The Business Rusch: Thanks-giving
Many of you who read this are not from the United States, which is why I have ignored the holiday (and most others like it) in the past. But the holiday is an unusual one for our outwardly directed nation. It’s a day in which all of us, in one way or another, give thanks for what we have.
This week, Allyson Longueira, the publisher at WMG Publishing, wrote down what she was thankful for in her blog. That got me thinking: what am I thankful for? Add to that Dean Wesley Smith’s latest blog providing some perspective on the year 2012 in publishing, and I ended up with a highly idiosyncratic and somewhat personal list, which I’ll record here in no particular order
1. The breakdown of the old distribution system. What we’ve come to term “indie publishing” isn’t really about a group of independent spirits rising up and suddenly conquering an old industry. Independent publishers have existed since the dawn of publishing. In fact, some of the names of various publishing companies from Del Rey Books to Simon & Schuster come from just one of the independent publishing eras. Those publishers were upstarts in their day.
What’s different is the ease with which a writer can connect with her audience. Less than a decade ago, writers had to struggle through an expensive and cumbersome system to get a book to readers. Now, there’s another system that goes direct. From various e-book platforms like Amazon’s Kindle or Apple’s iBookstore to paper book platforms like Createspace and Lightning Source, writers can now upload their books directly into the book distribution system and get readers worldwide.
In the past, it took negotiation and some luck to hit a national readership—be your nation the United States or Japan. Now, with the click of a button, anyone can find your book in any format you decide to put it in.
The old distribution system remains. It’s still expensive and cumbersome, but it can be useful for a book that has to go out to millions of people, with millions in advertising, in a single weekend. But not every book has to be published that way. Not every book has to be published to an audience of thousands either. Each book can find its own audience or build an audience or create an audience, given enough time.
2. Choice. In the past, writers had two ways to publish their books. They could self-publish, but that usually cost tens of thousands of dollars and even then, the books ended up moldering in a garage or a warehouse because the bookstores and big distributors wouldn’t take the product. The writer who self-published had to be creative in his marketing and be willing to give up years of writing time (and tons of money) to support one single book.
The other way to publish—the only viable way for 99.9% of all writers—was to try to get a book accepted into the traditional publishing system. Because that system had a stranglehold on the distribution of books, lots of arcane practices developed—and so did one logical practice:
When someone becomes the only game in town, he sets the rules. My way or the highway, he’ll say, and most writers, desperate to be published, followed the rules. Everyone else left town, giving up on a dream that they’d held for most of their lives, unable to play by rules that they knew would be harmful to them, and possibly to their careers.
Now there’s a variety of ways to publish. Writers can still go the traditional route and try for that megahit. Or those writers might simply believe the traditional route is easier. (I believe it’s the harder path if you want a career that lasts for decades, but I’ve said that in previous blog posts which you can find here.)
Writers can publish their own work, never ever going traditional, and still make a good living, if the writers are willing to write a lot. That’s the hard part. The writers must write. The days of promoting your way to success have become limited just by the size of the worldwide market alone.
Writers can have a hybrid career: they can publish their own work and publish traditionally. These writers have to watch their contracts with traditional publishers and make sure not to sign away rights that limit their freedom. Otherwise, I think this method provides the best of both worlds. You can get the support of traditional publishers in reviews and distribution, you can present yourself to a new audience (the one the traditional publisher caters to), and you can develop your own audience independently on other projects.
This is the path I follow and will probably continue to follow. I like straddling both worlds. I suspect, because novel contracts have become so onerous of late, I’ll be doing most of my traditional publishing in nonfiction and short fiction, but who knows what the next five years will bring?
If anything, those years will probably bring more choices.
3. Freedom. You’d think that’s the same thing as choice, but it’s not. It’s quite different, although they’re related. Because we can now choose how to market our works, we don’t have to close the door to every single idea that seems “small.” What’s small? In traditional publishing terms, it’s something that won’t appeal to a readership of more than 5,000 people.
Most of traditional publishing’s ideas of what will sell are based on past experience and on “common sense.” In other words, nobody knows nothing. But they have hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line in each project, and taking a big risk with kind of money simply isn’t smart business.
Independent writers don’t have to invest a hundred thousand dollars on a single book. The indie writer can spend her time and maybe $200 and put the project up worldwide.
The project might seem small, but it might end up becoming quite big. Or not. Either way, the investment and risk are small, so the writer can do the same thing with another book in a relatively short period of time.
So, now, a writer can write whatever idea that strikes her fancy, whatever ignites her passion enough to make her spend months on the same topic, whatever excites her. And since so much of what we read and enjoy isn’t about the topic or the size of the idea but about the writer’s voice and her passion, we’ll probably see many more successful books on topics that surprise us old pros because we were taught that such things don’t sell.
4. Word of Mouth. For the last fifteen years, the changes in publishing systems defeated word of mouth. A book had to sell thousands of copies in its first six months or go out of print. Once a book went out of print, the number of copies of that book were finite. If only 4,000 copies of Really Good Book got distributed into the marketplace, then only 4,000 copies of that book existed, period.
So if Really Good Book was three years ahead of the really good book craze, it didn’t matter how many people recommended Really Good Book as the best book on the topic, only 4,000 people could own a copy at one time.
Now, if Really Good Book hits the cultural zeitgeist three years after publication, readers all over the world can find—and recommend—the book to friends. We don’t have to rely on some publisher getting smart and reprinting the book. We don’t have to scout our local used bookstore and pay hundreds of dollars for a used copy. We can find it, and judge for ourselves if Really Good Book lives up to its reputation.
