Business Musings: The Hard Part
Some weeks I hate opening my e-mail. Most of March fell into that category.
Throughout the entire month, I got e-mails from writers at the end of their ropes. Some were losing their traditional contracts; others had seen their indie sales fall through the floor; still others were thinking of declaring bankruptcy. A handful asked for the names of attorneys to sue various and asundry publishers, agents, subrights organizations—you name it. And another handful wanted to know why they weren’t making the promised millions.
Welcome to the garbage pit found at the end of the gold rush.
The garbage pit is a tough place to be. I know this from experience. And a lot of you got personal answers from me, but they weren’t as in-depth as what I’m about to say here.
Bear with me as I set this up:
There really was a gold rush in ebook publishing, and it lasted longer than I had thought it would. (I explored the end of the gold rush in more depth in this blog post.) The gold rush started tapering off in 2012, but smart indies kept their income alive by moving with the changes in the industry for another year or more.
Then the tricks stopped working completely. On the Kindle Boards, they actually have a phrase for the end of the gold rush era: they call it the KU Apocalypse. The introduction of Kindle Unlimited put the final nail in the gold rush’s coffin. The readers who want free all the time had only to subscribe to KU to get all the books they wanted. With KU, writers got a fraction of what they were being paid before.
There is anecdotal evidence that the KU Apocalypse also hit the writers who weren’t exclusive with Kindle. In fact, some say, that’s where the apocalypse hit first.
I don’t know, because I have never allowed my ebooks to be exclusive. It cuts out too many readers, especially in growing markets, like iBooks. But indie writer after indie writer reported huge sales losses—many going from making tens of thousands per month to only making hundreds.
Tales like this were happening before the summer of 2014, but in the summer of 2014, some big names were affected, and that made national (mainstream) news.
That last bit showed hundreds of authors that the get-rich-quick schemes of the early indie days had a shelf-life, just like everything else in the world. The problem was—and is—that so many of these authors never planned for the gravy train to end.
I tried to talk about it. And I often got shouted down by people with only a few years in the business, people who told me I didn’t understand the new world of publishing. I tried to warn them that nothing remains the same, and they ignored me or attacked me whenever and wherever they could.
Now, the sites where the arguing happened have tamed down. The writers who had “the secret” have all but vanished. Those who remain are fantastic writers who actually built a fan base. And the other thing about those who remain? They wrote a lot of books while promoting and using all the indie tricks to improve sales.
Those books are good. The fans want to continue reading those books, and buy the next. It always comes down to writing a lot of good material, be those serials or linked short stories or large novels. Fans like what fans like, and will follow those series or those writers as long as the entire project remains fresh.
Does this mean that everyone whose indie writing career has trundled downhill have written bad books? Not at all. There are other issues at play here. Some of them have to do with bad covers or poor copy editing or poor content editing (for the difference, see this post). Some have bad book descriptions or blurbs. And a whole bunch of the books, more than I want to say, are just okay.
There’s nothing wrong with “just okay,” except that it doesn’t inspire readers to return for the next book. Just okay sold in the early part of the gold rush because there wasn’t enough supply to meet the demand for ebooks. Even traditional books were poorly scanned, not edited at all, and had terrible covers in those early years.
The problem is that eventually most writers and companies improved their e-book delivery. What was once good enough when there was limited choice became less desirable when the choices became unlimited.
Still, a lot of writers hung on, believing ebook gurus who claimed to know the “secret” of getting books in front of others. The secret kept changing. First it was free or 99 cents, then promoting on this book website or doing blog tours or getting into a 99-cent bundle with 10 other writers.
The thing is if it was easy to make a fortune using these techniques, every single writer with a modicum of skill who tried the techniques would be making tens of thousands of dollars. And while that happened for some writers, it didn’t happen for all writers even during the gold rush.
Now that the gold rush is over, the indie writers who earned a lot and are now earning one-tenth or even less of what they had previously earned are feeling like failures.
How do I know this? Because I’ve watched it for decades. Not with indie writers, but with traditional ones. Whether you like it or not, the pattern is the same.
Back when I started, the writers who’d been in the business a long time tried to warn new writers not to quit their day jobs when they got their first book advance. Yet I personally know dozens of writers who did. They sold a three-book contract for more money than they’d seen at one time, and think they had it made.
Let’s set aside how hard it is to freelance. I wrote an entire book about that. Let’s just look at the vagaries of writing.
Not every novel published traditionally succeeds. In fact, most don’t. Just like most indie books fail to make sales that can provide the writer with a living.
The writing career doesn’t follow a steady uphill trajectory. Unlike a salaried position where you remain at the same rate of pay until you get a raise, writing is filled with ups and downs. The writing career is made up of a succession of waves. Sometimes the waves are so huge that they could swamp a cruise ship, and sometimes they’re so tiny as to be invisible to all but the person measuring them.
And around every wave is a trough.
Sometimes—often—a writing career will dip to its lowest level ever before or after it hits its highest level ever.
