Business Musings: Weird Misinformation

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It’s been a long time since I’ve spoken to a bunch of writers at the very beginning of their careers. When Dean and I teach our in-person workshops, we teach professional writers. With our online workshops and lectures, we deal with writers who are just starting out, but we don’t interact in person. (I’m not saying beginning writers here, because that’s not what I mean. I mean writers who have some level of craft, but are new to writing as a career.)

Because of a variety of health issues, I haven’t been to a convention or taught an in-person class since 2011. The publishing industry has changed a great deal since then—and I just figured everyone kept up with the important changes.

But I learned something this past weekend. Everyone who is still active in the industry has kept up on the changes, but there are terrible old pieces of advice still floating around the universe, and newer writers are acting on that advice.

I spent last weekend at Superstars Writers Conference, put on by my dear friend, Kevin J. Anderson and his wife Rebecca Moesta. This year’s conference was the sixth, and Superstars is filled with energy that many staid old writers conferences do not have. The instructors this year were Kevin J. Anderson, David Farland, Eric Flint, James Artemis Owen, Rebecca Moesta, Jody Lynn Nye, Todd McCaffrey, Peter J. Wacks, M. Scott Boone, Toni Weisskopf (Baen Books), Allyson Longueira (WMG Publishing), Lisa Magnum (Shadow Mountain) Mark Leslie LeFabvre (Kobo), and Ashleigh Gardner (Wattpad). (If you don’t recognize any of the names, look them up. I guarantee you’ll be impressed.)

Superstars covered all sides of the industry, from bestselling writers talking about process to the people directly involved in indie publishing discussing how to do it effectively to traditional publishers discussing how the business works now. Lectures on Hollywood, copyright, negotiation, you name it and it got covered in three intense days.

The seminar is taking signups for next year and I highly recommend it. (If you can’t go to a conference, then look at our slate of online classes and lectures.)

Much of the learning happens in the sessions, of course, and writers of all levels benefit. I sat in on Toni Weisskopf’s talk about the changes in the publishing industry from the point of view of a long-established traditional publisher (which is not one of the Big 5), and learned a great deal.

I also listened to my friend David Farland give his Hollywood talk. Dave and I have known each other for about 25 years and always trade information about our Hollywood dealings. But I found hearing him give a lecture on things to watch out for beneficial. He put everything in a structured form. I knew 90% of it (although he had some industry nicknames that I had never heard). That 10% I didn’t know? I’ll make a fortune off of it in the future. Brilliant ideas and tips that will have a lovely, positive impact on my business.

I listened to other things as well, and caught a lot of information in small bits. Perfect. I know Dean and Allyson sat in on talks I had to miss, and they learned a great deal.

But, as Kevin says, a lot of learning happens in the time between sessions. Meals, conversations in the bar or around the hotel’s fireplace, a handful of chance meetings gave me the opportunity to speak to writers I had never met before.

In those conversations, I heard lots of great things. I acquired a few more projects (like I need those!) and made some invaluable connections. I know that everyone else did too.

But also in those conversations, I heard bits of misinformation that took my breath away. I think a lot of the reason I heard this stuff was because these writers felt as startled as I did by the misinformation and wanted to find out if that misinformation was something they needed to pay attention to or something they needed to ignore.

Startlingly, these questions about misinformation didn’t come from the folks who were brand-new to the publishing industry. The serious misinformation came via the folks who are what the sf field calls “neo-pros,” newer professionals with a few sales under their belts or that brilliant first novel that some agent agreed to take on.

Clearly, these young writers (and I mean young in the time they’ve spent in the field, not in physical age) had been studying the field for a while and had absorbed some bad information along with the good. But some of the information was so bad, so out-of-date, that I don’t think these writers got the information from anyone who has published in the last 20 years.

Old books, maybe, old topics of conversation, old…something. I don’t know. Because if a young writer said any of this stuff to an established pro, the young writer would have been told that the information is waaaaay past its sell-by date.

And I’m not referring to the myths that Dean deals with in his Killing The Sacred Cows of Publishing. Many of those myths are out of date—meaning they were true before 2009 or they were never true and were always myths.

But this past weekend, I heard things that were just flat headshaking.

