The Business Rusch: Dreams and Bestsellers
Because of this blog, I see a lot of publishing contracts. People want advice on certain clauses. I tell folks that I can’t give legal advice because I’m not a lawyer, but I will look at the contract and tell them if they need to hire a lawyer to negotiate it. Most of the time (99.9% of the time), they need that lawyer, and I will help them find a lawyer if need be.
What do I get out of this? I get to see the changes in publishing contracts, what’s being offered to new (and experienced) writers, what scams are hitting, and what to watch out for. The writers get, I hope, a hand to hold while they hire someone to give them legal advice.
Every now and then, though, I regret my decision to say yes. Because I see some contracts are nasty, nasty motherfuckers, and the proper response to those contracts is “Are you kidding?”
Here’s the problem with hiring anyone to negotiate those nasty horrible contracts: a lawyer does what you tell him to do. If you tell him to negotiate a bad contract, he will do all he can to improve it. But some contracts can’t be improved. Some contracts must be abandoned with a firm “no.” (In case you were wondering, that’s the 1% who don’t need a lawyer.)
If you hire a lawyer to look at your contract, and ask the lawyer to explain the contract to you, then ask the lawyer for advice on whether or not you should sign it, the lawyer will do that. But if you hire the lawyer to negotiate, the lawyer will negotiate as best he can. He might improve the contract, but in these cases, improvement moves you from the seventh circle of hell to the sixth circle of hell. And that’s all.
When faced with those contracts, I feel awful, because all I see is the massive catastrophe the poor naïve writer is heading toward two to five years down the road. The worst case scenario for these writers is success. They will make no money and their work (and sometimes their future work and/or name) will be owned, for all intents and purposes, by the publishing company.
I hate it when that happens. When I see it happen—as I did twice this summer—I cringe. Because I know what just occurred. I’ve watched very smart writers get hooked in their dreams. These writers will agree to anything—and I mean anything—to be legitimized by traditional publishing. These writers have long dreamed of being published by a great house or a great imprint, working with a great editor, and then seeing the finished product in their favorite bookstore.
And to achieve that dream, they’ll throw their copyrights, their future, everything under the proverbial bus.
I have long realized anyone can get hooked by a dream. If you want something bad enough, someone else can (and will) take advantage of you while promising that dream. I watched an old friend incur nearly $100,000 in debt because some Hollywood jackass promised my friend a movie deal “real soon now.” Real Soon Now never happened, so my friend had to go back to a day job to pay off the debt.
I fell for the agent myth for a long, long time, giving 15% of my money to people who did little or nothing for it, “negotiating” deals I’d already set up or, in the case of one agent, consistently tanking those deals with the promise of newer better deals that never materialized.
I can be as dumb as the next person. Dumber, in fact. The price of my stupidity is a lot of hard-earned stories from the publishing wars. I blog about much of it. Don’t think I’m on some high and mighty judgmental pedestal here. This thing I’m sitting on? I built it with my own two hands, one bad decision at a time.
I’m better now. I hope.
But one thing I do with regularity is try to find the lingering deep-seated dreams and figure out how to deal with them.
That sounds weird, I know. Dreams fuel us. But the dreams are also where the myths come from, and the myths can destroy a career.
Especially when the dreams are decades-old, forged in an entirely different publishing era.
I’ve been trying to revise one of my dreams for a while now. And this July, it finally got through my head that the old dream came from a world that’s now gone. The dream still lingers—I don’t think I can ever weed it out entirely—but I am aware of its potential dangers, and I’m going to do my best not to get hooked in this one.
The dream? Have one of my original novels on The New York Times bestseller list. Not any other bestseller list. The Times.
I’ve had original novels on bestseller lists all over the world. I’m pleased by this, thrilled by it in fact. Because those books had readers who bought in large numbers, and anything that measures reader response means a lot to me.
In fact, I’ve hit the USA Today bestseller list with my original novels, and that means a great deal to me, because I know that the list is calculated based on actual book sales, and compares books to books—fiction to nonfiction. Last I checked—and I’ll be honest, I did not check before writing this blog today—the USA Today list doesn’t isolate by genre, doesn’t work from a formula, doesn’t segregate bookstores from Costco. Books are books are books.
I love that.
Still, though, for me and my dreams, the gold standard is The New York Times. It’s the only list I saw when I was a kid, even though Publishers Weekly has a list that’s more than 100 years old. Even though other newspapers had lists.
I imprinted on the Times, and my dreams were formed then, back when I was very young.
I’d love to have New York Times bestseller under my name.
I could put New York Times bestseller beneath my name now, if I wanted to. A number of the media-tie in novels I worked on made the list and/or the extended list, back when the extended only went to #15. My Star Wars novel just missed the extended, for example, but was in the top 20. That was in the mid-1990s. Today, the extended goes all the way to the top 25.
I choose not to use the Times appellation, though, because when I do, I want to have achieved it for my original work. Yeah, yeah, that’s me, and a lot of people will argue with me. Hell, sensible me would argue with dream-hooked me, if it would only work. Because I was on the list, and as some of my good friends would remind me, that was one reason to write media tie-in novels.
