The Business Rusch: Markers
I’ve been dealing with other issues. Dean and I are traveling, and so we’re consuming news differently. A few hours after I finish this (I hope), we will meet with a few other long-term professionals for a few days to discuss the changes in the industry, and what it means for us. I debated waiting until those meetings were over before writing this blog, but I decided against it.
Discussions like that often leave me confused and overwhelmed. Then I examine my notes, think for a while, and figure out where I stand, and what I want to do. It takes time to process, so I’ll give myself that time.
Which brings me back to Bezos. Because I was traveling when the Washington Post made the announcement, I had limited wireless time available to me. I subscribe to the Post, so I read its articles from beginning to end.
And in the announcement article, I found this:
[Bezos] told Fortune magazine last year, “The three big ideas at Amazon are long-term thinking, customer obsession, and willingness to invent.”
I stopped. I reread the sentence. I thought about it. Information comes to you when you seek it, and it comes in a variety of ways. I wasn’t reading about the Post or Bezos so much as I was getting a handle on a new way to approach something.
Let me explain.
Regular readers of this nonfiction blog know that I’ve been struggling for some time with figuring out a path in this new world of publishing. It’s very important for me to understand how something functions so that I can then figure out how to work (or not) within that system.
Right now, all of publishing—from fiction to nonfiction, from books to magazines, from newspapers to blogs—is going through a massive upheaval. Every time I think the upheaval has settled, something else disrupts the system in ways that then ripple to other parts of the system.
I’m flailing—rather publically—and consulting most of you (as well as other blog sites, and meetings with people active in the industry) to figure out exactly what’s going on. But as I said at the Advanced Master Class that we hosted in July, what is true today might not be true tomorrow.
And for someone who likes and tries to understand systems, that’s exceptionally disconcerting.
On Sunday, one of the writers at our weekly Sunday lunch for professionals asked, “How do you know when you’ve had a good day?” He was referring to the internal workings of a writer: how do you know if you’ve written enough words or putting in enough hours? It’s an excellent question, but it wasn’t the only one I heard. He had to clarify because I heard the question more globally: What markers show you that you’re a success?
That’s, in part, some of what I dealt with last week. The big dreams, the ones that we can get hooked into, the ones that may or may not be valid any longer as the disruptive systems continue to shake publishing. I talked specifically about one of my big dreams from way back, getting on the New York Times list, and how that dream has and hasn’t changed for me.
Back in the dark ages of publishing—you know, five or ten years ago—we knew what made for a good day. It was pretty easy to measure success.
Let’s talk writing first. Successful writers had contracts with publishers. Those contracts had deadlines. The writer needed to meet those deadlines. Working backwards from the deadline, the writer would then calculate how many words per day she had to write or how many hours she needed to put into her writing to hit that deadline either on time or early. If the writer had multiple deadlines, then she “juggled” them, and figured out how to get all of those projects done within the time alloted.
Pretty easy. A “good day” then, to answer the writer’s lunch question, was meeting or beating the quota, staying on target, and maintaining those deadlines. If you were really prolific, if you were really adept at handling the deadlines, then you also found time for short stories or articles and something the romance writers call “a book of the heart.”
“A book of the heart,” for those of you who don’t know, is a book not under deadline, a book a professional writer wrote not because she had pitched it to her editor or it was the next book in the series, but because the book just had to be written. On spec. Because the writer really needed to finish that book for herself. Hence, “book of the heart.”
Those of us who became professional writers in the last thirty years lived and breathed that system. Some writers fell by the wayside because they couldn’t handle the deadlines or—worse—they couldn’t get enough deadlines to pay the bills. (This problem increased in the last decade; publishers reduced the number of books they published, which then reduced the number of books needed, when then (of course) reduced the number of books under deadline.)
On the craft level, then, we writers knew what a good day meant, and a good day was always a success.
But there were other set markers of success for writers. Because traditional publishing had been stable for so very long—the last big disruption happened in the 1950s—the markers of success felt like they were etched in stone.
The differences in these markers came because of a writer’s particular bent and/or genre. Genre writers had different markers than mainstream writers and literary writers had other markers as well. Sometimes those markers went down to the craft level. No literary writer worth his salt would admit to a daily word quota, and would often claim that it would take years to write a book that might (in actual writing time) have taken a few weeks. (Hemingway was a master at this kind of manipulation.)
Romance writers wanted to sell a lot of books, the more the better, and some, like Nora Roberts, changed the culture inside publishing by convincing the publishers that writing several books per year was not only possible, but readers would buy those books.
