The Business Rusch: The Stages of An Indie Writer
Because of this blog, I get a lot of e-mails from writers at various stages of their careers. I also receive a lot of links to other blogs, written by publishing industry people here and out of the United States. I have noticed, over time, several patterns in the way that people respond to the New World of Publishing.
If e-books or e-readers are just beginning to gain acceptance in a country, that country’s publishing industry responds like the US industry did in 2009/10. The similarities continue as the e-books and e-readers become more accepted. In fact, you can watch the debates about the death of the book and the benefits of digital media progress exactly the way they did on this side of the pond.
The United States, for better or worse, was the first country to go through this massive shift, but we’re certainly not the last. And we are still going through the shift.
The smaller pattern, though, happens within the writers themselves. It takes a while for a writer, raised in traditional publishing, to move to indie publishing. (I am using indie publishing here to describe writers who have taken complete creative and business control of their work.) Shifting from traditional to indie takes a mind-set shift that many—even unpublished writers—are finding difficult.
I’m currently reading a nonfiction book called The Entertainer by Margaret Talbot. (I mentioned an excerpt from it in my Recommended Reading list a while back). Talbot’s father, Lyle Talbot, had a career in the entertainment industry that spanned tent performances to Vaudeville to movies to television. Early on, Talbot notes that the world in which her father began his career is a lost world. No remnants of that entertainment world exist at all; the country has changed, and so has its entertainment needs.
The publishing industry that I learned in the 1980s is becoming a lost world. Not as dramatic as the showboat and traveling performers of Lyle Talbot’s era, but certainly as lost as the movie industry of the 1930s. Parts of the industry remain, but much of the industry would be completely unrecognizable to my 1980s self.
Lost worlds are like lost loved ones: some of us never get past the grief. That realization made me understand one other thing—my own emotional landscape over the past four years. I watch the changes I’ve gone through, the reactions I’ve had to the new world of publishing, and realize that friends, colleagues, and acquaintances are going through similar emotions.
The emotions are actually predictable, although we all go through these stages at our own speed, and in our own ways. Some people get stuck in one of the stages and might never emerge from it. Others blow through a few of the stages and wonder why friends can’t do the same. We all find something that stops us for a while, though, and we all have to find our own way through them.
The stages I see are:
1. Denial (Traditional Publishing Version)
The writer refuses to acknowledge that traditional publishing has changed. She refuses to act any differently than she did five or ten years ago, whenever she came into the business. She trusts her agent implicitly (while acknowledging that there are scam agents out there), believes she wouldn’t have a career without the agent’s support, and never reviews her financial statements (often doesn’t even review contracts). She lets her agent market her work, believing there is no other way.
She also believes her work would be weaker without the backing of the traditional publisher. She needs her editor, her copy editor, and the sales team. She believes they work to improve her book (which would be unreadable without them) and she thinks her work cannot reach a wide audience without a traditional publishing house.
She believes anyone who indie publishes is delusional and is ruining his career.
2. Anger (Traditional Publishing Version):
Something goes terribly, horribly wrong. The writer’s latest book doesn’t get any marketing support. Her contract gets canceled. Her agent leaves the business. The writer gets offered a lower advance for the same work. She gets dropped by her publishing house. She’s told she can’t write the book of her heart because her fans won’t like it. She’s told that her publisher won’t let her publish a short story because she signed a non-compete clause. She gets no royalties on a book that has already earned out. She wins a major industry award…after her publisher has refused the option book, and no other publisher will look at her next work, despite the acclaim and good sales.
Something happens, and it’s devastating. It’s something that would have happened twenty years ago, but honestly, these somethings are happening quicker because traditional publishing is in such disarray at the moment.