Because I had a lot of private conversations, I can’t give you many examples of what I heard. I have one example I feel I can tell you because it came from at least two different writers on different days.

These discussions happened because, for my sins, I sat on a panel about agents (with Dean, Dave, Eric, and Toni). It was a different panel than it would have been five years ago, as Toni remarked when it was all over.

But because of that panel, a lot of young writers who were at the stage where they’re contemplating hiring an agent (or already have hired one) asked me questions in the after-hours discussions.

Writer One hadn’t hired an agent yet, but said, in all earnestness, that he was not looking at agents who charged photocopying or postage for mailing out work. And I told him that was a good thing, since no reputable agent has photocopied or snail-mailed a manuscript in at least 10 years (maybe not even in this century). I’m not even sure a bad agent or scam artist would list those things on a website.

Shortly thereafter, I was talking with another writer who had just hired a major agency, one that I’m familiar with (and have known its founder before the agency started). In the middle of a very good discussion about the firm and the agency, the writer told me that she had queried her agent-to-be, making sure this high-level agency did not charge for postage or for photocopying.

I’m sure at that point, the agent in question stared at the phone (or the e-mail) and wondered where in the hell that writer’s query had even come from. Because the agent in question probably hadn’t sent out a photocopied manuscript in her entire agenting career. (There are other agents at the agency who were in school when the last photocopied manuscript got messengered to a publisher. High school.)

This information isn’t a myth that’ll stop a writer from writing or even something that might have been useful a few years ago. The information isn’t going to harm a writer’s career or make the writer seem stupid. It’s just…odd. And so wrong that it makes my head hurt.

And I’m sure the writers who are finding this ancient information (vestigial information?) are as perplexed by the advice as that agent probably was. But I’m also sure that the writers felt they needed to be on guard for this behavior—even though no one does it. And has not, for years, maybe even decades.

(I heard one piece of misinformation that came from a practice that was discontinued before I was born.)

It’s almost as if these writers are dutifully searching for a payphone so they can take a forgotten coin out of the coin return.

It’s weird.

I suspect most of this information is coming out of how-to-write books by established authors, books that were published long before these newer writers were born. Many of these books are being reissued in ebook, without the author (or publisher) reviewing every chapter.

These books are about craft. How-to-write suggestions remain the same (except for a few small tidbits) from generation to generation. I recently read an article by Louisa May Alcott on craft, and had a great realization because of one of her points.

But Louisa May Alcott’s advice on how to sell a novel (if she ever gave any such advice) is woefully out of date. 150 years out of date.

Business advice in how-to-write books published in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s is also woefully out-of-date. As is most business advice written before 2009. I’m sure I have some pieces of business advice from before 2009 floating around on the internet that wouldn’t apply to anything these days.

The business has changed dramatically, but because publishing does not have a reputable way for young writers to learn the craft and the business, then intern somewhere, and then become a full-fledged professional, the writer has to assemble his education from bits and pieces of knowledge scattered in a variety of sources.

And if the writer is new to the business, the writer has no way to separate good advice from bad, current advice from outdated advice.

If I tell you to only pay attention to advice that was written after 2009, you’ll miss tons of excellent craft advice from writers whose longevity makes everyone who is currently writing seem like they’re neo-pros. If I tell you to only read advice from indie writers, you’ll end up with a lot of chaff. If I tell you to only read advice from traditionally published writers, you’ll end up with an equal (or greater) amount of chaff.

I don’t even have great advice for you on how to avoid this vestigial business information. But I’ll give it a shot:

Think about it. If the advice seems really odd (like paying for photocopies), then approach that advice with caution.

If you see the same advice from a wide variety of sources, both old and contemporary, then research some more. You might discover that there’s a legitimate reason for doing something the old-fashioned way.

If you can’t find any legitimate reason on your own, check with several established professionals. Just one won’t help you, because that one will always bring her bias to the table. Frankly, having me on an agent panel these days serves mostly as a cautionary tale in which I have to control my mouth and the harshness of my advice. I don’t want to bust someone’s dream, but I really don’t want anyone to hire an agent in this modern market.

In fact, all of the professional writers on that panel this past weekend said if they were just starting out today, they wouldn’t hire an agent, a piece of information that seemed to fly past most of the audience as if we were speaking a foreign language.

