The Business Rusch: Readers
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.
Mark, I wrote an entire post about why I don’t hate Kindle Select but am irritated at how some authors are using it.
Since writing that post, I’ve also discovered that some readers are boycotting authors who use the Kindle Select program whatsoever.
(Kris, I’ve been thinking of Kindle Select as comparable to a temporary exclusivity of format—Kindle—rather than of vendor. But then, as someone with a PowerPC Mac and no smartphone or Kindle, it’s technologically impossible for me to read anything in Kindle format, so maybe I’m a bit more sensitive to that aspect.)
Great post, Kris. I don’t remember when I learned that publishers are (usually) the ones at fault when a series gets killed mid-storyline, but I’ve educated my friends about that detail. Several of my friends know more about publishing than some writers I’ve seen online—and some of those friends are actually artists or accountants, not writers.
They say I’m interesting to listen to, though.
I’m a fan of one author whose publisher killed her series for no good reason, and she hasn’t sold anything since, despite my multiple letters to the publisher detailing why it would make good business sense to continue the series. (One reason being that they completely omitted the major market interested in reading them when the publisher marketed them in the first place, so it’s an entire untapped market!) I even named example titles that were doing well. Argh.
I’m glad I only discovered your Fey series shortly before you started self-publishing them, though. 😀
What I’ve learned as a reader is not to invest in any series that has X number of books planned until X number of books is published. George RR Martin taught me that, as did David Gerrold with his decades old and still unfinished Chtorr series. So I’ll just wait until they are all done rather than read and be left wanting.
In terms of indies offering freebies, many, many of them have multiple books for sale. The other thing is that Kindle Select is an easy and quick way to promote. It’s not like a writer who signs up for it is doing a lot of promoting rather than writing. It’s just an easy to use tool that allows the writer to schedule five free days for the book within the 90 days the book is exclusive to Select. I don’t see a problem with doing this. There’s nothing wrong with a little promotion that doesn’t even take time away from writing.
Let me repeat myself, Mark. The problem with Kindle Select is this: Most writers remove an existing book from other venues to sell it on Kindle Select. I have no problem with someone giving Kindle an exclusive on a new title for 90 days, and then removing the book from Select and putting it up on all other venues. (Although I have to wonder why you would exclude those venues in the first place in the name of “advertising,” but that’s another argument for another day.) But to take existing titles–especially if you only have one or two books published–and remove them from sale in all other markets to offer the book for free, that makes zero business sense at all. None.
(Excluding a book from other markets of the same type makes no sense to me either, but I kinda sorta understand it. It’d be like giving Wal-Mart an exclusive on your latest book, but ignoring everything from Target to Harrod’s to all the other big stores, but hey, you can do that, if you do it for a limited period of time. That’s the only way it makes even kinda sorta sense.)
I’ve always said that a writer’s whole body of work is a series of a kind.
What a great blog, Kris! I’m an aspiring novelist, working on my first one right now, full time (saved up a nest egg from my previous, joyless, 9-5 job as an attorney). I’m really enjoying it so far, and posts like this help me keep perspective and plot out the kind of career I hope to have.
I guess my question is this: I envision this novel as the first in a series, but it’s also going to be my first. I’m leaning toward indie publishing (based on your blog, your husband’s blog, and folks like Joe Konrath), but I worry that as I continue writing, the quality of the first book will appear to be somewhat less than those of the subsequent books. Am I just being a scared newbie? Thanks again–fantastic blog!
DJ, we always worry that our books aren’t going to be good. It’s one way our subconscious shuts us down. Sometimes we’re right, but often we’re wrong. Let the readers decide. (After you hired a copy editor, of course, for the typos, etc.) Good luck with it!
Hey, Kris. Excellent post as always. I look forward to your blog every week.
I’m a consummate series-thinker. Whenever I read, watch, or write something, I’m almost always thinking about the series implications. Where things fit, what opportunities certain elements present for further development later on in the series, etc. I just can’t help myself, I’m addicted to the long form of emotion.
Which is why I’m so excited by the opportunities in this new world of publishing that you highlighted this week — knowing that readers seem to commit to series as passionately as I do is encouragement to stick through this thing for the long run. I just started this month, so it’s not like I’m burned out yet, but every day can be a battle at times. (Particularly when it comes to deciding what to start next.)
On a semi-related note, I’m wondering what you think of Wattpad. I’ve heard that some writers have had success in delivering their material — especially shorter fiction — to a broader range of readers than they were reaching before, and that it has consequently boosted their sales. (David Gaughran talked about this a couple weeks ago on his blog.)
I like to play with structure, presentation, and release formats in my work, experimenting with styles other than the traditional novel to deliver my series to the readers, and I’m wondering what your opinion is about this relatively new community as a potential market for promotion.
This question is, of course, open to everyone else. Has anyone experimented with Wattpad or heard of anyone using it as a tool to share their work with readers?
Thanks in advance.
Joshua, I’ve never heard of Wattpad. Please enlighten me. And thanks for the comment.
Just before the major industry changes started, I returned to writing novels after many years wandering around the entertainment industry, so I wound up following the old prescription: Write book 1 in a series, then write something else. In my case, it was “Book 1, standalone, book 2, then…?” even though I knew I was taking a risk about book 2 if book 1 never sold. It was one of those stories *I* wanted to see the end of.
Midway through the standalone book, the world changed, and so did my plans. I decided to start a second series in another genre, just to test out the new business model, and then I started having popcorn kittens problems. Between what I’ve got on my hard drive and what’s on the market, I’ve got three major novel series, one series of nonfiction books, and one series of short stories. For a while last spring I was starting to wonder if I’d done something insane and I just needed to drop or indefinitely postpone one of the series.
