The Business Rusch: A Career Versus Publication
On a gut level, many of you knew that some of us had made careers as writers, but over the years—decades, maybe—the idea that a writer could not just make a living, but spend her life writing without financial support from some other job, had gotten lost.
The fact that so many of you had no idea writers could be in this profession for life while, at the same time, wanting to become professional writers helped me realize something that I hadn’t been able to understand before.
People make different choices when they’re looking at a career as opposed to the choices they make to achieve a single goal.
If all you want to do is be a published writer, then you will give up a lot to achieve that dream.
If you want to make a living as a writer for the rest of your life, if you want a writing career, then you will not (or should not) give up many of those things just to get one book published.
But if you don’t understand that these two things are different—the dream of being published versus the dream of a writing career—then you will bounce back and forth in decision-making, and will often make the wrong decision for both dreams.
Now, I’m going to run into terminology issues. I need to delineate the I-wannabe-published writer from the career writer, but I have no good term for the first kind of writer. Hobbyist writer isn’t quite right, because that term “hobbyist” often diminishes the amount of work such writers put into their books. The actual term should probably be “non-professional writer,” but again, many of those writers are very professional in their craft and demeanor.
So I’m going to call such writers “one-book writers” even though most of those writers will probably write more than one book. I choose the term only because it’s an inoffensive shorthand for what I’m trying to discuss.
The one-book writer wants to be published, to maybe have a book hit a bestseller list or win an award, to be legitimately called a writer who has credentials. The one-book writer believes that he will never make a living as a writer or at least, a living as good as the one he makes at his day job, so he doesn’t even try.
The writer wants to see his name in print, usually through a traditional publishing company, and everything that writer does goes to the goal of one (or two or three) books in print. Not at making a living, certainly not having a lifelong (or second) career as a writer.
The one-book writer wants to achieve a goal. It’s a bucket-list sort of thing. It may be that way because the writer has no idea that a career is possible or it may be because the writer has other interests and would rather focus on them.
So many writers who come into the publishing business are one-book writers. In fact, I would say that the majority of writers I have met over my thirty-plus years in the business have been one-book writers, with other jobs and other interests.
The career writer is in this for the long haul. She has dozens if not hundreds of books in her. She wants to make a living—a good living—from writing those books. Her goals are twofold: to have books in print, yes, but more than that. This writer wants to spend her life telling stories and/or sharing information.
She’s not in it for accolades or wealth, although those are nice side benefits. She’s not in it to get tenure or to show her literary bona fides. She needs to make the rent and do so while pursuing a non-traditional career. That takes planning and foresight, and an ability to roll with the punches.
Some of you have gotten angry at me in the comments section of this blog, or when I give you (requested) e-mail advice about contracts or working with a particular company, and that anger often comes from our differing perspectives.
I always come at things from the perspective of a career writer. I, quite frankly, have only a superficial understanding of the one-book writer. I’ve acquired that understanding by having friends who are one-book writers, being acquainted with a lot of other one-book writers, and watching a lot of one-book writers vanish after a few years inside publishing.
Almost all of the business advice for writers on the web is from the perspective of the one-book writer. Most agents write their blogs to the one-book writer—because the bulk of the writers that modern agents work with are one-book writers. Publishers and editors give advice in conferences to the one-book writer for three reasons.
First, most of the attendees at conferences are either wannabe writers or one-book writers. The career writers generally attend only if they are speakers and they get paid for their attendance. Most career writers don’t have time to attend conferences, any more than those of you with day jobs have the time to attend more than one or two events a year. And since most conferences are geared toward the one-book writer, career writers get little out of a conference. In the past, career writers could meet up with editors and sell book proposals at the conference. Those days are gone, which is why career writers rarely attend.
Second, most writers seeking advice are beginners.
Third, most of the writers that editors and publishers deal with in their careers are one-book (or two- or three-book) writers. These writers have a career trajectory, believe it or not. They get one or two or three book contracts. The one-book writer never leaves their day job. Their books rarely rise above the midlist, so the writer has no opportunity to make a living without a lot of sacrifice. Those writers don’t make the sacrifice, and aren’t nimble enough to survive the difficulties that they will inevitably face. When those difficulties arise, the one-book writers stop publishing novels and maybe stop publishing altogether.
Ironically, the one-book writers who no longer publish still go to conferences. There, they can impress the unpublished with their publications, and they can give advice in how to be one-book writers. So, once again, you’ll get the one-book writer advice.
