The Business Rusch: Surviving The Transition (Part One)
The Business Rusch: Surviving The Transition (Part One)
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
I know I scared a lot of you last week. Many of you—most of you, judging by my private e-mail and the discussions I had in person in Los Angeles over the weekend—had no idea the industry had changed so much. Most of my conversations in Los Angeles, when I wasn’t meeting with Hollywood people or doing my own business, were about last week’s blog.
I meant to scare you. I wanted to shock you awake, so that you understand what is happening to the industry that we all love. I want you to know that most of what you learned, experienced, and understand about the publishing industry—the industry you have worked in for decades—no longer applies.
Just as I expected, a small number of you hid your heads in the sand. One person even blogged that I had no idea what I was talking about because that writer’s agent keeps that writer informed about changes in the publishing industry, and the agent says nothing of the sort is happening.
To that writer, and other writers like that writer, let me say, if your agent is giving you such silly advice, then I’d reassess your relationship with the agent. Because it sounds to me like you’re doing the equivalent of taking advice about the financial industry from a pre-arrest Bernie Madoff.
There are still some excellent agents out there, agents who don’t do the things I mentioned in the previous posts, and to a person, they all know how deeply and dangerously this world is changing. So if your agent is telling you to stop worrying your pretty little head about this, you had better see that as a warning sign and reassess your relationship with that agent.
Most established writers, however, are terrified of the change and the rate of change. In the past, publishing has been a glacial industry. A change that would “sweep through” the industry would take about five years to make its “rapid” change.
Some of this change—particularly with the agents—has happened over the past ten years. But the most rapid change, in contracts, negotiations, rights deals, and the attitudes in the publishing houses themselves, has happened in the past two.
Let me give you simple answer:
Traditional publishing has lost its monopoly. It used to control the distribution of books all over the United States and, indeed, all over the world. With the success of the e-reader and ease of electronic self-publishing, writers regained control over distribution.
Concurrent with that was the rise of a new model for print-on-demand. No longer does a writer have to purchase thousands of books at the cost of thousands of dollars. The writer can upload her novel at almost no cost out of her pocket, and not print a single copy until she has an order. In fact, the POD company, like CreateSpace and LightningSource, will produce the book and ship it for the author, so there is no warehousing, no pile of books rotting in an author’s basement.
In other words, all parts of the distribution chain are now available to the entrepreneurial author. Including, as of last week, audio books, since Audible has now instituted a system in which an author can do her own audio books.
Traditional publishers got blindsided by this. So did agents, who rely on their contacts in traditional publishing to make their living. And both groups are now in survival mode. They’re trying to hang onto their hefty incomes in a new world they don’t entirely understand.
Mostly, they’re doing so by making huge rights grabs from authors. Traditional publishers have more draconian contracts with a lot more clauses that they refuse to negotiate. Agents have decided to get as much ownership in their clients’ property as they possibly can as well, mostly through putting up backlist as e-books, causing a huge conflict of interest. An agent who is also a publisher cannot adequately represent you to another publisher, because both the agent and that publisher are vying for your business—and the rights to your property. In the US, no major organizations seem to care about this, but it’s another story in the UK where the conflict of interest is being taken very seriously indeed.
I understand traditional publishing’s reaction. I also understand why the agents are behaving the way they are. I also know that most longtime professional writers are extremely worried about this, but aren’t quite sure what to do.
So let me give you some tips.
First, let’s define some terms.
1. Indie Publishing: When I say indie publishing, I do not mean electronic publishing. I mean that the writer publishes her own writing on her own, either with the help of a flat-fee service or by doing all (or most) of the work herself. This writer, if she’s smart, will produce both e-books and paper books, and will learn how to market them to bookstores. Sounds daunting, doesn’t it? But it isn’t. It just takes time. More on this below and in the later posts.
2. Traditional publishing: anything that uses the old model wherein a writer submits her work to a publisher, gets that work accepted or rejected, and if accepted, signs a contract. The publisher handles everything else from production to distribution.
3. Traditional agents: agents who take a 15% commission on the books they sell to traditional publisher. These agents do not publish anything. They operate in the old model, acting as their authors’ advocates, and looking out for their authors’ interest. (And yes, there are still a handful of these agents out there.)
4. Agents/estributors: these people may have been traditional agents as recently as six months ago. Now they will publish a writer’s backlist for 15-50% of the net receipts. Many big name agencies are moving to this model. Avoid at all costs.