If every established professional you check with agrees that something is no longer necessary, then perhaps you should pay attention. But if the vote’s split 50/50, then the decision as to whether or not to follow that advice is yours.

That’s the beauty of one of writing conferences like Superstars. In the space of an afternoon, you can ask five different professional writers with decades of experience each their opinion on a particular topic. In fact, after hours, you could even gather the five writers, pose the question to all of them at once and watch them all nod in agreement—or burst into a highly entertaining (and valuable) argument.

If I hadn’t gone to Superstars, I would never have realized that such ancient information infects the minds of young writers. I’m glad to know that. Because now, when a young writer asks a seemingly bizarre and antiquated question, I won’t think that writer is hanging out on the wrong message boards (or hasn’t yet discovered this thing called “the internet”). I’ll remember that there’s a lot of ancient material floating out there, and this piece of bad information the writer is referring to might be one that hundreds of young writers are grappling with.

I might even consider doing a blog post on something like that.

I’m really grateful for the conversations and the learning I experienced this weekend. Not just the things that I can point to in Business Musings, but also things that I need to know.

Just because I’ve been in the field most of my life doesn’t mean I’m done learning. I need continuing education as much as the next writer. I got a lot of good material from a lot of good writers—both beginners and established professionals.

I’ll share some of that information here, but you probably won’t know it came from Superstars. Because often the information was the missing piece in something I’ve been struggling to blog about. And sometimes the information only applies to things I’m doing—or in the case of some of the Hollywood advice, is stuff I can’t put in a general blog. (Sorry. Listen to Dave’s talk on your own. Superstars sells mp3s.)

One thing to remember whenever you go to a writers conference or to a convention. Listen to the people who are farther down the path that you want to walk.

If you want to be a bestselling romance writer, then the advice to write one book every five years from the literary novelist who also works as a professor won’t apply to you. However, if you aspire to work as a writing professor (to pay the bills) and a literary novelist, then listen to the literary novelist and disregard much of what the bestselling romance writer has to say.

Remember who you are as you take advice. Don’t dismiss everything you hear, but listen to it from the prism of who is giving that advice and whether or not you want to have a similar type of career to that writer.

That perspective really does help separate the wheat from the chaff.

And, as I’ve just realized, there’s more chaff in the writing world than I had ever imagined.

Thanks for coming to the revived blog. I’m back writing it, and I’m having a blast.

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“Business Musings: Weird Misinformation,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.


16 thoughts on “Business Musings: Weird Misinformation

  1. Kris, thanks for another great (and spot on) post!

    I concur that there’s an abundance of available advice out there, and a significant chunk of it is unsound. One of the areas where indies seem compelled to share is sales and marketing advice (a commendable and generous impulse). The problem is, there are an equal number of self-styled ‘gurus’ out there offering very bad (or at least unproven) advice, especially in the ‘how to sell a gazillion copies’ area.

    My rule of thumb when I see sales/marketing advice I’m unsure of is to check out the author’s success (a simple task via Amazon, B&N, etc.) Many times, the person offering the advice on success doesn’t seem to be enjoying any. I think everyone would be well advised not to take advice from anyone less successful than themselves.

  2. I suspect it may be less that they heard somewhere that agents not charging for those things is a good thing, and the fact that there are scammers out there who DO charge their clients (for not doing anything) and claim it is for postage, photocopying, etc. Such fees are seen as a red flag for an outright scammer. I don’t mean a legitimate agent who just doesn’t do a good job–I mean a real scammer: someone who takes writers’ money up front and doesn’t do anything. If you spend much time reading the writers’ forums and blogs and things that warn against such agencies, it’s easy to get caught up in the details and not see the big picture.

    1. Such fees used to be a flag for a scammer. It’s a terrible scammer who adds those charges now. They’re an automatic red flag. The agent/scammer websites I’ve seen are much more sophisticated than that–in fact, they’re more sophisticated than most agent websites.

    2. Yes, I definitely remember reading that advice several years ago (before I discovered Kris and Dean)–and I’m sure it was on the internet, not in somebody’s book. These things have a way of sticking around, I guess.

    3. I remember this discussion at an RWA chapter conference waaaay back in the 90’s. It was, in fact, a topic of some discussion–whether or not it was legit for your agent to pass the photocopying/postage fees on to you. There were agents that were at least semi-reputable (meaning they repped authors published with one of the romance publishers) that did that, but others did not.

