Business Musings: The Overwhelmed Writer
I’m teaching the mystery workshop this week, so my brain is mostly on craft. (And murder…lots of murder). I had hoped to get this blog post done last week, along with another (for last week), but since my brain turned to fried cheese, I wasn’t able to get either done.
I had to remind myself that failing to complete them was not a crisis. I am back on a streak, more or less, posting every week even with the accident, and I didn’t want to break that. But as I mentioned last week, I promised myself when I returned that I wouldn’t push past my limits to get a blog done like I had in the past. I would do my very best to pace myself.
Pacing myself was pretty easy back in the days when traditional publishing was the only game in town. I had my contracts. I sketched out my deadlines, moved them up one month, then worked backwards from that date, so I knew how many words I needed to write per day to get the project done.
I would often finish early, just like I used to with assignments in school. (Yeah, sorry. I was one of those kids). Depending on the company and the editor, I would either turn the book in at that moment or I would turn the book in on the due date. If the editor was completely disorganized and would lose the manuscript, I would wait to the due date. If the editor was a friend, I’d ask what he wanted in regards to turn-in.
If I was working with the editor for the first time, I would turn in the manuscript early, which accomplished several things. It let the new editor know that I was a professional who got the job done. It also gave the editor an extra book in the pipeline because new editors often fail to account for writers who chronically miss deadlines. When a writer misses a deadline, the editor usually had to shuffle other writers’ deadlines. If the editor already had a finished book on her desk, she could move the book to the writer’s missed deadline slot with little muss or fuss.
But that was the extent of my involvement in the traditional publishing cycle. Yes, there was a lot of back and forth, a lot of wasted time on the phone with editors, a lot of wasted e-mails, a lot of back-and-forths with agents, a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot of chasing money and missing payments—just a lot of time spent on bullshit.
I used to think of traditional publishing as one big giant game of Telephone. Mentioning the game probably shows my age. I just Googled it to see if children still play, and can’t tell. I also can’t tell if it’s a U.S.-only game. So, for those of you who have never played it, the game is really simple.
A group of children sit around a big table. The first child whispers something into the ear of the child to his left. That child has to whisper the same message to the child on her left. And so on. The children can’t ask for clarification. One sentence, whispered, usually ten or twelve times, all the way around the table, until the final child hears the sentence in a whisper, and then repeats it out loud.
When I was a kid, we used to play the game at every single birthday party I went to, and the end of the whisper campaign was always the same. The last child always ended up saying something totally random, completely stupid, and often hysterically funny. That sentence, spoken by the last child, was never the same as the whispered sentence. It wasn’t even close.
I suppose the fact that I compared the systems in traditional publishing to a game of Telephone showed my frustration with the entire system. It does explain why, a few years into having an agent, I never had the agent rely a single message to my editor. I called the editor. I had a direct conversation.
The reason I went through so many agents was because I did have direct conversations with the editor. Often I learned that the agent didn’t think my message worth passing along. Or, one significant case, the agent never let me know when money the publisher paid me had arrived in the agent’s office. The money would sit there for weeks unless I nagged, which I did, for years. The agent would always explain that it was company policy to hold the money for at least two weeks to make sure the check cleared. I, of course, was too stupid to realize that “company policy” was both unnecessary in the modern publishing world, and was a firing offense. (I eventually figured it out.)
Yeah, much of what you read in these blogs—particularly the warnings, the mistakes “stupid” writers make—aren’t about me being superior to the rest of you or about me being wiser than all of you. Much of what you read are the mistakes I made. When I say “stupid writers do x,” often I mean, “myself included.”
Sometimes I look at all the things I’ve done, all the truly stupid mistakes I’ve made, and I’m amazed I still have a career.
Fortunately for me, indie publishing came along. I was able to get out of the traditional publishing novel merry-go-round, which never suited me, and able to publish my novels on my own.
There are a lot of capable people working in traditional publishing, some fantastic editors, and publishers who really care about writers and books. I love working with those people. I consider it a privilege to interact with them.
