The Business Rusch: New Paths

The Business Rusch: New Paths

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

These days, I don’t often teach beginning writers. Dean Wesley Smith and I teach professionals who are in a transition point in their careers. Usually, those professionals don’t need basics. Usually, they need work on business skills.

But this past weekend, in Whitehorse up in Canada’s Yukon, I taught a roomful of writers, some of whom hadn’t really committed to their writing career yet. I knew that going in.

Faced with the reality, however, I found myself in a bit of a quandary.

For two decades now, Dean and I have taught a two-day long course others have called “The Kris and Dean Show.” All morning, afternoon, and evening, we talk about writing—craft, career, business—for beginning writers.  We haven’t done one of those in about two years because we’d been focusing on the professionals.

The course I was teaching in Whitehorse was supposed to be a truncated version of that course.  Only a few sessions instead of all day for two days.  Six months ago, the organizers asked me for an outline, and I gave them one, which they put into their program.

I made the outline deliberately vague, because I knew things would change in those six months. I just hadn’t realized how much they would change.

The early part of the session went well. I talked about craft, about writing, about the things that make writing readable, about ways to get to the keyboard—mostly the kind of wheel that we all reinvent as beginners if someone doesn’t point the way.

After that, though, I looked at the topics and realized I had to explain a few things.

I had to talk about the way that publishing is changing, how what I was telling them on the second weekend in October, 2011, might not apply to the second weekend in October, 2012.  Much of what I said would’ve been heresy in 2008 or 2009.  The industry is changing rapidly, and I needed to let folks know that.

Then, I pretty much tossed out the topics I suggested six months ago and started fresh. I talked about ways to break into traditional publishing in 2011, told everyone to wait to hire an agent for at least two years while the agenting business settled out (and I explained why), then I talked about indie publishing, and the future of e-books. I also talked about the various paths writers could take.

I have no idea if the last part of the presentation worked or not. I felt like it was a bit of a muddle, because as I talked, I realized that the certainties I used to teach were gone. We have moved from a time when writers had one path to follow to publication to a time when writers have, quite literally, dozens of different paths—all equally valid.

The question then becomes how to chose which path. And that gets hard. Because it’s not the same path for each writer. Writers have to figure out who they are and what they want from their careers. That is such an easy sentence to write and such a hard thing to do.

So how do writers choose?

They have to have a deep education into the art and business of publishing. You can’t make a choice without proper information. And until recently, the details of the publishing business were known only to a few people.

In this blog over the past few years, I’ve been detailing the changes as they’ve occurred. I’ve been trying to impart my knowledge as a former (and current) publisher, an award-winning book-and-magazine editor, and a bestselling writer to all you folks as the changes occurred so that you would have the information you need for the choices that you have to make.

I guess what I hadn’t realized until this past weekend is just how profound those changes are.  As I tried to find a simple way to discuss the publishing industry, I realized that there is no simple way any more.

One size fits all vanished in the past few years. Now it’s up to each of us to chose our personal style. And that’s a huge difference. It’s like going from school uniforms with no deviation to anything goes as long as we’ve covered our privates (and I’m not even sure that’s required).  You can build a career in traditional publishing; you can build a career in e-publishing; you can building a career in e-pub and print-on-demand; you can build a career in indie publishing; you can build a career as an indie and in traditional publishing—honestly folks, the sky is the limit here.

We are only limited by our imaginations.

And that’s what I realized this weekend. If you run into a writer at a writer’s conference who tells you there’s only one way to break in, either that writer isn’t paying attention to the changes or that writer simply does not see past her own nose. My way is not necessarily your way.

The only thing we all need is to know how the various paths work and which one is the best for us. The really cool thing about all thing changes is this: If we start down the wrong path, we don’t have to stick to that path. The moment we realize the path won’t work for us, we can move to a different path.

And I find that inspiring.

I’m leaving this post deliberately short. Right now, I’m in Eugene, Oregon, on yet another surprise trip for the estate. If you had told me this morning that I would be here, I would have laughed. But here I am.

One thing Dean and I have taught for years is that life happens. Sometimes you set the writing aside because of important life issues, and sometimes you do the best you can at the moment—which is what this particular post is. Because I don’t have any of my materials for the blog. I have a dicey internet connection, and I have other priorities this evening.

But I didn’t want y’all to think I forgot you. Thursday is my deadline, and I’m still enough of a journalist to turn in something. As Tina Fey said in Bossy Pants, the show doesn’t go on when it’s finished; it goes on because it’s 11:30.

