The Business Rusch: Book As Event
I finished my second novel (as an adult) on the day my best friend from high school gave birth to her second child. My friend called me from the hospital to tell me the great news and then, because she was a sweet woman and because she was from the upper Midwest, she reflexively asked how things were going for me.
Even though I am not what anyone would call sweet and wasn’t even then, I was raised in that same Midwestern community. So I gave my friend the best answer I could.
“Oh, I’m fine, and everything is going well here,” I said before turning the attention back to her. Where it belonged, I might add. She had given birth to the second of her two daughters, and fulfilled a lifelong dream of having a family.
I had different dreams. I never wanted children. All I wanted was to be a fulltime professional fiction writer. My friend and I were about as different as two people could be and still be friends. I hung up the phone that day with mixed emotions. I wanted to see her and her daughters, something I wouldn’t get to do for another year (and, sadly, that would be the last time I would ever see her, although I didn’t know it at the time).
I also realized that finishing my second novel was as important for me as having that second child had been for her.
I never told anyone that, though. I rarely talked about my writing because non-writers didn’t understand it. Finishing the first novel had felt like a fluke. I managed to get it done and it felt daunting. The second novel felt less daunting, but much more important.
Before I had believed that if I could do it once, then I could do it again. After I finished the second book, I knew I could do it again. And proceeded to do so more than a hundred times. (Believe me, that number freaks me out more than it freaks you out. Seriously.)
Finishing my first novel had been an event. A mountain climbed. A life goal achieved. It felt more important to finish than it did to publish the book. And the second novel, well, it felt even more important.
It did feel on par with giving birth to a wanted child.
Now, not so much. I’m still proud when I finish a novel, pleased at myself, pleased that something I imagined has become reality. But I also know there are more novels to write and more stories to tell and so much more to do. I’m actually more afraid of dying before I can finish writing all the projects I carry around in my head, and those projects increase exponentially as each year goes on. (See my Popcorn Kittens post. You’ll understand.)
Books sometimes are events and sometimes they aren’t. Before the rise of indie publishing, prolific writers understood this. Some books got published well; others got anti-published to use Carole Nelson Douglas’s term. (Or the term that apparently gets used in the Tor offices, which came to me via Beth Meacham on Facebook, “privished” not “published.” Privish, as in private, as opposed to publish as in public. [She had to explain it to dumb little ole me.])
The most prolific traditionally published writers (back in the day) were in the romance genre, and most of them could manage about six new books per year. I know that some tie-in writers did more—Dean famously wrote five in one month, but he didn’t sleep and then he rested for the next two months. In the old, old days of publishing, a lot of pulp writers wrote two novels a month, but those books averaged about 40,000 words, less than half of what the average midlist novel is right now.
I looked at Nora Roberts’ publishing schedule for 2013, and she will have five new titles this year, all of which are probably a maximum of 100,000 words. That’s still half a million words per year in print, not counting how much she wrote on the side or blogged or did in anticipation of future projects. I know that my finished word count is very different from my actual word count because I toss chapters and write background material and make copious notes to myself. I’m sure she does something similar.
When you look at her new releases site, also note that her publisher will release eleven new reprints in 2013. If Nora handles her own copy edits and proofs, she will work on sixteen different titles in the United States in 2013. That doesn’t count subsidiary rights, such as foreign editions or audio versions, movie options, a game or anything else that will come her way.
It’s a lot of work for one person. I know she rarely takes more than a day between novels, so she’s busy writing and doing writing related things most days of the year. She outlines her average day here.
Three new books with her name on them came out in the first quarter of 2013, one of them a brand new, never-before-published JD Robb hardcover. In the second quarter, when her big new Roberts hardcover is coming out, she will have her name on four books. In the third quarter, her next big hardcover—a JD Robb book, will appear along with four paperback reprints. And in the fourth quarter, you’ll find two brand new books for the holiday season—one a mass market and one a trade, as well as two reprints.
A Nora Roberts book (or JD Robb, which everyone knows is Nora Roberts) will appear every month in 2013, either as a never-before-published book or as a reprint in a brand new package.
Roberts rarely tours. Usually, any appearances she does are related to RWA National, where she goes mostly to see her friends. She’s a working writer (albeit on a very high sales level), and I have a hunch if you ask her which book she considers an “event” book in 2013, she’ll look at you like you’re crazy.
Oh, she might have a favorite book. All writers do. Or a book that was so hard to finish, so wonderful to get off the plate, that it’s worth celebrating. But most people don’t celebrate going to work every day as an achievement, and working writers don’t either.
We write. We finish what we write. We start something new. We finish that. It’s our job.
That we enjoy it immensely, that we wouldn’t or can’t do anything else, is entirely beside the point.
