The Business Rusch: Readers
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
As we came into the new year, I evaluated—as I always do—the things I do as part of my business. My business, for those of you who don’t know, is writing. I have been a published writer since I was sixteen years old. I have made a living at writing since I was in my early twenties, first with nonfiction and then with fiction.
Along the way, I’ve also owned two publishing companies, been an advisor to several more, and worked for half a dozen of them in some non-writing capacity. That doesn’t count the hundreds of publishing companies I have worked with as a writer.
My writing is my career. I have made the majority of my living in traditional publishing. But I have also seen the value of publishing non-traditionally, since I helped start my first publishing company back in 1988. (Hell, if you want honesty, I had my first publishing venture 20 years before that when little old grade school me published both the school newspaper (which I started from scratch, designed [ick!], edited and wrote 90% of), and a little newspaper for my neighborhood (which I did 99% of—and which told my neighbors waaaay more than they needed to know about my family’s politics and our dog.))
I have always seen writing as a career, a way to make a living. Yes, I express myself. I work in an extremely creative profession, and because I’m good at both the creativity and the business side, I am free to write what I want, when I want, and where I want.
So I write this blog from the perspective of a professional writer, for other professional writers and/or people who want to be professional writers. I define professional writer as someone who makes her living as a writer. And by make a living, I mean someone who makes $50,000 to $100,000 per year or more at writing alone. Not writing combined with a high tech day job or writing combined with the salary from the university.
On the writing alone.
When I started, it wasn’t possible to make a living as a self-published writer. It is now. In fact, weirdly, you can make more money as a self-published writer than you ever could as a midlist writer—and in some cases, more than you could make as a bestselling writer.
Honestly, I find that astounding. This change has happened in just the past few years. A number of readers of this blog have commented on how fun it’s been to watch my attitudes change toward self- and indie-publishing. I’m still educating myself on all of this, and I’m still astonished by some things that I learn.
Of course, I’m still astounded by things I’ve seen in traditional publishing too. But I have come to expect illogic there. I’ve steeped myself in that side of the profession since I got my first issue of Writers Digest at the age of 12. Traditional publishing makes no sense on a number of levels.
And now, writers seemed determined to bring the same illogic to indie publishing.
I’ve focused on a lot of this illogic before from the use of agents in this modern world (makes no sense) to the use of a service to upload your book to ebookstores for a percentage of that book for the lifetime of the book (again, makes no sense). If you want to see what I have to say about that, look at some of the past blogs from the list here.
But here’s an aspect I’ve never talked about before, an aspect both sides—traditional publishing and indie writers alike—seem to ignore.
Traditional publishing gave up on readers long ago. When traditional publishers take books in a series out of print before the next book comes out, those publishers aren’t thinking about readers. Those publishers are looking at books as widgets.
Look, they say to themselves, here’s a bunch of widgets in different colors. We released the yellow one first, and it’s doing all right. The green one, which we released second, isn’t doing as well. And the purple one, which we released third, is doing just a bit better. We’ll release the blue one—we think people will like blue widgets—but as we do, let’s remove the green one from the shelf. Green is a similar color to blue, right? And no one will know the difference.
Which might be true of widgets (if there were such a thing outside of website design). I know it’s true of coats, because I looked at a rack of them today—brand new on the shelf, in many colors, and yes, while I preferred the blue and pink ones, the woman next to me liked the white and black ones. But coats are very different from books. Readers don’t get tired of books, and books don’t wear out.
If readers like an author’s work, they want to read everything that writer has done. If readers like a series, they want to read the entire series. And if it’s a series that has a continuing storyline (like a fantasy series), readers don’t want to skip an episode in that storyline.
It seems simple, it seems logical, and yet time after time after time, traditional publishing screws this one up.
I could list a million other things traditional publishing screws up, but that would take this entire post plus every post for the rest of the year. Honestly, most traditional publishers succeed in spite of their business practices.
What that tells me, a person who has written about business for more than thirty years, is that there is so much money to be made in publishing that even the most inept people on the planet can blunder their way into enough successes to keep the lights on in the office year after year.
We all know how traditional publishing ignores readers. But how do indie writers ignore readers?
By focusing on sales and “promotion” and “discoverability” and downloads and free to the exclusion of everything else.
