Kristine Kathryn Rusch

The Business Rusch: The End of the Unprofessional Writer

Written By: Kristine Kathryn Rusch - Aug• 22•12

On July 24, 2012, Canada’s The Globe and Mail published an article titled, “There Will Be No More Professional Writers in The Future.”  The article cites a number of writers, from the ubiquitous Scott Turow to Ewan Morrison who, The Globe and Mail thoughtfully tells me, is “an established British writer.”

Morrison says that the advances he’s received from traditional publishers have been slashed to the bone. He says traditional publishing has started to use “ominously feudal economics” to maintain its empire. He then goes on to denounce the digital revolution, saying it will destroy “vital institutions that have supported ‘the highest achievements in culture in the past 60 years.’”

And as if matters can’t get worse, he predicts, “There will be no more professional writers in the future.”

Here’s the thing: Viewed from a certain perspective, Morrison is absolutely right. A decade or two down the road, the model that we once called “professional” for writers will disappear.

That model depended on writers writing on spec until they sell something. Those writers need a day job to support themselves. Those writers once they sell something then hire an employee with no legal training who negotiates their contract. Then that same employee, who usually has no literary training, vets all of the writer’s future works.

For this single sale, the writers will get an interest-free loan that they do not have to pay back if their book fails to sell well. If the book does sell well, then that interest-free loan will be paid off and the writer will receive a percentage of the book’s cover price (in theory) for each copy sold. Of course, cover price might be subject to discounting (at which case the percentage paid to the writer goes down) and the definition of sold might include free copies given away in hopes of goosing remaining sales, but hey, who is counting?

Wait. The answer to that is no one. Because accounting programs at most traditional publishers are so behind the times that they can’t handle e-book royalties in any sane way. In fact, an intellectual property attorney tells me that in a recent contract negotiation with a traditional publisher, the publisher’s attorney removed a phrase the lawyer added. That phrase? That the publishing house was to provide “true and accurate” royalty statements. “True and accurate” is a legal phrase generally put in other business contracts in which one party fills out an accounting for the other party. But traditional publishers…well, apparently, they don’t want to do what other businesses do.

But I digress.

Morrison is right when he calls traditional publishing a feudal economic system. What he fails to see is that it has always been one. And that the economics are simply getting  more rigid as time goes on. The writers are getting less of the pie than they did before, and seem to have no way to combat that.

Except through the very thing he bemoans—digital publishing. Rather than embracing the revolution, he criticizes it, as his interest-free loans go away and his ability to earn a living diminishes as well.

He finds himself faced with a hell of a dilemma—one that most traditionally published writers face. Should they get a day job in which someone else now pays for their time? Should they keep writing and hope that things will improve? Or should they learn how to run a small business and actually control their finances—and their careers—for the first time in their lives?

It’s no surprise that Morrison is in Great Britain. In Great Britain this week, science fiction writer China Miéville floated the idea that writers should be paid a salary. (Apparently, he has no idea that many industries, from tech to gaming to network television pay writers salaries—often in exchange for owning the entire copyright to the work. But again, I digress.)

Why is Great Britain preoccupied with the death of traditional publishing and its impact on traditionally published writers? Because the Kindle arrived in Great Britain about 18 months after it arrived here, and 18 months ago, we in the United States were having the exact same discussion. Although we weren’t as eloquent. We U.S. writers were already calling each other names.

But let’s get back to Morrison. He got everything right except his prediction that the end of the professional writer is nigh. In my view, the digital revolution, with easy-to-market e-books and the rise of easy-to-distribute print-on-demand books (with little capital outlay), means the end of the un-professional writer.

Seriously, folks. How can a writer call himself a professional when he doesn’t do anything that another profession would call professional? He may have one or two skills—writing and/or storytelling—but he has no others. He might not be able to balance his checkbook. He certainly doesn’t ask for an accounting from his business partner, the publisher. In fact, he doesn’t even see his publisher as his business partner, but as someone who runs the company, someone for whom he is grateful, someone who runs a “vital institution” that has “supported” the highest achievements in culture in the past sixty years.

Imagine any other small businessman asking his business partner for a salary instead of part ownership for the same work. It’s ridiculous and shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what a writer does and how his business operates.

That Morrison doesn’t understand his own business (or, apparently, Miéville either, although I must confess, some of that speech is too dense for my little brain to comprehend) doesn’t surprise me. The best way to keep people working for too few dollars is to keep them ignorant.

And writers have been happily ignorant for…well…at least sixty years.

Morrison got a lot right in his little rant. Traditional publishing has supported the highest achievements in culture (whatever those are) in the past sixty years because writers had no other choice. If you wanted to get published, if you wanted to be read, you had to go through a traditional publisher. Because, traditional publishing had a stranglehold on distribution.

Anyone could print a novel. Anyone. But before the digital revolution, it was almost impossible to get those books to readers. Bookstores wouldn’t take self-published books. Distributors like Ingrams certainly wouldn’t, except in a few small cases that they then relegated to the back of their extensive catalogue.

Finding a way to ship a book nationally required ingenuity and capital. It also forced the writer to set up a real publishing company, with extensive financial outlay and a willingness to play the game for the long haul. When we built Pulphouse Publishing, we did not go through traditional distribution channels, but not for lack of trying. We finally entered into negotiation with major distributors six years (and two hundred highly acclaimed books) after we started. Even then, the terms were so onerous for our small company that we decided against going with a major distributor.