Around this time, I got a letter from a hardcore fan, thanking me for staggering my releases. She liked being able to rotate through with me, as each series has different major themes and a different emotional profile, but right at the end came the clincher:
“I especially like how the voice from the Lantham mysteries has tightened up the Antithesis books, and how the Antithesis voice has made the Lantham voice more passionate.”
I ran it by my alpha reader, who confirmed she’d noticed the same thing–as I’ve concentrated on improving different skills with each book, and as I’ve rotated through the series, I’ve had the freedom to make round out my craft much rounder than I might otherwise have done. And, since I’m releasing them on a pretty reliable schedule (on every couple years for the thrillers, 2/year for the mysteries, 1-2/yr for the standalones, etc) the readers are developing expectations I can comfortably meet.
So, at least for relative newbies, there may still be some value in writing both a series and some standalones, or in cycling between series.
Thanks, Dan. Nice observations all.
Folks, there seems to be a misunderstanding developing in the comments that I suggest only writing series. I’m not. I am saying, however, that you should have more than one book under the same name before doing anything that even smacks of promotion, and preferably at least five or ten. It doesn’t just have to be series books. I’d be the biggest hypocrite on the planet if I told you to only write series. Standalones are just fine as well, so long as each of your pen names has more than five books before you start promoting. If you start promoting.
We were discussing this today, and relating it to how we’ve adopted television shows to follow as well. We wait a couple of seasons to make sure it’s not going to go all Firefly on us, and then we start watching. This way we don’t get burned.
I do the same thing with literary series, except where I know the author personally. I hate waiting for the next book in the arc, but I will do so, as long as we’re far enough along that I’m not going to get burned there, as well. When Scott Card hailed KKR to the Heavens, I went and bought the first Retrieval Artist book I could find. Four pages in it was good enough that I bought all the rest. That’s how I do that if I can.
I will buy a standalone book, but not readily, unless that author has quite a few others as well. I don’t want to fall in love with someone that doesn’t love me back, as KKR eloquently puts it.
Chris, thanks for the TV mention. A lot of people are like that. I try most everything when it premieres, but it has to hook me right away or I’m gone. Then, if it becomes a hit or folks I know like it, I’ll try again. Sometimes I stay (as with Justified) and sometimes, I can’t get past the first few episodes (the new Battlestar). It is the same thing, however. We want our stories to eventually finish–unless they’re billed as soap operas, which you know will continue forever (theoretically). Then you want the arc to finish within a relatively small amount of time, before they move to a new arc.
And yeah, same with standalone books. I’m still peeved at Harper Lee. I want her to write something else. (Or more accurately, publish something else, since her friends all say she hasn’t quit writing.)
Kris, everything you wrote about readers and what they expect out of a series makes sense.
I better get that next book finished quick!
Nice to see someone explain the keen reader’s perspective. Kris is a great example of the adage about having to be a reader in order to be a writer. From her monthly reviews, you can tell she practices what she preaches!
Coming to this conversation as a reader, I have to admit for many years, I barely read. I’d pick one or two “hit” books, sometimes critically acclaimed, sometimes runaway bestsellers, just so I could have something to talk about if I had to engage in conversation with a real reader.
Chance (a stumble across Joe Konrath’s blog way back in late 2009) pointed out what promised to be interesting times ahead in book publishing. Having watched the music industry’s digital birthing pains, it was possible to make predictions. In general terms, they haven’t been that far off the mark. Since that chance occurrence, I’ve read more books than since I was a teenager with time on my hands — largely because of hanging around (online) writers and being curious about their stuff.
As a reader, I don’t care much about those one- or two-book writers who promo themselves into oblivion. There are so many great writers working hard in every genre and sub-genre I enjoy, plus all the great writers of the more literary stuff, who may not work so fast, but whose work has importance beyond sheer entertainment and relaxation. For a reader, there’s no need to fret. If I download an enjoyable book, but there’s nothing else available by that author, I pretty quickly move on to someone else.
So maybe I’m not the typical reader. But because I’m that atypical reader, I represent a market which is ill catered to. I’m an opportunity. I’m not a devotee of one or two sub-sub-genres. I read just about everything (except really good horror, which freaks me out).
I like Kris’s emphasis on the writer’s responsibility to give the reader that next book, but to me, it’s not essential. I won’t hate a good writer who doesn’t add another in what could easily have been turned into a series. If that writer writes something completely different, I’ll pick it up (unless it’s horror, d’oh). If that writer doesn’t write something else, I’ll turn to some other writer. Big deal.
“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.”
As I’m not a typical reader, I can’t vouch for the veracity of the observation. It’s not my behaviour. To each, his own. However, I do strongly believe writers need to know the in-book behaviour of readers. EPUB 3 shows promise in this direction, though how the publisher (whether traditional, or yourself) will gain the trust of the reader enough, in advance, to persuade that reader to allow statistical data (percentage of completion, time taken to read, etc. etc.) to be sent back to the publisher (remember: self-/indie or otherwise) is a huge question. Privacy concerns, and the backlash against intrusiveness of modern infotech into people’s daily lives, are problems.
(Amazon in particular, and other ereader makers, could easily have this data and use it, but they haven’t tackled the privacy issues — I think, without having read the whole user agreement for Kindle or any other ereader — and whether, or at what cost, they’d pass it along to [self-/indie or traditional] publishers is open to debate.)
The comments above reinforce authors’ anecdotal experience: some readers do fret and even grow obsessive over incomplete series. To me, that’s scary. Kris places proper emphasis on the partnership between storyteller and audience, but the responsibility for nurturing that partnership lies wholly on your side, not on mine. What a heavy responsibility it can be sometimes!
If I were a writer, I’d write what I damned well please, which is why I’m something else. Writers who are bent on doing so had better hope they’re brilliant, because if they’re not, they’re fated to the same existence New-York-publishing rejected writers faced throughout the 20th Century. This “brave new world of indie publishing” won’t treat them any better than the old world of traditional publishing did.