I was flashing on this attitude difference last Saturday night as I sat with the spectacular group of writers who had come to the weeklong Character, Voice, and Setting Workshop that Dean taught. This is an advanced-level workshop, designed for writers with a work ethic, not people who believe they have one great novel in them and they’ll write it one sentence per year as God intended.
Still, these writers who are either already established or who have professional habits that have for some reason (usually the long [and stupid] wait times in traditional publishing) not yet started to make a living at writing. And still, most of these writers have that myth engrained in them that every piece of writing they commit is an event, something to be workshopped, discussed, promoted, and revisited, over and over and over again.
When you’re a beginner, like I was, finishing a novel is an event. It’s not an event like giving birth; it’s really not. With each birth, a parent signs up for a lifelong journey with their child. With each finished novel, a writer moves onto the next (rather like a cat and kittens, I guess, if you’re going to stretch that birth analogy).
But as a professional, writing is what you do. Finishing is what you do. Go back to the beginning of Nora Roberts’ career, and you’ll see that she was publishing between six and eight category romances each year. That brought her published word count then, at the beginning of her career, between 330,000 and 440,000 words annually. (Categories then were about 55,000 words. Some larger, some smaller.)
In other words, her great work ethic was already there, and she was in a genre that allowed her to write that many books per year for a traditional publisher.
The reason I thought of all this on Saturday is this: the last night of any workshop we do the big reveal. In that moment, we tell these writers how many tens of thousands of new words they finished in that busy week. Many of them get upset; that number can’t be true. Some of them can’t finish that many words in a month. Yet they did it under pressure, and often sold (or will sell) what they write, while going to class and maintaining a very full schedule.
I love to watch the faces as writers realize that treating each finished product as an event is hurting them rather than helping them. It’s a very deliberate mind shift, one that we do on purpose. Because we have to show writers that everything they learned in school about writing, all those myths about the importance of treating each thing they write as something that can be perfected over years, hurts them rather than helps them.
Obviously, I think about this at the end of every workshop. I wrote about it last summer in a series of blogs starting with one called “Perfection,” and then collected them in a book called The Pursuit of Perfection, earlier this year.
But this past week, I had a secondary realization. It comes from indie publishing and it will take a bit of an explanation.
I’ve worked in publishing on all sides of the desk (except as an agent), so I can tell you about the other side of Nora Roberts’ career. Her publisher’s attitude toward those sixteen books.
One of the hardcovers—one in February, one in April, and one in September—is an event book. That’s the April Nora Roberts title. It came out this week, and I have seen promotion for this baby everywhere. The book will turn up in the pitiful book rack at my grocery store, when the two JD Robb hardcovers did/will not. The JD Robb books are top-of-the list books.
The two paperbacks, the trade and the mass market, are the top of a smaller list. They’ll come in the holiday season, and they’re priced perfectly for gift-giving. It’s brilliant, and they’ll get some holiday promotion, either alone or with some other romances that the publisher wants to promote. These books will piggy-back on everything else.
The reprints are there so that Roberts’ readers don’t forget her over the three weeks between books. They’re also in the slot to pick up new readers who weren’t alive when those books were first published (by another company, I might add). In addition, last year’s hardcovers will get their paperback releases, which will then promote the new hardcovers. Many cost-conscious readers wait that year plus to buy the new book, so that they save the ten to fifteen dollars per copy. The new reissues will have the first chapter or two of the new release hardcover to entice the reader to start the opening of the new book, and then hurry out (or online) to buy it and finish it.
This all took a lot of work at the traditional house to get this planning in place, and it was just one author for that house, in one particular product line. A lot of people, from the head of the sales force to the publisher (of whatever division Roberts writes for) to an editor to a mountain of assistants to bring this plan to fruition.
In addition, these people are working on dozens of other books at the same time. Some are “event books.” Others are top of the list books, like the JD Robb’s. They get a different level of promotion. And the rest get published to fill out the lists.
Want to see what I mean? Click the bookseller tab on the Penguingroup website, then click on the catalog link on the left (or hit this link here) and look at all the catalogs you can download. I would suggest downloading them and viewing them online. You’ll see the monthly output of one imprint is more than Roberts’ entire publishing schedule in 2013.
This is important to understand. Because this is why books get anti-published (or privished), why many books disappear, and why all traditionally published books get treated like produce. They are produce. They do spoil, in a company’s collective hive mind, because the company is moving on to other things all the time.
For example, G.P. Putnam, which is Roberts’ and Robb’s hardcover imprint (the trades come out of Berkeley, a different imprint), is also publishing a new Clive Cussler in September, the same month it’s publishing the Robb. It’s also publishing a new Catherine Coulter, a new “Robert Parker” (actually the guy who has taken up the books now that Parker has passed away), a new Randy Wayne White, a new “Dick Francis” and some really impressive nonfiction.