Markers, though. They were standard enough that established writers could recite the markers on panels all over the country (all over the developed world, really). The writers would agree on those markers even if the writers had never met each other and never consulted with each other.
To give you a complete list would take this blog post and several others. But the traditional markers included:
•Selling your first short story/article
•Selling your first novel
•Hiring an agent
•Winning a major award
•Hitting a bestseller list
•Selling more than one novel
And on and on and on. But generally speaking, we writers could agree on the success markers. So could others in the industry. Dean received an invitation to submit a novel to a major editor after publishing a short story in a reknown magazine. I was on an award ballot for best new writer when the best agent in the field (at the time, and I later realized, only in theory) called and pitched himself to me. We all knew that those early markers meant the writer was going somewhere, and going to do something.
Now, those markers still exist, but they mean less. The disruption is total. Now, there are dozens of science fiction magazines instead of a few, so many in fact that the half dozen year’s best editors claim they can’t read everything printed. There are hundreds of literary magazines now, many which pay well. There’s a surfeit of awards in all the genres, so many the readers have no idea what they mean.
And then, the elephant in the room: Indie publishing. Does it mean more to have your short story up online and receive 1,000 downloads over several months than it does to have your short story out in a prestigious literary magazine with only 1,000 subscribers? I don’t know. No one does.
The markers are all different. And we writers have to set our own. The problem is that established writers have often used markers to propel ourselves forward and, frankly, to measure success. We tell ourselves that we’ve hit this list or we’ve won that award. We’ve been reviewed (favorably!) in the most prestigious journal in the land, and/or we’ve sold books for mid-six figures. We’ve got overseas publishers and movie options. We have deadlines, and more deadlines, and books coming out of several traditional publishing houses.
My last traditionally published novel just appeared—not because I couldn’t sell another; I’ve turned down some deals. But because I don’t want to sign those contracts any more. I don’t want to put up with what the Passive Guy called this week “the mental overhead and time drains involved in dealing with a traditional publisher.”
I like the changes. I like having control over my own career. But I also love the markers of traditionally published short fiction. The contracts are good and the editors wonderful, so I don’t (generally) have to worry about problems there. And I love working outside my own little box.
But those are personal markers. Now, if you have a group of writers on panels at conventions all over the country (the developed world?), the writers will disagree on what the markers for success are.
Does getting an agent mean you’re successful? I would say no, because agents can’t do much for writers any more, and in fact, can’t properly negotiate a complicated contract these days. But other writers who have published as many novels as I have and who have had long careers in traditional publishing would say yes, and might have a different—and informed—opinion as to why.
Now we would say that reasonable people disagree, but in the past, we would have agreed, because That Was How Things Were Done.
Does having 50,000 copies of your book in the hands of readers mean you’re successful? A resounding yes on all fronts, right? But what if that book was given away for free and no one got paid for those 50,000 downloads? Then would we agree? Probably not.
The markers are different, and the agreed-upon markers no longer exist because we can’t agree. The world has changed too radically.
And, as it had before, that change goes all the way down to the craft level. How does a writer measure a successful day when she sets her own deadlines? When every book is a book of the heart?
The projects no longer stack up neatly, organized by deadline, with a book of the heart squeezed in. You can’t backtrack from some publisher deadline to set word count or hours per day. Now, for every 5,000 words finished, there are 15,000 more demanding to be written, on dozens of projects, all of which should be finished now.
For those of us who had series-interruptus, not once, but half a dozen times, there are all of those unfinished storylines demanding to be finished. Because my entire backlist is working its way back into print, readers have just noticed that I was doing short story series too, and are now clamoring for more stories in those series. (Before, I linked them just for me, and published those stories in different anthologies.)
There’s a lot to finish, and a lot to write new, and more books of the heart to contemplate.
Setting a schedule helps, I’ve found, but doesn’t alleviate the problem, because the schedule feels artificial. There’s no editor on the other end waiting for the book. I could trade out this novel for that novel if the whim strikes.
The freedom is great, but with all of the other things to do, the freedom is only part of the story. So, a writer completes 3,000 words in one day, but doesn’t get to the cover she needs to upload the new novel, or the audio book she’s recording, or the copy edit she must review.
There’s more work than anyone can do—and, yes, it is, as Joe Konrath said in response to one of my blog posts two weeks ago, a “quality problem,” as in “oh, no! I spilled champagne on my cake!” but it’s still a problem. Defining these markers—which is different than defining goals—is hard.