The gatekeepers are the readers now.
(P.S. Kris, I’m just noticing now what you did with the titles of the fantasy romances. Charming! I must buy by cover, not by title. 😉 )
Thanks, LP, for that very thoughtful post from the reader’s perspective. Good stuff. I hope others read it as well. And I love the line: “The gatekeepers are the readers now.” Thanks.
Yep! (Popcorn kittens it is!) I finally decided that the goal for “which book is next” is to not worry about which one I _should_ write, because they are all urgent now. The goal is keeping momentum. Write what I feel most enthusiasm for. If I’m in the voice of a particular story, keep going. If I am tired of it, skip to something else.
However, it does help to limit the choices somewhat. I’m concentrating on two of my series for the next two years. Getting them well established and seeing if I can get my productivity up.
[…] Rusch continues to be my favorite writer discussing the business of publishing and this week she talks about readers, about customer focus (or a lack […]
You mentioned Mike Shepard in the article. I’d read a couple of books by a guy named Mike Moscoe and loved them. Military SF, very realistic. Nice stuff. Couldn’t find the first book (which I knew existed because it was listed in books two and three).
Also couldn’t find anything more.
Saw these books by someone named Mike Shepard, who I had never heard of, and ignored them. I was working from a budget, there was stuff out from writers that I knew, and I bought that. About two years later I found out that Mike Shepard was Mike Moscoe.
Talk about pissed off (pardon, but that is the only word to describe how upset I was). It took some digging, but I managed to get the Kris Longknife books, and had a great time reading them.
I don’t know why Mike changed his name. From comments on Sarah Hoyt’s blog I have my suspicions. Someone at the publisher had a brainfart.
Wayne, if Mike Shepherd hadn’t changed his name, you wouldn’t be reading his work today. His editor offered him a choice: change your name or don’t sell me another book. He opted to change his name. He’s been working hard ever since to let his Moscoe readers know that he’s Shepherd too. In fact, if you meet him, he introduces himself as Mike Moscoe Shepherd.
Generally speaking, as readers, if something about a traditionally published writer/career pisses us off, it’s probably not the writer’s fault. The writer is doing all he can to stay published or survive.
In indie publishing, however, it is the writer’s fault, and the writer has to own the experience. Times are changing that way, at least.
Absolutely great post and advice for both indie and traditional. I have been doing workshops for years and I stress to aspiring writers over and over again that you always have to have your next project ready for your readers. While I am still predominantly in traditional publishing, the attitude toward series books and publication schedules has been a source of frustration at times. Many readers tell me, well I won’t buy #1 until #2 is out, but with large spans of time between releases, it’s tough to keep interest going. If the timing is important to you, I would definitely recommend that you get that release schedule down in the contract.
Thanks, Caridad. Good advice. You do need to get timing into the contract, but you also need a penalty if the publisher pushes the pub dates back. If you don’t turn your book in on time, you have all kinds of penalties under the contract, but often if the publisher doesn’t meet the contract-mandated publication dates, then there is no penalty. So that part has to be in the contract as well. (I write this from the position of someone who has had a dozen publishers [that I can think of] miss pub dates repeatedly on projects, often harming the project. Only once did it help a project.)
I’m an avid reader, going through several books a week and this post describes my reactions almost to a T. You left out the “this book is being pushed so hard it’s probably not that good” reaction, though. These days we get so much advertising pushed at us that there’s an automatic reflex to assume that if they have to market it that hard, it’s probably not as good as something that was left to stand on it’s own. (Maybe this is just me, though.)
As a reader there is nothing more irritating than being left hanging in the middle of a story. I don’t mind waiting a reasonable time for the next book, but if it never comes, I avoid that author because I don’t want to start another book and be left missing part of the story again.
Goodreads has a function now that will send you a list each month of books released by authors you have put on your “read” list. This has kept me from missing the appearance of a couple books by authors I like, but whose books aren’t showing up in the bookstores or are E-book only.
(For those who like P.C. Hodgell, Baen is publishing her new books in the Godstalker series, as well as putting up the backlist titles in that series. Her new book in the series just came out in December 2011.)
Oh, yeah, Rachel. That overhype thing. I feel the same way, but I thought it was just me. I try to avoid the hype before I read something. I take note that it exists, then move on. I often catch the wave years later and think, That’s why they hyped it. Thanks too for the update on PC Hodgell. A lot of us like her work.
Just commenting on earlier comments, but it feels reassuring that I’m not the only one who likes to hop into a series partway through. Part of my reasoning is probably weird – that it’s fiction and unlike reality, it stays constant – but it’s why I try to make each book stand alone to itself. A reader could be trying any one of my books first, I should make it a complete narrative!
The magic note I’m looking for is knowing WHICH book to write next. When you have several series initiated, and you have those damned “popcorn kitten” books that just jump in front of the camera, and you have ADD like me—it gets overwhelming. My BF suggested I take them in order and then stick a “new” book in alternately.
Plan it like this; You have series A,B,C,D, & E. Write book 2 for A, then a new book, then book 2 for B, then a new book, write book 2 for C, then a new book, etc. But I’ll be damned— lol—I still think I’m not doing it fast enough. And even if it’s written, then there’s editing (several layers), formatting, cover, and building Robin Sullivan’s “tool box” for each one of them (all that stuff you put in as meta-data).
