Business Musings: Talking To Writers
I just got back from MileHiCon in Denver. Not only did the con committee and the attendees treat me well, I had an absolute blast. I met a lot of people—readers, fans, wannabe writers, published writers—and I saw a lot of old friends.
I learned a lot of cool things, some of which will creep their way into my blog in the next few weeks. I also realized something rather startling.
I have no idea how to talk to a room full of writers any more.
I know that sounds weird. I talk to writers all the time. Just before I went to MileHiCon, I helped Dean teach the first four days of the week-long Master Class for professional writers that we hold here on the coast. (We both felt that a GOH stint at a major sf con was worth me leaving the Master Class with four days remaining. We brought in 8 other publishing professionals to replace me. :-))
The Master Class, like so many workshops we teach here on the Oregon Coast, is for established professional writers, folks with many publication credits or so many years of writing diligently. We had to add “writing diligently” into our calculations starting in about 2007, because so many excellent writers with unique voices and a hell of a work ethic couldn’t get traction in traditional publishing, through no fault of their own. The business had changed that much.
The writers we teach here are already informed about the general publishing business. When we mention a royalty statement, they actually know what we’re talking about. They know they’re licensing copyright (or 99% of them do) rather than selling fiction. They have all the industry basics down, plus some.
Sometimes I speak to other groups—a high school class, an RWA chapter, a library seminar—and those groups are always well defined as well. I know going in whether or not I’ll be speaking to traditionally published writers, unpublished writers, or students who are at the beginning of their education in all things. Often, I get assigned a topic by the organizers—talk about indie publishing; talk about promotion; talk about craft. We email back and forth about the composition of the group, the direction the organizer wants me to go, and why the organizer invited me in the first place.
When I get to the event, I know who I’m talking to.
I haven’t spoken to an unknown audience about writing since…gosh, 2011, I guess. I don’t really recall. The reason I put down 2011 is because I haven’t attended a science fiction convention since 2011’s World Science Fiction Convention in Reno. The years since then, for me, included the loss of our friend Bill, several major business start-ups, writing the entire Anniversary Day saga, and several personal health crisises.
I don’t remember if I was on writing panels at the Reno Worldcon. The only panel I really remember was the Big Bang Theory panel I was on with Connie Willis. I remember that for two reasons: I surprised the room with my spot-on impression of the character of Bernadette (one of the few voices I can do), and that panel marks the last time I saw Bill alive. (He was laughing too, which was so incredibly great.)
I had two writing/publishing panels at MileHiCon. I also had a Q&A instead of a Guest of Honor speech. About 50% of the questions I got at the Q&A were about writing and publishing. So…I had 2.5 panels on publishing and writing in Denver this past weekend.
And as the people asked questions, I had a strange experience. I felt like my brain split into sections. One section would whisper: We spend an entire day on that topic in the Master class and still don’t get through it. Another section would whisper, If you answer honestly, no one in this room will understand you. A third section would add, You do a disservice to these people if you don’t answer honestly. And a fourth section would say, Try to keep it short and interesting.
Holy mackerel. I realized within the first fifteen minutes of the first panel that the days of plug-in-the-quarter writing panels are long gone.
It used to be that everyone on the panel would give the same answer to basic questions. On the basic how-to-get published questions, there was only one answer, and it was the same for writer after writer after writer.
In fact, those of us on the panel were interchangeable. It didn’t matter if I sat there or another writer sat there or a relatively new writer sat there, we all gave the same answer. So did editor after editor, agent after agent.
Everyone who had the smallest bit of writing experience stopped attending publishing panels at cons because those writers had the basics down.
Now, the basics differ depending on who you talk to. We all agree on craft issues. To sell, whether traditionally or direct to readers, writers have to tell a good story. A good story includes all elements of craft—good plot, memorable characters, a clearly defined setting, and so on and so forth. Writers need to learn all of that, and never stop learning. We all can improve our craft and we should work at it, day after day after day after day.
When we move to how to get published, writing panels actually get contentious now. When Dean and I spoke at a writers conference in Idaho in May, we debated whether or not we would say what we really believed. Because if we said what we believed, we would anger half the room. And (bonus!) we would piss off every agent in the place.
I have a lot of trouble fudging my answers if I believe someone will get hurt if I don’t speak up. And on the topic of agents, my beliefs have shifted strongly. I believe (and have seen) most writers get seriously harmed by having an agent.
I can’t, in good conscience, recommend a writer have an agent for any reason.
Before I accept a writers conference request, I always explain that I will anger every agent and book doctor who shows up. I anger agents because I think they’re no longer useful. Some agents I’ve met at writers conferences are not only no longer useful, they are actively harming writers. I know this, because I’ve seen it or experienced it. (I will do a long post on agents later this year or early next year.)
