The Business Rusch: Professional Writers
The Business Rusch: Professional Writers
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
I warned you guys in some of my other posts that I have what I call aw-f*ck-it moments. (Forgive the vulgarity; I know some of you don’t like that. But that’s what I call it, and that’s what it is. The little asterisk is there because my husband told me to add it so that I won’t offend people.)
My aw-f*ck-it moments are why I can’t work in a corporation. I learned this young. I would go along and go along, doing what was expected of me, until one day, someone asks for something unreasonable, and I know I should play the politics, but inside, a voice says, “Aw, f*ck it,” and off I go, telling the boss that he’s a sexist pig and he should stop calling me sweetie, or pulling off my apron and nametag, and—in the name of dignity—walking out the back door, leaving my last paycheck behind.
I have these moments throughout my life, and my good friends have come to recognize the expression on my face just before one of these moments occur. If my friends were sitting in my office for the last hour, they would be ducking. Because I wrote 1200 words of this piece, got up to get some tea, and heard myself say, “Aw f*ck it.”
I had started with some namby-pamby crap that had nothing to do with the topic at hand (What topic? you ask. There is no topic here.
(Not yet, I say. But trust me. It’s coming.) At first, I thought I’d continue my series on the unexpected gold in self-help books, where I’ve been using the stuff found in self-help books and exploring it for writers. I can shoehorn this topic into another topic, I figured, and I’d be fine.
But by the time I sat down to start this, I realized I didn’t have room. So I wrote the namby-pamby crap, and danced my way around the topic. Then I got the tea and all hell broke loose in my brain.
You see, I’m really getting frustrated. I’ve been doing these blogs for months now, pointing out the various problems with traditional publishing, talking about the changes and the opportunities presented by the e-book and POD revolution, and warning writers to watch their backs on contracts, on their work time, on compromising too much for too little return.
And then what happens? From the World Science Fiction Convention in late August until now, people who should know better have been telling me about their business decisions. That “should know better” refers not just to the decision, but to telling me about it. Because in every single case but one, they’ve contacted me after the decision was made, and wanted me to validate it or to pat them on the head and tell them they did a good thing.
One person even admitted they had “probably made a mistake, but it’s not that bad, right?” Well, it was bad. On the scale of business decisions in the last 20 years, it wasn’t Enron or even what’s going on with Netflix right now, but it was most certainly boneheaded and it certainly made me glad that my career wasn’t tied to that person’s.
I’m not sure what these people expected me to say. Sometimes I’ve asked them (if it’s an in-person conversation) why they’re telling me this, and they usually shrug. In-person is easy; I can change the subject without answering. E-mail is a bit harder. Because usually, in e-mail, they want my “honest opinion.” And my honest opinion is raw and blunt. So I respond with a question: have you signed the deal? If the answer is yes, I ask if they’re happy with it. If the answer is yes again, then I tell them they don’t need me. I do pat them on the head and hope they’ll go away. But if they push…well, let’s just say only a few have pushed lately, and they all knew me personally, and they all know what I mean when I respond with, “Well, I wouldn’t have signed it, but then again, it’s your career.”
They know because whenever I teach, I make people write this down. You are responsible for your own career. That means you must own the successes and the failures. The good decisions and the bad ones.
So if you make a decision, act on it, then e-mail me about it and ask me to comment on it, and I respond with, “Well, I wouldn’t have done that, but then again, it’s your career,” you should catch this clue. That’s my polite Midwestern upbringing at war with my blunt self. Because if you continued to push me in person, I would have hit the aw-f*ck-it moment, and either walked away (because I couldn’t face you any longer without speaking up) or I would have said, “You want my opinion? You just volunteered to get screwed.”
So what’s the aw-f*ck-it tonight? I was going to talk about misperceived risk, and I still plan to. But I was going to do it in a half-assed way. I got back from getting my tea, and launched into the stuff you’ll see in the next paragraph, and as I let fly, I realized I needed to either write the piece it wanted to be or drop the topic altogether.
Okay, friends, duck. Because here we go:
Since the beginning of August, six different authors have talked to me, emailed me, or called me, asking my advice about a new “deal” that someone in their traditional publishing company offered them. (By traditional publishing company, I mean one of the misnamed Big Six [it’s not six, that’s wrong, but I’ve railed about it elsewhere to no avail]. i mean one of those publishing houses we’ve all heard of, whose books we all have on our shelves.)
These companies are telling their authors to write a short story or a novella (or short novel) that will be e-book only. The short piece doesn’t have to stand alone. It should be part of an ongoing series of books that the publishing house has under contract from the author. It’s a “loss leader” to get readers into the book series.
The publishing company plans to offer the e-book at a very cheap price or for free to establish interest in the series, and because that e-book will be cheap, the company says, it wants to keep its up-front costs low. So it really can’t afford an advance, but it will pay 25% of net on royalties when/if the e-book sells.
Now realize that these are the deals offered by major publishers to bestselling writers on bestselling series. No advance, and a crappy 25% of net on royalties—of a book that will probably be selling for free for only a short time.
