The Business Rusch: Sneaky Growth
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
My website crashed just over a week ago, through no fault of my own. My ISP had a catastrophic server meltdown that took more than 36 hours to fix.
I had a startling realization in those 36 hours. This website has become an important part of my business.
Now, to many of you, that’s a well, duh. You’ve been coming here faithfully every Thursday for nearly three years. Some of you come for the free fiction on Monday, and the novel excerpt that appears in the middle of the month, and the recommended reading list. Many of you show up every time I make a short post or put up an announcement.
I appreciate that.
I didn’t really realize, however, how big this website had grown until it disappeared. Let me explain.
I’ve had a website for more than fifteen years. I got my first one while I still edited The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, a job I quit at the end of 1996, although my issues of the magazine continued to appear for the first half of 1997. I don’t remember what promoted me to get the website. I do recall writing an editorial about it, and having a reader correct me about the proper way to write down my website’s URL. I had no clue how it all functioned back then.
Now we call what I had a static website. It simply informed people who I was, what I did, and what books I had published. Not too many people had websites back then. Not too many people were on what we called “the worldwide web” back then either. Websites weren’t all that important.
Over time, I changed service providers. I expanded the site a bit. I got a lot of volunteer help designing the site, and keeping it up, which was really, really beyond me. Web hosting was expensive, so I hired a nice little service out of Seattle to handle it for me.
My website crashed once every quarter at least, but so did everyone else’s. What irritated me then was that my main e-mail ran through my site, and when the site crashed, so did the e-mail. I really didn’t care about the website disappearing, but a day without e-mail was worse than a day without sunshine. Most of my business came through my e-mail, even all those years ago, so the silence was deafening.
Then I switched to the current provider, and while the site is hard to get to during maintenance, it’s rarely down for more than ten minutes. Until this past weekend.
And that’s when I realized how much things had changed.
When I designed the new site several years ago, I wanted it to run like a magazine, with regular features and reliable commentary. What I thought I would do and what I’ve actually done are very different things. The only thing remaining from my early vision is the Recommended Reading List.
The Business Blog came out of The Freelancer’s Survival Guide, which I wrote on my blog during the worst of the recession to help people whose layoffs forced them to freelance. Freelancing is hard, and I didn’t want them to fail when they had no safety net. The Guide is still on this site for free, and you can get the book as well. (Be warned, I’m currently updating parts of it. The second edition will be out later this year.)
I started the free fiction a year ago Thanksgiving, and enjoy doing that. Plus it gives me incentive to put my backlist at the top of the work priority list so that I don’t repeat stories.
Weirdly enough, e-mail isn’t nearly as important as it used to be. I can reach almost all of my e-mail contacts through Facebook or Twitter or (heaven forbid!) the phone. It’s easier now than ever for my business colleagues to reach me. I’m not just relying on one tool there.
But the website isn’t static any more. More than 3,000 people a day come here most days, and significantly more on Thursday. I am running that magazine that I wanted to run, and through the donations that I get on this blog, I’m funding it as well.
In the last fifteen years, my website went from “oh, yeah, I have a website too,” to the main way that my friends, fans, and colleagues interact with me online. It is, stunningly enough, the centerpiece of my writing business.
I knew that, but I didn’t know that. I think somewhere in my head, it was still the static website of the 1990s.
My business had grown in an unexpected manner, and I hadn’t even realized how big it had gotten.
What that means is that the service I bought from my ISP is much too limited for something of this importance. I need to move away from the cheapest service to one that gives me daily back-ups, a mirrored site (if I can find it), a rebuild, and more importantly, I need to back-up off-site regularly which I hadn’t been doing.
Before the crash, the last off-site backup I had done was in November, and then only because I was updating my word press theme. I have to change my habits, but more than that, I have to change my way of thinking.
My website is more than a promotional tool. It’s now an integral part of my business, and I must treat it that way.
What I’ve experienced here is something I’ll call “sneaky growth.” Most growth isn’t dramatic at all. It just happens, and we flow with it, making small accommodations along the way, but never really considering what that means.
Sneaky growth is the easiest to deal with and in some ways, the hardest to deal with. Generally speaking, improper growth can kill a business. All good businesses predict their annual growth, and most businesses miss.
Most businesses miss by a small margin on their estimates and no one thinks anything of it. But if you routinely read stock reports (and sadly, I do), you realize that when a business misses its growth projection by too much or too little, the stock price tanks.