So next week, I hope to have a longer blog with a lot more analysis. This week, you get my realization from the weekend: it’s a free-for-all out here right now.

I know that might scare some of you, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s cool. So I thought I’d share.


“The Business Rusch: New Paths” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

 

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37 Comments

  1. Oh, Kris… I can relate. I gave a talk two nights ago. Ostensibly, it was a panel discussion about e-publishing with a traditional publisher who does ebooks and a woman from the Chicago Public Library. To say it was lively was an understatement. I was supposed to present the author’s perspective, and I’m sure I puzzled everyone because I kept saying you have choices now. Lots of them. Unfortunately, I was practically drowned out by the traditional publisher, who told me my math was fuzzy and I didn’t know what I was talking about. (And this was after I defended tradtional publishing and said there were things they could do that a self-published author can’t.)

    Nevertheless, a lot of audience members came up afterwards to take my card and ask if I’d talk about those choices in a less “strident” environment. I hope I get that chance.

    Reply
    • It’ll take some time to work its way out, Libby. I think we’re in for some “strident” years on panels, etc. I encountered on in May. A bunch of us went into a conference toward the end and blew up everything the teachers said (unintentionally–we thought the teachers were more aware of the changes in publishing than they were). It was really awkward. It’ll be an interesting few years….

      Reply
  2. I even know someone who broke in through audiobooks. He went print after he established a huge fanbase there, and now he makes a comfortable living writing fiction…! (That’s Nathan Lowell for the curious, and he writes utterly charming merchant space opera, which starts with “Quarter Share.”)

    Truly, it’s an amazing time to be working.

    Reply
  3. It is cool, and I’m excited. It makes complete sense, too — for years, I’ve maintained that there is no One True Way to write, so that there is now no One True Way to be published is a logical extension.

    In spaghetti-on-the-wall fashion, I’m trying a little bit of everything (except agent hunting). I have a cozy mystery and a soft SF novel out at traditional publishers. I won a small-press contest with first-three-and-a-synopsis for a paranormal, and I’m writing that for them now. I’ve got short stories and one novella up for sale as e-books, and I need to finish up my first romance novel and get it up, too. And I’m submitting to traditional short story markets, including hoping to get past “Honorable Mention” in the Writers of the Future contest before I’m no longer eligible.

    In other words, this is fun. I’m having a blast! If it weren’t for your blog — and Dean’s — I’d probably be hunting for an agent or expending all my effort in rewrite after rewrite in an attempt to curry favor with one. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Erin & MCA, yes, exactly! You (and the audio guy) used to be outliers. Now I think that’s the way things get done.

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  4. Thanks, Kris, for posting even when things are tight. Those of us looking at all the pathways appreciate it! :)

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  5. My continuing condolences on the death of your friend. My father died the same day, at a similarly young age, and as my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer two weeks ago, I’m with you on the bit about life happens!

    But thank you for your post and for all the work you’ve done for writers. I read your blog diligently because it’s inspiring and helpful.

    Reply
  6. Thanks for saying this, Kris. To me, the free-for-all atmosphere has existed for the last year.

    Personally, I believe the multitude of opportunities for writers is a great thing. I know I’m too much of a bitch to play the corporate game well, if at all. *grin* I love the creative opportunity indie publishing brings me.

    The sad thing is the way I see writers treating each other right now. The ‘if you don’t do it my way, you suck’ attitude permeates the atmosphere. It’s bad enough that the critique group I belonged to for years is fracturing at the seams. I’m not sure how to fix it or if it can be fixed. And that just breaks my heart.

    Reply
  7. Kris,

    I think I posted this metaphor once on Dean’s site. It’s relevant here, too. And I give full credit to Alistair Cockburn for inspiration with his discussion of 3 Levels of Listening. I just added Level 0, and I turned it into a metaphor so I could more easily remember. (I also thank Tolkien for the metaphor.)

    Level 0 is Wandering. You’re lost in the woods. If you see a mushroom, you eat it ‘cuz you’re hungry, and you hope it’s not poison. If you see a stream, you drink and hope it’s clean. You just want to find a light, a way through.

    Level 1 is Following. Someone puts you on a path and says, “Follow this, it will get you through. You can eat these mushrooms, but not those. You can drink from this stream.” You will probably get through the woods; but you can ONLY go where that path leads. Plus if it takes too long or doesn’t seem to be going where you want, you’re tempted to leave it; and suddenly you’re back to Wandering.

    Level 2 is Navigating. Someone hands you a map and a book on identifying fungi and a water testing kit. You figure out where you want to go, and you use the map and tools to get there.