That was the past.

Now. Imagine if that past still existed and the digital revolution had not happened. Also imagine that all the other changes in traditional publishing continued to occur, from the miniscule advances to the complete lack of respect for writers to an inability to see anything except Harry Potter meets Twilight clones.  If that were the case, then Ewan Morrison would be a freakin’ prophet.

Professional writers would disappear. Professional writers of the old school.

In fact, professional writers of the old school were disappearing in the middle of the last decade. Ten years ago, I started to feel the pressure. I kept getting told to write “more commercial” fiction. One agent after another refused to market my work because it wasn’t commercial enough. Even though I had a track record and what I wrote was commercial enough to sell into the magazines and into other genres. Fortunately, I could jump from genre to genre because that’s how I read.

And still I felt the pressure of declining advances, terrible contracts, and rude editors.

I survived—barely—and probably because I had other skills. I did seriously consider retiring from writing and returning to my old profession as a news director at a radio station. I went so far as to investigate a news director position at a local radio station, and discovered that I would make more money writing short stories full time than I would have busting my ass eighty hours per week working for someone else.  I also had nonfiction in my back pocket, with a long track record of writing short nonfiction pieces for national magazines.

Even if I never again wrote a novel, I would still make a nice living writing. Just not as good a living as I had made before 2001.

Most of my colleagues weren’t so lucky. A few weeks ago, I communicated with an old friend who told me she quit writing altogether. She complained about the lower advances, her inability to sell something she wanted to write, and the rudeness of editors who actually told her that she had lost her talent. (Bastards.)

At the same time, Ursula K. Le Guin, one of science fiction and fantasy’s most acclaimed authors, made this revelation to Wired.com:

Within the last few years only, on my three fantasy novels Gifts, Voices and Powers, I had [pressure from publishers to make my work more conventional]. I had, as always, good editors to work with at Harcourt, where they were published, but there was an increasing pressure to make them more like Harry Potter — there’s just no getting around it. And since I write a very, very different type of fantasy and different type of literature from the Harry Potter series, there was no way I could go along with that. I just had to resist it. But, you see, that’s very late, and it’s happened as publishing was beginning to lose its sense of direction and its purpose, and get very confused by corporate pressures on all sides.

I would argue, in this instance, that the traditional publishers and their minions were the ones acting unprofessionally. To ask one of the world’s literary treasures to write like someone else is unconscionable.

And it wasn’t isolated. It happened to my friend, to Ursula, to me, and to hundreds of other writers. Every day, I hear about yet another writer who gave up or quit or got a job in a different field because they could no longer sell books into traditional publishing—not because their work had declined, but because traditional publishing had an increasingly narrow view of what “sold.”

To add to the mess, there were the advances which got increasingly lower. I got advance offers in mid-decade that were half of what I was offered as a brand-new writer in the late 1980s. Because I kept track of the industry, I knew this had become industry standard, and tried hard not to take it personally. I either declined the book deal (in several instances) or took it while asking for better contract terms.

I managed the better terms for a short while, but that didn’t last either. And I wasn’t alone in getting terrible contract offers. Kate Wilhelm, after more than fifty years in traditional publishing, announced she was started her own publishing company this summer. Why? Because of the treatment she had received from her traditional publishers. Not just the editorial treatment (which is, frankly, appalling), but the contractual treatment as well. She wrote:

In the fall of 2011 I was offered a contract that was so egregious that the publishing house that sent it should have been ashamed, and if I had signed it I would have been shamed. I proposed additional changes to those my agent had already managed to have incorporated and each suggested change was refused. I rejected the contract and withdrew the novel.

That novel, Whisper Her Name, has just appeared from Kate’s own press. It is the first of many that will appear in upcoming years.

Yes, you read that right: Kate Wilhelm is now an indie writer.

As are many, many other writers, including Ursula K. Le Guin, who is a founding member of Bookview Café.

Yet President of the Authors Guild, Scott Turow, says this about indie publishing in the same article that quoted Morrison:

Predatory price wars initiated by market behemoth Amazon directly devalue the written word, according to Turow. So does the willingness of young writers to work for nothing in the hope of future rewards. “You can’t be a professional writer unless you get paid for it,” he says….Digital self-publishing may work for already established authors, according to Turow, “but it’s one more instance of the winner-take-all economy. It doesn’t allow young writers to flourish and it is not in my judgment a good thing.”

Here’s the thing about Scott Turow. He never ever schlepped a manuscript around town. He sold his first book while still in law school through a friend on a pitch, and never ever ever wrote on spec.

Almost every other writer in the business, from J.K. Rowling to Stephen King, wrote their earliest novels for free, without getting paid for it. Then these writers tried to find a market.

That was how professional writers worked in the bad old days.

The only difference between then and now is this: Writers can publish their own works and get them to the readers. Sure, writers who don’t foot the bill for copy editing and a good cover probably won’t sell well. And writers who haven’t yet learned their craft won’t sell well either. But writers who have interesting stories to tell will find an audience—and in fact might find a larger audience than writers ever did in the past.

Does that make these new indie writers unprofessional? No. They’re actually doing what millions of other business owners do. They invest in themselves and their ideas, take those ideas as products to market, and do the best they can to make the products sell.