But now, I’m straddling both worlds, and I find myself a bit overwhelmed by the weirdness of both pace and deadlines.
Traditional publishing has its systems, many of which have existed for more than a century. A book gets turned in. The editor reads it, edits it, then the writer revises (if asked). The book goes back to the editor who reads it again (reads again in theory—I’ve had dozens of book editors who have punted on this step). The editor approves the book, puts in for the acceptance check, and sends the book to the copy editor. There are rounds of copy editing, proofing, cover design. There are sales meetings, scheduling, planning charts, promotion discussions—none of which involve the author, especially if the author is being paid less than six-figures for the project (and sometimes not even then).
The book goes out for review four to six months in advance of publication. The book is also in the catalog, and about that time, major retailers are placing advance orders. The book gets finalized, it gets printed, and, on the big day, it hits the shelves. (There are lots of steps in between which I am leaving out.) Then the promotion machinery hits its peak. With luck, the book sells lots of copies very fast, it hits lists, it gets good word of mouth, and then…and then…
The pages of the calendar turn. Another book comes up in traditional publishing’s queue. Your book becomes less important, then it becomes unimportant, and then it gets forgotten.
You—the writer under contract—are working on your next book, and that machine gears up for it again.
The moment the publishing house commissions a book from you to the month after publication usually takes two years. Some special projects take less time—Dean and I did some tie-ins which went from commission to publication in six months—and many take more time. My first novel took so long from commission to publication that I had sold eight more books to other publishers before it appeared. My editor at the time (a born salesman) kept revising the release date and putting more and more publicity behind the book. It was a weird, but ultimately good, experience, one that, sadly, never got repeated.
But let’s go back to that topic sentence in the paragraph above. (Yeah, I’m teaching. Can you tell?). A traditionally published book takes two years, generally, to work its way through the process, only to dominate the shelves for a month or so (if, indeed, you’re lucky enough to be a dominant author). God knows how many years it took you to get a publishing house interested in the book.
So for a writer, a book might take anywhere from three to five years from the first proposal to publication. Some traditionally published authors wait to write another book until the first one sells. I call those writers hobbyists. They clearly don’t have a profession or a work ethic, at least for writing.
The rest of us wrote a lot, wrote more proposals than I want to consider, and wrote other stuff.
Traditionally published short stories take a lot of time from submission to publication as well. I currently have four stories on the desk of an editor who loves my work. One of those stories has been there, unpurchased, for six months. She’s an outlier. Most short story editors get back to me in three months or less. Several, whom I’ve sold to regularly, respond in two weeks.
But once the story gets purchased, it goes through a mini-version of the book pattern discussed above. If the story goes to a magazine, that magazine stays on the shelf (virtual or otherwise) for one month before moving on.
Fiction River, the bimonthly anthology project that Dean and I act as series editors on for WMG Publishing, is a traditional publication in many ways. The major difference between Fiction River and other publications that come out on a regular schedule is that Fiction River stays in print. Promotions continue long after the book comes out. (For example, Fiction River: Special Edition Crime is up for two different Silver Falchion awards. It’s up for the Best Anthology Silver Falchion, and it’s up for the Silver Falchion Readers Award, [along with several other WMG books] which you can vote on, if you like. WMG is promoting the volume, even though it appeared over a year ago.)
But, from the writers’ experience before publication, Fiction River is 100% traditional. Stories take months or, in some cases, a year or more to see print from the moment the editor (not always me or Dean) expresses an interest in them. The rounds of editing and covers and blurbs and interaction all happen.
And there’s a war board (a white board, actually) up at WMG on one of the walls so that everyone involved with the project can have a visual representation of where, exactly, each upcoming volume is in the process, what the deadlines are, and when a volume will hit print.
