Business Musings: Poor Poor Pitiful Me Is Not A Business Model
Last week, I wrote a blog about the Authors Guild letter of 2016. I explored a number of things about the letter, but avoided the one thing that annoys me the most.
The letter’s tone.
It begs. It whines. It pleads.
Don’t believe me? Read it.
For those of you too lazy to click on the link, here are three examples of what I mean from the letter itself:
•It is time for publishers to give authors the respect, compensation and fair play they deserve.
•And authors should be able to get a fair shake even if they don’t have powerful agents or lawyers…Why not do the right thing by all authors and eliminate those provisions for everyone?
•Without serious contract reform, the professional author will become an endangered species and publishers—as well as society at large—will be left with less and less quality content. Publishers need to treat their authors equitably so they can keep writing the kinds of books that have enabled the publishing industry to achieve the financial and cultural status it enjoys today.
Note the repetition of the word “fair” and “equitable.” Yeah, all well and good, folks. But the Authors Guild is writing a letter to large corporations begging those corporations to give up profit and advantage because it’s “the right thing” to do.
How nice, and sweet, and naïve of these people. In a perfect world, maybe, some Powerful Publisher will grant its Poor Little Writers a few more crumbs from the Big Kids table.
But a friend of mine, who started and ran a multimillion-dollar business (not publishing) for decades, has a saying. Whenever he hears or sees something like this, he gets an impish little grin, and says, “Fair is in August.”
For those of you outside of the United States, he’s referring to county and state fairs that show up every summer, with carnival rides and cotton candy and all sorts of circus-like entertainment.
In other words, the only place that “fair” exists in the world of business is the business of carnivals—hence, fair is in August.
The tone of the Authors Guild letter reminds me of children begging their parents for one more piece of candy, one more movie, one more toy from the toy store. “It’s not fair!” the child whines. “Suzy gets one! Why can’t all the kids have the same toys?”
It’s not fair. Nothing in life is fair.
And no large for-profit business, which is answerable to shareholders, is ever going to lose a profitable advantage because it’s somehow fair.
Here’s the truth of publishing, folks. Those terms the Authors Guild is fighting for, the thing they want all authors to have? Some authors already get them. It’s not that the industry refuses to grant the terms to all authors. It’s that the industry gives those who have some kind of clout in a negotiation more respect—and better terms—than someone who rolls over and whines.
That clout doesn’t have to be multimillion dollar book sales. That clout might simply be backbone. From my early days as a beginning writer, I asked for good contract terms. And because I asked, I often got them. It wasn’t like the publishers refused everyone, but they certainly aren’t going to give good terms to someone who is too dumb to ask for them.
What the Authors Guild has done here is pleading, whining and begging. They aren’t exercising clout. They have no clout here. They even acknowledge it. They write:
•When negotiating with known agents, publishers often start from previously negotiated contracts that remove many of the most draconian provisions handed to unagented authors.
That sentence, by the way, shows the Guild’s agent bias. Because a lot of us have received better contract terms without an agent than any contract we had negotiated by agents.
The Guild undercuts its entire argument by saying that some writers get better terms than others. Or rather, the Guild shows in its letter that the publishing industry is already doing some of what the Guild asks.
The Guild asked that the publishing industry “give authors the respect, compensation and fair play they deserve.”
The publishing industry gives the writers who make the industry a great deal of money respect, compensation, and in some cases (see James Patterson) fair play. These 3 things are not unreasonably withheld from big name or star writers. They are often withheld from middle-of-the-road bestsellers and others because those writers refuse to use the clout that they have.
Granted, in the recent past, the major publishing companies were the only game in town. But they are no longer the only game in town. A major bestselling writer can—and should—walk from any deal that does not meet her contractual and business needs.
Hell, every writer should do that.
But of course most writers won’t. Instead, an entire group of them beg for scraps from the Big All-Powerful Evil Publishers, proving to the publishers that writers are idiots and publishers hold all the cards.
I already bludgeoned the Authors Guild letter last week, so why am I going back to the same trough? Because this poor-poor-pitiful-me attitude has become the norm in the publishing industry right now, and I’m really tired of it.
The big battles of 2014 and 2015, from all of the fighting over the meaning of Amazon in the past few years to the in-genre squabbling over the Hugo awards that science fiction indulged in last year to the hue and cry indie writers have treated us to over the various changes in Kindle Unlimited since its inauguration have all had the same basic complaint.
Someone—be it a publisher (that Amazon is Evil argument) or a writer (the rest of it)—believes they’re entitled to something, and when they don’t get that something, they complain loudly, on social media or in traditional media or via group letter or through (in sf’s case) hateful spiteful posts about the opposing parties.
Only a handful of people take responsibility for the situation they’re in—if, indeed, they are responsible. Only a few actually analyze why the situation exists.
And even fewer take positive steps, effective, business steps to resolve whatever problem has them upset.
The screaming, the whining, the crying serves no real purpose. For some reason, these entitled people also believe they are victims. Some people actually are victims of a bad situation (see people of color and the treatment they got from the publishing industry), but many people are simply victims of their own ineptitude.
Poor Poor Pitiful Me is not a business model—or rather, it’s not a successful one.
I’ve run a lot of businesses, and I’ve managed others. Generally speaking, the whiners are people who don’t do the work. They’re the ones who think they should be rewarded for showing up and warming their desk chair.
The people who do the work identify problems and find realistic solutions.
What the Authors Guild wants is pure fantasy. They want international conglomerates to give up their profit margins and the ownership they’ve contracted for in creative works because it’s “the right thing” to do.
Maybe a small business owner with a heart of gold might consider better contract terms from the outset. Dean and I did when we started Pulphouse and that’s one reason the business collapsed: our contracts were so writer friendly our business owned nothing. So when it came time to sell the business, we had nothing to sell.
