The Business Rusch: Beginning Writers Again–Sort Of (Changing Times Part 17)
The Business Rusch: Beginning Writers Again—Sort of
(Changing Times Part Seventeen)
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Wow. The changes keep coming, dozens in the space of a week. I have watched this kind of change from the outside for years in other industries, studied it in my history classes, continue to read about it in my history books. I know that paradigm shifts are hard on everyone involved, and I’ve often wondered what it feels like to be in the middle of one. Would I know? Would I take action? Would I take the right action?
Well, I’m discovering the answers to those questions right now because of the rapid change in publishing. I do know that the shift is happening, and am rather startled at the long time professionals who are trying exceedingly hard to ignore it. So I guess I can say that yes, in this instance, I know. I am taking action, and I started a little late, in my opinion (two years ago April), although when I really step back and evaluate, I realize I wasn’t that late.
Would I take the right action? That’s the hard question. It’s easier for me to answer than it is for beginning writers. My answer—at the moment—is a heartfelt I think so. But as I said last week, I’m struggling with what kind of advice to give beginners. I have a lot of concerns. Most of us who have long-term writing careers have concerns about what to tell beginners. And most of us are fumbling with our answers—or changing them as the news changes—or worrying about things that we have absolutely no control over.
The things I discovered this week include things that David Wisehart posted on my blog, things that I had somehow missed. He mentioned the New York Times much ballyhooed digital list won’t include self published titles, and then provided the links so that I could reference them for you. Amanda Hocking announced in USA Today that she had made 450,000 book sales in January. January. Remember the bestseller numbers I posted in the section on bestsellers? Many of the folks who hit the pre-digital New York Times hardcover list did not have 450,000 book sales in a single year. Granted, Hocking’s books are mostly digital and they’re cheap (99 cents to $2.99), but still. These are significant game-changing numbers, and I’ll discuss why in a minute.
On the sad end of the spectrum, Powell’s Bookstore which is—bar none—my favorite bookstore in the United States, announced that it would lay off 31 workers, which comes to about 10% of its non-management workforce. Powell’s is a force here in the Northwest. Its flagship store used to be a car dealership, and covers an entire city block. It’s an amazing, fantastic wonderland of books, and apparently it has seen declining sales for the past three years.
In making her announcement, company president Emily Powell cited a variety of factors including increased health care costs (how many bookstores do you know that can afford to pay their employees health care at all?) and the recession. But she also cited the rise of digital books and that paradigm shift I mentioned at the top of this post. She said, “Sales for this fiscal year are down and we expect this trend will continue. The largest decreases have been in new book sales. We see this as a clear indication that we are losing sales to electronic books and reading devices. Given the company’s declining sales, combined with industry data on the rapid growth of electronic book sales, we expect to see continuing erosion of new book sales over the next few years. While we believe we can compensate for some of the loss with solid used book sales and growth in gift sales, the erosion of new book sales will continue to take its toll.”
She’s right. I still drop about $200 whenever I go to Powell’s. But I don’t go as often. I get most of my new fiction titles on Kindle, unless I really love the author and want to hold the book itself. I’ll read nonfiction on Kindle under duress, mostly because I read most of my nonfiction for research and (Collectors, prepare to cringe in unison!) I write in the books. Right now, you do that digitally, but it’s just not that efficient.
I was stunned with the Powell’s news. It is a behemoth and it seems solid. But as the friend who provided the initial link said in his post, the dinosaurs seemed stable until the asteroid hit.
Also, this week, my own personal paradigm shift which I’ve been struggling over for the past few months has culminated in the publication of my first original title. Right now, The Death of Davy Moss is only available electronically, but the trade paper version will appear in a month or two.
The book has made the rounds of traditional publishing (and then some!) and it garnered some of the best rejections of my career. Editors loved this book, but the sales force at Big Publishing hated the very concept. Books about music don’t sell, they said, and then they’d force the editor to pass. I’d love to prove those guys on the various sales forces wrong. But I honestly don’t care if Davy Moss ever reaches “successful” Big Publishing sales figures. I’m just happy to have the book out for readers.
What does all of this change mean for beginning writers? Well, I’m still struggling to give my answer. I know last week’s post discouraged some of you, and encouraged some of you. I suspect all of these posts will do that. And I do think one of the results of this paradigm shift will be that different kinds of writers will succeed in the new publishing world than the writers who succeeded in the old one.
Before I go further, I need to add some information for those poor folks who got discouraged by last week’s post. I know of three beginning writers whose Big Publishers are launching them perfectly. None of these three writers got blow-out money, but they all got advances in the low six-figures for three books. Blow-out money, in my opinion, would be an advance in the low six-figures for one book, not divided by three books. (And even that isn’t blow-out money by the standards of the 1990s. <sigh>)
Two of these new writers have written YA novels. One is writing a large fantasy series. The publishers are doing everything from sending a very personable author on an extended book tour (with major media) to pre-publication packets of cool stuff designed to get bookstores interested to sending review copies to everyone, including the bookstore owners’ mothers and their mothers’ dogs. (Okay, I made that last part up, but you know what I mean.)
In other words, Big Publishing can—and still does—pull out all the stops when they have a potential bestseller on their hands. And in all three cases, three different Big Publishers believe they have a potential bestseller.
I also need to note, for those of you who are discouraged, that in all of my years of publishing, I have never personally known three beginning writers who have gotten such marvelous treatment in the same year. The dream via Big Publishing can happen. It might happen to you.
Or it might not.
And that’s no different from the way it has always been. Even writers who get the big money early on have no guarantee of success. Because ultimately, it’s the book that decides whether or not the writer succeeds. It doesn’t matter how much money the Big Publisher puts behind the book, or how hard the Big Publisher launches the book, the book must still stand on its own. Readers will either love it or hate it. They’ll buy it or they won’t. They’ll recommend it to friends or they’ll warn friends away from it.
That’s no different than it was in the 19th century, no different than it was in the 20th century, and no different than it is now in the digital age.
Books that sell well remain in print. That’s a good thing. I know some of you thought my comments last week were all negative—and in some areas they are. Writers who go through Big Publishing will get significantly less money on their digital rights than writers who go it alone, but if a writer is in publishing for the money alone, the writer is in the wrong business.
I personally want readers and I want as many readers as possible. More readers equal more money—of course—but more readers also equal a long-term career. If my book is in print from a Big Publisher, then theoretically the book is attracting readers. If my book is in print from my self-publishing arm or an indie publisher, then theoretically the book is attracting readers.
And that, my friends, is really what matters.
In June of 2010, I wrote a blog post for the Freelancer’s Survival Guide, called “Giving Up On Yourself (Part One).” To date, it’s the third most read post on my blog, which is why it still appears on my home page in the most popular category, which is automatically generated by the web design program. In that post, I worried about new writers going to self-publishing too soon, and that self-publishing might be a sign that those writers are giving up on themselves.
I still worry about that. I worry about a lot of things concerning new writers. Right now is a particularly tricky time to be a talented beginner.
As many of you could tell from last week’s post, I am leaning toward telling new writers to self-publish rather than go to Big Publishing. The contract terms concern me and so do the agents, particularly those who have gotten into digital publishing. Scams and business practices that will harm writers are growing like mushrooms in a dark damp room.
In publishing, people who understand business have more opportunities right now to screw people who don’t understand business than ever before.
I’ll be honest. If I were the head of a big publishing company, I would contractually lock my new writers down so that it would be virtually impossible for them to write for another company under the same name. I would do a lot of the things that big corporations do when they lock down their employee’s intellectual property both on and off the job. Established writers with business savvy wouldn’t sign those contracts.
Most beginners would.
Fortunately, the folks in charge of Big Publishing’s contract departments are more ethical than I am and either haven’t thought of this or have ruled it out as too cumbersome.
But a lot of agents have already thought of this and have taken their clients entire oeuvre and are locking it down under the agent’s publishing imprint. As I mentioned before, this is a conflict of interest, and any agent who is operating in these conditions should be fired—even by (especially by) a beginning writer. These unethical agents are taking a percentage of their clients work for the lifetime of that work. They’re funneling the money through the agency with no means to accurately track the funds. Please see my earlier post on this topic because it’s important. Read the comments as well. This is one very bad business practice all writers should avoid.
