The Business Rusch: Professional Writers

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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.






122 thoughts on “The Business Rusch: Professional Writers

  1. One of the biggest changes of the past few years has been that we’ve all learned that all those specialized things that were too hard for the average person to do and were better left to professionals…

    aren’t actually that hard for the average person to do. Which, of course, leaves us to wonder what exactly we need the professionals for.

  2. How depressing. Just depressing. I am banging my head against the wall. There ARE alternatives. But even telling people about the alternatives is so often useless. Criminy. Depressing.

  3. …and this is why we love Kris…

    Beautiful. Awesome. Could not agree more. And this coming from a person who has earned his share of thumps from the KrisRuschClueByFour(tm).

    I still shake my head at some of the conversations I hear regarding new publishing options. It’s not that some people don’t like the new paths, or that they prefer the old… it’s listening to them twist around to justify it. And I agree with whoever said those are the kinds of people who call you after… they don’t want you to talk them out of it, they want a stamp of approval.

    And we don’t jsut like you for your bluntess, Kris. We love you for it. Because your praise and cheers come the same way: unstinting and honest. Thank you.

  4. Kris —

    Thank you for this. Until a few years ago, this could have been me. Because of you and Dean and others I know better now. I AM responsible for my own career. Me, and only me. And it is a business, getting better defined now, with a business plan and all.

    It’s difficult breaking out of that mindset. But doing so is very, very freeing. I get to play now, write and release.

    Thanks again.

  5. @ Laurie re: the YA/kidlit question.

    I’m trying to figure that one out myself. Part of the answer lies in NOT limiting yourself to e-pub, and getting your paper book into schools and libraries. From my understanding so far, you need to form (or get on-board with folks who have) a publishing company. Then you need to get review copies out to Library Journal, PW, and Booklist – and whatever other channels libraries use, and have some inventory, rather than go POD.

    These are my own *early* thoughts on what to do. Have to read Think Like a Publisher again and spend more time pondering.

    Anyone else? Shall we go huddle in a corner and discuss, somewhere? 🙂

    1. One correction, Anthea. You can start up your own publishing company, use a different name, and then you can get into PW, Library Journal, etc. That’s how it’s done. The company must be a legitimate business, but that’s easy enough. Again, look at Dean’s Think Like a Publisher for ways to do this.

  6. Kris–

    “It’s the myth that publishing–writing–is different. And that’s the myth I’d love to break the most.”

    All I can say is, dead on. THIS is the one that drives me stark, staring mad on a daily basis.

    I keep repeating to family, friends, and writing colleagues, over and over: This is a business, folks. Just like any other business. Sure, it’s a business of producing creative product, but it’s a BUSINESS. I’m not being a dilettante, sitting in my tower, indulging myself. I’m a professional, working hard to write and produce novels and stories that my readers want to buy. I’m also a professional who stays current on the trends in my industry, making daily decisions as to how to best diversify my holdings, sign good contracts if they come my way, increase my exposure so that my readers can find me, market my product, and so on. (If good contracts don’t come my way, I self-publish. And if you think that’s a compromise, go check out the current ranking of my backlist book, A Killing Tide, on Amazon.)

    I would even go so far as to state that the business of publishing really isn’t any riskier than any other small, entrepreneurial business: you create a business plan, you put your product out there, you learn from your mistakes, and you work hard. If you’re smart, you have a good accounting system backing up that business plan so that you can assess whether you are meeting your projected income at any moment in time, because understanding what risk you are taking makes taking that risk a wise choice. You stay current on your industry and craft; you hire a good lawyer to review contracts. That’s what small business owners do; that’s what every writer serious about making a living should do.

    So why is it that everyone clings to the notion that the publishing business is “different” and that they should allow these poor business practices by publishers to continue? I don’t know. What I do know is that if writers quit accepting these bad contracts as status quo, publishers would start offering everyone better terms.

    Okay, lol, rant over.

