The Business Rusch: Professional Writers

The Business Rusch: Professional Writers

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

I warned you guys in some of my other posts that I have what I call aw-f*ck-it moments. (Forgive the vulgarity; I know some of you don’t like that. But that’s what I call it, and that’s what it is. The little asterisk is there because my husband told me to add it so that I won’t offend people.)

My aw-f*ck-it moments are why I can’t work in a corporation. I learned this young. I would go along and go along, doing what was expected of me, until one day, someone asks for something unreasonable, and I know I should play the politics, but inside, a voice says, “Aw, f*ck it,” and off I go, telling the boss that he’s a sexist pig and he should stop calling me sweetie, or pulling off my apron and nametag, and—in the name of dignity—walking out the back door, leaving my last paycheck behind.

I have these moments throughout my life, and my good friends have come to recognize the expression on my face just before one of these moments occur. If my friends were sitting in my office for the last hour, they would be ducking. Because I wrote 1200 words of this piece, got up to get some tea, and heard myself say, “Aw f*ck it.”

I had started with some namby-pamby crap that had nothing to do with the topic at hand (What topic? you ask. There is no topic here.

(Not yet, I say. But trust me. It’s coming.) At first, I thought I’d continue my series on the unexpected gold in self-help books, where I’ve been using the stuff found in self-help books and exploring it for writers. I can shoehorn this topic into another topic, I figured, and I’d be fine.

But by the time I sat down to start this, I realized I didn’t have room. So I wrote the namby-pamby crap, and danced my way around the topic. Then I got the tea and all hell broke loose in my brain.

You see, I’m really getting frustrated. I’ve been doing these blogs for months now, pointing out the various problems with traditional publishing, talking about the changes and the opportunities presented by the e-book and POD revolution, and warning writers to watch their backs on contracts, on their work time, on compromising too much for too little return.

And then what happens? From the World Science Fiction Convention in late August until now, people who should know better have been telling me about their business decisions. That “should know better” refers not just to the decision, but to telling me about it. Because in every single case but one, they’ve contacted me after the decision was made, and wanted me to validate it or to pat them on the head and tell them they did a good thing.

One person even admitted they had “probably made a mistake, but it’s not that bad, right?” Well, it was bad. On the scale of business decisions in the last 20 years, it wasn’t Enron or even what’s going on with Netflix right now, but it was most certainly boneheaded and it certainly made me glad that my career wasn’t tied to that person’s.

I’m not sure what these people expected me to say. Sometimes I’ve asked them (if it’s an in-person conversation) why they’re telling me this, and they usually shrug. In-person is easy; I can change the subject without answering. E-mail is a bit harder.  Because usually, in e-mail, they want my “honest opinion.” And my honest opinion is raw and blunt. So I respond with a question: have you signed the deal? If the answer is yes, I ask if they’re happy with it. If the answer is yes again, then I tell them they don’t need me. I do pat them on the head and hope they’ll go away. But if they push…well, let’s just say only a few have pushed lately, and they all knew me personally, and they all know what I mean when I respond with, “Well, I wouldn’t have signed it, but then again, it’s your career.”

They know because whenever I teach, I make people write this down. You are responsible for your own career.  That means you must own the successes and the failures. The good decisions and the bad ones.

So if you make a decision, act on it, then e-mail me about it and ask me to comment on it, and I respond with, “Well, I wouldn’t have done that, but then again, it’s your career,” you should catch this clue. That’s my polite Midwestern upbringing at war with my blunt self. Because if you continued to push me in person, I would have hit the aw-f*ck-it moment, and either walked away (because I couldn’t face you any longer without speaking up) or I would have said, “You want my opinion? You just volunteered to get screwed.”

So what’s the aw-f*ck-it tonight? I was going to talk about misperceived risk, and I still plan to. But I was going to do it in a half-assed way. I got back from getting my tea, and launched into the stuff you’ll see in the next paragraph, and as I let fly, I realized I needed to either write the piece it wanted to be or drop the topic altogether.

