The Business Rusch: Plan For The Future (Surviving The Transition Part 4)

Business Rusch free nonfiction Freelancer's Survival Guide On Writing

The Business Rusch: Plan For The Future (Surviving The Transition Part Four)

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

For the past month, I have geared my blog toward established writers.  Starting with the post, “Writing Like It’s 1999,” I have discussed the rapid change that the publishing industry is going through, change that most working professional writers haven’t really noticed yet.

Working professional writers, those who make a living at this profession and have done so for decades, often have book contracts that control their publishing destinies for years.  As of right now, I have book contracts with traditional publishers that extend into late 2012.  In traditional publishing terms (pre-1999 terms), that’s a relatively short time period.  I have had publishing contracts that have extended over three books and four years.

The reason I’m not as tied up now is that I’ve been avoiding long-term contracts, because I think the industry is changing too much to tie myself to something that might not be relevant to my plans three years from now.

Other writers have contracts that extend three to five years. Some of those contracts won’t come up for renewal for another two years. So the changes in the publishing industry don’t matter as much if you’re fulfilling existing deadlines, with no contract renegotiation in sight.

I’ve been gearing the last few posts at those writers, the ones who really haven’t paid attention, because I don’t want them to come to contract renegotiation time and to feel like Rip Van Winkle, returning home after a magical sleep to find everything that they had once known was gone.

The thing I stressed in “Surviving the Transition: Part One” is that most established writers have time to determine what kind of transition they want to make.  Do they want to spend the rest of their careers in traditional publishing? Do they want to self-publish their backlist as e-books and continue selling their frontlist to New York? Do they want to continue having an agent represent them, given the change in agency models? Do they to explore doing everything on their own? Or do they want to do nothing on their own? If they want help with all aspects of their career, how do they manage that and still make  money in the new world?

Those are all valid questions that I tried to give quick answers to in the past few weeks.  In addition to my posts, the Passive Guy, a lawyer who is no longer practicing, is doing a series of posts on publishing contracts. I suggest you check them out, particularly the recent ones dealing with agents.

If you’re one of those lucky writers with a number of existing book deadlines, then you have the time to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your career.  You need to educate yourself on the changes in the industry as they pertain to you, from contract terms to the changes in agents to the way that royalties are now being paid.

Take the time.  Look at these next few months or years until your deadlines are up as graduate school.  Do homework every week on the changes in the industry, so when the time comes for you to make a choice as to what direction your career will take in the future, you will make an informed choice.

One of the biggest parts of your future will concern the way you receive your writing income and how you manage that income.  Most established writers don’t have a day job.  We make our living off our writing.  We get lump sums every six months or a year, and we make those sums last.  If we’re really lucky, we get royalties off our books as well, although most book contracts are now structured so that the advance is in line with the number of copies that a book sells. The mid-list writer almost never runs royalties on her books.  The bestsellers usually do.

Established writers also follow a rule that Dean Wesley Smith and I teach our writing students: Money flows to the writer.

In the traditional publishing model, writers do not spend a dime out of pocket.  If you’re in a traditional publishing model, and someone asks you to cough up money to read the book or publish the book, then that someone is scamming you.

Remember: this is the traditional publishing model.

If you decide to remain in that model, then always keep that rule foremost in your mind: Money flows to the writer.

However, this rule gets in the way when you are starting your own publishing business. Publishers spend money to ensure that a book comes out.

If you go into self-publishing, then you will need to spend some money to put your books on the market.

Too many writers confuse the traditional publishing model—in which the writer puts no money out of pocket—with the self-publishing company that they’re starting.  Any new business, which is what a publishing company is, spends money out of pocket.  That’s why many small businesses need capital to start up, whether that capital comes from small business loans or from investors or from the business owners’ pocket.

It is this distinction between the rules that established writers are used to from the old traditional publishing model and the rules governing any small business that is causing so many established writers to give their work over to companies that charge them no up front fee and a percentage of the earnings.

These writers think they’re being clever because they aren’t investing up front. In all of those cases, the writer is thinking like a writer stuck in the 20th century instead of like a person running her own small business.  That mistake in thinking guarantees that they’re going to overpay in the long run by factors of a hundred for a service that would only cost a few hundred dollars if the writer thought like a business person.