    Thank you for your post; consider it tweeted…PJ

    1. Great rant, PJ. It is a business, and in many ways, less risky than other small businesses. Some small businesses take a full-time commitment at start-up. Writing doesn’t. So you don’t have to quit your day job to do it. And yes, if writers say no to this, then publishers wouldn’t continue this practice. But getting writers to work in concert is tough. I’d say impossible, but the screenwriters managed it a few years ago when they fought the whole digital download thing.

  7. I understand the concept of helping those who want to be helped. I do. Really.

    But . . .

    The writers that keep giving the blanket okey-doke to this kind of nonsense are establishing a precedent within the industry as to just how far the publisher can push. It hurts every single one of us when publishing decides that it can force a writer to hand over something for free or feel its wrath. I know, we have options and I for one just turned down an offer of representation from an established agent because the options I had were better than the ones she was offering for me right now. (Also didn’t much care for her opinion of independent publishing either, but that’s another story.) But if traditional publishing is to continue to be a viable piece of a writer’s overall publishing strategy, we’ve got to stop sabotaging ourselves by allowing unrealistic demands to become “standard business practice.”

    If that means screaming into the ears of those who don’t want to hear it, well, someone give me a bullhorn. Because it’s one thing when a bad decision hurts your career. It’s another thing when your repeated bad decisions hurt the industry as a whole. There’s nothing we can do to stop it, but calling out someone on their bone-headedness isn’t something we necessarily have to avoid, either.

    Rock on, Kris.

    1. Joseph, you’re right that it hurts all of us when writers do this. The fact that they’ve always done it is the reason that we’re seeing even more of this behavior from publishers now. The fact that writers are accepting the terrible treatment is mind-boggling to me. It really is.

  8. *facepalm*



    Not sure what else to say, except being an writer is not special. It’s not some mystical, holy calling that allows one to delve into the deep truths of existence, or somesuch dreck like that. Writing is a skillset. Just like driving, or swimming, or doing math, or really any other skill that someone might choose to develop. It’s no more important and special than any other. Nor is any other part of what we call the “arts”. But for some ungodly stupid reason, “artists” seem to have this delusion that somehow what they do IS special. That somehow because they’re “artists”, that they are above little things like, you know, reality. Common Sense. The laws of economics. Things like that.

    Yeah, yeah, maybe it’s just fear, like someone said. But that is an even WORSE excuse. At least living in the delusion that you’re better and more important than you are is uplifting (to yourself if not to anyone else). But to wallow in fear because you’re afraid? That’s just pathetic.

    As Alex so eloquently said, grow a pair dude. Sheesh.

    Good thing the work day’s almost over, because I need a drink after reading this one.


    Thanks as always, Kris. Well said!

  9. Kris, I love your aw f*ck it moments. That’s when the gloves come off and the writing (and the truth) scorches.

    I can’t believe anyone, let alone a bestseller, would go for a deal like this. Christ. Thanks for sharing this, you’re doing an amazing job!

  10. My polite version of “aw-f*ck-it moments” is “I don’t suffer fools gladly.”

    One explanation for professional writers’ money suicide choices is the battered wife syndrome. I’ve seen so many friends who have been systematically brutalized about their talent and their options by their editors and publishers until they feel they are not only getting what they deserve, they have no options.

    A social group of writers I’ve been part of for many years actually staged an intervention for an extremely talented author who was so lacking in self-confidence and belief in her talent after years of this kind of abuse that she was going to walk away from her career.

    And, sadly, like the woman who will attack a police officer who is trying to stop her abuser, many victims are the most vicious in the defense of these publishers and their business methods.

  11. Like you and everyone reading, I’m doing the Aw, f*ckit eyeroll. And if bestselling authors feel they have to do this and set a precedent, what hope do beginning writers have? It’s the bestsellers who have any chance of setting the standards.

