Business Musings: The Crappy Parts of the Job
Every job has a crappy side. Every single one. Sometimes one person’s crappy part of the job is another person’s great part. I loved editing when I worked in radio, especially trimming and rearranging material so that it fit into a sound piece. I rediscovered that love last month as I did some audio work for WMG. I’m sure I’ll be doing more of it.
But most of the radio folks I worked with hated the technical side of broadcasting. These folks wanted to be on the air, talking or playing music or interviewing someone. I wanted to make sure everything sounded right. It worked out.
As I developed into a professional writer, I realized that writing had crap work associated with it as well. I wrote my first short stories and articles on typewriters, and knew I could never write a novel because I would have to retype everything into clean copy. I didn’t have the attention span for that—and at the time, I couldn’t afford to hire a typist.
It took the advent of the personal computer (yes, I’m old) to enable me to write novels. I didn’t have to type and retype. I could resave the file and monkey to my heart’s content.
The crap work for me came in several areas that weren’t putting words on paper. The first was filing. I developed a system for computerized filing and using my calendar to keep track—concurrent filing, if you will—so that I knew where to find important information at the touch of a finger.
But filing old paper manuscripts, letters, and contracts—well, I used the Andy Warhol method of filing. Warhol put everything in boxes, including a daily box of ephemera that either he or his heirs now call “time capsules.” That’s a polite way of labeling those boxes. I remember reading an article published shortly after his death in which one of the heirs estimated that Warhol had left 8,000 cubic feet of material behind.
Um, okay. I won’t leave that much. But there are boxes. Occasionally I hire someone to file the actual paper for me. Because I’ll never get to it. I’ve proven that over the past thirty-five years.
I had to do other parts of the writing job over the years. When I made my living writing nonfiction, I had to write query letters to get work. I hated writing query letters with a deep and passionate intensity but, because of my radio news training, I was very, very, very good at writing them. I could boil down an article idea into a pithy and fascinating letter in about fifteen minutes.
Then I had to write up those letters, send them to the right editors, along with a self-addressed stamped envelope, and hope someone would hire me to get the work done. Often, I got so much work from those letters that I would remain busy for an entire quarter of a year or more.
As a result, I only had to send out query letters once a month. I designated a query writing day, and I powered those things out. I once sold an essay to a local weekly newspaper about trudging to the post office with my query letters after a blizzard made it impossible to drive. (My editor back then? The now well known comic creator, Mike Baron, in the days when he was trying to break into comics. Did I know what he did at the time? No, I didn’t.)
As time went on, and I left nonfiction writing, I still had to do a lot of mailing work. I would mail short story manuscripts to short fiction magazines. I’d have to set aside a once-per-week mailing day because I had made it a game to get it done. I never wanted a returned manuscript to sit on my desk for longer than a week.
I no longer need mailing days, even though I still sell short fiction regularly. Now I turn a rejected manuscript (yes, I get rejected all the dang time) around in about fifteen minutes. I hear from the editor who didn’t feel the love, and I send the manuscript off electronically to the next editor on my list. Easy-peasy. Again, nothing sits on my virtual desk very long.
As my fiction writing career blossomed, another crap-ass job showed itself, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get around it.
I had to write proposals for novels I wanted to sell. It didn’t matter if the editors had read the entire finished manuscript. They still wanted a proposal, so they had something to present to the sales force.
Look, I’ve worked in publishing for thirty years now, and I’ve done every job related to writing/editing/management possible (except acting as agent), so I understand why it’s best for the writer to do a book proposal, even on a finished book. Editors can write up the salient points of the book, but generally, the editor read the book weeks or months before, and can’t remember much. And, if the majority of editors could write well, they’d be writers, not editors. Very few editors I worked with could write excellent sales copy. And the editors who did generally came from the sales force, not from prestigious university with a newly minted English degree.
I hate writing proposals. I hate it with a burning passion. I just sold a project on proposal earlier this year, and I tried mightily to avoid the writing of that proposal. I verbally pitched the project and got a verbal acceptance. I still had to write the proposal. I’ve had that happen a hundred times in my career, and every single time, I’ve had to write a back-up proposal.
Every single time.
I’d rather be writing fresh stuff or finishing the proposed manuscript or digging my eyes out of my head with a spoon. Okay, never mind that last. I’d probably write a proposal before I’d dig my eyes out with a spoon.
Last week, I mentioned that I’d had a bunch of realizations about the way the writing profession has changed since the advent of indie. I dealt with one of those ways in last week’s blog—the ability to rebrand everything as the need arose, rather than stick with old dated covers.