She gets furious and that fury leads to…
3. Feeling Trapped (Traditional Publishing Version):
She has written many novels and/or proposals. Publishers pass on them. Her sales figures are too low, so no one wants her work. The critical acclaim doesn’t matter. The New York Times bestseller listing under her name doesn’t matter because her book sales have gone down over the past three titles. Her agent won’t return her phone calls or worse, dumps her. New agents won’t take her on.
Our imaginary writer might go with a smaller press or a specialty press, but no one can live on the advances they offer. She faces a choice: quit writing or find a day job to support the writing.
That’s how it used to be ten years ago when something bad happened. But these days, if she’s smart, she dips a toe into indie publishing. Some friends who’ve been in her shoes are actually making a living. In fact, those friends are proselytizing about how great indie publishing is. She thought they were fools (see #1 above) but her circumstances have changed. Maybe she’ll investigate. It’s better than going back to that day job she quit so happily five years ago.
4. Fear (Traditional Publishing Version):
She knows nothing about indie publishing. She investigates and finds a big, chaotic, and confusing world. She wants rules. She wants order. She wants someone to take her hand and lead her through it. She wants to earn a living at writing, yes, but this business stuff—this computer stuff—this design stuff—it’s beyond her.
Here’s where so many traditionally published writers get stuck. They want help, any kind of help, and too many unscrupulous agents and unscrupulous self-publishing services like those offered through Simon & Schuster, Harlequin, Penguin/Putnam are willing to provide that help for a hefty price. These people/companies prey on fear and ignorance.
Right here is where so many writers quit. Or get scammed and lose their life savings to pursue a dream. Or give up because this is all too overwhelming.
Several other emotions go with the fear including….
5. Depression (Traditional Publishing Version)
Writers who get here truly believe their career is over. They’re mourning a loss. They believe that if they can’t get a traditional career, they won’t have a career. They don’t see opportunities ahead, only failure.
And if this were ten years ago, they would be right. It’s hard to struggle through this part. It’s hard to hang on. I’ve seen a lot of writers lack compassion for writers who hit the depression part of this cycle. Judith Tarr has a great post on how it feels to be stuck here. Again, writers stuck here are susceptible to scams. Many simply give up and leave.
The other emotion that goes hand in hand with the depression and fear is…
It feels as if the writer is the only one going through this. If the writer has been in the business a long time, then she knows lots of other writers who are still succeeding in traditional publishing. They’re bestsellers, they have book contracts, their books are selling well.
Are their advances as good? No way to know, because writers often don’t share that information. Are their royalties down? Again, no way to know.
But the more a writer feels depressed and frightened, the lonelier she gets. That’s one reason I write this blog: we all go through ups and downs. I want other writers to know that even the most successful writers have had bad patches.
It doesn’t matter that you got knocked down, or how long you stayed on the floor. All that matters is that you get up again.
The loneliness can be overwhelming (and again, writers get stuck here), but every other long-term writer has been here, whether he talks about it or not.
And in our little example, the writer finds herself…
7. Bargaining (Traditional Publishing Version)
Okay, the writer says to herself. I’ll try this indie-publishing thing. If it fails, if it’s too hard, then I’ll give up. I’ll quit.
Some writers at this stage self-sabotage. They don’t put covers on their books. They don’t write cover copy. They give the book away for free, even if they don’t have other books up to benefit from the promotion. They hire those scam services and get hurt all over again.
But many writers give it the old college try. They realize they have choices. They realize they can pick their own covers, and write the book they want, or put out the backlist book that readers have been asking for.
8. Fear (Indie Publishing Version 1)
They don’t know how to indie publish anything. Designing a book is hard, finding a cover is hard, uploading to e-book services is hard. Or, at least, it all looks hard.
Then the writer tries a few things. Yeah, there’s a learning curve, but she has had learning curves in the past. That’s what she did with her writing. She learned. She’s done this before. She can do it again.
She decides to try. She gets a book up and then…
9. Anger (Indie Publishing Version 1)
She put up her first indie-book and it did not sell. At all. The rush of readers never came. No one cares. Not even her family cares.
