The Business Rusch: Fighting Uphill
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
The struggle begins when we’re young. Think of it this way: How many parents, upon hearing that their child wants to be a doctor, lawyer, firefighter, teacher, or nurse, says, No, you can’t. It’s too hard or You’ll never make money at that or You’re not good enough to succeed in that profession. Parents guide their kids, sure, but they try to guide their kids toward success, and they try to protect their kids from harm. And apparently, a life in the arts is, in our society, perceived as harm.
Then we move on to school where teachers—who, for the most part, have not succeeded in the arts—judge our “talent.” Again, we hear “You’re not good enough” or “It’s too hard” or “Protect yourself with a real job” as if a job in the arts isn’t real.
Those of us who go on to freelance have a stubborn streak or an extra bit of confidence. We also have more drive than the average person because we have started climbing uphill from the moment we declare our intention to become a writer. We have to fight the naysayers.
Some of us fight by compromising. New York Times bestseller Tess Gerritsen became a physician before giving it up to pursue her writing career. As she says in the August RT Book Reviews, “I was a writer long before I became a doctor…. But I’m also the daughter of very practical Asian parents, and they insisted that I’d never support myself in the arts, so I took their advice and went to medical school instead.”
Some of us stubbornly refuse to compromise. I deliberately “wasted” my education—a history degree—by not going on to graduate school or law school. I became a reporter because that was a way to make money as a writer, but I always wrote fiction and always tried to market it.
And even when I was making a living as a nonfiction writer, or hell, as a fiction writer, I got told repeatedly that I was being impractical, that I was “lucky,” that I had better prepare for the days when I could no longer follow my dream.
Preemptive disillusionment, I guess. A protection against the future, I suppose. But it didn’t matter because the writing process itself was disillusioning. When all of us who are fulltime professional writers of longstanding came into this business, there was only one way to make a living, and that was by publishing traditionally.
A traditionally published writer has to jump through a lot of hoops. Rather than appeal to hundreds of readers, she needs to appeal to a few—the editors and the sales force at the publishing company. Editors issue rejections much more than they issue contracts. Those rejections take the form of tea leaves. Some writers read the tea leaves and decide to leave the business, but the rest of us stay despite even more discouragement. We fight and fight and fight again.
But in fighting, we bend ourselves into pretzels. Are we good at mysteries? Or better at romance? Should we write the same thing over and over or try something new? Should we sell ourselves like actors do? Or should we hide in our rooms like J.D. Salinger? We take whatever advice sounds sensible to us and discard the rest, not because the advice is sensible, but because we are operating in a closed system in which no one knows exactly what makes a book sell.
If we knew what made a book sell, we would repeat that effort with every single book. That’s what’s difficult about the arts. At a certain point, either the piece works for a certain number of people or it does not.
The certain number of people in traditional publishing are the editors and the sales force. Not the readers. Writers couldn’t get to readers without going through the editors and sales force. And that’s a finite group who must use their expertise to decide if a book will make a profit for the company or not.
What is that expertise? Experience, yes. A love of reading, yes. And mostly a lot of guesswork. That’s the dirty secret of publishing. Editors, the sales force, and the publishers get surprised by a book selling better than expected more often than they get the actual sales figures right. In fact, most profit-and-loss statements developed on a book before publication are wrong.
There is no expertise in choosing what will succeed and what won’t. There is only expertise in marketing—and sometimes (often) marketing goes awry as well.
In other words, William Goldman’s famous words about Hollywood apply to publishing as well: Nobody knows anything.
So in the past (and really, honestly, in the present) writers market their work to a small subset of people who claim they know how to sell the work even when those people are just guessing. That subset, until 2009 or so, was the only game in town.
Writers had no choice but to believe what they were being told: only vampire novels sell, only romantic vampire novels sell, include a boy wizard and all will be fine, oh—you failed once so you’re unmarketable. And on, and on, and on.
Those of who survived mostly ignored that stuff, and did what Tobias Buckell mentions in one of his recent blog posts. We learned what we could control. We could control how much we wrote. We could control how much we mailed. We could control how we reacted to the insanity around us. We could control little else.
It made those of us who survived decades both hard and crazy. We never believed what anyone told us. We only believed in a promise after it was kept. We knew that even success was evanescent, because it could be (and often was) screwed up at a moment’s notice.
