The Business Rusch: Time and the Writer
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Recently, I got an e-mail from a writer whose name you would recognize. She has written dozens of novels, maybe a hundred or more. Her career stretches back more than thirty years.
She has jumped into indie publishing whole-heartedly and cannot imagine going back to traditional publishing, unless she gets a good contract, which she considers as likely as winning the lottery.
“I know you’re famously DIY,” she wrote to me, “but I just got this audio book offer and I’m on the fence.”
The offer wasn’t for a lot of money up front, but it had a decent royalty rate. It was also for book twenty-something of an on-going series. And, here’s the key, the audio deal was for seven years, with an option to renew.
I know I have a reputation for being do-it-yourself, but I’m not. I still have traditional book deals, I still happily sell short stories to magazines, I do auxiliary rights—including audio—with firms other than those I’m affiliated with.
While I believe writers can and should do some things themselves, I think it’s fairer to call me pro-reader. I want to have all of my work available in as many formats as possible, so my readers can find it.
Of course, I make my living off what I do, so I don’t want to give everything away for free (nor am I giving anyone permission to pirate with these sentences). I believe that sometimes it’s better to get help producing a book in whatever format than it is to do it yourself.
I told my writer friend that in her situation, I would take the deal. The series is composed of stand-alone books, in the way that mystery series or romance series work, and none of the previous books were in audio. I know she has plans to put the work into audio, but like most writers, she’ll do the series in order.
I asked her if she thought she’d get to this book in the next seven years. If she thought she’d get to it soon, then she shouldn’t take the deal. But if she thought it might be three or five years out, then the deal makes a lot of sense.
Plus the professionally produced audio book will break her series into a new market, doing the preliminary advertising and reader identification for her.
The key, though, is that limitation on the deal. We would have had a different discussion if the contract did not terminate in seven years.
It’s getting harder, not easier, to figure out exactly what to do when offered a good deal on a side project. If you’re like me, you do want to do things yourself. Next fall, J. Daniel Sawyer and I are teaching a workshop about putting your work into audio. I haven’t done any audio DIY in years. Dan will cover the latest technology part. Because of my radio background, I’ll be training beginners how to read aloud. (It’s not as easy as you’d think.)
By the time we teach this, I will have several short works that I’ve done myself up in audio. Dean and I are setting up a studio now. (Most people don’t need a studio, but I’ve been hankering for one ever since I left the radio station, and now the price of one is within the realm of possibility.) When that’s done, I’ll play with the new technology.
As I write that sentence, I can already feel my writing time slip away. If I’m not careful, I know I’ll be spending all of my time sound-mixing and playing with all the new options. I’ve already set up a schedule—an afternoon one day a week—and I’ve insisted that the studio be at least a mile from my home office, so I can’t just wander in to “tinker with something for a few minutes.” That way equals tons of lost writing time.
All of this easily accessible technology, from the audio books to the print-on-demand books to the e-books themselves, suddenly gives us writers real money-making things we can do instead of writing. I have hundreds of stories in my inventory that aren’t up as e-books yet, not to mention possible collections or nonfiction shorts that I could combine into books.
I could spend the next year putting everything back into print, plus do audio editions and maybe hire some translators and design covers for overseas editions. I wouldn’t have to write another word if I didn’t want to.
And, when Dean reads this, he will cringe. Not because he thinks I’ll do this—I won’t—but because the very idea of me not writing for a year is nightmarish in the extreme. For both of us.
Then there is the other side of things: I could hire dozens of people to do it all right now. The cost would be astronomical.
Dean and I helped with WMG Publishing’s start-up so that we would have help putting our backlist into print. WMG has hired a lot of people, from copy editors to artists, on a project-by-project basis over the past few years, but it hired its first full-time employee in April. Allyson Longueira has taken over the big job as publisher, and now I watch her struggle with her schedule. She has, literally, a thousand things to do, and time to do only a fraction of that every week.
