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.
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“Business Musings: Choices,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
The first project to appear, though, is one I sold to Baen earlier this year. I’m doing a companion website with the volume, which you can find here. But rather than repeat myself, I’m going to append the introductory post right here, so you can see what I’m doing.
Women in Science Fiction (the name of the website) is the lofty and pretentious name I’m giving to a rather loose project that will extend over several volumes.
…I’m the former editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The first and only female editor of that magazine, by the way. I’ve worked as an editor off and on for years on other projects as well. In addition to this editing project, which I’ll explain below, I’m also editing a best-of mystery volume, Fiction River (both as occasional volume editor and series editor with Dean Wesley Smith), and several reprint anthologies coming up in late 2016. More on those later. I’ve won a Hugo award for my editing, been nominated for many other awards, and won a special World Fantasy award as well. I’ve also done a lot of ghost editing for others behind the scenes.
Why am I giving you my editing credentials? Because this website was born from an as-yet-unnamed editing project I’m doing for Baen Books. I pitched the book to Toni Weisskopf under this unwieldy title: Tough Mothers, Great Dames, and Warrior Princesses: Classic Stories by the Women of Science Fiction.
That title may stick. We’ll see.
My goals with the Tough Mothers anthology are complex. In short, I want to compile a volume of excellent science fiction stories by women, including some classics, that could have been published today. I don’t want this volume to look like something you have to read in a college literature class. I want it to be something you’ll grab off the shelf immediately, thinking you’re in for some marvelous reading—and I want that impression to be right. I want stories impossible to put down, stories with heart. They don’t have to be “by women about women” the way that the Women of Wonder volumes were. I want these stories to be by women, yes, but about anything. And I want them to be rip-roaring good reads.
The project came about because of a science fiction class I taught in 2013. I wanted my students to read some classic stories in sf before the class. I had no trouble finding endless reprints of favorite stories by men. But when it came to classic stories by women, most weren’t in major collections. Even the retrospectives of the best stories of the 20th Century only mentioned these stories; they weren’t reprinted in the volumes.
When I was a young writer, I read all of the Hugo-award nominated stories in collections compiled by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. Those volumes ceased with Isaac’s death in 1992. (The remaining volume in the contract was co-edited by Connie Willis. There were no more after that.)
The end of those volumes created a huge vacuum: So many of the classic stories that I loved from sf were published in the 1990s and never collected. Ever. The older Hugo volumes also went out of print, and that led to something I never thought I’d encounter—the perception that women had had no success in the science fiction field until the 21st Century.
In fact, when I went to Wikipedia as I was writing the proposal for this anthology I’m editing for Baen, I discovered the Women in Speculative Fiction listing only had a few female writers listed from the 20th Century, but several new writers from the late 2000s were prominently listed.
If anyone wants to use this site to update Wikipedia, I would appreciate it.
Why do I care? Two reasons, I guess. I want these stories to live and continue to be read. I don’t want them to be lost. I’m focusing on women in the Tough Mothers volume, but I’ll also be editing reprints of award-nominated stories starting in 2016, emulating the volumes that Isaac published over 20 years ago.
Classic (and future classic) stories by women and men shouldn’t get lost in dusty old magazines and broken web links. We need an easy way to find these stories. Anthologies will do that.
But I wanted to start with Tough Mothers and this website, since I’ve been told repeatedly by young female writers in the sf genre that women never did anything in sf until the year 2000 or so. Our history is being lost and, as someone with a B.A. in History, I find that offensive in the extreme.
This website isn’t meant as the be-all and end-all of women in science fiction. Most of the posts will be from me, noting the stories as I read them for this volume and, I hope, for future volumes. The website is, as I say in the tagline, an exploration. It’s my exploration of the history of part of the sf field.
I only have 100,000 words in Tough Mothers, which doesn’t even scratch the surface of what I’m trying to do, which is why I’m setting up this site. I want to call attention to great stories that I’ve read and pieces that I’m thinking about for the volume (and for future projects). I also needed a place where you readers can suggest your favorite stories, a place with a broader reach than my Facebook page, a place that isn’t my personal website. Go to the Suggestions page and leave a comment. Or mention something on one of the posts. I’ll see your ideas. I promise.
I hope that the site will outlive the original project and will continue as a home for other projects, which I can’t yet mention.
Right now, this site is new. It doesn’t have a lot of material yet. It will. Please be patient with me….
On the new website, I have a place for suggestions. I’ll be blogging about my journey of discovery and rediscovery of some classic old stories and some great new-to-me stories. I won’t clutter up this website with that information, so if you’re interested, join me over there. I’ll be updating often, as I read and work.
But Dr. Wyatt thinks he has good news. Ro knows better.
This news means choices that could change their future—choices Ro and Gil never wanted to make for their child.
“Good Genes,” by Hugo Award-winning author Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook on Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and from other online retailers.
When Alden was six weeks old, the doctor called them into his office. Ro didn’t want to go. She had a feeling that something was wrong. None of her friends had ever been called to a doctor’s office, especially when there had been no check-up previously, no tests, nothing that would seem out of the ordinary.
Ro’s husband, Gil, reassured her, but he didn’t sound sincere. He didn’t meet her eyes any more, and his ruddy face looked even more flushed than usual. He too knew that things were wrong. They bundled up the baby, whom Ro privately thought too small to be named after his famous great-grandfather, and went to the scheduled appointment.
The doctor’s office was a different place than the clinic waiting room. Ro had been comfortable with that waiting room. It was designed for pregnant women: large comfortable chairs with good back support, footstools, and a gas fireplace that was in constant use in the winter. A computer in the corner constantly played information about women’s health and reproductive news, and from any of the tables, waiting patients could easily access sites that pertained to childbirth and childrearing.
But the office was around the back of the clinic—actually in a different building altogether—and that waiting area felt like the waiting area of a lawyer or accountant. There was one large window with a spectacular view of the parking lot, and a less spectacular view of the lake across the street, and the mountains beyond. The chairs were straight-backed with no armrests, and weren’t wide enough for Alden’s carrier. With some hesitation, Ro put the sleeping baby on the floor.
She leaned over and played with his curly black hair. His tiny fists were curled against his sleeper, the soft blue blanket her parents had given him tucked beneath his chin. She had no idea how this beautiful boy with his dark brown eyes, chocolate skin, and delicate features could be ill. He was developing the way he was supposed to, he ate well, although he still did not sleep through the night.
Gil paced, and somehow that reassured her: If Gil was nervous, then she had a right to be nervous too. Only she didn’t tell him—couldn’t tell him—one of the sources of her nervousness. She didn’t want to be the mother of a sickly child. She had seen those mothers, with their vaguely frantic air despite their protestations that everything was fine and under control. She had seen the despair in their eyes, the way they clung to their babies as if determination alone could prevent whatever tragedy was ahead.
She had clung to Alden that way on the drive over, and had been ashamed of herself. She didn’t even know what the doctor was going to say.
Finally, the androgynous automated voice announced that the doctor was ready to see them. The door to his office swung open, and she grabbed Alden’s carrier, wishing once again that she was in the waiting room at the clinic, where real people called her name and opened the door, and gave her a reassuring smile as they led her into an unfamiliar room.