But I had a few other realizations as well, which I’ll be discussing over the next few weeks. And one of them was this:
I spent months of my writing life writing proposals. I find loose proposals in my virtual filing system all the time. I would write novel proposals like I used to write query letters for nonfiction: I’d write proposal after proposal for project after project hoping one of the proposals would stick.
For every project I sold, I probably wrote ten proposals that would ultimately have been rejected. I wanted to write all of these books, and most of the proposals are still in my computer, waiting for the moment when they rise to the top of my consciousness.
Those proposals I just mentioned don’t count the proposals I did for media tie-in books back in the day. I’d get hired to write a tie-in novel of some kind, and then have to write proposal after proposal until the representative of the licensor decided she liked one of the ideas. That didn’t always guarantee a successful project either. In early 2000, I wrote two entire novels for one licensor. The property was a mid-range television program with a control-freak show runner who wanted to approve everything. The idiot show runner knew but didn’t understand that my contract limited me to three revisions, after which I got to both keep my advance and leave the project.
I wrote the first novel based entirely on the proposal—and a good novel it was, too. The show runner read it, decided she hated the idea she had approved and brainstormed with me on the phone and in detailed e-mails. She demanded a different book with a kernel of the same idea.
I wrote the second book, and she did the same thing again. When it came time for the third “revision,” I told the New York editor who had initially commissioned the work that I would only write a detailed outline and if the show runner didn’t like it, too bad. The New York editor and I decided that the detailed outline would be the third revision.
I got paid. The New York editor went to her boss, explaining the problem. The contract with the licensor and the idiot show runner got canceled. The New York publisher lost money, but they wrote it off.
I was out time, and all the hair that I pulled from my skull, not to mention the holes in my tongue from biting it. (This, by the way, was why I never accepted screenwriting gigs that friends got for me in Hollywood; I hate all that writing for no real reason except to let some tinpot dictator feel like she can bounce the writer around like a puppet on a string.) I did make a lot of money on the deal—this was back when you could get paid anywhere from 20 to 40K for a tie-in novel for a TV show with a great fan base and mediocre ratings.
Still, that was the project that made me quit writing tie-ins. If I hadn’t, someone would be dead now, and it wouldn’t be me.
It wasn’t until last week when I actually calculated all the time I spent just writing proposals for projects that never happened. I probably spent six months of my writing life writing things that no one except a handful of editors (or idiot show runners) would ever see.
And that doesn’t count the time spent writing letters, tweaking the proposal so that someone in the sales force or higher up the licensing channel would “like it better.” Nor does it count the phone calls, the meetings, the bullshit business lunches in uber fancy restaurants, and the three full days I spent with the representative of a major licensor, hammering out a bible for a series of books that never ever happened.
I didn’t get paid for that one, because as the deal was being finalized, a writers organization used my name without my permission to lambast that licensor, and the deal (which had a finished contract but no signatures) vanished overnight. I became persona non grata with the company. And I wasn’t even a member of that writers organization. (sigh)
Anyway. All that writing. All that lost time. All those vanished projects.
I calculated the time spent on all of that after two writer friends who still work in traditional publishing were talking about the difficulty they were having getting novels approved in their own series. The editors weren’t responding, the agents were agitating for new and different proposals—or maybe even a new series that could be sold to someone else—and I listened, feeling fairly smug that I’m not doing such things any longer.
The conversation shifted from attempting to sell new projects traditionally to all the promotion a traditional publisher demands of its writers. These days, that promotion includes an active website, Twitter feed, Facebook page, Instagram, blog tours, and podcast interviews all over the web. Some traditionally published writers even send their own advance reading copies to bloggers that their publisher didn’t want to approach.
After that conversation, I went home to an afternoon filled with everything but writing. I was in the middle of repairing this website from the damage a ham-handed employee had done. I needed to write three newsletters that evening. I had write and schedule some blog and social media posts, and I had to write ad copy for projects I was editing as well as projects I had finished writing months ago.
An entire day, spent on promotion, something I try hard to avoid. Promotion, though, is necessary in 2015, as long as it’s not too intrusive. Casual readers and fans need to know when a new book comes out. Not the constant blaring of Buy This! Buy This! but the small notification of Hey! In case you were waiting, this book is now available.
As I thought of all that writing I wasn’t doing because of promoting my own projects, I had been feeling sorry for myself.
And then I flashed back on that conversation with friends who were trying to sell to a traditional publishing house and who weren’t getting anything back from that house. The house expected those writers to do what indie writers do, and get paid less for it.
My realization? Pretty simple, really.