Many indie writers have one book and they promote the hell of out that thing. They give it away for free, they join Kindle Select to “maximize discoverability” (ignoring Nook & IBook readers), and they sell it for 99 cents, thinking that will increase their sales.
So…let’s imagine that these writers are successful. Let’s imagine that they do get millions of people downloading their books. Out of those millions, at least half a million will read that book, and out of that half million, 250,000 will like it.
Then nothing. That’s the problem. Nothing happens. Even if those successful indie writers eventually write another book, they have to start all over from scratch, because the readers who like what they did—those 250,000 readers—they will have forgotten the indie writer in six months.
How many of you folks can tell me without looking what you were reading in the last week of January 2011? How many of you can tell me the name of the author who wrote the book? How many of you can tell me the name of an author who wrote one book—and only one book—that you read and liked five years ago?
I’d be surprised if any of you can.
You indie writers treat your readers as badly as traditional publishers do. And you do it in the exact same way. You deny your readers the next book.
If you only have one book and you give it away for free, if you promote it heavily and it sells a lot of copies, and there is no follow-up book, then you have insulted your readers.
Here’s what readers expect: They expect writers to publish one book, then two books, then three books. They expect several books from their favorite writers.
Readers are kind, and they’re willing to wait. But they hate to be duped. Many readers won’t start reading a series with only one book out because they’ve been burned too many times. They don’t want to start something that the writer has no intention of finishing.
In the past, we writers sometimes had no choice about abandoning a series. As a reader pointed out to me last week, I have taken a 13-year hiatus on my Fey series. Which, I can say with all honesty, was not my fault. I wanted to publish the next three books in that series. I know what they will be. I also know about a few other books in that world, side books that I’ve discussed with no one.
But because Bantam Books took the fourth book of the original series out of print in the late 1990s during the distribution collapse, and (gosh, wow, whodathunkit) the series then died, I have been unable to sell rest of the Fey series to traditional publishers. (The same thing happened in Great Britain: that publishing company lost its entire editorial team, including the publisher himself, and the new regime didn’t want anything they did, so Book 4 never even appeared there. And in France, the exact same thing happened as in England, only it happened with Book 5. I feel particularly sad for the French because the French publisher divided the books in two. So Fey fans read eight books only to be told the remaining two would never come out. Burned—oh, yeah.)
Now that I can control when and where my books come out, I find myself in a lovely conundrum. I have several unfinished series that I can put back into print and then finish. However, I need actual physical time to write those books. I feel the pressure from the readers because I know they’re waiting. And folks, I’m writing as fast as I can.
Unlike so many new writers, I know that I would not be here if it weren’t for the readers. The readers have stuck with me through publisher after publisher, pen name after pen name, all of the various attempts I’ve made to stay ahead of traditional publishers determined to undercut our joint product—the books. I have gotten more letters than I want to think about from readers asking why they couldn’t get a particular book or asking why I had taken that book out of print. (I hadn’t, of course; the publisher had.)
My frustration with traditional publishers ignoring readers is unbelievably high.
So when I see indie writers do the same thing, I get furious. I really do. Folks, when you heavily promote your first book and then don’t write anything else for a year or two or five, you’re insulting your readers. The people who have invested their hard-earned dollars and, more importantly, their time in your book.
I mentioned above that readers are used to writers building a career. Readers know that it might take a year after the first book to get their hands on the second book. But modern readers grew up in the traditional publishing environment like the rest of us—and readers have some important expectations.
1. They expect heavy promotion when a writer’s second book comes out. Or his fifth. Or his twelfth. Not his first. If a writer gets heavy promotion on his first book, then that first book has to be not just brilliant, but one of the top books of the year.
Traditional publishers only spend a ton of money on first novelists when that book has the chance of winning the National Book Award or is being made into a movie or has five more books in the queue behind it, waiting to be published two months apart.
Readers expect that rhythm. So when you screw it up, when you promote something with no follow-up, no second or fifth or twelfth book, you risk making the reader mad.
Especially if your book is good.
You got that? If the reader likes your book, that reader will get mad when he can’t find another book of yours. Then he’ll move onto writers who have more than one book. Eventually, he will forget you.
