On April 2, 2009, I began what I called an experiment. I decided to write an entire book, section by section, online every week. It took me 18 months of weekly posts to finish the book, which is called The Freelancer’s Survival Guide.
By that point, I had thousands of weekly followers who came here for business advice. The Freelancer’s Survival Guide is for freelancers of all stripes, and for a few months, I tried to continue writing about freelancing in general.
Then I gave up and just went with the gigantic elephant in the blogosphere. I decided to write about all of the changes in publishing.
I haven’t missed a week in exactly four years. That’s over 200 blog posts at about 3,000 words each, which means that for my Thursday blogs, I have written around 600,000 words of reader-supported nonfiction. The reader support was part of my experiment. I wasn’t sure anyone would show up for the freelancer’s guide posts, and if readers did show up, I wasn’t sure if anyone would pay for what they read.
I was surprised to get donations that very first week, and the support has continued. Some weeks, I get no donations at all. Some weeks, I get several. Some people donate in one yearly lump sum, and others on a monthly basis.
I’m grateful for all of it. I’m also grateful for the interaction. I had planned a relatively short book for The Freelancer’s Survival Guide, but questions and comments and helpful links from readers showed me topics I was missing. The Third Edition has just come out with some material on estates which I added last year because it was missing.
I am doing an estate series slowly on this blog partly because people don’t donate when I write about money or estate planning, so I can’t afford one long lump grouping of blogs. And I’m learning along with all y’all, so I’m not always ready to write the next post right away. (I’m in that position right now: I’m researching the next post slowly and probably won’t get to it until May.)
I didn’t expect the interaction. I didn’t expect to still be writing something for Thursdays so many years later. But I am and I’m enjoying it. Although there are weeks when I think that 3,000 words would be better spent on a novel. (Okay, most weeks.) I’m still gamely plugging along, learning things, watching my own views change, and figuring out this new world of publishing along with everyone else in the business.
In December, I wrote a post called “Writing Like It’s 2009” which talks about some of the changes in self- or, as I call it, indie-publishing in the past four years. That post deals with some of the myths that date from that long ago and far away time, myths that are actually hurting writers because they’re stuck in old attitudes.
My, this modern world moves fast.
For this post, I thought I’d look at how my own attitudes have changed about the publishing industry in the past four years. I’ll also explore a bit about what I’ve learned, and what I hope to learn.
That first post in 2009 was tentative. I made it clear I was experimenting. What I wanted was pretty simple: I wanted the Guide’s information out in the world. I started this at the worst time in the recession—the stock market had its low of 6,500 (that’s the US Dow Jones) one month before. Millions were out of work. It looked like we were heading for a Depression.
As a history major (and buff), I knew that economic downturns force enterprising people to start new businesses. Those folks can’t get a job, so they build one. This did occur in the years 2009-2011 (I couldn’t find data for 2012 on a quick search), with early-stage entrepreneurship growing 60% in the US alone in 2011.
I wanted to catch new entrepreneurs as they started, to prevent them from making the same mistakes I had. Because I hadn’t written the book yet, I figured if I went to traditional publishing, the book would come out as the country was slowly pulling itself out of recession. Most of my audience would have tried, and probably failed, in their new business/freelance attempts.
I had to publish the book right then and there. And I did.
My goal was to make what I called a small book advance. Frankly, I would have been shocked if I got that. I really hoped for was maybe $1000 to fund my three-months of once-per-week work. Then I’d market the book to traditional publishers, get a real advance, and have a product market-ready.
Well, I wrote the first few blogs, and pitched the book traditionally at the same time. But before my agent could even send out the manuscript (yes, I was working with an agent on this), I changed my mind.
By then, I had earned my $1,000, and I realized the book was going to be longer and more complicated because of the reader involvement. My agent was worried (and I was too) that the online publication might hinder sales to traditional publishers. The publishers I talked to had the same concerns.
Four years ago. In 2009. Now such concerns are laughable. Think of all the writers who self-published, received great traditional advances, and have gone on to sell even bigger numbers. Things have changed greatly.
Because my readers and commenters had so much involvement in the project, suggesting topics, asking questions, and providing the initial advance, I decided that anyone who donated to the Guide would get an e-book copy of the finished book. I sent out hundreds of e-books in the fall of 2010, as a thank-you to all who contributed. Hundreds.
The Freelancer’s Survival Guide is still available for free on my blog, but the Guide itself also exists in a different order, with editing and an index!, in e-book, paper, and audio format. To date, the Guide (and not its spin-off short books) has sold as many copies as it would have sold if it were traditionally published with the standard promotion given to a writing book or a low-level business book.
By now, if I had gone the traditional route, the Guide would have had only one edition, and would no longer be on any bookstore shelves. You might still be able to order it through an online bookstore like Amazon, but you might not. The book would most likely be out of print. It would never have had an audio version (ever), it would not have been available outside of the US, and it would probably have had a very crappy e-book edition.
It certainly wouldn’t continue to reach its intended market, freelancers who are or have started their own small businesses.