As I’ve said in previous posts, traditional publishers have made it easy for established writers to concentrate only on the writing.  If a writer self-publishes her backlist, she must concentrate on the business as well even if she never does any of the actual publishing work.

So…how do you go from a business model in which you’re paid to do one job and do it well to a model in which you must pay to get a job done?

You need to figure out how to fund your transition.

A handful of established writers, such as those at Bookview Café, are bartering skills with each other.  One with graphic design experience will trade a book cover design for another writer’s copy editor skills.  These coops are starting up in the various genres.  I don’t participate (I’m not someone you want in your organization, rabble rouser that I am), but I know many writers who do and swear by this method.

Two different writers I spoke to on my trip in May are seeking investors to fund their publishing companies. One of these companies will be a self-publishing company and the other a more traditional publishing company. The self-publishing company is owned by a big name, so there’s a built-in market that will entice investors.

But most savvy writers are paying for the covers and edits out of their own pocket.  They’re paying the flat fee as a start-up expense to get their self-publishing business off the ground.

Some of these writers have day jobs.  Others are bestsellers with the money to invest.  (One such writer, when I told him the fees he would face to self-publish a thriller he wrote, called the fees “pocket change.” To me, the money was significant.  To him, it was a sum he barely had to think about.)

However, most established writers run out of money long before the next check comes in.  Yes, that writer’s house is probably paid off and she probably paid cash for her car. But she’s waiting for the next part of her advance to give her a cushion again.

That writer is easily tempted by these no-money-up-front percentage services.

And those are the writers who can least afford those services.  If the writer put out a few hundred up front, she would be making a profit within a year, instead of losing 50% or more of her earnings to a company that might or might not accurately report the income.

So how does this type of writer afford the fees?  Contact one of the companies that will provide a menu of services for a flat fee, and then figure out which services she’ll need.  See how much money it will take to publish that backlist book and then save up for it.

Because, remember, as I said at the beginning of this post, most established writers have time.  They have time to save money, time to research the services they need to hire, time to compare prices and benefits.

I know some of you who are older mentioned that you’re feeling the press of time because of health and life issues.  Still, I would recommend that you go about this change methodically and that you document all that you’ve found so that the people who will help with your writing business down the road understand your plans.

In fact, everyone should do a variation on this, because we all will leave our writing businesses to our heirs one day—and we don’t get to choose that day.  That day might be tomorrow, no matter how old we are.

Many established writers, including me, are combining traditional publishing with self-publishing.  We have backlist that’s been out of print for a while, and are putting it up ourselves.

We have a secondary transition to make, one that happens in the way we think about what we do.

Let’s talk money first.  With self-publishing, the writer moves from an advance model that pays in large lump sums every six months or so to a model in which a little bit of money comes in every month, which is much  more like a paycheck.

The writer, used to getting thousands of dollars per check, will often think a few hundred per month is a tiny amount of money.  But it’s not when multiplied over a decade.  Because the self-published book never has to go out of print unlike most traditionally published books.

Traditionally published books only stay on bookstore shelves for a few months at most. Even bestsellers with large backlists only see their most recent five or six books on a bookstore shelf in any given month.  E-books are changing that dramatically.  Books never leave the virtual shelf.

So when calculating a book’s earnings, the self-published writer can look at the income as it will accrue over years instead of months.  Suddenly, earning $500 per month becomes a much better number.  That’s $6000 per year or $60,000 over ten years.

And as I mentioned in the promotion blog, the more books and stories you have available, the more chances a reader has to find you.  If your books come from multiple sources, like traditional publishing houses and your own self-publishing company, then all the better. Traditional publishing will get you into markets you can’t get to yourself and, oddly enough, self-publishing now puts you in markets that your traditional publisher can’t.

(For example, my most recent traditionally published novel, City of Ruins, doesn’t have an e-book edition yet.  Even when that edition comes out later in the year, it won’t be available in all English-speaking countries.  Only in North America.  Yet when I self-publish an e-book, it goes out worldwide. That’s a change from just a few years ago.)

Established writers who have the luxury of time—and that’s most of you—need to plan for the future now.  Plan everything from how you want to proceed from here forward.  Figure out if you want to be entirely published by traditional houses or if you want to self-publish some projects that traditional houses won’t take. Figure out if you want to self-publish your backlist, and if you do, how hands-on you want to be.