If that doesn’t make my ADD scream at me, I dunno what won’t. It “sounds” like a pretty good plan. But I SUCK at time management. XD
Oh, heavens, Phaedra, you brought up Popcorn Kittens! (For those of you who don’t know the reference, check out this post: https://kriswrites.com/2011/07/13/the-business-rusch-popcorn-kittens/ I’m slowly getting mine under control, which means they hit once per day instead of, oh, a hundred times. But it’s hard. I really want to write everything now. And if someone asks about a series, I want to write that now. Ack! I keep telling myself, Finish this project, then you can do the next project. But boy oh boy, I struggle with that every day. It’s the new challenge. I used to tell myself: Finish your writing day, then you can read. But that’s a routine now, not a carrot. Writing the next project has become the carrot–which is, I guess, a good thing. (If I can keep those kittens under control.)
Every day I’m asked… “How did you manage to get on and stay on, the bestseller list on Amazon?” “What are you doing?” “What can I do to generate sales?”
I usually answer with the theme of… “Write your next book.”
Well pointed post.
Thanks, Catherine. And congrats on the success of “Wife by Wednesday.” Your advice to other writers is spot on. Besides, writing the next book is more fun, isn’t it?
I knew better about readers, but for the past however many years I’ve been writing only “first books” because it was the universal advice I got for traditional publishing (at least in cozy mystery). And I don’t know if that was such bad advice: if they don’t want book one, they are not going to want book two.
But alas, that has left me with not only a bunch of first books, but also a bunch of relatively _cold_ first books. For some of them it takes time to get back into the “voice” of the story.
Exactly right in your advice to Jerry, Camille. Traditional publishers–and agents–give the advice to start something new, and once upon a time, it was the correct advice for the reasons you just gave. You couldn’t sell book 2 in a series if no one wanted book 1. But you can now. Times have changed so fast that the advice feels decades-old, when really, it was good advice in 2006.
[…] Business Rusch – Readers – KK Rusch points out the similarities between trad. Publishers who pull books in a series and indie writers who deny their ow…. Thought […]
Great post! I love your blog and love Dean’s too. I do have one small question. Do you have to buy your pen names?
Thanks, Vera. Um…who would I buy my pen names from? They’re my business names. A name is a name is a name. You might be referring to that horrible Harlequin practice. For those of you who don’t know, Harlequin now lays claim to pen names in its contracts, so if I had signed one of those contracts, I would need to buy the name back from Harlequin. This is why I insist writers sign good contracts. I would never ever ever sign that contract, and when Harlequin started that practice in the 1990s (along with other contractual stinkos), I stopped submitting to them. Wasn’t worth the fight and eventually pulling the book.
Dead write on reader’s habits. I bought Mike Shepherd’s 9th book (yes, I have all 9) in the Kris Longknife series as soon as it came out – in fact, within the past few months I reread them all. In your
books, I believe my first was Diving Into The Wreck. Afterwards, I went and found your Retrieval Artist series (where ever I could for hardcopy and then ebooks on smashwords).
Thanks, Cliff & Hunter.
Kris, thanks again for your illumination, even though your essay makes me think I made a career-limiting mistake when I started my fiction career a few years back. From my non-fiction success, I knew about writing sequences of books (not series, precisely, in non-fiction). I thought I’d apply that knowledge in my fiction career by starting several series—1 in mystery, 1 in techno-thrillers, 1 in modern fantasy, 1 in “hard” science fiction, 1 in romantic science fiction, and 1 in “soft,” or social, science fiction. I would put all of them up for sale and follow through immediately on the one that got the best reader response. (One effect of this plan was making me spend too much time analyzing sales trends. Phooey!)
I was a good plan, except it didn’t work, and I think your essay explains why—each of the first books (or first two) got many 5-star reviews, but they all had more or less the same (modest) sales. Now I realize that one or two books is not the way to start a series on the road to loyal readership.
So, late last year, I decided to modify the experiment and concentrate on one series until I have a kind of critical mass. Based on my own reader experience, I take that to be at least 3 books, maybe 4 or even more before many readers become loyal fans. (There are a few already, and they keep asking for the next books in each series.) So, I now have a new focus. I’ve finished the first of these series-extender books and am now well into the next in the same series. Thank you for reinforcing my decision. I’ll try to reward you by getting every series up to that critical mass, without looking for signs of a sales takeoff.
Jerry (Gerald), I don’t think you made a career limiting mistake. You started publishing fiction recently enough that your readers are still in the wait mode for new books in the same series. Looks like you already made the right course correction.
Great post, Kris.
I wholeheartedly agree with getting the next book out there, though I’ve done quite a bit of marketing and promotional work for my two existing novels. I would have had more books released in 2011, but my contract with my traditional publisher precluded me from doing so (that dreaded non-compete clause.)
That doesn’t mean I’m not writing, though. I just can’t publish anyting until 6 months after the release of DARKROOM. But come October 2012, I plan on having several new titles in the pipeline ready to go.
Nevertheless, it’s true–the next book is the best thing to work on for a long term professional career.
Interesting though, I thought we learned that “It’s a Business,” and that our books were in fact, widgets. 🙂 I guess context makes a difference.
Thanks again for your blog!
Thanks, Joshua. That non-compete clause is so pernicious. I hate it. I understand why trad publishers do it, but I always consider it a deal breaker and have never signed one. No one tells me what to write or what I can do with my writing. That’s been my mantra from the beginning. Good for you, though, having things ready. That’s the best thing you can do.
Kris, I’m sure as a former reporter you remember the classic question asked of anyone who has achieved initial success:
In this era of endless sequels you’d better have an answer.
LOL, Randy. Exactly. That’s always the follow-up question because the other stuff is talked to death. The standard question on everything from Entertainment Tonight to CNN to The New York Times. It’s because people want to know what they can look forward to.
Excellent post. As a reader, I’m still a little annoyed at Dean Koontz that there’s no third book of a planned trilogy, even though I know it (most likely) wasn’t his decision, but there for years every December when I knew a new Dean Koontz book was due, I’d be disappointed that it wasn’t the third one I was waiting for.