But agents aren’t the only ones setting up companies that seem good but ultimately won’t benefit the writer at all. One of my readers pointed me to this startup, mentioned in the New York Times. I recognize the name of everyone involved in this organization—all reputable publishing folk—and I can tell you right now that the only way this company with such high-powered people will make money is if they charge a percentage for their services. They will act like a publisher, taking a large percentage of a book’s digital earnings.
In the past, a company like this would provide access to markets and readers that a writer couldn’t get to on her own. But nowadays, a writer can get to those markets and those readers cheaply and easily without help. In other words, the company is going to take a large percentage of a writer’s sales for work the writer could easily do herself. Only writers who don’t understand the new business models or writers who want to be taken care of or writers who wouldn’t do the work anyway will go with companies like this one. And that’s a real shame.
This week’s game-changer for me, the thing that is changing my mind about advice to new writers, is Amanda Hocking. I noticed about two weeks ago that her novel Switched was number 3 on the Kindle paid bestseller list, sandwiched between Lisa Gardner and Stieg Larsson. I know what Larsson’s e-book numbers are: they made news several months back, and nothing has changed. The fact that Hocking is right there beside him told me her books were selling at least 100,000 copies on Kindle alone.
The nice thing about Hocking is that she publishes her numbers. She sold 99,000 books in December (with only a few distribution channels reporting) and 4.5 times that in January (again, with only a few distribution channels reporting).
Why does that change the game for me? Because, as I mentioned in this very series only a few months ago (maybe only a few weeks ago), I believed that the only way to sell 100,000 or more copies of a single title was to go through Big Publishing. I figured that would remain the same for a few years at least.
But with Powell’s layoffs, Emily Powell’s comments, Borders troubles, and the fact that some distributors are going out of business suddenly a 100,000 paper one-day laydown becomes harder. And if a self-published writer can sell that many copies—which is bestseller numbers—in a book form that isn’t yet available to 85% of the reading public, then we’re truly in the middle of a revolution, one that’s shifting faster than I expected.
Also, the indicators of what makes a book successful are changing. USA Today will list self-published Hocking on their weekly bestseller list. The New York Times will ignore her. The Times has always tried to control the type of books that become bestsellers, first by only letting certain bookstores report sales (not all bookstores) and then by cannibalizing their lists, removing J.K. Rowling from their adult bestseller list when it seemed that her fans were buying too many copies of her books and knocking “worthy” books off the list. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer and other legitimate bestsellers were sent to the kids’ table—the children’s and young adult bestseller lists—so that they wouldn’t interfere with adult conversation.
When the Times did that, they moved closer to irrelevant. But if they’re going to ignore publishing phenoms like Hocking, who has turned down Big Publishing offers (as she should), then the Times has just tarnished the integrity of its “bestseller” list—in public for everyone (not just those in the know in publishing) to see.
Why are these things game-changers for me and for beginning writers? Because I truly believed that the only way to make a name in publishing—a large name, outside of a little niche—was to go to Big Publishing. The events of this past month have knocked that assumption out of the water.
(And no, you gloom and doomers, I still don’t believe that Big Publishing will go away. I do, however, believe it will morph into a different kind of business, but that’s a topic for another day.)
So here I sit, still struggling with the kind of advice to give to beginning writers. I’m lost in my concerns, flailing in the dark, leaning toward advising you all to self-publishing while worrying that doing so might harm you. But I also worry that going to Big Publishing might harm you. And I worry that you’ll hook up with a bad crowd, one that will hurt you in the long run.
I had planned to advise beginning writers to do both: try for Big Publishing and try self-publishing, using some strategies I’m watching some successful new writers employ. But I’m not sure that’s good one-size-fits-all advice.
I’m not sure there is good one-size-fits-all advice. So rather than tell you how to go about getting published, which is becoming more and more of a personal decision each and every day, I’m going to discuss the skills a beginning writer needs to survive in the new publishing environment.
In the very recent past (a few years ago), writers could be “artists” who didn’t dirty their fingers with business or any of those “trivial” concerns. Writers could just write. They could hire an agent to represent them and worry about all those career-type things, and still the writer could make a decent (if not good) living.
Those days are gone.
The writer who will survive in this new publishing environment will have to be fast, smart, business-savvy, and constantly willing to learn. When Dean Wesley Smith and I teach, we always tell writers that they are responsible for their own careers. In the very recent past, this was news to the writer. Writers often blamed their agent or their editor for career troubles, rarely taking responsibility for themselves.
Those writers will still exist in this new publishing environment, but they will not make a living at their writing. They might make $5,000 per year, but not much more. Part of that will be because of their slowness, but most of it will be because of their ignorance. They’ll sign up with places like the one I mentioned above. They’ll sign a bad contract with a publisher. They’ll let their agent publish their backlist. People they’ve never even met—from the agent’s bookkeeper to someone at a small e-publishing house—will embezzle from them and they’ll never ever know it.
They’ll go to writers conferences, sit in the bar, and bemoan the state of publishing, telling new writers how impossible it is to make a living.
While the writers who have the skills to survive in this new publishing world will be too damn busy to go to writers conferences or sit in a bar, and those writers (if they had time) would simply laugh at the word “impossible.”
In some ways, we have returned—almost instantly—to the days of the pulps. The faster the writer is, the better the writer is at storytelling (not at writing pretty sentences), the more the writer’s works will sell. The better the writer is at business, the more profit she will make from her own writing.
The transition that we’re going through, this paradigm shift, will be particularly tough on the classically trained writer, the one who has bought all the myths about writing slow, about the importance of each word, about how stupid artists are about business. Those writers will have to change the way they think about writing before they can even start learning the tools they need to survive in this business.
Is it smart for the new writer to go into Big Publishing? It might be, if the writer is fast and can produce work on her own as well, so that she can capitalize on all the marketing that Big Publishing will do for her book. Is it smart for the new writer to avoid self-publishing? I don’t think so. I think the sooner a writer learns those skills, the better off she’ll be as books go more and more toward digital content, and more and more traditional readers (those who prefer paper) order their books online.
The skill set that it takes to become a professional writer has changed dramatically in the past year, and it’ll take a lot of writers time to catch up. Some never will. And some will learn the wrong skills. I’m particularly worried about the indie writers with one book who promote the hell out of that single title, and forget to write the next book. Who cares if 10,000 people bought your first book? If it takes two years to finish the next one, they’ll move onto some other writer and probably forget you.
So…unless things change dramatically again during the next week, I’m going to list the skills that a new writer needs to survive in this new publishing environment, and explain why I believe those skills are necessary.
The days of the “take-care-of-me” writer are gone, folks. Those writers will not survive in the new environment. We will lose a lot of talented writers. But as my well-published friends said at that lunch ten days ago now, how many talented writers whose skill set did not match Big Publishing’s rules didn’t survive in the old publishing environment? We wouldn’t know about Amanda Hocking without the changes in publishing. I have a hunch we’re going to discover quite a few other writers who couldn’t get through the “give me Dan Brown crossed with J.K. Rowling” mindset of Big Publishing, writers who are worth reading.
Things are going to be different from now on. Will they be better? I don’t know. But in this week when my “unsaleable” novel, The Death of Davy Moss, has hit bookstores, I’m inclined to say yes, better. And what’s more, I’m inclined to believe it.
As you can see, I’m struggling with these changes just like you are. And because I write this blog every week, my struggles are on the page (in the pixels?) for all of you to see. It’s an exciting time to be a writer. It’s also a time when writers and readers have more opportunities for direct communication, from e-mails to blog posts to comments. That’s why I have the donation button up here, but not on my Free Fiction Monday posts. The donation button keeps me writing nonfiction when I should be finishing the latest novel. That, and you guys with your thoughts and challenges. You keep me thinking—and that’s a good thing. Thanks.