The writers who stay in the business are the ones who learn how to surf. Have you ever watched surfers? They ride each wave, then paddle to the next. Sometimes they fall off their boards. Sometimes they go deep underwater, shoved by the force of the crash.
Most people fall off a surfboard once, get water up their nose, feel like they’re about to drown, and try something else—snorkeling, maybe, or swimming in a pool. Surfers are a special breed.
So are career writers.
The key to a career writer, as I’ve often said, is the ability to get back up after a large fall. Repeatedly. Unfortunately it’s not different in the indie business.
All of the indie changes—the things that are still going on—are indie waves, things writers have to surf. Some writers have survived and thrived through the KU Apocalypse. Some, like the circle I hang around with, never even felt it because no one discounted books (except for specials) and no one went Kindle-only.
That doesn’t make us smarter. We’ve had other highs and lows.
Some of the indie waves most of us never saw. I’m sure a lot of writers vanished around 2010 when readers demanded professional covers on the books they bought. I’m sure more writers vanished when traditional publishers finally caught a clue and learned how to produce lovely e-books, making the ebook standard the same professional standard that print books had. Those indie books with bad copy editing, misspellings, and weird pagination on every page? They no longer looked like traditional books; they looked amateur—and zingo! The writers who didn’t improve the quality of their epubs vanished.
The KU Apocalypse was dramatic because it hurt so many writers who were making a good living. A lot of those writers have hoped for a resurgence. They’re trying everything they can to capture lightning in a bottle a second time.
I know how they feel. I’ve had those moments in my career and I’ve counseled friends through them.
There are three very hard parts to being in that situation.
The first hard part is the financial situation itself. The first time most writers quit their day jobs because a lot of money is coming in regularly, the writers make basic financial errors. They don’t save for a rainy day. They believe the financial highs will continue (that upward trajectory thing I mentioned).
So when the first trough hits, writers in this situation have no resources to spare. They’ve quit their job, and they haven’t yet learned the freelance scramble. (The freelance scramble is, in short, pivoting to replace money lost with a new way of earning money. Tough, and not the way most people usually think.)
The second hard part is accurately assessing the situation. So many writers (and other freelancers) will look at an industry change and think it is only a blip. That blip will pass, they believe, and so they make no alterations to what they’re doing. They continue writing, publishing, using the same tools that had once made them the tens of thousands every month—only this time, those tools no longer work.
I’m not saying that the writers should quit, not at all. In fact, that guarantees failure. But writers need to assess what’s really going on. Is it a sea-change in the industry? The advent of Kindle Unlimited wasn’t a sea change, but a confirmation that the sea-change had already occurred. The influx of traditional publishers into the ebook market was inevitable, but it created a sea change that ruined the gold rush for a lot of indie writers. And so on.
Sometimes the sea change is genre-specific. When the Berlin Wall fell, spy novelists became irrelevant overnight. That genre has just started its comeback in this century. The fall of the Wall made no difference to romance writers or fantasy writers. I’m not even sure most of them noticed that a change was occurring in the publishing industry.
A sea change—and I don’t care what it is—never affects all writers equally. Which makes it hard to respond, because there’s no set way to handle what’s going on.
It makes writers take the change personally. And it makes assessment hard.
Have the books stopped selling at large numbers because of a sea change affecting much of the industry? Or have my books stopped selling (and no one else’s)? Or have my books stopped selling because they’re poorly written? Or have my books stopped selling because they’re poorly produced? Or because they’re hard to find? Or? Or? Or?
Sometimes, this need to reassess plus the financial stress makes it almost impossible for the writer to have any coherent thoughts at all. Writing itself becomes impossible, which makes the situation even worse and makes the panic grow.
Plus, on top of it all, is the third hard part.
Every writer I’ve ever met who encounters his first trough feels like a failure. The loss of income, the inability to sell at previous levels (whether indie or traditional), the fact that what once worked no longer works seems personal—especially if that writer’s friends are still doing well.
The writer blames himself, and in blaming himself, starts into a cycle of fear and scrambling that can lead to truly muddled thinking.
I can’t tell you how many times traditional writers have come to me since 2009, asking to take classes in writing craft because they weren’t able to sell another midlist novel, not understanding that the changes in the industry had caused most midlist writers to be on a become-a-bestseller-or-get-dumped treadmill.
Now indie writers are finding themselves in the same place. They think their writing is to blame for the loss of sales.
Sometimes that’s true. A lot of indie writers succeeded without learning the rudimentaries of their craft. These writers are often good storytellers, but the writing itself is so dense or flabby that readers have to wade through it to get to the great story. Or the writer writes sterling prose that goes nowhere. In both cases, the writer needs to work on craft.
But in so many cases, the problem isn’t craft. It’s the publishing side. Once upon a time (six years ago) writers could upload a Word document, slap a self-designed cover on all of it, and sell thousands of copies. Now, Word documents get chewed to pieces by the various online retail self-publishing sites, and terrible covers are no longer forgivable—and these are just a few examples of publishing problems that could have led to a decrease in sales.