Six writers that I know of have taken this deal, three from companies that are having troubles accurately reporting their e-book sales. Two of those writers told me they knew that, but it “didn’t bother them much.” Um…what?
Me, I would have been offended at the deal. I don’t work for free. I am a professional writer. I get paid for what I do. If the company wants to offer a loss leader on one of my books, I should still get paid for my work. After all, the editor is getting paid, right? The in-house book designer gets paid, right? Even the person who drew up the crap-ass contract is getting paid, right? How come the writer doesn’t get paid?
And I’m not anyone’s bestseller, their cash cow, and I still have this attitude. You pay me for my work. Period. If you don’t want to, then I will not do business with you.
Believe me, if I were one of the company’s bestselling writers, and I said that they must pay me or I’d walk, guess how quickly they’d scramble to pay me. Because publishing is a business, folks. They know who provides content that they can make money on and who doesn’t. They will do what they can to hang onto that content. The fact that they’re doing this—offering bestselling writers such a crap deal—is because they know that the writers don’t have a lick of business sense. The publishers are deliberately taking advantage of a writer’s stupidity.
And it is up to the writer to put her little foot down, and say, “Sorry. Don’t disrespect me like this. I’m a professional just like you are. Treat me that way.”
But traditional publishers have treated writers like this for decades. The fact that writers are still letting them get away with it is bad for all of us.
And it is just getting worse.
Let’s go back to this particular deal. This deal is so disingenuous that it smacks of highway robbery to me. And it gets worse.
The two authors who sent me the contracts apparently did not understand the contracts that they received. The contracts weren’t for an e-book only. The contracts bought everything. World English Rights (in one case) and World Rights in the other on everything from hardcover to trade paper to mass market to e-books. In other words, the publishers sent a standard book contract to the author. If the author had an agent negotiating the contracts for the other books in the series, then the contract the author received on this new deal matched those book contracts (except without an advance).
Oh, and each author was told that because this was a “small” project, they didn’t need to bring anyone in to help negotiate. No agent, no attorney. One author proudly told me that they had handled it themselves. There was no point bringing anyone in because there was no money up front.
I honest to god wanted to scream. I really did. I told both authors not to sign the contracts. The out-of-print clause alone was egregious, not counting the 25% of net, the lack of an advance, and on and on and on.
One author didn’t respond. (My letter back was polite but firm: get an advance on this thing, and modify it to e-book only. Don’t sign as is.) I have no idea what that person will or did do.
The other author made me want to tear my hair out. This author said that they didn’t want to negotiate an advance or change the contract in anyway even though they had an inkling it was a bad deal because they had promised their editor they would do this, and they didn’t want to make their editor mad.
Excuse me? Really? You have got to be kidding me.
What made matters worse, in my opinion, was that the last author not only knew how to put up an e-book, but also had the funds to hire someone to do it if need be. When I mentioned that the author would make significantly more money doing the work themselves, the author agreed, but said that they didn’t want to renege on that promise made to their editor.
Why? I asked. Well, the writer responded, they didn’t want to rock the boat. After all, publishing is in turmoil and the editor might decide not to buy the next book.
Which, in my opinion, given the book contract I saw, wouldn’t be a bad thing.
But it’s not my career. Nor is it your career. And I trust most of you wouldn’t sign these deals. At least, I hope most of you wouldn’t. I would hope you respect yourself and your work enough to defend it when the time comes. I would hope that you have the words “No deal” in your vocabulary.
So why am I writing about this, then? Partly because of that writer’s final statement. Publishing is in turmoil and the editor might decide not to buy the next book.
In the old world of publishing, say ten years ago, that was a serious risk to any writer who wanted to maintain a career in publishing. You had to weigh your own principles against what you had to do to get published. Me, I’ve always maintained that I need to get paid, and I’ve walked away from bad deals for a long time. But I also have been an editor and a publisher. I know that editors (for the most part) have short careers and publishers get fired all the time. If I got banned from one traditional publishing house in 1998, chances were that I could go back to that house in 2002 and no one would remember.
Most writers never knew that. Most writers thought they were actually risking something by saying no to their editor.
I understand that. I really do.
But we no longer live in 1998 or even 2002. This is 2011, nearly 2012, and in this decade, we have options. And the options often don’t include traditional publishers.
Your editor dropped you and your bestselling series because you said no to a crap-ass contact? Well, you now have three choices, one of which you didn’t have ten years ago.
Choice #1: Go above the editor’s head. The editor who is stupid enough to let a bestseller go over a contract negotiation for an obviously terrible (no-advance) contract should be fired. It’s that simple. I’ve known of editors fired for less.
Choice #2: Go to another publishing company with your bestselling brand name. You might not be able to sell them your continuing series, but you’ll be able to continue your traditional publishing career.
Choice #3: Publish the book yourself. You’re a bestseller. You have enough money to hire a flat-fee service to put the book up as an e-book, and to continue your series in both e-book and paper books. If you’re really smart, you’ll pick up Think Like a Publisher by my husband Dean Wesley Smith (or read it for free on his blog) and hire someone to do that work for you as well. You’ll make oodles of money, your books will still go to all the major brick-and-mortar outlets as well as e-bookstores, and you’ll have a firm control of your career.
