The Business Rusch: Why Writers Disappear
Last week, I spoke to a gathering of librarians in Washington State. I had agreed to the appearance almost two years ago, before my health got real bad. It will be the last such appearance until my health improves dramatically, which could take as much as two years.
As the organization planned its program, I had to choose what I would talk about. A friend of mine, who initially recommended me for the program, reminded me that I’d be speaking before librarians, who were avid readers, but not necessarily writers. They have a very different perspective than groups I usually talk to.
I was asked to speak on the changes in publishing for my first talk, because those changes have an impact on all of us. But I struggled a bit with the topic for my second. So I put on my reader hat and thought about the things that frustrate me as a reader. I came up with “Why Writers Disappear.”
My thinking was this: How come writers vanished from bookstands? Why would a seemingly successful writer (to a reader) never write another book? Why did series end in the middle even when two more books were planned?
Most readers—and most writers—don’t know the answer. I do. It breaks my heart and is one of the reasons I write this blog. When I get vehement, it’s because a particular path is fraught with potentials for career-destroying moments. Even in indie publishing.
Everything Dean Wesley Smith and I do as teachers of writing and writing business is to designed to keep writers in the profession, to keep them writing, and to make sure they still have careers fifteen years from now. That’s one of the many reasons we primarily teach professional writers.
So many established writers teach beginners that we would only be adding our voices to the cacophony. Almost no one does continuing education for professionals, and even fewer teach the business of writing.
Yet business is the primary reason that writers disappear.
First, let’s talk about what I mean by writers “disappearing.” I don’t mean that the writer has vanished off the face of the Earth. Her family and friends still know where she is. She’s probably participating in her local community.
But writers who disappear are writers who, for whatever reason, no longer produce new work—from the perspective of the readers.
I add that qualifier for a reason. Before the changes in the publishing world, writers often had to change their names to continue in the career. One pen name (or even the writer’s real name) would become an abandoned byline, and the writer would move to a new pen name. Sometimes the writer would take on a new pen name and a new genre.
Many readers rarely read outside of their chosen genres, so even if a writer keeps her name and moves to another genre entirely, that writer has “disappeared” as far as the readers are concerned.
I have a dozen books in my library reveling the pen names of famous writers. RT Book Reviews has an irregular column called “Whatever Happened To…?” which researches what stopped Writer A from writing. Usually she hasn’t stopped. Usually she has moved on to other names or genres or a completely different type of writing like gaming or screenwriting.
Writers write. Writers just aren’t always visible when they do so.
Like everything else in publishing, this trend of the disappearing writer is changing. Fewer writers will disappear because they can indie-publish the works that traditional publishers don’t want. But even then, not all of our favorite writers who have “vanished” have made an indie-comeback. And there are a variety of reasons for that.
Trying to explain all of this to an engaged group of active readers proved a lot more challenging than I expected, because so many factors figure into writer disappearances. Until I spoke at that conference, I had never thought of this topic from a non-writer perspective before. That perspective (and the questions the librarians asked) made me look at the entire topic from a new angle.
Let me list the reasons writers disappear, starting with the reasons that existed in the bad old days of traditional publishing only, when writers didn’t have the indie option, and then I’ll list the reasons writers still continue to disappear, even if they can self- or indie-publish their books.
Writers disappear because:
1. They can’t get a new book contract under that name.
2. They can’t get a new book contract because their genre has vanished.
3. They became toxic—and that toxicity trickled through the entire industry.
4. They achieved all their goals.
5. They were no longer interested in writing.
6. They moved to a different part of the industry.
7. They got discouraged.
8. They couldn’t handle the solitude.
9. They couldn’t handle the financial problems inherent in a writing career.
10. They had life or health issues that interfered with the writing
11. They didn’t keep up with the changes in the industry.
12. They sold or gave away too many rights to their books.
Let’s start with the first one, because up until five years ago, it was the main reason writers vanished.
Writers disappear because they can’t get a new book contract under that name.