Everyone who said this works lied.
Of course, she doesn’t remember that she failed to sell the first short story she ever wrote, and she’s not willing to consider that her cover is badly designed or she didn’t write good cover copy or, maybe, she’s not counting the ten sales she did have this month as anything meaningful at all.
10. Trapped (Indie Publishing Version 1)
She’s tried indie, she’s tried traditional, she’s still stuck. What’s wrong with her? Is she a worse writer than she thought?
She can’t go back to traditional or if she does, they want non-competes, more work, and to pay her less. But she can’t stay indie, because it doesn’t work. What should she do?
This is where a bunch of writers leave again. They just give up.
The rest…well, some go back completely to traditional and risk never getting published again. They get a day job (if they didn’t already have one). They get a new agent, they write in a new genre, they try a pen name.
Others try indie again. They publish a few more things. Maybe learn how to design covers, or save money so that they can hire a flat-fee service to design covers for them. They might join an organization of writers who trade services, like Book View Café.
They learn there’s more to this indie thing than slapping up a book. And they find themselves in…
11. Denial (Indie Publishing Version)
This indie thing can’t be working. It isn’t working, not by traditional standards. Ten sales per month on Kindle? No one can make money doing that. The fact that the book is only on Kindle and not anywhere else, the fact that readers are asking for the next, means nothing.
Because if this book had been traditionally published, it would have sold thousands of copies by now, wouldn’t it?
Maybe. In the old world.
But the new world is different, and our writer friend is judging the new world by the old. In the old world, this book is a failure. In the new world, this book has just gotten started. It has years to grow. And if she adds more books and puts them for sale in more markets, if she writes more and learns more about indie publishing, those ten sales will turn into 50 per month on Kindle alone, and then there will be another 50 around the world, and then she’ll publish more books and eventually, she’ll be selling 100 copies of each of her titles around the world in all formats every month. The more titles, the more money, and she’ll realize that she’s actually starting to succeed.
12. Reconstructing her expectations
She’s not lowering them. She’s accepting that she’s in a new world, with different rules. You can’t judge the new world by the old. In the old, books had to sell fast because they’d be off the shelf in three months (or less). In the new, the book is just starting to get noticed a year after publication. It might have its best sales month 29 months after publication.
Plus, she’s learning this new business. She’s learning how to find good copy editors who charge not-New York prices. (The local newspaper has a copy editor who is really good, and fast.) Our imaginary writer is learning how to find spectacular first readers who actually have comments about her books, instead of her traditional editor who might edit the book (months after it is turned in) or might simply put it into production without giving the book more than a brief skim, leaving all the mistakes for the copy editor and proofer to find (if they’re good enough to find it).
Our writer’s not stuck with a bad cover because “there’s no money to fix it” (which has happened to me traditionally more than I can say). If she gets a bad cover from the designer she hired, she doesn’t have to use that cover. She can hire a different designer and get a better cover. Or, she can learn to do it herself.
13. Working Through The Changes
…becoming someone else. A different writer. One who can write what she wants, not what her agent says will sell. She can write a sequel—or not. She can write a mainstream novel—or not. She can write that romance she’s always dreamed of—or not.
…an amazing amount of freedom. But she has learned, to paraphrase Peter Parker (Spider-man), with great freedom comes great responsibility. She’s the one in charge. If there’s a bad cover, bad cover copy, bad copy edits, it’s because she hired the wrong people or didn’t understand genre branding or thought such things didn’t matter. She didn’t make it easy for her readers to find her.
But she’s learning, and the really, really cool thing she’s discovering is that she has time. If she learns something important three years after her first book was indie published, she can go back, redesign the book and add the things she’s learned, and it has no bad repercussions at all. Only good ones.
She can improve and grow and change, and no one says, You’re only as good as your last book. They ask, When’s your next book coming out? She loves that freedom.