That’s right. You understood me. If the business didn’t grow as much as predicted, the stock price goes down. We all expect that. But if a business grew more than predicted, the stock price also goes down. Why? Because rapid and unexpected growth kills more businesses than an unexpected loss.
This is a hard concept to understand, but Dean and I lived it when we were doing Pulphouse Publishing. We had a growth plan when we started the business. Our first product, the hardback magazine, was a limited edition, set at 1200 copies. I recall doing our first projected profit-and-loss statement on the dining room table. We figured we’d sell maybe 200 copies of the first book, and the growth would be slow. So we did all our finances based on that.
Toward the end of the evening, I asked Dean to pencil out what would happen if we sold the entire run. He laughed, and said, “We’ll make a fortune.”
We did sell out the run before it was published, and had a waiting list for all of our books. And while we did make a fortune, we also spent a fortune plus some. The problem was pretty simple: our expenditures came first. The money came 90 days after the books got shipped to market.
We started that business in the hole, and we never really recovered. That we actually built the business from that mistake was both a good and a bad thing. It was good in the sense that we learned a lot, produced a lot of good books, and wouldn’t be where we’re at now without that experience. It was bad in the sense that we paid for it and paid for it and paid for it, long after we closed the doors. The amount of money that we lost on Pulphouse Publishing is staggering by today’s dollars. It was really staggering then.
All because we grew too fast—and we didn’t plan for it.
We’ve been on guard against rapid growth ever since then, and now whenever we start a business (and we’ve started a few since Pulphouse), we plan for no-growth, too-much growth, and not-quite-enough growth, as well as desired growth.
Most writers expect too much growth when they start. Last week, I covered how writers take on employees much too early, often in anticipation of a growth that might never happen.Those writers will never make a living at writing, because their expenses are too high for their actual income—and will always be that way.
There are other ways that writers expect too much growth. In fact, most writers publish one book and expect it to sell either a million copies and/or make them a million dollars. When it doesn’t do that, the writers get upset and quit.
That expectation is why so many writers constantly promote their works. These writers never do the math. They never think about the fact that they can’t reach their million readers by advertising or blogging or doing interviews. They can reach their million readers over years in a slow-growth method, if those writers write more than one book per year.
It’s pretty simple. People get tired of a single product and they lose interest in it. Or they were never interested at all. But if you offer more than one product, then there’s more to tempt them. And once they’ve bought one thing—and consumed it (in our case, read it)—then they’re likely to become repeat customers.
James Patterson and Nora Roberts did not become repeat New York Times bestselling writers by selling to a new and different bunch of readers with each book. Patterson and Roberts (and every other bestselling writer that you’ve heard of) have a core readership that expands with each book.
I have more than 100 of Roberts’ novels in my house—and that’s not her entire output because I don’t read everything she writes. Dean has at least 30 Patterson books, maybe more, and he doesn’t read everything Patterson writes. I don’t read Patterson (except the one book Dean made me read) and he doesn’t read Roberts (except the one book I made him read), and I doubt either one of us will change.
But I’m one of Roberts’ core readers and Dean’s one of Patterson’s. And every day, some other reader picks up one of their books, likes it, then searches out both the new releases and the back-list.
That’s how writers grow a readership. Not by doing ads. (How many of you bought Patterson’s latest book based on the Nook ad that he did? If any of you did, was it because you were a core reader and were startled to realize that he had a book out? I can’t imagine that ad brought Patterson new readers. However, I suspect the ad brought the Nook new purchasers, and that’s what it was designed for. That’s why Barnes & Noble paid for the ad, not James Patterson. Patterson, at the time of the ad, had more customers than the Nook did.)
So, unrealistic expectations on both ends of the spectrum—too high and too low—are dangerous to business.
And so, in its way, is sneaky growth for the very reason that I outlined up front.
I did not have the right website provider for my needs. It took a crisis for me to realize that. The fault was mine, not the ISP’s. I did not have enough insurance—for lack of a better term—to deal with the problem I was faced with.
Nor did I have the right tools to handle it either.
Sneaky growth is a problem that writers often don’t recognize. Even if they do, those writers in traditional publishing have little control over it. The traditional publishers are the ones who deal with sneaky growth the most, and they usually mishandle it. Most of my traditional publishers have failed to handle my sneaky growth.