And then there was the money. Because we got told we couldn’t make a living in the arts, most of us never tried. Those of us who actually cared about making a living were told that we couldn’t be artists, that we were crass commercial hacks, that we didn’t “respect” our business. So many of us who wanted a career in the arts didn’t pursue it because it wasn’t logical, it didn’t seem to follow an existing business model. Most of the smart business minds avoided careers as pure artists—writers, actors, musicians—because it was hard to see a path to profit that didn’t include luck. Many of the smart business minds either became publishers themselves or agents, giving up on their dream to do the work themselves, never realizing that they were making a small percentage off the artist so there had to be money in this business somewhere.
And the money started with the artist. That’s the biggest crazy-making thing of all. Without the writer’s story, there would be no agents, no publishing houses, no bookstores. All of those businesses make their profits off a percentage of what the writer gets for his creation.
But until 2009, the distribution of the writer’s work—getting that work to the reader—required a system that the writer couldn’t easily access on her own. So she paid pieces of her potential earnings to get to market.
And then indie-publishing came about. The self-publishing revolution, in which it became possible to hit those markets without the intervening percentage-takers. And most writers still believe that it’s impossible for them to make a living.
Why? Ah, that’s what we’ll explore in this series, among other things. The series started with last week’s post, “Unexpected Gold in Self-Help Books” and will continue for the next few weeks.
But let’s continue with the way writers were trained. Because the business minds left writing and/or failed to band together with other business-minded writers, the writers who remained never really questioned the system. And most writers have no idea whether or not one of their trusted “partners” – a publisher, say, or an agent—is skimming a bit on the side.
(Publishers have skimmed for years. Lawsuits fighting inaccurate reporting of royalties have gone on for decades, usually against big companies. The audit clause in publishing contracts is, for the most part, a new development, caused by a wave of fraud about thirty years ago. Now publishers are underreporting e-book royalties. Incorrect royalty statements are a common problem, not an uncommon one. And have been from the beginning of traditional publishing.)
Until recently, the writer who complained about the way things got done was labeled “naïve” or worse, labeled a troublemaker. Word got out through publishing circles about the troublemakers, making an effective blacklist.
You wanted to get published in the days when the only way to get your book to market was to go through traditional routes? Then you had to expect a certain amount of underreporting, incompetence, and just plain theft. Writers who survived looked on that as the cost of doing business, the way that a retail store owner factors in a certain percentage of sales lost to shoplifting.
Even with success, the traditional longterm writing career was crazy-making. Sure, you could be a New York Times bestseller, but reviewers and others could call you a hack and say you couldn’t write. Very few writers could publish their laundry lists. Writer after writer—good sellers all—were told they couldn’t publish anything except the series (or type of book) that made them famous. When the writer tried, they were rejected (yes, still) or the publishing company would actively work to mismarket the “strange” book so that readers would know it was an outlier.
Again, nobody knew anything, so everyone tried to go with what worked before.
All of this should have made all successful writers batshit crazy. Yet most writers aren’t. Instead, they retreat. They don’t talk to anyone about what they do or how they do it—much like they were when they were kids with a dream that the adults constantly disparaged.
Last week in her blog, writer Sarah Hoyt compared writers to battered spouses. She says that some of what she hears from writers reminds her of the reasons battered spouses stay with their abusers. I have to admit, I’ve had that same thought myself, but I’ve never written a blog post about it because it seems too simple.
Writers do react badly to any suggestions for change, from leaving an agent who is clearly no longer interested in working for them to staying with a publisher even as the publisher’s contracts and advances get worse. But I think the way that writers act has a lot more to do with crisis response than with abuse.
The writers who stay in the business become survivors. “Survivor” is an interesting word because it implies that the survivor went through something traumatic. Indeed, my handy dandy Encarta World English Dictionary defines the word “survive” as managing to stay alive “especially in difficult situations” or “after something such as an accident or war that threatens life.”
Or livelihood. Something threatening.
Think about it: from childhood those of us who wanted to go into the arts got bombarded with reasons why we couldn’t. Then we went through a trial that led to success, but success in a field that considers you only as good as your last bit of work. It’s not an abuse/abuser relationship because that implies something personal. The abuser has a personal stake in what happens to the abused, just like the abused has a stake with the abuser.