Okay, friends, duck. Because here we go:

Since the beginning of August, six different authors have talked to me, emailed me, or called me, asking my advice about a new “deal” that someone in their traditional publishing company offered them. (By traditional publishing company, I mean one of the misnamed Big Six [it’s not six, that’s wrong, but I’ve railed about it elsewhere to no avail]. i mean one of those publishing houses we’ve all heard of, whose books we all have on our shelves.)

These companies are telling their authors to write a short story or a  novella (or short novel) that will be e-book only. The short piece doesn’t have to stand alone. It should be part of an ongoing series of books that the publishing house has under contract from the author. It’s a “loss leader” to get readers into the book series.

The publishing company plans to offer the e-book at a very cheap price or for free to establish interest in the series, and because that e-book will be cheap, the company says, it wants to keep its up-front costs low. So it really can’t afford an advance, but it will pay 25% of net on royalties when/if the e-book sells.

Now realize that these are the deals offered by major publishers to bestselling writers on bestselling series.  No advance, and a crappy 25% of net on royalties—of a book that will probably be selling for free for only a short time.

Six writers that I know of have taken this deal, three from companies that are having troubles accurately reporting their e-book sales. Two of those writers told me they knew that, but it “didn’t bother them much.” Um…what?

Me, I would have been offended at the deal. I don’t work for free. I am a professional writer. I get paid for what I do. If the company wants to offer a loss leader on one of my books, I should still get paid for my work. After all, the editor is getting paid, right? The in-house book designer gets paid, right? Even the person who drew up the crap-ass contract is getting paid, right? How come the writer doesn’t get paid?

And I’m not anyone’s bestseller, their cash cow, and I still have this attitude. You pay me for my work. Period. If you don’t want to, then I will not do business with you.

Believe me, if I were one of the company’s bestselling writers, and I said that they must pay me or I’d walk, guess how quickly they’d scramble to pay me. Because publishing is a business, folks. They know who provides content that they can make money on and who doesn’t. They will do what they can to hang onto that content.  The fact that they’re doing this—offering bestselling writers such a crap deal—is because they know that the writers don’t have a lick of business sense.  The publishers are deliberately taking advantage of a writer’s stupidity.

And it is up to the writer to put her little foot down, and say, “Sorry. Don’t disrespect me like this. I’m a professional just like you are. Treat me that way.”

But traditional publishers have treated writers like this for decades. The fact that writers are still letting them get away with it is bad for all of us.

And it is just getting worse.

Let’s go back to this particular deal. This deal is so disingenuous that it smacks of highway robbery to me. And it gets worse.

The two authors who sent me the contracts apparently did not understand the contracts that they received. The contracts weren’t for an e-book only. The contracts bought everything. World English Rights (in one case) and World Rights in the other on everything from hardcover to trade paper to mass market to e-books.  In other words, the publishers sent a standard book contract to the author. If the author had an agent negotiating the contracts for the other books in the series, then the contract the author received on this new deal matched those book contracts (except without an advance).

Oh, and each author was told that because this was a “small” project, they didn’t need to bring anyone in to help negotiate. No agent, no attorney. One author proudly told me that they had handled it themselves. There was no point bringing anyone in because there was no money up front.

I honest to god wanted to scream. I really did. I told both authors not to sign the contracts. The out-of-print clause alone was egregious, not counting the 25% of net, the lack of an advance, and on and on and on.

One author didn’t respond. (My letter back was polite but firm: get an advance on this thing, and modify it to e-book only. Don’t sign as is.) I have no idea what that person will or did do.

The other author made me want to tear my hair out. This author said that they didn’t want to negotiate an advance or change the contract in anyway even though they had an inkling it was a bad deal because they had promised their editor they would do this, and they didn’t want to make their editor mad.

Excuse me? Really? You have got to be kidding me.