5. Intellectual Property (IP) Attorneys: When I started in the business, there were only a handful of IP attorneys who handled publishing contracts. Now there are dozens of such attorneys all over the country. They know publishing contract language, charge an hourly fee, and will negotiate publishing contracts from every country in the world. Many of these attorneys also know how to handle Hollywood contracts, gaming contracts, and comic book contracts as well as most auxiliary rights contracts. You don’t have to use the same attorney on every book. You can hire different attorneys for different things. I now recommend that writers get IP attorneys instead of agents.
6. Established writers: writers who have published a lot of novels. These writers have survived on their writing income for at least a decade, maybe more. They may have published two novels, they may have published two hundred, but they have worked as a freelancer in this industry long enough to have survived some good times and some bad times. And let me say to those of you who are unpublished or not-very-well published, there are a lot more established writers out there than you’ve been led to believe. Each genre has hundreds of them.
So now we all understand what I mean by my terminology, let’s move on.
Most of the established writers are extremely worried about this transition. They’re smart enough about business to understand that the change is here, and that the change will have an impact on them. Established writers aren’t as nimble as unpublished writers or newly published writers. Established writers have existing relationships, some decades-old, with publishing companies and with agents. Established writers have been doing things the same way ever since they came into the business. These writers may have hired and fired a few agents, may have had books orphaned or had to change their writing name a few times, but these writers know how to survive.
In the old world.
And they know just enough about this world to realize that they have a gigantic learning curve ahead of them. By learning curve, I do not mean that established writers must learn how to self-publish or indie publish. Established writers must learn the industry they’re in all over again. Because everything they learned in the past ten, twenty, or thirty years no longer applies. Daunting, yes. Impossible, no.
Let me help.
First, realize that you have a lot of time to learn this. I know, I know. Everyone from bloggers to your agent screams at you to make decisions now. Several established writers who blog believe that you must get your backlist up ASAP. Agents/estributors want you to give them your backlist to put up ASAP. Traditional publishers want to amend your existing contracts to give them more e-rights ASAP.
We’ll deal with the bloggers in a minute.
Let me assist you with the agents/estributors and the traditional publishers. Whenever a person who has a financial interest in you or your work pressures you to make a decision quickly, that person wants you to make a deal that is not in your best interest. This applies to everything from buying a car to amending your publishing contract. Guaranteed, if you make a new deal or amend an old deal on a hurry-up, hurry-up timeline, that deal will not benefit you.
Breathe. Consult friends/experts and our new friend, the IP attorney. Do not make any of these decisions lightly.
Almost every amended contract clause I have seen in the past six months has been a bad deal for the writer. Compare that clause to the clause in your contract. Make sure the new clause is better, and not just in one aspect, but in all aspects.
For example, an amendment I saw recently seemed better until you got to the last paragraph. There it said that the writer was not entitled to a deal that a writer of different stature received. “Different stature” was not defined. Even if it was, the clause still smelled. It definitely meant that the midlist writer couldn’t get bestseller terms. But it might also have meant that writer A couldn’t get the same terms as writer B even though both of them had sold 10,000 copies of their latest novel and both of them were working in the same genre. That clause only benefits the publisher, by giving the publisher the ability to turn down any change in the contract by saying it does not apply.
See why you need to take time with these things?
Say no. A lot.
Research everything before you make a decision, and make it in your own time. Do what’s best for you, not what’s best for the writer down the street. Make sure you can live with your decision in all cases—if your book is successful, and if it fails. Because some clauses only kick in when a book has success. And others ensure that you can’t get your rights back if a book fails.
Many of you established writers don’t have any out-of-print books. This means that you won’t have to make any decisions in the new publishing world until it comes time to sign a new contract. That might be six months from now or two years from now. Fulfill your contract, but as you do so, keep a jaundiced eye on two things: first, on the changes in contractual language that other writers are dealing with; and secondly, on what is happening with your agent and your agency.
If your agent is moving from the traditional model to the estributor model, decide if you want to remain with someone who has such a serious conflict of interest. Also make sure that your traditional agent will be in business two years from now. Many traditional agents—ethical down to their core—have realized that they don’t like the changes in the industry and are leaving it. Don’t find yourself in the position to look for a new agent when your contract is up for renewal. Talk to your agent and figure out what is happening with his business over the next few years. Keep that dialogue open.
Finally, let’s deal with this pressure to put your entire backlist up now. If you have no out-of-print books and you’ve been in this business for ten to twenty years, then many of your previously published books will not have an e-rights clause. Your publisher will know that, and will try to get the e-rights from you. Think hard about what’s in your best interest before you sign an amendments granting your publisher e-rights.