The book doctors who show up at mainstream writers conferences fall into two categories. Those book doctors are either scammers who want to make money off writers who don’t believe in their own work or the book doctors are well-intentioned souls who have never sold a book of their own yet somehow believe they can make a book marketable.
Both types are complete and utter waste of money. There are real book doctors who work in traditional publishing. They’re hired (for a minimum of five figures—usually more like six) by a traditional publishing house to either improve a manuscript or to write it from scratch. Generally, those book doctors work on guaranteed bestsellers, whether they are written (or should I say bylined) by a celebrity like Snooki or whether they are written by a former bestselling writer who has gotten ill or has writer’s block or a wide variety of other problems.
If a publishing house has spent millions on a project and that project suuuuuuucks, then a book doctor gets brought in to make the project acceptable so that it can recoup its investment. If it wasn’t fixed, the project wouldn’t last longer than a day or two on the bestseller list before word-of-mouth put the book out of its misery.
Those book doctors never show up at writers conferences. They only work with beginners when the beginner has a famous name. Otherwise, they repair books by well known authors who have some kind of personal issue that interferes with finishing the work. (Those well known authors either have to agree or have a craptastic contract that allows this kind of thing. You think the incautious bestsellers can’t have a craptastic contract? My, are you naïve.)
Writers conferences are easy. I know what I’m going to talk about, because I get to suggest the panel. The organizers know they have to keep me off certain panels or never schedule me with certain editors/agents/book doctors to keep the peace.
Even then, I’m probably not the best speaker. I say what I think and I upset the listeners (while making others ecstatic). I still remember the faces of some writers in Boise at my 9 a.m. session. Those poor writers looked shocked at the beginning, and terrified by the end. I wasn’t giving them the pabulum they had heard from everyone else.
(Why? Well, because I’m me, first of all, and, second, because it was 9 freakin’ a.m. Mountain Time which is 8 freakin’ a.m. my time, which meant I got up at 6 freakin a.m. my time, which is 3 hours after I usually go to bed, and I’m not the most politic person on the planet when I’m sleepy. Hell, I’m not the most politic person on the planet when I’m awake. I remember thinking that morning that lying or fudging or avoiding questions sounded too hard, so I just didn’t do it. Poor attendees. Rusch, unfiltered. Not pretty.)
Fast forward from May to October, and the MileHiCon panels. There, the attendees ranged from people who are thinking about writing to people who have written something to unpublished writers who are very serious to longtime published writers. The panelists all had a lot of experience in different parts of the business, including one woman who worked for a literary agent, but was not an agent.
Because the word “agent” was mentioned in her introduction, of course, one of the first questions was about how to get an agent. And dammit, the moderator swung that question to me.
So, I’m thinking, Crap. I’m going insult everyone here. And I think, Crap, I can’t lie to these people. Agents are awful right now. They went from being okay kinda to terrible. Only a few are ethical, and I don’t want to start naming names.
I sigh, and say that with all honesty, I can’t recommend any agent. I mention the fact that it’s illegal in all 50 states to practice law without a license, which most agents are doing, and I mention that you just don’t need them for anything, and on and on, trying to keep my answer relatively short.
The woman who worked for the agency was incredibly cool. We agreed on most things. She’s bright and is a writer herself, and handled me with aplomb. Of course, she rebutted some of what I said, but not all of it (turns out, I learned after two panels with her, we agreed more than we disagreed), and she ended her statement with a sentence that I hate.
I’m sure Kris can do these things because she’s Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
Hell, no. I can do these things because there’s this thing called “the internet” and writers I know who do not have the credentials that I do have done the same things and more because they have a “contact” button on their website. Good books are good books, and foreign rights offers as well as movie/TV offers follow the good work, not the big names.
When she uttered that sentence, I took a deep breath, and realized I could turn the panel into something argumentative and contentious, or I could let that sentence pass, and go on with the panel, answering questions as generically as possible to be as useful to as many panelists as possible. I let the sentence pass.
I watched my fellow panelists do the same thing on a variety of different topics. Deep breath, followed by a brief pause, and then a calm but short answer.
The thing all of us said repeatedly (besides write a good story) was that the road to being published is different for every writer. And what each writer needs is unique to them.
If you had told me in 1995 that I would be giving answers like that on a writing panel at a convention, I would have laughed at the science fiction nature of it all. Because that road to getting published was as solid and deep and old as the Roman road—or so I thought.
The road to getting published is no longer obvious, and each writer has different needs, wants, and desires. Writer can publish a lot or a little, can write for traditional publishers or go 100% indie or become a hybrid writer. Writers can change their minds, and do the next book indie or traditional.
There are no mistakes.
Evil, horrid, contractual ones. From bad agents who have awful agency agreements, and terrible, awful, hideous publishing contracts that restrict a writer’s output as well as forcing him to get approval from his publisher to write a damn blog post.