But chances are, if you are truly a bestseller—and both contracts said in the book description, a story/novella/short piece “in the Author’s bestselling series”, so I’m not making any assumptions here—then your editor will sigh a little when you ask for an advance, and then pony up the money.
Because editors are smart and they know business and they were simply trying to do what their boss wanted, which was to get as many rights from you for as little money as possible.
And in the case of five of the six authors (I still don’t know what the sixth did), those publishers made out like bandits. These writers might see a few measly pennies on this deal, but I’ll wager you that the writers will not get the money they’re owed. After all, at least three of these deals were offered by companies who are being investigated for underreporting royalties on e-books. One of these deals comes from a company being sued for underreporting royalties on paper books.
These authors all knew that. And they still made a royalty-only deal with these companies.
See why I want to scream? Really and truly scream? Because it doesn’t make sense—not in any business world, not in any way. These writers gave their work away to a company that doesn’t deserve their trust. And at least four of these writers are slow writers. They can’t afford to give away anything, because it’s a goodly portion of their yearly output.
What were they thinking? I honestly don’t know. I can’t even say they were thinking like it was 1999 (see my blog post on the changes in publishing since then), because had it been 1999, they wouldn’t have done this. No one sold books of any size to a big name publisher without an agent or an attorney on the deal. (The handful of authors who negotiated on their own always had business skill and the savvy to know what they were doing.)
And let’s not even discuss the other egregious things I heard this past month: authors who are taking advances at half the size of the previous advances because “no one is getting good money these days with the demise of Borders.” Half the money for even more rights than these writers had sold initially. So the writer sells her first born and her second born and maybe even her grandchildren, gets a terrible royalty deal, and half the up front money she got a year ago. Yeah, seems fair to me.
Especially when the writer can often self-publish and make more money in the first three years than they ever will from this contract. (Often these contracts are for $2000 to $5000.) In other words, by the time the advance pays out on its signing/acceptance/publication schedule, the author could have (if she had self-published) made the same amount of money on the e-book alone.
And then there are the writers who are so flattered to be working for a traditional publisher that they ignore the bad copy edits, the failed promises, and the endless rewrites. These writers aren’t putting up their backlist because they have day jobs and don’t have the time. But they can rewrite a book four times for a traditional publisher who pays them $5,000 in three payments of $1667, minus 15% for the agent, so the writer actually pockets $1417 a year. If the math continues on these rewrites, copy edits, and first draft writing time, the writer might be getting all of $3 per hour for his work for the honor of working with a traditional publishing company who is treating them like crap.
I know what some of these writers are thinking. They’re thinking it’s too much of a risk to branch out on their own. After all, there are new skills to be learned, and a small financial outlay for covers and things they’re not good at, and the promise of a return a few years from now, and that’s just too dangerous. Better to go with the stuff they know than learn something new.
Even if the thing they know treats them badly, makes them work harder than they would work if they were publishing their own books, and pays them significantly less. The difference? No up front money.
But these are the writers who often forget that an advance is an advance against royalties or in the world of business, an interest-free loan with terms that must be met or the writer will have to repay that loan. It’s not a salary, nor is it a payment for work done. It’s a loan that can be called for a variety of reasons, and often is.
As all of this has been happening, I’ve been talking to long-time professionals who are putting up their backlists themselves, who feel free and happy about their writing for the first time in decades, who see the opportunities and understand that there is less risk in doing it themselves than there is in going with a traditional publishing house these days.
Several long-time pros said to me at Worldcon (in different conversations) that they’ve never had a publisher keep all the promises made on any book. Any book. One writer mentioned to me just recently that traditional publishing, from that writer’s perspective, is a mass of failed attempts at doing something right.
This is a writer, by the way, with a thirty-year long career, and more than 45 published novels.
So as I’ve been watching this dichotomy between the writers smart enough to stand up for themselves, smart enough to realize that in addition to being artists, they’re also business people, and these people who sign royalty-only contracts or let their advances get cut in half while selling twice as many rights as they sold before, I had a realization.
Traditional publishing is going to do just fine. Traditional publishing is going to find writer after writer unwilling to learn the business, writer after writer lining up for the “honor” of being published in lieu of actual money, and, if the traditional publisher is lucky, a few of those writers will become bestsellers.
The rest of those writers will become disillusioned. They’ll go to writers conferences and sit in the bar and kvetch about how impossible it is to make money at writing these days. They’ll talk about the way their publisher screwed them, and they’ll never ever ever take responsibility for the fact that they signed the boneheaded contract in the first place without a single attempt at negotiation.
They’ll give all of us professionals a bad name.
But it won’t matter. Because most of us professionals will only take traditional publishing deals when the deals are advantageous to our business. And the rest of the time, we’ll publish our own books.
We’ll have careers because we are responsible. And we’ve taken the time to learn the business of publishing as well as the craft of writing.
We’re professional writers—emphasis on the word “professional.” And these other published writers? The ones who take the crap deals and do a ridiculous amount of work for no pay?
Those people might be writers, but that’s all they are. They’re certainly not professionals.