That makes the new breed of writer professional. They’re not waiting for an interest-free loan from a business partner that forces them to hire an employee before they earn a dime. They’re not trying to cram their artistic vision into a box in which it doesn’t fit. They’re actually learning how to be professionals in all aspects of their craft—from writing and storytelling to marketing and managing the accounts.

In the past, thousands of “professional” writers have been screwed by their agents and by their publishers. Lawsuits happened from class-action suits like the one against Harlequin at the moment to suits against embezzling agents. Many writers just turned the other cheek, found a different publisher, found a new agent, or quite publishing altogether.

Many had no idea they had been injured at all because they had no idea how business—real business—worked. Figure out how many copies their books sold? Their publisher will tell them. Figure out if they deserve money for those sales? Their agent will tell them. Figure out if the book actually arrived in the marketplace on the on-sale date? Their bookseller will tell them.

I don’t see in any way how any of that behavior is professional.

For decades now—literally—Dean Wesley Smith and I have tried to teach writers to be real business people. Part of that training was understanding how crazy and dysfunctional traditional publishing was.

Traditional publishing has gotten worse in the past ten years, not better. Any time you doubt me, think of a business which tells writers with large fan bases like Kate Wilhelm and Ursula K. Le Guin to accept crap contracts and, oh yeah, stop writing your way and start writing like someone else. That’s not functional. That’s a business falling apart.

Morrison’s gloom and doom comes out of a misunderstanding of the business he was in and the business he faces. The professional writer isn’t disappearing.

The professional writer finally has a chance to succeed.

Will some of those professional writers go to traditional publishing? Sure, if they see a business benefit to doing so. There, they’ll join the unprofessional writers—the ones who succeed because of luck or the cultural zeitgeist declaring a certain type of book “hot,” as well as the writers who will be one- or two-shot wonders because their books don’t sell to expectations. Very few of the unprofessional writers will ever make a living at writing. That’s what traditional publishing will be in the future.

The true professional writers will publish indie. You have to be professional to survive in a market that requires business savvy as well as creativity.

So mark my words: the era of the unprofessional writer is over. Let’s hear it for the professionals. The ones who will make a living writing books that they want to write, not books they’re told to write.

Sure, those books might not sell as many copies as J.K. Rowling’s did ten years ago. But very few books sold that well before, and very few will sell that well again.

Now writers will make a living 70% of cover price instead of 6% of cover price (if the book wasn’t discounted minus 15% for an employee who charges for a service that they don’t actually provide).

Watch the statistics over the next few years. Not books sold which usually tracks sales only in a finite period of time. But income made each and every year. If writers report accurately, you’ll see that by 2020, the writers who make more than 6 figures every year will be indie writers, not traditionally published writers.

Yes, Morrison is right. The past sixty years of publishing have become an era that is no more.

And that’s a very, very, very good thing.

I am a professional writer who relies on you folks to fund this blog. I make the majority of my living on my fiction sales—both indie and traditional. (I’m one of those writers who prefers to do all kinds of things to maintain her business.) So this nonfiction blog must fund itself and earn the time I spend on it.

Thanks to all of you who have supported it in the past. I greatly appreciate that and the comments, e-mails, links, and forwards. I can’t do it without you.

As always, if you got something out of this particular blog, please leave a tip on the way out. Thanks.

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“The Business Rusch: “The End of the Unprofessional Writer,” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

 

 

 

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72 Comments

  1. Tom Simon says:

    Brilliantly and succinctly said, Ma’am. I have nothing to add but: ‘Brava!’

  2. Josh says:

    Bravo!

  3. And the business tools for independent authors just keep getting better. I’ve used Kickstarter to fund the production costs for my last three novels, and my current Kickstarter is funding an audiobook version as well. The fact that there’s now a way to get professional audiobooks done for indie authors is also huge… that’s my latest area of development. Now all we need is someone to set up a big site for translation services (an ACX for translation, offering royalty splits, maybe?) and we’ll have just about all the major areas covered.

    • We’re in the middle of a Kickstarter as well, and it’s wonderful. Right now, there’s so much to do on so many fronts that we’re behind before we start–at least that’s how Dean and I both feel. :-) I love it.

      • Oh boy, yes, I know what you mean. I have to budget a lot of time at the -end- of a Kickstarter to do fulfillment because I spend the entire campaign… well, campaigning!

    • Beth says:

      someone to set up a big site for translation services

      I was just saying that this morning! Or maybe it was yesterday. I forget. But YES, so much YES! Something that not only pairs author and translator but also allows automagic royalty splits would be extremely awesome.

      The site would probably have to offer translation-checking services, too, to make sure that someone wasn’t a sub-optimal translator; they might need to skim some amount off the transactions to make that workable. (Or let that be a flat-fee thing that authors can choose to shell out for if they don’t have a friend sufficiently conversant in the foreign language to check for them?)

      …I want this hypothetical site SO MUCH.

      • Daniela says:

        The site would probably have to offer translation-checking services, too, to make sure that someone wasn’t a sub-optimal translator;

        One of the things I often do is have a second translator check and proof-read my work and vice versa. I know a number of translators in Germany who also work as editors. So that would be doable. We do this either by flat fee or by hourly rates (broken down into 15 minute segments).