You might be better off retaining those e-rights for yourself and indie publishing those books. Or finding someone else to indie publish them for you. Before you give those rights to your agent/estributor, however, research other methods of publishing them. I will deal with this aspect in depthin next week’s blog.
Finally, let me add one more thing about amendments. I recently got an e-rights amendment to my contract from one of my publishers. The amendment had two clauses. The first clause reiterated what was already in my contract.
The second clause gave the publisher the right to adapt, amend, enhance, abridge, and alter my book so that it could be used in any technology that exists or might be developed, including, but not limited to, smart-phone technology, video, sound, and imagery. This clause would allow my traditional publisher to tamper with my book in any way that the publisher saw fit. It also gave them a backwards way to make my book into a movie or a television show.
I wrote the publisher a curt letter, saying I would not sign the amendment. The publisher wrote back and promised in the e-mail not to exercise any of the rights that bothered me. But the publisher would not remove the language from the amendment.
For those of you who do not understand contract law: the publisher’s promise means nothing. Only the wording of that amendment will apply in any dispute I might have with the publisher. Unless the publisher is willing to change clause two of the amendment, I will not sign it. And here’s the thing most writers do not understand: I have no legal obligation to sign it. Just because the publisher wants me to sign that amendment doesn’t mean I have to. I can say—and am saying—no.
For the rest of you, those who have an out-of-print backlist, you do not have to publish it tomorrow. In fact, it would be hard to get your entire backlist up tomorrow.
The reason so many agents/estributors are getting established writers to sign with them is that established writers believe a brand-new myth, promulgated by bloggers. That myth states that you must get your backlist up now or miss the gravy train.
No. Not true. Readers who want your backlist now will want your backlist two years from now.
Take the time to make a decision that is right for you.
I consistently recommend that established writers do not pay a commission to someone to get their backlist up in e-book. The writer will lose a tremendous amount of money over time. But most established writers don’t have enough money to pay a flat fee for every backlist novel they have. Let’s use my backlist. As of last summer, I had 30 novels that were not in print. If I spent $1000 flat fee per novel to get them all up last August, I would have had to have $30,000 to do so.
I didn’t have $30,000 to spare last August. I’m sure most of you don’t either. This is why most writers have signed up with estributors who take a percentage, so that they won’t have to pay money up front.
But if you don’t hurry, if you take 30 months or 60 months or 90 months to get those books up, you’ll still make money on your backlist. You’ll retain all of your rights, and you’ll eventually make money—a lot more money than you will if you trust an agent/estributor. These people are unregulated, and do not have the accounting systems in place to deal with the problems that are coming down the road. As I’ve discussed in the past, and as so many other writers who e-publish have mentioned, this percentage/commission system is ripe for embezzlement. See my trust-me post if you do not understand this.
Many of you can afford $1000 per month to get your backlist up. Many of you can afford $500 or $250 or $125 per month to get the list up. Figure out what you can spend, then save that money until you can afford to hire a flat fee service. Put up one book at a time. Realize that you’re not losing anything by waiting, and are, in fact, gaining control over your work.
Time is on your side. Don’t be pressured into making any decisions, no matter what your friends are doing, what your agent says, or what your publisher wants. Make the decision that’s right for you.
And please, do whatever you can to keep control over your career. You need to learn this new business. Take the time to do so.
Next week, I’m going to deal with other survival skills for the established writers, from how to deal with your agent’s changing business to how to handle your new publishing contract. I will also deal with how to financially survive the transition (although I am not sure if I can do that in part two; there might have to be a part three).
Just remember: it took you years to learn the business the first time. It’ll take you at least six months to learn this new business. Don’t panic. You can do it, and if you do, you’ll be much better off.
Because the changes in the industry benefit the writer who is willing to learn the business. We are gaining control over our own work and our own careers. Please don’t let anyone steal that control from you. Understand what you sign, learn how the changes in the industry will impact you, and remember: you have all the time in the world.
“The Business Rusch: Surviving the Transition (Part One)” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
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I’m going to digress a bit, and I _might_ hurt some sensibilities. Your site, your rules. Feel free to keep it out.
On saying ‘NO’… I was having a similar conversation with my mother some weeks ago –she’s on her late 70s–, and I was trying to explain to her that we’ve lost the ability to use/understand “No”. It’s taken as rude.
If I’m “worth” 1 million and you ask me for a 100k investment, I might do it. If you ask me for 500k, you better have a good plan. If you ask me for 10 million, it’s “No”. Not “I’ll think about it”, “let’s see how it goes” or any other delaying phrase. Delaying only robs both parties of time, effort, opportunities… Any of all these options can lead to a “No”, but those “No” are of different quality.