What made matters worse, in my opinion, was that the last author not only knew how to put up an e-book, but also had the funds to hire someone to do it if need be. When I mentioned that the author would make significantly more money doing the work themselves, the author agreed, but said that they didn’t want to renege on that promise made to their editor.

Why? I asked. Well, the writer responded, they didn’t want to rock the boat. After all, publishing is in turmoil and the editor might decide not to buy the next book.

Which, in my opinion, given the book contract I saw, wouldn’t be a bad thing.

But it’s not my career. Nor is it your career. And I trust most of you wouldn’t sign these deals.  At least, I hope most of you wouldn’t. I would hope you respect yourself and your work enough to defend it when the time comes. I would hope that you have the words “No deal” in your vocabulary.

So why am I writing about this, then? Partly because of that writer’s final statement. Publishing is in turmoil and the editor might decide not to buy the next book.

In the old world of publishing, say ten years ago, that was a serious risk to any writer who wanted to maintain a career in publishing. You had to weigh your own principles against what you had to do to get published. Me, I’ve always maintained that I need to get paid, and I’ve walked away from bad deals for a long time. But I also have been an editor and a publisher. I know that editors (for the most part) have short careers and publishers get fired all the time. If I got banned from one traditional publishing house in 1998, chances were that I could go back to that house in 2002 and no one would remember.

Most writers never knew that. Most writers thought they were actually risking something by saying no to their editor.

I understand that. I really do.

But we no longer live in 1998 or even 2002. This is 2011, nearly 2012, and in this decade, we have options. And the options often don’t include traditional publishers.

Your editor dropped you and your bestselling series because you said no to a crap-ass contact? Well, you now have three choices, one of which you didn’t have ten years ago.

Choice #1: Go above the editor’s head. The editor who is stupid enough to let a bestseller go over a contract negotiation for an obviously terrible (no-advance) contract should be fired. It’s that simple. I’ve known of editors fired for less.

Choice #2: Go to another publishing company with your bestselling brand name. You might not be able to sell them your continuing series, but you’ll be able to continue your traditional publishing career.

Choice #3: Publish the book yourself. You’re a bestseller. You have enough money to hire a flat-fee service to put the book up as an e-book, and to continue your series in both e-book and paper books. If you’re really smart, you’ll pick up Think Like a Publisher by my husband Dean Wesley Smith (or read it for free on his blog) and hire someone to do that work for you as well. You’ll make oodles of money, your books will still go to all the major brick-and-mortar outlets as well as e-bookstores, and you’ll have a firm control of your career.

But chances are, if you are truly a bestseller—and both contracts said in the book description, a story/novella/short piece “in the Author’s bestselling series”, so I’m not making any assumptions here—then your editor will sigh a little when you ask for an advance, and then pony up the money.

Because editors are smart and they know business and they were simply trying to do what their boss wanted, which was to get as many rights from you for as little money as possible.

And in the case of five of the six authors (I still don’t know what the sixth did), those publishers made out like bandits. These writers might see a few measly pennies on this deal, but I’ll wager you that the writers will not get the money they’re owed. After all, at least three of these deals were offered by companies who are being investigated for underreporting royalties on e-books.  One of these deals comes from a company being sued for underreporting royalties on paper books.

These authors all knew that. And they still made a royalty-only deal with these companies.

See why I want to scream? Really and truly scream? Because it doesn’t make sense—not in any business world, not in any way.  These writers gave their work away to a company that doesn’t deserve their trust.  And at least four of these writers are slow writers. They can’t afford to give away anything, because it’s a goodly portion of their yearly output.

What were they thinking? I honestly don’t know. I can’t even say they were thinking like it was 1999 (see my blog post on the changes in publishing since then), because had it been 1999, they wouldn’t have done this. No one sold books of any size to a big name publisher without an agent or an attorney on the deal. (The handful of authors who negotiated on their own always had business skill and the savvy to know what they were doing.)