        • Beth says:

          If I can get the spoons to send some email (school is starting again soon; getting up before dawn is very bad for my spoons), I may do so. I’m just nutty enough to wonder if my duology might do well in… well, any different language I can get it into. Except Klingon, I think… ;)

    • There are even more audiobook options than you realize :-)–there are several distribution aggregators out there who act as a “smashwords for audio,” and are happy to work with indies so long as your recordings meet an audio quality threshold. ACX is just the biggest and loudest option, but it isn’t the only way into audible, and there are ways into just about every other storefront out there as well.

      It’s a fabulous time to be in this business!
      -Dan

    • Daniela says:

      Considering that a German publisher a while ago said thattranslators should view liteerary translations (any genre) as a hobby because they can’t live on it, I would be for that idea.

      The lack of quality shows, especially in genres like Fantasy or SF where you have people translating who have no idea of the genre and often don’t get basic inside jokes or refences to pop-culture like Star Trek, Star Wars, Buffy, or X-Files.

      I mostly do technical translations simply because translating literature doesn’t pay well enough, as sad as it is :-(.

      • Cora says:

        I hear you regarding the payment for literary translators in Germany. I also do tech and business translations, not because I like it so much, but because the pay is better.

        Though I have just translated one of my own short stories into German as an experiment. If it sells, I’ll have another potential income stream at no extra cost (beyond my time investment and I know how much my time as a translator is worth).

        • Daniela says:

          I recently had a publisher offer me 4 € for a standard page. I knew it was a small and new publishing house but really?

          I was thinking the same thing. Write and publish in English and then translate into German. I wanted to try it out first with some short stories. Even if I only sold one copy (even at 99 cent) I would make more money than submitting it to a German publisher.

          • Cora says:

            Wow, 4 Euros a page. That’s really a new low. Used to be that the bottom was around 6 Euro per page, which already is flat out ridiculous.

  4. K. A. Jordan says:

    Asking Ursula K. Le Guin to write like J.K. Rowling is like asking Shakespear to write for Harlequin.

    • Beth says:

      …Shakespear’d do it, betcha. If they paid him enough. ;)

      • Methinks there’s money in it. A kiss on page 70? Tis something to be desired…

      • Tom Simon says:

        Nah, Shakespeare is too busy in Hollywood these days. Writes, directs, and acts in his own movies. Seems to think he’s Kenneth Branagh or something. Anyway, it’s a pretty sweet deal he’s got out there: ten percent of gross and a whole fardel of ‘now money’ in small unmarked bills from the studio boss. He hasn’t got time to write for Harlequin.

        Hey, the guy can fill theatres, so nu?

    • Stephen Miletus says:

      It often is forgotten that Shakespeare wrote for money, & did quite well at it: his will proves he died a very successful man. Had he been asked to write for Harlequin, I expect Shakespeare would have balked at the contract-signing stage & told his agent & Harlequin to go procreate themselves in memorably flowery language.

      I base this opinion on Shakespeare’s one attempt to branch out from his primary focus when he wrote poetry. One needs to remember that Elizabethans wrote poetry as a way to seek an aristocratic or royal favor, not in response to a muse whispering at his shoulder. When writing poetry proved unsuccessful in obtaining patronage, he went back to the theatre.

      Another point to note about Shakespeare’s businesslike attitude is that in Elizabethan times there were no royalties or concepts about an author’s intellectual properties: the playwright sold all rights to the company (or the author to the printer), & never saw a ha’penny afterwards. As a result, many playwrights — like Thomas Kyd (who wrote the first hit of the London stage, The Spanish Tragedy, & George Chapman — died in poverty. Yet Shakespeare did quite well.

      • K. A. Jordan says:

        Exactly, Shakespear would have have signed a Harlequin contract.

        “Me thinks you doth want too much.”

      • MaryA says:

        Wasn’t Shakespeare a sharer (shareholder?) in the company, though? So he’d get a take of the daily box-office, if I remember it right. Along with Burbage and such? (I don’t have a theater history at hand, sorry.)

        • Stephen Miletus says:

          He became a “sharer” (what we now call a shareholder/partner) in the company he worked for at some point before 1594, in his 30s — & he stopped trying to attract a patron with his poetry by 1595. When he became a “sharer”, we can assume he made good money & was financially secure.

          How he got to that point, though, is a mystery that won’t be solved unless someone stumbles upon a treasure trove of records from that decade. (Possible, but very unlikely.) There is some sketchy evidence Shakespeare might also have been an actor, but whether he was an actor-turned-playwright, playwright-who-dabbled-in-acting, or simply a playwright (& the stories about him acting are all just legends) is unsolvable but not beyond all conjecture.

          After we have proof he became a “sharer”, Shakespeare’s name began to have value. Beginning in 1598, his name was attached to his plays, along with the acting company that had performed the play. (The usual practice was to only include the name of the acting company, because the company was better known that the playwright.) But more importantly, his name was sometimes attached to books he hadn’t written; putting his name on a publication had become a way to sell plays & poetry.

          My point is that he negotiated the deal that gave him a secure living before he became a name, when he had written less than a third of the plays commonly attributed to him, (Taming of the Shrew, & Richard the III being the best of them, with such plays as Romeo & Juliet, & A Midsummer Night’s Dream yet to come). While he had written some good stuff, clearly nothing worth making him a partner; competent playwrights, even in Elizabethan times, were in abundant supply & cheaply hired.