St. Martins Press never ever printed enough books to handle the demands of the Smokey Dalton series, and whenever a growth event happened (an Edgar nomination, a book tour!, an Entertainment Weekly review), SMP didn’t take the books back to print to meet the demands. The company never sent me to Chicago bookstores, despite requests from the stores, and they often didn’t ship the books to booksellers who had put in late orders (after the first solicitation).
By taking the fourth book of my Fey series out of print and refusing to bring it back into print when the fifth book came out, Bantam Books effectively doomed that growing series.
A decision I made concerning sneaky growth killed one of my pen names. My agent at the time asked me if we should ask for a higher advance for those books. I agreed that she should try, and she got that advance. It was double the original advance. The next two books grew, but not at a rate that justified the advance. The publisher declined the next book. Why? Because the growth, while significant, wasn’t great enough to come close to that higher advance. The publisher didn’t want to “insult me” by asking me to take a smaller advance. In those days (the late 1990s), such a request simply wasn’t made. And to be honest, I’m not sure I would have taken the smaller advance. I would have thought I could get the same or greater money elsewhere. (I would have been wrong.)
Sneaky growth will be a problem for the indie writers who over-promote. Those writers will blame the growth on their promotion, and not on their writing skills. So those writers will miss the opportunity that the growth is providing them. Those writers will be so busy promoting that they won’t write the next book in a timely enough fashion to encourage the growth.
Note, please, that when I’m talking about the next book in this context, I’m not talking about the next book in a series. Just the next book under the same name. Readers come back. Not just series readers, but all readers. Readers believe if they like one book by a writer, they’ll like the next or the next after that. So keep that in mind.
Another way that writers get surprised by sneaky growth is when we go out in public. A few years ago, I realized that my effectiveness as a teacher was waning because of the growth in my career. For many writers, I am the woman with some success in the front of the room. But for some writers, I am “Kristine Kathryn Rusch” their favorite author, and everything I say is True. This attitude makes any negative comment I make extremely damaging, and overinflates any positive comment I make into something so precious that it’s like liquid gold.
The other problem happens as well. Occasionally a writer will come to one of my classes to prove to me that I am as crappy and stupid a writer as they believe I am. (Why someone like that would spend the money to come to a class is beyond me, but they do.) So I limit my involvement in the teaching now to classes I can screen heavily, to make sure the writer-student is there for the right reason (their reason), not because of their reaction to me.
But it took a few uncomfortable classes to learn about that problem, a problem caused by the sneaky growth in my career.
This happens to writers who grow their way to a large fan base or a bestseller list. Stephen King used to faithfully attend the World Fantasy Convention, but he had to stop going when he could no longer walk the hallways without getting mobbed by fans. (He snuck into a few later on, but he could never enjoy them like he used to.) I watched the same thing happen to other writers over the years. I was rather surprised it didn’t happen to George R.R. Martin at the World Science Fiction Convention this past year, but I suspect that might the last worldcon where he can comfortably walk the halls.
Sneaky growth appears to the business owner after a marker makes it visible. The crash of my website for me, the inability to attend World Fantasy Con for Stephen King. That doesn’t make sneaky growth a problem, per se, but it does cause a change. Not in the business itself, but in your attitude toward it.
For years, you behaved one way. Now you can no longer behave that way because of the reality of your business. You probably should have made the changes some time ago, but you didn’t, because the growth was slow and steady and snuck up on you.
The way the changes in the website had snuck up on me. I was aware of the numbers of visitors that I had, but only in an abstract kind of way. It really got brought home to me when the site went down and I got dozens of e-mails and messages to my other accounts, informing me of it. (Thank you! Those helped.) Dean got more than a hundred messages about it as well.
It was both a lesson and a reminder. Growth happens in a lot of ways, some expected, some unexpected. The website grew while I was doing other things. Now I must make some changes, changes I probably should have made when the growth became obvious in the numbers, more than two years ago.
I’m playing catch-up now, which is what often happens with sneaky growth. It’s a nice problem to have, because with sneaky growth, the expenses usually don’t overpower the income like they do with rapid growth. Nor do the expectations overpower the reality, like they do with no-growth (or not-enough growth).
So I’m off to do research. But before I do, I want to thank those of you who have made this blog your Thursday destination. (And those of you who cross-over with the Monday folks [who are often a different group].) You’re one of the main reasons for the growth of this site. I appreciate it.
I also appreciate the financial support. Without it, the nonfiction side of this website wouldn’t exist. So, thanks, everyone. I could not do this work without you.
“The Business Rusch: “Sneaky Growth” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.