The Business Rusch: The “Brutal” 2000-Word Day
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
I know, I know. I didn’t do a long blog last week because of the hack-attack, now fixed, and I heard from a lot of you wondering what the “missing” post would have been about. Many of you speculated that I would take on Simon Lipskar’s ridiculous letter from the Association of Authors Representatives to the Department of Justice. My husband Dean Wesley Smith, Joe Konrath, The Passive Guy, Bob Mayer, and others did a fine job with that. [links] In my opinion, David Gaughran did the best post of all: he wrote an open letter to the DOJ, which all writers should read and should probably sign onto. I have.
The thing is, I wouldn’t have written about the AAR letter. What many of you forget is that I gave up on agents as authors representatives about a year ago. Those of you who have agents should be appalled at the lack of legal understanding evidenced in the letter, particularly if your agent negotiates your contracts for you. Not only are the agents who agreed to this letter more empathetic to large traditional publishers, they’re advocating something that ignores the law entirely.
I am not surprised by the AAR letter. I’m saddened to see it, but it simply puts out in public something I’ve seen in private for the past ten years, and only started to understand about a year ago.
Most agents, especially those in very large firms, no longer represent authors. Those agents represent themselves, and exist to make money off writers. It’s that simple, and that disillusioning.
Instead of shooting agenty fish in a rather slimy barrel, I’m going to look at something else. Last weekend, The New York Times published a whiny article about the changes in publishing, an article that has met with derision from long-established midlist authors and newer writers who understand this new world of publishing.
Actually, everyone picks on one paragraph, quoting thriller writer Lisa Scottoline: “Ms. Scottoline has increased her output from one book a year to two, which she accomplishes with a brutal writing schedule: 2,000 words a day, seven days a week, usually ‘starting at 9 a.m. and going until Colbert,’ she said.”
Note that the word “brutal” is not in quotes, so presumably it comes from the article’s author, Julie Bosman. She might’ve been paraphrasing Scottoline or she might’ve made that assumption all on her own. I do want to note that Bosman’s article runs 1165 words. Since it’s in a newspaper, I assume that she did the work within a short time frame, including the interviews, the information-gathering, and the research. I also note that she had four other articles of similar length published that week, which means she wrote five 1,000 word-plus articles (with research and—since this is the Times—revisions), which means she wrote one per day during her work week.
Assume that 5,000 words of research nonfiction will take at least as long to write as 10,000 words of fiction (without the interviews/research), and you have an equivalent number of words being written each day.
The “brutal” 2,000 words day, apparently, only applies to fiction.
The writers I’ve seen have been very nasty toward Scottoline, making a lot of fun of her. Scottoline wrote those “brutal” 2,000 words over the space of eight to ten hours (or more) in service of two-books per year. However, if you do the math, you realize that she should have completed seven books per year on that schedule. (2,000 x 365=730,000; the average thriller is 100,000 words, so she actually should have gotten a bonus 30,000 words.)
Also realize that most people can type more than 1,000 words in an hour, so how does Scottoline manage to labor over her 2,000 words for eight to ten to twelve hours?
Well, that’s the answer really. She labors. She thinks about every sentence, every twitch, and probably revises extensively as she goes along. Plus, when a writer becomes a bestseller, everyone wants a say in the product before it becomes final. Tough writers like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Nora Roberts don’t let anyone comment on a work until it’s finished, but most bestsellers consult editors, agents, and the sales force along the way.
You try to write with a crowd sitting on your shoulder and telling you which plot point will sell the book, and which plot point will tank it. I couldn’t do it. I’m amazed anyone can.
The ridicule Scottoline’s suffering in the blogosphere misses the actual subtext of the article. The article is about a sea-change that the bestsellers are only starting to understand.
Let’s back up.
The New York Times article deals with what seems like, to traditional publishers and bestsellers, a rapid change in publishing. For decades, publishers forced bestselling writers to slow down to create demand for a product. Traditional publishers ignored evidence that readers wanted as much product as they could get from their favorite writers, calling writers like Nora Roberts, who publishes on average six books per year (plus some novellas), outliers whose fans were “unusually rabid.”