  5. ES Ivy says:

    As a newbie to the business side of writing I really appreciate your take on discouraging articles that interview “experts” that have less expertise than you. Thank you!

  6. Craig Reed says:

    Another great post, Kris!

    If well-known authors like Kate Wilhelm and Ursula K. Le Guin are getting treated like crap, how are new authors, who have no track record, getting treated? Any other business who treated their sources of revenue this badly would found themselves without revenue in one hell of a hurry.

    It seems that the Publishing houses have the idea that for every author they piss off and walks away, there’s five new authors begging to be published, who are willing to take the abuse. The move to independent publishing is making them dig in and ride out the storm.

    But this isn’t a storm, this is a Cat five hurricane and it’s going to make one hell of a mess (I went though Charley back in ’04 — mess is a mild word). It’s going to rearrange the face of publishing and the big houses are not ready for it.

    I’m leaning more and more toward going the way of independent publishing and not bothering with bowing toward the publishing houses in the faint hope they decide to publish my work. If they want my stuff, they’ll have to come to me. Then we’ll talk.

    Craig

    • I love the hurricane comparison, Craig (and from one who knows. Sorry about that experience). I love your last two sentences: If they want my stuff, they’ll have to come to me. Then we’ll talk. Marvelous.

  7. Suzan Harden says:

    I have to smile every time I read statements from Morrison and Turow. Their total disconnect from reality amazes me.

    I’ve taken every cent I’ve made from my writing in the last eighteen months and rolled it back into the business. Last year at this time, I worked three part-time jobs to make ends meet. In eight days (because the manager at the very last job begged me to stay an extra two weeks to train my replacement), I’ll officially be a full-time writer. I LOVE this new world! And if that makes me ‘unprofessional’ in other people’s eyes, so be it. I’ve been called worse. *grin*

  8. Beth says:

    New writers won’t flourish? *flourishes all over the place!*

    Getting the art done for the next book, and working on the one after that, and have enough incoming in the next 2 months to donate a wee bit as well, even after cover fees. (2 books wound up paying for the covers for all the others. Heh!)

  9. JR Tomlin says:

    Some great points, Kris. More and more, I am unwilling to even consider turning over control of my work to someone else. That means, because I wanted a really good cover for my next novel although the last one had one hell of a nice cover too, I’m spending a fair lot of money on having an artist do the art. But that is part of being a professional, isn’t it. I’d never thought of it like that.

    Maybe I’m wrong that I will not longer submit work to ANYONE. I’ll talk to them if they come to me and being “midlist” that is not likely. But my sales are such, I frankly don’t need them.

    Now THAT is a nice thing to be able to say.

  10. JF Brown says:

    Another great post, Kris, and, again, right on the mark.

    I’m seeing Ewan Morrison all over the various writer websites and blogs these days. Got to hand it to him, he’s maximizing his gloom-and-doom schtick, making the most of his Warholian 15 Minutes of Fame.

    The increasingly onerous practices of trad pub are, IMHO, a direct result of multinational corporate overlords scooping up previously independent publishers. And then letting their beancounters call the shots. Beancounters care only about counting beans in the present moment (or the next quarter or two). No thought or concern about strategic, long-term business decisions that pay off down the line.

    And as for Scott Turow: no comment.

    • Yeah, JF. I’m beginning to think that talking about Scott Turow is just shooting fish in a barrel. As for Morrison, I feel for guys like him. I do. They don’t see the door in front of them. They’re too busy looking behind them at an emptying room.

      • JR Tomlin says:

        You know Ewan Morrison really isn’t a bad guy. He does feel as though the system that gave him his success is slipping away, so he hits out at the people he blames. Not exactly a positive reaction, but pretty human.

        Turow is something else entirely. The way AG and Turow have treated authors… Well, it’s best not to go there.

    • “Beancounters care only about counting beans in the present moment (or the next quarter or two). No thought or concern about strategic, long-term business decisions that pay off down the line.”

      A lot of people repeat this meme about big business. It’s simply not true.

      Let’s think about this. I’m running a business. I think about nothing except the next quarter. Very soon, all my competitors will overtake me and I’ll be out of business. (A few) Big businesses fail every year, but not nearly as many as would if businesses were really run in as stupid a manner as some people seem to think.

      Yes, publicly traded businesses care about their quarterly earnings reports and the effect those reports will have on the stock price. They’re forced to by law and a multitude of regulations. But that does not mean they don’t ALSO care about long-term strategic moves. It IS possible to pay attention to more than one thing at once, you know.

      This meme is just so tiresome. But it does make a nice, convenient straw man to wave around.

      Have fun with that.

      • Laurie says:

        It sounds to me like a whole lot of traditional publishing’s problems are that they DON’T behave like good business people – they don’t do customer research (or even care much about what customers want), they don’t keep good records, their accounting systems are a disaster, they don’t pay their suppliers on time or accurately (and they can get away with it because their suppliers are even poorer business people than they are). That’s all nasty petty bean-counter stuff, after all.

        • Laurie says:

          I might add that anyone with a smattering of business knowledge would know not to have 5 CEOs meet in a restaurant, no lawyers present, and agree to fix prices.

