Business Musings: Gaming the System
It has taken the latest Kindle Unlimited Apocalypse (KUpocalypse 2? KUpocalypse Part Deux? KUpocalypse XXL?) to help me understand my visceral reaction to all of those writers who game the system.
First, let me explain the reaction. It ain’t pretty. It comes from decades of watching young (meaning newer) writers try to game whatever system exists, whether the system is traditional publishing or indie publishing or getting an agent or trying to sell a book to Hollywood using by writing “blockbuster” novels based on current movies (I can’t even begin to count the ways that’s stupid).
By gaming the system, I mean artificially elevating book sales by doing something non-writing related.
For example, when I edited The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, I stumbled on a writing article in which some newbie writer claimed to have found “the secret” to selling short stories to me. That writer analyzed every story in every issue I had my byline on up until that point, found common elements, and told the writers reading his essay that I looked for those elements.
Ooops. That was wrong. Because the first 18 months of my editorial reign included works purchased by the previous editor Ed Ferman. Just like the first 18 months of Gordon Van Gelder’s reign included works purchased by me, and part of Charles Coleman Finlay’s early years will include works purchased by Gordon, depending on inventory.
Half the things that writer found in my editorial canon were in stories I didn’t buy (and maybe didn’t like). The other things may have been things I decided I had enough of and wasn’t going to purchase for a while.
His game, done without the kind of algorithms so many retail sites online now use, was a false one, using material that had been purchased years before.
Writers do a variety of things like this even now, from analyzing the kinds of clients agents have, to writing to order based on Amazon’s bestseller algorithms. Kindle Unlimited really provokes a lot of this behavior, with writers admitting in blogs and other places that they were deliberately writing shorter works (and serialized works) to make more money on Amazon.
We’ll get to all of that in a minute. But first, I want to talk about gaming the system just a bit more.
In a closed and arcane system, like publishing used to be and like traditional publishing still can be, some amount of gaming is inevitable. Because there was no school for writers, no business training, and very few established professionals who mentored and/or taught newcomers the tricks of the trade, each generation of writers had to learn from scratch how to break into publishing.
This led to a weird phenomena. Good information got mixed with totally useless information, and presented as Gospel. New writers had an impossible task: they had to continually run at a system that deliberately kept secrets from them in order to prevent them from breaching the walls. Once writers crossed that wall, they found others. Some writers sent information back to the others trying to cross the wall; other writers just moved forward.
New writers got their information from biographies of other writers, from “guidelines” written by publishing houses (mostly designed [ironically] to keep writers away), and from a few nuggets of knowledge from panels or writing conferences or writers workshops. If the writer was lucky, those panels, writers conferences, or writers workshops were taught by career writers, who have been in the business longer than a year or two. Most often, those panels, conferences, and workshops were taught by professional writers, with “professional” being defined as anything from one short story sold to one novel sold fifteen years ago to making a living as a writer.
Because writing as a trade has no governing board, and nothing to certify writers as professionals (unlike, say, lawyers), there was and is no way to know if the writer giving information really has knowledge or is just guessing.
In a closed system, guesswork often takes the place of actual information. Guesswork means that the individual writer will poke and prod, trying to find what works.
That habit, guessing and prodding, continues among some writers, who don’t learn to substitute knowledge for guesswork. Those writers end up spending their writing life on guesswork.
And working off guesswork as a professional leads to behaviors that make those of us with a business background shake our heads, behaviors like giving an agent 15% of a copyright for the life of the copyright just because the agent made a few phone calls or like selling a book to a small press in the hope of that book becoming a bestseller when that press has never had a bestseller and wouldn’t know what to do with one if one came along.
The practice of using guesswork as fact becomes a way of life for some writers. It’s now built into the arcana of writing. It makes gaming the system seem normal, the way that business is conducted.
But the system isn’t closed any longer. Writers can publish their work themselves and—here’s the kicker—that work will be sold and get read. There are now many paths to becoming a career writer, to making a living as a writer, and to selling fiction instead of just one or two.
Better yet, the internet has made it possible for writers, without leaving the comforts of home, to actually gain knowledge on how to be successful from people who have long-term careers.
