like Jimmy Buffett, have been indie for more than thirty years, but back when he first went indie, he was seen as a maverick. Now he looks like a visionary.)

The studios still have the money to launch an artist big. They also have clout and can, with some finagling, get air time on the national syndicated music programs. Such things have less influence than they had decades ago, but they still matter. As a professional musician said to me over the weekend, if  you really want to get launched big (and he meant worldwide big), then you have to go to the studios.

Or the networks.

Or the traditional publishers.

Again, what really matters is the kind of career an artist wants. Gone are the days of three television channels, the influential disk jockey with a syndicated show, and literary taste makers who could make or break a career.

Now we find ourselves in a world with more television channels than we could watch in one month of sick leave, more satellite radio channels than Dean & I could listen to on our drive all over the Northwest last week, and more books published this year than anyone could read in a lifetime.

And folks see this as a problem.  Me, I see it as an opportunity.

I have blogged about this before, most recently in a piece called “Slush Pile Truths.” But as I was talking in that lunch this weekend, I used an analogy that the others at the table told me I should share with you.

Throughout the weekend, writers mentioned their fear:  if they self- or indie-publish their novel, how will readers find it among the crap? This fear has been with us from the dawn of publishing. In the past, new writers worried that their novel would get lost in the pile of novels published each month. Midlist writers feared that the tie-in novels were crowding “real” novels off the shelves. Romance writers worried that everyone was reading “category” (50K novels, nowadays published by Harlequin, but in the past published by places like Avon as well), and  not reading “real” romances.

Writers worry. That’s what we do.

The writer I spoke to at lunch mentioned this fear, but he did so in a different way. He asked a specific question: “How can readers find my novel in the midst of all the other novels?” He wasn’t worried about the crap. He wasn’t worried about the virtual slush pile, like that silly blogger from the Wall Street Journal. This writer was worried about finding his audience.

I thought about it for a moment, and then I spoke to him reader to reader.

Every time we walk into a bookstore, we’re immediately eliminating books from consideration. We do it so automatically, we’re not even aware that we do so.

Let’s use Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon, for a moment. If you’ve never been there, imagine a bookstore that takes up an entire city block. The store is a maze. It has several levels, and they go on forever. In each section of the store, maps are prominently displayed, and each section is color-coded, each aisle has a number. So if you want to find, say, a French history book in French, you look at the map and realize you have two choices: the history section (which is an entire wing) and the French language section (which takes up about four extremely long aisles).

The map gets you to the section. The aisle numbers get you to the right row.

The moment you walk into Powell’s, you immediately eliminate all the languages you can’t read, and all of the books on topics that don’t interest you. If you’re looking for a specific book, you can use a computer to help you find it.

But let’s assume you want to browse. No one ever browses through the entire store at Powell’s. Not even me, and I browse large Barnes & Nobles. (Even before they dropped the number of books they carry.) There simply isn’t time to browse every aisle. To do it effectively would probably take two days, and so far—in my 25-year history with that store, I haven’t had the two days in a row to look.

So you pick the topics you want to browse. For the sake of argument, let’s say you only read fiction. That cuts you down to two full wings of Powell’s (if we’re talking fiction in English—you get another wing if you read foreign languages).  Mystery, thriller, science fiction, horror, and some urban fantasy are in the same area.

You might pick one of those categories or all of them. You could see those in a few hours.

By doing so, however, you have eliminated from consideration from the moment you walked in the door, more than 85% of the bookstore.  So 85%  of the stuff available for sale doesn’t even concern you.

On my most recent visit to Powell’s, one week ago Saturday, I had exactly a half an hour. A half an hour to visit and browse more than a million books.  I had a specific series in mind—John Lawton’s Inspector Troy series which I prefer to read in paper—and I made a beeline for the mystery section to find his novels. There, I found a new William Lashner I hadn’t known existed and two other writers whose work looked interesting.

Once I scooped up all the Lawtons and Lashners (and those new folks), I had fifteen minutes left. So I backtracked to the entry area—a former car dealer showroom where Powell’s displays the newest of new books. I browsed carefully, found two histories I had meant to buy and forgotten about, found a non-fiction book of essays on Paris, and another brand new writer. And then I had to leave.

I doubt I saw 2% of the store, yet I left satisfied.

Does this work with e-books? Of course it does. All e-bookstores have filter functions. You can browse titles by genre, by subgenre, by author, and by publication date. Your fingers can do the walking into the new releases section and then take a side trip to the fiction section. It doesn’t quite feel the same, but the result is clear.

And what about print-on-demand books or books published through a small or specialty press? The same filter system exists on Amazon or Barnes &  Alibris has one, and so do all the other larger bookstores on the web.

Readers will find you, just like they’ve always found their favorite writers.  Readers will browse. They’ll just browse at their computers rather than in the store.

The other way readers will find you is word of mouth.  Word of mouth isn’t just one reader recommending a book to another reader, although that counts. Word of mouth also works when a reader hears the author speak at a convention and thinks, “I wonder if her books are worth reading?” Only a lot of readers don’t go to conventions. But they listen to podcasts or read blogs.  They find old interviews (some of mine from the 1990s are on YouTube on a Canadian show called Prisoners of Gravity) or they read something short that the author did.