On the writer side, a year ago December I started putting a story a week up for free on my blog, where it would stay free for just one week, no donate button or anything. The idea originally was a way to push myself to keep the epub side of things going while I was also writing (I don’t put a story up for free unless it’s also available for sale somewhere). I also hoped I’d attract a reader or two. Well, over a year later I’m still putting up a free story every Thursday because I’ve had readers tell me they look forward to the stories and I don’t want to disappoint them. It’s definitely good incentive for getting a story prepped and ready every week even when RL wants to get in the way.
Great post, Annie. I love your writerly observations. And the neat thing about readers is this, if they like your work, they do the advertising for you. They tell their friends, and more readers come your way.
My wife and I are both avid readers. I don’t know how many times we’ve found the five book in a series, and gone nuts trying to find the earlier books. You couldn’t order them. No one was interested in trying to find them in the system for us.
We haunted used book stores, talked to friends, and in a couple of cases gave up.
Sad, isn’t it?
Frustrating, isn’t it, Wayne? And ridiculous. People clearly want the books. They bought the previous books. Why wouldn’t you capitalize on your built-in market? This is why, when I got offered jobs in traditional publishing after my stint at F&SF, I turned those jobs down.
Great article, and right on the money. I’ve been on both sides of this, as a reader and a writer. Thanks for putting it all in the proper perspective.
You’re welcome, Connie.
Amazon’s direct to your reader email suggestion tool is *gold* for writers. “Because you bought X we wanted to tell you there is a new book Y available…” Amazon sends this out the moment you make a new one available, even if it is months, maybe years later?
We have wanted to *GIVE* our friends a new title, but they BOUGHT it faster than we could get to them. A big Ahhh Haaa moment.
Nice, SL. I didn’t know Amazon did that. Even though I get the mailings. Shows how much I pay attention to my junk e-mail…
I consider myself a professional even though I’m not making anywhere near $50,000 a year. I haven’t even made $5000 yet. But I’m looking at the writing as a business, making sales, working hard to build up my inventory, and acting AS IF I had that successful level of income. Except for the spending part. I have no money to spare as yet. Still, I believe that thinking of myself as a pro helps me behave like a pro, and that IMO is essential to success.
Tori, perfect. You’re exactly right. If you act like a professional, you are most of the way there. (I know many professional writers who don’t act professionally, and I wince every time.)
“The course focuses on how the business runs (who’s who–from publisher to editor to sales force), editing, more editing, and a little on sales. Nothing on the actual business, nothing on finances, nothing on anything.”
Kris, that is scary to read. How about courses on handling inventory, back lists, taxes, marketing, leveraging subsidiary projects like movie tie-ins? I would think the most elementary operations management or strategic planning courses would be absolutely required! What about contract law? Discount/return policies? The mind boggles. I hope that course was aimed at MBAs breaking into publishing, who already have all of this, and not people who have no training or experience in business. Ack.
Sadly, Sarah, no. None of that. This is for folks with a bachelors in something who want to go into publishing. And they never, ever, ever learn that stuff. Interns and low-level publishing types are hired directly from this program. It’s really shocking.
Another spot-on post. I have mentioned you and Dean are among my heroes, haven’t I?
For years authors have been inundated with the message that writing is the small part of the job, and that what they REALLY need to focus on is marketing.
It’s the “Pet Rock” theory of sales, which basically holds that you can grab any old pig, slap some lipstick on it, and declare it a beauty queen if your marketing is just slick enough, loud enough, and pervasive enough. The product isn’t important, just the message.
I call shenanigans. I’ve been suckered into buying a few over-hyped and under-developed books, and the author invariably ends up on my “Do not buy” list.
Like most readers, I take chances on new authors, and expect that their skills will improve over time. You don’t need Billy Mays shouting at me to try you. I could care less about your facebook or twitter, or even your blog (though a good bibliography is always nice to find). I care about your writing. Your work, your product. You know, the thing you’re trying to sell me. More importantly, if I like it, I’ll want more.
Readers don’t remember names forever. If it takes you a year or even eighteen months to get that next book written, they’re pretty good about coming back for the next bite. Take a three-year hiatus, and (unless you left them hanging on book five of a series or something horrible) they’ll have largely forgotten you.
Kris is absolutely spot on. Write well, write lots, and write a product your readers want. They’re the ones who put the bread on your table, and only a fool forgets who pays his wages. Self publishing makes it possible to keep your whole bibliography available for readers, and the best possible advertisement for your skills as a novelist is a brand new novel.
I lack Kris’s fine articulation and clarity of expression, but I addressed this same topic on my last update to Patricia Briggs’ site.
Thanks, Mike. I love “the Pet Rock” theory. Exactly! And Mike’s right, y’all. Readers pay our wages. Remember that and you’ll do just fine.
Ah you correct I couldn’t name any 1 book authors that I read 5 years ago. I would have to go look at my stacks of books to find one.
Actually the publisher I am talking about does give the authors a share of the Earcs. This publisher though has been doing ebooks since December of 1999. But it isn’t one of the big 6 instead a tier down from that though they use one of the big 6 to distribute.
Good to know, Tom. [whew] Thanks for the clarification–on both things. 🙂
Also remember that those who are putting up a book every three months (or every month) probably did not write them that fast. An awful lot of people have been writing for a very long time.
The way to avoid bad writing is the same way you always did: sample a mature book (i.e. a later book in the series). If the writing enthralls you, see if the ending pays off.
But in the end, YOU don’t have to be the gatekeeper anyway. If you aren’t sure you’re going to like a writer or book series, then don’t bother with it. See if they’re still around several years from now. Wait until someone more adventurous (whom you trust) reads it and lets you know what they think.
That’s how publishing used to work, and thank goodness it’s starting to work that way again.