Yes, I get paid for my writing, including this blog. I just decided to fund it a different way. I fund it through reader donations. It’s worked well for me since April of 2009. The moment that I can’t fund this blog through donations, I won’t write it any more. It’s that simple.
I appreciate all the comments and all the interaction through the blog. Thanks to all of you who’ve supported it over the past two-plus years.
“The Business Rusch: Professional Writers” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
Sorry for getting into this discussion so late, but I have been busy acting as the back end of the family business known as K. W. Jeter.
The one phrase in that contract Kris spoke of that totally bent my mind was “against the Net.” Are they joking? They don’t even pull that crap in Hollywood anymore.
Also, there is one lovely moment that happens two months after you put books up on Amazon — money arrives in your bank account (I recommend a separate one so you can track it easier). Money you didn’t have before. Money for out of print stuff; money for stuff not published by the Big Six (or whatever). I don’t care if it’s only $25 — it’s a decent lunch for two. And it’s all yours.
Thank you for the excellent reply. You are, of course, right. Authors have largely been content to play the powerless puppet, hostage to the publisher’s whims. That was dumb — and publishers have acted predictably.
This series, from the beginning, has insisted that authors are responsible for their careers. There are still too many who slumber in the chains of complacency or perceived helplessness. That has to change, and it’s happening far too slowly, with too many ruined careers. I absolutely feel the same anger and frustration you do.
I guess that, reading the comments, I’ve seen a lot of anger directed at the nasty publishers. I merely wanted to point out that sometimes they actually bring enough to the table that it makes sense to work with them. The trick is to remember that you’re acquiring a business partner, not hiring on as an employee.
TL;DR: You’re right, you rock, and we apparently agree. Hooray!
Mike, what frustrates me the most is that the ruined careers are often of writers whose work I love. I’m a reader first, writer second, and I just love, love, love the authors whose stories please me. So when I can’t find those stories because the writer is bad at business, I become sad.
I’m so glad you’re enjoying the series! Honestly, I am too. 🙂
Love your writing, and this series of articles is simply the best. Thank you for taking the time and effort required to write it. 🙂
I want to provide a very slight dissenting viewpoint. There’s lots of bad contracts, horrible boilerplate, and outright claim-jumping going on in publishing. The big publishers are no longer the only game in town, and frankly I respect authors with the guts and vision to self publish if it meets their needs. There’s nothing unprofessional about avoiding a traditional publisher if they don’t meet your needs or offer a fair contract.
However, not ALL publishing contracts are evil. We’ve seen a fair number, and negotiated our way out of some “gotcha” clauses that make me shudder. On the other hand, we’ve also been offered some very fair, lucrative contracts that have brought some extremely talented people help edit and market our books.
I’m not saying that big publishing is always the answer, or trying to excuse their shortcomings. But they’re not all mustachio-twirling villains either. We stay with one of the big publishers not because we’re dumb (I hope!) but because, so far, they’ve offered fair contracts, good support, and have lived up to their end of the contract. If that changes, we’ll absolutely look for other avenues to get books to readers.
Exactly, Mike. I have a lot of friends in traditional publishing who are still talking to me, despite this series of articles. And if you really look at my website–like the items being displayed in the “featured,” you’ll see that all of them are from traditional publishers. I haven’t given up on traditional publishers at all. I’m using them in conjunction with my indie published stuff.
I draw the line in two areas: 1) if the partnership doesn’t work–if the publisher isn’t doing what’s promised in the contract and/or is doing less than I can do on my own. Then there’s no point; and 2) if the traditional publisher won’t negotiate. The key to your comment is that you have negotiated your contracts. So many writers don’t–or hire advocates who don’t know how (or in the case of some) won’t negotiate at all for fear of hurting the publishing relationship. Those are the writers I’m talking about. And it’s getting harder and harder and harder to find a good advocate. That’s why I’m encouraging lawyers these days, not agents, who are also in flux.
So your post isn’t dissenting. We agree. But the problem I have is with writers who don’t understand that they have their own business and the publisher isn’t the “boss,” the publisher is someone they partner with to get their product to market. How we chose to get our product to market is our business. But for the sake of all writers, we should negotiate away the bad clauses in contracts, and not operate blindly with folks who are willing to be ruthless as part of their business. We need to be tough too.
[…] Kathryn Rusch on being a real pro writer. And how pro writers sometimes act as dumb as newbies. So let’s kill this other myth: those […]
Mr. Moscoe, I hope to all that’s holy that you just signed a no-advance deal for a cheap short story, not a “they ‘sell’ it free” deal. Because free sells and you may never get your story back. I am a total unknown with a fan-base that, at best, numbers in the dozen (singular dozen, not plural)… Just this May, I put out a free loss-leader short story, and I’ve already gotten 400 sales. Excuse me, 411 sales as of today, on Smashwords alone. 8 on Kobo, 8 on Sony, 43 from B&N, and an unknown amount on the Apple iBookstore but enough to get it a big pile of “also bought” links and a review. It’s not even on the Kindle yet.
