Business Musings: Choices

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I’ve been watching the reactions to John Scalzi’s 3.4 million dollar book deal with great interest. If you’re not familiar with this particular news story, it might be because you have a life, and because you were doing something with your family on Memorial Day weekend instead of watching the publishing trades.

But this one even made The New York Times in the media section. So, chances are, you’ve heard of this.

For those of you who haven’t, science fiction writer John Scalzi sold 13 books to Tor Books for $3.4 million in a deal that will span ten years. As John said on his blog, whenever you mention the word “millions,” people pay attention. And he’s received a lot of attention in the past few days.

What I find fascinating is the amount of negativity that John’s getting from the indie publishing community. Some of it is vitriolic, and I’m not going to link to that. But some of it is sheer befuddlement that goes along the lines of “If John would just indie-publish, he’d make so much more money.”

The link I can provide because it has little or no vitriol, at least on Tuesday night, as I write this, is from The Passive Voice blog. Even Passive Guy himself weighed in, doing a good analysis of the earnings over the years—not including the auxiliary rights that John still holds, and which are probably selling like crazy right now considering 1) this week is Book Expo and John is there; and 2) he’s getting a lot of good press, which always heats up subsidiary sales; and 3) he’s a guaranteed traditional publishing earner with a fan following.

I love this deal of John’s. It benefits a good writer and it shows how this new world is working. He clearly used much of what he’s learned about the publishing business to ask for (and receive) good contract terms that many established writers usually don’t ask for. He has what he believes to be a fair deal, and from what I’m seeing in the reports and from John himself, he’s right.

I just did a traditional publishing deal myself—not for anywhere near $3.4 million, mind you—but because I evaluated what I wanted and decided that a traditional publisher would be best. It’s the women in science fiction reprint anthology that I mentioned on Tuesday. I went to Toni Weisskopf at Baen without approaching any other publisher, because Baen has a large and passionate science fiction following.

I wanted the book to be a reader’s book, not an intellectual book, one that will introduce modern readers to writers they might never have heard of. I could have done this through WMG Publishing or approached some of the other publishing houses, but I didn’t want to.

Fortunately, Toni thought the project worthwhile, and I have to say, Baen has given me tremendous support already, and the book’s not even compiled yet.

It’s a great experience, and I’m happy to be in their stable for this particular project. It makes me inclined to join them for other projects down the road.

What I love about the changes in publishing is this: we have choices now. We writers don’t have to go to traditional publishing for everything. John Scalzi wanted a partner on his books. He says in a post he calls “View From A Hotel Window 5/26/15 + Thoughts On The Deal Money,” 

That’s the deal I wanted, and that Tor wanted too. That’s the deal we made.

(This is why, incidentally, the comments of “Scalzi should do/should have done [x]” mostly fill me with amusement. You do [x], my friend, and I wish all the success in the world to you as you do it. But if I’m not doing [x], there’s probably a good reason for it, in terms of what I want for my own career. You do you; I’m gonna do me.)

Yeah, exactly. John knew what he wanted, why he wanted it, and what’s best for his career. His career. He knew he had choices. He knows about indie publishing. He knows a lot of writers are earning a great deal of money doing it. But he also knows it takes a different kind of work than he wants to do right now.

He signed a deal that allows him to indie publish other works if he wants to. He’s not tethered to Tor. 

He made a great choice for him. It might not be the choice all those other indie writers are saying he should have made. It might not be the choice I would have made in the same circumstance.

Because, as we say at our workshops, he’s responsible for his own career. He is. Not me. Not you.

Just like I’m responsible for mine. The good, the bad, the ups, the downs, the successes and the failures. When I complain about some book deals I’ve had, I am fully aware of the fact that I’m the one who signed those contracts. When I look at some of the early covers for the indie published books, I know that I approved them.

This is the first time in my entire career that writers can choose how they want to be published. They can choose to partner with a traditional publisher to get their work out through established channels. Writers can do a paper-only deal. Writers can only do foreign deals. Or writers can go 100% indie.

I prefer to be hybrid. I like selling my short fiction to other markets, and I’m already enjoying the hell out of collaborating on this new editing project. Freedom of choice! What a concept.

So saying that John Scalzi should or shouldn’t have taken that deal is irrelevant. The great thing about John is that he’s one smart businessman, and he knows himself. He made the best choice for him.