Saying “No” is vital. All that pseudopoliteness has done a lot of evil. Examples? Current economic woes in both our countries. Personal costs? Self protection instructors worth your time will point you, sooner or later, to “Betrayed by the angel” [first person account of rape; alternatively, check Gavin de Becker’s online work and conferences]. Some years ago, “The Japan that can say ‘No’ ” apparently raised the odd hair or two.
We should teach our children, or any children under our aegis, how and when to say No. And to accept it when they’re on the receiving end. Anything else is delaying the trauma and, probably, increasing its likelihood and vengeance.
Or, of course, we can just pass them our account number and ask for those 100k.
Good posts, Ferran. I love the way that people all over the world can now read my e-books. In English, sadly, but when we get the backlist up, we’ll work on getting good translations as well. But that’s secondary at the moment.
On “no,” you’re exactly right. A writer friend from the American Midwest (where Americans are polite) recently told me a story in which he thought he had said no to an agent. Turns out, my friend used Midwestern no, which is “I’ll think about it.” The agent heard that as yes, and caused all kinds of problems. So–no when you mean no. Yep. Right on.
yep, the world is smaller. I first realized that sometime in 96 or so, searching info on “Moonshadow”, the comic. 14.4k modem and Netscape and yet I had an answer from a guy in CA in 5 minutes. 9 timezones away.
Sill… I just got charged some books by amazon. They’ll get here sometime in the next couple of weeks, I’d say. 40% of the final price is S&H. If I had only bought the first one, it would have been some 2/3 of it. Still worth it (at least one of them is never going to get translated, the other… just might, and will be, at least, 50% more expensive than the whole order, S&H included).
Enter ebooks. I got August webscriptions yesterday morning. 18 bucks. No S&H. 7 books. Two of which I had already read but I was ready to pay for. They were, in fact, the reason I bought the pack.
I didn’t _have_ to buy the pack. I already had those books. Buying them through amazon would have been too much, mostly in S&H, but also limited shelf space and a slight surprice [*]. Being DRM free ebooks, buying them is worth it. Baen will be able to go on for some… 10 minutes longer thanks to my purchase.
It all adds up. No free lunch. For readers, writers or publishers.
[*] Baen being one of the few places where ebooks are actually _cheaper_.
I was referred to your post by Marilynn’s comment on Pub Rant’s blog. I’m new to the blogosphere, and I’ve just hit a goldmine here! I’ll send your link to all my writer friends because some of them won’t budge in their opinions and will only opt for the “traditional” route. Others of us have been weighing the pros and cons for a while now. It’s a matter of learning the ropes in this new world. Thanks so much for speaking out.
You’re welcome, Lynn. Thanks for the comment and for sending folks over. 🙂
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What if you’ve already epublished but aren’t getting any sales because you’ve never published traditionally? Hypothetical: I get an offer from a small publisher for them to do a hardcover(or soft, I don’t care!) version of my book. Do I say I’ll take down my ebooks for a year, etc.? Say no, thus risking the deal (which I would really like because I think I need the name recognition for my midlisty, non-vampirish fiction to ever fly)? I know better than to offer them any of my erights, but what will make this palatable to them in the first place, if they don’t get any erights?
Things really are rushing along. Six months ago, I can’t imagine even coming up with these questions. It would have been, “Great, thanks!” I should say that after my agent couldn’t sell this first ebook, we parted ways and I put an e-version up on Kindle, etc. So it’s only now, that I’m thinking I should have tried harder to find a small print publisher.
Don’t offer to take them down, Rebecca. The e-version & print versions will feed off each other. If you can find someone to do the hardcover without taking e-rights, that seems like a win/win to me.
And if you’re not getting sales, you might not have enough books up. The more titles you have, the more you sell. See my promotion post.
Good luck with all of this!
Kris – okay, good. Just checking. My initial reaction was to hiss and remove from my network, but as always, I started to second-guess myself.
Yeah, DeAnna. It’s a tough world out there, and different from the one we learned about. So second-guessing is normal. That’s why I’m so firm about the no commission thing and finding a flat-fee way to do things yourself. It makes second-guessing harder. 🙂
One thing really stood out for me in this post, and I’m not sure if it’s a point many would pick as the big point. Because, honestly, there are so many great points in your post.
And it’s the use of the word ‘no.’
Any 2-year-old knows the word “No!”, yet it seems we have to re-learn it as adults.
