The Business Rusch: The Old Stone Path
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Once upon a time in a land not so far away, publishing made sense. Okay, it didn’t exactly make sense, but there was a set way to do things. For writers, it was pretty easy. We wrote something, and mailed it to an editor who decided whether or not to buy that something. If the editor did buy it, then we negotiated a contract, sat back, collected our advance and occasionally our royalties, and wrote a new something. With luck that new something would sell, and we would start the process all over again.
That first something would wend its way through the publishing system—copy edits, edits, cover conferences, sales force meetings, advance reading copies, early reviews, orders, print runs, and then publication. Sometimes the writer had to dust herself off and give a few interviews or go on a book tour to goose sales. After a few weeks or a few months (depending on what era we’re discussing), that something became inventory to the publisher and little else. The push ended and, like the writer, the publisher moved on to other things.
If both publisher and writer were lucky, then that something continued to sell without a push. Otherwise, that something became less and less desirable and eventually went out of print, forgotten except by the occasional reader who trolled used bookstores or libraries or read old copies of old dusty magazines.
There were things that could revive the something—a Hollywood sale, a “rediscovery” by someone important, a new trend (zombies are cool now: let’s reissue that zombie book)—but for the most part, forgotten was forgotten, the new was the most important thing, and the churn of somethings (product) continued unabated, the next hot thing replacing last month’s hot thing with rather predictable regularity.
Sometimes I miss those days.
I do, even though they weren’t very kind to me. Like most midlist writers, I had years where I struggled to remain afloat. And like most professional writers with careers that lasted longer than a decade, I had years where I made more money than I ever want to admit to anyone except my accountant. Professional writers or, if you will, full-time freelance writers (maybe the better term is career writers who have stayed in the business longer than ten years), learn how to manage money, learn how to survive the feast-and-famine aspect of the business, learn how to take advantage of every single opportunity before it vanishes. Always moving forward, filled with regret that this favorite book didn’t do well, filled with puzzlement that this awful book written under duress did fantastic, and filled with hope about the next opportunity, the next thing that might—might—jumpstart the career.
Every writer has a dozen jumpstarts in them—and it doesn’t matter what level the jumpstart might be. I remember a rather plaintive remark in an Entertainment Weekly column by Stephen King a few years back. He was defending J.K. Rowling against cries of trash, which were hitting her because her work was so very popular. As a credential, he wrote that he knew how all of criticism worked because he was once as big as J.K. Rowling was—back in the 1980s.
The implication was that King had fallen from a high perch, at least in his own mind. It might not have been a more preferable perch, but it was farther up the food chain. And any writer who thinks they’ve fallen has a career that needs changing, needs a jumpstart.
We all knew how to pursue that jumpstart. Sometimes it was a new publishing company with a good marketing campaign, taking already-excellent books and finally letting the public know about them. Sometimes it was a new genre or a “big book,” something a little different. In the 1990s, my mystery publisher wanted me to do a “big book” to jumpstart my Smokey Dalton mystery series. Of course, the publisher wanted to approve the new book long before I wrote it and turned down every “big” idea that I had. Stupid me, I didn’t jump to a new publisher at that point because I didn’t see the bigger picture: the old publisher was out of ideas on how to market me, and wanted a fresh start.
I can see that now, with the benefit of hindsight and years of publishing experience. Back then, I just had a glimmer—and an sf career and a burgeoning romance career, so I probably didn’t care as much as I should have.
But what the publisher was doing was clear, because the path was old and set in stone and everyone knew where it lead. It was like a endurance event: we all knew the roads, we all knew the end goal, but we couldn’t always make it with the support staff that we had.
Now, the paradigm has shifted so dramatically that none of us know where the hell we’re going or even if we’re on a road.
This week has brought that home to me in several ways. On Tuesday night, the excellent mystery writer Lawrence Block was on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. In that appearance, Block pitched his latest traditionally published novel, but he also pitched his self-published book of short stories. And—those of you who still insist on thinking that self-publishing is e-pub only—he had given Ferguson a trade paper copy of the self-published book to promote with the traditionally published book.
If Block hadn’t mentioned which one was self-published, no one would have been able to tell.
He made some references to a few other things that probably missed The Late Late Show audience, but didn’t get past me, mostly because I’m reading Block’s blog (and his marvelous book Afterthoughts, which are afterwards for his novels [fascinating stuff]). Block mentioned that he couldn’t retire, that he had published six books this year alone. What he didn’t say is that the self-publishing revolution got him going again, and got him quite excited about the work.