It’s crazy-making, which causes stress. Our have-it-all right now society doesn’t help. Readers will wait, but they do want to be able to download the next book with the click of a button. I know I do when it comes to my favorite writers.
But that’s not always possible. Instead, we’re going to have to work at the best pace possible to keep our sanity and to ensure the long-term survival of our various businesses, from our writing businesses to WMG.
Which means that it will take a few years for everything to be finished.
So how does all of this fit into my philosophy of making everything available in as many formats as possible for any reader who wants it?
Well, that’s the goal. And working on a goal means that you have to keep the goal firmly in mind as you make decisions.
For example, sometimes it’s better to license the audio rights for seven years to the twenty-something book to a series than it is to hold those rights in case you’ll get to that audio book three years from now.
Another writer friend of mine who retired a few years ago from his day job is now raising his grandchildren. He has a sick wife. His traditionally published series has kissed The New York Times bestseller list with the most recent release.
He has taken courses in producing his own books. He knows how to do that work. He thinks it’s a viable option.
But right now, he barely has the time to write. And he knows he can’t do the kind of push he would need to do to independent booksellers to keep that Times run going. (If you want to know how to do that kind of push, Dean Wesley Smith touches on it in his Think Like a Publisher book. He’s reprinting the chapters for free on his blog right now.)
My friend has looked at his available time—which isn’t much—and has decided to write three novels per year instead of two. He used his newly acquired indie-publishing skills to inform his traditional publisher that he has options now, and he’s asked for contract terms he would never have asked for in the old publishing world. He told me if the publisher does not concede to those terms, he will walk away.
So far, the publisher has conceded.
My friend has looked at his schedule, examined the best use of his time, and has also looked at the deals he was being offered. He figured that, with the life he has right now, staying with traditional publishing is for the best.
But you can bet his new contracts will enable him to leave that publisher should those circumstances change.
What my friend has done is what all writers should do. Those writers should examine what they can and cannot realistically do, and then figure out how to get those things done for the least problem and the best return. If a writer decides to stay with traditional publishing, then he better get the best terms possible.
The contract terms in traditional publishing are getting worse for most writers, not better, so writers need to negotiate. Most agents will not do this kind of negotiation. Writers who decide to go this route will need an IP attorney and some personal fortitude. I’ve done blog posts about contract terms, as have The Passive Guy and Joe Konrath. Read those. And read my book on negotiation. Anyone can negotiate, given a few guidelines and a willingness to stand up for yourself. You don’t have to negotiate in person or on the phone. You can do so in e-mail (and I would recommend it, so everything is in writing).
Am I telling writers to stay in traditional publishing? Not at all. I’m famously DIY, remember?
But so many of us have extensive backlists that will take years to put in e-book alone that we need to figure out how to use our time effectively.
Here are my personal rules. These rules are unique to me, and I share them here not to make you like me, but to give you a starting point for your rules. Yours will be different. You have different needs than I do. It’s important to remember that.
Here we go:
1. I need to write new material every day. In fact, writing new material is my focus. I want to write the next book in this series or that series. I want to write a stand-alone short story for one of the fiction magazines. I want to write some stand-alone novels that have been in my to-do list for years. I want to write short side stories that go with my romance novels. I’m busy with the writing alone. I have enough to keep me going for at least five years, maybe more—and that doesn’t count new ideas, which hit me every day.
2. I prioritize my backlist. Backlist novels first, with a focus on novels in series. If the series is on-going, either through WMG or a traditional publisher, then I need to do that first. For example, we made sure the Kristine Grayson backlist novels were available in May of 2011 when Wickedly Charming was released.
I can’t do everything right away (and neither can WMG), so the priority list becomes all important. It also gets revised as circumstances change. When Kensington released the rights on the last two Kristine Grayson novels just this month, those novels rose to the top of the priority list. They’re already with the copy editor, and should be out sometime this summer, between the release of Thoroughly Kissed in June and Charming Blue in September (both from Sourcebooks).