What’s the event book for September? You have to look for the first listing in the Fall catalogue, which is…Sue Grafton. She’s going to get all the attention in the publishing house, the bulk of the ad dollars, and most of the promotion. You can see that from the listing on the right hand side, the listing that tells you what the company will be doing to support that book.
I can guarantee that everyone in the G.P. Putnam side of the building knows exactly what’s going to happen with Grafton’s book in September. There were placement meetings and discussions on how to do the best job possible with that book. They’re doing a little less work, but not much, on A.Scott Berg’s nonfiction biography of Woodrow Wilson. A. Scott Berg’s books are events in the nonfiction world, and G.P. Putnam is (rightly) treating the book that way.
The amount of promotion the JD Robb is getting compared to those two is relatively minimal for a multiple New York Times bestseller. Some of that is because Roberts doesn’t do media, but most of it is because Roberts’ readers come to her books without a lot of promotion.
The Dick Francis, co-authored by his son? A lot less work by the publisher. There are a lot of bigger names who sucked up the oxygen in the room long before we get to the Francis in the September part of the catalogue.
The event book in October? Bobby Orr’s autobiography. Yes, hockey fans read. (And let me give those of you who think otherwise a big fat raspberry.) November’s event? Patricia Cornwell’s next novel. But the other books get a bit more promotion than normal because November’s a big deal month in traditional publishing. That’s the holiday buying season. And Roberts isn’t even in G.P. Putnam’s catalogue.
She’s in Berkeley’s catalogue. Same company, different imprint. Whole different line-up of authors.
But the sales force might or might not be the same, the editor is the same, and the assistants working on the books in the editing side are the same.
Only their focus is always on the event book. Yes, they’re doing their best to keep the big names like Roberts satisfied, but they’re doing the most work on the really, really, really big books.
This is important to know, because beginning writers who sell their first novels to commercial publishers expect their books to be an event. We jaded pros know better. We considered ourselves lucky when it went right, and it rarely went right.
Scott Turow, to touch on last week’s topic, has always been more than a bestseller. He’s always been an event writer. He doesn’t understand anything different.
Please poke around these catalogs. Realize this is one gigantic corporation with lots of imprints. Realize that a lot of the people who work on one book in September for one imprint will work on books for other imprints. And also realize that for some of the authors and books listed, these catalogs are the only promotion they will see from their traditional publisher.
If something goes wrong with one September book, oh, well. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of others. The only books that nothing should go awry on are the event books. Someone will sacrifice their entire career to prevent that. Even the top-of-the-list books can be sacrificed to prevent a disaster with the event book.
How does this apply to indie writers? Well, most indie writers have the attitude I had when my friend called. Not only is it hard to finish a novel, but then the writer has done all the production too. It feels like an event, and for a newer writer, it is an event.
But for readers, it is not. A subset of readers might be happy that your first book is out (family, friends) but most will never notice, and promotion won’t help that hardly at all.
What helps the new writer become a success is word of mouth, and publishing the next book.
Marie Force did a non-scientific survey of indie writers, their sales over the past few years, and their income. To a person, the writers who treated each new book as an event were 1) new and 2) not selling very many copies. (I am [somewhat snobbishly] saying that selling 1000 copies of one title is not as impressive as, say, the 25,000 copies and up listed in this list by people who are doing no promotion or minimal—hey my book is out there!—promotion.)
The writers who write a lot of books every year are doing infinitely better. And these are just digital numbers, not print at all. In fact, as Courtney Milan pointed out, her digital historical romance numbers are much better than the digital historical romance numbers listed in Publisher’s Weekly’s survey.
Now, granted, this is a self-selected group of writers who are reporting. But not everyone is selling 200,000 copies of their most recent e-book. Some are selling as few as five copies. And kudos to them for reporting! They’re all trying to build. The biggest difference—the most obvious difference—is between those who believe their job is writing, and those who think that each book is an event.
It wasn’t just the class that made me think of the events. I’m guilty of it too. When you publish four new books per year, it’s an event to have a book out. It’s unusual.
But this year, WMG Publishing has made incredible headway on getting my backlist up. Every week, I am looking at cover concepts, going over copy edits and page proofs, and dealing with the next book to appear. Between those backlist titles going up in e-book, or in e-book and trade, and the short stories that are appearing from my traditional publishers, I am getting behind on my announcements for the reprinted material here on this website. Either I write or I promote, and even making an announcement takes writing time.
I thought of that as I forgot that I have a new frontlist title debuting this month. We’re going to be doing something I’ve wanted to do with that book from the beginning: we’re going to serialize it for free on WMG’s website. That book is Spree. The first chapter will go live on Tuesday, April 23, along with links so that you can order the rest of the book immediately if you want to. WMG will serialize the book chapter by chapter, leaving the previous chapters up, each week.
