The Business Rusch: Why Not?
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
On TV’s most popular drama series, NCIS, the main character, Leroy Jethro Gibbs, walks through the office, and if he hears a stupid statement, he slaps the speaker on the back of the head. Now, this is fiction, mind you. In any real office, military or not, he’d probably be fired, brought up on charges, or forced to have sensitivity training.
But that’s not my point.
My point is: I can relate.
I walk past writer after writer after writer, and as I hear what comes out of their mouths, I want to slap some sense into them. Because words don’t seem to be working.
Which is odd, considering that writers use words as their stock in trade.
The biggest problem writers have as a class isn’t that they work too cheaply, which I wrote about last week, or even that they don’t understand business, which I write about almost every week, but that they think too small.
Huh? you think to yourself as you read this. My last novel clocked in at 140,000 words. I invented an entire world. I don’t think small.
Oh, yes, you do. Every damn day. It’s the rare writer who actually has ambitions—real ambitions—and stands up for them. It’s the rare writer who not only dreams of glory (bestseller lists, millions of dollars, fame, lasting acclaim, or whatever) but actually works toward those dreams.
In 1968, at the funeral of Robert F. Kennedy, Senator Edward Kennedy quoted his brother: “As he said many times… ‘Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.’”
That quote has stuck in my brain since I first heard it, in the background of Tom Clay’s medley version of a Dion song called “Abraham, Martin & John,” in 1971. I was eleven. I ended up with a philosophy.
That philosophy is pretty simple: Why not? Why can’t we? Who says? Who the hell are they to tell me what to do?
(Okay, that last part has nothing to do with Bobby Kennedy, but still, you get the picture.)
I have often said, quite pointedly, to my students—most of whom are already established writers who, because of a downturn in their career, came to the a workshop Dean and I do—that I’m surprised at them. Most of these students remind me of German Shepherds. I tell them to stand in a corner, and they go stand in the corner, waiting until I tell them to leave. Then I show them this video, which is a commercial that EDS did a few years ago, which is a group of cowboys herding cats. (I love that image.) Writers should be the cats—difficult if not impossible to herd, heading to their destination in their own feisty way.
I urge these writers to become individuals and go on their own path, and if they don’t agree with something I say, then they should do it their way and prove me wrong. Most of the students are startled that I want them to question. I want them to think.
But that’s the only way you can have a long-term career as the person in charge of any business. You have to think, and be creative, and you can’t let roadblocks stop you.
You have to find a way around them.
But most of all, you have to question accepted wisdom. Last week, a lot of people came on my blog in the comments section spouting myths that teachers, editors, agents, and other writers have pounded into them, mostly telling these poor folks how impossible it is to do well in this business. By the end of the week, I was getting mad at these myth-spouters.
I have no idea why people want to hang onto the stories of failure, the impossibility of doing well without cheating or “getting lucky,” but they do. They want it all now and they don’t want to work for it. And when you tell them they must work for it, they get mad.
As I said yesterday in response to yet another of those comments (I got dozens of them by e-mail), I’m not writing these blog posts for those writers. I’m writing the posts for the rest of you, the ones who want to learn and figure out how to thrive in this new world of publishing. (Thanks to all of you who posted or e-mailed. Much appreciated.)
The first thing you have to do to survive in this world is think big.
Let me give you an example.
Last week, I sent y’all to Michael Cader’s excellent year-end analysis at Publisher’s Marketplace, and told you that if you’re serious about your business, you should subscribe. In the comments, J. Steven York pointed out—correctly—that PM is geared toward publishing professionals in the traditional publishing arena, and you have to read Cader’s blog with that in mind.
In other words, Cader does not write for writers. He rarely thinks about individual writers. Cader has a broad, international worldview of the huge industry that this is.
I write for writers. When I tell you to go to Publishers Marketplace, I do it because I want you to understand this industry—its vastness, its successes (yes, even now), and its struggles. I also want you to read everything with that writerly grain of salt.