And let’s not even discuss the other egregious things I heard this past month: authors who are taking advances at half the size of the previous advances because “no one is getting good money these days with the demise of Borders.” Half the money for even  more rights than these writers had sold initially. So the writer sells her first born and her second born and maybe even her grandchildren, gets a terrible royalty deal, and half the up front money she got a year ago. Yeah, seems fair to me.

Especially when the writer can often self-publish and make more money in the first three years than they ever will from this contract. (Often these contracts are for $2000 to $5000.)  In other words, by the time the advance pays out on its signing/acceptance/publication schedule, the author could have (if she had self-published) made the same amount of money on the e-book alone.

And then there are the writers who are so flattered to be working for a traditional publisher that they ignore the bad copy edits, the failed promises, and the endless rewrites. These writers aren’t putting up their backlist because they have day jobs and don’t have the time. But they can rewrite a book four times for a traditional publisher who pays them $5,000 in three payments of $1667, minus 15% for the agent, so the writer actually pockets $1417 a year.  If the math continues on these rewrites, copy edits, and first draft writing time, the writer might be getting all of $3 per hour for his work for the honor of working with a traditional publishing company who is treating them like crap.

I know what some of these writers are thinking. They’re thinking it’s too much of a risk to branch out on their own. After all, there are new skills to be learned, and a small financial outlay for covers and things they’re not good at, and the promise of a return a few years from now, and that’s just too dangerous. Better to go with the stuff they know than learn something new.

Even if the thing they know treats them badly, makes them work harder than they would work if they were publishing their own books, and pays them significantly less. The difference? No up front money.

But these are the writers who often forget that an advance is an advance against royalties or in the world of business, an interest-free loan with terms that must be met or the writer will have to repay that loan. It’s not a salary, nor is it a payment for work done. It’s a loan that can be called for a variety of reasons, and often is.

As all of this has been happening, I’ve been talking to long-time professionals who are putting up their backlists themselves, who feel free and happy about their writing for the first time in decades, who see the opportunities and understand that there is less risk in doing it themselves than there is in going with a traditional publishing house these days.

Several long-time pros said to me at Worldcon (in different conversations) that they’ve never had a publisher keep all the promises made on any book. Any book.  One writer mentioned to me just recently that traditional publishing, from that writer’s perspective, is a mass of failed attempts at doing something right.

This is a writer, by the way, with a thirty-year long career, and more than 45 published novels.

So as I’ve been watching this dichotomy between the writers smart enough to stand up for themselves, smart enough to realize that in addition to being artists, they’re also business people, and these people who sign royalty-only contracts or let their advances get cut in half while selling twice as many rights as they sold before, I had a realization.

Traditional publishing is going to do just fine. Traditional publishing is going to find writer after writer unwilling to learn the business, writer after writer lining up for the “honor” of being published in lieu of actual money, and, if the traditional publisher is lucky, a few of those writers will become bestsellers.

The rest of those writers will become disillusioned. They’ll go to writers conferences and sit in the bar and kvetch about how impossible it is to make money at writing these days. They’ll talk about the way their publisher screwed them, and they’ll never ever ever take responsibility for the fact that they signed the boneheaded contract in the first place without a single attempt at negotiation.

They’ll give all of us professionals a bad name.

But it won’t matter. Because most of us professionals will only take traditional publishing deals when the deals are advantageous to our business.  And the rest of the time, we’ll publish our own books.

We’ll have careers because we are responsible. And we’ve taken the time to learn the business of publishing as well as the craft of writing.

We’re professional writers—emphasis on the word “professional.” And these other published writers? The ones who take the crap deals and do a ridiculous amount of work for no pay?

Those people might be writers, but that’s all they are. They’re certainly not professionals.

Yes, I get paid for my writing, including this blog. I just decided to fund it a different way. I fund it through reader donations. It’s worked well for me since April of 2009. The moment that I can’t fund this blog through donations, I won’t write it any more. It’s that simple.

I appreciate all the comments and all the interaction through the blog.  Thanks to all of you who’ve supported it over the past two-plus years.

“The Business Rusch: Professional Writers” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.