WMG is a traditional publishing company. Yes, Dean and I started it and we’re involved with it, but it’s a corporation, with others who actually run the business. WMG is a small traditional publishing company, and purposely nimble. (Actually, in traditional publishing, WMG fits into the medium size press category, based on the sales and number of titles printed. When I say small I’m referring to the number of employees, and the overall business structure. WMG Publishing doesn’t have a lot of baggage, no longer has too many employees who can get away with sitting on their asses and getting paid for minimum effort, and therefore there is no possibility for a game of Telephone.)
WMG uses the some of the best parts of indie publishing (quick turn arounds on some projects, the ability to rebrand immediately, flexibility in the schedule) and the best parts of traditional publishing (all of the sales systems that have existed for decades, for example) to become a new entity. A hybrid-traditional publisher.
But when I finish a project that will end up being published through WMG, that project goes on a schedule. It goes through rounds of proofers, copy editors, design, much of that stuff in the traditional publishing section above. The project acquires a publication date, and sometimes there’s a promotional push behind that publication date. Meaning that we’re using the traditional system to gain attention for the book—reviews, getting preorders, making sure the book is on shelves before release.
However, with WMG, the books don’t die a month after publication. In most traditional publishing houses (like 99%), if a book does worse than expected, it vanishes. Yeah, its little ebook ghost remains on all the ebook retail sites so that the publisher can claim the book is still in print and the book remains an asset on the publisher’s books, but the book never gets thought of again—as a book—again.
If the book is about the Battle of the Bulge, and five years after that book is published, novels on World War II (particularly the Battle of the Bulge) get hot, no traditional publisher would reissue the book, because the book had done poorly in its first release. That book never gets a better cover, it never gets thrown into a major promotion, or even mentioned as one of the books that the publisher has about World War II.
The poor little book’s ebook ghost continues to float out there in the marketplace with the cover it got five years before, a cover that’s probably dated and a cover that’s probably awful (because bad covers do hurt sales), completely forgotten except by the readers who happen on it.
Not so with a company like WMG. That company keeps its assets active. In fact, as some of you know, WMG has spent much of the summer rebranding its larger projects, so that they look better for the market of 2016, rather than looking like books published in 2010.
WMG is not the only company like this these days. Several other small publishers have arisen in the past five years similar to WMG, and all of these new companies keep their assets alive as books. A book is a book is a book, and the newest book is no more important than a book published five years ago.
In fact, the good folk at WMG actually prefer the older titles. They’re more familiar with those titles, and the staff have a ton of marketing ideas for them. The office has two promotion scheduling places. The first, another white board, shows projects in development. If the project needs pre-publication promotion, that fact is listed on that white board. Then the project gets its own little promotion schedule.
But WMG has a second promotion schedule, a calendar with planned promotions listed by day or by week. This schedule is primarily backlist, because so many of the modern sites that allow book advertising want backlist. In fact, Bookbub, a free service for readers that provides them with email listings of book deals, rarely accept brand new books for its service.
In a blog post aimed at those who want to advertise with Bookbub (and who pay fees for that privilege), the Bookbub folks wrote this:
While there is no specific “minimum requirement” for reviews, our editors are generally more likely to select books with higher numbers of authentic and positive customer reviews. This is why we rarely accept new releases for Featured Deals — books with established platforms and positive reviews tend to perform best with our readers.
I underlined that section, because to writers and publishers who are coming out of traditional publishing, that little phrase—we rarely accept new releases—is a complete and utter mindfuck. And I do mean “mindfuck.” There are few other words to describe what that phrase does to the brain of someone whose entire career was based on promoting something before it was released, only to be told that such promotions aren’t allowed in a promotion venue no matter how much the advertiser wants to pay.
I’m sure Bookbub has dealt with a lot of writers and publishers who want to send them new titles to skirt the reader review issue (Bookbub prefers reader reviews and likes). Eventually, when you try to game a system, those running the system notice and put up roadblocks to prevent.
Bookbub, and the dozens of services like them, want to advertise what we used to call backlist. The stuff I mentioned above, the stuff that gets forgotten by old-school traditional publishers.
Yet most of the promotions Dean and I have done through WMG have been backlist promotions. For example, you probably noticed the Storybundles that I’ve done. Most books in the bundles I’ve participated in (and Dean has participated in) have been backlist.