    Level 3 is Trailblazing. You make maps.

    Cockburn’s point (and it’s a good one, or I wouldn’t be repeating it 10 years later) is that discussions that cross levels can confuse people. Someone at Level 1 will insist there is One True Path. Someone at Level 2 will say no, and point out all the exceptions and problems — without ever realizing that maybe that Level 1 person isn’t capable of choices, either because he’s not skilled enough yet or because he lacks the courage.

    And to someone at Level 3, almost all instructions come down to: “Look where you are. Think where you want to go. Look at your constraints and resources. Plan how you’ll get there. As you go, stop and assess and correct as needed.” And that doesn’t help a Follower at all. He wants hard, simple rules; and that Level 3 “rule” sounds a lot like Wandering, which he’s trying to escape from.

    And the fact is, Trailblazing IS a lot like Wandering — plus 20 years of experience.

    Clearly you and Dean and many other pros are Trailblazing. I’m trying to learn to Navigate from the maps you’re drawing. And I thank you for them!

    But reading your post, I realized something: some people don’t want to Trailblaze or Navigate; they really only want to Follow. That’s their comfort zone, their security blanket, even if the comfort and security are an illusion. For them, it’s important to believe in the One True Path. They only need to learn or find that, and they don’t have to think or learn afterwards. So when you tell them that’s not the only path, they get amused. Condescending, even. But if you tell them their One True Path is leading them straight to giant spiders who will eat them, you’re threatening their sense of order. They can’t accept that, so they’ll ignore you, or even denounce you.

    Reply
  8. I got a box of my very own POD books yesterday for a collection that I wrote, did the interior layout, and designed the cover. None of it, not even the stories inside, existed six months ago. In fact, this time last year I’d only put up one e-pub short story. Now I’ve got so many projects in the fire, it’s not only popcorn kittens, it’s pretty darn exciting (if tiring!).

    Free-for-all, indeed. That’s what makes it fun. :)

    Reply
    • Annie, Congrats on the book! Can’t wait to see it (Note to self: check Amazon).

      Roxy, John, RK, Suzan, I do think that this time benefits those of us who like to control our own chaos. I think Martin has a point too about followers and reactions. I think it’s tough right now. I have noticed that Followers generally didn’t succeed in this profession as writers even when traditional publishing was the only game in town. Followers went into the business of publishing, teaching, editing, etc. They couldn’t handle the uncertainty of writing. It takes a particularly hardy soul to do this for a long time, imho–at least as a writer. Or maybe I’m just feeling that way since I’m so tired this a.m

      Reply
  9. Thanks for sharing this. It’s amazing what has changed in only two years! Your post really resonated with me. The sameness of the long-standing publishing model used to puzzle me no end when I first became serious about writing as a business. I didn’t understand how that machine was still cranking it had so many systemic flaws.

    My own realization about this mishmash of constant change? I like it. I think it suits me. I have learned to like change even when it’s uncomfortable because taking risks regularly has become a part of my makeup. Maybe I was a chaos being in a previous life? But, the ability to make a path where there wasn’t one before by taking advantage of opportunities in a constantly changing environment… Well, that’s what I loved about working in IT in its earlier days! I still like the constant change in technology, but now I like it through a writer’s eyes, not solely as an IT writer. Guess I’m too jaded to see wasteful business models and lots of middle men as a good thing. I say let me connect directly with readers and let them vote with their wallets. And, maybe it’s not that I’m jaded. Maybe I’m old enough and too impatient now to waste any time not having fun?

    Reply
  10. I like the fact that it’s a free-for-all. I realize I thrive more in wide open spaces. I always have. I reached the point in my personal life – lo those many years ago – when I had to leave familiar places and get out on the open road. It’s still the same, figuratively speaking. Before, when I felt the tight restrictions of traditional publishing straightjacketing me, I felt confined and restricted. Now I have the freedom to do what I think is best for me, and that is to enjoy the best of both worlds. I send my short stories to traditional markets first, but at the same time am publishing as fast as I can in POD and electronic markets: memoirs, story collections, a novel.

    Reply
  11. Great post. I think a lot of people are still grappling with the possibilities. On the one hand, more control. On the other hand, more work and responsibility. For those willing to invest in new skills, ask for help when their skillset is lacking, and persevere, the only limits they’ll face are their own.

    Reply
  12. Kris, hugs to you and Dean on the continuing estate issues. And thanks to both of you for still doing posts even though life is so complicated at the moment.

