The Business Rusch: Found Information
I keep storing up links and information to share on this blog. I always imagine those bits of found knowledge will become a column all by themselves, but some are too short and self-explanatory for that. Others simply reinforce things I’ve discussed in previous blog posts.
So, I’ve decided to do an information round-up this week with some of the flotsam and jetsam from my files. If I already dealt with some of this in the past, I’ll link to that as well as the article. Otherwise, I’ll give a piece of information the few paragraphs it deserves.
First, from the I-Hate-To-Say-I-Told-You-So Department, a court case:
Patricia Cornwell, the #1 New York Times Bestselling writer of more than twenty suspense novels, has sued her former accounting firm and business manager for “negligent performance of professional services, breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract, equitable forfeiture, and other actions.”
This case began in 2009, when Cornwell became aware of problems with the firm she’d hired, Anchin, Block, and Anchin. According to the complaint, Cornwell paid AB&A $40,000 per month to handle her business matters. In addition to that 40K (which comes out to $480,000 per year—which she paid them over four years), Cornwell also gave AB&A “power of attorney” to handle her affairs.
Why did she give other people complete control over her multi-million dollar business? The answer is actually in the complaint. It’s a two-part answer. We’ll start with part the second:
Cornwell “openly acknowledges her diagnosis with a mood disorder known as bipolar disorder, which, although controlled without medication, has contributed to her belief that it is prudent for her to employ others to manage her business affairs and her investments.”
Okay. Before you guys all attack me for not understanding mood disorders, let me say that I fully understand how serious they are. In addition to some experiences too personal to share, let me mention that I worked for a forensic psychologist for a long time. I do know how crippling mood disorders can be.
I also know that there are ways to handle them without signing your life and finances away. There’s a difference between hiring employees to manage your business affairs and investments because you have a health issue, and giving them complete control over your finances. There are other ways to guard your finances, including monthly oversight by you and your trusted advisors, having at least two people sign a check, and on, and on, and on.
Instead, Cornwell gave this company full control over her finances and those of her company, Cornwell Entertainment, Incorporated. In fact, for all I know, she gave AB&A full control over her entire life. The article I’ve read did not state “limited power of attorney” but “power of attorney.” There’s a huge, difference. Neither of which is something you give lightly, and generally it’s not something you should give at all if you’re of sound mind and body. (Hell, it’s really not something you should sign away even without good health. And yes, that’s worth a long blog post, and no, I’ll probably never write it because I’m not a legal expert, nor do I play one on TV.)
Part the first, also from the complaint is the real core of the matter. Here’s why Cornwell hired AB&A in the first place. Cue the violins:
Ms. Cornwell is a best-selling crime novelist whose ability to write is dependent upon the ability to avoid distractions. A quiet, uninterrupted environment, free of the distractions of managing her business and her assets, including her investments, is essential to her ability to write and to meet her deadlines.
Oh, poor, poor pitiful Cornwell. A woman who used to work in law enforcement. Who writes about the seamy side of humanity. Someone she trusted screwed her—and she was surprised.
There are two kickers here. First, this slick firm was really good at what they did. They lost a ton of money, which they all claim was lost with Cornwell’s approval.
She believes they fattened their coffers at her expense.
That’s the first kicker. I don’t know if these guys stole from her, but she certainly unlocked and opened the door to the treasure room so that they could do so if they wanted to.
The second kicker comes courtesy of my good lawyer friends, who all claim that when a case gets into court—as this one has—some attorney has failed to convince their client to be sensible. Cases like this should get settled, preferably out of court, quietly, so no one’s reputation gets harmed.
The fact that the case is in court means that AB&A believes it has enough documentation for a win, and it’s not paying fines or going to jail for what its principals have done.
Cornwell believes otherwise. She believes these guys screwed her.
I have no idea if they did. The complaint alleges that they took so much money—tens of millions—that she only had one year of earnings in the bank when they were done. This is truly significant, because a twenty-year New York Times bestseller, whose career started in the go-go 90s when writers earned megabucks, should have a fortune rivaling a small country. She doesn’t.
Whose fault is it? The court will determine that.
But the fact is that she is in court. The fact that she needed to be “free of the distractions of managing her business and her assets” in order to write and meet her deadlines means she bought that crap that artists shouldn’t be bothered with business. And then someone convinced her the only way to avoid bother was to sign away power of attorney.
Artists who believe they’re not business people and let someone else manage all of their affairs will get screwed. It will happen, guaranteed. Sometimes the screwing will be short and painful, sometimes it’ll be long and excruciating, but it will happen. I guarantee it.