Most career writers don’t talk about the career in public. We write daily. We put in a lot of time. We write a lot of words. We publish under pen names and/or in a variety of seemingly unrelated genres. If you look at our bibliography—if we’re courageous enough (or organized enough) to have a full-length bibliography—you’ll see everything from short story and poetry sales to articles to essays to novels to nonfiction books to comic books to the occasional movie script and more.
I’ve been writing professionally since I was sixteen, getting my start in newspapers, then supplementing the cost of my own college education by writing for local magazines, and once I graduated, writing for business journals. None of that nonfiction work is in my bibliography. None of my radio work—I co-wrote entire newscasts for seven years—is in my bibliography. Nor are the radio plays I wrote and the educational writing that I did for the Annenberg Foundation (under a different name).
I’m not unique in this. Career writers gain experience by doing a lot of different writing, sometimes under salary, sometimes freelance. Eventually, the career writer finds her niche and tries to settle there, unless or until something goes wrong with that niche and then the career writer finds a new one.
The reason I write a business blog for writers is that business, not craft, destroys a writer’s career. Bad business decision after bad business decision after bad business decision can force a career writer to take a day job or change her name or to write things she knows she’ll get paid for (not things she enjoys) just to pay back debt.
Bad contracts, especially contracts being offered these days by traditional houses, can limit a career writer’s choices on how she can pursue her livelihood. If she gets (and takes) bad advice on signing those contracts, she might be unable to publish enough to make her bills.
These are the things career writers face, and the decisions a career writer must make.
What the one-book writer doesn’t understand, and what career writers often forget, is that we have an advantage in this profession. Our work makes us money years after we complete the work. My very first novel, sold in 1989, still earns me money. It’s in print in English, and has had many foreign editions. (I hope it’ll have many more down the road.) In theory, that novel could be licensed for a wide variety of gaming rights or comic book rights or even a television series. That those things haven’t happened yet for that novel means nothing. It could happen, if I hang onto the rights.
The one-book writer doesn’t really care about such things. Oh, sure, he’d like a movie made from his book and he’d like to sell overseas, but the important thing is to get that book into print. If the publisher ends up owning the movie rights, that’s okay, because the one-book writer’s book might get made into a movie.
The only time the one-book writer will get upset is if the book does get made into a movie and if the movie gets released and if the movie is a hit. Then the one-book writer will realize that the contract he signed will make everyone else money, and he will get bragging rights only. Because he’s only a one-book writer, he won’t even get the halo effect on his next novel.
But let’s be honest here: the chances of a one-book writer’s book getting made into a successful movie are between slim and none. Yes, it happens about once every five years or so, to a single one-book writer out of the tens of thousands of one-book writers who get books published every year. But most one-book writers never realized that that “great deal” they got is a great deal for the publisher, not for the one-book writer. Because most one-book writers never have big successes.
Still, for the one-book writer, just being published by a traditional publisher is a success. That book with his name on the cover, in bookstores (however briefly) and maybe available online for years to come, is the culmination of a long-term dream.
The one-book writers who kinda thought they could have a career and/or who thought their brilliant first novel never got the recognition it deserved become bitter. They’ll often go to writers conferences or blog about the fact that it’s “impossible” to make money as a writer. Or they’ll become champions of the no-money school of traditional publishing. It’s better to be published and validated, they say, than it is to demean yourself by making money at your art.
Career writers know differently. Career writers know that with careful tending of the business side of the career—and by being prolific—they can make money writing. They don’t just make money, they make a good middle class (or above) living at writing, year after year after year.
Yes, the job is non-traditional. Yes, sometimes they scramble to find work. But they know how to do that, and they become very, very good at it.
So, let me give you some bullet points to illustrate the difference between business decisions made by one-book writers and those made by career writers. Even though I’ll put numbers on these, they’re in no particular order.
1. Craft. Both types of writers do the best they possibly can on their work. Both do what they can to improve their craft. But…
•One-book writers often wait for the muse and/or spend years revising their single manuscript.
• Career writers are prolific. They have to be or they don’t make a living.
2. Reputation. Both types of writer want a good reputation, but they each think of it differently.
•One-book writers want their book to get good reviews, win awards, maybe sell well. They want recognition for their book.