2. Experience trains readers. So if readers find a lot of really good free ebooks that are essentially one-shot wonders—no other e-book or paper book to be found by the same author–eventually readers will stop trolling the free catalog and look elsewhere for books. Or the readers will be really cautious and only read a book after the author has published a second or fifth or twelfth book.
Readers might still download that free ebook, but they won’t read it until they know another book is on the way. So that download counts for exactly nothing. You have gotten someone to click a button with your free book, but you haven’t gained a reader.
3. Readers want to stick with their favorite writer(s) for the duration of the writer’s career. So the writer better dang-gum have a career.
In the past twenty years, traditional publishing made this almost impossible. Study after study has shown that it takes a reader several books before she will buy a book based on author-name recognition only. But traditional publishing made it hard for readers to find an author’s second or fifth or twelfth book. So many traditional publishers bailed on writers after a second book that didn’t do as well as the first (even if the failure of the second was the publisher’s fault [which it often was]), that writers didn’t stick around long enough for a reader to build any loyalty to that writer.
For the longest time, RT Book Reviews had a “whatever happened to?” column. If you read it, you’d discover that most writers who “vanished” hadn’t disappeared at all. They’d picked a new pen name and started over. Sometimes they were five names down the road by the time a reader wrote to that RT columnist. It took a dedicated reader to keep up.
4. But readers often are dedicated. That’s what traditional publishing misses with its “velocity” and its focus on selling a thousand books this week instead of five thousand over the next year.
Readers have a relationship with books. Readers love the characters or the world the author built or the author’s voice and point of view.
Traditional publishers call readers “consumers,” and technically that’s true. Consumers purchase goods. Readers buy books. But that’s where the analogy ends. Because the second definition of consumer is this:
Someone who consumes something by eating it, drinking it, or using it up.
Readers can’t eat or drink a book. Nor do they destroy the book when they read it. They haven’t “used it up,” even though traditional publishing seems to think so. Traditional publishers are based on the consumer model—using the second definition—thinking that readers are done with the book after a few months, because the book will spoil.
Anyone who has visited a library or a used bookstore will tell you that’s not true. Anyone who reads Jane Austen or William Shakespeare or Mark Twain knows that stories can last forever. Books can live much longer than their creators.
Books are not ephemeral. Books, and by extension, the writers of those books, can and should have a longterm relationship with the reader.
Whenever indie writers get all tied up in the number of downloads their only novel has in one day, whenever those writers do everything they can to sell their one book without having another book for the reader, those writers have forgotten what it’s like to be a reader. They’ve forgotten what it’s like to fall in love with a new writer, to read everything that writer has done, to wait breathlessly for the next book, hoping against hope that book will be as good or better than the last.
Indie writers who have only one book and who give it away, or only have two books and constantly promote them, have forgotten what got them into writing in the first place.
Almost every writer I’ve ever met started writing because they loved books. They loved reading books, they loved imaginary worlds, they loved the experience of being somewhere else without leaving the living room.
That experience came from a writer.
The relationship isn’t between a writer and her publisher. Nor is it between the writer and her sales figures.
The relationship is between the writer and her readers.
Does this mean that every writer must write with readers looking over her shoulder? No. I will be writing the next three books of the Fey, but not this week. This week another project has taken precedence.
I write stories because I love to tell stories, and I am grateful that readers want to read them. But the moment I only tell the story that the readers want, then I stop being the best writer I can be. Because I’ll stop stretching and growing and trying new things.
But I’m not going to give up on the things that got me here either, because I love them as much as the readers do. I want to write the next three Fey books, just like I want to write the next Smokey Dalton mystery, and the next Kristine Grayson romance. I want to write the next Diving book and the next Retrieval Artist novel, but that won’t stop me from writing more short stories about Winston and Ruby.
Recently, a number of bloggers have taken me to task for being anti-free books/stories. I’m not anti-free. If those bloggers were paying attention, they’d notice that I post a story for free every Monday on my blog. Without a donate button, like I have here. The story is free.
It’s there as a gift to my fans. It’s also there as a loss leader, to attract new readers.