“The Business Rusch: Beginning Writers Again—Sort of” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
I’m not a beginning writer and I’m not a novelist (I write short stories and a blog), but I’ve heard so many sad, frustrating stories from my friends who have or are trying to publish books. Thanks for such an in-depth analysis of the industry. You’re right, we are right smack in the middle of all the changes as they are happening. It’s a new frontier.
Let’s hope we can all learn to make it work for us!
Good column, Kris. You’re absolutely right that there’s no one-size-fits-all
advice, but there doesn’t have to be. With the self-publishing stigma melting
away like an ice cube on July asphalt, I see no reason why a beginner can’t
self-publish while waiting to be discovered by Big Publishing. I don’t think
it’s an either-or situation. The big revolution is that, in the Olden Days
(like, say, a decade ago or less), a writer who couldn’t do the Big Publishing
dance was doomed to total failure. Today, she has a *choice*. That’s the real
I hope you’re right about storytelling being the key to success. (My intuition
says you are.) Readers have told me they enjoyed my stories; I just never had a
publisher willing to invest enough in me to move me out of the midlist category.
But that’s another factor in the current revolution: the definition of “success”
has changed. Big Publishers have big overheads they have to meet before
something is dubbed successful; I don’t. Sure, I’d like to sell a million copies
of all my titles, but i can survive, and even thrive, on a lot less…and that
will keep me going to write more. It’s a cumulative process.
Thanks, Sam, for finding that link. I thought he had done something like that. Much appreciated.
Stephen, I love what you said here: But that’s another factor in the current revolution: the definition of “success”
has changed. Big Publishers have big overheads they have to meet before
something is dubbed successful; I don’t. Sooo true. And wonderful. 🙂
[…] yesterday. She wrote on the topic that none of us writers seem to be able to fine any peace with: being as good at business as we are at writing. It’s the hottest topic of discussion amongst writers, which sucks. It’s not what I […]
No prob, Kris! Sarcasm is tricky online and I should know better by now to do it without flagging it blatantly. 😀
As for neepery about a bestseller’s writing, I thought Dean did a very succinct and accurate post (pre-Killing Sacred Cows) here: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=287
about the different levels of writers and how their grasp of story varies.
In short: newbie writers will invariably focus on the line edit factors, the pretty writing, over the story. Long term commercial fiction bestsellers will invariably focus on the story, and their goal is to make sure that the writing style doesn’t get in the way of the story.
Thanks for a great post! When I self-published my first book, it was self doubt masked as the desire for control and to get it done. Now, four years later, I plan to self-publish again. This time it really is about the control and having the book up and running now. I think, as you and Dean say, that the prolific writer will eventually win. Thanks to you and Dean I have stopped worrying about promoting my first book and am now focused on 3-5 fantasy novels a year. At an average of 2k-6k words a day, I should be able to manage. 🙂 Thank you for taking the time to break down the myths and help the indies out here to understand the business more.
Thanks for the post, Ramon. And you’re welcome. 🙂 Good luck with the new book(s)!
I loved your post. As someone who reluctantly embraced self-publishing, after my agent tried all the houses, I’ve experienced more than a few ups and downs. I’m happy I’ve done it — despite the difficulties I’ve faced in getting mainstream reviews. But to self-publish is to self-doubt. When someone else publishes your book you have a buffer between you and your insecurities. You also have someone to blame if the cover turns out poorly or the book jacket copy sounds awful.
But now, after six months or so, I’m starting to enjoy the process. I like being able to set the price — and lower the ebook price for promotions. And my wife and I recently created a book trailer of sorts that has helped get our books some degree of attention: http://youtu.be/OFki2O8-28s
These are definitely interesting times.
Best of luck with your book!
PS: I’ve added you to my blog list.
Wow, Kris, the comment section this time is even better than the post itself.
After reading the your responses to the comments and all the times that you directed people to read Dean’s Killing the Sacred Cows posts, I think Dean might need to write that long delayed post on how bestsellers can’t write. =)
I know I cringe whenever I hear someone complain about the “bad writing” in a best seller when, in fact, it’s the storytelling that’s selling it. I say (to a writer) if you don’t like something a bestseller is doing, well, don’t do that. But you can open your eyes and find out what they’re doing right to become bestsellers. And that uually comes down to storytelling techniques.
One of the best learning tools I found was Dean’s. Take a bestseller (I picked Stephen King’s The Dead Zone) and with each chapter, answer 5 questions that have to do with what the author is communicating within the chapter (sorry, I don’t have the questions in front of me to share). It’s a lot of work, but enlightening. It’s good for internalyzing storytelling.
Granted, Stephen King speaks to me more as a writer than, say, James Patterson (the first author I performed the above exercise. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something I can learn.
Which leads me to believe it is more about genre taste and preference than writing. Vampire stories don’t grab me, so I’d have to leap over that hurdle to study Twilight. There’s enough bestsellers out there to find one or several that speak to me. I learned some time ago to shed the “popular” snootiness because those authors are doing something right to capture readers.
Thanks, Rob. Exactly.
Steve, I just nagged Dean to do that. Twice, in fact. (Once by e-mail this morning.)
John, great post. You’re exactly right: to self publish is to self doubt. However, the neat thing about this new world is that the readers really do get a chance to decide. I think that’s just plain fantastic (and terrifying).
Kris, sorry my sarcasm about the fast writing didn’t go through–I need to make it more clear! I am a big fan of Dean’s Sacred Cows series and his NWoP series, but I was just astonished that even in this new world, 1k/day is all it takes. I was under the vague misconception that I had to be more Lester Dent and less James Joyce (in output), but it’s not even that, just solid, consistent output.
It seems so little, but like you said, when done in conjunction with Heinlein’s Rules, it’s a recipe for long term success.
Thanks again, and I agree, I hope Hocking will do as well on the business side of her career as well as she has on her writing side. It’s a problem you see in all businesses–managing not just the production and sales but the business and financial end. 🙂
Great post. I am concerned about Hocking becoming the exemplar of self-publishing, though…
Hocking is an amazing commercial success, but unfortunately her books are poorly written. I read the first novel in her vampire series, and it was a juvenile rip-off of Twilight. I suspect they sell because (a) they are much cheaper than similar books from big publishers, and (b) they appeal to non-discriminating teens and preteens.
Any major publisher should rightly be embarrassed to publish her vampire series. I can only hope her “Trylle” books are better….
Mark, just because you don’t like Hocking’s work doesn’t make it bad. She’s a very good storyteller, and like many storytellers, the pretty sentences are secondary. Hocking is a perfect example of bestselling success in self-publishing because the complaints you make about her are the complaints that other writers (not readers) make about Cussler, Nora Roberts, Patterson and the like. The people who don’t just sell a million copies, but multimillion copies. The mediocre storytellers on a standard bestseller list sell under a million copies and have lovely sentences and great characters. The great storytellers sell multimillions, but couldn’t give a rat’s ass about sentences. As John Grisham says, the minute he pleases the critics, he knows he’s doing something wrong. (And yes, he’s right about that.) As I mentioned below, Dean doesn’t deal with that directly, but he deals with it some in the Talent myth post. Here’s the link: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=1183
“… if the writer is fast and can produce work on her own as well…”
Great piece on the shift in the publishing world. I think you’re right about most things, however I hope that writers don’t just race to turn out simple story books. Or, I should say, I hope that some good writing survives the shift and flourishes in the new model. I love my Kindle, I love my new life as an Indie writer who’s marketing his books way better than any of his former publishers have. And I love the plethora of new work out there, at least what I’ve read, but I don’t want an ocean of ony YA and vampire knockoffs.
I’ve called the new publishing dynamic the Indie writer Kindle mosh pit.
They say that everyone has a book in them. That used to be the case. Now they’re releasing them, uploading them. Let’s hope that the good books survive.
I’m reminded of the old fairy tale where a man catches a leprechaun. The man demands the leprchaun’s pot of gold for his release. The man then buries the gold under a tree and ties a yellow ribbon round the trunk. He’ll come back later with some friends to dig it up and haul it out. When he returns, every tree in the forest has a yellow ribbon round its trunk. Yes, let’s hope that readers can still find their way to good books and that the writer that write them make enough gold to continue producing.
