The Business Rusch: Murder Most Foul
1. You need to learn business.
2. You need to learn copyright because that’s what you sell.
3. You need to learn how to hire people because the wrong people could destroy your life and career.
4. Your traditional publisher doesn’t give a crap about you, unless you become a blockbuster, and even then, they only see you as earning potential.
Instead, they teach you how to be an ahhhhrtist, how to write lasting works, how to produce ahhhhhhrt. Workshops, college courses, other writers all focus on craft because (here’s the big secret) it’s the easiest thing to teach young writers. (Also the most destructive: see these posts)
But this is a business blog, and much as I want to dwell on business, I can’t always.
Because in writing, business is personal—to the writer anyway—and any writer who tells you otherwise has trained herself to be hard as hell, lies, or is totally clueless about both business and personal stuff. You have to learn to separate them in your own head as a writer—you really do. You’re writing from who you are, and then you’re taking bits of yourself to market. Once at the market, those bits of you are a commodity.
Readers understand the glimmers of humanity—they wouldn’t read you otherwise—but they don’t see you. They did, after all, buy a book, a commodity, something that might end up being personal to them for completely different reasons than it does to you. Or the book might mean nothing to them, and get donated to the library sale because they couldn’t finish the damn thing.
Writers with long careers have learned how to separate the business from the writing—most of the time. We can play the intellectual game of “It’s my baby! No, it’s a widget!” with the best of them.
But there are other problems as well. For example, we writers run a small business. Its product is our work. We might produce a book a year or, if we’re prolific, several books a year.
Traditional publishers publish more books than that per imprint per month. Books are, to big publishers, interchangeable widgets because big publishers publish so many of them.
So if a vampire detective series book has a bad cover, the editor at the traditional publisher checks the profit-and-loss statement. If the book got a small advance, well, then, the book is stuck with the bad cover, which will hurt sales, which will probably guarantee that the next two books in the series won’t do as well, if they get published at all. So sad, says the editor. The cowardly editors never break it to their writers; the good editors own up and apologize, and explain that they’re sorry but they can’t do anything to fix it.
The traditional publishing house can eat the loss. Or maybe, it’s not a real loss for them. The vampire detective series book is a September release, and it won’t do well as expected. Everyone can see that before publication, so the publisher will mitigate its losses by (for example) printing fewer copies. But the vampire detective series novel for March (by a different author) has a much better cover; it’ll do very well.
The publishing company can shrug off the September loss in anticipation of the March gain.
The September author can’t. Even if she has the widget/baby dichotomy down, even if she understands that it’s not personal, it’s business, she will not be able to shrug.
After all, it’s her series, her livelihood, her business that got screwed up here, and she’s going to have to recover from it—or not.
Last week, Judith Tarr wrote a lightning-rod post called “The League of Shattered Authors” and got shredded on some writer business boards for catering to whiners. Those writers should disappear, someone said on one list. They’re not up for the new world of publishing. Let them vanish.
Just writing that makes me release a small breath of discomfort. Because, without Dean, I might have joined that league.
I decided to write this very personal post after the reaction to Judy’s post and after my own post last week about the stages writers are going through. I thought I’d let you know how hard it’s been for me, and how I am sometimes in several stages at the same time.
I am a very strong person, one who clearly understands the difference between being a businesswoman and being a creative person. But I’ve gotten stung several times by traditional publishing. Mostly, it’s stupid stuff and it makes me mad. Often, I catch the problem ahead of time, and figure out how to solve the problem given the situation before the problem gets worse.
But I’ve had my heart broken too. Usually the heartbreaks are small enough to set aside. But on one series, they weren’t. My heart got seriously, horribly broken. What’s-the-point-of-writing broken. I’m-going-back-to-my-day-job broken. I-give-up broken. That heartbreak was with the Smokey Dalton series.
I like to say I was naïve about that series. I like to say I was dumb. I blame me, because in the old world of publishing, you couldn’t blame your publishers. The world was what it was, and if you wanted to work in that world, then you had to accept it.
Things have changed.
This week, the newest book, Street Justice, went to the copy editor. We’re preparing for a March, 2014 release. More on that below.
But let’s talk about the series for a moment. The formerly dead series. The series that was, I can tell you now, a victim of murder most foul.
I wrote the very first Smokey Dalton novel after I turned in my resignation from The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. My experiences as editor of that magazine were soul-sucking, something I didn’t say much about at the time because I wanted to continue working in the sf field. The transition between my editorship and the new editor was absolutely brutal. The things said, the things done, the things written at the time belong in a different blog, but let’s simply say that my lawyer was and is still angry that I didn’t go to court to protect my reputation. My argument was that if I still planned to edit professionally, I would have gone to court. But I wanted to write, and I could ignore all that was said and done to my editing reputation by the libel and slander that was going on.