The doctor’s office smelled faintly of roses. Several tiny hybrids lined a wall just inside. Books—old, dusty and obviously just for show—lined another wall. The carpet was plush, the desk was messy, and the view here, through the window behind the desk, was of a small fenced-in garden, well tended. She had always known that Dr. Wyatt was a nurturer. It was nice to have that sense confirmed.
He looked as if he belonged behind that desk. He wore a brown sweater with a cream-colored turtleneck beneath it, setting off his mahogany skin. His shaved head shone, and the single diamond he wore in his left ear looked even more prominent than usual. As Ro and Gil entered, he stood and took the carrier from them, smiling down at the sleeping baby.
He ran a finger along Alden’s ruddy cheek. “Ironic,” he murmured so softly that Ro knew he was speaking only to the baby. She shuddered, thinking that a confirmation of all she had feared. Then he smiled at her. “Please sit.”
She waited until he placed the carrier on his desk, on the only bare spot left by the piles of paper. The carrier was turned so that they all could see the boy. He hadn’t moved, but his blanket had. His soft breath made a corner of it flutter ever so slightly.
“What’s wrong with him?” Ro asked, unable to wait.
Gil took her hand in his warm strong one. She could feel tension in both of their fingers as they braced themselves.
“Nothing,” Dr. Wyatt said.
“Nothing?” And in Gil’s surprised growl, she heard the beginnings of anger. She squeezed his hand, warning him to wait.
“That’s what’s so wonderful.” Dr. Wyatt leaned forward. “We did the standard genetic testing on your son.”
Ro remembered. Genetic testing was required in Oregon, in all but a handful of states now, and the results were supposed to be kept private. In fact, parents could opt not to know what dangers lurked in their child’s genes. Ro and Gil had taken a moderate approach: If the problem was going to be incapacitating or life-threatening they wanted to know. Otherwise, they chose to let the information come to Alden on his eighteenth birthday, a Pandora’s box he could chose to open—or not—all on his own.
Gil had stiffened beside her. She knew what he was thinking: incapacitating or fatal. How could Dr. Wyatt call that nothing?
“And we discovered that Alden is the only infant we have seen in this clinic, indeed in this part of the state, who has a perfect set of genes.”
“P—Perfect?” Ro repeated. She had been so expecting the other, the bad, the horrible news, that the good news was hard to absorb.
“Perfect. No missing genes, no malfunctioning genes, no hereditary diseases. In fact, he is quite the survivor, with some extra genes that have been determined to fight certain viruses. Unless your son has an accident, he will live a long and healthy life.”
Ro frowned. Perfect.
“We used to think,” Dr. Wyatt was saying, “that perfect human beings could be engineered. What we didn’t know until just recently was that perfect human beings already existed. They could be born into a family like yours.”
Gil cleared his throat, and slipped his fingers from Ro’s. He recovered quicker—or at least his brain did. It always had.
“We signed the waiver,” he said. “We weren’t supposed to find out anything like this about Alden.”
“You signed the waiver, yes,” Dr. Wyatt said, “but did you read it?”
Ro glanced at Gil. She had been in labor when they remembered the consent. He had been the one to handle the business details of Alden’s birth. He shrugged. “I scanned it.”
“Then you might have missed one of the clauses in the middle. It addressed this very issue.”
“What issue?” Ro asked.
Dr. Wyatt smiled at her, then he leaned forward, folding his hands on the desk. She recognized the posture. It was his sincere-explanation posture. Once, another expectant mother had described it to her as his attempt not to patronize his patients.
“We have the capability of growing new organs from various cells. We do a lot of microsurgery, a lot of repair work on the cellular level before we can use some of these organs.” He glanced at Alden, who was still sleeping. “Sometimes we repair genetic defects in the womb. We also do a lot of work with the new techniques, ones that involve injecting new genetic material into old cells, revitalizing them. Some of these procedures are old, some are new, but they all involve the basic building blocks of a human being.”
Ro felt her breath catch. Dr. Wyatt was speaking slowly, giving them a chance to ask questions. Apparently Gil had none. She had a thousand, but didn’t know where to begin asking.
“Private bio-technology companies pay a lot of money to keep cells from people like Alden on file. We have hopes that their perfect DNA will make them useful in all areas of biological and medical sciences. There is already a use for them now.”
“This is about money?” Gil asked.
“It’s about healing,” Dr. Wyatt said. Then he sighed. “There is more.”
“More?” Ro asked.
“If you chose to have more children, any one of these companies will be willing to finance your pregnancies and the first five years of your children’s lives. You have created one genetically perfect child. The chances are you will create another.” His smile was apologetic. “If you don’t want to do that, if you only want one child, then they would pay you quite well for fertilized embryos. In fact, you could do both—”
“Is this a joke?” Gil asked.
“No.” Dr. Wyatt spoke solemnly, reassuringly. “A handful of other couples all over the country have done this already, but cases like this are very rare.”
Alden stirred. His small fist grabbed the fluttering edge of the blue blanket, and he pulled it toward his mouth, uncovering his tiny feet, encased in delicate white socks. Ro grabbed the blanket and pulled it down, covering him again.
“What does the clinic get out of this?” Gil asked.
Dr. Wyatt shrugged. “A percentage. Small, actually. It amounts to one percent of the total fees paid your family.”
“Plus all the payments for the additional medical care,” Gil said. His anger was becoming plain. His voice was rising.
“What—?” Ro asked, loudly enough to cover him. He shot her a warning look which she ignored. “What does this mean for Alden?”
“Financially?” Dr. Wyatt said. “It means that he’ll—”
“No,” she said. “What will happen to my baby? Are there tests? Will he have to leave us?”
“No,” Dr. Wyatt said. “At his checkups, we’ll take an extra vial of blood, and send it to whichever lab ends up with his case. He won’t notice a thing.”
“Those are his genes, right?” Gil asked. “Do we have to give consent every time they’re used?”
Dr. Wyatt looked at his long manicured hands. “If you do this,” he said, “Alden’s genes will no longer be his. They will belong to the firm that buys them.”
“Meaning they could do anything they want with his genes?” Ro asked.
“Yes,” Dr. Wyatt said.
“Will he be prevented from using his genes?” Gil asked.
“They have a waiver for reproduction,” Dr. Wyatt said. “But if he wanted to donate sperm or give blood, he would need permission. And he would need their permission if he wanted to donate an organ or grow one for a family member who couldn’t for some reason.”
Ro shuddered. Such a decision. She had expected to make one today, but not like this.
“Would they clone him?” she asked.
“Cloning is illegal throughout the world,” Dr. Wyatt said.
“But we’ve heard rumors—”
“No reputable company would clone anyone,” Dr. Wyatt said, “although they might use a section of his DNA as a template for some infant’s flawed DNA.”
“How much would we get paid?” Gil asked.
“For Alden?” Dr. Wyatt shrugged. “The usual bid starts at two million dollars. It can rise from there.”
“And how long would they control his genes?”