Um…simple story books, Paul? Writers don’t sell words. They sell stories. And if you don’t like the type of story, that’s a taste issue, not a quality issue. That’s why bookstores–even before the change–were filled with all kinds of books. Not everyone who reads romance likes thrillers. Not everyone who reads literary fiction reads science fiction. That doesn’t make the other genres–other stories–crap. That makes them not to your taste.
I do see your worry about finding the good material. That’s what sampling is for. Everyone here (with the exception of Greg) seems to be forgetting that we don’t have to work on the produce model in indie publishing. (The books don’t have to all sell in the first six months.) Books can now build word of mouth. So what if the book only sells five copies in five months. If those five people like the book, they’ll tell their friends and in the next five months, the books will sell ten copies, then twenty, then 100 and so on. Five people will read the poorly written, poorly told books as well and not recommend those, and those books will sink. That’s one of the great things about this new world. Good really does rise to the top in fiction writing. It always has and always will. (The difference is that once the good story rose to the top in publishing, the editor then had to convince the sales force to put 100K behind it, and that didn’t always work. But the well written stuff always got attention.) Dean dealt with the produce side of things here: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=1742
But he didn’t deal with storytelling versus “good writing.” Hmmm. Dang. Looks like we’ll have to fix that. 🙂
“Books that sell well remain in print” is no longer true. I’m keeping one of my books “in print” electronically even though it earned only $34 last year. Why not? The cost of keeping it in print is zero. The revenue is pitiful, but I’d rather have $34 in my pocket than $0. There’s no incentive whatever to let it go out of print.
Greg, in discussing books that sell well that will stay in print, I was referring to traditional publishing, not self or indie publishing. You’re right, of course, about low-selling books. I’m doing the same thing with my short stories. Even if one only sells twice in a year (earning me about 60 cents), that’s 60 cents I wouldn’t have gotten and more importantly, two readers whom I probably haven’t attracted before. (And then I hope they like the story!)
I think this is a very well written, thoughtful blog. The reality is that the odds of success for a writer are the same as they’ve always been. The medium is changing. Whether a writer traditionally publishes or publishes non-traditionally, they’re pretty low. I’ve had 45 books published traditionally, have received four figure advances and six figure advances and next title comes out in May from St. Martins. I’ve also started my own non-traditional publishing company.
The difference with the latter is that I control it. We just dropped prices on our fiction eBooks from $5.99 to $2.99 at the beginning of February. Some ‘experts’ told us we were foolish. But it appears to have been the right move. In just two weeks fiction sales have jumped 40% and that’s translated over to additional sales for our nonfiction, mostly books on writing and publishing. Thus our gross from last week on Kindle (yes, like the rest of you, I check our previous 6 weeks sales every Sunday morning with my calculator and add up the last week) was higher than ever.
As you note, the bottom line is that a writer has to be business savvy. One my biggest problems with publishing was that no one trained writers. A traditional publisher gives you a book contract and acts like you know everything you need to know business-wise, promotion-wise, etc. But all you really know is how to write a good book to get the contract. I developed my Warrior Writer program as a training program to train writers to be successful authors. To have a strategic goal, and then develop tactical goals, etc etc. Writers love it, especially published writers surprisingly (mostly because they realize the reality of publishing), but I’ve yet to have an agent or publisher show any interest in it. Very few businesses can run well without educating the manufacturer of their product on how the business functions.
My first hardcover came out in 1991 and I truly believe right now is the most exciting time to be an author with more opportunities than ever before.
Bob, I saved you for last. I love, love, love your comment: One my biggest problems with publishing was that no one trained writers. A traditional publisher gives you a book contract and acts like you know everything you need to know business-wise, promotion-wise, etc. But all you really know is how to write a good book to get the contract. Exactly! And that’s changing.
I’m fascinated by your pricing story. However, are you making as much money on the increased sales? (You mention gross, but were you referring to sales or money?) And are you going to raise the prices again or keep them at the new rate? Fascinating stuff in this new world. 🙂 And I agree with you about the opportunities. I’m loving it.
Sarcasm. I love sarcasm and it just doesn’t work well in e-mail and in comments. Sorry I missed it. 🙂 Really, though, Sam, 1K. That’s it. 🙂
Well, the less I worry, or even pay attention to, the “old system,” the better I do and the happier I am.
I predict fully half of the current bestselling writers won’t survive the switch, because they are in a vulnerable position by having their entire careers in a stranglehold. Patterson, Cussler, Clancy among them–people won’t need the “facotry mass-produced” writing anymore becuase they have plenty of choices of at least equal if not greater quality and at far lower prices. The habits will quickly fade when Patterson isn’t blocking the bookstore entrance.
Scott, as for “blocking the bookstore door” …um. No. Folks like Patterson sell because people like their stories. Sorry to blow you out of the water with that, but it’s true. The fact that midlsters couldn’t get into the bookstore door in recent years had much more to do with the publishers, distribution changes, and mergers in corporations, as well as putting the bean counters in charge. The bestsellers will survive the switch because big publishers will survive the switch. (I know you don’t believe this, but it’s true.) The bestsellers will continue to fund big publishing. Again, this change is like TV. The networks didn’t go away because of the rise of cable and DVDs. The networks simply don’t command the same size audience that they used to.
And here’s the myth: Writers do not compete against each other. We compete against ourselves. Our readers don’t abandon us because they find someone else. They abandon us when we tell stories they don’t like over and over again. (Think of the writers whose work you’ve stopped buying. It’s because they no longer interested you.) Dean also dealt with this one. I suggest you read it: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=2725
Whoa, Kris, only 1000 words a day to be a fast writer in publishing? That totally seems off by about a factor of ten. I smell another dead cow/myth in the wings. 😉 Seriously, though, I can’t wait to see your installment on fast writers and necessary skillsets!
Hocking’s success is fantastically inspiring and motivational, and I for one hope she’s laughing all the way to the bank over the NYT list exclusion. Heh.
Wow, did I wake up to a lot of myths posted on this blog this morning. My, my, my people. Writing fast = writing bad. Myth. Because someone sells well “they’re blocking the bookstore door.” Myth. Writing fast means churning out 20+ pages per day. Myth. Storytellers are bad writers. Myth. And those are just the ones I saw before caffeine. So here goes. Because Dean has already dealt with a lot of these, I’m going to take them one by one, then point you to his posts.
First, Sam, Dean already dealt with what constitutes fast in his very first Sacred Cows blog ever. Here’s the link: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=310. So yes, you can be considered fast at 1000 words per day (or less!). The key is to stop counting rewriting and researching as “writing.” Only new words should be considered writing. As for Hocking, on her way to the bank, I hope she remembers the tax man. That might be a big surprise for her in April. It often is for people who get windfalls.
Oh, I can see why they exclude scriptures. They don’t want their list to be just the top ten translations of the Bible.
The exclusion of classroom reading is interesting, and knocks out books like The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Of Mice and Men, which continue to do well on the expanded USA Today list.
Excluding self-published books made sense in the past, because its difficult getting accurate data about how many books are being sold at the back of a speaker’s hotel conference room or out of the back of some indie author’s car. And most of those books never had a real shot at the list anyway, based on sales.
But excluding self-published novels, like Amanda Hockings’, that are outselling most of the big-name authors, and selling in the same places as other bestselling ebooks, is ridiculous.
It may be more difficult to get good numbers from indie authors than from publishers, but USA Today seems to have solved this problem.
I think the Times is making itself irrelevant as each day goes by, simply because it’s trying to control the information. Ah, well. The more things change…
More info on the NY Times so-called “bestseller list”:
“Among the categories not actively tracked at this time are: perennial sellers, required classroom reading, textbooks, reference and test preparation guides, journals, workbooks, calorie counters, shopping guides, comics, crossword puzzles and self-published books.”