    Question for all us people who want to break into children’s, YA and MG – right now, I understand these don’t do so well as ebooks (possibly because kids don’t have credit cards and Amazon accounts). Any sign of that changing? I’m hoping when the Harry Potter books are available electronically, some way will be found to accomodate younger customers, and I’m curious what that might be (speaking of industry leaders setting precedents).

    1. Laurie re YA/MG, what Anthea said. You can do PODs. A number of my friends are also finding that their YA/MG books are selling very well on Nook and in the iBookstore. It’s not so much the limit on e-readers as it is on the production values. Apparently kids want the color, and the whole shebang. I always think that going print and e-book is the best route. Again, look at Dean’s Think Like a Publisher to get books in stores, etc.

  12. I had to go get a latte before commenting… I was laughing so hard I couldn’t write.

    There is something so refreshing about your honesty.

    I sat back in amazement at what you heard. Let’s see…I know it’s a bad deal for me and I’m sticking with it because I’m afraid to make my editor mad?” Humm..sounds a lot like “I know I’m in a bad relationship, but I won’t leave because I might…” Sounds pretty dysfunctional to me. Hello, do people really believe that an editor is going to take them seriously after they swallow an abusive contract?

    Wow. When you are about to have the next Aw f*ck-it moment remember the rest of us who are listening and write another great post. Fire away.

    Best Wishes,

    PS: The cats can come out from under the sofa now.

  13. I can sort of understand the mindset of some of the authors you’re talking about. When the Titanic is going down (as publishing is doing right now), you don’t strike out for shore on your own, you cling to the wreckage.

    Some of us build a lifeboat and call it indie publishing.

  14. Kris, something that popped out at me …

    “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.”

    Oh, my God. This is insane. It’s easier to make money as a writer today than it probably has been at any other point in history. Writers have options! Yes, the traditional publishing industry is facing hard times, but in part that’s because writers are finally facing good times. All it takes is getting off one’s a** a little and start working instead of moaning.

  15. You know, the more I read, the less excited I am about sending novels out to traditional publishers. I have 5 novels atm that are sitting on my hard drive and I’m about ready to say “Forget it!” and self-pub them all.

    Thanks for sharing Kris. But you shouldn’t hold in your feelings like that, it’s bad for you. 😉

  16. Thanks for putting it bluntly. Great post and insightful. It’s hard to believe some writers are so afraid to take control of their own work that they’d rather get f****k up the a**. It almost makes me angry reading it but then I have to remember that these days, if authors get into contracts like this, it’s because they have chosen to, even with all of the other better options on the table. Too bad for them.

  17. Er, wow? Just release some shorts yourself and make 60-70% instead of 25%, and you 1) keep rights & 2) control how long it’s distributed. Maybe I’m wrong, but isn’t that what Courtney Milan’s doing?

    My response to the editor would’ve been along the lines of, “I’m sorry; I know I said I’d do this for you, but I think we had different expectations of what was involved. Looking at this contract, I really can’t agree to it” (with an added “as written”, if I was going to try to negotiating).

    Oh, well. You can’t help people who refuse to be helped.

  18. You know what Heinlein said about people like you, don’t you? “Cassandra did not get half the kicking around she deserved.” See the problem? You’re half a generation into tomorrow and the established writers you’re trying to drag into the 21st century aren’t going to go quietly. If you were a bit older you’d understand that you aren’t going to win that one, most of the time. Take comfort in your successes, learn to live with the failures and rejoice that a new generation of writers are reading with steadily widening eyes.

    One basic law of human nature I’ve learned: people are fundamentally lazy and writers have elevated laziness to an art form. The only way these old farts are going to change is if the traditional publishers drop the traditional publishing model and their editors stop buying their books. Probably not in their lifetimes. For some of them (the highlighted names, the ones who get on talk shows,) it still works and every one of them serves as a lighthouse for their less successful contemporaries. “See? It’s still possible!” The old guard doesn’t get it, doesn’t want to get it, and is likely irritated that you keep harping at them.