The Guide has not made me rich. It was not intended to. I offer it for free because I know how broke most new business owners are. I appreciate all of the donation support and every purchase I have received on the title. The sales grow each and every year, which is also not something I would have expected in 2009.
Quite frankly, I expected to finish the book and declare the experiment a failure, and move on to something else.
I have so not moved on. I am writing more business books, shorter ones, as I do these blogs. Many posts get reprinted in other venues. My weekly nonfiction readership has grown to several thousand, and on some weeks, depending on the topic, to even more than that. I have had twenty thousand unique visitors in 24 hours for some posts, more for a few others, and generally less for most posts.
I did not expect the readers of the nonfiction to buy my fiction, but many of you tell me that you have picked up my fiction after reading the nonfiction blog. Even though the information is anecdotal and I don’t know how to quantify it, I am astonished that any of you have done so. You see, one of those publishing myths is that people who read nonfiction about writing do not read the fiction that the same writer writes. In other words, if I wanted to use blog space on something that would promote my fiction, nonfiction on writing was exactly the wrong thing to choose.
Honestly, most of this website is focused on my fiction writing. I put up free fiction every Monday, without a donate button, because I advertise that little tidbit as free and I think it hypocritical to ask for money after that. I take the story down after a week and put up a new story. I’ve done this since November 29, 2010, and have yet to repeat a story.
I figured I’d get a handful of readers, and this would be a vanity project. And it would be incentive to get all of my short fiction into e-book format. It has served as that kind of incentive. Some weeks, I’m scrambling to make sure I have a new story to present on the site.
But the readership is growing, and it’s a different readership from that of my nonfiction blog. Yes, some of you overlap, but the people who come on Mondays are quieter. They don’t comment much—to me—although they do recommend one story or another to friends. Many make a weekly appointment to read the new story.
If I left the story up for a month, the story’s numbers might rival those of certain blog posts. Because I take the story down after a week, I have to look at two different parts of the analytics numbers to see how Free Fiction Monday is doing. Each story has its readers, generally by genre (some genres have more, some less), and then I must look at the unique visitors each month to the Free Fiction category.
What has evolved in two-plus years is this: my weekly free fiction readers rival the numbers for the weekly nonfiction blog. My monthly free fiction readers are greater than the number of print subscribers to a certain fiction magazine that I used to edit.
I have only anecdotal evidence that readers who read the free fiction go on to buy my fiction. In other words, I have no numbers on this and no way to know if someone who read Monday’s story which was (this week) an urban fantasy went on to buy other urban fantasy stories of mine, or some science fiction, or nothing at all.
I’m not sure I want to know. Because I love doing the free fiction, and probably would continue that even if no one showed up to read the stories.
These numbers—all website related—startle me. I would never have believed them if you had told me this in April, 2009. Actually, in March of 2009, Michael J. Totten and Scott William Carter tried to convince both me and Dean that websites, reader-support, and going direct to readers was the wave of the future. Dean and I were skeptical, but we both decided to try it.
That lunch conversation, and our decision to give it a shot, changed our lives.
The biggest difference in my attitude between 2009 and now is this: In 2009, I thought writers who self-published did so as a last resort or on projects like the Guide that didn’t fit into the slow traditional system. I worried that new writers would give up on themselves too soon and go directly to self-publishing, hurting their careers.
Then I watched the stunning growth in e-publishing, the rise of the self-published bestseller, and traditional publishing’s response to the new technology. As writers gained the opportunity for more autonomy, traditional publishing responded with draconian contracts and refused to negotiate with all everyone except writers who were being offered $500,000 and up. (This has moderated some, but not a lot.) Agents became scammers by trying to publish the writers instead of acting as representatives. And worse, agents started demanding a percentage of a writer’s rights in the work as well as a percentage of the work’s earnings.
To say I’m appalled is stunning. I’m shocked that traditional publishing has gotten worse, not better.
I am not shocked that so many writers still flock to traditional publishing, and bend over the moment they’re offered a really bad contract. That has happened since time immemorial. The problem is that there are more really bad contracts now, being offered with smaller advances, and in smaller numbers.
Weirdly—from my perspective—I now believe that any writer who goes to traditional publishing for book advance of less than $100,000 is getting screwed.
Why? Well, let’s go back to the Guide, shall we? I’ve sold as many copies as I would have sold through a traditional publisher. The book is still available in three different formats, its readership is growing, and here’s the real kicker: I’m making more on each copy of that book than I ever would have through a traditional publisher. At least five times more, sometimes as much as seven times more.
The same number of sales, the book is still in print, the book is in more formats than it would have been, and I’m earning five times more than I would have traditionally? That’s astonishing. And this, while the book is still available for free. Even more astonishing.
For all of 2010 and into 2011, I watched my e-book sales numbers. Not because I wanted to goose them (See this post on why that’s just dumb), but because I was having trouble believing that the new world of publishing existed.
Since my brother bought me a subscription to Writer’s Digest for my twelfth birthday, I have learned everything I could about traditional publishing. My goal was always to be a working writer, whatever that meant. Forty years ago, it meant selling my work to magazines and book publishers, signing a contract, getting paid, and moving on to another work.