We’ve never made that mistake again. We try to be writer friendly, but when we do anthologies and other projects, we protect ourselves first now, something we hadn’t done in the past.
Writers fail to look at things from a business perspective because they’re “artists” who got into writing so they wouldn’t have to soil their hands with something as dirty as learning math and copyright and tax law. The writers all want “people” for that. And then complain when the “people” they hire take advantage of them.
Problem: Your publishing contract with a Big Five Publisher has all those horrid clauses in it that the Authors Guild is complaining about. (I guarantee that your contract has even more bad clauses than that, and some of them were inserted by your agent).
Truth: You signed that contract. You had a chance to negotiate it. If the publisher refused, you could walk away. But your agent advised you to sign? Did he sign on the dotted line? And what kind of agreement do you have with him? Did a lawyer vet that contract? Did you understand what you signed? Did you ask for changes in those clauses?
Then learn from it, and never do it again. Educate other writers about it—that’s what I’ve done—and learn how to walk away from a bad deal.
Problem: Amazon is taking over the world.
Truth: Right now, Amazon is the big Kahuna in the retail side of the publishing industry. It has clout and it is using that clout to great advantage. Twenty years ago, Barnes and Noble was the Big Kahuna in the retail side of the publishing industry. It had clout and it used that clout to great advantage.
Secondary Truth: Amazon wants to be the Big Kahuna of retailing—not just in publishing, but in everything like, y’know, Walmart. And that’ll happen for a while. But take a look at business history. The big companies have a heyday. Think U.S. Steel. Think IBM. Think Microsoft.
Be patient. This too will pass.
Learn how to use Amazon to your advantage, but for godssake, understand that their dominance will last a decade or two, if that. Plan accordingly.
I could go on, and on, and on.
The first thing you writers should do when someone whines about some kind of problem in the publishing industry is to see if that whine has a basis in fact. I got pissed in the last two years when people kept repeating the myth that women cannot succeed in science fiction. I researched it, found out where the myth came from, why the damn thing won’t go away despite facts to the contrary, and am doing something about it.
Because it matters to me.
I could have sat on the sidelines and whine about the lack of respect my fellow writers have accorded me and the other female writers of sf. But I chose to do something. See this website. Look for the upcoming anthology—from a traditional publisher (Baen) run by a woman (Toni Weisskopf).
And I will continue to do something—not just for women, but for the history of the field, which, I learned as I dug into the women in sf thing, is getting lost.
I care, so I’m making some proactive change.
If you care that writers sign bad contracts, then by all means, discuss the bad contract terms. Educate your fellow writers. Learn how to get better terms. Learn how to negotiate.
Make changes. Make choices.
And learn business.
People who succeed in business know that business is inherently unfair. People who succeed in business don’t whine about fairness. If people who succeed in business discover something is unfair, they figure out how—within the context of the business relationship—to make things more equitable.
Sometimes that’s a really easy fix.
And sometimes it requires a cultural shift.
Cultural shifts take time and a lot of heavy lifting. A lot of effort. A lot of conscious thought.
Which is why I said last week that I’m happy the Authors Guild letter started a conversation. It will get a few people asking the right questions.
Unfortunately, it won’t get everyone else to stop whining and expecting the people who benefit from the system to be magnanimous.
That’s not human nature, folks. If you want to change the system, illuminate the problems, make rational suggestions for change, then you act accordingly.
The first thing you do is reclaim your own power. (Or, if you never recognized your power, claim your own power.) Yes, you, you poor poor pitiful writer. You want to be traditionally published, which means you’ll be negotiating with a representative of an international conglomerate who has more lawyers in their hip pocket than you’ve seen in your life.
Don’t hire a damn agent (who might also reside in that publisher’s hip pocket). Most agents don’t have law degrees and don’t understand contracts any better than you do. Don’t negotiate with publishers with an English major at your side.
Hire an intellectual property attorney. Learn what you’re licensing (copyright, dammit). Understand how contracts work.
Yes, poor poor pitiful writer. That’s hard. That takes time away from your art. That requires you to actually educate yourself and be responsible for your own actions.
That means you might make a mistake or two and sign a bad contract.
Once you’ve learned what you did wrong, don’t do it again.
Every time you hear yourself whining, stop and step back. Remember that whining is not a business model.
Figure out if the solution is easy or hard.
Easy might simply mean that you have to stand up for yourself.
Hard might mean that what you want isn’t possible the way the industry stands now. The question then becomes do you fight to change the industry or do something different?
Indie publishing has made it possible to step out of the traditional system and be creative without all the strictures that traditional demands. The new world of publishing is freeing, but hard in its own way.
The new world of publishing is as brutal as any capitalistic system is. The people who succeed are those who keep fighting, not those who sit around whining. Yeah, the fight might take years.
If the fight is worthwhile, then do it.
And yeah, it’s okay to whine. In the confines of your own house, to your closest friends, but not on social media.
But when you step into the business arena, do so with confidence. Stand strong. Believe in yourself and all you can do.
If that sounds like it’s impossible, then maybe this business isn’t for you.
Truth: Writers own small businesses.
Being a small business owner is hard. Not everyone is cut out for it.
And if you don’t like that fact, then go into another profession. Preferably one that provides a salary and a tolerance for chair-warmers.
If you are willing to learn, willing to stand up for yourself, and willing to try to figure out the perspective of the other people in the same business, then maybe you have a shot.
And…if this blog post pissed you off, you might want to take a step back and ask yourself why it did.
Because here’s the last truth of the evening:
Whining is easy. Working is hard.
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“Business Musings: Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” copyright © 2016 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2016 by Canstock Photo/Yayayoyo.
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