500 sales a year? If it’s free, it’s going to make that. So I really, really hope that it’s only cheap and not free, so you’re at least making something, and have a prayer of getting the rights back someday. (And that they can’t turn it free without your consent, and pay you 25% of nothing thereafter, while still “selling” it.) Good luck.
Good point, Beth. Very good point. All they have to do is make the short story free whenever it looks like sales are going down, and it’ll always remain above the threshold of 500. (And congrats on the sales, by the way. If the readers like the free story, they’ll spend money for your other work. That’s a great sign.)
(Just to reiterate, I’m passing along a suggestion that someone else made in a private discussion, so I can’t take credit. I just think the “buy it back” suggestion is a smart one!)
Someone in a private discussion of this post and this issue made a suggestion so sensible, I feel compelled to pass it on: Authors who, in a moment of madness, signed a contract with a publisher to write new material on a $0 advance basis… should buy their way out of those contracts.
Buying back a book has long and widely been treated as an honorable way to get out of a publishing contract, by repaying the money for the advance. It’s done when a writer’s circumstances change such that she’s not going to write the book(s) under contract; or when her career has changed direction to such an extent that buying the books back is a better career decision than taking the time to write them; or when her relationship with a house has soured so much that she (and probably they) would rather just call it quits; etc.
Buying back a book is expensive for a writer–you have to pay back the entire signing advance, which may be $10,000 or $200,000, etc. (And in many instances, if the author was represented by a literary agent, the agent balks at returning his share of the money, and so the writer has to cough up not just the 85% she actually received for the deal, but -also- the 15% she did NOT receive–the 15% which instead went to the agent.)
The =expense= of buying back a book is also the key reason that writers who might want to get out of a particular contract don’t do it, but instead wind up writing the books, then grin-and-bear it when they’re badly edited or poorly published or sit gathering dust in-house for three years, etc.
But in a case where a deal was made for an advance of $0… there’s no expense in buying back the project one has unwisely agreed to write for the publisher for free. So why not just “buy” it back?
Rhetorical question, to some extent. Probably someone so afraid of making their publisher “mad” that they’d agree to write for free… probably isn’t going to go back and say, “I’ve come to my senses and am canceling this deal, guys.” But I did find it a very sensible suggestion for a writer who somehow got themselves into such a situation.
Well, duh, Laura. Of course. I wonder if the publisher will balk or try to get the author to pay expenses instead. Hmmm…we may find out since I’ll be talking to one of these folks later today. Hmmm. Great, great point.
Well, Kris, one thing’s for certain. For those of us who have been out to Oregon and taken your classes, we can’t say you and Dean haven’t warned us!
Really, the biggest chunk of advice that forever floats to the surface of my margarita is the YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR OWN CAREER mantra. I’ve been focused on this for about 6 months now — when I realized that the sales of 2010 were not a fluke and things were rolling right along in 2011. I said to myself, “Okay, this is where I begin to chart my own path and there will be no One True Way to succeed; just me doing the best I can to watch my back and stay productive in a fluctuating business environment.”
I’ve got some nice things happening for me, none of which would have transpired without me simply sitting down and doing the writing first. As for the business decisions, well, after the thing with the Hollywood guy this past spring I realized the training wheels had to come off sooner or later. There is a time to ask questions. But there is also a time when asking questions can turn into a crutch. Especially if it means petitioning for approval for something that’s already transpired.
I hope if I’ve ever signed a deal I’ve come to regret, I have the intestinal fortitude to say, “Okay, that was a mistake, I made it with my eyes open, and I’ve got to hold myself accountable for the choice I made in doing something I knew I shouldn’t do.”
Exactly, Brad. You are responsible for your career. 🙂 Always good to remember that. And congrats on being the cover story of the new Analog. 🙂
[…] recently read Kris Rusch’s blog post about being a professional. Various writers have been coming to Kris lately for her opinion on a contract they received from […]
Quick question…is there a list or notification anywhere of the major publishers who are being investigated for underreporting of ebook sales?
I know it’s been bandied about that there are “several”, but which ones??
As always, I love your column, Kris. Looking forward to meeting you at NINC.
Thanks, Colleen. Your writers organization should be able to tell you some of this. The rest I know through confidential discussions with various lawyers and with writers who are going after the publishers. Very little of this has leaked into the press. You might want to do some digging, though. If you look at who publishes the authors who are discussing this, and there are several, you might get a hint. Don’t look at the current publishers of these writers, look at the publishers who no longer publish them as well.
Sorry to be so mysterious, but I can’t share information with you if it was given to me off the record or in a confidential manner.
Thanks Kris, you always have excellent advice (just tweeted about it). I have writer friends who have fallen into this trap – very much like a new form of slavery!
I’m not sure how someone can get out of such a contract. Just simply walk out and break it? Sure, it makes sense to self-publish for a published writer with a decent record. Trouble is, you need more than knowing the mechanics of publishing and business savvy: you need an Internet presence to do your marketing, like say a blog like the one you have. An “uber-blog” that draws hundreds upon hundreds of visits a day…
I think that’s what’s scaring a lot of writers. Sure they figure they can hire all the needed services (editing, book cover, etc) to actually produce the book. But then sell it? Without the protective imprint of a respected traditional publisher?
