The Business Rusch: No Reader Left Behind

From 1991 to 2009, my entire career was about the failure to get my books to the readers who wanted them. Every week, I’d get a letter or an e-mail from a fan:

Dear Ms. Rusch,

Did you know that the fourth book of your Fey series is impossible to find? Do you have an extra copy you can send me? I’d happily pay for it.

Or

Dear Ms. Nelscott,

When will you publish the next Smokey Dalton novel? I love Smokey and want to read more about him.

Or

Dear Ms. Grayson,

Why haven’t you written a novel about Sancho? He’s a great character and I would love to read about him.

To the Rusch fan, I’d write back that yes, I knew that the fourth book of the Fey was hard to find because Bantam books took it out of print before releasing the fifth book. Ever since the fifth book came out, I’d get versions of that letter over and over again. Fans who wanted to read the series never made it to the fifth book because they couldn’t find the fourth.

Or, in the case of French readers, they couldn’t find the fifth book. My French publisher bought and paid for all five books, divided them in half, and published eight of the ten volumes. They didn’t publish books nine and ten (book five in the U.S.) because they’d stopped publishing fantasy altogether. The series had been growing until that moment and they’d spent a considerable sum of money on the series and the final book, but decided to write all that off instead of publishing the last two books.

The Smokey Dalton series was cursed from the beginning. Several traditional publishers bid six figures on the first novel about a black private detective in 1968 only to withdraw their bids when they discovered that I am white. One publisher took a chance on the book, but refused to market it to the African American community because—you guessed it—I’m white.

The Grayson books had better luck but they didn’t stay in print long enough for readers who’d liked the first books to find the later ones.

I have story after story after story like these—how the Fey didn’t even make it to book four in England, how the publisher forgot to put my first Rusch mystery novel into production while soliciting orders for it (see that complicated saga here), how the first Retrieval Artist publisher took the previous books out of print before releasing the next book in the series, and on, and on, and on.

I got letter after letter weekly, sometimes daily, for years from readers who couldn’t find my books. I’d answer as best I could, but generally my answers were about factors I couldn’t control, and things I couldn’t change. I would continually disappoint my own readers because I couldn’t provide them access to the books I had written.

Honestly, I still get those letters. The difference is this: From 2009 to now, I am running as fast as I can to get everything back in print. Everything. I’m also writing my fingers off to complete my last few traditional publishing book contracts and write the series books that fans have waited years, sometimes decades, for.

I’m not the only one running either. At WMG Publishing, a small army of people are putting up my backlist in electronic, trade paperback, and audio. With my help, this army is scrutinizing old contracts, seeing what rights I own, and figuring out how to market those newly reprinted books to countries that they’ve never been in.

As for translations, even though I’ve spoken to six different translators about doing editions of books for the French and German markets, I haven’t acted on it yet; there’s simply too much in English to reprint.

You all know what changed between 2009 and now. Publishing became easier. I no longer had to prove to Traditional Publishing Company Z to take a risk on a series that Traditional Publishing Company A had screwed up. I managed to do that once upon a time—Sourcebooks took the early Grayson novels when the company bought Wickedly Charming—but Sourcebooks is an unusual 21st century company. It understands how to build an author, not how to abandon one.

I’m not telling  you my sorry saga of writus interruptus so that you’ll pity me. I’m telling you this to explain a perspective of mine that shows up repeatedly in this blog:

Make your books as widely available as possible. Don’t rank one reader above another. Don’t leave any readers behind.

For decades, traditional publishing has ignored readers, looking instead at – hell, I don’t know, because I can’t say the bottom line. If traditional publishing really cared about the bottom line, those publishers would stick with writers whose series are building. But those publishers don’t. They’re off chasing the next bestseller, the next bright new genre, the next—oh! Squirrel!

Long before Kevin Kelly posted “1,000 True Fans,” a blog post that went viral in 2008, I had heard that every well known writer had a set number of true fans. Sometimes that number got quoted as 1,000 and sometimes as 500, but it seemed to be the conventional wisdom.

More than twenty years ago, my company Pulphouse Publishing co-published a series of books with Bantam Books. Bantam’s editor and publisher worked with me (as the editor of Pulphouse’s book line) and Dean Wesley Smith (as publisher) in choosing which of our limited edition books would merit a Bantam mass market edition.

I suggested a fantastic book to Bantam’s editor, a book by writer who had won every award in the business and then some, a writer every sf fan knew and loved, a writer who was (next to Isaac Asimov) one of the most famous sf writers of the day.

The editor looked at me with shock and said with great contempt, “Everyone knows that writer has five hundred true fans who buy everything and no other fans at all. That’s why you can sell out the limited editions. We wouldn’t sell a copy.”