Yeah, David. It has always been thus. “Perennial sellers” means things like the Koran and the Bible, not, y’know, Harry Potter. 🙂
David, et al…
I happened upon a great looking program today for writing, organizing files, collecting stats, word counts, goals, outlines, timelines, writing timers, and more. You all might already know it, but I figured I’d chuck it up here anyway, since we’re on the topic. It’s called Liquid Story Binder.
Looks promising. Hope to give it a shot over the next few days…
Thank you Chris and David for the clarification. I did read the USA Today article, but it didn’t have some of the info you pointed out.
I did not realize that some of her sale channels were reporting quarterly – I can see why monthly reports might not be possible for paper book sales (with returns), especially if the reports are issued on paper. By why would a digital report of sales of a digital product not be available more often? That seems outdated.
That’s just the system that some digital companies have set up, Eseme. The report is often available from most companies on a daily (hourly) basis. But the gateway companies like Smashwords or Fictionwise only give out information when they receive it, and sometimes they don’t receive the reports from other companies every month.
Kris — thanks for the info! And you’re welcome. And I’m looking forward to reading them and Dean’s.
David….thanks! I will check that out.
I’ve thanked Dean before (probably not enough) but want to thank you too for all the help you and Dean give new writers. I can’t tell you how helpful it has been to me. There’s a long list of things that concerned me and preoccupied me when I first starting getting into writing and thinking about publishing, but you and Dean have helped me work through them all and get my head set on straight.
Thanks a lot.
Thanks, Scott. That’s always nice to know. 🙂
I love serials. I love reading them. I love writing them (and for the past four or five years, they’ve given me grocery money while I’ve been working on other projects). Cecilia Tan’s serializing a great period piece she wrote a while back (in college, I think!) about a musician; it’s set in the 80’s and the online format lets her link to appropriate music. It’s great to see multimedia tie-ins done so effectively. 🙂
Plus when you’re done, you can collect the whole thing and issue it as an e-book and a paper book. The money you earn writing it the first time is almost like an advance, except it’s not an advance against anything. It’s just money. That you get to keep. Wonderful stuff!
Brilliant! That’s what I did with the Freelancer’s Guide, but didn’t think of it at all for fiction. Silly me. Thanks so much for the suggestion.
I’ve tried Write or Die with good results. Using the desktop version, I can crank out 1200 new words in 25 minutes. Granted, those words need serious editing later, but if you’re looking for a productivity tool to help you get that first draft finished, it’s worth trying, and the web version is free:
Thanks, Kris. Yes, good idea to try both… out of interest, what do you think about the e-market for children’s fiction? Is it any different if most of your readers are aged 9-12?
Thanks for the wonderful info. I’ve learned a lot from you and Dean over the past few weeks sicne discovering your blogs. Now the only thing I need to figure out is which ebooks of yours and his I want to start with!
You brought up the ‘fast writer’ issue a few times, and that only ‘fast writers’ will survive in the new market. I had a conversation with Dean about this, and was wondering of you could clarify this just a little from your perspective. At the moment I’m trying to decide if I want to stick with my current process for creating prose, or if I need to make some serious adjustments. I’m trying to translate your and Dean’s recommendations into something I can use to help make that decision.
Long story short, I’m not talking about typing speed. I type fast, but write prose slowly. Saying a fast writer simply writes more hours in a day doesn’t take into account the heart of that equation: what rate the writer cranks out prose in a hour, or her ‘productivity rate.’ That is, two writers can both write 8 hours in a day, but the one with the higher productivity rate is going to produce more copy. So, can you translate ‘fast’ perhaps into a word count per day? From there I can do the math and figure out if I need to find more hours in a day or change my process…
Thanks a boatload!! I’m off to get a few ebooks!
Jim, I’ll address fast writer in next week’s blog post (I hope), but since you’re following Dean’s blog, he has some good posts on it, one just this week. If you can manage 1,000 new words per day, then the publishing world will consider you a new writer. That’s 365,000 words per year–or 3.5 novels. That’s what I mean by fast. Most writers manage 250 words per 15 minutes, but even if you do that in one hour, you still would be writing only 4 hours per day to achieve 1000 words. Even with a day job that’s possible (if you don’t have family, of course). But your e-mail was at least 250 words and I bet you typed that in less than 10 minutes. 🙂 Sometimes the block is mental and able to be trained. Just a thought.
And thanks for the e-book purchases! Much appreciated. I hope you enjoy them.
You’re welcome, Katherine. What I know about the children’s market is anecdotal at the moment. For example, a friend sold over 3K books in December in the early reader age group on the Nook only. (Her book was 99 cents, has a great title, is a fun read, and has some art, which looks good on the Nook.) But I’m hearing from a lot of writers that the market is expanding all the time. Kids tend to read on their phones (!) instead of a dedicated reader, so that’s a difference too. It’s all changing….
Amanda Hocking has six titles in the USA Today Top 150. That list includes hardbacks, paperbacks, and ebooks.
Her top book is #16 on the USA Today list.
All six of her bestselling titles appeared for the first on the list this week.
Her sales in January were four times her sales in December.
It’s quite likely that in March (if not in February) she will surpass 1 million in total ebook sales.
Only a few authors (Patterson, Larsson, Roberts) are confirmed to have sold more than 1 million ebooks.
In March of last year, Amanda Hocking was unpublished.
I can’t think of another author who has gone from zero sales to 1 million sales within a year. It may have happened in the past to a few traditionally published writers, but certainly not to a self-published writer.
I expect her sales, and her rankings, to grow for quite awhile. She’s writing more books, the ebook market is rapidly expanding, and she is still, to most people, an undiscovered writer.
As of today, most readers have never heard of Amanda Hocking.
That will change.
Great post, David. Thanks.
I’m confused by your numbers. Amanda Hocking has to be selling well under 100,000 units for at least some of her books.
She has nine titles out, according to the article you linked to. So she is averaging 50,000 in sales for each title for the month of January. If she is selling 100,000 copies, of one title, as you suspect, she is selling 25,000 for other titles (or less). Are people buying her first book (possibly at the lower $0.99 price) and not buying the later books because they don’t like the first one? Or is it simply that people who bought her first book did not do so until January, and she will sell more copies of later books in the coming months?
Yes, those are good numbers. I’d be interested to know if next month sales of all her titles fall off to the 25,000 level, or if they are able to hold steady. January is an interesting month for ebook sales, given the number of people who suddenly get an ereader for Christmas. It may be a statistical outlier, in terms of sales.
Thank you for these posts! You mentioned a startup — I know an established author (whose backlist is sadly out of print in many places) who has gone with that startup you linked… probably for one main reason: said author is *not* a computer expert, and some of those backlist books don’t even *have* electronic copies. If the OR Startup is helping turn those backlists into e-copies, and managing all the confusing labyrinth of electronic storefronts… It may be worth whatever cut they’re going to be taking. (Yeah, I looked at it as well and went, “They’ve gotta be taking a cut in exchange for doing what formatting has to be done to get the backlist up there.”) Depending on what the cut they’re taking, it might be worth it for an author to have said startup consolidate the various checks from the e-markets into one check. Especially if the author has a time-and/or-energy-eating day job.
Beth, my point is that they should not take a cut. They should charge a flat fee. Look at my “Bad Decisions and the Midlist Writer post” for the math on what a cut really means to the writer. Your writer friend could do a lot better with a different service, one that only charges a flat fee per item instead of a percentage. I object strongly–more than strongly–to the idea of anyone taking a cut for a service. A friend compared it to your house painter taking a cut of the profits from every single rental property you own, even if the painter only painted the house once 20 years ago.
So yes, I believe a writer can and should hire someone to do the work for her if she can’t do it herself. But she hired someone with the wrong business model. There are a lot of flat-fee only places that do the work out there. The kind of place she went with is one that will keep her in her energy-eating day job forever while the startup makes all the money.
Did you follow the links that I posted, Eseme? Her 100K number is for all her books in December. But honestly, the way that some sites report (quarterly and biannually), she doesn’t have all the numbers yet. But if you look at that December link, you’ll see that she put up screen shots of her books’ earnings. They’re not selling evenly across the board. They’re following a series pattern. Book 1 sells the most, book 2 is rising, so is book 3, and so on. Her numbers went up and are staying steady, if the Kindle Paid bestseller list is to be believed. It’s supposed to update hourly and I’ve been checking every day to see if she drops off. So far, she hasn’t, and the other books are climbing.
