The Business Rusch: Why Writers Disappear (Part Three)
AgentsAuthors Guildindie publishingindie writersJames Lee BurkeJames PattersonLouisvilleKY.comRandall GarrettSimon & SchusterSue GraftonThe Late Late Show with Craig FergusonThe Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fictiontraditional publishingwriting
My writing process is just plain goofy sometimes. Two weeks ago, I started what I thought would be a short blog post on why writers disappear. I had just given talk on the topic, and felt that it wouldn’t take much time to make it into a blog post.
Three posts later, I’m just finishing up. Apparently I can talk faster than I can type. 🙂
If you haven’t read parts one and two, please do so now. Please read the comments as well, especially in the first part. A lot of folks give good advice and also share their experiences. I think that’s all quite valuable.
For those of you who have read the previous two posts, here’s the refresher.
Writers disappear because:
1. They can’t get a new book contract under that name.
2. They can’t get a new book contract because their genre has vanished.
3. They became toxic—and that toxicity trickled through the entire industry.
4. They achieved all their goals.
5. They were no longer interested in writing.
6. They moved to a different part of the industry.
7. They got discouraged.
8. They couldn’t handle the solitude.
9. They couldn’t handle the financial problems inherent in a writing career.
10. They had life or health issues that interfered with the writing
11. They didn’t keep up with the changes in the industry.
12. They sold or gave away too many rights to their books.
I’m going to deal with the last three points in this post. No matter how long it takes. So, here goes:
Writers disappear because they have life or health issues that interfered with the writing.
I wrote a long blog post on this topic back in April when I was in the middle of both life and health issues that interfered with my writing. I managed to continue, but sometimes writers can’t. Sometimes issues like the death of a spouse or a cancer diagnosis can take writers out of the career for years. The blog that I wrote in April deals with the reality of those issues, how hard it is to write, and how writers return. The comment section in that post is especially marvelous, and worth reading.
The topic here, though, is why writers disappear, and there are some writers who never return from the life or health issue. One of my favorite writers, Randall Garrett, spent the last eight years of his life in a coma. He died in 1987. I discovered his work in 1980, read every book I could find from my used bookstore, and then searched for more. I didn’t know what happened to him until I became active in the professional science fiction community, and his friends told me about his last several years.
One major writer from our local community had so many health issues that she ended up in the hospital repeatedly and finally had to move to an extended care facility out of state. At present, she’s not able to write, but I keep hoping….
Every professional writers community has stories about writers who, for reasons outside of their control, can no longer put words on the page.
But there are professional writers who do the injury to themselves. An entire generation of writers believed in the Hemingway myth—that the man drank himself to greatness—and believed that drinking to excess drove the creative process.
Drinking to excess has a serious impact on the mental process, and the older the writer gets, the harder it is to concentrate. I know of dozens of writers who drank their careers into oblivion. Several are bestsellers whose work has become formulaic. Why has the work become formulaic? Because ghost writers are now finishing the books that the bestseller can no longer complete. These ghost writers (I live with one) signed confidentiality agreements so iron-clad that no one outside the family will ever know that the ghost writer had a hand in that novel.
Most of the writers with serious addiction problems never become bestsellers. Addicts—whether they’re addicted to alcohol or cocaine or some other drug—usually have behavior issues as well. When I was editing The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, I developed a list of writers I should never call after three p.m. because I’d get the drunk or stoned version.
They would turn in good work, and then they’d turn in mediocre work, and then they stopped making deadlines entirely. Those toxic writers I mentioned in point three? Many of them had addiction issues.
In many of his essays, the marvelous mystery writer James Lee Burke writes about the way his alcoholism derailed his early literary career. He cleaned up, and then had to rebuild his entire career, step by step, earning the trust of the publishing establishment. He’s rare; most writers who go down the path to addiction rarely take the road to recovery. It’s too bad, because many of them are as talented, if not more talented, than Burke.
The thing to remember, as a reader and as a writer, is that writers are human. We have issues just like everyone else. If your health problem would keep you off your day job or force you to stop working and go on disability, then you might want to give yourself a break on your daily writing grind as well. If the problems in your life would allow you to take family leave time from work, then take leave time from your writing and stop pressuring yourself.
Sometimes, you have to step away from the career to deal with the things life throws at you.
Make sure that the health issues aren’t self-inflicted. Get help if you need it. And the same goes for major life events. Return to the writing when you can.
Eventually, though, health issues will take us all out of the writing game. Eventually, our lives will end.
The key then is to make sure we have our estates properly set up to maintain our writing and our careers long after we’ve ceased to exist.
I know, I know, I will write about estate planning Real Soon Now.
But let me simply acknowledge here that the lack of estate planning—and the lack of planning for a career-ending health crisis like Randall Garrett’s—will cause a writer to disappear. Forever.
Writers disappear because they didn’t keep up with the changes in the industry.
Once upon a time, this wasn’t an issue. The publishing industry changed so slowly that even the writers who wrote one book every five years and tried to publish it could get the memo on the (relatively minor) publishing change.