Word of mouth has risen to its rightful place at the top of the publication ladder and will stay there for the foreseeable future.
5. The worldwide web. Yeah, I’m using the old-fashioned term for the internet, but I’m doing so on purpose. The internet is indeed worldwide, and because of that, people who would never normally have had access to The Opera Games can find it. Then they can blog about it, recommend it in person to their friends, put up a review on commercial websites or simply loan it to their cousin.
If they can’t find a copy of The Opera Games, then they can write to the author (provided he’s alive) through his website and ask when The Opera Games will be available in Tunisia, because 25 people in Tunis have heard about the book and really, really, really want to read it.
As a person whose books have been perennially hard to get throughout my career, I love this part of the new world of publishing. I love being able to write back to a fan in a country I’ve never visited to say that she’ll be able to find the book she’s been looking for in a few months or days or on this particular e-book site. I used to have to apologize for the unavailability of my work, which was always outside of my control. Now—for the most part—I can make sure my work reaches anyone who wants it.
6. The Changing Role of Gatekeepers. Gatekeepers will remain a part of publishing. Editors have voices, just like writers to. The best editors are worth following, just like the best writers are. And editors help writers get better. (Writers can help good editors improve as well, but editors rarely talk about that.)
However, gatekeepers no longer guard the entire citadel. Now they only defend a few neighborhoods, keeping them uniform and up to the neighborhood code—whatever that might be.
Writers don’t have to starve outside the city gates. Writers can simply move into a different neighborhood, one that isn’t part of a gated community.
Sure, some people would rather live in a gated community, or spend a few weeks there. As I said, I’ll continue to publish places like anthologies and magazines that rely on a good editor—a good gatekeeper—to keep the publication running smoothly.
But I don’t have to listen to a truly bad gatekeeper any longer. I can keep my integrity and my career. And to me, that’s a fantastic change.
7. Attack of the Popcorn Kittens. A few years ago, we coined a phrase around Northwest writer circles. Popcorn kittens means that you have so many ideas you can’t focus on one for longer than a second or two. I explain it better in this post (which also has a link to the video that inspired the phrase in the first place).
I love having more ideas than I can write. I love the fact that all of the series that died due to the loss of my editor, the loss of a book line, the consolidation of publishers, the failure of a sales force, or just being the wrong series at the wrong time can now be resurrected. I have hundreds of stories left to tell, and I plan to tell as many of them as I can in whatever time I have left.
8. Attack of the Popcorn Kittens: Part Two: Publishing Kittens! Just when I think that we have the backlist under control, something new hits the publishing world. Audible’s ACX program now makes it easier to do audio books, but not everything has to go through ACX. There’s podcasting and audio plays, which would let me use long-dormant radio skills. There’s video blogging and short movies and YouTube and ways to creatively reach folks who like a side video of cats to go with their collection of cat short stories.
I get inspired by things like the apps about the Civil War, which unify the written word, the spoken word, what video exists and all kinds of other neat linky stuff. What about calendars with the art from various series? What about posters, mugs, t-shirts? What about that spin-off short story that could be made into a short film? What about…?
Too much to do. So little time. Yay!
9. Knowledge sharing. I’m on several listserves with writers who are making their way into this new publishing environment and the niftiest thing about these groups is the way that people share information. This worked for me, that didn’t. Has anyone tried this? Does that work? Hey, everyone! Look over here.
The comments on this blog function that way sometimes, as do the comments on the blogs of the Passive Guy, Dean, and half a dozen other places. If you have a question, someone probably has an answer—and someone else probably has a complaint. It’s up to you to figure out if the answer is valid, if the complaint is valid, or if they both are.
10. Readers. The one constant from our old world of publishing to the new world is the reader. The old world often forgot the importance of readers by abandoning series in the middle, making books unavailable, discounting the true fans, but most of those decisions were financially based ones. I can understand and sympathize when I’m in business mode.
When I’m in reader mode, I get pissed off. I want a book when I want the book. I don’t want excuses.
It has become easier for readers to get the books they want when they want them. If you’re a niche reader who likes western S&M, then you can find it somewhere. If you want to read your western S&M on the plane without the guy next to you leering at the cover, you can do that by hauling out your e-reader. If you finish that novel, you can start another without reaching into the overhead bin. [And don’t go there. Seriously. Just don’t. Believe me, I already went there way ahead of you.]
Readers are the important ones, and the writers who remember that are the writers who will have very long careers. Readers don’t find books the day the books were released. They find books years later via word of mouth. They discover a book after reading another book.
They then recommend that book to someone else. Readers will keep books alive.
Readers don’t want you to spend a month of your writing life on planes going from city to city doing book signings and radio interviews. Readers want you to have finished the next book and the book after that. Readers want to finish the first book of yours that they’ve ever read, go onto a online bookstore, order the next book of yours that looks interesting, and start reading it immediately. Readers don’t care that your publisher believes one book a year is the right pace. Readers will read fifteen books a year if they love your work enough.
And in this new world, readers win. Every single time.
I have dozens of other things I’m thankful for. I could go on all night. But I have yet to fulfill my holiday duties. I’m in charge of our traditional pumpkin pie, and ever since my grandmother gave me this pie assignment in 1980, I have faithfully executed it. I shall leave you now and bake pie.
I’m sorry you can’t share the pumpkin pie, but you can make your own list. I hope you do. Because I think thanks-giving is one of the best traditions we Americans have, and one worth sharing.
“The Business Rusch: “Thanks-giving,” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.