Remember, we’re comparing her monthly numbers to NYT bestsellers’ annual numbers. 25,000 book sales for an individual title per month on one site equals 300,000 sales of that title in a year on one site. Again, comparing to NYT bestsellers over every single bookstore in the U.S. That is why her numbers are significant. Right now, she’s going at huge sales numbers in a part of publishing where 87% of all readers haven’t penetrated yet. What happens when they join on?
It’s just adorable the way you worry about new writers, like we’re your kids and you’re not sure how to put us on the right path. <3 Thanks for the posts, very interesting stuff!
A thought provoking post, thank you. I have only just dipped a toe in the e-waters, but have been writing long enough to see many excellent writers fall silent, not because they stop writing but because the big publishing business model did not work for them.
It must still be best to get a major publishing deal with a lot of publicity behind it, but I have been told (by an agent I approached recently) that there’s no point me having an agent unless she could secure me one of those deals, and she didn’t think she could. After picking myself off the floor, I am still writing and sending work out myself, but cannot send it to those publishers who give big deals because they refuse to look at unagented submissions. In my case would you suggest e-publishing as a way to go? (I am not really new any more since I have had 12 books published, so am worried that this might be seen as a backward step, but in terms of my career I feel as if I am still just starting out and trying to find my ideal readership.)
I really appreciate you and Dean’s efforts to help newbies avoid the worst pitfalls!
I also thank you for revisiting your earlier conclusion in light of new facts, and I agree—changes are happening so fast that I think newbie authors are almost better served by going straight indie (while keeping in mind to avoid getting sucked into promo/pricing/whatever, and just write and pub stuff) than to wait on trad pubs. Earlier this year I set myself the goal of writing for both indie and trad pub…and now, I’m considering going full indie and seeing if/when trad pub comes knocking, what the offer’s like before jumping into it.
I can already see how established authors were able to be sold off to other publishers by one failing small NY pub b/c they were known and valuable (but considered the publishing company’s assets) but the newbie writers with one, maybe two books, or lesser midlisters, have their books and rights stuck in limbo. These are not fast writers, nor will they necessarily have the resources to know to forget the limbo books and write the next one.
So, again, thank you. I wouldn’t have known some of the simple truths of long-term survival in this business without you and Dean!
Self-publishing and crowdfunding’s been a great Godsend in several regards for me: for one, it’s now good money to sell short stories (!), something I would never have believed possible. But e-fiction lends itself well to short work, even impossible to sell short lengths like novellas, and suddenly all those trunked novellas I could never place in the four markets that bought them are earning me money.
Second, I love the return of serials. Serials are great for earning salaries (as opposed to lump sums when royalties arrive quarterly), and with RSS feeds make it easy for fans to get their weekly dose of story. It keeps you writing, it keeps money coming in, and it keeps your name floating out there.
So many new and interesting business models are becoming available. Great time to be writing, definitely!
Serials! I hadn’t even thought of that, M.C.A. What a great idea. And a great promotion tool, plus a way to keep yourself writing on a tough project. Wonderful!
Sam, I really think anyone who is not a fast writer won’t survive in either market any more. But I’ll deal with that in future posts. Still, many a cautionary tale out there.
Katharine, that agent was quite honest with you, and probably sees the handwriting on the wall. Of course, she’s wrong because no one knows where the next bestseller is. Also, she’s wrong about publishers refusing to look at unagented submissions. Dean has dealt with this at length on his blog (see the Killing the Sacred Cows: agents posts), but in short, traditional publishing has to look at everything sent to them–particularly from someone who has published 12 novels!–in case they miss the next Twilight. So it will get looked at. It will also take time.
In other words, you can do both. (I’ve submitted a lot without my agent and I always get a personal reply, even from editors I don’t know, although sometimes it takes a year.) I know what you mean about feeling like you’re going backwards, but that’s in part socialization to the past, when self-publishing was backwards. I still have trouble with that at times. Yet my e-books are selling very well, the Freelancer’s Guide which I did for free/donations on my blog paid more than a NY advance when I totalled it all up–and the really cool thing was that I didn’t have to earn against anything. So the copies that sell now go to my bottom line rather than repaying a loan (an advance). It’s quite a mind-shift, but one worth taking, imho.
Rowyn, don’t mean to sound patronizing. I don’t see new writers as my kids, and I do worry. I used to be a new writer and so did all my well published friends, and those experiences are burned in my brain. My worries come from having been there and knowing how hard it is and how strange it is to have the floor shifting beneath us all. Glad you find the posts helpful, however. Thanks.
As always, love reading your posts. And I’m so glad you’re doing these new writer pieces.
For those who worry about how long it might take to get established as an ebook indie/self-pubbed writer, just remember that traditional publishing isn’t fast, either. The time table for publishing traditionally is 18 months to 2 years from submission of a manuscript, & most writers can’t quit their day jobs on advance income anymore than indie writers can quit their day jobs on 3-per-day sales on one book on Amazon. I’m learning more and more clearly that a career is built on a body of quality work, no matter what route(s) the writer takes.
As someone who is working on just starting out, I’m focusing on the long term. Keep writing. Write something good and get it out there, then write some more.
I’ve been waffling over the last 6 months about going traditional or “indie”. I really liked the idea (I think it was Dean’s, or maybe Bob Mayer or Mike Stackpole) of putting it up myself on Amazon & then shop it to traditional publishers.
As I watch things evolve, I may still do that. But I will also draw up my list of dealbreakers in a contract, and stick with them.
And the thought of a traditional publisher sliding into bankruptcy & taking my manuscript with it is definitely something to make me think twice about submitting the traditional route, at least for the next couple of years.
I’m also interested in seeing how things progress over the next few years. What diversity in revenue streams does the future hold?
Kris, I just wanted to say thanks. A great article.
The only place that I think compares is Joe Konrath’s blog although he goes at it from a rather different mindset. The two of you complement each other.
Thanks again for sharing your depth of knowledge.
Hocking was a hot topic at Kevin J. Anderson’s pro writing seminar in Salt Lake City a few weeks ago. Her numbers certainly demonstrate that in the (emancipated) digital era, you don’t need Big Publishing to become a true bestseller. The major caveat seems to be that just because you can e-publish doesn’t guarantee you’ll be the new Hocking. Ergo, even if you build it, there is no guarantee anyone will come.
Which is why I am still spending a lot of time focusing on traveling the traditional road. I’m doing WorldCon and World Fantasy in order to get some face time and exposure with the Big Publishing peoople, and will be very interested to see what can develop as a result. I’ve got some reliable, established professionals who offered to chaperone me, so it should be worthwhile — for the experience, if nothing else.
Having said that, I’m going to push some projects digitally too. This year I should end up with at least one novel and probably a couple short story “packs” available via digital platform. My hope is that my “street cred” as an author who has published in the traditional short fiction markets will transfer over to e-publishing, so that (perhaps?) potential e-buyers will feel a bit better going with my work — believing I am the sort of fellow who knows how to tell a good story because I can hack it The Old Fashioned Way.
Or maybe not? Maybe nobody will give a damn. Maybe my hopes for “street cred” are all in my head: maybe I needed them for me before I could take me seriously? That’s a possibility. But if true, I can’t say it’s necessarily a bad thing. I’m old enough to have esteemed Big Publishing to the extent that it’s a supreme gas seeing my stuff in print in the Dell digests.
I guess the bottom line is that the next ten years are a giant experiment for everyone: Big Publishing, self-publishing, e-books, the (re-rise?) of short stories as a major consumer product for the ADHD e-reader set, etc. Nobody really knows how it’s all going to settle out. Maybe it never does? Maybe paper publishing winds up like those Redbox rental machines that are giving even Netflix a run for their money: buy an e-book, have it plop out of an automated toaster as a trade paperback. No more returns or pulping madness, but also no more traditional bookstores either.