As I read Cader’s piece, I got to a paragraph in the middle and had both a “what-the?” and a “why-not” moment. That paragraph comes under the heading, Disproportionate Attention-o-Meter:
“Self-published ebooks were a great story, but in the end roughly 20 different ebook authors made the bestseller lists during the year (we’re working on a full list). Plus 413,000 units is impressive (Darcy Chan’s numbers for Mill River Recluse), but at ninety-nine cents, that’s a gross of $413,000—while a book like Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson grossed more on the order $35 million to $40 million.”
Whoa. I’ll deconstruction this little paragraph in a moment, but let’s first look at that “full list, compiled later.” Under another post titled, “How Many Self-Published Authors were Bestsellers in 2011,” Cader explained what he meant by “20 different ebook authors.”
First of all, he defines “bestseller” by the industry gold standard, The New York Times. The Times list is purposefully murky, because publishers tried to manipulate it. Murkiness worked well in the old days of publishing, but in this era of easy computer numbers, murkiness actually hurts something like a bestseller list.
Anyway, I’ll save that soapbox for a later column. Let’s continue with Cader’s definition of bestselling author. He only counts self-published ebook authors who made the list with “an original work,” adding this parenthetically “thus we are not including reissues or short-form pieces.” Then he concludes: “Contrary to the popular impression, the total number is…11.”
Okay. Let’s take this bit by bit. Cader is comparing apples with cars. And then he’s throwing in some prejudice to make the picture even more confusing.
Bit The First: Realize we’re talking gross earnings here, without expenses deducted. If you look at what the author received, then the disparity remains great. But if you look at the cost of production only, you’ll find that Darcy Chan’s book cost millions less to produce than the Isaacson. So the gulf between the titles isn’t quite as big as Cader leads you to believe—although I admit, it’s still big.
Bit The Second: That disparity in gross earnings isn’t as important as you think, because the books were published using different methodology. I’m not talking the fact that Chan is indie-published and Isaacson isn’t.
I’m talking about this: Chan’s book was sent out in the new indie fashion, which is a slow growth expected over years. Let’s call that the durable goods model.
Isaacson’s book went out in traditional publishing fashion, which maximizes earnings in the first six months of release, expecting the book sales to drop to nearly nothing after a few years. Let’s call that the produce model.
Produce spoils and must be replaced quickly with something fresher. Durable goods need to be replaced once every decade or two—or in the case of those current bestsellers on the Kindle lists, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens—once every century or two.
When you structure an earnings statement for produce, you receive the bulk of your income in the first six months.
When you structure an earnings statement for durable goods, you receive your income in a steady stream over years.
So comparing Chan’s gross to Isaacson’s gross ignores that.
Bit The Third: The Walter Isaacson book was published in all formats, from hardcover to audio to ebook, simultaneously, with media attention and a lightning strike to boot. The book was available everywhere, not just in a few ebookstores, and it came out just as Jobs died. Every single newspaper, every single obituary, every single media outlet either interviewed Isaacson and/or mentioned his books simultaneously with the death of Jobs.
If Cader wanted to make a good comparison to the Chan book, he should have taken a book released at the same time in the same genre in the same number of formats. Maybe a Carina Press book through Harlequin. I’d even take another fiction book here, say John Grisham’s The Litigators, which got no extra press that I found. No lightning strike—no death, no movie, no nothing to goose promotion except what traditional publishers do for their bestsellers. Even if you do take The Litigators over the Steve Jobs book, Grisham’s gross earnings on that one title out earned Darcy Chan’s by at least ten to one
Readers can’t get Darcy Chan’s book in audio or hardcover or in foreign translations. It’s not sitting in stacks at the Barnes & Noble. Nor did it get all the advertising and airplay—not because it was self published, but because the subject of the book isn’t newsworthy.
Let’s delve farther into Cader’s “Disproportionate Attention-o-Meter” point. He arbitrarily decided to ignore the first sanctioned bestseller list to count ebooks, the USA Today list. Most traditional publishers I know pay a lot more attention to the USA Today list. Readers still believe the New York Times list is the most impressive, which leads advertise the Times list on covers, but the USA Today list tracks actual sales around the country.