Stephen King writes about the difficulties in slowing down in the opening to Bag of Bones. The writer in that novel writes his normal four-to-six books per year, and puts all but two in a drawer, as “reserve” for times when he’s ill or unable to write.
The slowdown that publishers forced on their writers—with no evidence that it created more demand—was unnatural, and difficult to maintain.
You’ll note that King, who says he writes four hours per day, and Roberts, who puts in an eight-hour day, are hitting close to that 730,000 word mark of the “brutal” 2,000 word per day schedule. King takes his birthday and Christmas off. I’m not sure if Roberts takes any days off. I’ll wager both of them write more than 2,000 words per day.
So why, in reality, did publishers force the slowdown? Money, time, and attention. But mostly, money.
Two months ago, I showed you how much it costs traditional publishers to produce a book. The average cost of a midlist novel is $250,000. It costs more to produce a bestseller—more paper costs, more shipping costs, and primarily more promotion cost. Until a few years ago, the average profit margin a publisher expected to make on a book was four percent. That meant if a book—even a bestselling book—sold fewer copies than expected, the profit margin for that book got eaten up fairly quickly.
Traditional publishers have a two-to-three year publishing schedule. It has some give, but not much. So if the publisher plans to publish four titles by Big Bestseller Guy in 2012, and the second of those four titles sells marginally less than the first, the publisher will start to panic.
Because the money in books three and four has already been invested into those projects. In fact, most of that money has been spent long ago. If Big Bestseller Guy publishes four books in 2012, you can bet he also has four books on the schedule in 2013 and 2014, and a lot of that money has also been spent.
Four books per year by Big Bestseller Guy was a gamble too large for most traditional publishers to take unless Big Bestseller Guy was SuperHuge Bestseller Person, like Nora Roberts, whose books outsold her competition two to one. You could take that kind of gamble on SuperHuge Bestseller Person because her books made more than a four percent profit, so a loss on book two of four books in 2012 probably won’t hurt the bottom line much at all.
But most bestsellers still operated within that four percent margin, and so publishers were unwilling to rock the boat.
Most publishers are also pretty inept at marketing and promotion, even though they throw away millions of dollars annually on those very things. So the thought of throwing away even more millions on something that’s only marginally effective caused them to twitch.
Most bestsellers have advertising and marketing addendums to their contracts, things that the bestsellers can and do enforce. So there is really no way that the publishers can tell Big Bestseller Guy that they’ll do minimal marketing on book one, but they’ll really focus on book two and book four.
Nope. The marketing has to be equivalent.
Then the e-publishing revolution hit. While publishing profits went up, they went up only on the digital side. Every other indicator, from hardcover to mass market went down.
In the March 19th issue, Publishers Weekly published its annual Facts & Figures for publishing. The article that lead the examination of 2011’s numerical state of hardcover publishing had this headline: “Lower Unit Sales, Fewer Titles.”
Realize that PW’s F&F issue concerns itself with bestsellers only. No one looks at the numbers for the midlist. The only bestsellers that get counted “are based on shipped-and-billed figures supplied by publishers for new books with sales of 100,000+; all reflect only 2011 domestic retail sales for print books.”
No e-books, no self-published books, and tellingly, no returns. Since we’re dealing with print books, we have no idea if these books that have shipped and billed at 100,000 copies actually sold 50,000, 75,000 or 95,000 copies. That’s why publishers hold reserve against returns (which can happen up to a year after publication) and why these figures must be taken with a grain of salt.
That said, realize that these figures are the highest calculation of sales possible. Actual sales will be lower.
And the key here is that fewer books sold at 100,000 copies in 2011 in paper and fewer new authors made bestseller lists in paper in 2011.
The headline for the article on mass market and trade paper bestsellers had this title, “Less Is Just Less,” and has this quote buried in the lead paragraph:
“There were 48 mass market bestsellers with units of more than 500,000+ on this year’s list—the lowest figure we’ve recorded.”