If a business agreement is not beneficial to you, use the ‘no’ word. It doesn’t seem like it should be that hard. Yet, writers have been trained (or perhaps brainwashed) to never consider it.
That’s the great thing about the new opportunities now. The big publishers aren’t the only game in town any longer. We have choices.
I loved seeing you use it in regards to one of your publishers, Kris. And then your words “I have no legal obligation to sign it. Just because the publisher wants me to sign that amendment doesn’t mean I have to.”
There it is.
There is no obligation to sign the deal just because the publisher wants the writer to. Contracts with publishers are a business agreement, not an emotional or social one. If it’s bad for you, just don’t sign!
And what a lot of gumption to promise in the email not to exercise the clause. If they didn’t plan to exercise the clause, then there should have been no problem deleting it from the contract, period. The fact they refused just smells.
Thanks, JA. I know. After I got the e-mail, I said to Dean, “I wonder how many writers fell for that.” He said, “Probably more than we want to think about.” And that’s true enough.
“No” is a tough word when you really want something (like a publishing contract). But it is a valuable one to protect yourself and your business. Especially now that we have choices. But to be fair, I wouldn’t have signed that clause even if I didn’t have a choice. I have walked away from a lot of awful contracts over the years, trusting that something better would come along–and it always has.
Those rights grab for future technologies yet to be developed clauses show up in all sorts of contracts these days. I recently saw one that was almost identically worded to yours in a contract about technical equipment for sea-going vessels. I was baffled at first, but then I researched a bit and found out that one of the contract parties was also working for Disney Cruises, though Disney had nothing to do with the project I was working on. I flagged the clause for my client (I’m a translator) to discuss with their lawyer, because IMO a Hollywood contract clause has no place in a contract in a completely unrelated industry.
Wow, Cora. Amazing. It seems everyone wants a piece of something these days. Wow. Thanks.
For those of us raised with a prejudice against “vanity” publishing (which was equated, rightly or not, with self-publishing), it is very, very hard to get our heads around this new paradigm. The stigma of the self-published author as ignorant loser remains, though it is fading. I still see it in the eyes of fellow writers who do not share my enthusiasm for putting up my own work on Smashwords or Amazon. But every time I found myself hesitating on the brink of this scary new world, I reminded myself of the hard facts you and Dean have been bringing us: that the industry has changed, that there is no going back, that as the Chinese saying goes, Chaos = Opportunity. I don’t feel I really have much choice but to set up as a small publisher and get my work up. Even if a miracle occurred and the Big Six, escorted by the World’s Greatest Agent ™ showed up and pounded on my door, I don’t know that I would let them in now. The terms they are offering, as you describe, are a sorry reward for my time. My only regret now that I’ve gone through the steps to set up my publishing “house” (more like a shack) is that it takes so damn much time, when I’d rather be writing. But that’s true of all freelance work.
So thanks once again for keeping us all up to date, putting the fear of Yog Sothoth into us, and helping us see a clearer future.
You’re welcome, Sarah. It’s astounding, isn’t it, how much has changed since we started our careers? But then I look at what the world was like thirty years ago (which was, for me, when I got serious), and it’s amazing how much other stuff has changed as well. Why wouldn’t publishing change? Still, it’s tough and exciting at the same time. I think I might do a post on time management (again). I think it’s important. 🙂
Kris, the best advice you gave was not to “hurry up” as I constantly hear tales in my industry of companies trying to pressure people to sign contracts. (And tales of woe from people who signed under duress.) Granted, mine is a different industry, but contracts are contracts. I tell the people I mentor to leave skid marks if they hear the following:
“It’s a standard contract, you don’t need to read it.”
“You really don’t need a lawyer, it’s just a boilerplate agreement.”
“We don’t need to put it in writing, it will just be between us.”
“You need to sign now, or I’ll find someone else.”
Great red flags, Randy. Excellent post. Thank you.
Just read the following on The Atlantic’s site
Amazon Now Selling More Kindle Books Than Print Books
By Megan McArdle
May 19 2011, 11:08 AM ET
“Today, according to Amazon, eBooks have surpassed print books entirely; they are selling more Kindle editions than they are selling from all of their print formats combined. Since April 1st, they’ve sold 105 Kindle books for every 100 print editions.”
I saw that, jmike. Great news, but not surprising. Thanks for sharing it.