I retreated into writing. I wrote one novel just for me. (And when I sent it to my agent, she made my cry by telling me in great detail how unmarketable the novel was. I should have fired her right there. Live and learn.)
Then I wrote a detective novel. I picked an unusual setting—Memphis in March of 1968, just before Martin Luther King’s assassination. My detective, Smokey Dalton, happened to be black, because I knew he had grown up with Dr. King. Characters come to me first, and I let them dictate.
But aside from the setting, the novel was classic—almost too classic—detective fiction. My loner detective sitting in his office in a dingy part of town gets a visit from a beautiful blonde. There’s a mysterious will. There are family secrets.
When I finished, I thought the novel’s biggest problem was its classic framework.
Nope, my agent told me. The novel’s biggest problem was me. I’m white and Smokey’s black. Apparently, there’s a rule in traditional publishing that white people (white women?) can’t write about black people (black men?) at least from a first person point of view.
But once the agent established that I was not planning to hire a black actor to play me in public (seriously; she said that. Why in hell didn’t I fire her?), she marketed the book to all the big publishers. In the late 1990s, Oprah’s book club dominated the book world, and all of these traditional publishers figured Oprah would love this book because she’s black, and Smokey’s black, not factoring in her actual tastes. The publishers saw major dollar signs.
I had several six-figure offers on the table. Then my lovely agent called and said that one publisher in particular wanted to know if I could tour with the book. My agent was panicked, because I’m a white woman from the Pacific Northwest. She was thinking of lying now. I didn’t understand the problem.
Of course I can tour, I said.
She told them that, and told them I’m white.
The offers vanished. Literally vanished.
It shouldn’t have been news to me that traditional publishing is racist. I saw a major black sf writer lose his temper at his white editor when he saw the cover of his next book. The book had a white woman on the cover, even though there were no white people in the book. He was furious.
I figured it was an sf problem. I was naïve. It’s a traditional publishing problem. I’ve been told to my face that only white people read books (this from a sales rep). I’ve been asked what was wrong with me; why did I have to write about black people? (From a vice-president in a publishing house). I’ve been told…well, you’ll see.
And if you think this problem no longer exists in this 21st century, look at this article from last week’s Los Angeles Times. Read it now, then think about this: Saladin Ahmed had to have his editor and publisher guarantee that they wouldn’t “whitewash” the cover of the book. The fact that he had to ask, had to insist, is ridiculous. They should have put a good, accurate cover on from the beginning.
I suppose I expect too much. After all, it was only four years ago that the industry had to deal with the controversy over Liar by Justine Larbalestier. The first version of that highly acclaimed book out of Bloomsbury had a white person on the cover when the main character is black. Protest got the cover changed. If you follow this link, you can see both covers–the original and the cover after the protest. Realize that what happened to Larbalestier is unusual only in that the cover got changed. Not that a black character was depicted as white in the first place.
Protests are happening nowadays, and traditional publishing is improving, but Betsy Wolheim of Daw Books is correct in that article when she compares where traditional publishing is on racism to the late 1960s.
The racism I encountered on the Smokey Dalton books was limited to the book companies only, and was breathtakingly vile. I honestly have no idea how Octavia Butler, Steve Barnes, and Walter Mosely survived in traditional publishing in the 1990s or in the earlier part of this century. Even now, I think the racial insensitivity is amazing.
I was in New York just before the debacle with the withdrawn offers on A Dangerous Road, and I had been talking to Kelley Ragland, a relatively new editor at St. Martin’s Press. She had inherited the mess that was Hitler’s Angel and had treated me very well. She had also indicated an interest in any other mystery I would write.
So I told my agent to send the book to Kelley, who promptly bought A Dangerous Road for four-figures—not the six that had been on the table just a few days earlier.
I took the deal, beginning to catch a clue that this book might have no home at all if I didn’t.
Kelley was fantastic. She is an insightful editor, and she really championed these books. She worked hard, negotiating all the problems in-house and in the traditional publishing infrastructure to get the book out in the proper way.
Through her efforts, A Dangerous Road got favorable reviews everywhere. Barnes & Noble chose it as one of the top ten mysteries of the year. The novel was chosen for the New York Public Library’s prestigious Books For The Teenage List. The book was nominated for the Edgar, and won the Herodotus Award for the Best U.S. Historical Mystery.
In fact, thanks to Kelley, the books always went to the top reviewers. She constantly championed the series. But she couldn’t do much, because of the low advances and the way that the sales force continually subverted the novels.
These are the novels that the publisher sent me on book tour for—book tours that had no books, because no one in sales bothered to send them to distributors or bookstores. I got repeatedly invited to book fairs in Chicago because the later books were set there, but couldn’t get a guarantee of books to be sent to those fairs from my so-called publisher.