      • Very soon, all my competitors will overtake me and I’ll be out of business.

        By then, you’ll have exercised your stock options, taken the profits from the short-term boost in stock price, and either moved on to another company before the collapse or taken your golden parachute when you were laid off.

        A business is not a single entity with its own motivations, it’s a composite of of numerous entities with very different motivations. People who expect to be running a company for a long time will inevitably take a long term view. Those who only expect to be there a short time have little reason to care, and are often financially rewarded for screwing the long-term future of the company for a short-term boost.

      • Except that so few companies seem to take the long view. Amazon does, reinvesting in the future, and then their stock falls…

  11. I just wrap my mind around anyone not wanting the work of writers like Kate Wilhelm or Ursula K. Le Guin. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot!

    Between this post and Dean’s Kirkus article, you guys are knocking ‘em out of the park. :)

  12. Love you, Kris. And Dean too. Thank you for the shoutout to Book View Cafe – Linda Nagata let us know.

  13. As an accountant, I’ve seen all this for years and saw the midlist crash coming. I joined Novelists Inc in the first month of its existence because I knew writers had to understand business better than they do. I’m currently a member of Book View Cafe because I knew publishers could not possibly deal with e-books effectively unless the entire publishing industry crashed and restarted. It’s a struggle for writers to adjust to this Brave New World, but I think we can do it better than the inflexible monoliths of NYC. Thanks for telling it like it is!

  14. Michael Bellomo says:

    “For decades now—literally—Dean Wesley Smith and I have tried to teach writers to be real business people. Part of that training was understanding how crazy and dysfunctional traditional publishing was.”

    Kris, thank you from the bottom of my heart for teaching me these lessons, showing me a new way to go, and letting me zoom up the road!

    - Michael B.

  15. Lisa Grace says:

    I put my unprofessional checks in the bank each month where magically they turn into money. I love self-publishing. I have an entertainment lawyer who looks at any contracts that come my way, too. I only have five books out with two set to release in the next three months and I’ll be over the magical ten mark by the end of 2013.
    My fan base is building nicely and I’ve had one or two monthly checks where my husband can seriously see a future where he can quit his job.
    Now I’m off to put on some sunglasses while I write. ;)

  16. BlairMacG says:

    Whenever a non-writer asks why I self-publish, all I need to do is explain how the publishing industry currently works.

    I’d love to have a hybrid career someday. But until a few things shake out, I feel much more comfortable keeping control of my creations. I’ve been self-employed for years and am accustomed to making my own career choices.

  17. Good post, Kris, but I do want to urge some caution about an analogy I’ve heard you and Dean make several times lately: calling a book advance an “interest-free loan.”

    This is true in the sense that is IS a loan, and it IS without clearly defined interest rates. But when you say “interest-free loan,” I suspect the uninitiated see this as the equivalent of “free money,” or at least, a positive thing, especially when we’re talking in context of New York Times best-sellers.

    But an advance is NOT a “free” loan, in than it is part of a complex transaction in which the author surrenders rights to their creative work, often for an extended, possibly indefinite, period, and often under undesirable (for the author) terms.

    And while any conventional loan can in some fashion be paid off and therefore terminated, this loan generally continues even after the advance “earns out.” You can’t go to the publisher at any point (at least after the book is published) and say, “here’s a check for my advance plus interest, minus the earned royalties, so I’m unilaterally taking my book back.” You’ve got to terminate through the termination clause (which again, are increasingly unfavorable to the writer, and usually require action on the part of the publisher, like taking the book out of print) or breach.

    So, an advance is a loan under very unconventional, and usually very bad, terms.

    And given that the “repayment” of this loan is through royalties on sales, over which the author has little or no control (other than writing a good book), and usually no remedy if the publisher botches (by accident, oversight, incompetence, or design) their part of making those sales happen, maybe a better analogy is that its like a loan from a relatively friendly loan-shark. One who is free to tinker with the terms and conditions of the loan and its repayment, against whom you have little recourse.

    Or maybe it’s like borrowing money from your rich but crazy uncle, whose favor you hope to curry, but whose eccentric demands are annoying, unpredictable, and usually make you regret your interactions.

    Okay, even though I think I may be the one in our circle who first started describing advances as loans, I’d just say it’s important to remember that while there’s truth to it, it’s an imperfect analogy. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking advances are like lottery checks or a windfall inheritance from your crazy uncle who used to give you loans. They’re only one element in a larger transaction that is balanced by many negative (and positive) trade-offs. Dollar signs and numbers with commas in them can easily dazzle a writer into giving away far more than the check is worth. And they’re anything but free.

    • Steve, I completely disagree with your post. All loans have clauses and conditions and contracts that go with them. Some of those contracts are sane, most these days are not. So there’s always a contract, and always conditions.

      Also, you can repay this interest-free loan along with all production costs and court costs plus whatever else is deemed fair by the courts or the attorneys or the two parties, whoever is involved. I’ve done it, as have countless other authors. You can terminate the terms of the contract with enough money repaid. I almost did it last fall, but the publisher stepped to and we managed to come to an agreement that saved me some money and them some bad publicity.

  18. RD Meyer says:

    I think the definition of what a “professional” writer is has changed, and a lot of people don’t yet understand where it’s going. That kind of uncertainty can create fear, which is what I think traditionally published writers are trying to understand now.