I would rather write what I want to write, and spend one full day per month (in total time) promoting the current projects than write something that someone else has to approve and then lose weeks doing some promotion that I know is utterly worthless just to placate someone at my publisher.
The thing about trying to sell a project and then waiting for approval that I didn’t mention is this: Often I’d pitch something I completely loved, an idea I felt was the strongest I’d had in years, only to have that project approved six to twelve months later. By then I had moved on to other enthusiasms, and I wasn’t that interested in the approved project any more.
I’d still write it. I’d do my very best. But I would have rather written it when I was so excited about it that it was the only thing I could think about.
I’m currently writing a book that has been leaking out of my fingers all year. Now that I’m focused on it, I’m writing a thousand words every half hour, which is double my usual rate. I’m not even thinking about that as I write. And I’m at the beginning of the project, when my pace is usually the slowest.
But I had a secondary realization with this project. I couldn’t start it until I had a marketing plan for this book and the others in the series. For this book, a mystery, the marketing plan will not be release the books one right after each other. I have something else in mind entirely.
I’m not sharing the plan with anyone yet, in case the book goes in a direction I don’t expect. But I know I’m deeply invested in this new world of publishing now that I’m coming up with a book and the proper way to publish it, given all the options in this modern world.
I still say that writing the next book is the best promotion possible for the book you’ve just released. I was silently bitching to myself about all the new tasks I had to do when I released a book or a project—the newsletters, the websites, the tweets and announcements and approval of cover/ad copy.
I found my whiny self buying back into the wouldn’t it be nice to have someone else do all that for me like they used to do in traditional publishing myth. And then I had my wake-up call, courtesy of those traditionally published friends.
Not only would have I had to do all the newsletters, websites, tweets and announcements if I were traditionally published through New York, I would also have to write proposal after proposal until some project, not even the project I necessarily wanted to write next, was accepted.
Suddenly all this time I’d been spending redesigning websites and writing newsletters seemed pretty trivial. I had forgotten all the frustration of writing a proposal in my own series only to have my editor say that “it wasn’t right for the characters” or writing two entire novels that no one except some crazy low-level employee of some faceless licensor would ever read.
The new world of publishing has been around long enough that I’m beginning to forget what it was like in the old world. I’m taking parts of the new world for granted. And I’m bitching about that standard thing everyone who works bitches about—the crap-ass part of the job.
I’ll never love paper filing. That is truly the crappiest part of writing for me. (And I’ll never do it. I’ll either keep up my Andy Warhol ways or hire someone when I have a few dollars to waste on organization.)
But I actually do love coming up with new marketing schemes, and figuring out the best way to promote this new project or breathe life into that old project.
I know I’ll write other book proposals. Every now and then, some project needs to go to a company with a different outlook or a different reach than the companies I currently work with. I’ll bitch about those proposals, but I’ll do a good job.
I also know I’ll never write a novel for some licensor again. I also know I’ll write novels that won’t work and I’ll shelve halfway through until I figure out what I’m actually trying to do. The book I’m working on now is my sixth attempt at this project, and it finally feels like I’m getting it right.
Until this month, however, I hadn’t really realized how much time I’m saving by getting out of the proposal/approval grind of Big Traditional Publishers. I knew I was saving myself some headaches, many of which I’ve discussed on this blog in the past—headaches like being orphaned when you turn in a book or having book four of a seven-book series go out of print for no apparent reason (while all the other books stay in print).
But I hadn’t thought about the wasted energy in trying to sell books before they were written. I hadn’t done that math.
I have now. And yet again, it confirms what I’ve realized for a couple of years now.
This is the best time to be a writer. We have so many choices. We have so much freedom.
I sometimes feel like someone who spent her entire life living in a dark dank basement, allowed to go outside only on every third Sunday of every fifth month. Now I live in the sunshine, and I forget what it was like to leave the basement. Yeah, back then, it felt great to hit the fresh air after breathing mold-infested dampness day in and day out. But it feels better to have sunshine on your face each and every day—so much sunshine, in fact, that you begin to take it for granted.
Heh. Have I said how much I like this new world of publishing? Because I do.
This blog is part of the new world for me. I took a hiatus because I needed to. When I decided to come back, no one stood in front of me, arms crossed, informing me that a blog was so five years ago and they wouldn’t support it.
You readers support the blog with your tweets and shares and comments and the occasional donation. I appreciate all of it. I love the way your generosity feeds not only this blog, but so many other artists these days.
I’ll have more on that in the future as well.
Right now, though, I’m putting up the donate button. If you feel you’ve gotten anything from the blog in the past few weeks, please leave a tip on the way out.
“Business Musings: The Crappy Parts of the Job,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo Inc. / Garsya