As we’ve been discussing over the course of this blog (and we’re in the hundreds of posts now), the publishing industry is changing. But traditional publishing still remains a short-term sales numbers game. When traditional publishing was the only game in town, writers either had to accept that their careers were over or they had to find a way to make those sales numbers disappear.
Twenty-five years ago, what a traditional publisher wanted to see from a writer’s career was slow growth, an upward trajectory in sales. Publishers had more leeway then for a variety of reasons (which I’ve dealt with in past blogs), and understood that a thousand more sales on the second book from Suzy Q. Writer was a good thing. The publisher might have actively worked to get two-thousand new sales on Suzy’s third book back then.
Writers whose names you’d recognize from Patricia Briggs to Laurell K. Hamilton, from Robert Crais to Ian Rankin all had careers that grew like that. Sometimes the growth required a jump to a new publishing company that promised to revamp or redefine the writer’s audience, but companies did such things until the distribution collapse of the late 1990s.
Then all bets were off. That collapse forced publishers to start looking for the next overnight bestseller and if a writer “only” had one-thousand new readers on her latest book, then she clearly wasn’t going to become an overnight bestseller. Ever since then, the writer who experiences a slow, supported growth from her publisher has been the exception rather than the norm.
Writers whose sales growth does not hit expectations have contracts canceled or don’t get new contracts with any major publisher. Why? Because the numbers are more or less available now with the touch of a button. Rather than believing the sales figures will grow with the proper nurturing, another company will see the slow growth or declining numbers and believe the writer can’t be rehabilitated. Time is no longer a luxury that traditional publishers believe they have—even though most of their long-term bestsellers were created in just this way. (sigh)
In traditional publishing, there are only two roads open to the writer. First, use a pen name and start all over again. Or, second, move to a new genre—and sometimes use a pen name as well. Some writers take other routes as well, writing only short fiction, for example. Individual short stories don’t have individual sales figures (in traditional publishing), so this worry goes away. Same with nonfiction. Writing screenplays, scripting games or comics have other issues, but none of them rest on the previous novel-writing career.
So if the writer chooses to stay in the business, the writer’s work becomes harder for the old fans to find. Many writers put their new names on their websites, and readers are getting smart about looking. Some writers don’t have that option, however, because they might be contractually obligated to keep the new pen name secret.
In essence, then, the writer who changes her name effectively forces the previous name to “disappear.”
Writers disappear because they can’t get a new book contract when their genre vanishes.
In traditional publishing, genres are like writer names. Genres have sales expectations as well. For the last twenty or so years, romance has been the bestselling genre, followed by mystery, fantasy, science fiction, horror, western and literary/mainstream.
Literary/mainstream has the occasional breakout bestseller, which keeps the smaller books afloat. Romance generally sells so well at a base level that publishers are willing to use some of the old-fashioned “building” practices that they’ve abandoned in other genres.
Or let me put it you this way: If your science fiction novel sells 10,000 paper copies, it’s considered a good seller and may even hit some science fiction only lists. If your romance novel sells 10,000 paper copies, you’re a midlist writer who is on the edge of a downward spiral.
Traditional publishers give genres their own imprint. And then the traditional publishers look at those imprints with an eye to the bottom line. So if the imprint’s sales decline over time, then the imprint gets revamped. If the imprint’s sales are significantly down compared to the other imprints, the imprint gets discontinued.
Traditional publishers, like the rest of us, have no idea what the future will bring, so traditional publishers hedge their bets. If Johanna C. Writer’s vampire romance sells one million copies, then other vampire romances get purchased. Many of those vampire romances are good, but as the competition heats up, more and more vampire romances that are pale copies of Johanna C’s get published. Readers get disillusioned, unable to tell all of the new vampire romance authors apart.
Vampire romance sales go down, except for Johanna C’s and a few other brand-name writers, and then, one day, publisher after publisher declares vampire romances “dead.”