    No, don’t stop: we newbies are enjoying it and besides, it’s cheaper than having to take a workshop. But don’t expect to be loved; at least, not by the establishment. There, if you will, is your “Aw, f*ck it” moment for the day. 😉


    1. LOL, Mike. I love the laziness comment. And yeah, I figured out long ago that the folks who like me like me because of my bluntness. It scares everyone else. I appreciate your aw-f*ck-it moment as well. 🙂

  19. xdpaul says: {it is remarkable to me to think of my own nature – I actually have a background in business, but somehow had a weird mental block that art monetization was somehow “special” and “exempt” from some (not all) business principles!}

    This was me, too, before I re-read Dean and Kris (and other long-term pros) and compared it to the results I was getting from my “writing is art, not profit” mindset. Needless to say, now I’m treating writing exactly as I would any other business set in the real world (and not counting Enron)!

  20. Fear is the cause of this phenomenon.

    It’s all around us in our daily lives. People who do stupid things or stay in a bad situation because they are afraid to face their fears. As long as they want to stay cowards and not muster the courage to take on their fears, they’ll keep doing the same stupid things in their lives.

    They need to grow a set of balls.

  21. I think this whole thing falls in the “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink” category. You’re helping those who want to be helped. Don’t worry about the professional victims.

    1. Ellen, I don’t worry about them, except when they want me to validate them. And Alex, you’re right. They are afraid. That was the post I was going to shoehorn that into. But I need to write the fear post a bit broader.

  22. You know, I can’t express just how helpful I’ve found your blog and Dean’s blog. Thank you both so much for writing them!

    Two years ago getting traditionally published was my absolute dream. It was the thing I had been working toward (on and off, admittedly) my whole life.

    Now, I’m not even sending my novel out on submission. As soon as it gets back from the copy editor, I’m publishing it myself. Along with around a dozen other titles, mostly short stories that I previously published elsewhere. My Magic Bakery is starting out with a nicely stocked case.

    So when you get emails like that from your traditionally published friends, at least know that you’ve helped the new generation of writers avoid that terrible fate.

    My husband is an IT guy. I’ve been telling him about the changes in the industry and pointing him to various posts. He’s incredibly supportive, but I wanted him to understand why I’m doing it this way, with costs up front. He’s totally on board, but he’s had trouble understanding why, if agents and publishers take such advantage of writers, so many writers continue to make the same choices. He’s a very analytical guy, and he just couldn’t believe that so many writers were such bad business people. (Your posts on the subject have been a big help there, too.)

    Yeah, change is scary. But this is such an exciting time to be a writer! The hardest part of going indie as a new author (IMHO) is finding an audience (yes, I know, write more stuff); if you’ve already got an audience, the rest of publishing your own stuff is cake. (Existing contracts aside, of course. But you can always do new, unrelated stuff worst case.) The contracts you mention above make me feel absolutely sick. They’re worried about making their editors mad at them? THEY should be getting mad at their editors! They should be looking at that contract as the insult that it is.

    Can we do an intervention? Maybe send them to counseling for abused spouses? Because the “they’ve always taken care of me (he really loves me)” and the “my numbers have been going down and I’m afraid they’ll drop me (it was all my fault, I don’t want to be alone)” is getting old.

  23. …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.

    I felt like sticking a fork in my eye, so it’s no wonder you wanted to pull out your hair after hearing this. The editor might not buy the next book? So? My first thought was, do the formatting, cover, etc., and upload it to Amazon or wherever.

    I mean, WTF?

    25% net on royalties. I used to frequent a certain writing community, and the pubbed authors always said steer clear of net. Always.

    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.

    Disgusting. Immoral, IMHO. I can’t believe bestsellers would stand for this crap. I guess it goes back to writers not wanting to take charge of their careers.

    No wonder you’re frustrated; I was frustrated just reading it.

    1. Thanks, Nancy. Doesn’t it just drive you crazy? And bestsellers are writers too, with all the ups and downs. I know of some #1 NYT bestsellers who signed contracts so egregious that they make 20K per year, and the publisher keeps the rest of the money in escrow “for them.” Not kidding. So just because they hit the bestseller list doesn’t mean they know business.