When Ferguson offered him fifty dollars to answer a trivia question, Ferguson said jokingly that Block could publish a pamphlet with the money. Block’s wry answer? “Easily.” Because he knows how very inexpensive it is to do e-publishing these days.
A lot of shows feature writers, Ferguson’s more than most. But this is the first time in forty years of paying attention to writers on TV that I have ever seen an established writer promote his self-published book—and be taken seriously.
The times they are a’changing, folks. If you had told me this two years ago, I would have laughed merrily and accused you of imagining the program as a bit of wish-fulfillment.
Another interesting shift took place recently came in the area of awards. Right now, most of the prestigious fiction awards in most genres (I’m saying most because I’m not familiar with all the genres) only consider traditionally published work eligible for the major award. In the past, that was a good way to keep the award committees, juries, and organization members from getting overwhelmed with amateur material
Now, however, major writers like Lawrence Block are self-publishing their work. The Mystery Writers of America won’t consider any work that is self-published, no matter if a previous Edgar Award winner and Grand Master published that work himself. I’m sure that policy will get revisited in the future, particularly as more and more name authors self- or indie-publish. But for now, that policy stands, not just for the Mystery Writers, but for most other major award-giving venues.
The first change in that old-school way of doing things came from the International Thriller Writers. They modified the rules of the Thriller Awards with this statement: “The Awards Committee recently announced that Active-status members ONLY may submit independently published PRINT work to the appropriate category of Thriller competition (Best Hard Cover, Best Paperback Original, Best Short Story). Please note that this does NOT include 2011 novels published solely in electronic format. At present time, there is no ‘Best E-Book’ Thriller Award category.” [Emphasis theirs]
But it sounds like there might be in the future.
What is an Active-status member of International Thriller Writers? Their website says that “Active membership is available to thriller authors published by a commercial publishing house.” The International Thriller Writers has a list of approved commercial publishing houses and a form you can fill out to get your publisher approved.
Yeah, it ain’t perfect. New writers eventually have to have a commercial publication in order to qualify for active membership. When I quickly scanned the qualifications, I didn’t see anything about short story publication as a way into the active part of the membership (unlike, say, Science Fiction Writers of America), but I’m not sure if I just missed it.
Suffice to say, this is a beginning: a way of recognizing that writers like Lawrence Block who are self-publishing their own material haven’t suddenly lost their ability to write and compete for the best-of awards in the biz just because they decided to take publishing matters into their own hands.
Expect other organizations to follow, maybe not quickly, but eventually.
Not all of the shifts this week have been pleasant. Last week, I discussed the “free” phenomenon in relation to a writer whose work got mistakenly priced for free on Amazon’s website. That day—literally—Amazon announced its lending library for Amazon Prime members and started a storm of controversy.
A little background: Amazon decided to add a book lending feature to its prime program (in which customers can spend $79 per year for free shipping, streaming videos, and other perks). Amazon asked most (many? I don’t know) publishers to participate, and most (many?) said no.
Still, when the lending library announcement was made—telling readers they could download certain titles for free as part of their perks of membership—many of the available titles were from those very same publishers who had said no in the first place.
A large hue and cry was heard upon the land, and Amazon shrugged, saying that it planned to pay the publishers their set price per download, so why were their undies in a bundle? (Okay, the language was probably more formal than that.) But that didn’t stop the storm, nor should it.
Because Amazon treated the big publishers like other suppliers, assuming the publishers have full control of the content they’re providing. The publishers do not. And in most publisher/author contracts, there is no clause for digital lending, which means that there’s no real honest accurate way to distribute any money made to the author herself.
Secondly, Amazon acts like it has a distribution agreement with the publishers when it might have a licensing agreement instead. I haven’t seen the agreement that Amazon has with most publishers, so I’m not certain what the actual language is. But that distinction is an important one, and one that must be settled in court—and probably will.
A writer who sent the link to the Publishers Weekly article I cite above put in her header: Amazon thinks it’s easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission, which pretty much describes American business across the board these days.
Because what made me chuckle darkly as this entire mess unfolded was this: Amazon is treating the big publishers the way that big publishers treat their writers. Amazon is making decisions for the traditional publishers and basically saying, Take it or don’t work with us. In fact, Publishers Weekly reports that Amazon did even offer the traditional publishers who have an agency pricing structure on their e-books the opportunity to participate in this program. (If you don’t know what agency is, see last week’s blog.)