In the past five years, though, the change has been so rapid that writers—particularly bestsellers—are getting caught flatfooted. Just this week, I watched James Patterson on The Late, Late Show With Craig Ferguson discuss his worries that e-books would cause libraries and bookstores to go away. That little show of ignorance made me realize the man hasn’t been keeping up with much more than his corner of the industry. And honestly, I now wonder if he’s read his latest batch of contracts and understands how some of the language in those contracts has a whole different meaning than it did ten years ago. (For more on this, see my posts from the summer on deal breakers).
One of the reasons I’ve been blogging about traditional publishing so very much in the past three years is because I’m worried about my traditionally published friends. They don’t keep up, they refuse to read about the changes in the industry, and they expect their agents to take care of them.
These writers don’t understand that agents can no longer make a living off 15% any more and are becoming publishers or taking other unethical methods to stay in business. The ones that don’t go the unethical route are losing clout and are trying to find other ways to make money.
These traditionally published writers don’t understand that agents can no longer negotiate a good deal with a publisher. Nor do these writers understand that the contract language has gotten so tricky in most publishing contracts that intellectual property attorneys are now consulting with other attorneys to make sure they catch all the landmines buried in those contracts.
Many traditionally published writers attack those of us who straddle the world between indie publishing and traditional publishing, or those of us who have left traditional book publishing altogether, considering us the enemy. I’ve left a list serve because of this, and in person, I’ve fielded some pretty nasty commentary from folks whose ignorance is so startling that I can only shake my head in disbelief.
But the ignorance does make sense to me on one level. So many traditionally published writers have tight contract deadlines. These writers spend all their time writing and dealing with their own business issues that they don’t keep up with the industry as a whole until it’s time for their next contract.
And—for the past fifty plus years—that method worked.
It changed while these writers were busy. They’re the Rip Van Winkles of the publishing industry, staggering out of their book-induced sleep and finding themselves in a strange new world.
Some writers learn about the world and then change their opinions. Sue Grafton is one of those writers. In early August, she did an interview with LouisvilleKY.com about publishing and gave what was, until 2009, the standard advice about self-publishing.
Ten years ago, her advice was good advice. But in 2012, her advice was sadly and insultingly out of date. Unlike so many writers, however, Grafton blinked, looked around, and realized she was in a brave new world of publishing.
She contacted the reporter and asked for a clarification interview. In this later interview, Grafton wrote:
Several writers took the time to educate me on the state of e-publishing and the nature of self-publishing as it now stands. I am uninitiated when it comes to this new format. I had no idea how wide-spread it was, nor did I see it as developing as a response to the current state of traditional publishing, which is sales driven and therefore limited in its scope. I understand that e-publishing has stepped into the gap, allowing a greater number of authors to enter the marketplace. This, I applaud. I don’t mean to sound defensive here…though of course I do.
I don’t understand the mechanics of e-publishing and I still don’t understand how you can earn money thereby but I realize now that many indie writers are doing well financially and netting themselves greater visibility than I had any reason to believe.
Her response is classy and smart, and I fully expect that two years from now, when asked the same questions about publishing, Grafton will have answers that are informed about the current state of the industry.
The key part of her quote? I am uninitiated when it comes to this new format. I had no idea how wide-spread it was, nor did I see it as developing as a response to the current state of traditional publishing, which is sales driven and therefore limited in its scope.
She had no reason to learn about the new format because the old format was working so well for her.
However, what she isn’t seeing—what most bestsellers aren’t seeing—are the changes in contract terms, the changes in the way that traditional publishing is treating its writers. Those changes will eventually force every writer to either learn about all the available forms of publishing or experience a decline in income, a decline in clout, and a decline in sales.
These changes happened in the music industry over the past two decades. They’re instructive, because so many musicians with excellent careers either lost those careers or lost their fortunes, their rights, and their ability to market new music precisely because those musicians did not keep up with their industry.
We’ll see these things happen to traditionally published writers now.
And indie writers, you’re not immune to this.
Just because Amazon is the big gun today doesn’t mean they will be in two years. Just because “free” worked last year as a promotional tool doesn’t mean it will this year. Just because the contracts with various distributors seem writer-friendly right now doesn’t mean they will be a year from now. This morning, when I logged into iTunes, they sent me yet another update on their user agreement. I think I get one of those from iTunes every month. I get them from other distributors as well. I read them. Do you?
We’ve gone from a staid and hidebound industry to one that changes almost daily. It’s now part of our jobs to keep up.
We need to do so…or we will disappear because the ground has shifted so badly under our feet that we no longer know how to move forward in this ever-changing world.
Writers disappear because they sold or gave away too many rights to their books.
Again, much of this comes back to the changes in publishing in the last five years. For decades, a writer’s goal was to make sure that traditional publisher bought all of their work and kept that work in print. Writers wanted publishers to have options on the next book, as a kind of guarantee that the publisher would continue to invest in the writer’s work.
The changes in this part of publishing came before the e-publishing revolution. Publishers wanted more and more rights for less and less money. Around the year 2000, publishers started taking books out of print within months of publication and yet refused to revert the rights to those books.