  24. Brilliant post Kristine, I am clapping furiously here in Britain. I too am someone who has the blunt gene and know your pain. When people ask for feedback they should be ready for honesty but all too often they just want you to agree with them and tell them “well done”. A side effect of my own bluntness means that when people give me that kind of namby-pamby feedback I push them for specifics, all in the hope that they’ll tell me what they really thought.

    It’s hard to believe any professional would work so willingly for free/so little, but then there are plenty of morons out there that think that as writing is an art there’s something wrong with getting paid for it. I say that’s a load of bull; the starving artist is not romantic, it’s depressing. Here’s hoping some will listen to your sage advice. I certainly have.

  25. You wrote: “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.”

    You’re having a fu–excuse me, f*ck-it moment, but I’m having a Thank-God-For-The-Internet moment. You and Joe Konrath and Dean and KindleBoards and even AbsoluteWrite (not to mention Amazon) are preventing me from making the mistakes you list above. Or at least, I sure hope they are.

    I could’ve been one of these writers you mention. It WAS me in a different industry, working as a corporate punching-bag in another creative field. It’s an awful way to live, feeling your art enrich other people but not yourself, being treated as “support staff” (this is what my boss called my new job when I left her office (management) to join another (design).

    Just until early this year I was trying to get a publishing contract. Now I’m self-published and invigorated. There are bumps on this road (Amazon pulling books for using the Oxford comma), but I’m loving it. Working to write faster, which is easier when you know it has a chance to be read.

    Thanks for your f*ck-(that is hard for me to write, I’m afraid…without the u)-it moment. I wish I’d had more of those when I was in my twenties.

    1. Ah, Gretchen, the downside to being like this is that you can’t hold a real job, which I could have used at various times in my twenties. 🙂 But good post.

  26. It seems like traditional publishing is becoming the trap that vanity publishing once was; bad deals and taking the writer for everything they can.

    But if I said that out loud at a certain national writers group I belong to, I would get lynched.

  27. Wow. The stupid, it *hurts.* I, too, will not work for free. I refuse to sell anything for $0.00. The problem is that Amazon is selling my novel for cheaper than my short story; I probably need to raise the price.

    Great post.

  28. Dean telling you to put in the asterisk made me smile.

    It is hard to believe there are people out there dumb enough to take a deal like that. Honestly. But obviously there are.

  29. Kris,

    You’ve got a lot of good things to say, but I wish you weren’t so diplomatic about it. 😉

    Honestly, I can’t tell you how helpful you and Dean have been to me over the last several months. I’m also looking back on my decent sized (and growing) inventory of written assets that have (for the most part) gone unsold to traditional publishing.

    I’m sorry about your friends’ foolhardy choices, but, not knowing them at all, I’m grateful that they serve the purpose of distracting those traditional publishers with a bad contract to foist from bothering me.

    Rest assured, though your sound advice may not resonate with the people who should, it resonates with me. The literary life you’ve saved may just be my own.


    One other thing: it is remarkable to me to think of my own nature – I actually have a background in business, but somehow had a weird mental block that art monetization was somehow “special” and “exempt” from some (not all) business principles!

    I thought there must be a super-secret arcane and magical “business plan” that was unique from normal ones and somehow more akin to farming (produce the grain/livestock and sell it to an arcane, regulated and complex handling system) than standard production and direct sales.

    If indeed you’ve shot your mouth off again, thank you so much for shooting straight!

    1. Paul, you’re not the only one with the idea that the arts had a “magical business plan.” I know lawyers who signed terrible contracts because their agents advised them to do it, big league business execs with accounting degrees who figure a royalty statement is magic, and on and on. It’s the myth that publishing–writing–is different. And that’s the myth I’d love to break the most.

