Business Musings: Choices
I’ve been watching the reactions to John Scalzi’s 3.4 million dollar book deal with great interest. If you’re not familiar with this particular news story, it might be because you have a life, and because you were doing something with your family on Memorial Day weekend instead of watching the publishing trades.
But this one even made The New York Times in the media section. So, chances are, you’ve heard of this.
For those of you who haven’t, science fiction writer John Scalzi sold 13 books to Tor Books for $3.4 million in a deal that will span ten years. As John said on his blog, whenever you mention the word “millions,” people pay attention. And he’s received a lot of attention in the past few days.
What I find fascinating is the amount of negativity that John’s getting from the indie publishing community. Some of it is vitriolic, and I’m not going to link to that. But some of it is sheer befuddlement that goes along the lines of “If John would just indie-publish, he’d make so much more money.”
The link I can provide because it has little or no vitriol, at least on Tuesday night, as I write this, is from The Passive Voice blog. Even Passive Guy himself weighed in, doing a good analysis of the earnings over the years—not including the auxiliary rights that John still holds, and which are probably selling like crazy right now considering 1) this week is Book Expo and John is there; and 2) he’s getting a lot of good press, which always heats up subsidiary sales; and 3) he’s a guaranteed traditional publishing earner with a fan following.
I love this deal of John’s. It benefits a good writer and it shows how this new world is working. He clearly used much of what he’s learned about the publishing business to ask for (and receive) good contract terms that many established writers usually don’t ask for. He has what he believes to be a fair deal, and from what I’m seeing in the reports and from John himself, he’s right.
I just did a traditional publishing deal myself—not for anywhere near $3.4 million, mind you—but because I evaluated what I wanted and decided that a traditional publisher would be best. It’s the women in science fiction reprint anthology that I mentioned on Tuesday. I went to Toni Weisskopf at Baen without approaching any other publisher, because Baen has a large and passionate science fiction following.
I wanted the book to be a reader’s book, not an intellectual book, one that will introduce modern readers to writers they might never have heard of. I could have done this through WMG Publishing or approached some of the other publishing houses, but I didn’t want to.
Fortunately, Toni thought the project worthwhile, and I have to say, Baen has given me tremendous support already, and the book’s not even compiled yet.
It’s a great experience, and I’m happy to be in their stable for this particular project. It makes me inclined to join them for other projects down the road.
What I love about the changes in publishing is this: we have choices now. We writers don’t have to go to traditional publishing for everything. John Scalzi wanted a partner on his books. He says in a post he calls “View From A Hotel Window 5/26/15 + Thoughts On The Deal Money,”
That’s the deal I wanted, and that Tor wanted too. That’s the deal we made.
(This is why, incidentally, the comments of “Scalzi should do/should have done [x]” mostly fill me with amusement. You do [x], my friend, and I wish all the success in the world to you as you do it. But if I’m not doing [x], there’s probably a good reason for it, in terms of what I want for my own career. You do you; I’m gonna do me.)
Yeah, exactly. John knew what he wanted, why he wanted it, and what’s best for his career. His career. He knew he had choices. He knows about indie publishing. He knows a lot of writers are earning a great deal of money doing it. But he also knows it takes a different kind of work than he wants to do right now.
He signed a deal that allows him to indie publish other works if he wants to. He’s not tethered to Tor.
He made a great choice for him. It might not be the choice all those other indie writers are saying he should have made. It might not be the choice I would have made in the same circumstance.
Because, as we say at our workshops, he’s responsible for his own career. He is. Not me. Not you.
Just like I’m responsible for mine. The good, the bad, the ups, the downs, the successes and the failures. When I complain about some book deals I’ve had, I am fully aware of the fact that I’m the one who signed those contracts. When I look at some of the early covers for the indie published books, I know that I approved them.
This is the first time in my entire career that writers can choose how they want to be published. They can choose to partner with a traditional publisher to get their work out through established channels. Writers can do a paper-only deal. Writers can only do foreign deals. Or writers can go 100% indie.
I prefer to be hybrid. I like selling my short fiction to other markets, and I’m already enjoying the hell out of collaborating on this new editing project. Freedom of choice! What a concept.
So saying that John Scalzi should or shouldn’t have taken that deal is irrelevant. The great thing about John is that he’s one smart businessman, and he knows himself. He made the best choice for him.
My objection to some writers’ choices, on this blog and in other places, is that often writers blunder down the traditional publishing path because the writers haven’t thought of any other alternatives. And those writers usually don’t have any business sense at all. They’re so desperate to be published (“legitimately published,” whatever that means) that they sign whatever’s put in front of them.
But just because there are ignorant fools careening toward traditional publishing does not mean that all writers who are traditionally published are ignorant fools. There are many, many writers who’ve examined all of their options and decided to go traditional. It might mean leaving some money on the table. It might mean giving up autonomy in exchange for traditional publishing support.
If that’s what the writer wants, then wonderful.
But let’s not assume that a traditional publishing career and an indie publishing career are across-the-board equal. For example, John’s high-earning backlist is still in print, which means he can’t get the rights back if he wanted to indie publish those books.
My science fiction backlist, on the other hand, was mostly out of print when the ebook revolution hit. I had different choices. I started making backlist money out of the box when the books were reissued.
John wouldn’t have that option at all if he went indie with his next ten books. He’d be earning based on one or two books (indie) and still earning his backlist money through Tor.
If I were only known as Kristine Grayson, I’d have the same issue. Most of my Grayson paranormal romance books are still in print from their traditional publisher. Much of my backlist earnings on that pen name comes from that publisher.
Had I only been Kristine Grayson, I wouldn’t have made nearly as much money from indie publishing in the early years as I did. Kristine Grayson has a very different career from Kristine Kathryn Rusch who has a very different career from John Scalzi.
We make choices based on who we are and what our other books are doing. We make the choices for us.
And what’s cool, now, is that we can. We can be all indie. We can be hybrid. We can be all traditional.
We can make our own choices. That’s what’s new about the current status of the publishing industry.
When someone else makes an educated choice about his own career—something that you would never have done—remember, that’s his choice. He weighed the options and decided. Rather than excoriate someone for making a choice you would never have made, celebrate the freedom that we all have. And respect the decision.
You aren’t privy to the intricacies of John Scalzi’s career, even though he blogs a lot about it. You aren’t privy to the intricacies of mine. Or that of any other writer.
You know your career. It’s valid to say you would not have made the same choice in the same situation as John or me or some other writer. But when the rest of us make an educated choice, it is not valid to say that we should have done something else. Trust that we’re making the best decisions for ourselves and our careers, based on what we need.
Or as John said so very well: You do you; I’m gonna do me.
After a six-month hiatus, I’ve chosen to return to blogging because I enjoy it. I love having this option. I like sharing on blogs more than I ever thought I would. And I love discussing the state of the industry.
If you find anything of value on this blog, please share it or tell your friends about it. And if you feel so inclined, please leave a tip on the way out.
“Business Musings: Choices,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.