I talked to the head of the sales force about this (it would have been in 2005 or so) and he told me that the reason they felt Chicago was not the place for me because he said seriously, and I quote, “there are no black people in Chicago.”
I am still stunned by that statement. It was profoundly racist and unbelievably untrue. It also assumed that the only audience for a book about a black detective were black people who, according to that screwed-up industry, did not read. And, I was told by this self-same person that he had tried to get my books in the African American section of the chain bookstores “where the series belonged,” but the chains wouldn’t take the books for that section because I’m white.
I managed to answer that one. I said, “These books are mysteries. They belong in the mystery section, like any other private detective novel.”
He ignored me. Thought I was “confrontational.”
Midway through the series, my agent recommended that I take the books away from St. Martins and go to a different publisher. Even now, I wonder if I should have taken that advice. But I also knew from my mystery friends at the time that a book sale in the middle of a series had become impossible, and I personally talked to some mystery editor friends of mine who said such advice was very 1990s.
Kelley wanted me to write a big book to promote the series, but didn’t like any of my proposals. I didn’t want to write what she and my agent wanted me to write. It was good advice for that time period, but I declined to take the advice.
The final offer I received for books seven and eight from St. Martins was embarrassingly low. The advance is what I call book-killer advances. The company wasn’t taking the books to mass market paperback and they wouldn’t publish them in trade either. Only one hardcover edition, limited to fewer than 5,000 copies. You can’t grow a series that way, and we weren’t.
I asked for some guarantees in the contract to try to improve it, and St. Martins said no. We mutually decided not to work with each other again. My agent (a different one) decided I was too much trouble and essentially kicked me to the curb.
The Smokey Dalton series was, for all intents and purposes, dead.
Yeah, I wrote some short stories, and I figured if I waited long enough, maybe I could write a “break-out” Smokey novel that might revive the series. But I knew that was a long shot.
And I was devastated.
You see, I had always believed that if I wrote a really, really, really good book, one that readers clamored for, one that got all kinds of reviews and awards and fantastic word of mouth, those books would sell better with each volume, and would make my career.
The Smokey Dalton series had good books, readers clamored for it, got fantastic word of mouth, award nominations and more. It got starred reviews on multiple books. Readers demanded copies. Bookstores told me that they had ordered the books and the publisher had not fulfilled the orders (!). Libraries wanted the books. I kept hearing from people all over the country that they wanted to buy the books and couldn’t get them.
For the first time in my career, I had done everything right—and I knew it. I had written the right kind of book, I had gotten better with each volume, I had readers who loved the series and told friends about it—and the books failed.
Not because of me.
Not because of my editor, who was a gem.
Because of my publisher. They refused to go back to print on the later books. They “tried” to send the books out big, but never printed enough copies to fulfill to the bookstores. Let’s not even talk about the covers, which are spectacularly ugly on the books that they wanted to take big.
I watched as this publisher destroyed a series that could have been popular, if the publisher actually acted like it wanted to sell books.
That’s when I gave up. I stopped trying for months. I saw no point in continuing with a writing career because there was no way to succeed in it. Dean was extremely supportive. He kept saying he’d move with me if I decided to go back to school. He’d help with anything I needed. But, he kept asking, if you don’t write, what will you do?
And the answers I had I didn’t like.
At that moment, the local radio station needed a news director. I looked at the job listing, saw the salary, and realized that if I only wrote short stories, I would make more money as a freelancer than I would working 60 hours for someone else.
So I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and started writing again. Short stories. Which did save me.
Eventually, I sold some books, but not mysteries and not Smokey books. And I still felt almost every day that there really was no point.
That’s when the e-book revolution started. And when Dean and I figured out it would succeed.
It’s hard to believe that it was a little over three years ago that we figured out how to make it work. I knew I would write the next Smokey Dalton novel, but I kept putting it off.
Part of that was I needed to figure out how to do a better job distributing the books than St. Martins did. I wanted appropriate covers. I wanted the backlist reissued. I didn’t want to do the same thing as St. Martins and fail to support the next book in the series.
Eventually, WMG Publishing put out the backlist with some good covers. We talked about doing the print books when I finished the next novel.
As WMG grew, I realized that I finally had the ability to send the next Smokey Dalton book out at the level I wanted it to go—to all those reviewers, yes, but to the bookstores that had clamored for the book years ago. We have a game plan.
Then, last week, Allyson Longueira, WMG’s publisher and spectacular book designer, showed me the covers for the trade paperback books. She tweaked the old e-book covers and improved them. Then she added the proper back cover copy and all those great reviews the series had garnered.