  30. Kris,
    I know why authors asked even if they didn’t really want/take your advice. It’s validation. It cost them nothing (but cost you aggrevation) and maybe you’ll agree with them. Then they can smile and skip through the tulips, knowing that someone who’s opinion they respected, agreed with their decision.

    Sound like a 9 year old? Well, if the shoe fits. . .

    I don’t mean to be cold, but jeez.

  31. Wow! Well done post.I have friends who’ve written beautiful novels with sharp stories, and they’re spending months trying to get an agent, who will spend months trying to sell the book. These writers have been told for so long that “no one makes money at fiction” that they’ll take whatever advance they’re offered just to be published. When one of the women mentioned she was thinking of self-publishing, the rest jumped all over her to warn her against “the kiss of death” that is self-pub.

    They’re oblivious to the changes happening in indie/self-publishing, and will continue to feed the traditional publishing machine. They’re under the sad delusion that it’s the only way to get their books out into the world, and the even sadder delusion that said big publishers will actually market their books for them.

    So far, I’ve only published one non-fiction indie book.I’m also the co-writer on a non-fiction book coming out from Penguin next year. I won’t seek an agent or publisher for my fiction. I don’t have the time to waste.

  32. O.M.G.

    Kris, how you keep from screaming “YOU IDIOTS!” when you hear these reports is beyond me.

    The only thing I can say right now, in the middle of shaking my head, is this gem: “If you look around the table and you can’t spot the sucker…it’s you.”

    As you said, the sheep will keep lining up to be sheared and live out the myths, and the rest of us will carry on running our businesses and writing what we want to write and having fun writing.

    …I’m STILL reeling from the insanity. Wow. Thanks for sharing, Kris. I though everyone was using their heads to see the obvious advantages of the new world of publishing, but I must be living in a Kris-n-Dean kind of bubble or something, because how can the other way make any kind of sense?

  33. Channelling Harlan, Kris? 🙂

    Let them have their traditional publishing. There’s a whole crop of truly professional writers breaking out, the like of which hasn’t been seen since Burroughs was banging out Barsoom stories on an Underwood. They understand that writing is a business and that their job doesn’t end when they type the final period on the manuscript. Thanks to people like you, Dean, Joe Konrath, and a few others they are out there writing every day. They’re cranking out copy and they’re finishing what they write because they *know* their work will be published, and not be at the mercy of the whims of the NY publishing houses.

    We’re on the cusp of a new golden age for readers and writers alike. If you’re a professional writer? It’s raining soup; grab a bucket.

  34. First, let me say that I’m not a professional writer in the sense that I do or try to earn a living from my writing. I don’t have to, which allows me to write what is important to me, regardless of trends or external demands. But I have, in the past, written nonfiction content for various websites, and I’m familiar with what these sites offer the writer, and what they demand from them. So I read your post and I now wonder what’s the difference between “content producers” who let themselves be ripped off, being paid little or nothing and giving up all rights to their work, and so-called professional writers. I doubt that novelists ever expected to be told that they’d be paid when the publisher got paid, and I certainly never expected that the same people who’ve looked down their noses at content producers as wage slaves would be doing exactly the same thing.

    Like you, I’ve done the f*ck-it thing many times. One of those times was when I realized that I could write and be published without having to kowtow to anyone. I wrote my first novel, and that was the end of writing “content.” I just wonder how long it will be before some of the writers you talk about will realize that they’re allowing themselves to be turned into what they’ve scorned.

  35. Hi Kris,

    Interesting post.

    These contracts/deals sound particularly egregious. Personally (and I know many writers may differ), all other things being equal, I would like to see publishers moving towards a model with a vastly increased royalty rate (particularly for digital) and a lower or no advance.

    However, that would depend on a lot of other things being in place that aren’t now (not least accurate reporting of e-book sales numbers and fairer contract provisions all round). And I accept that other writers may feel very differently, and have very good reasons for doing so (including that the advance at least gets some money upfront in a time of such uncertainty, bad behavior, and broken promises).