Once in a while, a writer will contribute a new release. I did in a writing bundle in the spring. But only because I had already bundled a lot of my writing books (and promised the only remaining one to another bundle coming in November). So I used it as an excuse to compile blog posts into a new book that I had been planning anyway.
Starting in mid-October, I’ll be participating in a boxed set of novellas with eight other writers. This is not a WMG promotion. This is me. I’ve contributed a novella that’s part of a series of shorts that I’ve written. If interest grows in the series, I’ll write the novel I was planning.
And here’s where it all gets dicey.
When your backlist—wait, let me start again, using 2015 language.
When your inventory is as big as mine is, then the promotion of old titles can take all day every day. It’s well and good for people with five or ten books to spend weeks of time and effort promoting those books (old and new). But the kind of attention that I’ve seen other writers do with their one series (eight books, maybe) or their ten standalone novels is simply impossible for me if I want to continue writing.
I wrote a post a while ago about the way that the time I used to spend trying to sell books into traditional publishing is now freed up to promote books in hybrid publishing. But I discovered this summer that even that brand-new free time (and believe me, it’s a lot) isn’t enough.
I have three pen names, all with separate fan followings (with a tiny bit of overlap). I write three major series as Rusch, with several in other stages of publication/plotting/planning. I write Grayson romances and Grayson YAs. I have three Grayson mysteries sketched out. I write the Smokey Dalton mystery series as Nelscott, and I’m working on two separate series under that name right now.
None of that counts the non-series books I want to do. None of it counts the nonfiction, the blog, or the editing. None of that counts the short stories—which have their own resales and promotions going. (I just sold a short reprint to a market I hadn’t even known existed. The editor found me. That happens a lot.)
None of that counts the overseas promotion or the Hollywood negotiations (and the existing options). None of it counts the financial work that we do or the contracts that have to be negotiated or the emails or…or…or…
The problem, for me, is that I am not WMG. As Allyson Longueira, WMG’s publisher, said to me jokingly last week, she’s caught me cheating on her with other publishers more than once.
That’s right. I do a lot of work for a variety of venues because I can, and because I enjoy them. But I haven’t yet figured out how to run my own version of the trad-pub pre-publication schedule and the indie-pub post publication schedule in a satisfying and organized way.
I keep track of all of it on calendars and reminders and my version of a spreadsheet. But sometimes I get backed up or something unexpected happens, like that accident in August. One change of plan, and the entire row of dominoes topples—not in the way I expect.
It’s a new problem. It’s a great problem. But, as we used to say back when we taught a master class before the ebook revolution, it is a problem you trade up for. It’s a problem of too much. It’s also a problem of possibilities.
All of those old titles, the ones that were dead in traditional publishing, have come roaring back to life. The old titles have fans who want a particular series book now, the old titles have opportunities (do you have a high fantasy to promote, because we’d love to include you in this…?), the old titles have value again as much more than a book listed as an asset on a spreadsheet (with an ebook ghost floating around).
It’s fascinating and overwhelming.
Because I’m reorganizing due to the lost weeks after the accident, I’m looking at all of this. And because I’m looking at all of it, I feel a bit like Wile E. Coyote. I was doing fine when I was standing on a puff of air. But now I’ve realized there’s no ground beneath me. So that sinking whistle you hear, that’s me, wondering how the hell I got here and what I do to keep from ending up as a puff of dust on the desert floor.
I’ll figure it out. It’s a great problem to have
I think the real solution is that I won’t be able to do everything I want to do right now. I’m going to have to learn how to pace myself…again.
That’ll require some rethinking, maybe a better way of scheduling the non-writing stuff. And I’ll do it all…
When the mystery workshop ends.
You readers brought me back to the blog. You asked my opinion on a lot of what’s happening in publishing, even when I wasn’t blogging. And of course, I had opinions. I always do [grin]. So I came back.
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“Business Musings: The Overwhelmed Writer,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo Inc. / tomas1111