Save money so that you can afford flat fee services.  Do what other small business owners do and comparison shop.  Don’t just go with a friend who happens to have an e-pub business.  Make sure that she provides the best deal and the best work for the price.

And plan for change no matter what route you chose. Your agent may retire.  Your publishing company might decline to take your next book.  You might hit the New York Times bestseller list with a series in which half the books are out of print. (This happens to mystery writers all the time.) If that’s the case, decide beforehand if it would be better to sell your backlist to a traditional publisher or do the work yourself.

Ask yourself all of these questions and more. The good questions—“what happens if I become a bestseller?”—to the bad questions—“what happens if my traditional publisher goes out of business tomorrow?”  Answer those questions honestly.  You don’t have to show those answers to anyone other than yourself.

Figure out what you want to do, how you will survive the good and the bad, and most importantly, what you envision for your career five years down the road.

Once you have the answers written down, then start planning.  Set goals.  Not just work goals, but financial goals as well. (In  my Freelancer’s Survival Guide, I have a post on how to separate goals from dreams.)

Figure out how you can attain those goals.  Figure out how you can afford to pay up front on some backlist self-publishing without taking time from your writing or much-needed income from your household.  Figure out what you’d do if you find yourself in a situation, like so many established writers often are, when your next book won’t sell to any traditional publisher.  Figure out how you’ll handle your money if your most recent novel becomes a number one New York Times bestseller.

Now’s the time to think about the future.  Publishing is changing, and whether you like it or not, your writing career will change with it. Do what you can to be prepared.  If you have the time, do the research.  Plan.  Make smart decisions.

Don’t just do what everyone else is doing.  Do what’s best for you.

“The Business Rusch: Plan For The Future (Part Four)” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.



27 thoughts on “The Business Rusch: Plan For The Future (Surviving The Transition Part 4)

  1. You know, the only thing that gives me writer’s block is thinking about the publishing business. I think I’m going to start researching how to make my own websites and figure out my own business model.

    1. Good idea, Paul. We can’t change what’s happening in traditional publishing, but we can take charge of our careers and decide what kind of writer we want to be.

  2. *boggles at those generic covers* The automagically-generated covers that pop up from nowhere on Stanza are more attractive than that! *shudder*

    I am glad that even the cover I did totally myself is at least _slightly_ classier than those — plus, Fun With Salt Tool! (And all the other covers I’ve got are very pleasing to me, to say the least. It’s *good* to know artists who take commissions!)

  3. Excellent stuff and this is one great series.

    Something sometimes forgotten: right down to the present, publishers have been late adapters. There are no electronic files of the first 15 or so books of my backlist, not because computers and word processors didn’t exist, but because they were used in very un-computerish ways to produce paper and printer’s film, essentially as slightly better typewriters. The “real” typeset of around my first 7 books was done by a compositor hand-entering a hand-corrected manuscript that came out of my daisy wheel printer, went into a temporary file on a floppy, and was printed onto the printer’s film. The backup was a photocopy of the film.

    Zillions of people pointed out it could be all electronic even back in 1984-5. The first all-electronic book in my backlist is PATTON’S SPACESHIP — that’s 1997. If I had realized that the email that accompanied the file, which began by explaining what a file was, would one day be a masterpiece of unconscious comedy, I’d’ve saved it.

    Formats stabilize quickly once there’s one that gives the consumer everything s/he wants. Just yet, there isn’t any one format for ebooks that does (not for all consumers, anyway), so I’d expect flux to continue a little longer. When it locks down it will lock down fast, so I’d avoid any contract, technology, etc. that in any way might ever lock you _out_ of a yet-to-be-invented. No telling at this point what is an Edison cylinder and what is a 78 disk, what is a scroll and what is a codex, or even what is a VCR tape and what is a DVD. You’ll know when you see it; everything else will be slaughtered. That’s when you don’t want to be holding an exclusive to Betamax or never-undersell-the-8-track contract.