I have no idea how long PW has published its mass market list, but I can tell you that the magazine has been around over 100 years, and it has covered mass market retailing from its beginning in the 1950s.
Less is less, in paper.
But the headline for E-books was “E-Books Boom.” PW has only covered e-books for two years (2010 and 2011) and sets its e-book bestseller limitation at 25,000+ copies. But—and this is an important but—it does not consider backlist titles for consideration here, nor does it consider self-published books. Kinda missing out on the whole point, actually.
Writers make significantly less on their e-book sales, even—especially—bestselling titles. Publishers are doing their best to get rid of the mass market paperback, by producing fewer and by putting most books into trade paper (as the paper format). Publishers are starting to think of the “cheap” edition of the book as the e-book, which is great for publishers, but crappy for bestsellers and other writers, because the e-book royalty terms are abysmal.
No matter what traditional publishers say, e-books cost less to produce. There are no returns on e-books, so publishers don’t have to produce two books to sell one, and publishers pay the authors less. So of course, publishers are moving traditional writers into e-books.
And self-published authors taught publishers something that they should have already known: Readers want a lot of books by their favorite authors.
Which has forced traditional publishing into a complete reversal of the editorial model it held just three years ago. Back then, writers were discouraged from publishing a lot of books. Now, publishers want as many books as possible.
Especially e-book-only novellas. Ironically, as you’ll note from the New York Times story, bestselling authors usually don’t get an advance on the short e-books they write for their publishers. And bestsellers get the same crappy royalty the rest of us do.
When I first heard this from a bestseller friend of mine, I simply assumed he hadn’t negotiated hard enough for an advance. (He hadn’t. He has since gotten better about this.) Then I heard from bestselling romance writer after bestselling romance writer, all of whom were asked to write novellas for no advance and crappy terms—and most of whom did so. (!!!!)
Traditionally published bestsellers are being told that writing the short story/novella length piece will aid in the sales of the next book, so therefore the short work is simply part of marketing—like a long book tour. Yeah, it’ll take your time from your next paying project, but you’re already doing a tour for free, so why not do this too?
(Musicians get paid when they tour to promote their albums. Why don’t writers? [Okay, that’s another post for another time.])
The key quote in the New York Times article isn’t Scottoline’s “brutal” schedule, which everyone seems to talk about, but a quote from internationally bestselling thriller writer Lee Child:
“Everybody’s doing a little more,” said Child. “It seems like we’re all running faster to stay in the same place.”
Exactly. And it doesn’t just seem that way. It is that way for bestselling authors. They signed contracts that give them spectacular (in traditional publishing terms) royalties on their hardcovers, with escalators that provide even more profit when the book sells more than 150,000 copies, 250,000 copies, 500,000 copies and so on. The escalators and excellent royalty rates exist on the mass market paperback side too (and mass market is being slowly phased out).
The royalties aren’t as good for most bestselling writers on trade paper, because ten years ago when those royalty rates got negotiated, no one thought the trade paper format would ever replace mass market. What no one realized is that trade paper cannibalized hardcover as the hardcovers got too expensive. Even so, the bestsellers still get better royalty rates on their trade papers than they do on e-books.
Every writer gets better terms from traditional publishing on paper formats than they do on e-formats.
With paper sales down and e-book sales up, even if a bestseller sells more total copies of a book than they did of a similar book the year before, the bestseller is going to get smaller and smaller paychecks. Advances are way down, due to the recession—even for bestsellers—and now royalties are down too.
Unit sales are down as more and more books become available, books that readers want to read, books readers couldn’t get before because those books were out of print or because traditional publishing believed that entire genres (I’m looking at you, Western) didn’t sell.
The one thing that hasn’t changed in this digital revolution is that readers still have a budget. Readers only have so many dollars they can spend on books. As they spend more and more money over a wider variety of titles (self-published, backlist, shorter works), they’ll spend less and less money on bestsellers.