3. I listen to all offers. If someone wants to buy auxiliary rights on a novel or a story, I will consider the offer. I will look at the things I mentioned above with my writer friend. Those things are:
A. What are the contract terms?
B. When does the license expire?
C. When will I realistically get to this project?
D. Can this company do things that I cannot do?
E. Is this company asking too much in rights, limitations of my ability to write, or in lost revenue to negate the benefits of doing business with this company?
F. Is there a way out of the deal if the company does not keep up its side of the bargain? (So many publishing contracts are one-sided and only favor the publisher.)
G. Will I regret this decision in the morning? (In other words, don’t get pressured into accepting; any time anyone pressures you, you should walk away.)
H. Who does this deal benefit the most? Me? My agent? The publisher? If the answer is the agent or the publisher, then run. If the answer is two-fold—it benefits me and the publisher equally—then the deal is fine. (Not three-fold; remember, agents work for you, and should get paid from your end of the deal. They should never make more money on a deal than you do—although that often happens in both foreign rights deals and in Hollywood deals.)
If you like the offer and it benefits you for where you are right now, then take the deal. If you feel any qualms, do not, and wait for the time when you can do whatever it is yourself—or wait until you get a better offer.
4. I keep repeating that patience is a virtue. Of course, it’s one I lack. But I’m striving to be a better person. Plus, I like to sleep. So I’m doing my best to remain on pace and on target with all of my projects.
5. I do no active promotion. Yeah, I do a few things because my traditional publishers ask me to, but I also say no to some of those things. I do the occasional book-signing, but only for my very favorite booksellers. I say no to all others. I’m on social media because I like social media. But if I hated it, I wouldn’t do it.
The best promotion I can do is write the next book or the next short story. Readers don’t buy a book because you’re a witty tweeter. They buy books because the book looks interesting. If they like your book, then they’ll buy another one. So there’d better be another one to buy.
That’s promotion. In fact, that’s all there is to promotion. Everything else wastes your time—time you could spend writing or putting up backlist or designing a cover for your new frontlist title.
6. However, when my time is limited, I write new work. Got that? The default in all of this is write. That’s the foundation of any writer’s business. New words, new stories, new novels. Write, write, write, write.
Everything else is secondary.
So…when you get an offer for auxiliary rights—and you will—examine it closely. When your indie book does really well, and a traditional publisher comes calling, offering to do that book “professionally,” do the math. Not just the money math, but the time math. If you’ve already published the book, if it’s already selling well, then why would you waste time on a traditional deal? You’ll have to work with an editor who wants to change the already-selling book, a copy editor, a proofer, a promotions person who’ll want you to waste time guest-blogging for no money. If you have an agent, that agent will make money on a project she couldn’t earn anything on before. You’ll get a fraction of what you would have gotten financially for the book if you had just left it alone, to sell on its already existing terms.
In other words, if you go with a traditional deal to “improve the quality of you’re already-published book,” you’ll lose time and money. If you think the book needs a good copy edit or a good paper edition, and the book already sells well, use some of the profits of your edition to hire a copy editor or to hire a company like Lucky Bat Books to do the paper edition for you for a flat fee. You will spend less time than you would with a traditional publisher and you’ll make more money in the short- and long-term.
The key in all of this is to think like a business person. Make decisions based not on gut, not on impulse, not on what someone else wants, but on what’s best for your business.
Your business exists because you write. So you must write. You get paid when you publish things. So you must earn money. You have only so much time. So make sure whatever you take on will not take time from your writing.
Inevitably, thinking like a business person will slow you down. That’s okay. Remember, patience is a virtue. You may not have that virtue, but you can pretend to.
I do—every single day.
One of the reasons I do this blog every week is to force myself to keep up with this constantly changing industry. It’s important for me to know what opportunities are out there, what changes are coming, and what practices have become passé. I do my best to share that information with you in the hopes that it will benefit you.
If you got something out of this week’s blog, if it has value to you, then please leave a tip on the way out. Thank you!
“The Business Rusch: “Time And The Writer,” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.