My objection to some writers’ choices, on this blog and in other places, is that often writers blunder down the traditional publishing path because the writers haven’t thought of any other alternatives. And those writers usually don’t have any business sense at all. They’re so desperate to be published (“legitimately published,” whatever that means) that they sign whatever’s put in front of them.

But just because there are ignorant fools careening toward traditional publishing does not mean that all writers who are traditionally published are ignorant fools. There are many, many writers who’ve examined all of their options and decided to go traditional. It might mean leaving some money on the table. It might mean giving up autonomy in exchange for traditional publishing support.

If that’s what the writer wants, then wonderful.

But let’s not assume that a traditional publishing career and an indie publishing career are across-the-board equal. For example, John’s high-earning backlist is still in print, which means he can’t get the rights back if he wanted to indie publish those books.

My science fiction backlist, on the other hand, was mostly out of print when the ebook revolution hit. I had different choices. I started making backlist money out of the box when the books were reissued.

John wouldn’t have that option at all if he went indie with his next ten books. He’d be earning based on one or two books (indie) and still earning his backlist money through Tor.

If I were only known as Kristine Grayson, I’d have the same issue. Most of my Grayson paranormal romance books are still in print from their traditional publisher. Much of my backlist earnings on that pen name comes from that publisher.

Had I only been Kristine Grayson, I wouldn’t have made nearly as much money from indie publishing in the early years as I did. Kristine Grayson has a very different career from Kristine Kathryn Rusch who has a very different career from John Scalzi.

We make choices based on who we are and what our other books are doing. We make the choices for us.

And what’s cool, now, is that we can. We can be all indie. We can be hybrid. We can be all traditional.

We can make our own choices. That’s what’s new about the current status of the publishing industry.

When someone else makes an educated choice about his own career—something that you would never have done—remember, that’s his choice. He weighed the options and decided. Rather than excoriate someone for making a choice you would never have made, celebrate the freedom that we all have. And respect the decision.

You aren’t privy to the intricacies of John Scalzi’s career, even though he blogs a lot about it. You aren’t privy to the intricacies of mine. Or that of any other writer.

You know your career. It’s valid to say you would not have made the same choice in the same situation as John or me or some other writer. But when the rest of us make an educated choice, it is not valid to say that we should have done something else. Trust that we’re making the best decisions for ourselves and our careers, based on what we need.

Or as John said so very well: You do you; I’m gonna do me.


After a six-month hiatus, I’ve chosen to return to blogging because I enjoy it. I love having this option. I like sharing on blogs more than I ever thought I would. And I love discussing the state of the industry.

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

14 thoughts on “Business Musings: Choices

  1. I’ve been surprised by the amount of negative commentary. Scalzi is a savvy businessman, and this is pretty much the best case scenario. He has essentially a ten year contract, at current contract terms, in which he retains audio, translation, and film/TV rights, with no non-compete clause. The only thing he doesn’t keep is e-book rights, and I can only think of a handful of deals where that’s the case — and none in the last couple years. He’s also made it very clear in his blog (especially if you’ve read his essay on being poor) that he values financial stability, and this certainly gives him that.

    It’s not just himself he’s considering, either, I’d wager. He’s blogged about the struggles Millenials face due to the economy. I’d be very surprised if his daughter’s future isn’t a factor. He strikes me as the sort who would want to be able to pay his daughter’s way through college, however far she takes that, and is aware that the current economy is such that new graduates have a great deal of difficulty finding self-supporting work. That may change in the future, but I can see that being something he wouldn’t want to bet on. This deal, combined with the royalty income he’s already getting, plus the income from the auxiliary rights, mean he’s going to be making a lot more than $3.4 million. For someone who values financial security, cares about his family, and is financially risk-adverse (as most people who have lived through poverty are), this is an amazing deal.

    Could he make more through indie publishing? Maybe. That’s not the point, though. He has very good reasons for choosing this deal, and he’s up-front that it might be the wrong choice for other people — but it’s the right one for him. That’s all that really matters.

  2. Thank you for this post. I’m a 4 year old author. I came onto the scene just as indie publishing took off. Since I’m new, I don’t have the ‘baggage’ that came with the previous years. I’m always amazed at the vitriol spewing from the blogs.

    Good for John for making a good deal for himself. Yay for anyone else publishing in any fashion and making a dime. Good for you.