Dr. Wyatt’s mouth formed a thin line. “For life,” he said.
They did not have to make a decision right away. All they did was ask Dr. Wyatt to wait before informing any of the companies about Alden. Dr. Wyatt agreed. They were to see him again in two weeks.
During that time, they spoke to everyone they knew. Their Christian friends had split opinions: Some felt that Alden’s gift should be used for the greater good; others believed that to give Alden’s DNA away would be to tamper with God’s plan. Their more sophisticated friends worried about the legalities. Their family worried about the restrictions.
Gil hired a lawyer, who specialized in medical contracts. The lawyer, a strong woman from California, believed she could negotiate a more favorable document that gave less power to the bio-tech company and more money to the family. She would take the case on a contingency, agreeing to work for a percentage of the final take. Gil had been satisfied with her, but Ro hadn’t. When they had gone to the lawyer’s office, she hadn’t done more than give Alden a cursory glance. No questions about him, no gentle touches, and when he woke, grumpy, after a long nap, a request that he either get quiet or be taken to the daycare center thoughtfully provided by the legal firm.
It was starting to become about money. Two million dollars would pay off all their debts, including their tiny one-story home in a distant suburb. It would pay for Alden’s college, his graduate work, and, if they invested wisely, give him a nest egg, an investment that might help him as he grew older.
Ro walked through her tiny house with its unwieldy ’90s kitchen, the island that always got in her way, the hooks for the copper pots that no one had any more, and imagined it updated, with modern appliances. She fed Alden in the living room, always chilly because of its cathedral ceiling, and wished that she could carve the space into two rooms—one of them a playroom for her beautiful son. Gil mentioned in passing, as he always did with things that were important to him, that perhaps they could consider buying a bigger house with a real yard, close to schools and public transportation. They allowed themselves to contemplate a different life.
And through it all, they fed Alden, changed him, played with him, and held him. They carried him from room to room as they dreamed their small dreams. Sometimes he giggled. Often he slept. And sometimes he cried so hard that Ro thought his heart was breaking. During those times, she couldn’t understand what he needed, and she wished, oh how she wished, she could ask him what he wanted.
Because their decision would affect him in a thousand ways. It would affect everything about him, from simple acts of charity such as donating blood to larger things such as his financial future. Ro did not even think about the added offer, the way that the companies would pay for more children, the way that all of this would affect their lives.
She studied everything she could find, became familiar, at least with genes and DNA and experiment processes. She learned that Alden was one of a select group. Less than point one-one hundredth of all the children born since the human genome project had been finished were categorized as medically perfect. Of that small percentage, only a few were born in the United States each year. There was no information on families who had chosen the options she and Gil had been offered, except short mentions in various papers, that people had taken those offers. Nothing about the parents, about how they made the decisions, about how they felt later.
Two nights before she and Gil were to talk again with Dr. Wyatt, she sat in Alden’s room. The room smelled of talcum and baby, and was silent, except for Alden’s even breathing.
They had remodeled the walk-in closet beside the master bedroom as the nursery, thinking that later they would give Alden a room farther from theirs. The nursery was small, but bright, with a balloon mural on the wall that Gil had painted and matching pillows all over the floor, sewn by her mother. White baby furniture completed the look. They had modern smart house equipment in here and in the master bedroom, an expense that Ro had insisted on when she became pregnant. No old-fashioned baby monitors for her. She wanted the very walls to listen to her child, to make sure he was all right every moment of every day.
Still, she sat often in the rocker her grandmother had given her, and watched Alden sleep. Ro did her best thinking when Alden slept. She remembered her fear of becoming one of those mothers, of having a diseased child, a woman who clung to her baby hoping to give it life.
Alden had life. He had more than life. He had, genetically speaking, a life that would be healthy and full. He was the opposite of those children.
Something in that thought held her. She had come to it over and over again in the last ten days. She was approaching her child because of what he had instead of who he was, and she had always thought that wrong.
Alden was a joyful baby. Everyone said that. And they said how lucky she was. He could have been naturally cranky or energetic or listless. He could have been so many things, but he was not. He was born with a mind and a personality all his own. It was up to her—her and Gil—to help him develop those things.
She stood slowly, then walked to the crib, bent over, and kissed her sleeping child. He stirred slightly, confident in her touch. Knowing it was a light touch, a secure touch, a loving touch. He trusted her, especially now, when he could not do anything for himself. He trusted her to do the best thing for them all.
Dr. Wyatt’s office door was open, and he was waiting for them. He bent over one of his tea roses, his long fingers working a particularly delicate trim. Ro watched him, seeing the gentleness, now knowing that was only a part of him.
Gil held Alden’s carrier. They agreed that Ro would do most of the talking. It had been her idea, after all.
Dr. Wyatt smiled when he saw them, and took Alden’s carrier, as he had done before. They took their places in front of the desk.
“Well?” Dr. Wyatt asked as if he already knew the answer.
“We have decided,” Ro looked at Gil, who nodded at her to continue. “To let Alden make this decision when he turns eighteen. We agree with the waiver we signed. This is not a decision we should make for our child.”
Dr. Wyatt frowned. “It would be better not to wait.”
“Better for whom?” Ro asked. “The companies? Yes, it would. And perhaps for a few patients, too. But we are locking my son into an agreement for life, which is something medieval. We don’t believe in such things, Dr. Wyatt.”
“I’m sure some clauses can be waived. Perhaps you could even get a temporary agreement, something that would be non-binding on him when he became an adult.”
Ro shook her head. “This is not an emergency, Doctor. We are willing to be contacted on a case-by-case basis in the event of an emergency, when someone actually needs Alden’s help. What we are refusing is a business arrangement. We want our son to be a child first, and a commodity only if he chooses to be.”
“He wouldn’t be a commodity,” Dr. Wyatt said.
She stared at him for a long time. “Maybe not to you,” she said. “But the bio-tech company who bought his genes wouldn’t know him. To them, he would be something that would enable them to make a profit. To other patients, he would be another tool. To us, he is a person already. And people make their own choices, and their own commitments. We’re sorry, doctor.”
She stood. So did Gil. Finally Dr. Wyatt did as well. He ran a hand along Alden’s small face. “He is a perfect child.”
“No,” Ro said. “He’s not. He’s got good genes. That’s all.”
“That’s plenty,” Dr. Wyatt said. “Promise me you’ll tell him of this opportunity when he’s grown.”
“You will,” Gil said. “Or someone in your clinic will. We will stipulate that. We have an attorney who can draw up a document.”
“It was kind of you,” Ro added, “not to mention the money.”
Dr. Wyatt took Alden’s tiny hand in his own. “You realize how rare and precious he is.”
Ro smiled. “Yes,” she said softly. “We do.”
Copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published The Future We Wish We Had, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Rebecca Lickiss, Daw Books, December 2007
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and Layout copyright © 2015 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Cornelius20/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
She mentions the importance of teamwork in the publishing industry. She’s running a huge section of a major company. Of course there needs to be a team, and of course, the team needs to work toward a common goal.