(The Times uses only select (approved) bookstores, which remain secret. That goes for ebooks as well; the Times only counts the big guns like Amazon, iBooks, and Barnes & Noble, ignoring Smashwords, and other smaller sources. That’s the opposite of what the Times does with their prestigious paper book list, which is geared toward smaller bookstores, and not the chains.)
Publishers are ecstatic when their book hits the Times list, but they also know that a book that gets in the top ten on the USA Today list will often sell a boatload more copies than a book on the top ten of the Times list. But they also get annoyed by the USA Today list because it doesn’t separate fiction from nonfiction, children’s from adult. To the USA Today list, a book is a book is a book. And when USA Today brought in ebooks, they brought them in as books, not as part of a separate ebook list, like the Times did.
When Cader chose the Times list over the USA Today list he either intentionally or subconsciously skewed his data. For example, on January 4, in a piece titled “eBooks Fill the USA Today Bestseller list,” he notes that one year ago (in 2011), 19 of the top 50 titles sold better in ebook than in print. This year, 42 of the top 50 titles sold better in ebook than in print.
Now, most (if not all—I haven’t checked) of these 42 titles are traditionally published. But that’s irrelevant to my point. Because if the ebook editions of the top 50 books outsell the print editions, then self-published writers who do ebooks only are finally on a level playing field with writers like John Grisham. The same article noted that James Patterson sold over 5 million ebooks. Why can’t an indie writer do that?
Well, for all I know, someone might have.
But here’s the other assumption in Cader’s first piece, the assumption that permeates all of traditional publishing about ebooks. Cader assumes that Darcy Chan’s book sold well only because it was 99 cents and it wouldn’t have sold well at a higher price.
That’s a guess, y’all. There’s no proof of that anywhere—except, perhaps, that Chan recently signed a traditional book deal for that very title. Which means that a traditional publisher believes that the book will sell a boatload of copies at a higher price—more than enough to make back all of those produce expenses. In other words, some traditional publishers’ sales department believes that Chan will sell at least 413,000 copies at a much higher price point, which means that Cader’s assumption that it’s the price point that makes the sale is wrong.
(Of course we won’t know for sure until the traditionally published book comes out, and even then we might not know, because the traditional publisher has to do the book right. Which doesn’t happen all the time.)
The other problem with Cader’s bestseller assumptions? He limits self-published writers to “original” titles only, new books—produce, in his mind—while the mainstream bestseller lists often have books on them that are backlist, sparked by a movie, say, or by one of a writer’s new books hitting the list.
A few years ago, Patricia Briggs hit the extended New York Times list with one of her new novels. (I’m hedging on the dates because, like a doofus, I’m writing this the night before I have to post the column, and don’t have time to e-mail her, so I’m relying on memory. Judging from the book covers I’m seeing on Amazon, it was sometime around 2007, but I’m not sure.)
Patty’s been publishing steadily since the mid-1990s, and gaining readers with each book. They were waiting for the latest in one of her series (I believe it was the Mercy Thompson series, but again, not sure), and bought the book the week it got released.
Patty’s traditional publisher, smart folks that they are, reissued all of her backlist with new covers. They promoted her heavily. And suddenly, Patty’s backlist was on the New York Times list. She gained new readers, and became a #1 bestselling author.
The point here is that backlist titles belong on any count of authors who get on a bestseller list. I was watching Patty’s rise; she’s someone I’ve known and rooted for for a very long time. Early on in this rise up the bestseller lists, Patty’s backlist titles were the only books of hers on the bestseller lists. I don’t know if that was over the change of a year (an arbitrary measure, but one that counts), but if so, then she should have been—and probably was—counted as an author who made the bestseller list that year even though she only had backlist on the bestseller list.
That Cader didn’t count backlist—like Barbara Freethy’s bestselling ebooks, most of which were initially released in the 1990s—is, again, skewing the numbers to make his point.
However, his statistic will probably stand among traditional publishing professionals because what he says—with actual numbers!—is what they want to believe. They want to believe that it is impossible for self-published or indie published book to ever gross $35 to $40 million.
I would wager most self- or indie-published writers would agree. Because why else would these folks sign on with traditional publishers for a smaller percentage than they would ever get on their own? In other words, these writers are exchanging a large initial advance for a lot less money in the long run.