•Career writers want readers who will buy the next book. They want editors to contact them for a story/article. They want recognition for their writing work. Not awards (although those are nice), but sales, repeat sales, from readers who love their work.
3. Book sales (part one). Both types of writer want to sell a book. But they go about it differently.
•One-book writers can play that silly game of going into an agent’s slush pile, hoping that the agent will eventually read the book and “take it on,” and maybe market it to a book editor. Eventually, the one-book writer believes he will get published, and he has the time to wait for the “right” publisher who will “nurture” his work.
•Career writers know that an agent must help with the career, selling many books per year or selling subsidiary rights, bringing other paying work to the table. If an agent brings nothing to the table except “expertise,” then the career writer gets rid of that agent.
Right now, in the current marketplace, very few agents bring anything to the table for a career writer. A career writer can hire a literary lawyer to negotiate a contract, and can handle everything else herself. This is why so many agents are scrambling to find a new niche in the marketplace.
Yeah, one-book writers still go to agents and some career writers are hanging on, but more and more, career writers are ditching their agents because the agents cannot add long-term value for their 15%—and they know it.
4. Book sales (part two). I almost wrote that both types of writers want to sell a book, but that’s not accurate. Both types of writers want to sell books isn’t accurate either. Then I tried both types of writers want to get published, but again, things have changed enough that even that statement is a bit suspect. Let’s just dive in, shall we?
•One-book writers, along with already-established big bestsellers, are most likely to know nothing about indie publishing. The already-established big bestsellers are doing very well in their careers and have no need to look at other ways to continue to publish.
One-book writers don’t see indie publishing as legitimate. Indie publishing won’t help their reputations (see above), at least in their opinions.
Plus, one-book writers are the ones who are most likely to say, both in person and online, that they just want to write.
To be an indie published writer, a writer needs to understand business. Granted, some one-book writers are going to try to self-publish their one book, but that will (guaranteed) end in disaster. So either the one-book writer will give up right there or the one-book writer will return to his traditional publishing dream.
In that dream, the one-book writer will do whatever it takes to get that book published—except learn the business. The one-book writer believes that the business doesn’t apply to them, and they might be right. If they just want a published book and some validation, does it matter how they get it? To many of them, it does not.
So, to recap, a one-book writer wants to publish at least one book from a reputable traditional publisher, with national bookstore distribution. The one-book writer wants what he considers to be the trappings of success—book signings, lecture tours, and seeing the book in brick-and-mortar bookstores.
•Career Writers want to sell books. Thousands if not hundreds of thousands if not millions of copies. And not all of the same book, although that would be nice. Career writers think of selling books in two ways: first, the book must sell to a publisher (and/or be indie published); and second, the book must sell to readers.
Career writers know that books must get to readers to make an impact. All career book writers have had books that have never received proper distribution from traditional publishers. In other words, even though the book was traditionally published, it never made its way to bookstores, and therefore no readers found the book.
Without readers, there are no sales. Without sales, there are no careers.
This one factor is why so many midlist writers are embracing indie publishing. The midlist writers now know that their books [plural] will get to the readers [also plural] who want them.
5. Contracts. Both types of writers will end up signing contracts.
•One-book writers really don’t care what’s in the contract past the amount for the advance and the due dates. The one-book writer will look at the contract, but trust his agent (and/or lawyer if he’s savvy enough to hire one) to take care of the “bad” provisions.
The one-book writer will rarely ask someone to explain what the terms mean, and will often see contract terms as promises. Let me give you an example of what I mean. If a contract states that the royalty rate for paper copies of the book is 6% for the first 50,000 paper copies, 8% for the next 100,000 paper copies, and 10% for anything above that, the one-book writer will believe that the clause is a promise that his book will ship 150,000 paper copies minimum.
Actually the 6/8/10 provision exists in the unlikely event that a book sells better than expected in paper. Most midlist novels in today’s market (especially in paperback) rarely sell above 30,000 paper copies.
•Career writers understand that their career rests entirely on their contracts. Career writers know that a bad contract is the difference between getting an advance against royalties and actually making royalties over and above that advance.
Modern traditional contracts will also have things like non-compete clauses, which are death to the career writer. The one-book writer can wait three years between books. Most career writers can’t wait three months.
Career writers also know that being able to get out of a contract is as important if not more important than getting into one. It’s better to leave a publisher who doesn’t care about a book and/or writer than it is to stick with that publisher.