In the article, she says some of the right things about writers, like:
Authors are fascinating people, and as a publisher, your job is to make their work public
Okay, that’s simplistic, but this is an interview, and one thing about interviews is that the interview’s subject has to simplify major concepts to be clear.
But the article bothered me, not from a business perspective, or even from what’s on the page. Just based on some things bestselling writers have told me about working for Random Penguin. This paragraph bothered me in particular:
Our group is composed of a ton of stars, but they’re part of this bigger galaxy. If you want to be a solo artist, you’re probably not going to be happy in our group. If anyone doesn’t succeed here, that’s usually why.
Again, she’s talking about working inside the publishing company. When you’re dealing with that many employees and a division as large as the one she manages, having an outlier employee might be a problem. (It might also be a boon, but that’s another article.)
However, that line: If you want to be a solo artist, you’re probably not going to be happy… kept reverberating for me. Because novelists are by definition solo artists.
One of my favorite writers, who has been with Penguin Putnam for much of her career (and through many of its different corporate identities) has become such a boring and predictable storyteller that I have finally (finally!) decided to stop buying her books altogether. Realize that she’s been a major influence on my work, and I’ve read her work since the 1980s, and introduced her work to reader after reader.
For the last three years, I’d reach the middle of her latest book and be bored out of my skull. Her writing is good. Her pacing is all right. Her characters are interesting. Her plots have become so predictable that I know what’s going to happen almost from page one. (This last book, the surprise? A character supposed to be dead was still alive, which I knew from the moment his death was introduced on page 10 or so. [sigh])
I’ve had that happen with a lot of books lately. And I’m not the only reader who has had this experience. I’ve spoken to several readers who express great dissatisfaction with the books they’ve been reading the last few years. I just got a fan letter from a reader who says that she’s finding most of the books she reads lately to be predictable. (Fortunately, mine wasn’t one of them, which is what inspired her to write the letter.)
I do read bestsellers—generally, though, I started reading these writers before they became bestsellers—and many of their latest works have become frighteningly predictable.
Some are predictable in the way that writers become predictable once you’ve read a lot of their work. I was the annoying twelve-year-old who read every one of Agatha Christie’s mysteries (in a month) until I saw the pattern: the killer was always the person with the little or no motivation to commit the murder. Murder on the Orient Express was the one that made me quit because… SPOILER…
I had this thought as I read, “No one has a motive. She wouldn’t have all of them do it, would she?”
Turns out I was right.
END SPOILER (although, really, if you don’t know this one by now, you’re clearly not a mystery reader or a movie fan).
All writers have patterns, and sometimes, if you binge-read, you learn what those patterns are.
Those patterns are unique to the writer, so if you only read a few of the writer’s works, you’ll never see the pattern at all.
The patterns that have been kicking me out of so many bestsellers these days aren’t unique to the writers. The patterns aren’t even unique.
They’re storytelling patterns—familiar ones. The kind that tell me if the writer does A, then B will follow. A writer’s job isn’t to move from A to B. It’s to move from A to M, then back to E, and maybe all the way to Z before ending with L.
A lot of these authors specifically thank their “team” for help with the writing experience. Most writers have trusted readers, usually unfamiliar names to the rest of us. These unfamiliar names are friends and family, people who may not be in publishing at all.
But the writers I’m mentioning? They thank their publishing team for the help with the storytelling.
Since I started the blog on publishing six years ago, a lot of #1 New York Times bestsellers contacted me privately to talk with me about indie publishing. Many of these bestsellers had “retired” and all of them, to a person, mentioned the lack of respect at their Big 5 publishing house.
It seemed to these writers that the Big 5 publishing team thought they knew what sold better than the writer did. As one romance writer said to me, “Maybe they do know what sells well. But I became a bestseller without their help, and they have nothing to add creatively. They just want me to dumb things down.”
That romance writer retired, left her publisher, and now has left retirement to publish on her own. Her fans are happy, and so is she.
Another New York Times bestseller, who is still with a Big 5 publisher, told me that the publisher had demanded that the writer revise the ending to the writer’s most recent book. The ending the publisher wanted? The writer says the ending was a rescue of a strong heroine by stronger men. (The publisher is female, by the way.)
The writer, who values her strong heroine, refused to make the change, and upset the publisher in doing so. The writer is trying to decide whether or not to stay when the current contract ends.
A bestselling mystery writer told me that his treatment the last several years with his Big 5 publisher was so disheartening he thought he’d never write again. Again, he was told he didn’t know what sold and that he had to write the way that the company told him to, so that he could sell his books. Like the romance writer, he got angry. He’d sold a lot of books before these editor/publishers had even had a career in publishing.
So, rather than deal with that, he retired.
But he couldn’t stop writing. Also like the romance writer, he revived his career and his passion for writing by self-publishing.
I’ve run into this in the last few years as well, with my hybrid career, and rather than deal with these people who believe that novel writing is a committee activity, I’ve bought my way out of contracts and refused to work with those companies again.
Initially, I had thought this unique to the editors involved. The more letters I get (and those three are representative of the dozens I’ve received), the more I realize that the Big 5 traditional publishers have moved to this model across the board.
Do I blame them? Not really. Corporate publishing has changed the game. With the emphasis on quarterly profits, the decline in a real sales staff, and the lack of institutional memory (due to so many in-house layoffs), the folks who work in traditional publishing are trying to make a fast buck by selling sure-thing products.
The problem here isn’t just with the publishers. It’s also with the writers who acquiesce. I know how seductive it is to have someone tell you what to do with your writing.
Even strong personalities, like the writer whose work I just quit reading forever and ever, can be seduced with the right language.
Your fans expect you to have a strong romance
Your fans won’t like a graphic murder scene
Your fans read your work for comfort; this book isn’t comforting
And so on.
Writers in these situations will often say that they and their agent are partners or that they and their editor will hone the book into the best book it can be.
But they’re wrong. And that’s why the books are starting to sound the same. The suggestion that the writer who is still with the Big 5 company received from her publisher was so trite as to be the kind of cliché that movie-goers make fun of.
Big 5 publishers are patterning their business on the Hollywood model in a variety of ways. They want blockbusters, so they’re demanding that their writers produce blockbusters according to formula, even in original work. (Tie-ins are another matter; the writer is under contract to produce formula.)
In the last five years, I’ve told several editors that I had many job offers in Hollywood and I always turned them down because I did not want to write by committee. It would piss off the editor who thought she knew better than I did, but I didn’t care.
I’m a fiction writer, not a screenwriter, because I want to control my own vision.
That’s a tough road to walk in traditional publishing, and getting tougher as each day goes on. If traditional publishing were the only game in town, then I would probably be choosing to retire from writing novels as well. I’d go back to nonfiction or write only short fiction.
But the world has changed. I don’t need to go to a Big 5 publisher to get my books into bookstores or into the hands of readers all over the world. I’m selling more books and having more success than I ever did through a Big 5 publisher.
Many writers with long-term careers in traditional publishing don’t know any of that. They hear the myths, think indie publishing is too hard or too time consuming or still has the stigma that self-publishing used to have. I spoke to several unpublished writers with that attitude just this past weekend.