When I was talking to Dean about this, I compared it to playing a game your whole life, and then one day, you march onto the field to realize everything has changed. There’s an entire set of new rules. The goal posts haven’t been moved; they’ve been removed. There’s a new system for keeping score, and it doesn’t quite feel right, even if it’s better. Even if it makes more sense.
And then we need to figure out how we fit in.
The things that have become important in the indie world were the things that I trained myself to ignore in the traditional one because I couldn’t control them. I couldn’t control how my books got distributed. I worked with a publisher and hoped they’d do a good job. The only way I could control how a book sold was to write the best damn book possible. I couldn’t tweak the cover or write a new blurb if the existing ones didn’t work. I couldn’t convince my publisher to release the books in other markets, even if I knew that those markets wanted the book. The book’s sales figures came in so late, usually two or three books down the road, as to be almost (not quite but almost) insignificant. The important number was the copies shipped.
Now, no one knows copies shipped. It’s not even an accurate term, because most copies aren’t shipped. They’re ordered and purchased outright. Sales figures are important, like they are in any business, and we can see them in real time. If I want a book in all the markets, I can do that.
I need to pay attention to those things, and I do, but I don’t know how to mark them. Again, that 50,000 sales question comes up, this time without any books selling for free. Is it better to sell 50,000 books in three weeks than in three years? Does it matter if the writer is writing other things? Do we celebrate one and just accept the other?
Impossible to know, and even more impossible for us all to agree on what’s important.
The framework for our craft is changing; the rules of the game have changed.
I’ve been casting about, searching for the rules, the framework that makes sense to me, markers that I can use the way I used the old markers. And on every level, from what makes a successful day’s work to what defines success in an industry gone haywire.
And then, I read that Bezos quote. Ignore what you think about Bezos for a moment—good, bad, indifferent—and look at the words.
He said that the three big ideas at Amazon were a focus on the future, customer obsession, and a willingness to invent.
I like those. They’re not small markers—like selling a short story. They’re large markers, the framework that you use to build the smaller markers. And they work along the way that my brain works.
Focus on the future: I love the way that the mainstream financial press can’t understand Amazon. Amazon doesn’t care about quarterly profits. They want to build a strong future, and they’re running the business in a very old-fashioned way, willing to take a short term loss for a long-term gain.
I’ve always run my writing business that way, and it’s often paid off. In the past fifteen years, as traditional publishers (who used to be owned by families and small corporations) got eaten by the large conglomerates, publishing went from focusing on the future and building to doing anything it could to make a bigger profit this quarter than it did last quarter. That meant that traditional publishing was no longer compatible with my work methods.
So as I reboot my career in this new world, I can focus on the future, and know that I will finish the various series (but not all at once), I will write books of the heart (and some of them are series novels), and I will occasionally surprise myself. There’s room for all of that, and all of the other things I must now do to run an indie writing career. If I keep my focus on the future, with the idea that I’m building, it’s easier to construct a framework.
Customer obsession. I look at this as focusing on the reader. Readers are the ultimate customer for writers. But I teach writers to kick everyone out of their office except themselves. So how can a writer focus on readers then?
Pretty simple. Make sure that readers can get everything you do. Make it available in all formats and in all the places in the world. Let the readers find you. And, again, this isn’t something that can be done overnight. It’ll take time—going back to that focus on the future. Finish the work, and make sure the customer can find it in the format that the customer prefers.
A willingness to invent: Readers are by nature risk-takers. They pick up books by writers they’ve never heard of; they try new genres. Readers like the same old thing until the day that they don’t.
So a writer who thinks focusing on the reader means trying to figure out what the reader wants and then giving it to them is a writer who will go stale. A reader doesn’t know what she wants until she reads it. And then she’ll do her best to introduce her friends to the same pleasure.
So in addition to finishing series, to writing books I’m known for, I need to continue to grow, to experiment, to try new things.
And it’s not just in the writing. It’s also in the delivery methods, in cover design, in all aspects of publishing.
Experiment. Invent. Try new things.
Those three sentences of Bezos’ gave me a framework, a solid one that will enable me to build the new structure, even in this changing world. Because if I remember those three things, I have something to hold onto, something to propel me forward from one project to the next, one idea to the next, one marker to the next.
And I can’t tell you how much I like that.
One of the markers I have every week is this blog. The blog forces me to keep up with the changes in publishing, and it provides me with a chance to interact with those of you who are also figuring out the changes. I appreciate all of the comments and all of the e-mails. The support means a lot.
This blog must remain self-sustaining, which is why I have a donate button on it. So please, if you have received anything of value from reading the blog, leave a tip on the way out.
“The Business Rusch: “Markers” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.