That’s where the problem starts (in my humble opinion)…
As for your points about promotion, no, you don’t need to do any of that. Please look at Dean’s Think Like a Publisher book/posts. Or this post from me on promotion. Publishers want you to believe they know what they’re doing on this. They don’t, especially now.
Kris, thank you. I’ve been reading your and Dean’s advice for almost a year now, and I’m acting on it. I’m publishing my first book this November, and I have six more lined up behind it. Thank you for helping to show the way. 🙂
You’re welcome, Frankie. Congratulations on the books! Yay!
I came across this writer/publisher contract-offer horror story via Chaos Manor:
Since I couldn’t sit on my hands, I directed Ms. Davenport to study this column starting in April.
By the way, Hitler’s Angel was a damn good read.
Thanks, JJB. I’m familiar with the link that you put up. Sadly, hers isn’t the only tale I’ve heard like this lately. Just heard another via e-mail today. It’s rather awful out there in traditional publishing.
You can count me as one of those people Mr. Sawyer mentioned. It is mostly because you’ve shared your advice, wisdom and experiences with all of us. My official thanks is forthcoming in an e-mail (see my alter-ego, Chickenbuttlips). 😉 Yes, yes, laugh at the name. And yes, there’s a story behind it. :p
I have been writing books for over 15 years (I have written four novels, written synopsis for another eight, and outlined three more), but only now am I publishing my work…thanks to you!
I was afraid to go indie because I didn’t have the knowledge or knew anyone with experience in it. After reading both Dean’s and your blog entries and books, I am now armed with enough information to go indie with my works. I’m following most of your advice in The Freelancer’s Survival Guide (which I love, btw!). I recently sold one of my works to a “traditional” publisher, my one and only experience with “traditional” publishing, and experienced precisely the mess you’ve mentioned in prior blog entries. I wrote that novel in 2.5 months, but spent 9 months editing, rewriting, deleting, etc., through the publisher’s editing process. It took me time to realize what they were doing and that was to mold my story to fit their audience, rather than the audience I intended for the works. My bad, because I should have been more selective in who I sold the manuscript to. I chalk it to experience, but that experience marred my opinion of “traditional” publishing enough that it will take a Herculean effort on a publisher’s part to win me back.
So, in summary…
THANK YOU FOR ALL YOU’RE DOING!!! I hope you never stop sharing your thoughts with us. I am sorry you had to experience such frustration, but I’m soaking in all these pearls of wisdom like a sponge.
Very similar to what a clinical psych prof once told me about dealing with patients:
“You can lead a head to wisdom, but you can’t make it shrink.”
::ducks the flying tomatoes::
But more seriously, yes, there are some of us that can be taught–and who these blogs help tremendously. I’m one of them. I know some others. You are making a substantial difference.
Thanks, Dan. I am so glad that this is providing information that writers need–and that a lot of writers are getting it. I do appreciate that a lot.
I don’t have anything to add. Just wanted to say thanks for the post. Since I began e-publishing, I kept telling myself that it was just my fun hobby that made me a little bit of pocket change. But now I think that was just my way of bracing myself for failure. It’s unprofessional to say the reason I’m not making a living at writing is that it’s “just my hobby.” The reason I’m not making a living at it yet is that I don’t write near as much as I could, and not near as much as I need to be in order to seriously make this my profession. It’s all well and dandy if I don’t really want to be a writer and don’t really want to make money providing a product to consumers. But I do really, really want that. I’ve just been afraid to admit that because each month I sell enough to live on in the third world (thriftily) and each month those handful of sales are a reminder that I’m failing. Or that I will fail. Or something; the point is that I need to stop letting fear influence my decisions and actions and keep me from writing, which is the only way really to “go for it.” It feels silly hoping to be a writer because it would be just so wonderful if I could really do that and make a living. Wow, that would be my perfect job, and I guess I’m worried that life doesn’t really work out like that. But I won’t know if I try. I’m rambling so I’ll stop now, but just wanted to let you know that this post scared me and forced me to deal with an internal struggle that I had been putting off by not writing more. So thank you for scaring me and for being brave enough to say “aw fuck it” because sometimes that’s what people need to hear. 🙂
You’re welcome, Brandon. I’m glad it helped. 🙂
Kristine, you are 100% correct. Regular publishers will survive on the labour of naive writers. Writers who will never find blogs such as this because they don’t know they exist. And even if they did, they would recoil at the first word because it’s something they don’t want to hear.
Hey, more chow for the rest of us!
Yeah, Martin, I do get a lot of confused e-mails in private from folks who just can’t seem to climb over their naivete. I used to say,You can bring a writer to knowledge, but you can’t make him learn. I just gotta remember that sometimes. And then I need to value all the writers who are learning, and not get frustrated by the ones who refuse to learn.
So I am grateful for you guys.
This post made me share some of your anger, Kris. I think there’s still just a little steam coming out of one ear. No, wait…that’s my tea water boiling.