Last month, I spoke to a long-time bestseller who told me (like so many other bestsellers) that he doesn’t have time to deal with business or publishing his own work. He doesn’t deal with business now—his agent and his business manager do, so he can just write books.
I found myself wondering how much money his assistants helped themselves to over the years. But I’m too polite to ask questions like that in public. Usually I don’t say a lot to people when they tell me in person that they’re too busy as writers to handle things like finances. Sometimes I can’t shut up, though, as in the case last year of a writer who told me how much she adored the agency that represents her. It’s one of two that I caught embezzling from me.
I gently told her to pay attention to the accounting and to make sure that all payments she receives are split at the publisher—85% to her and 15% to the agency.
Honestly, though, the reason I’m writing about this topic now, even though I’ve known about the fingers-in-the-pie aspect of traditional publishing for years now, is because the biggest shock I had at the writers conference I attended last weekend was how many unpublished writers felt they needed “an editor” before they submitted their work to any publishing house at all.
And if those writers wanted to indie-publish, well, then they all wanted to know how to get an editor to look at their work before it hit print.
Most of these writers didn’t want a copy editor to check their spelling and punctuation. They wanted what they were called a “developmental” editor, someone to tell them if the entire manuscript worked.
I’ve gotten this in e-mail and some recent comments on older blog posts as well. Apparently if you bill yourself as a “developmental” editor, you’ll make a fortune.
Most of these writers wanted one, even though they didn’t know exactly what it was. And—here’s the kicker—they wanted one they could afford.
Not someone who had real credentials. Not someone who also wrote books.
I know a number of good editors who can help writers with special projects. These editors do occasionally work with content, mostly seeing if the book is paced correctly or if it’s consistent—or something as simple as what genre the book is in (because most writers don’t know).
All of the good editors that I’ve recommended are also good writers. If someone wants his book to hit the New York Times bestseller list, then the number of good editors I know dwindles to those I can count on one hand.
Very few editors I know have also hit the Times list with their own books. Most writers who’ve hit the Times list are still busy writing books of their own, and don’t have time to help writers, except in a structured setting like a class.
I get asked a lot if I’ll edit someone’s novel for them and, after shivering for a few minutes, I say a polite no. Life is too damn short.
What most writers need is to believe in their own work. The writers need to finish a first draft, spellcheck it, and hand it to a trusted first reader who is not a writer.
Let me repeat that. The last thing you want is a writer as your first reader.
A writer will critique. A reader will tell you if the book is a good read or not.
Will the reader be able to tell you how to fix the book? Hell, no. That’s not a reader’s job.
Generally, if the book fails, especially in areas like pacing, then the best thing the writer can do is start over. From scratch. Without looking at the previous manuscript.
Because we’re storytellers, not writers. A manuscript is the coded tool that we use to tell stories across great distances.
Think of it this way: comedians are professional storytellers. When was the last time you heard a professional comedian stop and say, “Dang, I screwed up that punch line. I’d better fix it”?
What the comedian does is practice in front of an audience. When a joke doesn’t work, the comedian tries to figure out if it’s the audience (a bunch of drunks who didn’t laugh at anything), the delivery (too fast, too slow, not enough build-up), or the joke itself. If the problem is in the delivery, the comedian doesn’t tell the same joke in the same way, with different words. The comedian works on everything from pacing to detail, telling the joke differently each time.
Musicians do the same thing. They don’t stop and repair a missed note. They continue with the entire performance. In fact, when you watch programs like The Voice in which professional musicians mentor newer musicians, the professionals often work to “get the perfect out” of the other singers.
Perfection is the death of entertainment, just like predictability is.
Once an audience figures out what’s coming next—what’s always coming next—the audience moves to other things. It’s a bad night for a comedian when the audience can say the punch line with the comedian. Humor works on surprise, just like good storytelling does.
That’s why writing by committee is so deadly to good storytelling. Some committees do work well together—a very creative writers’ room in a television series, for example—but most do not.
And no committee composed of business types can help on the creative end. That’s why the suggestions coming from the suits are usually mediocre and why suggestions based on an assumed fan/audience expectation are bad.
Audiences expect to be entertained, but the entertainment should be unique to the entertainer. That’s you, writers. I know it’s scary, but the best writers work without a net.
Many, many, many bestselling authors tell the sales force or the publisher/president to take a flying leap when the suits make suggestions that put the suits directly inside the creative process. Many of the bestsellers who “retired” did so because they didn’t want to deal with that ridiculous attitude any longer, and those bestsellers retired before indie publishing became an option.
Once it became an option, these writers embraced it. Their sales are at the same level (or better) than they were when the writers were with their traditional publishers, and the writers are making a lot more money.
Plus they have control of the work, the covers, the promotion, everything.
If you talk to writers who were traditionally published and left because of the fingers trying to reach into a personal pie, you’ll hear about joy in writing again.
At the same time, beginning writers seem to want someone to tell them what to do. It’s sad. These writers are coming into the business in a time of unlimited artistic freedom, and they spend all of their effort looking for boxes to squeeze themselves into.
Worse, they’re looking to hire someone else to make sure they stay inside those boxes.
There are a lot of editors on the internet now whose only credentials are that they edited for a bunch of writers. These “editors” have never written a book. Most of them haven’t worked in publishing either. They have no credentials at all, yet they claim they can make your book a bestseller.
These folks charge thousands of dollars to tear your manuscript apart. It’s the new scam, folks, and writers aren’t just falling for it—they’re actively seeking it out.
Here’s what you need to succeed as a writer.
You need a work ethic. You need to work as hard at your writing as you work at your day job, maybe harder (since many of you skate through your day jobs). Last weekend, when I told a panel full of writers that they had to put in at least 15 hours per week on their writing, many of them looked at me in horror. I didn’t pull that number out of my ass. I did the math for them on how many hours it would take for them to write a short story per week.
You need to practice. Every new story should be practice for a new technique. If a story fails, you don’t tweak that story. You throw out the manuscript and try again. Like comedians do, in front of a different audience, trying to tell the story in a new way. Practice, practice, practice.
You need to get paid for your practice sessions. Stand-up comedians and musicians get paid to practice. Every single session they perform in front of an audience is practice, and they get paid per session. So mail your stories and books, or put them up indie. Don’t put them in a drawer.
You need to finish what you write and put it out into the world. I think that’s clear in and of itself.
You need to keep writing new material all the time. Also clear.
You need to keep learning your craft. Read for enjoyment, take classes, practice, steal techniques. Always learn.
You need a trusted first reader who is not a writer. Just a reader. Someone who can be honest with you, and who tells you simply this: Did they like the story? Did they find it compelling? Would they have read to the end if they encountered it in an anthology or bought it off a store rack?
You need a copy editor. Not to teach you grammar. You better learn grammar and spelling and punctuation. You have to know the rules to break them. But we all have words we consistently misspell, and we sometimes skip entire paragraphs and we lose track of tiny details like whether or not the cat is in the room through the entire scene. Copy editors flag those things.