    • Marc Cabot says:

      You think this is bad, try reading some of the vituperative, endless harangues about who is and isn’t a professional photographer. E-publishing has decimated the traditional publishing model, but digital has devastated the traditional photography market. Typewriters were never so expensive or complicated to stop any old hack from buying one, but now any old hack can buy a camera that would have made Cartier-Bresson weep with envy and imaging software that would have just made him faint. It won’t MAKE them Cartier-Bresson, or even Ryan McKinley, but it doesn’t seem to stop them.

  19. Richard Stooker says:

    I remember the “old days” when the argument against calling writers professionals if they published only through a vanity press or semiprozines was that the definition of a professional included making money.

    Made sense.

    Yet now I and many others unblessed or little-blessed by traditional publishing are making money without them — from readers instead of editors, no less — suddenly the definition has changed.

    Money doesn’t make you a professional. Only an officially-sanctioned editor can do that.

    And except for a few bestsellers at the top, ‘professional’ writers are making LESS money than ever.

    What I don’t understand is why anyone below the A list buys into this nonsense.

  20. Margaret Y. says:

    Thank you for this post! That stupid, misguided article you cite has been popping up all over my facebook and twitter. I try to set my friends straight, starting with the statement, “Ewan Morrison is not a credible source.” But really, it’s like playing whack-a-mole.

    Thanks for giving me a bigger mole-whacking stick.

  21. Celia Hayes says:

    I went indy in about mid-2007, after giving it my best at jumping through the traditional publishing hoops – and now I have six historical fiction novels out there, the first of which was regretfully turned down by an agent who loved the story and my writing … but said that it “wasn’t marketable.” Ironically, that first book (To Truckee’s Trail – about the first wagon train over the Sierra Nevada, which I described as the ‘anti-Donner Party’ epic) has sold respectably well ever since I published it through a POD house. Even though I barely market it any more, it is a consistent money-maker for me, month in and month out.
    Right now, I am working on a German-language version of the first of a trilogy I wrote about the mid-19th century German settlements in frontier Texas. I figured that with an e-book and print version, I should clean up from all those Karl May fans, right? The translator is working on spec, for a 45% share of royalties from eventual ebook and print sales of the edition, so he has an investment in the book as well. (If the first book does well, we’ll follow up with translations of the second and third books.)

    Looking at how the whole trad-publishing and indy-publishing is working out (especially with the wide-spread popularity of e-readers), I don’t think I could ever do a traditional publishing deal now. I would rather hire a good editor (current editor is my business partner), a lay-out designer, cover designer, publicity agent, etc, knowing that all these people work directly for me. With a traditional publisher, the loyalties of all those experts are with the company … rather than my interests.

  22. Sam X says:

    This should be understood by everyone:

    “Morrison is right when he calls traditional publishing a feudal economic system. What he fails to see is that it has always been one. And that the economics are simply getting more rigid as time goes on.”

    (I would also consider extrapolating this to most modern businesses. I truly think publishing works like all the rest.)

  23. Cyn says:

    Thank you Kris –
    I enjoy your analysis ;-)
    I need to send my friend over here. She is still with a traditional publisher.

    Cyn

  24. Wow! I am simply amazed that writers with the brilliance of LeGuin and Wilhelm would get treated so poorly by publishers. It’s a sign of the times when publishers are so tied to a particular notion of what sells.

    I think your points are excellent and a valid counter to Morrison’s screed. I’ve run a business myself and it’s not easy, but will be more and more typical for professionals in any business that want to succeed in an environment where employers are less willing to offer guarantees, be they advances, salaries or benefits, than in the past.

  25. Morrison was making the rounds just about a year ago with pretty much exactly the same screed (Konrath blogged about it here, which I think is where I probably saw it first: http://jakonrath.blogspot.ca/2011/08/race-to-bottom.html). I remember at the time feeling nothing but sorry for the guy, and for the mentality that can make an established writer — a successful writer — think of himself as hired help in an industry that quite literally would not exist without him. I had a number of fairly heated exchanges with other writers last year over Morrison’s comments, but you’ve summed up all my reaction in this post much better than I ever could, Kris. Thanks.

    I look forward to a future where someone will ask, “Is this guy a professional writer?” and the response will be, “No, he works for a publisher.”

  26. Nancy Beck says:

    He then goes on to denounce the digital revolution, saying it will destroy “vital institutions that have supported ‘the highest achievements in culture in the past 60 years.’”

    This is what I don’t understand. The digital revolution is destroying stuff? Huh?

    Earlier this week, I finally finished the 2nd of my romance novelettes (under a pen name) and put it up on Smashwords and Amazon. Took under 20 minutes to upload everything. Easy peasy.

    Fast forward to yesterday, when I was trading emails with one of my sister-in-laws. She asked about the stories I have up. So I listed them for her (I don’t have a lot up – yet), but she was amazed at my list. This, only after a little more than a year.

    Tell me, how is that destructive? True, I don’t have a heck of a lot of people reading my stuff as yet, but I don’t have a lot up right now, so it’ll take some time to get some traction. So what? I’ve got time, and I love the whole process.