    1. For 3 days? A professional conference? Most writers conferences (not sf cons) fall into this range. Prices go up as the date approaches. Writers conferences, by the way, are generally much cheaper than conferences put up by other professional groups.

      Superstars does offer scholarships for people who have trouble paying that amount. WMG Publishing gave out one for 2015. The information is on the Superstars website.

    2. 250$ a day for a professional seminar? Solid, I’d say.

      There’s a fair in Barcelona where the barest ticket (which does not give you access to most of the networking) is 750€… plus VAT. Can go up to 5000€. 3.5 days. Oh, 375€ for the kids’ side,

      I could give you similar prices to Kris’ for pro-am sport or recreation seminars. Professionally? Investment. Sure, you can find a free conference here and there, or 50$ short seminars. If you want to go that route. There are two reasons for those prices: Charity (paying down, of sorts) and Mediocrity.

      Take care.

    3. The prices arent ‘ridiculous’… they are actually on target. If one tried taking a 3 hour credit course at college–with student fees, books, credit hour tuition, insurance and all the other one’d pay far more, have to sit in class for a whole freakin semester and learn 1/5 th as much, maybe far less.

      People willing to invest in learning from the first order sources are those who are willing to find, borrow, earn the money needed. I believe, not sure, this particular conference may have also offered scholarships or such. Most dont.

  3. Critical thinking is an important skill, no matter what field you’re in. It makes sense to me that in writing, where there’s no clearly marked path, writers with a few notches on their belt are especially vulnerable.

    Newbies are busy writing, and pros have their own backup systems (and rabbit holes), but neo pros are trying to wade through the information with no brightly-marked signs.

    When I was at McMaster University, they wanted to drill critical thinking into our brains, reasoning that no matter what we did or didn’t do after graduation, a good B.S. detector would come in handy. I think that’s true, especially in the age of the Internet.

    Thanks for pointing the way.

  4. I’m sure also that they’re FEDEXing submissions to agents. There’s a book out that I saw on the shelf in Barnes and Noble published some twenty years ago that still tells writers to send their submissions that way to get attention (I guess that’s still true, though, but probably not in a good way).

    I had to walk away from writing message boards and blogs because there’s just so much of that garbage. Everyone’s looking for shortcuts, any shortcuts. They figure if this person is published, even with one book, they’re an expert. I remember looking at the above book and going “What the heck?” and then I checked the date. I’m sure the rest of the book had good information (which was about craft), but it was enough to mistrust the entire book’s information. Some books also do get updated, but not properly. I have one like that for non-fiction. It had sections on research that I don’t generally see in craft books. In reading the new version, it felt like the author was still using his old methods and he didn’t really know what he was talking about for the newer changes affected by technology.

    My former co-writer, who thought he could market his way to a best seller without working on craft (yes!), read about a big name writer who was first published in the 1970s after he lied about a reference on a query letter to get his foot in the door. Though he did say it probably wouldn’t work today, it also sounded like he was seriously tempted to do it anyway! He wasn’t even thinking about the technology, like one agent emailing the other agent and discovering the lie. It was easier to believe the old story than what was the reality.

  5. Hmm… I had something else on my mind, but something came up and took it away. I have to go to ColoSprings, someday. It’s very near my base in the States. Had to go to Pueblo some years ago, but the trip fell through.

    Anyhow. Agents, again…

    Sigh. Well, if I contracted ANY service and it tried to offload its stationery expenses on me… Although it would be nice to interview the agent in that major agency you know of. Among other things, if you’ve heard this _twice_ in a weekend…

    WRT getting coins out of phone booths… it still happens. Rarely, _really_ fewer of those these days, but it happens.

    If the agent background idea changed, however… I mean, I wouldn’t be against (if I had a… no, _several_ books) contracting a commercial sales representative for a fixed+commision. I think it’s likely that will be an option mid term.

    Also… how many old books are not checked before going ebook… because that would tip the original writer that the publisher is doing something he doesn’t have the rights for? Both 35 year “options” and non-electronic rights.

    “I might even consider doing a blog post on something like that.”

    You wouldn’t! 😉

    Take care.

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