    1. Great post, John. Really great stuff on what to avoid.

      As for existing files, many of the e-books from existing publishers that have problems inside have e-files. My two final Retrieval Artist books, for example, in e-book from Penguin/Putnam have e-files–that’s what we worked on–and yet the e-books have all kinds of issues. I don’t think anyone is proofing them. I certainly didn’t get a chance to do so.


  4. In recent discussion of the execrable Catherine Cookson covers, I saw someone say that it didn’t matter how bad the covers are because “it’s Catherine Cookson!”. And, yes, many people will know and love her books and buy whatever the cover is. But some will think that the work has been pirated. And there are _always_ new readers, and these covers certainly aren’t selling anything:

    These covers are worse than, well, almost every other cover I’ve seen. They’re so bad they’re insulting.

    When I went looking for covers, I did precisely what you suggest: I worked out what it would cost, and saved up for it. Because I particularly wanted painted covers, I saved up for quite a while. And though that means it will take me much longer to break even (it will be a while yet), the one thing I’ve recognised is I have plenty of time. Every book will be out there, earning however many sales per week, for the rest of my writing career.

    For me, beautiful covers aren’t just about selling the book: they’re about giving the books their due. And those Cookson covers scream: “cash grab” and nothing more.

    [I was fortunate enough to be shortlisted for the Aurealis Award for best fantasy novel this year. During the award ceremony, I was sitting in the auditorium watching the nominees’ covers pop up on a big screen, and being very glad indeed that I had a cover which didn’t make me cringe.]

    1. Wonderful post, Andrea. I agree. I’m making sure my Fey series has the cover that neither Bantam or Orion in the UK could give the books. I’m so proud of the new covers and the wonderful artist, Dirk Berger.

      The Cookson covers are terrible–especially considering how that agent behaved about all the other e-rights. (sigh)

      Congrats on doing the covers right–and on the Aurealis nomination!

      See, y’all. You can do this with a flat fee and by saving up. It works.

  5. One day, K. W. and I woke up and realized that between his books and facility with inDesign, my copy editing/proofreading and general business/marketing skills, plus combined lack of fear regarding new computer software — well, we had most of what we needed. There is a bit of extra time required during this start-up phase, but it is all smoothing out as we go along.

    What caused the collective penny to drop? The idea that the control over the work product could remain “in-house.” And we get to keep all the dimes. Love it.

  6. I didn’t realize there was so much trouble with e-publishers’ changing formats. What a pain that is. That probably explains the trouble with the current book I’m reading, but one other I’m thinking of was recently put out by the author’s agent-turned-publisher. And it was truly unprofessional. I can’t imagine paying someone to do a job that poorly.

    1. I know, Tori. There is a learning curve. And it doesn’t look like many of these agent/publishers are doing the proper learning–judging by the covers I’ve seen. (sigh)

      The rest will settle when we choose Beta or VHS (she writes, showing her age). 🙂

  7. When I was the IT guy at big name packager, I can count on ONE occasion when we had to scan & clean-up an old book for the content.

    Long before I was there, the back-up scheme was seriously negligent. I looked everywhere, old tapes, etc., the original files couldn’t be found *and* the printer had the same problem; even though it was well within their contracted, “dump it”, time limit.

    In this day & age, there is NO reason for not having the final files around. All files in, fiction takes up almost ZERO space. These giant NY dinosaurs will go away as big easy profits dry up, leaving the nimble. *grins*, -Steve

    1. Yep, that’s what I mean, Phaedra. It was awful. And then there are the old Penguin Putnam titles, including one of mine, that has double spaces between paragraphs.

  8. Scanning the books sounds just so … dumb. I mean, they have to have a digital file in order to send the book to the typesetter, no? At the very least, they have an EPS or PDF file, right? Unless they are using a hand-cranked press, anyway. So do they just discard those digital files? That’s amazingly dumb. Epically dumb. It would mean that they would have to physically print a digital file, throw the digital file away, and then RE-DIGITIZE (by scanning) the physical, printed file. Not that I’m arguing with you, Kris, I’m sure you’re right. I’m just amazed — again — by the level of sheer incompetence that prevails in Big Publishing. I’ve run into it before, so you’d think I was used to it by now. But scanning a book which was originally a digital file anyway?