    But on principle at least, I would sacrifice part or all of an advance for greater royalties. Having said that, I would be extremely wary of signing ANY kind of traditional deal right now.

    This contract seems to take the worst of everything: no advance, same crappy disingenuous royalty rate (it’s really not 25%), awful contracts, and awful out-of-print clauses.

    Awful stuff.


  36. Hi Kris,

    I’m a dedicated reader of your blog and I just wanted to say thank you so much for all the great content. All of it has been extremely useful, and I appreciate you taking the time to be so clear and upfront.

    That said, I’ve been dying to post this link since last week’s blog. No one says it better than Harlan Ellison in a rant!


  37. “Publishing is in turmoil and the editor might decide not to buy the next book.”


    Even leaving aside self-publishing as an option, surely this is rationale for not getting into an unfavourable, long-term series contract. I mean, if I believe that the wide world of widgets is about to come crashing down, I’m not going to rush *that much faster* into a widgeteering degree.

    I think, particularly with the likes of Amazon entering traditional publishing (in addition to facilitating self-publishing) and purportedly offering far better contract terms than the industry standard, that writers who aren’t for whatever reason willing to go it alone really ought to consider just waiting to see how things develop instead of diving head-first into the industry’s desperation contracts. Obviously, not everyone has the income or savings to be able to afford sitting back and watching for a while, but times like these are exactly when one is likeliest to be screwed for not having (or perhaps, more to the point, not exercising) other options.

    1. Marcin: “widgeteering degree” Love it. Perfect analysis too. This is not the time to go faster into a changing industry, especially when it’s changing for the worse.

  38. …as I am a near-total unknown, if I should land a book contract that I was otherwise satisfied with, I might consider a loss-leader. I have loss-leader short stories up already; I might offer something I had lying around on the hard drive. But… a bestselling author? WHAT? WHAT? WHAT? And going behind the agent’s back and saying, “No, no, you don’t need anyone to look at this contract”? That is not the act of a friend. That is… I mean, lords, emotional abusers try to separate their victims from their friends and family — their support structure — all the time. It’s a classic tactic, a common red flag of the relationship.

    How is this not the professional version of that? How is this not abusive?

    …if the unnamed authors are reading this, I hope they know about Passive Guy’s lawyerly alter-ego.

  39. LOL, This is my favorite post of yours so far. And I would have totally said FUCK IT. There done.

    The reason I gave up being a writer for a time was because I was so disillusioned by the fact that authors got no money (it’s even worse here in Australia). I think I made no more than $15K from two books over five years – and one of those was a bestseller! You can’t live on that. It’s only in the last six or seven months that I’ve ‘come back’ and I don’t think I’d ever sign another stupid publishing deal – or at least I can’t imagine that I would – the terms would have to be pretty damn spectacular.

    I’m loving the new world where we can reach our audience directly. And get the lions share of our own work (my main gripe with trad pubbing). It’s what brought me back.

    Either that, or I’m just a control freak and don’t want anyone telling me what to do. Ahh this career rocks 😉

  40. Dear Kris,

    I love it when you talk dirty – and the blunter the better. We need it. Or perhaps I shouldn’t speak for anyone else; I need it. I haven’t had the chance to meet you in person yet, but your blog is the next best thing, and as far as I’m concerned I don’t want you to hold back in any way, expletives and all. After all, if I understand correctly, they are a part of who you are.

    Anyway, that aside, thanks for the great post. To paraphrase Dickens, these times in which we live in writing and publishing are the best of times and the worst of times – but all depending on how you look at it. They are the worst of times if you stagger blindly into danger and sink instead of swim, but they are the best of times if you take off the self-imposed blindfold and look around and see the opportunities and GO FOR IT! I’m finalizing my third print book now, my second story collection, with great joy. My cover artist has designed a great cover for it and it’s almost ready. It brings back the feeling I used to have long ago about my work, the sense of wonder, the realization that not even the sky’s the limit. For me, despite the gloom and doom in traditional publishing, these are great times.

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