This means that the publishers no longer want to buy anything other than Johanna C and those few brand-name writers in that particular genre. Everything else is just too risky.
The market got glutted, and even a writer with an ongoing vampire romance series that has some pretty good numbers might not be able to sell the next book traditionally.
In my lifetime, this has happened to westerns, gothics, and horror. Louis L’Amour and other major western writers never went out of print. Neither did Victoria Holt, Phyllis A. Whitney or Barbara Michaels. Stephen King and Dean Koontz remained at the top of the charts even after horror was declared dead.
A “dead” genre means that a writer can’t sell a new book into that genre.
Writer after writer keep banging their head against that wall, not realizing that a window is open right next to them. Just like writers whose names become unmarketable change those names, writers whose genre disappears redefine what they write as something else.
So Alien is no longer horror. It’s science fiction. Yes, it’s dark and scary, but it takes place on a spaceship, hence the redefinition.
Only a handful of writers ever manage to make that kind of transition, because it requires some rethinking of genres on the part of the writer, so most simply let their writing careers die with their genres.
And those writers disappear.
The writers who move to the new genre might disappear as well, since genre readers rarely leave their genre niche. The horror reader might never discover his favorite horror writer has moved to noir because the horror reader never goes into the mystery section.
And so, for all intents and purposes, those writers “disappear” too.
Writers disappear because they became toxic—and that toxicity trickled through the entire industry.
Until the last five years, publishing was a very small industry. The U.S. Justice Department lawsuit against several major publishers didn’t reveal anything new to those of us with a long-time history in traditional publishing. The publishers, editors, and agents all know each other and gossip routinely.
They also would tell stories about writers who acted badly, and those writers would find themselves effectively blacklisted. Now, when I say badly, I mean truly bad behavior. Not rudeness (most writers are rude, sorry to tell you), not lack of social skills (most writers work alone and forget how to be around people), not even things like slapping an editor can get a writer blacklisted.
The writers whom I know who got blacklisted did things like calling up the CEO of a major chain bookstore to demand to know why that chain store didn’t have enough copies of his book. And when the CEO professed ignorance (which was probably true), the writer insulted and verbally abused the CEO. As soon as he could get off the phone, the chain store CEO called the CEO of the publishing company, and asked what the hell was going on, and oh, by the way, the chain store was returning all copies of the writer’s books, and didn’t want any more ever.
I heard about this from the writer’s editor, back when I was editing. I was at a table with half a dozen other editors at the time, all of whom vowed then and there never to pick up said writer’s books. The original publishing company canceled the writer’s contract, but the incident was so juicy and gossip-worthy that a half dozen other publishing companies heard about it within days, and made it impossible for that writer to sell more books.
This particular writer is someone you will have heard of. Under the writer’s pen name, the one the writer took after this incident. The writer had to create an entire business around that pen name, enabling the writer to cash checks under the pen name, because the writer’s real name had such toxicity attached to it that publishing companies didn’t want the writer on board even under a fake name.
Fortunately writers aren’t actors, so we don’t have to have our faces everywhere. This writer has had a successful seventeen-year-old career, after learning a very harsh lesson.
And this writer isn’t the only toxic writer I know of. One threatened to rape and murder several female science fiction editors who had the audacity to make criticisms of his work. Since that writer had been in prison for rape and battery before making this threat, everyone took him seriously and no one was willing to consider his work from that year on. If he’s writing under a pen name, I don’t know about it.
I could go on for days with stories like this. But the point is, that even if these toxic writers are still publishing, they’re doing so under pen names so secret that we’ll never know if they’ve rehabilitated their careers or not.
They too have effectively disappeared.
Writers disappear because they achieved all their goals.
This one fascinates me, because I don’t entirely understand it. Let me try to explain it as it has been explained to me by the some of the writers in question.
These writers don’t enjoy writing for its own sake. They see it as means to an end. That end can be anything from they want to become a tenured professor to they want to become millionaires. They want a bestseller, they want to be famous, or they simply want to publish a book as part of their bucket list.