If the writers actually believed their self-published titles could sell as well as a traditionally published title, they would never ever ever have made those deals.
Me, I read a comment like Cader’s comparing Chan to Isaacson, and after mentally upbraiding him for comparing apples to cars, I then ask, “Why not?”
Why can’t an indie-published writer sell as many copies as Isaacson? Why can’t an indie-published title earn the same gross amount? If it did, the indie writer would make a heck of a lot more money as net income than Isaacson ever will.
Let’s go back, shall we, to the USA Today list, and my mention of James Patterson’s 5 million ebooks sold. Here’s how it got reported in Lunch: “Hachette Book Group has sold over 2 million ebook units of James Patterson’s works over the past six months, and now has sold 5.072 million ebooks in all by the author as of December 2011 across all retailers.”
Assuming, like Cader does, that indie or self-published writers only publish ebooks (which is incorrect, but I’ll deal with that in a minute), a comparably priced indie author could sell 5 million ebooks as well on her own because she has easy access to the same distribution system that Patterson’s publisher does.
Will any indie writer do that this year? Probably not. Patterson has built his readership since the 1990s, and those readers wait for each book. But on a title-by-title basis, I’ll wager that indie writers can compete with the big guns. I know that for a while John Locke outsold John Grisham—and I don’t think that had anything to do with price.
But let’s go back to my question: why can’t an indie writer’s book earn the same amount of money (gross) that the Isaacson earned? It can. In print and in ebook.
If we’re going to skew numbers, let’s skew in the indie direction. Let’s compare the gross income over five years, rather than over six months. The Steve Jobs book will stop earning those huge numbers after 2014 (after the promotion for the paperback), but our imaginary self-published title will continue growing its readership, particularly if the writer publishes more books like Patterson did or Patty Briggs did.
If the self-published writer is smart, she can do her own audio version through Audible, add a print version through CreateSpace or Lightning Source, market those books to outlets that take them (from bookstores to truck stops), sell translation rights or hire her own translators, make sure the book is available in as many countries as possible, and, if she wants, she can advertise the damn thing (although I would argue against it).
Mark my words. Sometime in the next few years, an indie author will retain her rights—not sell the books to traditional publishers—and will have a book title that sells for more than 99 cents that grosses around 35 million dollars.
Measured in durable goods time, not produce time.
However, if that successful writer wants to do her next book in the produce model, then she could probably have that book sell about 10 million dollars gross in six months to a year. She’ll have the readership from the first book, and she can dump the book on stores and in foreign countries just like Simon & Schuster did with the Steve Jobs/Isaacson book. (Why is my number lower than theirs? Because I’m making a discount for the lightning strike factor—Jobs’ death and the attendant promotion.)
If she wants to. I have no idea why she’d want to, but that’s my prejudice.
Why can’t an indie writer do as well with a book title as a traditionally published writer? Who says she can’t?
Why the heck are so many writers believing that it’s impossible?
Because writers think small.
You work in an international business, folks. You have millions upon millions upon millions of possible readers. That’ll scare most of you. You’ll immediately think, “How can I compete there? How will they notice me?”
Here’s the harsh truth: most of them won’t notice you. Most of them never will notice any of us. As Michael Kingswood pointed out in the comments last week, writer celebrities aren’t very famous in the big bad world. Even in the United States, the bestselling writer of 2011, James Patterson, is mostly unknown to the average person on the street.
So what? You don’t need everyone. Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs book didn’t sell to everyone. It sold to a fraction of all of the possible readers out there.
I’m a voracious reader: I didn’t buy that book nor do I plan to. It’s a matter of taste.
What you want to do is build. Build, build, build. This is why I tell writers to write a lot. My bestselling title under the Rusch name in the UK right now is a short story called “The Secret Lives of Cats.” It’s not even close to my bestselling Rusch title here in the U.S. And my bestselling Rusch title in Australia as I write this blog? “How To Negotiate Anything,” one of the Freelancer’s Guide short books.
Would I have predicted either of those books as top-selling titles? Hell, no. Why are they selling? Because they’re available. And people notice my work. Because they’ve heard of me? Nope.