That’s the other new word of mouth: short stories. Either in magazines or anthologies or in stand-alone e-books. A short story doesn’t take a lot of time commitment to read and it doesn’t take much of a financial commitment either. So short stories provide a  new way to find readers as well.  In fact, I said in a previous blog that I believe short story markets are the brightest spot in traditional publishing right now.  They’re also bright for indie publishers as well.

I think the best part of the new world of publishing—for indie writers, that is—is the fact that a book can remain in print as long as the writer wants it to. If you control the rights to that book (and indie writers do), then you can keep it in print for decades if you want.  (This is double-edged sword for traditionally published writers, and is something I’ve dealt with at length in various blog posts.)

In the past, traditional publishers have looked at books as produce. Because shelf space was (and still is) limited in a brick-and-mortar store, traditional publishers believed a book’s shelf life was anywhere from two weeks (in the early 1990s) to a few months (by 2000). The idea that a book would last forever was only reserved to the bestsellers.

It’s taking a complete shift in thinking on the part of all of us who have been involved in traditional publishing—a paradigm shift, as one writer said—to understand that books are no longer produce. There is no sell-by date after which a book rots. As I mentioned above, I am reading John Lawton. I read a short story of his in an anthology and was so impressed that I decided to try the first book in his Inspector Troy series. That book was published in the early 1990s.  Other readers have been reading John Lawton for years; to me, he’s a brand new writer.

That’s a long way of saying that, yeah, in the first two weeks of its release, your book might not find any readers at all. And if you’re stuck in old-time thinking, traditional-publishing think from before the e-book revolution, then the fact that your book sells zero copies in its first two weeks of publication is an unmitigated disaster.

But in today’s market, your book can start slow and build.  So many of us are ahead of the current trend. Marcia Muller wrote one of the first female detective series in the U.S., but Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky made that genre popular. Had Muller’s early Sharon McCone books still been in print, she would have vaulted to the top of the bestseller list. Unfortunately, her books were soundly midlist and hard to find at the time so she couldn’t take advantage of the sudden interest in female detectives.

I have had this happen several times in my career where a book or a series of books is about four years ahead of its time. By the time the subgenre becomes popular, my books are long out of print. The books sell well in used bookstores, but no traditional publisher would ever reissue with that as a basis. The traditional publishers were always looking for the New! Exciting! Fascinating! bit of produce to catch the reader’s attention.

That whole mindset should be gone now, but it isn’t. Traditional publishing still isn’t sure how to market for the long term. For one thing, its entire business is built on the produce model, so shifting to a different model is difficult. Shifting thinking is even harder—as writers are discovering.

If readers don’t find your book this week, what’s to say they won’t find it next week? Or next month? Or next year?

Patience is a hard skill to learn, but it’s necessary in this new world of publishing. Everything now happens over time. A long time. And it might happen decades after you wrote the book.

Which brings us back to estate planning and why it’s important. If you don’t understand how copyright works—and most writers don’t—pick up a copy of The Copyright Handbook. You’ll understand why I mention copyright and estate planning in the same breath as patience and keeping a book in print. It isn’t just because I lost a friend this week, and I’m thinking about mortality (although I am). It’s also because understanding copyright law, and protecting your rights as a creator is more important than it ever was before.

Which is why I’m happy to see more and more lawyers start to jump into the business, like the Passive Guy, with an eye toward protecting the rights of writers. Another new business model is starting up—one that isn’t an expensive lawyer model nor is it an agenting model. Check out his site and then read Laura Resnick’s blog on hiring an attorney when you negotiate a publishing contract, rather than hiring an agent. She lists other attorneys there.

We are going through a paradigm shift, and it’s touching all aspects of the industry.  It’s not just the ease with which a writer can now get her work to the international marketplace, although that’s part of it. Nor is it the change in business models in traditional publishing. Nor is it the searching that agents are doing to find relevance in the new marketplace. And it’s not the rise of e-stributers and other new businesses.

Everything is changing except the readers themselves. Readers want good stories. In the past, readers were willing to search used bookstores for copies of their favorite writers’ out of print work. Now those readers press a few keys on their computer or tap their screen on their iPad and see if that writer’s work is available right now.

The impulse is the same: I enjoyed her last book. I want her next right now. And now, we’re all in a place to provide that book to the reader whenever the reader is looking for it—whether that’s at 3 a.m tonight or some bright afternoon five years from now.

I often tell you in these blogs to trust the readers. Do so now. They will find you. If you have patience and faith in the process—the new process. It really does benefit writers, if you can wrap your mind around all the changes.

Like I’m trying to do, each and every day.

As I mentioned above, I appreciate hearing from all of you. I like knowing that my efforts are worthwhile, especially since they take valuable time away from my fiction writing. As always, if you got something out of this blog today, leave a few dollars in the tip jar. And thanks.

“The Business Rusch: Odds, Ends, and More Slush Pile Truths” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.