If they want to publish a book and do so, they quit. If they want to become rich/have a bestseller/become famous (however they define fame), they quit.
This leads to a place Dean calls the island of one-hit wonders. These folks have only published one thing (or two or three things) and dine out on that achievement for the rest of their lives.
They’re not interested in a writing career, they’re interested in achieving a life goal. Once attained, they move on to other life goals.
Some writers who really want a career get trapped here too because they never realized they had these kinds of dreams. Then they achieve their dream, and don’t know how to get motivated again.
It takes time, commitment and, sometimes, therapy to get back into the writing saddle.
Until the writer does, she has effectively disappeared.
The others, the bucket-list folks, walk off the publishing part of the world stage, but might remain as Authors who have published their one book around the fringes of publishing forever.
But as far as the shelves are concerned—virtual or otherwise—those Authors have also disappeared.
Writers disappear because they are no longer interested in writing.
This one is similar to the one above, but not quite the same. Writing is hard work. It’s not rocket science or brain surgery; no one will die if you fail to meet a deadline or if you write a bad book. But you are in your head all the time, and you have to have a certain personality type to enjoy all the challenges that the career brings.
Above all, you have to like writing.
And as I mentioned above, many writers do not like writing. Sometimes it takes some success to realize that. For many writers, the grind wears the glitter off the idea of writing for a living, and the writer goes back to her day job or to a new career.
Not because she’s disillusioned or even because she can’t sell another book, but because she’s really not interested in writing any more, not interested in putting out all the effort.
Maybe the writer has said everything she’s wanted to say or maybe she’s no longer challenged by the profession. Or maybe she has just realized that she’s a better actor/salesman/lawyer than she is a writer, and she doesn’t have the desire to improve the writing the way that her more driven friends do.
These writers really do disappear. Or to state it better, they walk off the field like a second string football player who has played a game or two in the big leagues, decided that he doesn’t like getting tackled, and goes back to college to study biology.
(I just read an article in The New Yorker about forensic linguist Robert Leonard who, in another part of his life, was one of the founders of the group Sha Na Na. He left in 1970 for academia and, apparently, has not looked back. This is the kind of person I’m talking about here. They exist in the writing profession as well.)
Writers disappear because they moved to a different part of the industry.
I know a lot of people like this. They found writing difficult, so they moved to agenting. Or they became editors, copy editors, illustrators, fact checkers or accountants. They remain on the fringes of the industry, but they found a job inside the industry that they like better than they ever liked writing.
They occasionally dip their toes back into writing. If they’re editors, they might write the occasional work-for-hire under a house name. If they’re agents, they write nonfiction about the industry.
But they never again write original fiction and they never again try to make their living from writing alone.
I’m halfway through my list. There are still writers who disappear every year because of the six things I listed above. These writers often don’t understand the new world of publishing, nor do they seem to realize that they have options.
Some of these first six things will still apply to indie-published writers. For example, if you only publish e-books through Amazon and Amazon goes away, you might become discouraged and quit, thinking your market is gone. But if you were savvy enough to e-pub in the first place, you’re probably savvy enough to regroup and find new markets.
The remaining six can apply to indie-writers as well as traditionally published writers. And I’ll focus on those next week. I don’t want to write a mega blog post like I did last week.
So we’ll have part two next Thursday.
Speaking of last week, I want to thank all of you who wrote supportive comments on the blog, in e-mail, and who donated. Every time I mention Kindle Select, I get attacked. I don’t post most of the comments because they’re vicious, but I do post the ones with interesting points. And I posted a rude one last week, which caused a lot of you to send me encouraging letters and other support.
Rest assured, these people don’t discourage me. They aren’t regulars to the blog and they probably won’t return. Those of you who do are encouraging and supportive and warm, and I get reminded of that every single time one of these incidents occur.
Thank you ever so much for your kindness. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.
“The Business Rusch: “Why Writers Disappear (Part One),” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.