But publishing, like any business, is impersonal. It’s a business, and while the personal relationships might be good ones, the professional relationship between a writer (any writer) and traditional publishing is difficult at best.
Writers who have gone through decades in traditional publishing react the way that people who have been through a major national crisis react. No two people react to a crisis the same way, particularly a prolonged crisis, and yet each of those people have scars from that crisis.
Both of my parents lived through the Depression. My mother, orphaned early in those years, never believed she had security. She didn’t hoard anything, but she also failed to believe that anything would continue, particularly anything financial. Good fortune, she believed (hell, she knew), could be snatched away in an instant. But that didn’t make her someone who celebrated the good fortune. Instead, she was someone who watched it warily, waiting for it to disappear.
My father, from a stable household with a government paycheck (my grandfather was a rural mail carrier), attended college in those years, and spent money freely. The financial hardships of that period touched him, but not personally. Still, he understood my mother’s fears, because he had seen so many people lose everything during that time.
I have friends who survived 9/11. Other friends who have served in various wars. Veterans in particular react differently to their time in war zones. Some never really come home. Others remain continually on alert. Some only react when something viscerally reminds them of the war itself.
Go back over my list from last week, and then think of those items in terms of survival mechanisms from a war fought mostly inside your own mind. A writer had to find coping mechanisms to deal with a constant barrage of negativity from the outside. Some of that negativity didn’t just come in the form of words: some of it came in the form of deeds. People will actively try to stop writers from achieving their goals, sometimes with the mistaken idea that they are “helping” the writer.
No wonder writers have a bunker mentality. No wonder so many writers become quiet and never really speak of their work to anyone else.
For years, Dean and I taught a master class for professional writers, those who’ve had success and had run into a bad patch in their careers. We worked on a variety of things to get the writer moving forward again. One of the most important things that we did was a role-playing game that showed writers how to cope with things outside of their control. We found that role-playing was the only thing that worked, because simply telling writers didn’t help at all. They had to experience the craziness that was traditional publishing before they could figure out what kind of coping mechanisms worked for them.
We don’t teach the master class any more. Most of what we taught as recently as five years ago is now out of date. Traditional publishing is only one choice that a writer has, instead of the only choice. The fact that writers now have a lot of choice makes all the difference in the world. Writers can act like normal business people, making decisions based on logic, and finances, and an established business model.
But most writers aren’t making those choices. They close their eyes, stick their fingers in their ears, and sing to themselves when someone tries to tell them about all the changes.
This isn’t willful stupidity. It’s a survival skill. It’s a bunker mentality. They focus on one thing and one thing only—the writing—because, in the past, if they focused on anything else, it would destroy what creativity they had left.
Now, however, that bunker mentality will kill careers. Writers have to figure out what behaviors they’ve learned that no longer apply to the brave new world of publishing, and then they have to move beyond those behaviors.
A lot of you wrote to me last week and said you recognized yourself in that list. That’s a good first step. Once you identify the problem, you can actually work on solving the problem.
This week’s column is about the second step. You have to figure out where the behavior came from. Did you learn not to take risks from your parents? Or from some bad experiences in the past? Or are you a natural conservative—the kind of person who never willingly takes risks?
Go back over that list and ask yourself those questions about the points you resonate with. Figure out where those ideas and behaviors came from. Because you have to know what caused them before you can change them.
Next week, we’ll start working on individual items and how they apply (or don’t apply) in the new world of publishing. We’re about to walk into a new battle. We’re already seeing the battle lines get drawn.
The writer who survives—and I use that word on purpose—is the one who knows what her strengths and weaknesses are, both in writing and in business. She is also the writer who is flexible enough to roll with the punches and to make changes where necessary.
Here’s the thing, though. Don’t expect change to be easy. Change is hard. But it’s worthwhile.
Of course, you already know that. You know how to take risks and you know how to make it through a minefield. After all, you’re a professional writer despite what your parents and teachers said. You’ve made it through some of the toughest things traditional publishing can dish out.
You’ll figure out your path in this new world as well. It’ll just take a while—and a bit of belief in yourself.
Every week, I take some time away from my fiction writing to write these blog posts. I rely on you folks to support the Thursday nonfiction blog, since I rarely try to sell them elsewhere. If you get some value from these posts, leave a tip on the way out. I also appreciate all of the comments and e-mails that I get. Thanks.
“The Business Rusch: Fighting Uphill” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.