The Business Rusch: Ain’t Nothing Perfect
Either the writer has trouble with their traditional publisher, needs help with subsidiary rights, wants a list of IP attorneys to go after someone for something or, increasingly, that writer lets me know what they’ve decided to do with their career.
Some writers are entering indie publishing for the first time. These writers divide into two pretty simple categories: the previously unpublished writer who has spent years trying to break into traditional publishing, or the career writer who has finally had it with traditional publishing and wants to go it alone. (Or alone-ish)
But increasingly, I get letters from career writers who’ve tried indie publishing and are now giving it up and returning to traditional publishing. The latest one I’ve seen didn’t come from my e-mail at all. It’s Peter David who wrote a blog about his decision to go to Amazon for his next book.
And because Peter has gone public, I’m going to use him and a few others to help illustrate something I’ve realized over the past three years.
There is no perfect method to get your book to readers. None, not a one. To go indie, you need a mindset that those of us trained in traditional publishing never had. You have to realize that hundreds of sales will add up to thousands of sales if you take the long-term approach. You have to understand that you’re in business now, small business, and business owners plan their profit-and-loss statements over years, not weeks.
Most small business owners who understand what they’re getting into (or who learned this through the school of hard knocks, the way I did). They know that if their business makes a profit within three years, they’re ahead of the curve. Early on, they have to look at the small sales and extrapolate, then figure out how to increase those sales over time.
Generally, no small business owner increases sales with just one product. An empty store with only one item on the shelf will drive customers away.
You can argue that most career writers have many more items on the shelf than their indie-published book, but that’s not really true. Most of the items on the shelf have either gone out of print or had their heyday years ago. So maybe for career writers, the store has one new item and fifteen really old ones. Maybe. If you’re writing the same thing. Tie-ins and original novels are not the same thing. Romance novels and science fiction novels are not the same thing.
It takes work to establish an indie career. I don’t care who you are, a New York Times bestseller with an existing reader base, or a brand-new writer just starting out, it’ll take you time to establish yourself in this new world.
It’s a hell of a culture shock to go from selling thousands of copies of your book in the first few weeks to selling maybe 100 or 200. It feels like failure. I know this for a fact.
When I finished the first edition of The Freelancer’s Survival Guide in 2010, it became one of the first big ticket items published by WMG Publishing, which I have a stake in. I had thousands of readers coming to my blog every week to read the Guide for free (which you can still do). Many wanted that paper or e-copy and told me so. I gave away copies of the first edition for free to anyone who had donated to my blog because, honestly, I couldn’t have written the book without their help.
But hundreds, maybe a thousand people, had personally told me in comments and e-mail as well as on Facebook and Twitter, that they wanted the book and were going to buy it. So, we published it in all forms in the fall of 2010—and sold about 100 copies by January 1.
I felt awful. I had anticipated bigger sales than that. I thought everyone would rush to buy the book (no pun intended). I wondered what the heck was happening.
The sales remained steady. Then, in some countries, the small guides we’d published—How To Negotiate Anything in particular—took off. At the end of those guides was the recommendation that if you liked the short book, you might want the full Guide. And guess what? The sales of the Guide have increased.
We’re watching that same phenomena in audio now, as How To Negotiate Anything sold better than any of our other nonfiction titles in May. It’s September now, and people have finally listened to their purchased e-book. They’re buying the big honkin’ audio version of The Freelancer’s Survival Guide in greater and greater numbers.
Over the past three years, the three editions of the Guide have sold thousands of copies. One hundred here, fifty there, five in this other market. A little bit at a time. In fact, the Guide has probably sold more copies than it would have if I had gone with a traditional publisher in the first place. And, if I had gone with a traditional publisher in 2009, the Guide would most likely be out of print by now.
It would certainly have been shorter. The initial book I had designed had been about 60,000 words. Thanks to questions and suggestions from real-time readers, the final Guide ended up at 210,000 words—and I hadn’t covered everything I wanted to cover.
While I’m happier with the Guide as it is, and I love that it’s still available, I would have been very happy with the smaller book and its matching sales if I had gone traditional—in a world without indie publishing, of course. But in that world, I’m not sure I could have sold that book, to be honest.
I will tell you this: I finished the first three chapters in May of 2009, and then gave them, along with an outline, to my then-agent to sell, and he hadn’t even put it on the market by July. He wanted to wait until the “summer season” was over, because “publishers bought these kinds of books in the fall.” Yep, old-school thinking—but correct thinking for traditional publishing.
Fortunately for me, because of my agent’s delay, I was able to pull the book from consideration without saying no to any publishers. That’s when I fully committed to doing the book outside of the traditional system.
The watchword for indie publishing, for going outside the system, is patience. It’s really hard for professional career writers to have that patience. I had given up on the Guide by the beginning of 2011, and had moved on to other things, figuring the Guide was what it was. I hoped its sales would grow, but I didn’t expect them to.