    I think there were always multiple ways into the business. I know people who made it because they were critically-acclaimed short story writers, or cut their teeth on WFH, or met an editor at a workshop, or cold submitted to an editor, or cold submitted to an agent, or had a pro friend recommend a book either to an editor or an agent, or won a contest. There was really never just one way. (I know you know this.) That was just a myth. When a writer tells you here’s the right way to break in, what he’s REALLY telling you is, this is the way =I= broke in.

    And now there are a million MORE ways in. Some of the old ways have narrowed or closed. (Boy, I’d be careful about using an agent right now.) But on balance, there are many more ways in then there ever were before.

    My advice to the aspiring writer would be (and this is advice I am trying to follow, btw) try as many different paths as you can, simultaneously. The more places you batter at the wall, the sooner you’re going to find a way in.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Steve & Carolyn & Sarah & Anthea. I seriously had no brain on Wednesday night, and my writing time was spent dealing with some major stuff. I planned to hang a Gone-Fishing sign, but somehow got this post out instead. It was tough, but that old journalistic instinct about avoiding “dead air” kicked in. :-)

      Carolyn, great note about apps and opportunities (and thanks for the Tolkien quote). Steve, thanks for the reminder that there were once 100+ ways in and now there are thousands. Good observation.

      Reply
  13. Thank you so much for posting, even under deadlines.

    Just to add an idea to people looking for them, I’m jumping into the new publishing mosh pit with fiction, fractal art, and now iPad/Android apps. Apps? Who knew?

    Actually the apps thing is my way of taking a Life Roll and using it to “roll with the changes.” My husband loses his job, we decide to try writing apps, and apps need content….

    Thanks again,
    Carolyn

    (Not all who wander are lost–Tolkien)

    Reply
  14. What ticks me off about the transitions now occurring is the way writers are treated by reviewers. If you’re not published by a major house, they won’t even read your book. And I found another entrenched prejudice today: the Library of Congress. If you want to sell into libraries and schools (and as a writer of young adult fiction, I do), you have to have a LOC cataloging-data statement on your copyright page. But you can’t get one if you are self-published, or a publisher who publishes fewer than four authors a year. This is going to shut indie publishers out of the school/library market, which uses LOC cataloging data to order books. And this is OUR tax dollars at work. Indie publishers should lobby their Congressbeings to get this changed. I put it out here as it is one more example of how the world has changed, an example of how things writers didn’t used to worry about (getting LOC cataloging data into their books) now has to go on the to-do list alongside all the other things that go into indie publishing.

    Reply
    • Sarah S., when the doors close, find a window. Publish 4 writers? What about 4 different pen names? Who’s to know that they’re not four different people, particularly if you keep them quiet? Seriously, small publishers have dealt with this and the review prejudice for decades. Set yourself up as a real publisher, not as Sarah Stegall Publishing, call yourself a publisher, not a self-publisher, and a lot of these problems will vanish. Do ARCs like the Big Guys do with all the proper information, and just mail it to a reviewer. You’ll be surprised at what happens.

      Reply
  15. @MCA Hogarth : Funny that you mention Nathan Lowell (I do, often, when somone asks for a good (english) SF book), but today, John Carmack (THE “computer game programming guru”) tweeted about the Solar Clipper series as Solid SF …
    I’m quite certain some of his 35000+ followers will take interest …

    Reply
  16. Great post, Kris!

    One thing though -

    “They have to have a deep education into the art and business of publishing. You can’t make a choice without proper information.”

    Well, they SHOULDN’T make a choice without proper information, but they certainly can. And just because they don’t have the information, doesn’t make the choice wrong. People can sometimes get lucky and just pick the right door.

    Reply
    • Okay, Patrick A., okay. should You’re right.:-)

      Reply
  17. Thanks for getting this out anyway, and I’m looking forward to reading more about this next week. Specifically, I’m a new writer finishing off my polishing edits to my first novel and with another draft waiting for edits.

    Until this year, my plan had been to start the agent hunt. Now I’m not sure what to do. Self-publish on e-book/POD is an option since I think I can handle the extra skills, but what I don’t know is whether my novel is good enough to merit the extra work. Is my work good enough to buy, or is would self-publishing just an exercise in vanity?

    One thing I will miss about the old world of traditional publishing was at least the sense of validation that yes, an independant editor would be willing to invest the money to print my book. Apart from the editing, the cover work, the marketing to bookstores, and all else that traditional publishing can do for me, that stamp of approval is the one thing I haven’t figured out how to get in this new world.