You need self-confidence—or you need to fake it well. You need to tell people who want to mess with your vision to take a flying fuck. You should probably tell them that politely, because they’re usually just trying to do their job or they might have your best interest in mind. (Generally, in traditional publishing, they have their own best interest in mind—as well as those quarterly profits.) You have to be willing to walk away from something that doesn’t work for you or wants to remake you into an artist that you do not want to be.
And that’s it. You really don’t need a “team” to tell you what your fans want. Your fans will tell you that directly—and even then, you shouldn’t write for them. You should write for you.
You are that solo artist that Gina Centrello doesn’t want to hire to work inside her publishing house. You are an individual, and your writing should reflect that.
If you’re changing your work because someone else tells you to—even if you hired that someone to “help” you “edit” your book—then you are losing your vision.
Novelists and short story writers should never write by committee. Write what you love, write what you’re passionate about, write whatever pleases you and gives you joy.
You don’t need traditional publishing any more. You don’t need to bend just because someone with a large check tells you to. You can have a career doing what you want to do—if you’re willing to put in the work, and if you’re willing to defend your vision.
Sounds simple, right?
But it’s not. It’s counterintuitive. Yes, there’s no “I” in team. But there’s no “team” in fiction writing. Kick the committee out of your office. Write your own stories. Take that risk.
Now, go. Write a lot. And have fun.
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“Business Musings: Writing by Committee,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Echea,” which won the Asimov’s and Homer Readers’ Choice Awards and placed as a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Locus awards, is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook on Amazon, Kobo, iBooks (in English), iBooks (in Italian) and from other online retailers.
In addition to the bundle, the release of The Write Attitude, and the release of Starbase Human, I have also just published a new novella. As many of you know, I participate in the Uncollected Anthology of Urban Fantasy. This quarter’s anthology is called Portals And Passageways. In addition to my story, the anthology features stories from Leah Cutter, Annie Reed, Phaedra Weldon, Leslie Claire Walker, and Dayle A. Dermatis (writing in one of my favorite series of hers). The guest author this month, JC Andrijeski, should be familiar to those of you who read Fiction River. She’s had stories in a number of volumes, and her story this time is from her popular Allie’s War series.
My novella is the second tale about three witches who are descended from the witches who inspired Shakespeare to write MacBeth. These women are magical dramaturges (they manage the magic in theater) and eventually, they’ll have their own novel. Real Soon Now. They first appeared in Fiction River: Hex In The City with “The Scottish Play.” This time, they’re facing their biggest threat yet, in the theaters of Chicago (not London, like the first story). I’m taking some theater classes this summer in prep for writing more about these three, so The Streets Where We Live isn’t the last story you’ll see about them.
I’m real excited about this story (and several of the other stories in the anthology). I hope you pick it up.
The most uncomfortable situations occur when we have to take drastic action on the business side, action that might have an impact on the creative side.
In the old days, before indie publishing, that kind of action sometimes meant leaving projects unfinished, or series open-ended, or long years of silence between publications. Those negatives still happen at times, due to copyright issues, but they’re less common.
Now, a writer can leave her traditional publisher and continue a book series on her own—provided she hasn’t signed a non-compete clause in her traditional contract. Or hasn’t signed a contract that gives up rights to the characters in her series. Or hasn’t optioned the next book in the same series to the publisher without a deadline on the option.
There are a million ways that contract and copyright can interfere with indie publishing. Writers who don’t understand this need to look at my book, Deal Breakers, and also buy Nolo Press’s book, The Copyright Handbook. You especially need The Copyright Handbook, because if you don’t understand copyright, you don’t understand how your writing business works.
In the previous Freelance Scramble posts, I discussed how money, cash flow, and freelancing intertwine. From graphing how your money will arrive each month to collecting bad debts, the series delves into the complex and symbiotic relationship between what you’ve written and how you get paid for it.
You don’t have to read the previous posts before you read this one, but I would recommend it. I would especially recommend that you read last week’s post, “Debt Collection,” before you read this one.
Most new freelancers mishandle their business dealings because the freelancers have no idea how to behave in a business situation. Most freelancers have come straight off a day job where things like bill collection get handled for them. Their salary gets deposited into their account every month, with no thought as to where the money came from.
If the freelancer had a problem with another employee at the day job, company protocols dictated the way that those problems got handled. Sometimes those problems got kicked upstairs to a manager; sometimes the employees write a report; and sometimes everyone has to sit in a room with a representative from Human Resources until the problem gets solved.
In the world of freelancing, the freelancer has no HR department, no monthly salary, no legal department to handle the contracts. The freelancer has to set all these things up himself. If the freelancer needs a lawyer, the freelancer must hire—and pay for—that lawyer.
There is no one to pass the buck to, so the freelancer has to do whatever he can do on his own.
Usually, the first-time freelancer takes drastic action when calm reasonable decisions are called for. By drastic action, I mean screaming mad phone calls, threatening letters, withdrawing work from publication, sending dead rats in the mail (yes, a writer did that many years ago), publically shaming the other party, and cyberstalking.
Even when the freelancer thinks he’s being reasonable, he might not be because there are contractual terms that generally govern a freelancer’s relationship with the other party (generally, a publisher). What might seem like unreasonable business behavior might actually be written into the contract. Lawyers often have clients who believe they’re being mistreated, when the client simply doesn’t understand the document they signed a year or so before.
There are times, however, when you are being harmed. Please see last week’s post for the professional ways to handle missed payments and other problems.
Remember, always, even in your angriest business dealings, politeness is the best order of the day. Or at least, use professional language. If you’re really angry, have someone else vet any communication before you send it. And never, ever, use a phone call or go in person to deal with a company that has angered you. It’s often impossible to keep your cool in conversation.
In a difficult situation, the person who remains the calmest is usually the person who will triumph in the end.
In the comments section from last week’s post, Melissa Yi listed a website called The Daily Worth that has some great business letter templates.
Some of the templates don’t really apply to writers. (The examples might apply if you have other businesses, though.) The last two letters are fantastic. They deal with assholes. You should look at those letters for the tone the writer used, if nothing else.
But here’s what I love about this site. I love this attitude:
Do not seem desperate to keep the client’s business. Do not use “I feel” language (“I feel that our working relationship has taken a bad turn”) — you’re not married to this person. Do not throw your own employees under the bus or condone abuse against yourself or your employees.
Boy, can writers take a lot from that simple paragraph. Particularly when it comes to agents. Don’t use I-Feel language. You’re not married to this person. Exactly.
The one thing I disagree with on the site is that they recommend calling the person you’re having trouble with or dealing with them in a meeting. Don’t. Make sure all of your dealings are in e-mail and by snail mail.
Phone calls are emotional minefields, and often writers end up apologizing for their own opinions. Stick to e-mail, where you can be clear. Make sure you print and save all of the e-mail. That way, you will be creating a paper trail, which will protect you should the client/publisher/whoever you’re dealing with become a MegaAsshole and sues you.
No matter what happens, though, there will come a time in your freelance writing career where you will have to burn a bridge. You will have to forcefully (but politely) say that enough is enough.
Before you burn that bridge, try to walk away from it. See if you can simply leave the area without causing any harm. No need to yell, no need to write a harsh letter, nothing.