It was that way in 2007 as well.
And then the disruptive technological change hit. My brain had a lot of trouble adapting. I looked at my e-book numbers every day for two years because I couldn’t believe those numbers existed. I somehow thought they would vanish overnight.
My disbelief became belief after I decided to publish my next Retrieval Artist novel outside of New York publishing. Anniversary Day sold very well without publicity or promotion or preorders. It didn’t hit bookstore shelves, unless the store heard about the book from a reader who wanted to buy there. The numbers grew from the publication date in December of 2011 to May of 2012, and then they tapered off to a very respectable monthly rate.
Realize, now, that I was only watching Amazon and Barnes & Noble numbers. Smashwords’ system flummoxes me on a quick glance, and I simply did not concern myself with the trade paper or the audio numbers at all.
The sales of Anniversary Day were better than I expected and, what I did not expect (deep down, although I said I expected it) was that those sales would goose the sales of the previous seven books in the series. The first book, The Disappeared, sold half as many copies as Anniversary Day, and I could see the readers who started the series move through the remaining books. The sales across the series increased.
And did so again when Blowback came out this December. By then, I had stopped compulsively watching the numbers. I didn’t have to. I was fully immersed in this new world, which actually feels familiar to me now. As I watch other countries come into the new world of publishing, and have the arguments that the US had in 2010, I smile in recognition, and feel like I had those arguments in another life.
I remember the concerns. I mentally have written them off like I wrote off the new writer myths.
It’s moments like this anniversary that remind me how new everything is. I was a different person four years ago this week. I had different beliefs. If you had asked me about my future in publishing, I would have told you about my hopes for sales to traditional publishers.
I still do a lot of work with traditional publishers. Most of that work is in nonfiction articles and essays and, especially, in short fiction. The short fiction editors are fantastic, but more than that, the contracts offered by short fiction markets are very new-world writer-friendly. I love the opportunity to find a new audience with each short story I write.
The traditional book world has become very writer unfriendly. Very music studio-like. Very Hollywoodesque. I dislike that world enough that I won’t play in it without several contractual guarantees that no one will give me at the moment.
That might change if I have a runaway bestseller on my own. But if I do, there had better be a damn good reason to go to a traditional publisher, because at the moment, I don’t think they can offer me anything that will entice me.
At tax time this year, I learned another fact about my work. Anniversary Day, out for one year plus (barely), has sold half the number of copies that each of the last three books in the Retrieval Artist series sold through the traditional publisher. That’s with no bookstore presence, no preorders, and no advertising whatsoever. The book went up in trade and e-book, I mentioned it on my blog, and sent out some review copies, and viola! sales.
Granted, it is an existing series, and that did propel a lot of sales. But as Blowback came out, Anniversary Day’s sales spiked again. Because Blowback had greater visibility, and a lot of the regular readers of the Retrieval Artist series—those who found it in bookstores or because of my work in the sf magazines—found both books for the first time.
Anniversary Day is still in print. All of the previous seven novels are also in print, as well as Blowback. When the Retrieval Artist series was traditionally published, not one of the previous books was still in print when the next book came out. Not one. I was writing a series, and readers could not get the previous books in the series when the new book came out.
All those extra sales—which are happening again just because Blowback exists—never happened because they couldn’t happen. Because my traditional publisher took the books out of print within nine months of publication. Three months before the next book hit the store shelves.
The sales of that series are growing. The sales of my other series are growing without new books being released. We’ll see what happens when the next Diving book comes out in September. I expect to see another growth in sales on that series.
Finally, the one thing I would have laughed out loud about in 2009 and told you that you had to be on drugs to believe such a thing, was this: I’m editing again. Dean and I are doing Fiction River, an anthology magazine, like we did with Pulphouse: The Hardback Magazine. We jumped back in because we don’t have to work for anyone any more, don’t have to do any of the hard work begging a distributor to take us on. The first issue is going to be out in a little over two weeks, and I’m extremely proud of it. I’m enjoying all aspects of my career again, from writing to editing and, on Thursday night, I’ll go into the studio at WMG to record some audio. Like I used to do when I worked in radio.
I wouldn’t have believed that either.
2009 was so twenty years ago.
Seriously. I can remember the woman who wrote that first tentative blog. I wouldn’t be here without her. But her assumptions, the way she lived her life, the way that she had to bend her writing to fit into modern publishing, is not the way I live any more at all.
I love this new world. I’m happy to be here.
And I’m shocked that the blog is only four years old. Wow. It feels like I’ve been doing this forever.
I still do need donations to continue, however. Because as the popcorn kittens links and references show you, I have more work to do than I can get done in an average week. I’m already working seven days per week now, and still not getting everything done that I want to. An extra 3,000 words of fiction would help.
But then I wouldn’t have the weekly interactions with you all, which I love. You send me links, keep me on my toes, privately share your contracts and your frustrations, and point me to things I would never have discovered on my own. You keep me honest, and I greatly appreciate that.
Thanks for coming here for all these years.
I’m humbled by it all.
“The Business Rusch: “Four Years” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.