Oh and yes I as a reader really hate that books get treated as a consumable commodity. Look if book 3 or 4 of the Grand Story is coming out and I just found out about it. I want to be able to easily go back and find book 1, 2, 3 etc in the bookstore or online. Your very right about that.
I only seriously started messing with promotional stuff after I had 45+ titles up, for just the reasons you mentioned. Some of the short stories I set free just because they’re still available from the online magazines that bought them, like the Jokka stories Strange Horizons purchased, so I figured ‘well, why not cross-post them to Amazon too?’ and those have been excellent in terms of getting people in the door. I make money on those shorts when people buy the collections they’re in, or the print versions.
But I am really exhausted by authors who issue one book and then I don’t get to see book 2 until a year later. I don’t even want to hear about book 1 until book 2 is out. I have run into too many authors who never delivered on their second book, and that’s painful… and particularly bad news these days, when fans expect some modicum of interactivity with their favorite writers.
Exactly, MCA. And the cross-promotion with other magazines (e or print) really does work. Short stories are a great promotional tool. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂
At least 1 publisher capitalizes on the fact that readers are willing to pay for early access to books by authors they like. They sell Earcs of the book 1 – 3 months early depending on when the they got the last draft. And they sell those Earcs for $15.00 and I understand they turn a decent little bit on them. Then people turn around and buy the book after that.
Oh and 5 years ago. Kristin Britain, Mercedes Lackey, Patricia Briggs are 3 of the ones I can think of off the top of my head, Ah Krentz or whatever pseudonym had a book out too. 😉 And I could probably think of more. But then I read and buy 10 – 20 books a month.
Yes, Tom, but a new writer you read five years ago who has no new book out? Can you name that writer? That E-arcs thing is disturbing, because most writers don’t get paid by contract for arcs, which are considered promotion. I hope the writers whose work are with that traditional publisher get paid for those arcs, but I’ll bet they don’t.
Thank you for spending time with us, sharing this sparkling wisdom. Another priceless permanent link in my collection.
Even though I knew all of the information in your post, you put it together in such a way as to make me realize something about my own reading habits:
I love mystery. I love it to the point where I will read junk mysteries just to pass the time. And while I love regional police procedurals and some more modern, thrillery detective stories, and funny crime novels, what I really love is cozy domestic crime. The old fashioned whodunnit. And yet, I simply don’t read the whodunnits that have been published in the last ten or twenty years.
I acquire them. I _mean_ to read them. But I find myself reading classics instead. And not just old favorites. As more and more out-of-print series come back into print, I find authors and series I never read before. And I find that I’ll even read old authors whom I don’t particularly like before I read a promising new book.
It’s NOT that the new books are no good. Not all of them are to my taste, but the old books are not all to my taste either.
And you put your finger on why.
The old authors have 20, 30, 60 books. The new authors may have multiple books, but they are usually spread across a bunch of series. I don’t commit to books. I commit to series. And when I have my choices, I like to start series at book five or so — see what the developed series looks like. Then I go back to the beginning. And I do the same thing with a TV show.
And once I’m hooked into the series, I’ll read the author’s standalones and oddments. But almost never before.
(Perspective, here – I am inordinately pissed at Agatha Christie for only writing five books of Tuppence and Tommy. And when I was young, I was especially pissed at her for making each book (except the first two) very DIFFERENT from the others. Later, I came to appreciate what she was doing, in showing the pair and how they change over the course of an entire life. Wild young things, responsible adults, middle aged, elderly.)
The good thing is that, with Kindle, I have the samples. They will still be there when those authors build a sufficient base to get me excited.
This is why I really don’t expect (and don’t rationally want) much in the way of sales for a couple of years yet. I have bunches of books, but the series are in their embryonic stages.
I do think that, with indie publishing, we have enabled the non-reader to jump into the fray. Fiction is now like poetry. Everybody writes it, even those who don’t read it that much. And that has an influence on the culture of writers.
Camille, I do the same with mystery series. I start in the middle and then go back. If I had gone about it differently, I wouldn’t be an Ian Rankin fan. His early Rebus novels aren’t one-tenth as good as the middle ones, which aren’t as good as the new ones. Writers do grow and improve, even (especially) bestselling writers. Good points all. Thanks.
All of which is why I should be writing instead of reading your blog. *blush*
But none of my novels are free–at the moment. I don’t apologize for using a few free days for promotion (which I know you understand) and I do not have my novels in Amazon Select because I don’t value “B&N” readers. I value all readers equally. The fact that I can find MORE readers by being only in Amazon means that I am reaching exactly that: more readers. Why value the few readers I reach through B&N more than the much larger number I reach through being exclusive on Amazon?
That doesn’t make sense to me.
JR, as long as you only put new novels in Select and keep them there for 90 days, and then move onto the other services, you’re okay. But 6,000 titles got removed from Smashwords when Select was announced, with more every day. So taking your backlist away from potential readers? That makes no sense. Also, Michael Cader on Publishers Lunch did an analysis with numbers as to how much money the average Kindle Select person made being exclusive and how much they would have made keeping that same book on B&N and not being exclusive at Select. Guess what? They would have made more money on B&N…not counting Kobo, and iBooks, and and and… Never forget that Kindle is one market and people shop in other places. Particularly people who read English and who live outside the United States.
“Not writing combined with a high tech day job.”
Quibble: I work as a technical writer in a high tech industry. I’m paid to write manuals. How is this different from writing non-fiction as a private citizen? I’ve been a freelancer and an employee, and the tasks were the same: explain things to people. So I don’t hesitate to call myself a writer, or say I make my living as a writer. Either way, I’m producing books.