And with that, the editor pre-rejected the writer’s brilliant novella, without even reading it, based on the true-fan analogy.

I admit, that was the first time I’d ever heard of true fans, but it certainly wasn’t the last. And usually, those in traditional publishing (or the folks I knew in Hollywood) would mention the true-fan concept with dripping sarcasm.

I understand it now: when you have to recoup $250,000 to 2 million or more in a six-month window, with no real hope of making that investment back after those six months, 500 or even 1000 true fans are a literal drop in the bucket.

In a big media environment, where the next best thing is the only thing, slowly cultivating a fan base a few hundred people at a time means absolutely nothing.

But we are no longer in a big media environment. In all of the media categories from books to music to movies, the gigantic corporate sales machines no longer cough up the huge numbers of sales that they used to manage. Some of that is a proliferation of entertainment—hundreds of TV channels with more programming than I can count compared to the three TV channels of my childhood—and some of that is the internet itself, making it possible for me to find Kevin Kelly’s article years after he wrote it with a few clicks of the mouse.

We consumers have changed our expectations. If I miss an episode of my favorite television show, I look for it just a few hours later on iTunes or Hulu or the show’s own website. If a friend recommends a book in our midnight conversation, I can order said book at that very moment on my phone (if I’m away from home) or my iPad or my Kindle or the office Nook or my laptop, or, or, or…

We no longer know what the Number One Album in the country is because there is no Number One Album any more. There’s a number one album on the country charts; a number one album on the pop charts, a number one album on the R&B charts—and the number one album in the country only becomes that if the album sells on a multitude of charts.

The number one album is no longer that important to us as consumers—where, as recently as thirty years ago, even the folks who didn’t listen to much music could tell you who was hitting the top of the list because that music was everywhere.

The big media stranglehold on distribution is gone, so you can now read my opinions on my blog without having to wait for a magazine or newspaper to decide if I’m columnist-worthy.

Because our consumer expectations have changed, we no longer tolerate limits. Now when I get the Dear Ms. Rusch letters about my traditionally published books, the letters go like this:

Dear Ms. Rusch,

I live in Italy and I would like to order an e-book copy of your novel Diving Into the Wreck from a source other than Amazon. Can you tell me where I can find a copy?

Sometimes I can, and sometimes I can’t. Because my traditionally published Diving novels are limited to certain territories, and if you live outside of those territories, then the book is available only through paper editions or highly expensive e-book editions that come through a select few vendors.

Weirdly enough to old-timer me, my independently published books are much easier to find worldwide than my traditionally published books, partly because I control all of the rights and, more importantly, I exploit them. I make sure that the English-language version is available in Japan as well as in Italy. I also have the books on Smashwords, so that non-US readers can download a PDF or epub file for their computer, even if they live in a country that places a huge surcharge on the online stores (like Amazon or iBookstore) that makes e-books much too expensive for casual reading.

In his article, Kevin Kelly talked about the 1,000-true fan thing as something a new artist can build, slowly, one fan at a time, and for those of you who are relatively new writers, you need to pay attention to that, cultivate it, and continue to grow your readership.

But I find myself wondering about the old version of the 1,000 true fan thing. Did that Bantam editor really hold the Famous Science Fiction Writer in contempt for managing to maintain 1,000 true fans despite having every book out of print, despite the fact that it was nearly impossible to find backlist anywhere?

For the past twenty years, most traditional publishers did not cultivate artists whose growth was slow—a few hundred books in each release. So no one knows whether that Famous Science Fiction Writer had more than 1,000 true fans—or could have had many, many more than 1,000 true fans had publishing been more supportive.

And how are true fans counted? I know that to the Bantam editor, those fans were people who bought everything the Famous Science  Fiction Writer bought the moment the book came out. The key word here is “bought.” The Bantam editor never considered the more financially reserved fans, the ones who haunted used bookstores for the Famous Science Fiction Writer’s backlist or got every book the moment it arrived in the local library.

Are true fans people who read everything the writer wrote over time? Are true fans the people who recommend one book by a writer to a friend? Are true fans bloggers who mention each new release on their blogs?

We don’t know. And now that books don’t have to go out of print within six months, we might actually have a chance to see how 1,000 true fans who buy the book on first release might become 10,000 true fans who buy on first release ten  years from now.

Of course, it’s not that simple. I got my start in magazines. Magazine subscriptions have a baseline level that they rarely fall below, even with no publicity. But subscription drives can grow subscribership as much as 100% for a year. Then there’s a natural fall-off.

There’s also two other kinds of attrition. The first is death: the subscriber who has subscribed every year until her death. Estates never renew magazine subscriptions. The second attrition is financial and/or personal: eventually the long-term subscriber realizes that she no longer reads the magazine (if she ever did), or can no longer afford to buy the magazine, and declines to resubscribe.