The reason I forgot is twofold. First, Spree is not WMG’s top priority next week. Next week, WMG’s first event book will appear. We’ve all been preparing for this release since last August. Fiction River #1: Unnatural Worlds will hit the stands that day. By then, subscribers should have their copies. (They shipped today.)
Dean and I have worked very, very, very hard on this project from the editing side to the publishing side. Even though we try to stay hands-off at WMG, we were the ones with publishing knowledge on anthologies, magazines, and subscriptions, on how to contact readers, how to deal with authors, contracts—oh, we’ve had a million meetings. And the review copies went out (later than we hoped) and the covers got approved (earlier than we hoped) and people have supported the project in a big way that can only grow.
The event continues for WMG because its audio arm, headed by Jane Kennedy, is doing a multicast audio book of Unnatural Worlds which will be available in the summer. WMG will do an announcement of that. I read my own nonfiction, but not my own fiction. Other people kept coming in and out of the office to do their parts, and Jane has spent the last week plus locked in the editing booth, quietly tearing out her hair.
I noted that event, remembered how every publishing company always has event books, and realized that for publishers the event books are the unusual ones, not the everyday books.
Longtime professional writers rarely have event books. But I’m working on one now. I’m finishing the next Smokey Dalton novel, Street Justice. I had so much trouble with this series from my traditional publisher, from the casual racist assumptions expressed by the sales force (“but there are no black people in the Midwest”) to forgetting to send books to bookstores while I was on a publisher-mandated book tour. (If you want to see how ugly book tours are for writers, see Kevin J. Anderson’s recent blog, here.)
I tried to move the Dalton books to a new publisher, but couldn’t because, by this century, publishers wouldn’t buy a series in the middle unless it was top of the list worthy which, because of the previous publisher’s dumbass mistakes, the Smokey books were not. (Despite the acclaim and the demand; booksellers couldn’t get the books they ordered.)
I figured I’d never get the chance to write this book, so the very act of writing it is an event. It makes me alternately joyful and terrified, which event books do. I have to remember that while this book is an event for me, it is not an event anywhere else, and once I release it into the wild, it will simply be the seventh Smokey Dalton novel.
Which is what it’s designed to be.
I have to keep my expectations in line with that designation, instead of the event book designation. Because if I expect the world to fall at my feet because I finally completed a book that’s been in my head for six years, then I have forgotten my job.
I write books. I write a lot of books. I finish books and move onto the next book.
Right now, WMG is focused on Fiction River 2: How To Save The World. By April 24, that will become the next big focus, although probably not an event. The company’s first real event novel will be my book, Snipers, which has been turned in since January. The staff at WMG is doing all kinds of event-oriented promotion, behind the scenes and according to what the company can afford. But it’s bigger than anything they’ve done before.
Blowback got top of the list promotions. Skirmishes, the next diving book, will get the same. WMG is talking about doing either event or top of the list promotion with Dean’s thriller, tentatively titled Dead Money. And there will be event promotion on Fiction River 4: Christmas Ghosts, as well as the upcoming special edition, Crime.
A small company can handle only a few events per year because they’re expensive in time and money. Writers, who are small companies in and of themselves, should look at their books in the same way. Can the writer afford to do books as event, focusing on promotion and getting readers, or should the writer write the next book?
I urge you to look at the Penguin Group catalogs again, and remember that event books aren’t even company-wide events in traditional publishing. They’re just imprint events.
Then I urge you to review the numbers in Marie Force’s blog and note all the mention of series, number of books published versus numbers of books sold.
I started this by talking about Nora Roberts, who doesn’t kill herself on book tours like Kevin just did. She’s published more than 200 titles in her career, and she’s still publishing five to six new books every year.
Makes my 100 books, under various names (and some media tie-ins), look paltry. I have some catching up to do. And I like doing the short fiction as well. And the editing. And—oh! Squirrel!
Okay. “Squirrel” was my 7,718th word for the day. I still have some writing to finish before I call my workday complete. So I’m declaring this blog done. Not because I’ve said all I can. Not even because I said it as eloquently as I’m probably capable of.
But because it’s 10:48 p.m. and I usually have posted the blog by now. I got some work ahead of me still. So I have declared the blog finished because, to paraphrase Tina Fey in Bossypants, it’s show time.
I’ve already used up more words than usual in this blog, so I won’t keep you. Thank you folks for all the comments, e-mails, links, and support. I have put up a donation button so I keep doing this blog every week. If you’ve learned something or felt inspired, please leave a tip on the way out.
“The Business Rusch: Book As Event” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.