Why am I stressing long-term careers? Because a lot of things work in the short term and don’t work long-term at all. Writers who have freelanced for decades know how to survive the ups and downs of the publishing business.
When Dean and I teach or advise new writers, we always tell them to learn from someone who is already on the path the writers want to walk. There are so many paths now that writers need to understand they have choices.
Almost all of those choices take patience. There’s a reason that phrase in English for becoming a professional is “building a career.” You don’t rocket into a career. You luck into an overnight success. You might start at a different place than someone else—higher or lower—but you build from that place.
The first thing you do is create a solid foundation. Often, people who rocket to success have to go back and build the foundation underneath them. That’s why so many rockets flame out. They never go back and do the fundamentals.
What are those fundamentals? The things I harp on: learn your craft; keep learning and growing; learn business; and learn copyright. Notice the repeated word. Learn. Learn. Learn.
Learn what makes someone else’s work successful, but don’t copy that work. Don’t plagiarize and don’t expect that just because someone wrote a successful vampire detective novel, your vampire detective novel will succeed in the same way.
More than that, don’t expect to have the same career trajectory that someone else does. Your career will go your way; theirs follows its own path. Accept that.
I know all this. I know that sometimes there’s no clear boundary between learning the closed system and gaming a system. I also know that writers have tried to game the publishing system since there was a publishing system.
I hated it when I started; I hate it now.
And yes, I’m using the word “hate.”
In the beginning, I tolerated gaming the system. I used to think that writers would get by it. Some writers do get past that idea that they can game their way to success. Some writers do game their way to success. But I have learned that every writer who games his way to success has short-term success.
And then that writer gets caught or the system changes or the bottom falls out. Most writers quit at that point. Last summer’s Kindle Unlimited Apocalypse took out hundreds, maybe thousands, of writers who had some success. Many of them left writing altogether.
Some of them found a new way to game the system, still with Kindle Unlimited, figuring out the new algorithms and what those writers “should” be writing in order to win the big prize—which is, either, some imagined (unprovable) bonus to their bestseller rankings or part of the Prize Pool. Ooops. I mean the Select Global Fund. Or none of the above. Honestly, I haven’t made much of a study of it, because, as you can tell from my tone, I don’t think it important.
The remaining writers who were gaming the system and got nailed did the cliché thing and turned lemons into lemonade. They learned that they were approaching their business wrong, and they took the collapse as an opportunity to build a foundation underneath their writing career.
A lot of those writers are showing up in the discussions about the latest change in Kindle Unlimited, and mentioning how they changed their behavior, so that this year’s change will have little or no impact on the way they’re doing business. I’m very impressed by these folks.
Because we all take wrong turns, particularly early on, and we don’t always know whether we’re following a real path or a goat trail that leads off a cliff. The folks who have expanded their markets, clicked out of Select, and stopped playing games, have taken the most important step possible in their careers.
They now own their successes and their failures.
Or as we say at our workshops: You are responsible for your career. You’re responsible for your successes and your failures. You’re responsible for whether or not you have a career.
There are ups and there are downs. You ride them, like you surf a wave. No surfer rides the crest of every wave each time. Surfers do crash and burn. Then they paddle out and catch another wave. And no wave is the same.
Some waves are gigantic. We have Big Surf competitions in my small town; people from all over the world come here to ride waves as big as skyscrapers. Not every surfer wants to ride those waves. It takes a lot of skill and it’s dangerous.
Some waves are merely big, but they don’t come around often either. And you’ll note, in our surfing metaphor, that the big waves come along with bad weather or very choppy seas, so it takes a lot of skill to handle them.
Smaller waves are easier to predict, and easier to ride. Even those smaller waves will dump the surfer—particularly the inexperienced surfer—into the water.
If you ride the wave—which is what having a career in the arts is all about—then expect to get wet. Repeatedly.
In addition to the writers who mentioned they had left Kindle Unlimited last year and put a foundation under their business, a number of other writers commented on the changes. Those writers defended the fact that they were continuing to game Amazon’s system, and those writers vowed to find the new way to game the system.
And that bugs me.