But never for me. I always wrote tie-ins for the love. I loved those universes and was honored to play in them. That I got paid to do so was just a bonus.
I am still operating out of that dream, and I am aware of it. The problem is that the dream I had no longer reflects reality.
Back when I imprinted on the Times list, it had four components: hardcover fiction, hardcover non-fiction, paperback fiction, and paperback nonfiction. Right now, there are 12 lists for fiction, and 5 for nonfiction every week. Instead of 40 chances per week to hit the list proper (60 if you count the extended—and I’m not sure exactly when the Times started doing so), now you have 425 chances per week to hit the list in one way or another.
Back when traditional publishing was a monopoly, back when there were a large number of independent booksellers, back when there were a handful of chains and traditional publishers did not hate those chains, computing the list was pretty easy. The bookstores reported their sales and the Times used them to figure out the list.
In the 1990s, when I started paying attention to the way the list was compiled, the Times had a list of “accepted booksellers” so that it tweaked its list to reflect “accepted” tastes. The traditional publishers complained that a sale in the chains counted for less, and the Times responded by saying they used a “calculation” (which they still do), so that the lists don’t weigh big, hated firms where most readers buy too heavily. The Times list is an imprint of quality, after all, and when quality gets “compromised,” the Times monkeys with the list.
First the Times got rid of the influence of chains, by counting their sales as a percentage. Then the Times separated the mass market from the trade paperback list because “quality” fiction was published in trade paperback, while crap was published in mass market (along with the quality). Then, when Harry Potter dominated the list, the Times spun off a children’s list which I see now has devolved into four parts: picture books, Middle Grade, Young Adult, and series.
After much complaint, the Times developed an e-book list, but ignored indie published titles. When there was even more complaint, it added the indie published titles, but gave Amazon a percentage of sales rather than actual sales (even though it publishes the most e-books of any US venue).
In other words, the list is rigged. It has been rigged for decades, and it’ll stay rigged.
I know that, and I still want one of my original books on it.
Because here’s the thing that really got to me this July.
I’ve known for years now that a book can hit the list with only a few thousand copies sold, especially in hardcover. It all depends on the time of year that the book is published in (post-Christmas books need fewer sales to hit the list than books published in the September/October/November bestseller glut) and then there’s the matter of velocity.
The Times, like so many lists, cares more about how many books are sold per week, than how many books are sold per year. So if your book sells 52,000 copies in hardcover in 2013 at the pace of 1,000 copies per week, your book probably won’t hit a list. But if your hardcover novel sells 5,000 copies in July, the bulk of which are in the week of July 4th, and then sells another 5,000 copies during the rest of year, for a 10,000 copy total sale, your book could easily hit the Times list in that first week of July—provided, of course, that your book was sold by the “approved” bookstores, and not at a discount through Costco or Wal-Mart.
These little quirks continually get reinforced for me by various bestseller list articles, like this one in The Wall Street Journal from earlier this year about authors buying their way onto the list with some targeted strategies. This has happened for years. Back in the 1990s, the Times list of approved bookstores got out—somehow—and a number of writers targeted those stores with the help of fans, and got some books onto the lists that “shouldn’t have been” on the list. The Times quickly clamped down on its leak, and found a few other bookstores, and the crisis was averted.
Then there is the matter that I mentioned above, tailoring the list to reflect the prejudices of the list’s publisher. The Bookseller out of the UK has decided to run its own bestseller list, and is very clear about the criteria it will be using. You’ll note upon close reading that most of these criteria are designed to keep the indie published books off the list.
I’ve written about this sort of thing off and on for years, but it still doesn’t quite scrub that dream-hook for me.
Although I’m making progress, thanks to two things that happened in July.
The first was the Storybundle that I participated in along with Kevin J. Anderson, Michael A. Stackpole, Frank Herbert’s estate, Mike Resnick, Gregory Benford, B.V. Larson, David Farland, and Lightspeed Magazine. We sold enough copies in the first week of July to hit the New York Times list, if the Times counted things like the Bundle.
Which it does not.
Our bundle sold a lot less than the Humble Bundle running concurrently with books by Peter S. Beagle, Cory Doctorow, Neil Gaiman, Lois McMaster Bujold, Robert Charles Wilson, and Cherie Priest. (Both bundles had a time limit and are no longer available.) The Times has counted omnibus/anthology editions in the past, but wouldn’t count these bundles because they’re not sold through approved sites/sources.
These two bundles alone counted for tens of thousands of book sales in July—book sales that the venerable Times considers unimportant.
Okay, I get that. I’ve gotten that for years. I understand the Times’ snobbery and the impossibility of counting everything.
But here’s the thing that really dinged my Times dream. My contribution to the Storybundle was the first novel in my Retrieval Artist series, The Disappeared. Here’s some stats.
•Roc, the original publisher of The Disappeared, took the book out of print one year after the book’s initial publication, even though the book was the first in a series. Until 2012, it was impossible to get all of the books in the series at the same time.