Thanks for the post. As an older writer I read Suzy’s post with great interest too, although there is a big difference between us. She has been publishing for decades and has a backlist. I, on the other hand, have but a little over a dozen traditionally published stories, and two books and a dozen stories published indie. I started late, for a multitude of personal reasons, though I have always considered myself a writer. Now, I feel the need to work as quickly as possible. My wife and I both have fulltime jobs, but finances have always been a struggle, raising five sons, and now the Greek economy has gone into crisis mode (we live in Greece). My wife’s salary has been cut three times, and mine has been cut as well. At the same time taxes on everything have gone far beyond the level of ridiculous. Even if the social security system here holds together (a very remote possibility), payments are being cut and the amount distributed now would hardly cover utility bills. All that to say that the only real talent I have is writing, and I am trying to create a steady income stream as soon as possible. As you and Dean say, a decent amount of content is imperative. Therefore I work as fast as I can writing and publishing. At the same time, what Suzy said about health and family matters struck home. These things do come up to slow one down. I’m still feeling the effects of a burnout bout, which I mentioned in a recent post.
Now, I didn’t say all that because misery loves company. Yes, it’s often confusing and exhausting, but it is also exhilarating. The thing is, crises often do a lot of damage but in the end we can learn from our mistakes and that which is rebuilt from the rubble can be stronger than ever. True, all the changes in the publishing world are disconcerting, but they have created great opportunities for many writers too, and as you said, we have been able to take control of our careers. What could be better than that?
As far as time is concerned, whether for the young or old, one of my favorite examples is from the movie “The Shawshank Redemption”. The prisoner played by Tim Robbins worked for nineteen years with a tiny little rock hammer to dig a tunnel to freedom. Talk about patience! As soon as I saw it it clicked in my mind as an inspiration in my struggles to succeed as a writer. Just keep chipping away. What else can we do? The only way we can fail is if we stop.
I love that, John: “The only way we can fail is if we stop.” Dean and I were just having that conversation on the way home from lunch. We figured out what can ruin a writer’s career: stopping. We can’t think of anything else.
The important thing to remember is that a contract is not something that involves human relationships. It doesn’t matter that your agent Joe is a super nice guy who’d never screw you; what matters is what happens when Joe leaves and Frank comes in. (Indeed, if Joe is such a great guy, he should be entirely willing to go over the contract clause-by-clause to make sure every part of it is fully-defined.)
“The second clause gave the publisher the right to adapt, amend, enhance, abridge, and alter my book so that it could be used in any technology that exists or might be developed, including, but not limited to, smart-phone technology, video, sound, and imagery.”
I hereby nominate that this clause be called the ‘Writers’ Guild of America Memorial Internet Compensation Clause’. Because this is trying to avoid the situation where a new distribution appears and there’s a huge fight over who gets paid when it happens–which is what went down with the WGA and Internet streaming.
Yep, DensityDuck, that’s exactly why that clause exists. And why no one should sign it.
I always look at contracts in worst case scenario. What if the people I trust leave and evil horrible humans arrive in their place. Can they misuse the contract that I stupidly signed? If the answer is yes, I don’t sign that contract. 🙂
Umm. I just finished writing a comment on your last post, only to find you’d started on the “take a deep breath” advice.
I agree that there is time to think about this, and that it is critical to do so in an informed manner. I’m just really worried about writers who have been trained by the traditional model (and are being encouraged by their agents) to say yes to whatever the publisher asks by the way of contract terms and amendments.
No is not an easy word to say to someone who (you think) holds your career in his hands.
Your advice helps illuminate why it is important to say at least “Let me think about it.”
My biggest concern is that, with traditional contract terms, there may never be a way for an author to wrest poorly managed rights back from a publisher. While it is nice that ebooks can be for sale for the long tail, they do require promotion. I’m going to hate listening to author complain bitterly in ten years, when they have to do all the promotion to sell their titles and the publishers take the lion share of the profit.
I don’t consider myself cynical, just pragmatic. After all, I read all my contracts and didn’t get every not-so-great-for-me clause removed. I still signed. But I wouldn’t today.
Good point, Kelly. Yeah, me too. I read all my contracts and couldn’t always get the bad clauses removed. When publishing was a monopoly, we writers (especially in the midlist) had to live with some of this stuff. I’m still living with some of it. I haven’t made the same choices in the recent past, and certainly won’t in the future, but I have to keep reminding myself why I did ten years ago.
Thanks so much for the comments.
Thanks, Kris, this stuff is great — essential reading for anybody who hopes to earn (or keep earning) anything remotely resembling a living as a writer of fiction. I’d like to stress, though, as you’ve mentioned in your column, that when it comes to options one size definitely does not fit all. My perspective is that of an older writer (71, published since 1974), and there are conditions that come with that qualification which bear specifically on learning a whole new publishing system *that is itself rapidly evolving* (as your note on the new audio self-pub possibility demonstrates). What you figure out today may be altered tomorrow, and again next week.