We career writers learned patience long ago, but a different kind of patience. We learned that it would take time for our agents to put together a marketing plan, to get the book to the proper editors, and for those editors to actually read the book/proposal. Then it would take time for the publishing house to buy that book, and even more time for the book to be published.
But once the book was published, we learned that everything went fast. If the book didn’t sell well in its first month, then it was a failure, and you had to do triage so you could market the next book to a traditional publishing.
After thirty years of living like this, it’s really hard to understand that the first three weeks of an indie-published book mean nothing more than three weeks five years after the book’s initial publication. Every week is the same. I still struggle with that mindset. It’s hard to undo years and years of training.
So, are the other publishing choices better than indie publishing? Yes and no. That’s why I tell professional writers to make their own choices. I don’t know how people are living, whether they have day jobs, whether or not they can live on small amounts of money per month.
I’m not even sure how they define small amounts of money. A rather shocking piece in Galley Cat was about how much money fantasy writers earn. Both writers thought they weren’t making a lot of money. One stated that $2,000 to $3,000 per month was enough to pay off old credit card debt, but not enough to live on.
I just about fell over. Maybe it’s because I live in Oregon and not Los Angeles or New York, but I know a lot of middle-aged heads of families who earn $24,000 to $36,000 per year. Those families are two-income families, so their overall family earnings are higher than that $2000 to $3000 per month. The cost of living is lower here than in some places, but still—in many parts of the country, those numbers for an individual are clearly a living wage and not pocket change, as the article implied.
So, when I’m advising writers about what they should do, I rarely tell them what to do. I don’t know their circumstances, I don’t know if they consider $2,000 per month peanuts or great wealth, I don’t know if they can handle the sales racking up at 2 to 50 copies a week, I don’t know any of that. I always tell them it’s their decision, which they rarely want to hear.
There are a lot of downsides to indie, particularly for someone used to the old system. There are many upsides, including something I rarely have had in my life—a monthly paycheck. Career writers of the old school are used to large checks, and then nothing for several months. It’s actually hard to adjust to getting several small checks in that same period of time, and it takes a bit of thought to realize that those small checks add up to the equivalent of a large check.
Peter is moving away from indie publishing and going to Amazon for his next book. According to his blog post, he says he needs the advance—and I don’t doubt it. That transition between large checks and small checks, the transition between leaving an established system and stepping into a new business, is extremely hard to weather. And he’s had life crises on top of it all.
The appeal of an advance is amazing. A month after the Freelancer’s Guide appeared in the fall of 2010, I signed a three-book contract for one of my pen names. I figured I needed income for months, maybe years, just to weather the change. If I was going to commit fully to the change, which I hadn’t decided.
By the time 2012 rolled around, I have to admit, I hated that contract. It underpaid me by thousands compared to what I could get through the new world of publishing. And I had no control.
But I didn’t know that in 2010.
Traditional publishers limit the writer in territories where the book will be sold, by the places the book is available, and with time. Traditional publishers want only so many books, and they want those books stretched out over a longer period of time. One of my publishers continually publishes my books in markets that I have not licensed to that publisher. Another publisher pushed back the publication date of the second book in a new series, effectively killing the momentum, and so on.
The writer has no control once that contract is signed and the advance is paid—except to write the best book she can and hope that the book gets marketed well. The writer’s only recourse is to break the contract, and that’s not always easy, particularly if the traditional publishing company is acting in good faith with the writer.
But let’s assume that the writer—like both me and Peter—has returned to traditional publishing because of money and comfort. Will traditional publishing be better than indie?
It depends on the writer, and what the writer wants. It really does.
Because traditional publishing has its good points—that up-front advance, the freedom to worry only about the book itself, the first week/month sales in the thousands—and it has its bad points. The bad points vary from writer to writer—the delay in publication, the increasingly bad contracts, the loss of control. Some writers can live with a bad cover; others fret because the cover can’t be changed.
The good/bad points can’t always be relied upon to stay the same. Writers who sold books to Simon & Schuster in 2012 might have done so to get those books into brick-and-mortar bookstores, only to have a stunning shock when the books appeared in early 2013. S&S and the largest remaining chain story, Barnes & Noble, spent six months fighting over their contract terms, and during that time very few (almost no) S&S books graced B&N’s shelves.
That meant, for writers whose books released in that six-month period, the precious first week/month velocity in sales did not happen and/or was truncated by the dispute. Could anyone outside of either company have predicted that protracted war would have happened? No. And S&S as a corporation didn’t care about individual book titles. The company was looking at its book business as a whole. It was willing to take that short-term loss to have a long-term gain.