Think of it this way: when you walk into a bookstore and browse the romance aisles, you see row after row after row of Nora Roberts books. You see a handful of books by other writers like Lisa Kleypas or Eloisa James. But do you notice one title by a brand new author? Especially if that title is spine out?
Only if you’ve stopped on that shelf for something else and the title catches you. That’s the only reason you’ll notice.
Well, I’m selling a lot of ebooks right now because I have a lot of titles out there. I’m sure if I break the sales down by region, like Kobo does, I could tell you that certain titles sell better in Georgia than they do in Illinois. I’m not into that sort of numbering.
Here’s the difference between me and most other writers. I’m aware that I’m in an international business. I put in the effort to be a success on a huge stage—even if most people walking by that stage don’t notice me right now.
Most writers publish one book—traditionally or indie—and expect accolades. They expect to be famous—Angelina Jolie kinda famous—and they expect it right away. They feel they deserve it. I have no idea why. Jolie didn’t become famous overnight, even though her father and her mother were famous (Mom was an internationally known model; Dad was actor Jon Voight). Jolie worked hard at her profession for decades, and her profession is high-profile.
A lot of people have heard of Harry Potter, but many of them don’t know that he was a character in a book first. They only know him from the films. Even fewer people know that a woman named J.K. Rowling wrote those books. And even fewer people have read the books—even though for nearly a decade, J.K. Rowling was the bestselling author in the world.
Did that stop her from writing her books? No. Did she dream of that kind of success when she wrote them? I have no idea. Did she even know it was possible? Probably not deep down.
Most of us will never achieve Rowling’s level of success. Most of us will write for decades and have a lot of readers, but never become household names (in literate households). So what?
I’m sure someone out there, with some courage and the ability to write a lot over a long period of time, will be the first big indie success story without ever going to traditional publishing. And I mean the kind of success that will have traditional publishing people like Michael Cader notice.
Is it possible for an indie (or to use Cader’s term self-published) writer to publish a book that grosses 35 million dollars? Hell, yes. That it hasn’t been done yet reflects on the youth of the new world of publishing, not on the quality the books being written by indie writers.
If you look around and see a small world, filled with a few friends, professors, and local bookstores, you’ll never make the kind of decisions that you need to survive in an international business. If you believe you have to chase sales with low price points or blog tours or book signings at area bookstores, you’ll never make the kind of decisions that you need to survive in an international business.
If you strive to do the best you can, write a lot of books, and make sure your books are in as many bookstores as possible—ebookstores, audio bookstores, foreign bookstores, as well as US bookstores, in English as well as dozens if not hundreds of languages (over time)—then you will succeed in this international business. You’re looking at the big picture.
You’re running toward it catlike, on your path, not mine. You’re not standing in a corner, awaiting instruction from someone “in charge.” You’re not mouthing the kind of sentences that I heard off and on all last week on my blog about how impossible it is or how established writers like me don’t understand. You’re not making me want to channel Leroy Jethro Gibbs.
You’re working hard at your writing, doing your best to succeed in this great big world available to us.
Maybe you’re the person who’ll sell a book that will gross 35 million dollars. Why not?
Or at least, why not try?
Last week’s blog went viral which brought a lot of folks to my site mostly to argue with me. It also brought a lot of new folks who haven’t encountered my point of view before, some of whom appreciated it, and some who didn’t. I don’t mind disagreements, if they’re based in fact (not myth). I like learning. That’s one of the reasons I do this blog. But I dislike argument for argument’s sake.
A lot of you posted to tell me how much you get out of this blog. Thank you! As I said in a comment last week, I’m writing this blog for folks who want to succeed at this international business. And that seems to be quite a lot of you. I appreciate you guys more than you know.
Even though you can read this blog for free, I need to get paid for writing it, and I do that through direct contact with the blog readers. (When the payments dry up over the long term, I’ll cease doing the blog. I have a lot of other projects I could spend 4000 words on.)
So, as always, if you got something out of the blog, please leave a tip on the way out. I appreciate it.
“The Business Rusch: Why Not?” copyright 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.