My wife and I went to Powells a few times. Mammoth. Could have spent days wandering that place. Hopefully they can survive, though I think the key will be stocking and marketing to the hardback-novel fetishists in the broader consumer realm. Bulk paperbacks and other mass-market items may be DOA. Powells will have to sell stuff that’s very hard to get elsewhere, for a crowd willing to pay a premium to get it?
Another great post, Kris. Dean mentioned something the other day that I’d been thinking for a while. I’m starting to believe that traditional publishing has one particular use left for a storyteller: Advertising for one’s independently published book. This of course assumes that the writer is producing more than one or two books a year and can keep themselves from getting pegged into a draconian contract, but otherwise I’m simply not seeing a great deal of benefit.
Publishing with the major publishers, one book a year maybe, seems to be just another way to promote your career. It’s no longer the end-all-be-all of the game.
@Erik: Man does that sound familiar. 🙂 Isn’t it nice to write for the joy of telling the story and to have options? I used to obsess over reviews and think that if a bad one came down the pipeline I’d lose legitimacy and wouldn’t be taken seriously and and and. Come to find out that it’s the readers who determine what sells. I’ve got a story that took work to sell. The editorial team that bought it split down the middle with half loving it and the other half wondering what the fuss was about. It ended up being one of the readers favorites that year and I’ve sold and resold that story five times now. The reviews on it were mixed. But people enjoyed reading it. Valuable lesson there. It’s all about the readers and if they enjoy the story. How can you NOT write when you know that they’re waiting for more?
Again, thanks Kris! Love having your brain on tap like this. Sure beats the bottled variety. 😉
I love your point about publishing going back to the pulp days, Kris. Self publishing gets more tempting with each week. The only thing holding me back now is the lingering fear that my book actually sucks and my beta readers are too nice to tell me.
I think, after much thought, that I’ve decided that a lot of my own fear about the changes come from my insecurity as a writer. I’m a newbie, with no books published, but about a dozen started (why is the middle so hard?). To be honest, these changes paralyzed my writing at first.
Before, I wrote because I enjoyed it. I shared my stuff with a select group of friends because they enjoyed it and I liked the high I got when they told me I was good. No pressure, nothing to risk, just me telling stories because it amused me.
Then, all of a sudden, there was the possibility of money, of legitimacy. I’ve argued with the math, but the silly numbers won’t change and they, too, insist that I could be making money. The only logical reaction was to freeze and panic, refusing to finish anything. Because it wasn’t me telling stories because it amused me anymore, it was me being an Author, who made money, who had to know business and the like.
How annoying is that?
But, I think, that fear comes from the Produce Model that you’ve talked about. I’m afraid that I’ll make a mistake on a book, that it won’t sell, and then what do I do? That’s a whole precious book, just destroyed and spoiled and that means that I should never have even tried and…
The excuses go on. I’m sure others have thought this way too. But that’s Produce talking. This new reality demands that I shut up, stop whining, and write the next book. If Big Publishing doesn’t like that and I want to sell to them, I’ll just use a different pen name on them. They’re too big to notice, because if they have noticed, then I’m too big for them to ignore.
All of this is to say, thanks. For the posts, for your encouragement and for worrying about new writers like me. I think that once I stop being afraid, I’ll realize that there’s nothing to fear at all. Then, I can go back to telling stories because they amuse me. The only real pressure and the only real failure comes from not writing. And finishing what you write. And publishing what you write. And trusting the process.
Gee, I wonder where I’ve heard those before. ^_^
One thing I seem to be hearing more about is “platform”. The notion that a writer may bring along a few thousand followers who already enjoy reading the writer’s material. Would it make sense to publish e-titles under a pen name leaving the real name clear for contracts with Big Publishers or would this possibly work against a new writer? I’m trying to discern whether or not it may be possible for a writer to have a “best of both worlds” option.
I got into doing audiobooks at the perfect time to discover that self-promotion really is over-rated. I determined at the outset not to do a lot of self-promo until I had a few books available, mostly because I didn’t want people to want more and then have to wait around for the next one. Probably one of the most fortuitous decisions made for the wrong reasons (basically, lazinesS) I’ve ever made. Why?
Well, around this same time, an acquaintance of mine who was a VERY good self-promoter moved from audio self-pub to big press print and had his career implode–the effective cult of personality he’d built simply didn’t translate to sales, because he spent his creative energy on building a following instead of creating more books, raising expectations in his audience to the point that, no matter what he put out next, it wouldn’t live up to those expectations.
Around the same time, another friend of mine just started quietly releasing audiobooks and got a print deal with a small publisher. He’s never done self-promotion, but he’s a damn good writer and he writes fast–fast enough that his name is a word-rate metric among his friends and is considered the standard to beat (in terms of pushing oneself to improve). Two years on, his book sales are paying him more per month than his career of forty years ever did, and every week they continue to grow.
Beyond simple announcements, there’s not a lot you can do that’s better than writing well and consistently releasing. There’s stuff you can do at the margins–interviews, or selling articles and stories that lead back to your books–that will help raise your visibility, but they are marginal activities, and if you’re doing those things for promotional purposes rather than because they’re enjoyable in their own right, you’re going to pour a lot of passion and bother down into a hole that doesn’t pay off.
And don’t forget the long tail. With precious little promotion at all, I’ve acquired close to ten thousand listeners in the last three years, and every month I find more due solely to word-of-mouth. The same thing is happening with my books, now that I’m releasing them. It might take a few months or a few years, but if you’re writing and releasing, your audience will find you and build itself over time.
Concerning what I wrote above about everyone talking about electronic publishing: Just today I received my copy of the Winter 2011 SFWA Bulletin, and there’s a terrific article by Michael A. Stackpole on digital publishing called “The Digital Future and You”.
Just wanted to thank you (and Dean) for all of the time you have put in writing these blog series. I’ve got them running almost 24/7 on my iPod’s text-to-speech app this week, comments and all.
I’m a brand new writer as well, up in the Vancouver, WA area and am in the middle of revising (and probably redrafting) my first novel. Holly Lisle broke down the writing craft in such a way that I could understand it and build my own style from it. You and Dean are doing much the same for me with the business side of things. With you three, I feel very prepared for a career as a novelist.
Reading this blog post, I could not stop grinning because this period of time represents a unique opportunity for newbies like me. My instinct is telling me to jump onto self-publishing ASAP and take advantage of the unrest, then to submit something to editors when things settle down a bit.
It’s hard to see the downside now, although I used to feel trepidation about it. And for anyone who still does, I heartily recommend reading Dean’s Killing the Sacred Cows of Writing blog series. That turned me right around by allowing me to synthesize the information you are giving us here in a much more self-empowering light.
Thanks, everyone, for the links and the recommendation to Dean’s blog (you should go, folks) and the kind words about this one. As for synthesizing information, I guess once a reporter, always a reporter. 🙂 Let me see if I can respond to some of this.
For you self-promotion folks, this debate is as old as publishing, and I personally think most self-promotion is a waste of time. If it takes time from writing, then stop doing it. You’re working on the produce model and new publishing (ebooks) doesn’t function on that model. Read Daniel’s post because that’s how it’s done, and Shawn’s post about the way that time works in the new publishing world. They’re both right. I promise: I will address this in greater length in the future.
Robby, good question about pen names. One of my well published writer friends has a pen name romance novel up and that’s his bestseller. No promotion, no mentions anywhere. I’m using my pen names as cross promotion with NY, so we’ll see how that goes. Davy Moss should have had a pen name–and would have if I had gone to traditional publishing–but I decided not to do it on e-pub. I figure if folks read enough of my stuff they know that I’m all over the map. So that’s a long way of saying…I dunno. Whatever. Try it. Or not.