  3. Unfortunately,much of the negative response comes, I think, from the fact that it’s a large sum. That seems odd to me because money for writers is a good thing, period. However, if you break it down on a yearly basis, it’s $340,000 per year, which is good money, but it’s hardly the riches of Croesus. It’s the sort of thing my stage actor friends do when they get the chance–take a job that pays better than usual in order to pile up some security. He’s got to figure on paying around $40,000 a year for health insurance and some sort of retirement. Now, it starts to look more like a salary than a giant windfall. Of course, he has his backlist and other possibilities, including films, but even people who hate the idea of big money shouldn’t be too upset.

  4. The prevalence of non-compete clauses and the various accounts of writers who walked away from publishers who refused to negotiate those clauses at ALL creates, I think, the misinterpretation among indies that all publishing contracts have blanket non-compete clauses.

    Which is not the case. My 10 most-recently contracted novels are published under contracts that do NOT have a non-compete clause. My right to write and publish whatever else I want is further protected in those contracts by extremely narrow, specific option clauses.

    Having a publisher does not mean your writing/publishing is restricted to them or by them; only having a BAD contract means that–and you only have a bad contract if you chose to sign one (whether that was a deliberate decision, or a desperate-at-the-time decision, or a decision made back when non-compete clauses were typically treated as irrelevant in fiction (10-15-20 years ago) and now it’s still in effect and causing you problems, or a decision made in willful ignorance even after everyone was talking about non-compete clauses and advising against signing them).

    Since Scalzi is a prolific and varied writer, as well as a shrewd businessman, it would be surprising if he’s signing a deal which restricts or eliminates his ability to write for anyone but Tor for over a decade.

    Another aspect of this deal might be a desire to eliminate a particular admin problem. As I understand it (if someone who writes for Tor has more accurate information, please correct me!), Tor has a policy whereby you cannot sign a new contract until after fulfilling the old one. Even if your editor functions quickly (and many, in fact, function very, very slowly), that leaves a gap of weeks or (more often) months in your career every 2-3 years wherein you don’t know if you’ve got an option deal or will have to stop the project elsewhere; and then initial payment is further delayed (for months, typically) by the processing of the contract and then the processing of the payment.

    Since Scalzi is a bestseller and valuable to Tor, presumably they don’t keep him waiting long (but I have no idea, maybe they do); but I know Tor midlist writers for whom that stall can last more than a year.

    I don’t experience this with my publisher, which typically lets me submit a proposal and negotiate the new deal while working on the final book of the previous deal. So I’m pretty much always rolling along under contract. But at houses where only-one-deal-at-a-time us a policy or inflexible custom (and I have been told that Tor is one such house), there’s a huge stumble, stutter, or stall in your career there every 2-3 years because of that policy and the slow admin pace of publishers. By establishing a 13-book deal, in addition to whatever else he sought, Scalzi has eliminated that stall for about a decade.

    1. You can contractually prevent the stall in other ways, Laura. You can make sure that they respond within one month to any proposal, and if they don’t respond, you’re free to offer elsewhere. Many houses then ask that they can match or offer better terms, but again, that offer can and should be made in a timely fashion (within a week or two, depending). You can also have mandated contracting times, meaning the contract must reach you at a certain point. You can also write into the contract that you have the right to offer more contracts to your publisher or other publishers.

      In other words, house policy is only as good as the contracts that enforce it, and contracts are something the writer can change if the writer is only willing to negotiate properly.

      1. Contractually, of course you can do that. Realistically, though, if your option book is volume 2 or 4 or 7 in a series published by that house, and/or if you’ve got a stand-alone novel but would prefer to stick with the house that’s got a lot of your backlist (or where you like your editor, or what they’re paying you, etc.), and/or if you’re represented by an agent who refuses to send your proposals elsewhere until after getting a response from this house (and agents do that a lot)… in practical terms, you’re stuck in a holding pattern despite what your legal or contractual rights are.

        1. (I should add that I’ve only ever dealt with 2 houses that kept me waiting around forever on answers to option deals. And I would describe the internal culture of those houses as author-unfriendly (though, ironically, one of them is publicly perceived as author-friendly). Most other houses I dealt with were professional about response times. And my current house, DAW Books, has been great about response times–as they are about most things.)

  5. I was perplexed at the negative reactions to this deal. It seems that some people have no experience with a failed business. News flash: what works today may not work tomorrow, what earns a lot today may earn a pittance next year.