    1. Yeah. I know. I’m boggled too, Sarah. But this isn’t the first book I’ve seen that in from traditional publishers, just the first one I’ve seen from a bestseller. (sigh)

  9. I have to wonder how many of those copyediting errors Tori mentions are the fault of the publisher. So many traditional houses have laid off their copyeditors, I have to wonder who (if anyone) is copyediting what I see coming out of Big Publishing these days. I’m currently reading my way through J. D. Robb’s (Nora Roberts’) “In Death” series in e-books, and I have to say I have never seen such a god-awful mess in all my days. Spelling and usage errors abound, there are countless sentences without periods, run-on paragraphs, yadda yadda. Some of these texts would not pass a high school English class. And then there are the formatting errors — bizarre symbols inserted into the middle of words, blank squares where there should be punctuation marks, navigational glitches. Yet Robb/Roberts is published by the biggest names in publishing. They can afford copy editing, but they don’t. They can afford proper technical formatting. I think they just don’t care.

    The great thing about being my own publisher is that I can be as meticulous as I want, out of respect for the work and respect for my audience. Someone who’s going to pay me money deserves work that distinguishes between “sheer” and “shear”, “defuse” and “diffuse”.

    1. I’m beginning to think the big companies just scan the books and don’t do much else, Sarah. I read a Suzanne Brockmann book–also a bestseller–in which the wrong word appeared almost every page. And sometimes those words weren’t even close to what she intended. That’s a scanning mistake. These things happen, but it’ll be interesting when the readers can get better books, cheaper, and quicker from the author or the author’s designated publisher than from the “big” publishers. I think that’s already happening in some cases.

  10. This may seem painfully obvious, but I suggest you check out the quality of work of anyone you might pay to help publish your book. Before you give them any money or sign anything. I’m reading an e-book right now that has so many formatting problems it’s not even funny. And I’ve seen others with similar issues. I don’t know who formatted it, obviously, but I’ll bet it wasn’t the author, because (presumably) she would have more pride in her work. It was probably someone she paid, and she clearly didn’t get her money’s worth.

    1. I agree with caveats, Tori. Right now everything is in such flux that a good upload from a year ago looks awful now. Kindle has changed its system four times in the past year, and each change makes the older books worse. I dunno what the technical stuff is, but I do know that WMG has had to redo about half of its books in the past six months just for Kindle. Then the new companies come in–iBooks, etc–and they all have different formatting requirements, which are constantly changing.

      I think all of us with e-readers are going to have to put up with some glitches until the system levels into one way of doing things. (It seems to be starting to, now that Kindle is changing its mind about the e-pub format.)

      However, bad copy edits and bad covers–those are the fault of the publisher, and I’m seeing that a lot too. Including e-books out of traditional publishing that don’t even have covers!

  11. “Don’t just do what everyone else is doing. Do what’s best for you.”

    So true! I’ve done several things that aren’t exactly the recommended method—some are often recommended against—but I researched, considered the arguments why it was a bad idea, and evaluated if those arguments applied to me, my goals, etc.

    It’s kinda funny, because I often find myself recommending others don’t do particular things that have worked for me.

    1. Exactly, Carradee. We’re all different and we all know what we need. So we should act on our own needs–once we’re informed, of course. 🙂

  12. I remember being irritated with the “money flows to the writer” advice when I realized how much money I’d spent in postage over the years, mailing out manuscripts. The book manuscripts in particular weren’t cheap. When the net became widespread/useful, that got even more obvious given how many publishers weren’t taking email submissions: nothing got more painful than having a $20 postage bill when the cost to mail those submissions could have been zero if the people in question had been willing to just set up a separate inbox for their slush pile.

    Even traditionally-published authors pay money to be published. It’s just invisible because, really, who counts postage, and paper, and the computer you’re not depreciating, etc.

    1. And time as well, MCA. Don’t forget that the time you spend also costs money.

      The money flows to the writer advice will prevent “co-publishing” scams. So many writers end up paying $10-50,000 to get their books published because their “publisher” tells them it’s necessary. Same with reading fees. Book doctors charge hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars to read a book, and “comment” on it, to help the writer. Neither of these things are legitimate. (There are legitimate book doctors, but they work in NY with the big houses and doctor bestsellers gone bad or books by actors, etc. No one in North Dakota or Oregon can just hire one willynilly.)

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