We’re seeing it now: sales of bestselling titles (with some exceptions) have flatlined. If television is any guide, this flattening will continue for a decade or more. Think of the advent of cable. Once upon a time, a network television show could get 60% of all people who watched television at a given time period. Now, no television show can get that many viewers. A network show can still win its time slot, but the number of viewers it gets now—actual number, and not a percentage—is so low that the network show would have been canceled in the 1960s if it attracted the same number of eyeballs. And the population of the United States has grown significantly in those five decades. Which means that the percentage of viewers that the network show is getting is laughably small by 1960s standards.
Traditional publishers will not go away, but ten years from now, the bestselling books in the United States will sell significantly fewer copies than they do now. The threshold for bestsellerdom will go down, just like it did in the music industry. Originally, the term “gold record” in the music industry meant that the record sold one million copies. Now, to get a gold record certification, the piece of music (not necessarily a record, CD or mp3 but some combination) must sell 500,000 copies.
I’m sure publishing will do the same with its bestsellers some time soon. It’s already happening, as the Publishers Weekly articles show. “Lower Unit Sales, Fewer Titles” pretty much says it all.
All of this explains why major bestsellers from Scott Turow to Lee Child don’t understand why most writers are excited about the changes in publishing. From the bestselling writer’s point of view, these changes are harmful to a writer’s bottom line. They represent a terrifying future in which the revenue from a bestselling book goes down significantly.
It also explains why agents like Simon Lipskar are writing silly letters opposing the Department of Justice’s investigation into the publishing industry. Lipskar works at Writers House, a large agency that represents many bestsellers, including Nora Roberts and Stephenie Meyer.
Writers House and agencies like it are seeing the same thing that their bestselling writers are seeing: profits going way down because of the changes in publishing. Worse for agents, the midlist writers, whose backlist titles have reverted to the writer, are making money on books that have no agency involvement. In other words, the agencies don’t get a percentage of these backlist titles.
Traditional publishers are scared. Agents are scared. Bestselling writers are scared. They’re losing their power with each passing day.
So these three groups will never, ever, defend changes to the publishing industry that benefit the large mass of writers and readers out there. These three groups are in a panic. That’s why the publishers (possibly) colluded, why the agents are in bed with the publishers, and why writers who should know better have become shills for the industry they still work in.
Am I surprised? By that, no. But I am amused at myself. I decided I wouldn’t write about that AAR letter and here I go, writing about it after all.
The best thing the rest of us can do—that mass of writers and readers who are benefitting from these publishing changes—is to fight for our new position. If you feel so inclined, write the DOJ a letter. David Gaughran gives you a lesson in how to do it.
Otherwise, educate your fellow writers about the changes. Writers don’t have to give up their traditional publishing contracts. Writers do have to negotiate for better terms. And writers should probably not hire agents to do so, at least while this change is going on. Hire an IP lawyer instead—if you chose to remain in traditional publishing.
But you don’t have to be traditionally published any more to get your work to readers. You can indie publish if you’re so inclined.
The nifty thing that most writers have now is choice.
The one thing most bestselling writers do not have is choice. They’ve signed long-term contracts that control their next works. They’re bound to the old system. And unless they lift their heads out of that brutal 2,000-words-per-day, seven-days-per-week schedule, they’ll suffer as the system suffers.
Don’t expect them to defend you. Right now, they can’t even defend themselves.
I am so happy to be back on my weekly schedule. The hacking issues got resolved thanks to a lot of people and wewatchyourwebsite.com. It took a great deal of work, but I have hopes that we’ll avoid such incidents in the future. Thanks to everyone who reposted the blog that got eaten when the hack attack hit, and thanks to all of you who donated to help defray the expenses of repairing the website. I greatly appreciate it. I found myself relentlessly upbeat as the crisis went on because of all the support I got from my readers.
For those of you who don’t know, the nonfiction part of my website exists because of donations. I make my living on my fiction; my nonfiction doesn’t pay for itself. So to keep me blogging every Thursday, I have a donation button. If you learned something, or if you like what you read, please leave a tip on the way out. Thanks.
“The Business Rusch: “The ‘Brutal’ 2000-Word Day,” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.