The largest reason I’ve seen with indie writers whose sales decrease, though, is that they spent all their time promoting one or two books, instead of writing more books. After a while, those two books will find most of their audience. A new book refreshes, and brings in new readers who find the new book, and haven’t read the old ones.
But here’s the harsh truth: Often sales of books decrease through no fault of the writer at all. As I said before, sea changes in the industry cause one subgenre to become hot while a formerly hot subgenre goes stale. Writers in that second subgenre will see sales decrease as a matter of course.
And readers move. In January, Apple announced that iBooks downloads are increasing because (doh!) Apple finally included iBooks on its iPhones. (And they did a big promotion as well.)
I know that Kobo is also changing its ecosystem, and it is increasing its sales as well. Amazon’s share of the ebook marketplace has gone down in the past six years as these new players are actually getting a foothold in the market. (I can’t easily find the actual numbers at the moment. So, in the spirit of getting the blog up this week, I’m going to add a link later…if I remember.)
If the readers move to a new platform, the writers who remain on the old platform will see sales decrease. Writers on new platforms (or better yet, all platforms) will see sales remain steady or rise.
Once you’ve been in business a long time—any business—you learn that outside events have an impact on what you do. And sometimes you just have to survive those outside events.
Sometimes you can make changes and sometimes those changes are hard ones to even contemplate.
But before we get to the hard part, let me say this:
I know these publishing changes in the past year have felt horrible. If I were to say that the changes aren’t personal, I would be wrong. It is personal to each and every writer affected by those changes. It hurts. It’s hard. It feels like failure.
It’s not failure.
Failure is the end result only if you quit. If you move to another profession. If you give up writing altogether.
Then yes, these events have equaled failure for you.
The key is to accept that feeling, and acknowledge that these changes seem personal. Then set that feeling aside (or deal with it after business hours) and move forward.
Because going forward is the only way to salvage your writing career.
Sometimes, going forward means taking what you might consider to be a step backwards.
Go get a day job.
I’m totally serious. If you’ve lost thousands of dollars of monthly income in the past year, and you have no reserves, a day job will solve one of your serious problems. It’ll ease your financial stress.
Yes, it’ll place stress on your time, but we all started with day jobs. We all know how to work around them.
And really, isn’t it better to pay the mortgage than it is to worry about where the mortgage payment comes from?
The next time you start making a lot of money on your writing—and believe me, you will make money again—have a large emergency fund before quitting your day job. And then only tap that fund when you are in an actual emergency.
Why am I recommending this? Because once the financial pressure eases, you’ll be able to assess your situation better. You’ll be able to gain some perspective, because your level of panic will go down.
And, ironically, a day job will give you more time.
That sounds weird, because of course, your writing time has decreased. But you won’t have to make emergency decisions to put food on the table. You won’t be focused on every dime at the same time you’re trying to examine what wrong turn you made. You will be able to make future plans again.
Going back to the day job isn’t a failure.
It’s a necessity.
Every single successful freelance writer I’ve ever met bounced on and off day jobs early on in her career. Every single one—except those who have a spouse, significant other, or family member who was willing to bankroll the ups and downs of a writing career.
Using the day job to relieve financial stress is a time-honored freelancer tradition.
Indie writers have never faced this before. Most of them believed that the gold rush would last forever. Some burned bridges horribly with their day jobs, so there’s no returning.
But there are other day jobs. Most freelancers get lower-level service jobs to tide them over—not career jobs. Things like retail or waiting tables or temp work. Those will often pay the bills until it’s time to freelance again.
Never look at one trough—no matter how deep—as the end of your career. It’s only the end of your career if you end your career.
You need to keep moving forward.
I know it’s hard. I know it’s breaking your heart. I know it hurts.
But if quitting writing hurts worse, then stand back up. Square your shoulders, and figure out how to continue writing.
You used to write because it was fun. Make writing fun again. Take the pressure off.
Then figure out what to do next.
There are no right or wrong answers. There’s only what’s good or bad for you.
If you use that as your guidepost, you will make the right decision. Not the decision your friends agree with or your writer pals online think is best. You’ll make the decision you can live with. And believe me, that’s the best decision of all.
When I came back to blogging, I mentioned that I wouldn’t be as rigid as I had been in my first five years (with no misses!) on this blog. I try to hit Thursdays as my blog day, but I haven’t been quite as consistent. Usually I blog earlier in the week, but this week events conspired against me, so I’ve put the blog up on Friday. I will keep you informed if I’m going to be later than Thursday.
A lot of you have mentioned that the last several blogs “hit it out of the park,” and yet donations were down on those topics. While I appreciate comments and forwards a great deal, the donations do keep the blog alive. So please, if you found something of value here, consider leaving a few bucks in the jar on the way out.
(Yes, White Mist Mountain is my company name)
“Business Musings: The Hard Part,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.