But I’ve written over 700 short stories (at last count) and more than 100 novels. If the reader likes what I’ve written, she has a variety of other things to choose from. Right now, I’m doing my best to get my entire backlist into print. And it will take years, believe me. But there’s enough available that a reader who likes this week’s free story (and the story is only up for one week) will be able to find something else that might interest her.
I’m hoping that free story will start a new relationship.
But free has its limits. If you’re talking about a career—and on this blog, we are—then the free item must be a short-term thing, a loss leader, and there has to be other products that a reader can find.
This new indie publishing world can correct the mistakes that traditional publishing makes. The new indie world can make books available for a long time. (I’m not saying forever, because I have no idea what the world, let alone publishing, will look like in 2040).
The world of indie publishing is tailor-made for the long-term reader/writer relationship.
And here’s the simple truth of it, folks. The more readers a writer has on all of her books—all, not “both,” or “one,” but all—the more money that writer will make. Because readers are happy to pay for a book. Readers do it all the time.
Some readers will even pay a premium to get a new book right away, before its publication date, before anyone else sees it.
The reason so many writers, like S.M. Stirling or Mike Shepherd or Patricia Briggs, hit the bestseller list with a book from the middle of their series is because readers who have been reading previous books in the series want that next book the moment it comes out. If you look at last week’s post on bestsellers, you’ll see that bestsellers are tied to velocity (the rapidity of sales) in the week of release. Well, what’s better suited to that than the next book in a beloved series?
The writer has earned that velocity, that instant readership for the new book, by writing excellent books in the past and building reader loyalty.
Until two years ago, the writer needed luck as well—the luck that they were with a publisher who was willing to build the book, or a sales force that was willing to promote backlist, or an editor who fought to have earlier titles in the series re-released. The writer also had to gamble that something bad didn’t happen during the week of release. (For example, Sara Paretsky had to recover from her bad numbers on one of her series books, which was released on 9/11/01—yep, that September 11.)
Now the writer has time to build readership. If a traditional publisher has taken books out of print, the writer can get her rights back and issue the book herself (sometimes with a hefty fight, but she can do it). The writer can continue a series that traditional publishing determines isn’t worth their time. The writer has time.
If she has the patience.
And what’s going on with so many indie writers is that they only look at the short term.
From the perspective of a long-term career, painstakingly built one reader at a time, I believe that the writers who are happy that they’ve had 10,000 downloads of a free book (and that’s their only book or their only mystery novel or their only romance novel) don’t understand what they’re doing.
Not only are they getting nothing for their years of hard work. They’re also pissing off the readers who think of a free book as a promise of more good things to come.
Save your promotions for your tenth book. Better yet, don’t promote at all. Write the eleventh book.
Those of you with backlist, scramble to get it all up for your readers. Do the best you can.
And folks like me, with half a dozen series that all need a new book right now, well, we just have to be patient. We have to write those books one word at a time. (And yes, I’m talking to myself here. I want to write the next book in each series all at once, while writing this really cool new book that I just thought of.)
The new books aren’t not just for me. And they’re not just for the money I’ll make this year.
Because money has never been important to me except as one measure. It measures readers who are willing to part with hard-earned dollars to read my work. I’m grateful for that. When readers ask about the next book, I’m honored.
It means I’m doing something right.
Remember, writers—traditional and indie—your writing career isn’t about kudos for your only book. It’s about building readers, about maintaining the relationship.
Sometimes you have to surprise the reader to keep the relationship fresh. And sometimes you have to write the next book in the series, because it is familiar and it’s what the reader signed on for.
Success isn’t 10,000 downloads in an afternoon. Success is attracting readers and having them come back for years.
Is it hard? Of course it’s hard. In the beginning, no writer has a fan base. Writers earn their fan base, one reader and one book at a time. Fans come back. Writers—and traditional publishers—need to remember that.
Now do you folks see why I say that I have other things I could be writing instead of this blog? I am buried in projects.
Yet I have thousands of readers who show up for the blog every week, and I value you all. I love the dialogue that we’re having.
But the reason I keep the donate button on this blog is that it has to pay its way or I will turn my attention to the stuff that readers will pay for.
So those of you who support the blog with your comments, your links, and your dollars, thank you. You keep this conversation going every week. I appreciate that more than you know.
“The Business Rusch: Readers” copyright 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.