If you’re working on a contractual basis with the other party, complete the obligations under that contract and then do not work with that party again. If you’re working on a per-project basis, finish what you’re doing and then do no more. If you’re conducting seminars or meetings, do not allow that person to teach/attend any more.
Usually such things are easy. Chances are that the other party is as ready to be shed of you as you are of them.
But there are completely clueless people in the world, and they think everything is fine even when it’s not. There’s a reason that website Melissa Yi recommended has two letters for asshole clients for regular businesses. (Two out of seven!) Assholes abound, and life’s too short to deal with them regularly.
Generally, though, dealing with an asshole is not a reason to burn a bridge.
Remember that burning a bridge is an extreme situation. As I said last week, I’ve only intentionally burned only a few bridges in my career. I was incorrect when I said two last week; I’ve burned three.
Of those three, only one dealt with a missed payment, and I showed you that example last week.
The other two resulted from systemic problems. Let me describe one of them. (The other case still results in me calling my lawyer now and again, so I see that one as far from settled. The bridge is burned and there are ruins where the bridge was, but I have to put out spot fires now and again.)
After I describe the case I can talk about, I will go to some general things about bridge-burning.
In that burned-bridge case, I was dealing with an editor who kept approving outlines for books and then rejecting the books based on items she had already approved in those outlines. It was crazy-making. She preferred to work on the phone, but I don’t, so I had a paper trail, so I could prove she was jerking me around.
There were other problems as well, claims that she made about the company’s expectations of their writers that I later learned were not true. (I can’t get more specific than that. It sounds mild; it was not.) She also did not do her own editing. Unbeknownst to her bosses, she made her assistants read the books turned in, and she then credited the assistants’ work as her own. (Reporter that I am, I got her to admit to this behavior.)
To make matters worse, this editor was not just politely rejecting work, she was actively abusive—telling me that I couldn’t write my way out of paper bag, yelling at me for turning in subpar material, repeatedly informing me that I knew nothing about the genre I was writing in. (I later learned this was normal for her—she did this with all writers she worked with.)
This is not an old story, by the way. This happened in this century, and the editor still works in publishing. And her behavior, while modified inside her company, is still actively abusive with her authors—most of whom do not complain.
After one particularly egregious incident, I realized how toxic the relationship had become and, no matter what I did, I could not seem to get the company itself to pay attention.
So I decided it was time to terminate my relationship with the entire company. The problem wasn’t the book we were dealing with; the problem was that I had other books under contract with the company, and one book about to hit print. I knew that screaming and shouting and complaining that I was being abused would get me nowhere.
Instead, I took all of my documentation (and I had a lot), and enclosed that with a reasoned letter to the owner of the company, the head of legal, and the head of accounting. I informed them how untenable it had become to work with this editor, and how I had tried to solve the problem, to no avail.
My problem with this company wasn’t financial: it was that their editor had breached the contract in other ways. Significant ways. But to prove that would either entail a lengthy court fight or a lot of legal battles.
So I decided to buy my way out of the contract (while noting that I did have a strong case for breach of contract). I clearly stated in my letter to the owner, head of legal and head of accounting that I understood what a difficult position this put them in. I said that, in addition to returning the monies they paid me under the contract, I would also pay production costs for every dollar they had already put into the book that was going to be published in a few months.
I knew I was offering to pay them hundreds of thousands of dollars to get out of this contract. Was I scared? You bet. But I also knew that payments like this could be made over time, and I was completely willing to do it.
My polite but firm letter, the documentation I had, and my willingness to pay the $100,000 (or more) in production costs was the opening to our negotiations. I didn’t have to pay that amount, in the end. I managed to work something out with that company. The book saw print, and in the end, I did not have to repay anything, although we all mutually agreed to cancel the contract.
Will that company ever work with me again?
No, of course not.
But I have no desire to work with them either.
And that’s how bridges were burned.
Did I burn that bridge lightly? No. I spent a lot of time documenting my problems, and trying to resolve them. When I realized that I would have to terminate my relationship with the company, I had several discussions with my husband (because the financial hit would hurt him too), and with my legal advisers and friends.
Whenever I got emotional, someone would calm me down. If I had stayed emotional about this—furious or in tears—I could not have made a rational decision.
I had to be calm, and I had to stand firm once I made a decision.
More importantly, I had to figure out what I wanted—and then I had to stick to it.
What I wanted was to be rid of this company once and for all. I wanted nothing to do with them or their terrible editor.
That meant that whenever they came to me with small fixes, I could easily say no. Of course, they started with they’d “talk to the editor” and make her treat me well. No. Then they planned to give me a new editor. No. And so on and so forth. We did a lot of negotiating before we let the finished product hit print, and then we parted ways.
Technically, we still have a relationship, since those books are still in print and they pay me royalties. But we have no dealings with each other.
You should notice something here. It took negotiation to end this relationship, just like it takes negotiation to start one.
I consider this a burned bridge, because the company and I will never work together again. I respect their willingness to work with a disgruntled writer, and I know that the vice-president I ended up dealing with respected me for keeping things businesslike.
Yeah, the bridge is gone, but it was one of those bridges over a creek out in the country, and except for a few friends and neighbors (and some cryptic blog references in my business posts), no one saw the flames or the smoke—at least from my side of the bridge.
In fact, a friend of mine, who watched this entire event happen, still writes for the company and has a great relationship with them. I have never tried to sabotage his relationship with the company, and he has used my experience as a cautionary tale, going so far as to get some contractual guarantees that neither of us would have thought of, had this terrible experience not happened.
Fire prevention, in other words.
That’s how it should be done, folks.
Too often, writers get overly emotional and destroy everything when they run into trouble. I understand it. It’s easy to do.
Because we’re dealing with the arts here, and the arts are often personal (we do write from our heart, after all), a crisis can feel like a personal attack. Often, in writing and publishing, a crisis can turn into a linked series of personal attacks. You can see that in last summer’s brouhaha over a contract negotiation between Amazon and one of the Big Five Publishers.
Writers got involved, started screaming, and suddenly, lots of misinformation got slung around, relationships ended, and readers became aware that some of their favorite writers are flaming assholes. Um, no. You don’t want to do that. Ever.
Keep your business relationships quiet. Handle problems professionally. And when the time comes to end a relationship, do it in the most professional way possible.
Yes, you might be burning a bridge when you end a business relationship. When most writers torch a bridge, they end up burning down several other bridges, and all of the buildings nearby. Then the conversations start among those whose buildings only got scorched, and eventually news of that conflict—whatever it was—reaches everyone in the city.
Don’t do that. Handle the problem, whatever it is, with as little fuss as you possibly can.
So, let me give you a list of the kinds of things that might cause you to actively burn a bridge. The company/person:
Note how vague these are. They cover a lot of ground.
For example, “failure to meet fiduciary responsibilities” could mean anything from repeated lack of payment to active embezzlement. It could mean a failure to keep accurate records of payments received from outside vendors. It could mean a thousand different things.
What makes these things rise to the level of bridge-burning? Usually the severity of the problem and the impossibility of coming to a solution.