Thank you, Ms. Cornwell, for proving a point I have made so many times in this blog that I’m having trouble finding just one link to it. Instead, I’ll give you four. Like this post from The Freelancer’s Survival Guide (or any of the other money posts in the Guide. Or the short book called How To Make Money (perhaps it should be called How To Keep Money)). Or this one from November. Or this one from July. Or, heck, just go to the ToC and find anything to do with business. You’ll see all kinds of posts that mention this very problem.
Learn business, people. Handle your own finances. Double-check what your employees are doing on your behalf. And for god’s sake, do the math.
Trust but verify.
Or don’t trust and still verify.
The choice is yours. Because you don’t want to end up in the I-Hate-To-Say-I-Told-You-So Department beside Cornwell.
Second, for all of you who are going into traditional publishing because you believe it will market your book better than you ever could, a statistic:
Do you believe each one of those 110 books gets the star treatment? Do you think all of them get targeted advertising? Or a big push from the sales force? Do you think the sales force knows the title of all 110 books?
Do you think the sales force knows the name of the authors who wrote those 110 books?
And if you’re naïve enough to believe that the sales force does know the names and titles without referring to some list, then let me ask you this…will the sales force remember one year later that Author A even published a novel with them?
Because the sales force will have done their best to sell 1320 titles since then, and they’ll have another 110 on their plate for January of 2014.
If you’re considering giving up rights and royalties and taking less money than you can make on your own, and tying yourself to a contract that might be impossible to get out of all for the sake of a gigantic marketing push, just think of Harlequin’s 110 titles per month.
Because Harlequin is not unique. Not by any stretch.
So, if you’re going into traditional publishing, make sure you have a reason other than promotion and marketing (and the heartfelt wish that only they can make you a bestseller). In fact, make sure you have lots of other reasons.
Some of them might be good. All will be important to you.
But this whole traditional-publishing-will-make-my-book-standout idea? That’s just magical thinking. And, honestly, it always has been. (Take a peek at this post from 2010 or this from 2011. Or this from one year ago.
Third, speaking of marketing, here’s something traditional publishing does very, very well. It’s called branding:
Branding is, essentially, the at-a-glance marketing your cover does for you. If you’re writing books in a series, those books should look similar but different. For example, here’s the branding that WMG Publishing has done for my Retrieval Artist series:
And the branding that WMG is doing for our Fiction River anthology series:
You’ll see that the art, color scheme, and titles are different, but the font, design, and general look of the covers tells readers that these books belong together. The cues are both subtle and obvious, and quite involved.
You can see more series branding if you go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble and look up series novels by author. You can also see the recent branding as opposed to previous branding.
A twenty-year series (like [ahem] Cornwell’s) will get rebranded every few years to catch the reader’s eye. The entire series will get new covers. It won’t just be the new book. That’s a marketing ploy that all of us can do.
But there’s one more way that you can and should brand your fiction.
Every genre has cover conventions. Sometimes we make fun of them because we notice them, like the clinch cover in romance or that series of tattooed leather-clad tough-chicks who graced urban fantasy for a while.
RT Book Reviews just did a great article, “Fifty Shades of the Same,” on the branding that publishers are now doing with erotica, following the success of Fifty Shades of Gray. Readers initially loved Fifty Shades’ cover because it was different from the standard erotica cover, so no one knew what you were reading just by a glance.
Now that all erotica covers are a single stark image against a blackish-grayish background, that anonymity has gone away. Readers are complaining that their friends will again know what they’re reading.
But the point of covers isn’t to hide the genre. It’s to advertise the genre.
Cover branding in both series and genre is one of the many reasons that traditional writers will complain about their covers. It looks like every other cover, they’ll say or Jeez, I got one of those headless people on my cover, not realizing that a lot of thought went into that cover from editorial to sales to the art department and back again.
Since most of you will only have your cover to advertise your book in traditional publishing—you won’t get ads placed in major magazines and you won’t get good placement in the catalogue—then your cover needs to do a ton of work for you. Branding helps you attract readers, so if you don’t like your traditionally published cover, place your book near others in its genre and see if it both blends in and stands out in a good way. If it does, don’t complain. Your cover is doing its job.
Indie writers: You should identify the genres you’ve written in—after you finished the book, of course—and make sure your cover reflects that genre clearly to readers.
The RT article is a good place to start your thinking in this area.