First, the time and energy question: I have less of both than younger writers do, whether they are established or not. Apart from the slowing of the body’s systems, competing demands steadily mount up as time passes (mainly health and finances). Younger writers of course deal with this stuff too, but believe me, the pace and the necessity of diverting time and energy into attending to them grows exponentially up here in the homestretch.
Personally speaking, I’m *already* starting and running a new and demanding business, one that I have no choice about pursuing: it’s called being the main care-giver for my husband, who’s launched into the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease (though it could be any number of other conditions that require a great deal of managing, striking him or me). Opening *another* highly demanding “business” as what amounts to a small publishing house just isn’t a realistic option.
Finance: Making money now at the cost of probably making more money later is something that requires careful consideration when your “later” may only extend effectively to a decade or less (or a hell of a lot more, of course, though by then somebody else will probably be making your decisions for you). “All the time in the world” doesn’t apply. You don’t have to rush into anything, but your personal time parameters are extra-important considerations re what to do and when to do it.
Technological competence and ease: for older people who’ve never been techno-geeks, learning new technologies is often very difficult, sometimes impossible. On the other hand, attempting to learn new skills is good for your brain — I’m just not sure about how well that works when it’s not chess or Italian, but publishing for profit.
People at different stages of life have different perspectives. It’s crucial to think really carefully about what you want, what you need, and what is realistically possible for you. I think the “panic in the room” mentioned above –in a roomful of established authors, many of whom were probably middle-aged at least — sounds to me like an inevitable response to the enormity of the challenge for older authors.
My approach has been to work with a small electronic publisher to put up about half of my backlist, for which he will be keeping less than half the take for the length of our contract, which extends to 2015. Another couple of my books have been up with him and one other small epublisher for about 10 years, earning none of us very much (but I hope that will change). The big four novels, the Holdfast series, I’m holding off on for now (that’s going to be a humongous job, and will require a serious input of publicity). The short work that I control I plan to get put up on the flat-fee-for-expertise system over the next year or so.
It’s a mixed bag, with no assessable outcome yet of course. I just want to point out that a multi-pronged approach may be the best option for many of us, but even moreso for older writers. So do the pre-thinking that’s needed, and talk to lots of people!
And for the record, I fired the last of a sequence of agents years ago, and miss them not a jot. Right now I’m negotiating with a publisher in Sweden about the Swedish rights to some of my work. He emailed me, asking who he should direct his inquiries to. I answered, “To me.”
Excellent, excellent post, Suzy. I was hoping one of the older writers would chime in. (Older than me, that is.) Because it’s a huge dilemma, with health and finances and time and other issues.
Let me also say that I’m sorry to hear about your husband. Such a demanding time. Hugs to both of you. There are no real words for that. [sigh]
Health considerations aren’t just for the older writer. I know of a younger writer (younger than me–okay, I’ll be 51 in a few weeks), who is battling a serious illness right now and doesn’t have time to even look at this.
That’s why I repeatedly stress that you must make choices that are best for you–not the choices that I would make necessarily or the choices that another writer would make, but the choices that are best for you.
Also, we all need to consider what would be best for our estates. (Another future post!) Some of us have children who aren’t interested in publishing. Others have no children. Yet we all want our work to live on. So we have to make choices that will make that work live as best we can.
Great post. Please, everyone, read that as well.
And invaluable, dammit. I meant to include ‘invaluable!’
Another informative and timely article, Kris. Thanks!
Hm…I just saw a non-agent setting up a publishing co. this morning for the “ethical” royalty rates of 50/50. Opinion on that? Or is that a forthcoming post?
Um…DeAnna…I don’t know how much clearer I can be. Don’t pay a commission on anything. If it’s a publishing company–a real one–then you might want to consider going with a royalty rate. 50% is certainly better than 25%. But 50% of what? And has this new person ever run a publishing company before? Do they know what they’re doing? Do they have a history? Have they ever gone bankrupt? Had businesses that worked?
I really think writers should go with a flat fee and put the product up themselves–no matter how long it takes. Then you get all of the profits.
Thank you, Kris.
Your calm attempts to continue to educate writers will survive when the vitriolic responses and the obsessive need for denial in others finally break down or become stale. Calm reasoning may not win every argument, but it is what survives in the history books. Fortunately, lots of good writers are paying attention now.