It’s all new. 🙂
Good post, Erik. That fear is precisely something I’ll be dealing with in future posts because I had it too starting out. I finally just closed my eyes and jumped in the deep end. But since the deep end has moved to a new location, I worry about folks with that same insecurity. (It’s a normal writer’s insecurity, imho.) So I’ll try to deal with it in the next few weeks. Glad you’ve figured your own way out of it. Writing should always be fun. And Joseph’s comment is right on: it’s about the readers, most of whom will never contact you, but they will buy your next book. 🙂 And Livia, your readers will tell you your book sucks by not buying the next one. If they’re buying, you’re doing something right. (But figuring out what that “right” thing is is impossible, so just write the next book.)
Next ten years are an experiment, Brad? Honestly, I think the next five are the crucial ones. And you’re right. We’ll see.
It all comes down to individuals. There’s no one way to do it any more (if there ever was). And I think that’s both cool and intimidating. Which is why I’m struggling with the beginning writer stuff. I want to help, not hinder, and I’m shooting at a moving target. 🙂
I bought Davy Moss on my kindle last night. Had to. Can’t resist a music story.
I haven’t tried Hocking’s book yet, but with those numbers, it’s all about the writing. Has to be. I’ve seen a few interviews where she credits her marketing. Maybe to get started, but the writing has to carry it. Has to.
Her turning down Big Publishing reminds me of MC Hammer’s story.
Anyway, another great post Kris!
I found this blog through a link from the Crowdfunding community on LiveJournal. It’s fascinating reading, particularly as I’m a “beginning” writer.
I’ve been writing independently and exclusively online for about 15 years now — free stories based out of my own website, written simply because I love to write. I have a very strong day job which affords me the time to write, and I’ve had no interested in Big Publishing for all the reasons I’ve read here… I have lousy business sense and I don’t want to get reamed because of that. I just want to write.
But lately I’ve been keen on actual publishing of some form or another, if only to say I put a physical book out there. It’s a stamp of legitimacy. So, I launched retail versions of the free works (plus retail exclusive bonus story content) through Kindle and CreateSpace. It’s been an interesting experience so far, and I appreciate the level of control it gives me over my own work, even if it’s small potatoes.
The primary problem I’m having is the obvious one: since I’m self published, this isn’t my primary career, and I’ve no publicity to speak of, my audience is limited to those who have been following me over the years plus any word of mouth they can offer. What I’m wondering is how an independent, self-publishing author can build a readership without the backing of agents and publishing houses; what avenues can be used to leverage the existing self-publishing tools and get noticed?
I find the central message between yours and Dean’s posts today quite illuminating and I think the discussion in Oregon at the workshops in a few weeks will be even more so.
For me, the changing market means that I have to be even more careful about signing a contract with a Big Publisher. More risk means that the contract needs to be worth even more for me to sign it and with less dangerous clauses, which is less likely because I’m a new writer. Not that it isn’t possible, as you and Dean point out, but it makes it less likely.
That combination, means I’m going to reduce the time I wait before self-publishing once the novel is done. It almost seems like I should just self-pub right out of the gate while sending to Big Publishing and only taking a deal if it’s worth more than I can conceive of making alone. The problem is that the more books I sell doing it myself, drives up the cost for Big Publishers which makes them and me, less likely to do it.
On the flip side, if it’s not selling well, then Big Publishing would take that as a sign not to buy it. This again means I am less likely to go with Big Publishing, though in this case, because of my own poor quality.
So it seems that all road, right now, point to not working with Big Publishing. I think this has as much to do with them having to take on so much risk each time they publish a book and that an author these days can self-pub with no risk. Using a micro-profit model with risk factored in, the Big Publishing houses are screwed unless they can reduce their risk massively, which is I guess, why you’re saying they’re locking authors into long term deals with restrictive rights.
Strange and interesting and thrilling and worry-some; all at the same time.
Keeping up with current trends is always so hard to do, and your summary of them makes it so much easier to understand what’s going on out there. Thank you for doing the research.
I’ve been really enjoying this series and, as a new writer, I’ve been looking forward to your advice. However, I can understand how difficult it can be to provide that advice because it really depends on the writer; how fast they write, the skills they have, and the expectations they want achieved.
Thank you for taking this challenging topic on. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts next week.
I must disagree with something you said. Vehemently, I’m afraid… and you’re not seeing it precisely because you’re not a “new writer.”
I can name six NY-based commercial-category-fiction (sometimes incorrectly called “genre”) imprints that do precisely this to new authors. And they’re not willing to budge, even for later contracts with those same authors. It has resulted in publishers losing NYT-bestselling authors to other publishers. It’s incredibly shortsighted. And it’s being driven almost entirely by “the folks in charge of Big Publishing’s contract departments” breaching, or at least bending, legal ethics.
Thanks for doing these posts Kris, Hocking’s numbers are incredible and it comes down to she writes books that hook readers. My wife picked up the first book in one of her series, read it and immediately bought the next. And the technology keeps improving to make that easier. The new update coming for Kindle will let folks rate books and show what else the author has right when they finish a book, so again authors with more inventory are going to gain more sales because readers won’t even need to go look for them, the Kindle will just show those books. I haven’t seen it in action yet, but it sounds pretty cool.
I’m looking forward to the next post on needed survival skills!
Ryan, I found the same thing about Hocking’s work. She has what all bestsellers have–the ability to tell a great story. Her book Switched is very, very hard to put down.
Thomas, I think your analysis of all the choices for a beginning writer is spot-on. It’ll really take thought to decide to go with Big Publishing these days, and good advice, given what C.E. says in his post, which is even more dire than mine from last week.
Very good questions, Stefan. First–you need to read up on the publishing business. You need The Copyright Handbook, and my Freelancer’s Guide wouldn’t hurt you either. That’ll help you, even if you want writing to remain a hobby.
Second, the way to promote the first books is to write more books. It’s that simple and that hard. I’ll be dealing with this more in the weeks to come. I would promise that I’d deal with it next week, but given how much changed in this past week alone, I’m not making promises like that for a while. 🙂 Glad you found us. Welcome to the party.
I guess in terms of sales I would be what you would call a new writer, though in fact I attended Clarion West in 1973, struggled with writing then with no success, stopped for many years, and resumed (never to quit again) about fifteen years ago. Sales have been slow – a few stories a year to the mags, and I was starting to wonder if I would ever be able to get all my product to readers when I happened on Dean’s blog and then yours last year. The wealth of helpful information has astounded me.
The main thing I wanted to emphasize is: nothing you can say will ever discourage me, nor should it discourage anyone. The most important thing to do is just tell it like it is, and if you aren’t sure I want to hear your speculations, musings, whatever. Every Thursday I look for your post, and by Friday, after I have read Thursday’s a few times, plus all the comments, I am already looking forward to the next one. Not to say that’s all I do – you and Dean have caused me to up my production, which is a good thing. I don’t allow myself to check the net until the day’s quota is done.
I’ve been browsing around, and people – even very traditional people – are talking about electronic publishing and getting backlists up. I find it everywhere now. Even the slow-to-grasp are starting to take notice that something is happening. But you and Dean were among the first (at least the first I found) and I still look to you as the cutting edge.
So what you present to beginning writers – or any writers for that matter – are options and suggestions. And for that I thank you.
John & Tina, thanks for the kind comments. I’m glad that this–disjointed as it is–is helping.
C.E., ah…not a surprise, I’m afraid. As I said, if I were running Big Publishing, I’d do that. It makes logical business sense from a publisher’s point of view. And many, many writers are dumb enough about business to fall for it. As I said last week, there are some contractual terms that are dealbreakers–for the writer. Writers should walk away from them. Or in this case, run. I haven’t seen this, not because I’m not a new writer–Dean and I read contracts for people, not to give them legal advice, but to tell them what they’re signing in general and whether or not they need legal help beyond their agent before signing. We do this for free. Our benefit is that we get to keep up with the business and maybe steal some contractual terms ourselves. We see about 100-200 contracts per year, and haven’t seen that yet. This might be the quality of the writers who bring these to us. Or it might simply be that no one has stumbled on the terms yet.
But as I said, not a surprise. As fast as this business is changing, I would–as a publisher–try to have as much stability as possible, and that means grabbing writers tight, paying them nothing, and hanging on as long as I can. (Writers! Never sign that contract!)