On to the gist of your essay: the way traditional publishers undercut writers and readers. I was particularly struck by your description of trad publishing thinking of books as widgets, and your defense of The Book As Non-Widget. I was strongly reminded of some of the lectures I sat through in business school, and it occurs to me that publishers have never really had “business thinking” applied to their field. Most of the conglomerates who bought out the publishing houses in the 20th century are staffed and run by MBAs. As a former MBA student, I can guarantee you they didn’t get a case study on publishing in business school. Has the Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Fortune or any other periodical devoted to business ever run an article on the differences between publishing and other ventures? I doubt it. I suspect that the people who run publishing houses either come up the ranks from editorial (which means they probably do not have professional training in economics, finance, or other business fields), or they come from the ranks of MBAs, which means they know squat about readers, writer or editors.
I almost pity the poor CEO trying to run a publishing business these days (wait, *I* run a publishing business…) because that person probably has no studies of his field to fall back on, no scientific analysis of supply and demand, no underlying, coherent theory of publishing. So he takes the closest analogy he can — the manufacturing industries — and tries to model his business on that. But the manufacturing industries are assembly-line, swift-replacement models that assume (as you point out) that all widgets vary only slightly from one another. The concept of a unique, hand-crafted product that cannot be sourced from any other vendor is just not in the mix. So this model inevitably fails, to the despair of all. And there is no model to replace it.
I shed one small tear for publishers.
Good point, Sarah. There are people, like you, who write in their day job as well and produce books. They’re not the ones I’m referring to. I’m referring to the people who have a non-writing day job that pays all the bills and who write on the side. Yes, they’re probably on track to be a professional writer some day, but they’re not there yet. You clearly are. When you make a good living at your writing, you are a professional writer, no matter how that living is made (salary/freelance).
Onto your other point about MBAs and your one small tear for traditional publishers, excellent point. Just yesterday at lunch, a friend showed me a syllabus for an accredited publishing course through a major university. The course focuses on how the business runs (who’s who–from publisher to editor to sales force), editing, more editing, and a little on sales. Nothing on the actual business, nothing on finances, nothing on anything. Any editor could teach that course. And here’s the really sad thing. One afternoon session of the summer program on e-books. Just one. [sigh] So if you go into publishing and take this accredited course to get there, you learn exactly nothing that will actually help you in business.
I don’t know about last year, but I can tell you that 20-25 years ago I was reading a book called Godstalk by P.C.Hodgell, and I fell in love with it. But I had to wait until Hodgell went POD(?) to find any other books in the series. I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet it was a stupid publisher trick that kept her out of sight for all those years.
A worse example is Ansen Dibbell’s Kantmorie saga. I found all three books (I thought) in used book stores. Love them. Read them multiple times. Never saw them new in and bricks & mortar store. Then I read her biography and discovered there are two more books in the series. Still not sure where I’m going to find them.
I’m not sure, but I think “It didn’t sell” is generally a pretty poor excuse if you hid it from the customer.
Good points all, Mark A. When St. Martins Press did my Smokey Dalton books (mostly set in Chicago), they wouldn’t send books to the Chicago book fair. And they sent me on tour once, but didn’t provide books to the bookstores. Something similar just happened to a friend of mine in May with a different traditional publisher. And it’s this kind of thing that drives writers crazy, because we’re the ones the readers ask in order to find out why the “writer” didn’t provide the book, when it used to be out of our control. It’s in our control now (except for some backlist titles), so I think we have an obligation to do our best for the readers. And yeah, I have writers like P.C. Hodgell too, whose work I love. I now check regularly on my Kindle to see if they got their backlist up so I can find those books I’m missing. 🙂
Oh, one other thing on the missing two books: look at bookfinder.com. Someone probably has them for sale somewhere.
Starting January 2012, I’ve made it my object to make available one thing, any thing – novella, novel, short story, anthology, heck – poetry if I’m desperate – per week for the year.
The covers may be amateurish, the promotion will be nil (I don’t even tweet ’em), and the formatting will be decidedly unfancy. But the stuff will be _available._ All I know is that, as a reader, the only thing I care about is if I can read the book or not. I hate when I know a book exists, or should exist, but isn’t for sale at Kobo or wherever I happen to be looking.
I’ll try to remember to keep you posted. I’m only three things in (thing 4 goes up before midnight on Sunday – so at least I’m not stumbling out of the blocks) so I must say that I’m completely shocked in a good way that I’ve actually netted thirty-three cents already. I wasn’t expecting that sort of cashflow until June at the earliest, when I had a basic set of 20 things or so to get started with.
If I can get this base built this year, maybe I’ll think about the other important things, or maybe I’ll build another base. The five year plan doesn’t work any better for me than it did the Soviets.
Paul, excellent goal. What a great idea. And please do keep us posted when you think about it–when you’re not writing or posting something new, that is. 🙂
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 what?
See, this is what gets me, and as you and Dean have pointed out over and over, you have to keep writing and putting up novels, shorts, novelettes, whatever, so people will have a chance to find a BUNCH of your stuff, not just one thing. I know how I am with your Retrieval Artist novels – I’m glad you’ve got a bunch of ’em out there. 🙂
It’s the short-term thinking has me avoiding most of Kindleboards, except for the Book Corner where I can find out about new (to me) ebooks. 🙂
Thanks, Nancy. The short-term thinking drives me nuts too, as you can tell. 🙂
Thanks for encouraging writers to not spend *all* their time on promotion. I am about to independently publish my first book and am planning not to promote until I at least release the second book (hopefully a couple of months later). This will further my resolve to hold off on promotion and to do so guilt free!
You’re welcome, Erin. 🙂
As a reader, I’m actually heading in almost the opposite direction. Lately, the advice to publish, publish, publish, faster, faster, faster seems to have spread far and wide. I’m looking at indie authors’ booklists now and if they’re churning out a new book every three months, I’m not going to bother with the first. I’ve been burned too many times by an okay first book followed by total slop. I need some evidence that an author is taking his or her time and trying to improve, not just trying to get rich quick. I’m obviously not talking about people with a long, long publishing history: I accept that some professional writers with years of experience can consistently publish good books every few months. But I’m not convinced that everyone can and personally, as a reader, I’d rather wait five years between books for Patrick Rothfuss then three months for…well, almost anyone else. Patient readers get rewarded with better books.