    Now to work on getting the print versions up. :-)

  27. Thanks for an excellent blog, I finally tipped. :)

    Just for your information, we have a company in Finland serving authors and translators in the ebook market:

    http://www.e-painos.fi/in-english/

    We recently released two ebooks directly by Finnish translators and the authors from the UK and Russia. We are continously in touch with people from the Finnish Translators Association.

    The Finnish ebook market is still very small, because we don’t have Kindle and Kobo yet. And the population is just 5,3 million, but avid readers.

    Our company is just two guys, but we worked for the biggest publisher here (WSOY) for 13 and 11 years respectively.

    I often contemplate the idea of organizing translations for smaller languages in Europe. I guess there are 30-ish just on this continent.

    If anyone is interest, feel free to contact us. My email address is at the bottom of our web page.

  28. Joanna Penn says:

    Thanks for writing this Kris.

    I have been winding up to a long post about China Mieville’s salary comments but you have done it for me. In fact, I spoke about it at a London publishing event this last week, saying that the UK is 2.5 years behind the US in terms of their attitude to self-publishing, so interesting to see you saying 18 months. I also said that indies basically get a monthly income from Amazon so that is kind of what China referred to. He has a real following so he could easily do it with the hybrid model but the UK literary fiction environment is so snobby I think it would be rejected out of hand.

    Ewan Morrison has been saying a lot of negative things in the UK press and has a reputation for being doom and gloom. As a Brit, he is not representative of the bulk of UK authors or indeed the publishing establishment. At the FutureBook conference last year, I met a lot of brilliant people in traditional publishing. So please don’t tar us all with the same brush!

    I am also a Guardian reader, but I have been disappointed with their one-sided coverage as well as reporting skewed facts. But I hope Britain will change as the indies become more prominent here, and it’s happening slowly.

    Thanks for the article Kris.

    Joanna

  29. Fantastic article! Thank you for putting it all down so succinctly and humorously.
    Words to live by:
    “So mark my words: the era of the unprofessional writer is over. Let’s hear it for the professionals. The ones who will make a living writing books that they want to write, not books they’re told to write.”

  30. Amber J Gardner says:

    I think you just convinced me to start my own publishing business. Not sure whether to thank you or not…

  31. Kristine. An all star article with a single clear voice.

    I found this paragraph utterly astonishing:

    “… the publisher’s attorney removed a phrase the lawyer added. That phrase? That the publishing house was to provide “true and accurate” royalty statements. “True and accurate” is a legal phrase generally put in other business contracts in which one party fills out an accounting for the other party. But traditional publishers…well, apparently, they don’t want to do what other businesses do.”

    I’m slightly late to this great article Kristine, but Tweeting it out today neverthless.

    Jonathan Gunson

  32. Xyzzy says:

    As far as I know, there are quite a few professions where the sole focus is on using a well-honed or highly-trained talent, not on business matters. The medical profession is one these days, as only a minority of doctors (and even fewer nurses) are independent rather than working for a hospital, clinic, or HMO; other examples would be athletes on team sports, software engineers (unless freelancing), teachers, horse trainers & riders at advanced levels of competition (most train/ride for a stable, the horses cost too much to own), top chefs, certain key jobs in the wine industry (selecting the variety of grape & controlling what happens when), or concert orchestra musicians.

    That said, I was certain about going the traditional route, but now I’m at least considering the alternative. It would be interesting to see your thoughts in a future post about semi-warnings like this one by a successful indie author:
    http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2011/12/07/the-seduction-of-self-publishing/

    • Many of these professions you mention, Xyzzy, pay a living wage to everyone who finishes traditional schooling and gets a job within that profession. Except athletes, actors, etc, and those people had better pay attention to the business side just like freelance writers. You might want to read my Freelancer’s Survival Guide to understand how nontraditional professions work.

      As for that post from the other author, yeah. [shrug] I’ve been saying for years now that everyone needs to choose their own path in the writing profession. Again, if you look at what I’ve written before (I assume you haven’t, given your comments), you’ll see that I write this blog for all writers, traditional and indie. However, to follow a path these days, any path, you better know business. That’s why I talk about business every single week. Writers need to learn it, just like everyone else who runs their own small business.

  33. Well writ, milady. So refreshing–not only important content, but professionally executed. Thank you!

  34. Teri Babcock says:

    “Except athletes, actors, etc, and those people had better pay attention to the business side just like freelance writers.”

    Damn straight they do. I work in health care, and I am self-employed, and business skills are absolutely essential for me and all the other physios, doctors, chiropractors, natuorpaths out there. Most clinics here are owned by the people who work in them, and if they don’t have business skills, it is painfully obvious to everyone who uses their services.
    With the exception of teachers (who work for an academic institution) and under-contract pro-athletes, all the examples Xyzzy gave do need business skills.
    I talk to a lot of different kinds of people in my job, including high-end horse trainers, viticulture experts, orchestra musicians and top chefs, and they would laugh themselves silly at the news that they don’t need business skills.
    All the ‘top’ chefs, for instance, have major business skills. That’s how they get to the top. Anyone who thinks otherwise hasn’t a clue how the restaurant industry works or what the head chef’s job actually is.
    And I take it back about under-contract pro-athletes. They need them too.

    I notice that people who already have a basic or better business skill set are quick to see where another profession might apply that skill set; people with no skills are quick to point out where business skills aren’t needed, and they are usually wrong.

    Anyway, thanks for another great post Kris.