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