The covers are spectacular. They’re not whitewashed. They’re appropriate and breathtaking. The cover for the upcoming book, Street Justice, is as good or maybe better than I could ever have hoped for.
And with the review quotes in their proper placement on the cover, and a new design feature on some of the books, listing the awards and honors for each volume and, in one case, for the entire series, took my breath away—for a variety of reasons.
The first is this: I would buy these books knowing nothing about the author. I would snatch them up in a heartbeat.
The second: These are the covers the books should have had in the first place.
When I looked at those covers, I felt a mix of emotions. Fury—complete and utter fury—at the way the books had been treated in the past. Relief that I hadn’t seen those covers before I wrote Street Justice, because I might not have written it, too worried that I couldn’t live up to what I had done years ago. Joy that the books are finally getting their due.
And incredible happiness that the series will continue. I will write more of these books because I know that no one is actively trying to kill them. They will all be in print at the same time for the very first time and they will have publisher support. (And before you ask, Street Justice will appear in March.)
Writing Street Justice turned out to be a lot easier than I expected. When you have a book in your head—blocked because of external things, not because of any writing thing—the writing goes quickly. I was happy with it, which surprised me. I always slowed down in the past. I thought it was because these novels are so close to noir, but really, I think now it’s because I knew I was tossing them into a pit when I finished with them.
The sense of freedom is so overwhelming I can barely convey it. I can write more Smokey Dalton. I can write the spinoff novels I had planned. They will go out into a world of readers who really don’t care what color my skin is or if Oprah is interested in buying the book. The novels will live and die on their own, which is how it should be. They will have, for lack of a better term, a natural life.
I always hesitate to write blog posts like this one because of my training, both personal and professional. Because traditional publishing was a monolith for so very long, writing something like this, truthful as it is, would have gotten me blacklisted from the very industry that I wanted to work in.
Fifteen years ago, had I said anything like this outside of a private setting, I would have been branded a troublemaker, impossible to work with, and someone to be avoided. Because of some of the things said about me in science fiction, I am still dismissed by much of the field as a “hack” or a “terrible writer” or someone who somehow gets work despite the lack of quality in my fiction. That all comes from the F&SF period in my career, and the whisper campaign started by some folks to destroy my career. It would have worked if I hadn’t genre-hopped and written tie-ins.
I learned how to reinvent myself, because that’s how you survive in a closed system. Fortunately, I wasn’t an actress, with my name attached to my face. I was a writer, who could use pen names.
The changes in this new world of publishing have freed me and others like me. We don’t have to get blacklisted for speaking the truth. We don’t have to worry about offending the wrong person and never working again. We can write what we want and actually make money at it, because readers want good fiction, and don’t care who said what to whom at the last gigantic publisher’s party.
Still, I had trained myself to be silent for so long that writing about my own career in this way—particularly how much it hurt to have a beloved series destroyed—feels like tattling. Or whining. Or like I’m volunteering to have my career destroyed. Old habits die hard.
This week, I published my blog on the stages, Judy published hers on the devastation left by the last ten years of traditional publishing, and we both got attacked for talking about emotions (and those poor writers who are still stuck in this mess got called “victims” because they got hurt).
I also received a large audio book payment for the entire Smokey Dalton series. The audio books would not exist without the reissues and the new book, all made possible by the changes in publishing.
For the last three years, A Dangerous Road has been under option in Hollywood. The company that holds the option is actively marketing a fantastic screenplay based on the book, and is finally getting some traction. But two years ago, the man I’ve been working with expressed surprise to me: I had no idea, he said, how frightened the American movie industry is of black protagonists.
I knew it. I didn’t tell him when he optioned the book, hoping he wouldn’t run into it. Besides, his company is based in Europe, and we decided if the project couldn’t be made here, it would be made there. He keeps renewing the option as he puts a team together. For the first time ever, he’s getting meetings at the big studios because of the success of films like 42. There’s hope.
That’s what amazes me. Had traditional publishing remained the only game in town, I would be staring at a dilemma. If A Dangerous Road does become a film (or a TV series), then I would have had to try to convince some publisher all over again to take a risk with a series of books written by a white woman about a black man.
Now, the books are out, other subsidiary rights publishers/managers are finding it, and the entire series is moving forward again.
I’m amazed, and I’m grateful.
The new world of publishing saved me from becoming one of those jaded, bitter writers who sit in bars and drink away their broken dreams.
It would have been so easy to join them.
I am so lucky that the publishing world changed, and I was able to move with it. That’s why I write the business blog, hoping that other writers realize there are opportunities now that didn’t exist five, ten, or twenty years ago.
There’s hope, and beyond it, joy. That love of writing? The thing that got us all started in the first place?
It’s back for me, and not so long ago, I thought it was gone forever.
“The Business Rusch: Murder Most Foul” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.