The problem was that for many authors that short-term loss was on their backs, and they could do nothing about it. Those March through August books are now considered passé in traditional publishing and the brick-and-mortar model (with limited shelf space), so those books will never be in B&N, at least not all of the stores. The website will probably carry them.
These disputes happen all the time, and are part of the vagaries of publishing. They’re things writers recover from, not things writers control.
Something similar has happened to writers who go with Amazon. Right now, Passive Guy calls traditional publishing’s attitude toward Amazon “Amazon Derangement Syndrome,” and really, it seems like that. Publishers–who place their books in Amazon’s store–believe (and say in public) that Amazon is evil. Amazon is bad. Amazon the horrid villain from every major movie.
Independent booksellers have a better point in their arguments against Amazon than traditional publishers do. Independent booksellers see Amazon as competition, and don’t want to do anything to support Amazon—including carrying books published through Amazon’s new publishing lines.
I get that argument, I do. But that also means this attitude will drive readers who want their favorite writer’s latest book published by Amazon to Amazon to get the book. Not quite the best business strategy, but at least (unlike Amazon Derangement Syndrome) one that makes a little bit of sense.
Still, any writer who publishes traditionally through Amazon should not do so to get their book into a brick-and-mortar bookstore. To Peter’s credit, he never lists that as a reason to sell his book to them. He’s talking advance, not books in a brick-and-mortar store. So his expectations are in line, like they should be. And maybe, just maybe, the book in Amazon’s line will promote his indie titles. I certainly hope so.
And writers who publish exclusively on Amazon should prepare to hear from readers who either can’t get on Amazon (it’s not in their country, for example), are opposed to DRM, or would simply like the book in a different format. Readers complain when they can’t get the books they want.
That’s the biggest problem we career writers have. It’s not about payment up front or payment monthly. It’s not about control or a lack of it.
We career writers were never trained to think about our readers. In fact, when we argued that our readers wanted something—the next book in a series, the previous book in the series to remain in print until the next book comes out, a different kind of fantasy novel—our traditional publishers told us that a handful of readers didn’t matter. The books had to sell Big.
And in traditional publishing’s business model, that’s true. The four hundred readers here, the fifty readers there, they don’t matter compared with the five thousand copies that the single buyer at B&N might take to stock every brick-and-mortar B&N store. By the time only 2,000 people buy those books in B&N, the traditional publisher has moved onto the next hot thing—even if it’s not by that career writer.
Thinking about our readers was something we were discouraged to do. Learning to think about readers is like learning that your small business might not make a profit for three years. For those of us with decades of traditional publishing under our belts, it has become counterintuitive.
Dean and I were fortunate. We ran a small publishing company twenty years ago. We had to have relationships with readers as well as booksellers. Both of us worked in magazines, which exist one subscriber at a time. If you don’t please your readers in the magazine world, you lose subscribers. Lose enough of them, and you have no money with which to produce your magazine.
We were reader-based long before writers should have been. Which made traditional publishing very hard for us. We knew readers wanted things; we couldn’t make our publishers pay attention.
I think we’re going to see more and more career writers like Peter David who went indie head back to traditional publishing. No matter what indie writers say, it’s not easy to put out books on a schedule, get attention for them, and then watch them grow. It’s also financially difficult, and for long-term career writers, hard to learn a whole different way to think about the business that you’ve been in your entire life.
The hybrid career writers are the ones who will survive this transition the best. They will know if their indie career can sustain them financially. They will actually have facts and figures about what works for them—provided they’re not basing that assumption on one or two indie published books, but on several titles.
Some hybrid writers will remain hybrid for their entire careers. Others will return 100% to traditional publishing. And still others will go 100% indie. It depends on their personal circumstances, their finances, their tolerance for risk, and hundreds of other things.
Unlike the past, there is no one way to be a published career writer any more.
And like the past, the ways that exist are not perfect. None of them. Indie is hard in its way, hybrid is hard in its way, and traditional publishing is hard in its way.
Ain’t nothing perfect.
I’m settling into the way that publishing will work for me now, at least for a while. I love having short fiction traditionally published. That might actually be my first love in all of fiction writing.
I’m suited to writing nonfiction in a non-traditional manner. My entire broadcast career was for non-commercial stations. My freelance print career was, well, freelance and never on salary anywhere.
I have the biggest trouble moving from novels traditionally published to novels published in non-traditional ways, but I’m adjusting, and getting really excited about it all, as last week’s post proved.
I do know, though, that my way is not everyone’s way. Even Dean, who shares a house, a career, and a philosophy with me, has a different attitude toward his writing than I do toward mine.
I’m sure all of you have different attitudes as well, and all we can do is muddle along together. Which is why this blog exists. It’s for thinking, experimenting, and learning.
However, it does have to fund itself, so if you’ve learned something or come regularly, please leave a tip on the way out.
“The Business Rusch: Ain’t Nothing Perfect” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.