    What I see when I look at the Scalzi-TOR deal (all from what is public) is that Scalzi earned himself a comfortable and low-stress decade. He earns a six-figure average income for his future books (and keeps nearly all auxiliary rights) and will have the backing of a leading SF publisher (the size of the advance assures Scalzi of the close support of TOR).

    Do people know how important a stress-free environment and life is to creation?

    Scalzi is not a slow writer and could easily complete these 13 books in 10 years. Heck, he could do more and publish them himself or through TOR (through a new project) or another publisher. Now he has a cushy base on which to build and doesn’t have to worry a lot about money for ten years. (I am assuming that Scalzi can write these books, but it seems that he can).

    Of course, he could earn more money through indie publishing. He could also earn less. The way I see it, he earns a great living for a good number of years, gains the support of a main publisher (one very good at winning awards, pushing titles, getting media coverage, etc.), and has a great platform for getting movie/TV deals, which could propel his earnings to a much higher level.

    And, he’s happy about it. What’s wrong with that?

  6. I think that PG erred in his analysis of Scalzi’s deal. Dollars to donuts, he only sold Tor the English language rights of his books, and certainly not the media rights or any other rights. Add those in, and the worth of those books goes way up. Then add in the potential of Hollywood, and that’s even more money.

    Of course, if you spend lots of time negotiating with more publishers and more rights, you’ll have have less time for other things. Working on Hollywood productions take time. If you want to sleep, something’s gotta give. My bet is that’s why John went traditional.

    As JK Rowling demonstrated, a Hollywood success will make your literary earnings look like peanuts.

  7. I think it safe to say John’s contract is the exception rather than the rule. I also believe that the top-tier of best-selling authors are going to get contracts like that (And probably on more favorable terms than a mid-lister would). The fact he has the freedom to self-publish tells me that Tor is willing to grant him that in order to lock him up for ten years. With his track record as an author, they figure that they will make up any money they lose by anything he self-publishes.

    I have no problem with his singing the contract — as you said, it’s what works for him. He has financial security for the next ten years. He can write without worrying about money. Maybe he’ll write something experimental and if Tor doesn’t like it, he can self-publish it. All he has to worry about is write. I think other Trad publishers are going to follow suit, locking up big-name authors for multi-year, multi-million dollar contracts on terms favorable to the auithor.

    The thing is, for every Scalzi, Cussler, Patterson, or other big-name author, there’s twenty or thirty mid-listers who will never see contracts approaching Scalzi’s. And that I think is going to put more pressure on those mid-listers to go Hybrid (if they can) or full-out self-publishing.

    I guess we’ll see what happens — the business is still in flux and will be for a while longer.


    1. Craig, you are not gifted with an either-or contract when you go into publishing. You negotiate one. I know of midlist authors with the same or better terms than Scalzi, just not the advance. And these writers negotiated it, mostly without agents, who like the client locked in as much as possible. So you are incorrect here. Scalzi’s only an outlier because he negotiated a good contract by saying no, by saying this is what I want, by compromising on things he didn’t care as much about.

      This is why I write about business and I wrote long pieces about negotiating and contracts, so writers knew they could negotiate. And should. Like John did.

  8. My first thought when I saw the news article on the deal was that I wasn’t surprised. I saw him at Capclave a couple years ago. He has a journalism background, and he’s used that to build an audience from the blog side that no doubt made him very attractive to publishers. I also think it was hard taking that background and turning into a fiction side that has netted some huge success. The two writing sides don’t always translate across.

    I’m also not surprised at some of the nastiness you mentioned on the indie side. It always seems like if writers see someone successful, they get nasty, rather than ask how this person made that happen, and study what they can use for themselves. I guess it’s much easier to be jealous.

    I like having choices, because there were things I didn’t like about the traditional side. I grew up reading books where it was hard to find a woman or girl character in a story at all, or if she was there, her purpose was to be a victim. I still keep seeing news stories about women not getting recognized for writing, or being put down for writing “girl stuff.” All of it made me wonder if I was going to write what I wanted to do, but publishers were going to find me too off the wall to publish.

    Good things are happening for writers.

  9. It seemed a lot of people based their opinion on him only being able to work for Tor over the next 10 years. I’ve not seen the specifics of the deal, but it looks like that’s not the case, he has a ton of other revenue streams he can tap.

    Okay. Now I have stuff to write!

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