For a magazine’s circulation to remain stable, the magazine must replace the subscribers lost by attrition every year.

For a magazine’s circulation to grow, the magazine must somehow find new subscribers in quantity, not just the subscribers who will replace the old ones.

For the past fifty or so years, book sales have not worked on this model (except [here in the US] through Harlequin).  A hundred years ago, most hardcover books were sold by subscription.

The internet’s algorithms make a pseudo subscription model possible. On any online bookstore, you can click a button so that you’ll be notified when a new book appears from your favorite writer. That’s not quite the subscription model, but it’s close. You don’t have to troll bookstore shelves to find your favorite writer’s latest or watch reviews hoping someone mentions your favorite writer’s book when it’s released. You can get an e-mail with a Buy-It-Now link that will enable you to get the book the moment it’s announced. Preorders have become easier too.

And it isn’t just online bookstores. Truly organized writers have an e-mail list that fans have signed up for, so that the writer can notify her fans when the next book comes out. (No, I’m not that organized yet. I hope to have something like it next year.)

In doing this, readers are creating their own subscription service. And readership growth becomes that much easier. A simple click of a button gets the reader a notification which might turn into a sale that might not have happened in the old world of five years ago.

I find all of this exciting. The fact that I can now write back to my readers and tell them that they’ll be receiving the next book in the Retrieval Artist series in paper in December, about the same time the entire backlist of the series will also hit paper, excites me. I’m not complaining about a publisher any more—I’m giving a concrete, constructive, positive response.

If there’s a bottleneck, that bottleneck is generally me, and I’m writing as fast as I can. It’s always great to know that readers want the next book—even if it’s just one reader.

Because unlike so many writers out there, I believe each reader is very, very important, whether they buy through Sales Channel A or get the book from the library. Readers build word of mouth. Word of mouth attracts more readers. More readers build sales.

I have spent my entire career cultivating readers despite the efforts of my publishers to frustrate my readership base.  It’s truly debilitating to write a letter to a reader informing her that she can’t read the next book in a series because no publisher wants to publish that book or because some idiot at a publishing house decided to take a book out of print before giving it a chance to sell.

This is why you hear such passion from me when newer writers (and some established ones) comment on this blog about the benefits of exclusivity. Yes, there is occasionally a marketing reason to be exclusive for a month or two. But only for a month or two and only for one project.

Because to do otherwise pisses off readers. Readers don’t avoid a writer because they get angry at the writer. Readers have short attention spans. If a friend recommends a book at midnight, and a reader can’t find that book online or in her favorite bookstore, the reader might not remember the name of the author or the name of the book a week later.

The sale is lost.

As someone who has fought for more than twenty years to get her books to as  many readers as possible, I find it sad to watch newer writers limit their sales from the get-go. These writers are doing to themselves what I railed at my publishers for doing to me against my wishes and those of my fans.

If you’re thinking about short-term numbers, if you’re thinking about reviews and marketing and “online presence,” then you’re thinking the way that traditional publishers do. And traditional publishers have never been reader friendly. Sometimes traditional publishers aren’t even bookstore friendly.  (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone on a publisher-sponsored book tour only to have no books to sign when I arrive at a bookstore because the publisher didn’t make the book available.)

Why follow a model that alienates your fan base when you’re trying to grow your writing business? It makes no sense to me.

Of course, new writers haven’t had the sad task of writing back to fans who can’t find books or fighting a publisher to publish the last book in a series, a book the publisher has paid for but no longer has room for on its newly revised list.

You’ll always hear me argue that it’s better to have your books in the hands of as many readers as possible. My argument comes out of twenty-plus years of being unable to do that.

Now technology and the changes in distribution have made getting books to readers very easy. So don’t make it hard.

Value all of your readers—the ones who buy your books as well as the ones who borrow them from libraries or from friends. Readers who borrow generally become readers who buy. Even if they don’t become readers who buy, they will probably recommend your book to someone who will buy a copy. Or they’ll demand that their library order a copy for the shelves.

Your readers are your greatest ally and your very best friend.

Please treat them with the respect they deserve.

I value all of you blog readers. Most of you contribute in a variety of ways, from financial to personal. I appreciate your comments and your tips and your e-mails. I love the lurkers and the folks who recommend this blog to friends. Thank you all for the interaction. It makes this blog fun.

I put the donate button on here for two reasons. First, I have a lot of fiction writing to do, and 3,000 nonfiction words plus per week could be the difference in finishing a novel that week or not. Second, I do have to make a living at my writing, and this is the only writing I do that may not have a paying secondary market.

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“The Business Rusch: “No Reader Left Behind,” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.