Sarah W., you just spouted a myth. Writing fast doesn’t equal writing bad. In fact, writers who write fast have a better chance of becoming the writer you want to read than writers who write slowly. That said, a lot of writers are putting up material that isn’t great. They’re still learning their craft. Instead of penalizing everyone who writes quickly, make a mental note of the writers who didn’t impress you with the second book, and come back to them on their 15th. I guarantee they will be much better, and those glimmers you saw will now shine.
Writing books one word at a time. I so hear you. I’ve one book and two short stories up on the Kindle now, and it’s killing me to not have more. I have 4 more books in the hopper (one awaiting crits to publish soon) and I can’t write them fast enough. I have all these ideas burning in my head and it’s driving me crazy there are only 24 hours in a day, and 6 of those I need to sleep.
I barely promoted my first book, and didn’t feel I wanted to. Either readers would find it or not. Surprisingly they did, and I am so lucky. And grateful. But it seems now they want more, (again grateful) and with every passing day I don’t deliver, I fear (uncontrolled anxiety) they will leave me. It’s hard to think they will wait for the next, and the next and the next.
I’m hoping they will, praying they will, but as with this new indie model, who knows what will happen next.
Anne G, they won’t leave you. Just write. They know it takes time, especially for a new writer. They’ll come back. They probably have your name bookmarked (the e-bookstores do that), so they know when the book comes out. Breathe. The next word. Breathe. 🙂
Great post, Kris.
I’ve been burned by starting a series and then waiting years for the next book more than once. It’s so frustrating to me that I’ve made it a policy to not start a series until all books are out, unless it’s an ongoing series (like Paretsky’s or Evanovich’s). I buy each book when it comes out (otherwise the author may not have the opportunity to finish the series and then I’d be really angry), but I won’t start to read them until I have the last one.
This annoyance as a reader is what drove me to the publishing plan I have for my own novels. I am writing an open-ended series but will not publish until I have 3 books ready to go. At that point, I’ll publish them at the same time. Every series I write will start out with a 3 book launch, and then I’ll publish new novels as they are completed.
I’m thrilled that I can do this as a self-publishing author.
So, thanks for making me feel like I’m on the right path.
Perfect, Lisa B. You’re thinking about what readers what. That’s great. And the only reader you really have to go on is yourself. So if it annoys you as a reader, why do it as a writer? This is one reason I have pen names on my romances. I want the reader to know that Kristine Grayson is sweet and no one will get murdered horribly, no puppies will die, and there will be a happily ever after. The new pen name (you folks didn’t know about that, did you?) is hot and a bit more dangerous. But neither hold a candle to Rusch, who could kill off characters & puppies at a moment’s notice. As a reader, I like to know if I’m reading noir or sweet romance, and a pen name is one way to do it. I love the way you plan to have three books out at once. Your future readers will love that.
I think some writers, probably those “authors” Dean is speaking of every now and then, are too busy talking to each other instead of step back and think for a moment – what does a reader expect from a writer?
More stories, as you said.
For everything else: I’m a beginning writer with no experience but I am a seasoned reader. On that basis I have decided the only service of value to my potential readers is a website where they can find more of my writing.
The “value for the reader” thought convinced me to shorten my bio to two brief sentences – I don’t think anyone is interested where I live with how many wives, kids and pets (except if I’d write about living there with x wives, kids and pets). Though I can see why Tess Gerritsen’s medical background is featured in her bio, of course. (On a side note: I’ve seen a KDP-book recently on Amazon whose descreption consisted only of the author’s bio – vanity or stupidity?)
Someone blogged about that elsewhere but I’ve seen it in some samples so I have to mention it: A long-winded introduction why the author felt he or she had to write that book. I don’t care. If I’m interested in it I’ll read it no matter why you wrote it. If I’m not interested, your boring little sob story won’t convince me – it will drive me off actually.
And while I’m at it: “In this book I’ll use the historically correct ‘Daemon’ instead of the silly ‘demon’ all those girly writers seem to fawn over” (or something like that) – yes, schooling me already, before the story even starts.
Also, but this is probably specific: As a reader, I tend to remember the writers who seriously pissed me off somehow better than those who I liked ok. So, if you start your book by explaining me the correctness of ‘Deamon’, you can be sure I’ll never read anything you’ll ever write; and I will even badmouth you, given the chance (in private, to friends – not publicly). Yes, I’m like that.
Now I feel bad I’ve written so much you have to read, Kris, and will probably answer to. Instead of writing fiction. Shame on me.
LOL, Frank. Yeah, stuff like that. 🙂
I’m a beginning writer with only 1 book out and I’m a financially struggling single mum. I really, really, want to be able to donate tons and tons to you for this blog of yours, but my 1 book isn’t selling yet because I’m busy writing the 2nd one in the series. I promise I’ll start donating as soon as I earn some proper money! Don’t stop blogging, please! Your blog is so helpful. Without it I’d be one of those authors who promotes only and doesn’t write. So all I can do is say thank you, for now. And pay it forward hopefully soon.
Suzanne, thank you is payment too. It’s really important to know I’m not just speaking to myself. So thanks. And congrats for writing the next book! It’s tough when you’re a single parent who has little money and time. I do understand.
I find myself nodding and going, yep, yep, yep. It seems to be a common sense sorta thing, without the readers there would be no need for the writers. Yet over and over again I hear people screaming “Gotta Market the book!”
I always wonder, what if all that energy was put into writing the next one. Thanks again for a great post.
Thanks, Necia & SL.