If you have trouble figuring out genre—and most writers do—then we’re offering an online class in that. If you don’t know how to design a cover or what elements should go into a cover so that you can direct the designer you’ve hired to make the right cover, then we’re offering an online class in covers.
And, by the way, some of that branding goes inside as well. The interior design is as important as the exterior design. (Didn’t know a book had interior design? Sure you did: those books that are hard to read because of the tiny print or the font—that was a design failure.) And yes, we have an online class for that as well.
Yes, I know. Another learning curve for the poor business-phobic writer. Cue those damn violins.
Fourth, some encouraging impersonal news, with implications for the future:
Kids are reading more e-books than they have before. Hell, reading has increased across the spectrum, not just e-books, but print books too.
But back to kids. Scholastic put out a study this week that shows that 46% of kids 9-17 read an e-book in 2012, up significantly from the 25% who read e-books in 2010. This, Scholastic believes, is due to the rise in tablet purchases. Kids don’t use dedicated e-readers as much as they use tablets for all kinds of things, including reading.
I’ve watched this up close and personal. The three-year-old daughter of WMG’s publisher often carries a Kindle Fire in one hand and a paper book in the other, and will look at both in the same “reading” session (usually with the stuffed kitty she cuddles with at the office).
Never fear, you e-book haters. There’s good news for you too in this survey. Apparently, 80% of those kids who read an e-book in 2012 also read a print book. In fact, the kids preferred print books for things like having someone read to them or for looking at on their own.
In other words, future watchers, kids are reading in all formats. They’re not just learning to enjoy e-books. They’re learning to enjoy print books too. Which means sales of both will continue for another generation.
And finally, fifth, some encouraging personal news, with implications for us all:
Victoria Holt, that gothic mistress of so many romance writers’ formative years, was 35 years old when her first novel was published (after writing and failing to sell nine novels). It took another twenty years for her to have her first bestseller. And then Victoria Holt became a household name, even though Holt was just a pen name.
Eleanor Burford Hibbert had at least nine pen names. Three of them became bestsellers—Victoria Holt, Jean Plaidy, and Philippa Carr. The others helped Hibbert pay the bills before Mistress of Mellyn took off in 1960. The Holt books pretty much created the romantic suspense genre, and influenced millions.
Why is this encouraging news?
Because, dear writerly friends, success in writing comes not with promotion and marketing and Tweeting and blogging and begging people to buy your very first novel. It comes with persistence and patience and writing a great deal.
Twenty years from first publication to bestsellerdom. Twenty long and clearly frustrating years.
I have no idea if Eleanor Hibbert believed that Mistress of Mellyn would launch an entire subgenre and influence writers (and readers) for generations. I suspect Eleanor Hibbert just had a story to tell, and she found a way to tell it, choosing a new name (for branding? Or because her publishers wouldn’t publish this departure under previous pen names?), and then writing more books.
In fact, Eleanor Hibbert liked writing so much, she actually died at her typewriter in 1993 at the age of 86. Of course, she died at her typewriter while on a cruise and—romantically—she was buried at sea somewhere between Greece and Port Said, Egypt. But she was writing from the time she quit school to the day she died.
She told damn fine stories too.
And a lot of them are being reissued—some of the Jean Plaidys and Philippa Carrs have already been reissued because of the Tudor craze. But for the first time in a while, the Holts will come back into print. Looking over the publications list on Wikipedia, I noticed a few that I missed in later years, so I’ll be picking those up.
I still remember reading Mistress of Mellyn in the hammock outside my parents’ house on a hot summer day. Would that we all create books so memorable that some day, decades later, one of our readers can remember where they were as the story we told engulfed them.
If you ever think you’re writing too much, remember that Hibbert published at least 180 books in her lifetime. Who knows how many she actually wrote.
If you think you must slave for five years over every word of your novel, then think of Hibbert as well. Realize if she had had the same attitude you have, she wouldn’t have lived long enough to write the Victoria Holt books. (I did a series on this as well. Start with “Perfection.”)
Ah, the things we can learn reading everything from Esquire to The Washington Post to court filings.
And that’s your information round-up for January of 2013.
This blog is part of what I write every week, but unlike anything else I write, it’s nonfiction. I make my living writing fiction, so every moment I spend writing nonfiction takes time from the work that pays me the best—and might have a chance of being read fifty years after first publication.
So please, if you got anything of value from this piece or previous pieces, leave a tip on the way out.
Thanks, everyone, for the comments, e-mails, links, and support. I appreciate it!
“The Business Rusch: Found Information” copyright 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.