Sometimes the solution itself will result in a burned bridge.
For example, I had serious trouble with one agency that handled my work for years. (Not, let me say, with the agent who handled my work.) Their record-keeping got so sloppy that I was getting royalty checks and statements for other writers. I repeatedly informed the agency of this.
I was prepared to take simple action for this—getting my publishers to split payments with me and my agent (sending me my money and the agency their fifteen percent separately), when I discovered that several large payments that should have come to me from overseas never got reported to me and never got sent to me.
When I wrote to the agency about this, I got a defensive letter from the person in charge of the department. When I said I would go directly to the overseas publisher for any monies owed, the person in charge of that department panicked and told me I “didn’t dare” do that.
So, I sent my documentation, along with a letter to my then-agent and the head of the agency, explaining the problem, saying that I had tried to communicate about the systemic issues with the agency, and I had gotten nowhere. I was left with no choice, but to hire an outside auditor and look at the agency’s finances as they applied to my work.
The very next day, the agency dropped me as a client, wrote to all of my publishers declaring the agency no longer represented me and all monies owed to me should be sent directly to me, that the agency would wave its 15%, and they would pay me every dime they owed me.
They torched the bridge. I didn’t. And they torched it thinking their behavior would hurt my career. (It didn’t.) But they were afraid of that audit. Terrified, in fact. Which tells me something shady was (and is) going on at the agency.
I could have continued with the audit. It would have cost me a lot of money, but it might have made me a lot of money as well.
But before I wrote the letter threatening an audit, I knew that I wanted out of that agency. I was, in fact, no longer an active client. The agent had stopped representing my new work years before. We were only dealing with old work.
By writing that letter, I inadvertently got what I wanted: I got all of my work untangled from that literary agency.
The word “audit” was the equivalent of dropping a flamethrower on a gasoline spill. I knew that I might start a fire in that instance. I didn’t expect the agency to respond so violently. Thank heavens I was prepared.
Are there other trigger words that might burn a bridge? Oh, yes. There are hundreds of them. And even more actions. As I wrote this, I started to make a list of those solutions, then stopped.
Because with a reasonable company or a reasonable person on the other side of a dispute, a lot of those solutions are viable and won’t burn a bridge at all.
An audit is a standard business solution to disputes between companies over financial issues. In traditional publishing, an audit is seen as a hostile act. (Think about that for a minute, would you?) Many contracts between writers and traditional publishers do not allow for an audit at all.
Same with using a lawyer to resolve a contract dispute. In traditional publishing that’s often seen as a hostile act, while most non-publishing businesses see using lawyers to resolve contract issues as the sane way to proceed. (It keeps the emotions out of the proceedings—in theory.)
I prefer to keep my lawyer at arms length, not because using him would be seen as a hostile act, but because so much of what he would do, I can do easily and more effectively, like writing letters to get payment or doing the preliminary negotiation on a contract (coming to general terms). I hate paying someone to do something I can do faster, easier, and more efficiently.
But I do use my lawyer to finalize negotiations and handle particularly difficult matters. I often pay my lawyer for an hour of his time just to get his advice, and then do the actual work of dealing with the problem myself.
So, how do you handle a serious problem that has come up with your business?
I hope you never have to take my advice about burning bridges. I hope that you are able to get through your entire career, handling problems professionally and calmly and without malice.
But if you do need to burn a bridge, realize that you’re taking an extreme action, one you can’t turn back from. Be calm. Be rational. And make sure it’s the right choice for you.
Because once a bridge is burned, it’s gone. And no amount of wishing mixed with heart-felt apologies will bring it back.
Good luck and be careful.
I realized this morning that I quit writing the Business Rusch blog about a year ago, because I was tired, overworked, and I needed to focus on the end of the Anniversary Day Saga. I knew, when I shut down the blog, that I might lose a lot of readers.
When I started again six months ago, most of you came back. There are a lot of new readers as well. This made me realize that I had left properly. No bridges burnt. Instead, some of the readers simply got out of the habit of coming here every week—and I’m okay with that. (I was okay with it a year ago, when I shut down the previous incarnation of this blog.)
Thanks to all of you who returned, and welcome to all of you new readers. Thanks for reading the blog, for mentioning it on social media and to your writers’ groups. Thanks for the donations and the financial backing that helps me make the blog a priority every week.
I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your support.
Click Here to Go To PayPal.
(Yes, White Mist Mountain is my company name)
“Business Musings: Burning Bridges (The Freelance Scramble Part 5),” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
My book in the bundle, The Write Attitude, debuted yesterday (at the same time as Starbase Human). The Write Attitude comes from uncollected blog posts throughout my five years of blogging on writing. The book is about attitude, yes, but it’s also chockfull of tips that will help you with everything from getting started to surviving the worst publishing can throw at you.
If you want to buy the book as a standalone (without the bundle), you can find it on all the standard sites. You can get the trade paper version through your favorite brick-and-mortar store when you pick up Starbase Human. (Or even if you don’t pick up Starbase Human.)
As for ebooks, the standalone version is on all ebook sites, from Amazon to Kobo to Barnes & Noble and more!
But if you want ten other books, as well as a coupon for 40% off Jutoh (the epub design program), then head on over to Storybundle now. In addition to my book, you’ll find work from Leah Cutter, Vonda N. McIntyre, Judith Tarr, J. Daniel Sawyer, Chuck Wendig, Jerrold Mundis, Bob Mayer, Laura Resnick, and Douglas Smith.
Okay, I’ll confess: there are two D. Smiths in the bundle. The other is some dude named Dean Wesley Smith. He also has a brand new book in the bundle, Writing Into The Dark. It also has a trade paper edition, should you decide against the bundle. But let me warn you: If you buy my new writing book in trade paper and Dean’s writing book in trade paper, you’ll spend more money than you’d spend for all eleven ebooks. And that doesn’t even count the bonus Jutoh coupon. Plus, you can give some of that bundle money to one of two charities.
If I were you, I’d buy the bundle. But I’ve given you some choice here. And I hope you’ll use it. I’ll blog more about the bundle in a week or two. But let me remind you: I’m the one who chose the books for the bundle. It has everything a writer needs to know about writing and publishing, as well as some specialty books on genre, craft, and audio. Lots of good stuff there. Click on this link to check it out. (Oh, and here are the covers!)
I’ve said over and over again that this story is big, and in Starbase Human, you should start to get a sense as to just how big.
You can now buy the ebooks on all sites, the audiobook, and the trade paper. If you can’t find the paper book in your favorite bookstore, ask them to order it. Because as of today, Starbase Human should be available everywhere books are sold.
You will still have to wait one month for the end of the Saga. The reviews are starting to come in. I won’t quote all of the Publishers Weekly review, because there are spoilers, but here’s their conclusion:
“This deeply satisfying eighth entry…is a very strong payoff for the series.”
I love the phrases “deeply satisfying” and “very strong payoff.” That’s what I was going for. You can preorder Masterminds on Amazon, Kobo, and iBooks. You can also preorder the audiobook from Audible. The trade paper edition and the other ebook editions will be available on June 9, 2015.