Publishers are suddenly being treated like the powerless ones in the relationship, and they hate it as much as writers have over the years. In fact, Amazon is going direct with authors more and more. Why? Conspiracy theorists believe Amazon is dividing and conquering, preferring the little guys to the big guys so that Amazon won’t have to negotiate as much. I’m sure that has some truth. But Amazon is also set up as a retailer used to dealing with thousands of accounts. Right now, the contractual issues between publishers and Amazon, writers and publishers, distributors and publishers are so baroque that I’ll wager that it’s easier for Amazon to deal with writers directly.
After all, I might choose to have my traditional publisher put my book into a lending library and my writer-husband who is with the same publisher might not choose to go with the library. And what do we do if the publisher makes yet a third choice? It’s quite crazy, and quite difficult.
We’re only on the tip of the difficulty iceberg here. Right now, the only group who seems to be worried about the publisher/author contracts here are the agents. They’re right to be worried. The Association of Authors’ Representatives issued a statement about the Amazon library last Friday. The statement reads in part:
“The agent and author community have not been consulted about this new sort of use of authors’ copyrighted material, and are unaware of how publishers plan to compensate authors for this sort of use of their books, which is unprecedented. But we think free lending of authors’ work as an incentive to purchase a devise and/or participation in a program is not covered nor was anticipated in most contracts between authors and publishers—nor do most contracts have any stipulation for how an author would be compensated for such a use….”
If you’re truly curious about what this might mean for you, then look at agent Simon Lipskar’s blog on this very point on AARdvark, the digital publication for the Association of Authors’ Representatives. (Realize, then, that this is an agent writing for other agents.) He goes into great detail about the potential contract problems in the future to set up this sort of publishing model, and then he adds this intriguing sentence:
“All of which is meant as a recommendation to agents to make extremely clear to the publishers you do business with that they not decide for themselves how to step into this brave new world of subscription models without solving all of this [contractual/payment issues] before they receive their first dollar.” [emphasis mine]
In other words, folks, yet again, we are in such new territory that no one—not Amazon, not the publishers, not the agents, and certainly not the authors—knows how to operate. From legal agreements to payments, we have no idea how to proceed or even how to define what we’re doing.
The days when there was an easy and direct action for every mistake made, a proper way to deal with something a bit unusual, a legal recourse for a problem like the one James Crawford had last week or the one Big Publishers find themselves in this week, are long gone. We are in a strange place without roads or maps or even a clear idea of where we’re going.
So yes, there are days when I miss those old stone roads. Not because life was better on them or even (in retrospect) easier. Those roads were familiar. If you stopped along the road and glanced at everyone else on that road with you, you knew their status, their chances for success and failure, their entire histories—sometimes just from where they were.
Now it’s impossible to tell anything. Are the best-of-the-year awards truly the best? Or are they ignoring work from top-notch writers because those writers have stepped off the old stone roads? Are those books you’re downloading from Amazon truly free or the result of some “mistake” that Amazon makes? And where are the bookstores? I miss my bookstores.
With me, however, the nostalgia only takes hold for a few minutes, and then I remember how awful the old ways could be for writers. In addition to the good news, I had to deal with a really awful proof from a traditional publisher (yeah, right: they can do better than an indie publisher. Not), and an annoying piece of e-mail from one of those problem editors I mentioned in a previous blog. And I won’t even mention the math I did when I received last month’s batch of royalty statements.
Or, actually, I will. Just not in this post. I’m saving that for a future post.
The Brave New World of Publishing, as odd and uncomfortable as it is, is a much better place for writers—should they choose to walk the new path.
What became clear this week is that things are changing for everyone, not just for writers. Even traditional publishers are finding themselves in uncomfortable (somewhat terrifying) territory, no longer in control and uncertain how to proceed.
As screenwriter William Goldman says, “Nobody knows anything,” a statement that is becoming more and more accurate as the years go on. When I keep that in mind, I can go blithely along the path I’ve chosen, whether I occasionally venture onto that old stone road or trailblaze through prairie grass so high that I can’t see the next few feet in front of me. If I remember that nobody knows anything, then I am—oddly—content.
One of the new paths that I’m taking on the road is to ask my readers to directly fund my nonfiction writing. I make my living as a fiction writer, and if you poke around this website, you’ll find a lot of free fiction. But if you want me to write more nonfiction, then please click on the donate button below. Look at it like a tip: if I provide something you like, leave a few bucks in the jar.
Thanks to everyone for the comments, the e-mails, and the donations. I truly appreciate it.
“The Business Rusch: The Old Stone Path” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.