    Yes, I’ve had alpha/beta readers, but none of them are professionals. Other than pestering the pros to read it, how am I to get a real judgement on whether or not my work is ready for prime time?

    Reply
  18. Everything is changing so fast. I look back to when I first considered the self-pub route, which was about a year ago now, and I compare it to now . . . *shakes head*. Things change fast. It’s kinda scary in a way, but exciting too. I don’t remember when I last felt this much hope as writer.

    Jodi

    Reply
    • Thanks for all the comments, everyone. I’m home again (finally–what a complex 10 days), but exhausted. So I’ll answer a little and try to answer more later.

      Dan T., I’ve pretty much talked about talked about all of this in previous posts, so I won’t be revisiting it next week. If you want to see my opinions on it, click on the Business Rusch tab or the Business Rusch link above the article and just read. As for validation, what most writers forget is that the real validation comes from the readers. All that the rest of us can do–professionals or not–is guess. If your book sells to traditional publishers, but doesn’t sell any copies in the bookstore, yeah, it might have a bad cover, or it might not attract readers on the merits. So get your validation from readers, if you can, and if you need more, go the traditional short story route, which won’t cost you rights, and will let you know if you’re ready for prime time.

      Reply
  19. Thanks for posting, Kris. Obviously, things have been hectic for you lately, and we appreciate you showing up.

    Being in the midst of so much change is a bit scary. All the ‘old truths’ seem to have disappeared, but with scary comes exciting, like a roller coaster ride.

    Reply
    • Thanks, JR. It is a rollercoaster ride–a fun one, but one that goes through the dark (like Space Mountain), so you’re not sure when the next curve is coming….

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  20. As an attendee of the Whitehorse conference I just wanted to say you did a great job. It must be hard to revert to the basics when you’re used to teaching people who have some idea of what their doing. It made sense to me.

    I found your straight-forward approach refreshing. Options are good, it adds depth to the try/fail cycles of our own lives. It’s still too early to tell how my story will end but what I learned from your presentation is: It is possible, but it is up to me. If I am honest with myself (about my craft and my potential), work hard to improve, and take responsibility for my own career I can get what I want out of life. Sometimes it is easy to forget that I am in control, no one is going to come knocking at my door saying “Hey I had a hunch that you are a writer, can I read something?” (Especially not in Whitehorse!)

    But now I must write. And write, and write and write.

    Thank you for taking time out of your own busy and hectic life to make sense of the world to a rookie!

    Reply
    • Allison, thanks so much for the reality check on the conference. I’m glad it helped. It was great meeting you–and I’m thrilled that you’ll be writing, writing, writing.

      Reply
  21. I read Hope’s rave review about your blog and your book on her Total Funds for Writers e-newsletter. She gave you a great plug, and I like what I see. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Sharon. I haven’t seen the review. I’m glad it’s a positive one. You came to the blog on an odd week, but I’m sure (I hope!) next week will be back to normal.

      Reply
  22. Thanks, Kris, Martin and Annie! The three of you really helped my brain today! I love this blog! Thanks, Kris, for not only providing so much info and insight, but also such a great forum!

    I realize that I am a mostly a navigator in my business, but am happy to trailblaze for a client. Yet, in my own writing, I am a mincing little follower. I read this blog and buy many (if not all — it’s hard to keep up) Annie’s work as it comes out to remind myself where I want to get in my own work.

    Reply
    • Good observations, Cindie. I think you’re right: we’re never just one thing in all of our dealings with work/people.

      Terrance, yeah, I’ve met those people…:-)

      Reply
  23. I suspect many people hate choices and dearly wish there was a single path they could follow. It tends to make things much simpler. So they pretend the choice they have made is indeed the only path that a real writer, genuine author, serious author, or professional writer would take. Anyone taking a different path is obviously deluded.

    Reply
    • JJB, thanks for the links. Sad stuff from Sharon Lee. I hope she resolves it. And I had seen the Times piece.

      Reply
  24. Life happens indeed. I’ve taken a few months off from writing for a variety of reasons – holiday, wedding frenzy and most recently my father in the hospital. It’s a good thing that I have a clear idea of what path I am taking or I’d get really stressed out.

    For me the plan is to build up stock in 2012 while I pay off some debt. Once that debt is paid off use save money to produce professional books and release them every two months in 2013 while doing a major publicity push (with 2012 also being a year of groundwork laying).

    Having thought this through I can go with the flow and when it comes time to get ready to publish I’ll take a deep look at the current market situation and figure out what’s best for me.

    Reply

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