Now, it’s almost impossible to get rights reverted on out-of-print books. I’ve managed it on all but one of my backlist titles, but I do it by being the squeakiest wheel in the world. The publishers get rid of me because they can’t stand to get yet another letter from me. And that hasn’t worked with my novel Fantasy Life. Simon & Schuster has put out a lousy print-on-demand edition, and an outrageously expensive e-book edition, neither of which sell well. But the contract is old, and because it is, it doesn’t reflect the current publishing environment. S&S is taking advantage of that—not just with me, but with hundreds of other writers as well.
S&S isn’t the only company playing such games. Most of the traditional publishers are. S&S was just one of the first to do so. Almost all of them have jumped on the bandwagon now.
I’ve dealt with this in detail in many posts. I suggest you just go back and click through the posts on traditional publishing to understand all of these changes.
The bottom line is that what was a good deal fifteen years ago isn’t one now. Writers still have books under contract to those publishers, books that have been out of print for years. Yet the publishers won’t revert the rights, and no matter how hard the writer struggles, she can’t get break the contract.
What does that mean for the reader? It means that books five and six of a series might be permanently unavailable. It means that an entire decade’s worth of a writer’s work might be impossible to find. It means that your favorite writer might not be able to sell a book to traditional publishers any more, yet those traditional publishers won’t revert her backlist, so she has nothing to indie publish until she writes something new.
If she writes something new. Remember point seven: writers are easy to discourage. Although I must admit: not being able to reprint your backlist and being unable to sell new books is demoralizing for anyone. Essentially, a writer’s life’s work—work that should be in front of readers—is being held hostage by an unfriendly industry.
Those writers are being forced to disappear.
And what makes things worse, in my opinion, is that groups like the Author’s Guild here in the United States aren’t fighting these practices. I don’t know of any writers organization—for print/book writers—that provides free legal services. Not legal advice, but the services of a lawyer who will actually advocate for individual writers on personal issues.
I know many of you will mention the idea of a class action suit, but generally speaking, that’s not possible. Contracts differ. We weren’t all offered the same contracts on the same terms, which is necessary for such suits. Writers organizations, for a variety of reasons, can’t do these things either.
So writers are on their own.
Eventually lawsuits will happen, if writers can’t get their rights back, but those suits will be individual suits. Maybe someday the publishers will get a clue. Maybe not.
In the meantime, writer after writer after writer cannot reissue her own backlist. And let’s not even talk about the non-compete clauses that some writers mistakenly signed, the clauses that prevent her from reprinting her backlist because those books might compete with her single-title vampire romance. It’s a mess.
When you see a writer with a long career like mine, and you note that the writer has only part of her backlist in e-book and another part in audio and a completely different part as print only, realize that this patchwork quilt of book releases is because of contract terms, not because the writer wants her work to be unavailable to her fans.
Will these things happen to indie writers? Absolutely, if they blindly sign onto exclusive deals with some retailers or if they only offer their books through one distribution service. Writers never ask themselves what will happen when (not if) these services go away. They don’t think about the future, only the present. It will get ugly, just like it has in traditional publishing.
I exchange a lot of e-mails with traditionally published writers, offering strategies for reprinting backlist, things to look for in old contracts, sending them to IP attorneys to get their rights back. Writers are struggling to make their work available to their readers.
Weirdly, traditional publishers—and some distribution services (for indies)—work very hard at preventing authors from getting their work before the public.
That’s a crime.
And much of it isn’t the fault of the writer, but circumstances that occurred when the entire industry changed.
So What Causes Writers To Disappear?
Essentially, three things cause writers to disappear. Their personalities (3,4,5, 6, 7 and 8), personal problems (10), or their lack of business skills (1,2, 3, 9, 11, 12).
Frankly, learning how to survive in business will help a writer more than anything, provided he wants to remain in the industry. Taking a businesslike attitude which means looking for a window whenever he finds a closed door will help a writer a great deal. The other thing that will help some writers sustain a long-term career? Professional help in the form of some kind of counseling, be it through AA or a licensed therapist or a religious organization. And the final thing that might help? Patience. A willingness to wait out whatever health problem or personal problem that life throws at you.
You can’t do everything. But you can be aware of the things that cause writers to disappear from readers’ radars. You can try to avoid those things as much as possible.
In this new world of publishing, your work can stay in print and available for years and years. Learn business. Take care of yourself. Remember that a writing career isn’t about next year or even the next two years. It’s about decades of work. Keep your focus on the long-term and figure out what you need to do to stay in this career.
And then readers won’t ask whatever happened to…about you.
Thanks to everyone who retweeted or linked to these blog posts. They have gone viral and brought a lot of readers to the blog who haven’t been here before. I hope you all see something you like and will return. I also hope you got something useful out of this short series. As a reader, I personally hate it when writers disappear, and I’ve spent a goodly portion of my career trying to keep other writers in the game. That’s, in part, what this blog is all about.
However, this blog must pay for itself, and when I do a series—even on that goes viral—donations drop. So if you got something useful out of this series, please leave a tip on the way out.
Thanks so much for coming.
“The Business Rusch: “Why Writers Disappear (Part Three),” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
The Runabout in Asimov’s
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