It bugs me because of the contempt these writers show for the craft of writing. In the changes to KU, Amazon stresses that it will pay the writers who stay in KU by the number of pages in the book and the number of pages read. The letter Amazon sent out to the Select writers said,
“Under the new payment method, you’ll be paid for each page individual customers read of your book, the first time they read it…. the amount an author earns will be determined by their share of total pages read instead of their share of total qualified borrows.”
Yeah, there are problems with the way this will work, and people are already coming up with ways to game it. (sigh) (Please don’t discuss that in my comments section. I don’t think you should be exclusive to any one market in the first place. Figuring out how to game that market is irrelevant.)
But a lot of writers are claiming in their comments on this new policy that reading shouldn’t be the metric. Who cares, the writers say, whether or not the books get read. One writer even said it’s not normal for people to read the books they download (!).
Every writer should care whether or not people read their work. Back in the days before the internet (when we had to walk uphill in the snow both ways to the library to hunt the wild paper books), writers would sometimes buy their own books by the case to game the bestseller lists.
In that instance, just like in the gaming of Kindle Unlimited, the goal isn’t to gain readers, it’s to hit something important to the writer—like a bestseller list or a certain percentage of a prize pool.
People who game the system do not respect the system. And by the system, I don’t mean Amazon itself or even the publishing system.
I mean this system:
Writers write books.
Readers read books.
Writers want their books in the hands of readers…who will read those books, and have some enjoyment for an afternoon or a week or two.
In other words, gaming a system, like Kindle Unlimited or the New York Times bestseller list is extremely disrespectful. It doesn’t require the writer to get better, to become a better storyteller or to build a fan base. It only means that the goal—whatever that goal is—means more to the writer than having readers does.
Like those people who purchase a spot in a marathon, run the first mile, then hop a bus, get off on mile 22, and run the remaining 4.2 miles as if they had actually run the entire race.
Not everyone can run 5.2 miles, so not everyone can do that.
But hopping a bus in the middle of a marathon to get to the finish line faster is disrespectful to everyone else, from the race organizers to the spectators and, oh, yeah, the people who actually run the 26.2 miles. Not just the people who run it in a few hours, and take home prizes. It’s also disrespectful to the people who take six or more grueling hours to finish, because the effort means something to them.
The gamers of the writing systems always want the “trick.” They’re the ones who want to make a fast buck.
Most of them left last summer.
I hope the rest of them leave with the KU changes this summer.
Because, my friends, they don’t just disrespect other writers. They disrespect readers. These writers want people to buy their books (or borrow them for a fee, as in KU), but these writers don’t care if the readers read the book.
They want a reader’s money and they want to give the reader very little in return for it.
Writing is both a craft and an art. It’s the art and craft of storytelling.
To tell stories, you must have someone to tell them to. And you should respect your audience. Because without them, you’re just singing in the shower, listening to the echo of your own voice.
Value your readers. Give them the best reading experience you can. Always strive to improve.
If readers don’t like what you’re doing, they’ll let you know. They won’t buy the next book. They won’t remember your name. They won’t recommend your work to their friends.
It’s not your job as a writer to force readers to buy your books. It’s your job to entertain people who read your work. If you’re a good enough entertainer, more people will pick up your work. Over time, more people will pay for it.
Because they value it. Because they want more of it.
Not because they got it for free and they didn’t read it after downloading it.
Not because they were guilted into buying it or borrowing it.
Readers don’t pick up books because those books hit an algorithm. Readers pick up books because the book looks interesting. If, after reading a little bit, the reader decides the book is interesting, the reader will finish the book. If the reader likes the entire experience, the reader will then go to the writer’s other works.
If you want to play games, play games with yourself. Game your own system. Figure out how to write better stories. More enjoyable stories. Entertaining stories.
Write because you love it, not because you’re chasing some dream of being a famous writer.
Be the best storyteller you can be each and every time you sit down at the keyboard.
I guarantee you that, over time, you will gain readers. And if you keep improving and keep doing what you love, you will gain more readers.
Then one day you’ll wake up, and you’ll realize you’ve been doing this work for decades. As a freelance writer. Sometimes you hit bestseller lists. Sometimes you don’t. But you have readers and fans and one other thing.
You have a career. A long-term career.
As a writer.
And really, there’s nothing more fun than that.
“Business Musings: Gaming the System,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.