We’re gonna be fighting this fight for as long as the prevailing fantasy for writers is constructed from misinformation (and DIS-information) about traditional publishing; until the books and the movies and the tales tell us about writers who get it done and don’t take any shit from anybody; until those old memes are dead and the new have been integrated into the way writers think about their careers. Until we’re choosing our own path instead of queuing up waving our hands and hoping an agent or editor will choose us–will confer upon us the blessing: “Domine, domine, domine, you’re a REAL writer. Now do as your told.”
Please believe me, writers, there’s NOTHING to be gained by putting your hands over your ears and singing “La-la-la!” while knowledgeable people like Kris and Dean and many others are busting their asses to bring you the truths you’ve been hiding from. And they’re doing it for free. Listen. Learn. Tweet. Share. Donate.
Thanks, Bridget. Exactly. 🙂
((You know… This is semi-unrelated, but have you thought about publishing your blog through the Kindle blog/periodical publishing? You have the Freelancer’s Guide up as an e-book and you ask for paypal donations, but I’m wondering how effective it is, and of all of us going the indie route, I’m sure you could pull it off….))
Thanks, LA. My blog has been available on Kindle for two years or so. 🙂 It’s not great income through there, but it works.
If I may address Laurie’s question regarding YA books: I have a young adult science fiction book up on the major online sellers as both e-book and trade paperback. The feedback I am getting is that kids may not have e-readers but virtually ever kid old enough to read has a smartphone these days. And every major online e-tailer offers free e-reading apps for those smartphones. That means that kids can read books on an iPhone, so they don’t need a Nook or Kindle. As long as you’re talking about text rather than picture books, I think YA will do fine on those platforms.
The otherwise wonderful editor of my first novel was furious that I wouldn’t spend MORE than my advance to hire a publicist. She railed at how this was a wonderful book and I needed to believe in it and that it would disappear without a publicist.
I agreed with the wonderful book part 🙂 but countered with numbers that showed the very slim odds of so much as breaking even on the publicist “investment.” I ended the email with “we’ll have to agree to disagree.”
There was email dead silence for a while, but that ended. She hasn’t hunted me down and shot me. At least, not yet.
Of course, before I dislocate my shoulder patting myself on the back, I must add that without the Kris and Dean influence I might have gulped, pulled out a credit card, and flushed the money down the toilet. Probably not, but I’d at least have considered it.
So Kris, you and Dean make a huge difference. I know that’s stating the obvious, but thank you.
Thanks, Dave. Exactly. Saying no is sometimes the right thing to do. The other thing you can say is that if a publicist is so important, they should hire one. I’ve done that so many times, and that always ends the conversation. Because if they can’t afford it on my book, then neither can I.
I recently withdrew a story from a small press anthology because the contract had such overreaching and potentially career-killing consequences. It’s not just the big boys who are playing writers for fools, or at least trying to. I am not a bestseller. In fact, I am just launching my career. Each small sale is important to building my brand. But not at the expense of foreseeable consequences five, ten or twenty years down the road. I intend to be publishing then. My copyrights will certainly extend well beyond that timeframe. Even if exposure and brand-building is the object of the sale, the terms of the contract dictate whether or not this is a “good deal” for the writer.
I would like to share a few things I learned or had reinforced over the course of this negotiation:
1) If it’s not in the contract, it has no standing.
2) If it is in the contract, it binds the writer and publisher.
So when the publisher sends an email saying something doesn’t apply to this story, but the wording must stay in the contract, a big red flag should wave before your eyes. Logic–and law–dictate that if something doesn’t apply, there is no harm in removing it from the contract. If the publisher insists on keeping it in, then they must think it does apply in some way. Run away fast.
3) The publisher’s assurances outside the contract that “we’re very supportive of our writers” has nothing to do with the terms of a contract.
4) Just because you like the people you’re dealing with now doesn’t mean that five years from now, or three, or one, you won’t be dealing with someone else, some bean counter in a suit who just acquired your nice, writer supportive small publisher in some kind of hostile takeover. And what will that corporate minion think about all those “it doesn’t apply” clauses in the contract?
Nope. Ain’t worth it. Not as a bestseller, and certainly not as someone trying to launch a career.
Vol de Tort
The fear that being businesslike will “make the editor mad” or even cost a deal or END a publishing relationship is very common… and yet, speaking as someone who always asks for what I want, it’s never yet happened to me. In 20+ years in the biz.
I don’t always GET what I want, but no one has ever ended a professional relatioship with me because I negotiated rather than just closing my eyes and thinking of England. In fact, I’ve ocacsionally had fairly long and hard money negotiations (note: without an agent; in my own experience, literary agents don’t negotiate long and hard over -anything-), and rather than walking away because I wanted more money than they wanted to pay me, the publisher always came to a fair and reasonable fiscal compromise with me (i.e. raising the advance considerably, though not as high as my asking price–and that is the nature of negotiation, finding a solution that works well for two spearate parties who start out from different positions).
I’ve lost publishers because imprints folded, publishers folded, editors got laid off and the program got refocused, or sales were disappointing. But I’ve never lost a deal or a relationship (nor even found one awkwardly tense or threatened) because I countered an offer and negotiated for what I want. Not even in cases where the negotiating point was initially presented to me as a dealbreaker. As one editor of mine one said to me, if both parties want to make a deal, they find a way to make it work. That has always proven to be true in my experience.