Career writers are savvy business people who will, at some point in their career, walk away from book deals because the contract is heinous, threaten to sue to get out of a contract, buy back a contract, and write a toss-off book to complete a contract. All career writers negotiate their contracts either on their own, through an agent, or through a lawyer.
Career writers learn to understand publishing contracts because failing to do so will kill a career faster than a bad book. In fact, one reader’s bad book is another’s favorite book. Bad books don’t kill careers. Bad business does.
6. Copyright. Both writers license copyrights. Only one type of writer understands what that really means.
•One-book writers skim over the part of the contract that deals with licensing a copyright. The one-book writer has sold a book! Yay! It doesn’t matter that the traditional publisher will not pay an advance, and yet wants to publish the books in all languages and all formats.
By the way, too many one-book writers got caught in contracts like this in the past. Then called “all-rights” contracts, the one-book writers who got caught whined at conferences, and even beginners realized they shouldn’t sign those contracts with the phrase “all rights” in it.
Now, though, traditional companies—the Big 5—all have all-rights contracts without using the phrase “all-rights.” They are ebook only contracts (with the promise of a paper edition), at 50% of net, in all languages, and the right to license the book to everything from movies to games to audiobooks and more.
I’ve seen several contracts like that this summer from all of the Big 5 publishers, and every person who contacted me about those contracts ended up signing them. Which, honestly, makes my stomach turn.
But if you only want to be a published writer, then I guess it’s okay to sell every copyright in that book for 50% of net, with net being undefined. You’ll never see a dime—or if you do, you’ll only see a tiny fraction of what everyone else makes from that book, but you will have a “legitimate” traditionally published book with your name on it, vetted by a “real” editor.
Sorry to engage in a mini-rant, but this pisses me off. The writer really doesn’t have to be screwed here, and the publisher is really taking advantage of someone’s dreams. I get it. Being published is a bucket-list thing. But does that mean a writer should volunteer to be hurt just to achieve a goal?
Unfortunately, because there will always be one-book writers, there will always be a version of the all-rights contract, and there will always be someone desperate enough to sign it.
Will an agent or lawyer protect the writer? No. Because no one can improve a contract based on no-advance and 50% of net in all languages. The basis of the book deal is flawed. Book deals work like this: a writer agrees to the outline of the deal before seeing the contract. So, the writer has already agreed to the worst terms of the deal before the contract crosses his deak.
The writer wants his one book published, and he will have that, no matter what. So many agents and lawyers will explain the problems, and most one-book writers will never listen to what could go wrong.
•Career writers understand copyright. Period. They want to license as little of their copyright as possible in each property. They know that a book deal is a negotiation, but if the publisher gets all of the benefit of the copyright license, then the career writer will avoid that publisher or walk away from the deal.
No long-established career writer would ever sign a contract like the one listed above. The career writer understands that a contract like that will earn no money, no matter how many books get sold. A career writer needs to make a living, remember, and contracts like that make earning a living impossible.
Copyright is a difficult subject to master and it is ever-changing. If you’re longing to be a career writer or if you know you don’t know enough about copyright, buy a copy of Nolo Press’s The Copyright Handbook, and read through it slowly. Make understanding copyright something you do on a daily basis. If you see a weird copyright notice, figure out why it exists.
If you don’t understand why I say we license copyright instead of selling it, then you should buy the book. I could go on, but I won’t.
Okay…I’m done with my bullet points. I touched on only a few things about the differences in approach between a one-book writer and a career writer. They are very, very different animals.
Almost every decision you make as a writer will force you to choose between career and that getting-one-thing published daydream. It’s up to you to decide if you want a career or not.
But realize, when I’m talking about decisions in this blog, I do so from the point of view of someone who has had a thirty-year career and is hoping for at least thirty years more.
A writing career is not a sprint. It’s not a marathon. It’s not even an ultra marathon. It’s a way of life.
And that is the biggest difference of all.
One other realization I had last week was the number of words I write on this blog every year. The fact that I lose two novels to write this weekly column means that I need to earn two novel advances over the course of a year to make up for that. (Technically, thinking in modern career terms, I should earn more, but I’m going to leave my financial expectations at something reasonable, since I also get a lot of intangibles out of this blog.) I don’t need to make much per week, because the money adds up over time, but I do need to make a little something.
So, if you learned anything or got anything out of a past blog, please leave a tip on the way out.
“The Business Rusch: “A Career Versus Publication” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.