• The Disappeared made no lists in its first printing, and each time a new book in the series appeared, the previous book was not available, so the new book could not goose sales of the old book.
•When WMG started reissuing the Retrieval Artist novels, each novel goosed the sales of the others. Within its first year, The Disappeared sold about 10 percent of its original sales—without a paperback edition (at the time) and without any push.
•The Storybundle sold 25% of the book’s original sales in a month, and as I said, would have made the Times list.
•Many of those sales were not in the States.
•I am now watching a small group of sales work through the other books in the series. These sales are scattered over different formats—ebooks and paper books—as well as in different countries. There’s a lovely halo effect. (None of this counts audio sales. I’m not privy to those numbers at the moment [although I will be in a month or so], so I don’t know if they were goosed as well.)
But here’s the thing: none of these new sales would be counted as a unit by any list makers. The sales are spread over different platforms around the world. So even if sales from different ebook platforms were counted together, for example, they’d still be counted per country, with some sales in the UK, some in Germany, some in Japan.
In other words, the Times wouldn’t count those sales because they’re not US sales.
Yet the sales were in English and actually have velocity.
Those few facts combined with one other thing, which I’ll mention below, finally got it through my thick skull that measurements like the New York Times list are meaningless in 2013. My dream dates from the 1970s. It was a very, very, very different world then.
What matters now is readership, and that’s become harder and harder to measure, except with something that an author can now keep to herself, just like Amazon does: I can see actual sales and count those sales without going through some publisher’s weird-ass algorithm every six months. I don’t have to worry about incorrect reporting or reserves against returns.
I’m seeing real sales in real time.
This evening, as I wrote this blog, my latest novel Snipers hit #88 on the Amazon Kindle time travel bestseller list. I thank all of the readers who’ve bought the book quickly. (Thank you!!!) But I’m not putting that ranking in my marketing, nor am I putting it in my bibliography or mentioning it anywhere but here.
Because I honestly don’t know what it means. Yeah, the book is in the top 100 time travel books being sold on Amazon in the United States this last day of July, 2013 at a particularly late hour in the evening. But you readers might check the listing at 3 a.m. or look at it at 6 p.m. on August first and see something else entirely.
I’m on a bestseller list, kinda sorta, but I have no idea if that’ll last or if it matters to readers.
I know that if a reader scrolls through the time travel list in search of a time travel book in the next hour, and somehow manages to make it all the way through 100 titles, they might see and buy mine.
And that’s all I know.
It’s a good reminder that bestseller lists are just another way to inform readers that books exist.
But…and here’s the thing for me, as a reader and a consumer: Back in the same time period when I imprinted on the Times bestseller list, I listened to the Billboard top 100 every weekend. Back then, rock songs mixed with country and occasionally some American popular song (like Sinatra). I heard a variety of music, and thought the list informative.
Somewhere in the 1990s, the Billboard list had bifurcated so many times that I felt confused when I heard some DJ play from the “adult contemporary” list. I had no idea what that even was. I still don’t, really. And now there are as many music “bestseller” lists as there are book lists. I rarely pay attention any more.
It’s like award season in Hollywood. I can’t keep track of Golden Globes and Director’s Guild and Screen Actor’s Guild and Emmy’s and Oscars, and—oh, who the hell cares?
Now, as a consumer, I have to find other measures of “quality” and/or popularity. I haven’t found them yet, but I’m searching.
Just like you probably are.
And I’m also creating my own lists, thanks to algorithms on various websites from Amazon to Kobo to Goodreads. I find what interests me at the expense of the gatekeepers and tastemakers. I’m reading more, and I’m reading more eclectic things.
Just like I’m watching more eclectic things. When I run out of TV programs to stream, I ask like-minded folks on Facebook what they’re watching. I get great recommendations that way.
I’m not alone in finding TV through social media. I know that folks are finding books that way too. Because smart writers now find ways to put their backlist into print and to keep their frontlist in print, word of mouth has become a potent force again.
More potent than a rigged bestseller list.
Now, if I could only convince my subconscious of that, I loosen the hold of those ancient, no-longer-applicable dreams.
It’s hard though. I know it, and I know some of you have experienced it as well. It’s strange to be in this new world with new rules. And every now and then, the new rules bump up against the way things were once upon a time. And that’s just plain confusing.
For writers—and their long-held dreams.
One dream I never had was that I would write a weekly blog on publishing. Probably because no one had heard of blogging when I was a kid and no one published anything weekly outside of big national journals like Publishers Weekly, which I didn’t read way back when.
So I am constantly astonished by the visitors, reactions, comments, and arguments started by this blog. I’m also startled at how quickly a week can pass. Every now and then, the deadline sneaks up on me, like it did this week, as I’m trying to finish a novella.
Unlike the novella, this blog must fund itself every week. I haven’t mentioned the donate button in the last few weeks, although several of you found it. But when I do mention it, even more of you find it.
So please, if you learned something or you’re a weekly visitor who finds this appointment-blogging, encourage me to continue by leaving a tip on the way out.
Thanks so much!
“The Business Rusch: “Dreams and Bestsellers” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.