And here’s the key thing to consider: If the other party doesn’t want this deal EVEN enough to -negotiate- with me… then is that a good deal, a valuable relationship, or a situation worth my pursueing?? It doesn’t seem likely.
Similarly: Do I really want to do business with anyone who GETS MAD at me–even dumps me or threatens to dump me–because I choose to.. NEGOTIATE a busness deal that’s put before me? What sort of BUSINESS relationship is that??
Thanks, Laura & Vol. Exactly. Negotiate. Always.
What a disturbing post. It’s freaky to think that /bestsellers/ throw away their work.
Kris and everyone,
I fully agree that these contracts sound like scams. Whoever came up with that “it’s a loss leader so we can’t pay you” pitch ought to be on Wall Street. So why do writers sign? One little four-letter word: FEAR.
And yet. Even in the current climate, I can still see an argument for going into a crappy deal with a traditional publisher. It’s the same argument you and Dean have presented on many occasions: Use trad publishing to leverage your indie sales. Use their marketing machine while it still exists. I think in some circumstances, this benefit — resulting, one hopes, in a knock-on effect boosting one’s indie-pubbed catalog — could be worth signing a financially disadvantageous deal, IF that was all the publisher was willing to offer. Think of it as paying for marketing. You’d need to hire an attorney to try to improve the terms before making that decision, of course. But I think it could under some circumstances be the right one.
Don’t worry, I’m not personally about to do anything rash 🙂
All best wishes re: finishing the novel. I always find that’s the most fun part.
Great post, Kris,
And I say that as someone that she was talking about. I guess I should start off by apologizing for taking up her time with my e-mails. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Kris, I especially liked your opening. You’re background is strongly rooted in “you can take this job and shove it.” I wish I’d grown up with more of that in mine.
But my background was Navy. None of the folks I rubbed elbows with had any thought of getting rich. I’m having to work at acquiring the idea that as a writer I can actually do that.
But there was something else along with the Navy beans and black oil at home. The stories. The stories of the general turning to a regiment and telling them, “Take that gun.” The odds of taking that gun are damn slim, but you don’t question the order, you grit your teeth and you die trying.
That’s how I grew up. When the boss asks for something, I salute and say “Yes, ma’am.” I know you found my attitude beyond frustrating, but I got two things out of the contact that were a major accomplishment for me. When the e-book falls to less than 500 a year sales for Ace, I get it back and I will publish it myself and be the one earning the money from it from then on. I also made them take out the option clause. I may salute this once, but I’ll be damn if we’re going to make a career of taking those damn guns for you.
I know, Kris, my little victories frustrated the bejesus out of you when you have such great dreams and expectations for us writers, but you are winning the battle for an old farts soul. We’ll talk next week about how next year will be different from this year.
Mike M., if it had just been you, we would have had our discussion only in e-mail. But you were one of six authors on this deal alone, and that doesn’t count all of the other stuff I mentioned in the post.
That said, the difference between us is not our upbringing. Both methods have drawbacks and good points.
The problem here is that you don’t understand the business relationship in publishing. Your editor is not your commanding officer. Neither is your agent. So if they tell you to run, you don’t have to. You’re the one in command.
Here’s the correct military analogy. You’re the commander of a fleet of ships. You have hired a foreign government to help you get your ship to port. The person you deal with day to day from that government is not the king or the president of the country, but the captain of a small vessel who will guide your bigger and more expensive ship into some ports you couldn’t get into otherwise. You might listen to that captain of a single ship about the currents, but you should never, ever, ever, ever take instruction from someone like that. First of all, you’re not in the same military, not even close. Secondly, you outrank that person. Thirdly, you should be guarding your ship, and you did not.
No commanding officer ever takes orders from someone of lower rank, and unless I misunderstand my history, no commanding officer takes orders from someone of lower rank in another government–and keeps his career. That’s the difference. You do not work for the publisher/editor. You have partnered with them on a single mission: Your book. That is all. This does not give them the right to order you around, and even if they try, it does not mean you should take those orders.
There is no victory here, Mike. You lost this battle. You gave up ground writers have held for decades. That’s what’s frustrating me.
We will talk next week. I’m glad next year will be different from this year.
Great, but disturbing, post!
Make them sit down and watch 5-6 episodes a day of the History Channel series “Pawn Stars”, until they are through all four seasons. That should get them in the mood to haggle a bit. 🙂
::Joins in the ovation::
Thanks, y’all. I appreciate the fun comments. Because I’m finishing a novel right now (writing, not reading), I’m going to keep some of my responses short.
Kris, I think the one thing that makes you (and me) different is that we are both former reporters, and therefore are distrustful of people and always on the lookout for the shady side of things.
Most writers are incredibly nice people and not confrontational, nor trained to be confrontational as we were. It probably doesn’t occur to most writers that there are companies out there that will take advantage of them… they’re too trusting.
So it is good that you are “training” them to think like a bunch of consumer reporters.
LOL, Randy. You mean most people don’t think like reporters? I think you have a point. I always expect the Spanish Inquisition. 🙂
Reminds me of this talk: