The Business Rusch: Writing Like It’s 2009
Probably the most popular blog post I’ve written in the Business Rusch series appeared in May, 2011. Geared toward traditionally published writers and new writers coming in, “Writing Like It’s 1999” explains how the many truths of publishing from the last century are no longer truths, but myths. The post gets reprinted often. It’s part of my Surviving The Transition book (available in print, ebook or in a new audio edition), and it’s going to be in the British Science Fiction Association’s writing bulletin, Focus, early next year.
Imagine my surprise when I realized that indie writers have ancient myths as well. Because the changes in publishing have happened so quickly—and probably because we live in a world where a smart phone gets outdated within 18 months—things we know to be true about independent publishing aren’t true any more.
Things have changed already and will probably continue to change for the next five years or so. Why five years? Because that’s how long, it seems, for something to get into our consciousness as “normal.”
Those of us who started self-publishing in 2008 or 2009 were at the beginning of a change. We could do things then that we can’t do now. Opportunities existed then that don’t exist now. That doesn’t mean things are worse now; it just means things are different.
In 2009, Dean and I put up our first stories as a lark on Amazon’s Kindle store. In early 2010, I brought a printout to Dean showing how much those stories had sold. They’d hardly sold anything by traditional publishing standards, but they had sold, and because we know a lot about business and the way revenue works, we realized that we had just hit the tip of an exceedingly large iceberg.
We decided, at that point, to get our out-of-print backlist into electronic format. Dean did most of the work. I did some. We figured the extra money we earned every month would more than pay for the effort it would take to get the backlist up.
Fast forward to December of 2012. Dean still does a lot of the work himself. But we have also started four new companies to handle various things to do with just our indie publishing business, we have employees again (sigh), and we still don’t have our entire backlist up. Why? Because (1), the backlist is too damn big to swallow in one big chunk; (2) we had to redo all of our early efforts due to the changes in electronic delivery systems; (3) we added in print books; (4) we added audio books; and most importantly, (5) we moved most of our frontlist—our new books, anyway (I still sell short stories traditionally)—into indie publishing.
Suddenly—or not so suddenly—we have schedules and marketing plans and more work than Dean, I, and four employees can handle. We just hired someone new, and told her what we had said to our very first employee: You’re doing the work of five people, not because we’ve laid off four other people, but because we haven’t hired them yet. We don’t hire until we can afford someone new (that’s an old lesson that we learned painfully long ago), so we’re perpetually behind. Even so, the work has grown exponentially, and most of that is because of how prolific Dean and I are, and were, and will continue to be.
Now I’m not saying that everyone who indie publishes needs to start four companies. Dean and I did because we’ve run companies in the past, and we could use our skills from owning a traditional publishing company in the past to moving even farther ahead in the future.
As I’ve said in other posts, we’re different from so many writers. We have backlist and an active frontlist, multiple careers and interests, and a different way of doing things. We also like building businesses. We’ve built and sold more than I care to think about.
If I had remained buried in all the changes Dean and I are going through, I wouldn’t have even noticed the shifts that indie publishing is going through. But I try to keep up with the blogosphere and I’m noticing some discontent among the ranks.
Plus, I just had lunch with a well-published friend, a New York Times bestseller, who was on an indie publishing panel at a science fiction convention recently, and was disappointed by his experience. He said he got attacked by the other people on the panel, and I said, “Let me guess, they told you your experience doesn’t count because you have a fan base….” and I went on from there, listing a series of criticisms that made him nod, then laugh in recognition.
Already, we can predict what the criticisms will be. That’s because there are “accepted” ways of doing things, and things that “everyone knows are true,” and all kinds of other nasties out there.
In my “Writing Like It’s 1999” post, I listed the myths, and then I added this sentence: “And you know what? Ten years ago, that was all true.”
Well, in 2009, most of this was true:
•You could put up an e-book with a crappy cover, a low price, and no proofing, and you’d get a lot of eager readers to buy the book.
•You could promote that amateurish-looking book on various web forums, particularly the Kindle Boards, and get enough traction to hit Amazon’s bestseller lists.
•Giving a book away for free, especially on Kindle, would give that book a halo effect when it returned to full price. The sales figures would rise, and the book would, again, hit a bestseller list, if only for a short period of time.
•You didn’t have to market your books to other e-book outlets (what other e-book outlets?) because Amazon was the only important outlet (read: the only outlet people were buying from).
•You couldn’t get your books into print without going to a traditional publisher.
•You needed an agent to handle the foreign/Hollywood rights, because that thicket was impossible to enter without an agent.
•You had to produce everything yourself because there was no one else to help you.
•Indie publishing was relatively scam-free.
•Hardcore readers read e-books; everyone else read traditionally published books.
Everything I wrote above is mostly not true any more. Some of the items were true in 2009 and stopped being true in 2010. Others never were true.
For an example of something that wasn’t true in 2009, you don’t need an agent to sell foreign rights. In fact, you shouldn’t get one to do so. Most of the embezzling that happens with agents happens in the foreign rights area. If you don’t believe me, or you think my experiences with this (at multiple agencies, well respected agencies) are unusual, then look at the lawsuit New York Times bestseller Bill Bryson filed last week. Bryson didn’t get the money he was owed for years.
Hmmm. I can relate.
But how do foreign publishers get in touch with you? Well, you see, there’s this thingie called the internet. And if you have a contact-me button on your website, the foreign publisher will use this thingie called a computer to access your site and hit that contact-me button, and send you an e-mail asking if the such-n-so rights are available just like they would do for your agent. How do you negotiate the contract? Well, hire an IP attorney here in the United States. The attorney will help you look at the contract, which is written in English, and help you understand it. Gosh, maybe you can even write the e-mails back to the foreign publisher all by yourself.
Do U.S. agents market their clients’ books to overseas publishers? Sometimes. If you’re a bestseller.
And if you are, I urge you to again read the terms of Bryson’s lawsuit—and realize what’s happening to him has happened to hundreds of other writers out there, and maybe more than that.
I hate to tell you this, but through that thingie called the internet, you can figure out how to market your own books to foreign publishers. You can even negotiate your own terms via that nice invention called e-mail. And if you don’t want to do the negotiating yourself, well, then you could hire an IP attorney to do it for you. (One thing, though. That attorney will probably use (ahem) e-mail.)
As for Hollywood, well, most folks who work in Hollywood as writers are no longer agented. They have managers, yes, but agents, no. At the last dinner I attended with friends who work in the industry, the agent bashing got so ridiculous that one person who has worked in the industry for 30 years said (and I’m paraphrasing here, but it’s damn near a quote), “It’s to the point that if any writer presents anything through an agent, everyone knows the writer doesn’t understand Hollywood.”
California law regarding agents has gotten so harsh that most wannabe agents move to other parts of the industry. The remaining agents are either naïve, old-fashioned, or make most of their money in New York agenting books.
(Clarification note as per comments below: I wasn’t clear. Even though I’m quoting working writers in Hollywood in this piece, the context of the conversation–and of the various other discussions/experiences I’ve had–have been about selling novels into Hollywood (or short fiction), not about selling screenplays. I’ve only done that a few times, and am in no way an expert, and don’t want to be. I almost never discuss that with the Hollywood friends, except to listen into their discussions. But on selling novels into Hollywood, you don’t need an agent. The agents who moved are agents who specialized in getting book properties to studios. Those former “literary” agents have set up production companies now, because the laws have changed. So, my bad on my own lack of clarity. And thanks to Lee & Gillian for calling me on it.)
How do you get a manager? You don’t. When someone in Hollywood comes to you wanting one of your books, you refuse to talk unless there’s upfront money involved. If there is, hire an IP attorney to help you with the contract. (Are you seeing a pattern here?)
So…the agent myth was a myth in 2009. It just shows how badly writers want to have someone else manage their careers for them. I was about to link to an article on someone else’s blog when the post that writer put up over the weekend stopped me. It had this quote: “I urge new writers who aren’t schooled in business to consider querying agents and smaller publishers before taking the self-publishing plunge.”
Probably the most wrong-headed piece of advice I’ve seen this week. It boils down to this: Know nothing about business? Hire someone to take care of that messy stuff for you rather than learn it yourself. All that needs to be added is the shoulder-pat combined with: “And don’t worry your pretty little head about that horrible business stuff, dear. You can learn it later.” After you’ve signed legal documents you don’t understand, of course.
That kind of thing really pisses me off. Can you tell?
Here’s what’s going on with indie publishing in December of 2012. It’s no longer in the early-adapter phase. That’s all.
Self- and indie-publishing doesn’t have that awful stigma it had just five years ago. Even the New York Times has reviewed a self-published book, albeit by someone they’ve reviewed before and, if you actually look at the book, you’ll see that it’s beautifully produced.
What happened in 2009 was that very few people had e-readers. Those of us who did were early technology adapters. Savvy tech people have a term for those of us who buy the early gadgets and actually use them. Those tech people call us “beta testers,” because we are. We’re the ones who find the bugs, and let the manufacturer know what works about the product and what doesn’t.
It means that early adapters are much more tolerant when something goes wrong. We understand when the e-book’s print suddenly slides to one side of the page—could be a tech glitch, could be a problem with the file—and we know that perfection isn’t possible yet.
So those early books with the crap-ass covers and the 99 cent price tags? They were worth wading through to find gold.
We also waded because there wasn’t a lot of content available yet in e-books. We explored what was there—and found all kinds of wonderful writers, like Amanda Hocking. We also rediscovered some midlist favorites we’d forgotten because their publishers dropped them.
We all had Kindles because it was the first good e-reader. But you need to wonder how many people who owned Kindles in 2009 still use Kindles as their primary e-reader. I use the Kindle app on my iPad as my primary reader, the Kindle app on my iPhone as my secondary reader, and my Kindle itself (which is an upgrade; my original Kindle bit it in 2011) as my fifth choice. I’ll often read on my computer through a PDF file before I read the Kindle itself these days.
Why? Convenience. I always have an iPad, an iPhone or my laptop with me. I rarely carry my Kindle any more.
If I can’t get a book on Kindle, I’ll order from the iBookstore or read a epub file from Smashwords or download into my Nook app on the iPad. I don’t care about the delivery system as much as I do about the content. I’ve heard from tablet owners who use the Android-based system that their preferences are the same.
So all of that stuff about hitting the Kindle lists and making a difference on the Kindle, well, it matters less and less these days, because Amazon’s Kindle is not the only player in town. In fact, when you move out of the United States, the Kindle is the least important e-reader. Right now, in the European Union, a major tablet and e-reader war is going on for the Christmas holidays. Every tablet manufacturer is offering a lower and lower and lower price for its product, especially if that manufacturer is tied into a content site like Kobo or the iBookstore.
If you’re playing in a truly international market—and so many of us are—then you really shouldn’t have your epublication eggs in one basket.
The same with your print books. You need a print version. E-book sales are leveling the way that everyone who understands business expected them to. Right now, e-books are still in the 25% range of all books purchased. (I combined a few figures, and nudged upwards because so many e-books aren’t counted by traditional methods. However, more and more traditional methods are counting self-pubbed e-books. If Amazon ever released its sales figures on e-books, we’d be able to have a much more accurate percentage here in the United States.)
Designing print books is much harder than designing e-books, which is no longer as easy as it was. It takes work and a learning curve to have a good book design no matter what you’re doing. (WMG is offering online design classes in 2013, just so you can see what you’re getting into or to improve what you’re already doing.) Once you’ve mastered the learning curve, it takes less time to indie publish.
But there’s always what my friend Scott William Carter calls the wibbow test. Wibbow stands for: Would I Be Better Off Writing? I don’t know about you, but my answer to that one is always yes. Which means, in one form or another, I need to hire out things like book and cover design, uploading, and marketing. It was easier for me and Dean to start a company and hire employees (which also enables us to do Fiction River, the anthology series) than it is for us to hire someone else’s existing business to do this. Remember, though, we have business experience. We’re used to payroll and office management and setting up corporations. Most writers aren’t.
Those writers who, like me, are always better off writing now can hire help. Two years ago, it was enough for me to say that you need to hire someone for a flat fee to do this work for you, like Lucky Bat Books. Now, though, traditional publishing companies have decided to use that flat fee model to screw writers. (And then those same traditional publishers demand a 50% royalty—after you’ve paid the flat fee.)
You want a nice cover for your book? You want to be listed in some rinky-dink catalog that Simon & Schuster puts out? Well, then pay them $25,000 per title. That’s right. A ridiculous amount of money that will get you nothing more than a bunch of empty promises and maybe a beautiful book. (I say maybe because I’ve published upwards of 20 books through S&S, and only a few of them have had covers worth mentioning. Most are awful.)
And as for promotion in their catalogue? It means nothing. The writers they traditionally publish rarely get sales through their current catalog. But you won’t be in the same catalogue as the traditionally published writers. You’ll be in a special catalogue for their new self-publishing venture. Or you’ll be in a special section of the S&S catalogue for folks who have paid that $25,000. The booksellers won’t look at the special catalogue or the special section, because booksellers aren’t dumb. They’ll know which books were vetted by S&S and which ones weren’t.
Sad. And now I can’t warn you away from bad deals by saying don’t pay a percentage of your future sales to any company. Now I have to tell you this: If you want someone else to do the work on your books, you need to vet that person the way you’d vet a contractor you hire to work on your house.
Yes, you have to think. You have to make choices. And you need to conduct yourself like a business person.
Here’s the thing: From 2008-2010, e-publishing on the early e-readers was a gold rush. And if you look at the history of any gold rush, you’ll see a familiar pattern.
A few people hit it big in an unexpected way. They make a small fortune. They broadcast the news of that fortune, and then hundreds, if not thousands, of people follow. They hook their horses to their wagons, drop everything, and head to the land of riches, expecting to become millionaires with very little work.
And what happens? Millionaires. Hundreds of them. Only those millionaires don’t get rich panning for gold. They open the supply shops, they serve food to the miners, they supply blue jeans and work boots and equipment, hay for the horses and rooms to rest in at night.
It’s not a coincidence that S&S has opened up an expensive do-it-yourself shop in indie-publishing land. It makes perfect sense. Think of S&S as the chain hotel who heard that there was a fortune to be made by offering rooms to miners who are too tired to pitch their own tents.
There’s gold in them thar hills, folks. And the gold is for business people who know their way around a profit-and-loss statement.
By the way, scammers always show up in the middle of a gold rush. Scammers know they can make a fortune off the ignorant. We’re in the scammer/chain hotel phase of this gold rush.
Pretty soon, you’re going to see sad and angry posts from writers who gave up everything and failed to make more than a few dollars for all their hard work. They followed all the rules. They posted their books as best they could, they Tweeted and Facebooked and blogged about their book until their fingers bled, they lowered the price to 99 cents, they made the book free for a week, they watched the bestseller lists and never ever ever saw their book on it.
They’ll wake up, but they won’t take responsibility for their own work. They’ll claim that everyone lied. Joe Konrath lied. I lied. Dean Wesley Smith lied. We had fan bases that didn’t take into account all the work a new writer has to do to succeed (because, y’know, we never were new writers, and never had to do any of that work, not once. We were grandfathered in or something).
And Amanda Hocking? She got lucky. Someone—the right someone—noticed her book. She wouldn’t have had success otherwise (because, y’know, the fact that she’s a marvelous storyteller who had written a dozen books means nothing).
And everyone else who succeeded? They were lucky too or had fan bases or made up their numbers.
Because those writers whose single book didn’t succeed after they followed all the rules, well, they now know the truth. It wasn’t as easy as it sounded to become a millionaire.
Those writers never realized that Joe and Dean and I were not talking about becoming millionaires or even about becoming famous. We were blogging about an industry in flux that was providing opportunities where those opportunities hadn’t existed before. Those writers never realized that Amanda Hocking had an amazing amount of product up, and that product was so good that it attracted readers who then spread word of mouth about the books. Those writers never realized that book publishing—even e-book publishing—is a business like almost everything else in a capitalist society.
Here’s the thing, people: Publishing has changed. It continues to change. We’re in the middle of a revolution.
What was true in 2009 isn’t true now.
What’s true now may not be true in 2019.
Only three things will guarantee your success in the modern era.
First, you must write a lot, and you must learn how to write well. Tell a good story. Good stories always triumph. If your single book isn’t selling, well, then, have you considered the fact that it’s not very good? Why in the world would you expect to succeed on an international stage the very first time you try to write a novel?
Do you remember how much work you had to do to learn how to read a novel? It took you years to get to “big” books of more than 20 pages. (Those of you with kids are seeing the pattern right now.) It’s much easier to read a novel than it is to write one. Why do you think that writing a good one is possible on the very first try?
Second, you must have perseverance. You won’t become successful with your first book or your second, and you might not even be successful with your tenth. Plus you’re going to have to keep up with the industry, and keep improving your craft. You’ll have to keep your day job, and put up with all those well-intentioned nay-sayers who tell you to stop wasting your time. You’ll have to believe in yourself enough to stay away from get-rich-quick schemes, and those idiots who charge you a small fortune (like $25,000) to publish just one of your precious (but not quite there yet) novels.
And you need to keep everything you write, from the worst thing you’ve ever written to the latest thing you’ve ever written, either in the mail to publishers or in print through your own small press. Because you have no idea what will take off for you and you never will. Do I know why people buy my books? Yeah, kinda sorta. I know that readers like what I do. If you push me, I might mumble something that I’ve heard from those readers. But do I know, really know, deep down inside? Hell, no. And no professional writer I’ve ever talked to does. We can’t see what makes our writing special because what makes our writing special is our personalities, which to us, are as normal and every day as the air we breathe.
So we finish our work, we improve, we persevere, and we keep our work out in front of readers. In other words, we let the readers decide what’s good and what’s not. And we don’t read reviews (much) and we don’t write for anyone else, and we keep doing what we do because we love it, not because it will make us rich.
The love will get us through those years with no sales. The expectations of riches might not even get us through the week. The love will get us through the difficult writing days. The actuality of riches will send us off playing in the Bahamas.
You want to persevere? Make sure you love writing. If you don’t, do something else.
The third way to guarantee your success in the modern era? Learn business. Here’s the one thing that won’t change. Business is business is business. It follows patterns. It behaves in certain ways.
If publishing weren’t a business, I wouldn’t be able to compare what’s happening now to the Gold Rush. Because selling gold—then and now—is a business. I could have compared publishing to the real estate bubble of the early part of this century. The e-pub revolution created a tiny bubble in publishing that operated the same way as that real estate bubble did for those who rushed into it trying to get rich.
Learn how to handle finances, understand what a good book design is, what the buying habits of customers really are. (“Customers” would be “readers,” folks.) Produce a lot of product. (Write a lot of books.) Understand what you’re selling. (You’re not selling anything; you’re licensing copyright.) Figure out where your markets are. Hire good help as cheaply as possible, and don’t tie yourself to that help. If you hire an employee, make sure you can fire that employee easily. If you hire someone to negotiate a contract, make sure that someone gets paid only for that contract, and nothing more.
Yes, writing novels is a lot of work. Yes, learning the best way for you to publish those novels is a lot of work. Yes, learning how to run a business is a lot of work. Yes, doing all of this while you have a day job elsewhere is a lot of work.
If you do the work, you will eventually become successful. Some of you will get rich very quickly. Some of you won’t. Most of you who stick with this for about ten years—the average time it takes for a writing career (hell, for any small business) to blossom—will make a good living at it. If you do it right, don’t sign your copyrights away, hire the best help, continue to improve, and stick with it.
The rest of you? Those of you who want to get rich quickly? The people who, even now, are about to write to me to tell me that I don’t know what I’m talking about because I have a fan base and I’ve never ever ever had to start from scratch? You folks? I’m talking to you now:
This is a gold rush, and it’s playing out. If you want to get rich quickly, find a new scheme. I’m sure something else is currently making someone rich in a surprising manner. Join that new bandwagon.
Or try this: Gold is selling at $1700 an ounce. I’m sure some of the California mines aren’t entirely played out yet…
A while back, I got taken to task for insulting some members of my audience. And maybe that last remark insults some of you. But believe me, if you took a class from me on writing, you’d hear me say the same thing in person and with a lot more force than you can ever see on the page. I scare people in person. On the page, I’m much milder.
If you want overnight success, this is not the profession for you. If you want a writing career, then learn it. Remember that you’re trying to sell millions of copies of books to millions of readers around the world.
You don’t get to that level simply by writing one novel. It takes practice, practice, practice, learning, learning, learning, and patience, patience, patience.
You have to love writing, or it won’t be worth your time.
And that, my friends, was true in 2009. It is true now. And it will be true in 2019.
I write this business blog every week no matter what’s going on in my life. I’ve written through illness and fiction deadlines, through horrible life events and some pretty good times. I have offered this blog for free since April of 2009 because I know that some of you can’t afford to pay for the advice.
The only thing I ask is that those of you who can afford a few dollars help fund the blog for everyone else. The blog, like everything else I write, has to earn its own way. If it doesn’t, I’ll stop writing it and go on to more profitable things.
That said, I enjoy the interactions, the e-mails, the comments, and the community. Those constitute payment as well.
However…if you’ve gotten anything out of this blog today, in the last few weeks or in the last year, and you can afford to drop some change in the virtual tip jar, I would appreciate it.
“The Business Rusch: Writing Like It’s 2009” copyright 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.