Since I can’t make the Oregon Coast as much as I could when I lived closer, these weekly blogs have become my surrogate. Never give them up!
Thanks, Loren and Adrian. 🙂
Thanks so much for being a voice of reason and clarity in all this chaos. I went to a local genre writer’s association meeting last week, after missing a few months of meetings. The fear circulating in the room was palpable whenever the future of writers was mentioned. Among established writers and newbies as well. I was astonished and wished I had the right words to calm the panic. But I didn’t. Even though I feel really hopeful about the future. So thanks again.
You’re welcome, Linda. Change brings chaos and fear. Understanding calms both, even as the change continues. We’re all in a new world, whether we want to be or not, and some writers will survive. I’m like you. I feel great about the future, albeit a bit overwhelmed at all I need to do. It’s exciting. Thanks for the post.
Great article, Kris, and I’m looking forward to the others.
I assume “know and love” was ironic. Anyone who actually knew it never loved it.
You’re welcome, SF Reader, and John B. John…it wasn’t ironic. I love it, still. I wouldn’t work in any other business.
Kris, I’m a NYT bestselling author of women’s fiction and a long-time copywriter, editor, publisher who’s in the exciting process of making my backlist available on Kindle. I have the advantages of experience in many phases of publishing from both sides of the desk. Your posts are invaluable and I want to second your advice about taking your time. In fact, IME, you won’t even have to decide to take your time. The process of digitizing (some scans are better than others!), updating the text if necessary, copyediting & proof reading, cover & blurb creation takes plenty of time & energy. In addition, the need to promote your work—tweeting, blogging, website—is a great consumer of time.
Writers should really try to have some realistic idea of the amount of time & energy involved in going e. And some idea of a budget: You’re starting a business and will need to make some investments, whether in professionally designed covers, professional formatting or publicity & promotion.
I am not at all trying to discourage anyone. Just want to being realistic about what’s involved.
Thanks so much for your informative posts.
Great post, Ruth. Thanks so much. Please read her post, y’all. She’s right about how much time it all takes. Looks like I’ll also need to do a new “how to schedule” post down the road. 🙂
Once again a great post.
These columns you’ve been writing are truly eye-opening for me as a beginning writer. I’ve only got 2 short stories at present that are off contract, but I’m starting to play with getting them up independently for sale again.
Do you have tips for finding a good IP attorney? Is there a specialty association within the industry which might offer referrals, or even a list of good questions to ask in evaluating whether one really knows his stuff or not? That might make a good topic for an entire column, if you don’t already have a string of subjects planned.
PS – I’ve been really enjoying your Retrieval Artist stories.
Thanks, Kathryn. Glad you’re enjoying the Retrieval Artist series!
As for a good IP attorney, there are several. I couldn’t find the resource quickly on the a google search, but Novelists Inc keeps a list (Laura Resnick…are you here? Can you post the link?) You can find it somewhere in this long post & comments on Dean’s blog: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=2039. But there are a lot of resources. Check the Novelists Inc site: http://www.ninc.com/. You’re right. This might be a good topic down the road.
[…] Today she argues that because traditional publishing has lost its monopoly on distribution, it’s now reacting in ways that are harming writers like rights grabs, unfair contracts, and dangerous agent/publisher hybrids. Read her article here. […]
How true all this is. I’m a midlist author with a lot of books under my belt, and before I became a full-time writer, I worked in publishing. Nothing that’s happening now surprises me, I’ve felt for a long time that publishers were getting deeper and deeper into a bottomless pit, having thrown the shovel under a bush on the other side of a wall.
Established writers can adapt. I’ve had to reinvent myself several times, and this is simply a new kind of reinvention. Although a lot of my fellow writers are longing for things just to go on as they used to, two or three book contracts negotiated by an agent, good advance, nothing to do but write the next book.
Those days have gone for good.
Exactly, Elizabeth. It is a new kind of reinvention, and we just have to learn what’s happening and what’s best for each of us. Thanks for the post.
just a guess, but I’d say that amazon has hurt some publishers deeply. Specially those not in the US. I haven’t bought a Spanish-published SF book in ages. Can’t recall when I bought my last _fiction_ book translated to Spanish. Artificial distribution barriers (this edition for the US market, that for the UK, we’ll sell the foreign language rights in a couple of years) are going the way of the dodo.
Exactly, Ferran. It’s really neat to be able to easily sell my books to fans around the world. In the past, I could do so, but getting contracts/money was often difficult. And foreign rights was where one agent embezzled from me and another tried. So this is much, much better. The world has gotten smaller. Nice that writers can now take advantage of that.