She thinks, How did I ever survive in traditional publishing? and she feels…
15. Anger (Indie Publishing Version 2)
…at all the unwritten books, all the opportunities lost. She remembers the paralysis of those years, and how long it took one project to get from drawing board to publication, and she wonders how she ever survived it.
A few writers, hybrid writers, might feel…
16. Trapped (Indie Publishing Version 2)
…because they still have some traditional contracts to fulfill, with bad terms and advances so low that they know within a year, they could earn that money if they indie published—even with their low numbers. But they fulfill the contracts, and turn down the offer with for the next book—or accept it, but only if the traditional publisher meets certain terms.
Some hybrid writers turn this trapped feeling into something positive, using both their new books and their old in a synergy. Others…
17. Bargain (Indie Publishing Version)
…to get out of their contracts or agree not to turn in an option book or pay back advances to escape. Some end up with print-only contracts so that they don’t have to learn yet another skill set (how to do a paper book). And still others divide their career down the middle. This book, that series will go to my traditional publisher, while that book and this series will be mine only.
Writers find their own path and as they do, they realize they’ve…
…this new world of publishing and they’re learning how to make it work for them. For the first time in years they feel…
…for the future. They know that they will have a career—one they’ve chosen, and they know that they will continue to write and they’re lucky now, lucky that they can choose what kind of writer they want to be rather than scramble to be the kind of writer traditional publishing wants.
But behind it all there’s still…
20. Fear (Indie Publishing Version 2)
…because they worry about everything. Can they keep up? Can they write all the books they hope to write before they die? Can they stay ahead of their fans? Can they find enough time?
Time becomes the critical thing. Rather than wait for others to get back to them, now they worry about finishing Novel 1 so that they can get to Novel 2. They worry that they’re writing too fast. They worry that they’re not writing fast enough. They worry that they’re not spending enough time with their families. They worry that they’re not spending enough time writing. They worry that they’re not spending enough time promoting. They worry that they’re not spending enough time learning book design. They worry…
Well, they’re writers. Of course they worry.
That’s what writers do.
It’s normal. It’s healthy. It’s part of being a writer.
Then one day they realize they have indie-published their entire backlist, and right now, they have more indie books in print than traditional books. These writers look at their finances and realize that they’re making 5 times as much (or more!) on their indie books than they are on their traditional books, with a lot more benefits, like monthly payments.
Or the fact that indie books stay in print. They’re in every format around the world. Fans can find those books.
The traditional books are out of print (paper) but the crummy e-book edition remains in print. Fans in Australia can’t read the US book. Fans in Germany can’t find a paper copy. The royalty statements are a mess if they don’t show up at all, and oh, yeah, the agent forgot to send a check, but would really, really, really love to take over the backlist in e-book format.
One day, in conversation, our imaginary writer calls herself an indie writer and she thinks about it. Is she? Or is she hybrid? She’s certainly no longer stuck in traditional publishing any more. She can leave any time she wants. She can stay if she wants.
And she also realizes that, for the first time in years (maybe decades), she’s…
…with her writing career. Because she has choices now. And control.
She can go 100% indie if she wants. If she hates that or it doesn’t work for her, she can go back to traditional.
She’s learned how to handle business, so she can negotiate the contract she wants.
She can tell traditional publishers to take a flying leap if she wants to.
She can work in partnership with them if she wants to.
She can publish some books herself and let a traditional publisher do others.
She can fire her editor because she hired that editor.
She can say no to revisions that change the heart of the novel because she’s in charge. She doesn’t have to worry that her publisher won’t publish the book without the changes.
She doesn’t need an agent to tell her what’s saleable. Readers do that—with their dollars and word of mouth.
If she wants to write a difficult novel, one that might disturb people, she can, and she can let it find its audience.
22. Complete Freedom
…to be the writer she wants to be, for the rest of her career.
“The Business Rusch: The Stages of An Indie Writer” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.