The savvy traditional writers, who love, love, love their traditional publishers, and I, who will probably never sell another novel into traditional markets, agree on one thing: Protect your writing. Learn contracts and copyright. Do not sign anything that you don’t understand because it can screw you up and hurt that freedom I mentioned the paragraph above.
On the two publishing panels I was on with other people, we tried to get that across. When I was alone, I expounded on it. But eyes glaze when you mention contracts and copyrights.
In fact, there was a delicate moment on one of the panels, after all of us had made impassioned pleas to writers to learn the business they’re now entering, when a young woman raised her hand. Someone called on her, and in one long breathless sentence, she asked about agents in such a way that it became clear she was one of the people who was going to get royally screwed.
She had ignored everything all of us had said, and dismissed our impassioned pleas with her one little question. “Yes, but, what if you really want an agent to take care of everything? How do you get one?”
There was a long silence. I thought about answering her. Clearly, everyone else did as well.
And then, we took the coward’s way out. We let the woman who worked for the literary agency answer (although you could tell she was as startled by the question as the rest of us, given we’d answered it before, and given we’d issued warnings as well). She defaulted to the 1995 answer, talking about queries and SASEs, and sounding very, very tired.
The 1995 answers don’t really work any more. It’s a shark tank in the traditional publishing world, and if a minnow enters, it will become chum within the first five seconds of its attempted tenure in the tank.
So many writers are minnows with no desire to swim with the sharks. And the problem is that in today’s publishing environment, the writers have to be able to swim with the sharks comfortably and easily to survive.
Writers who’ve gotten their feet wet in the publishing industry, writers who’ve finished more than one book, who’ve submitted more than one short story, who are driven and work hard, know this. They’re coming to panels and conferences to learn how to become sharks—at least when it comes to business.
But the minnows, they don’t want to learn anything except how to be sell that one project. And the poor things, they’re going to get screwed.
I was greatly impressed with my other panelists. We came from all walks of the writing life, and we worked very hard to be as honest, and polite as we could be. We want the writers who came to the panels to succeed.
And it’s hard now. It’s almost impossible to have a generic publishing panel because there is no such thing as generic publishing. The industry has become very complex.
Okay, it was always complex, but entering the complex industry was easy to understand. It’s not easy to understand any more.
I learned a lot on those panels. It’s no longer possible for an old-timer to know everything there is to know about publishing. Heck, it’s not possible for anyone to know everything about publishing.
While I was in Denver, Dean and about 40 other writers were finishing up the Master Class. He tried to report to me daily what he learned, but he was getting 4-5 hours of sleep and had no time to talk. I was getting marginally more time to sleep and had some time to talk, but I knew it wouldn’t go in.
We’re starting to debrief now. Heaven knows how much we’ve forgotten, and how much we missed.
Not to mention how tired we both are, as well as everyone here in town, because the entire group was involved in the Master Class in one way or another. It’s weird for all of us to be exhausted at the same time.
Exhausted, and somewhat overwhelmed. Because—for me at least—there’s this undercurrent of excitement at all of the changes and all of the things I’ve learned.
I prefer the world where it’s impossible to give one-size-fits-all answers to publishing questions. I like the fact that we all have choices, and the responsibility for our careers lies 100% on us.
It’s a nice change.
I hated being that whiney author who sometimes had to tell her fans that they couldn’t get book 4 of a series because the stupid traditional publisher dropped the ball. I hated saying that the new editor at the publishing house decided to destroy his predecessor’s work by destroying the books she bought. I hated the fact that we writers were trapped in a system where our only clout came from withdrawing from a bad offer. If we tried to negotiate the deal, we’d get a marginally less bad one. And then we’d be unhappy.
One of the Master Class attendees—a romance writer who had published several books traditionally—mentioned how bruised and battered everyone at the Master Class was, bruised and battered by their traditional publishing experiences.
Yep. It seems like we all bond now on the horror stories of what had been done to us and how pleased we are that we can now handle our own work—whatever that means.
But try to explain that to a starry-eyed beginner, who has heard that the only path to bestsellerdom is hitch her wagon to the “right” agent and get a multimillion dollar deal (as if that’s easy or really happens much any more). You sound jaded and ungrateful, and that’s not representative of the profession either.
I’m jaded in some ways, but never ungrateful. I know I’ve been fortunate to make my living for my entire adult life by writing. Sure, I’ve done some editing, but that money was never my primary income. Always, always, I’ve made more money writing—what I love—than I have doing other things.
I know how unusual that is.
MileHiCon reinforced that for me as well. Seeing fans, interacting with people who’ve read my work for years, sitting on panels with some folks who seemed to know my career better than I did.
It’s a marvelous world we find ourselves in. It’s just a lot more difficult to convey than the old world.
And that’s a trade-off I can live with.
At one point on a panel, I talked about this blog, and how you readers have supported it for the past six years. I greatly appreciate that too.
The support comes not just from donations, but from comments, emails, sharing on social media, and sending me suggestions. Thank you for all of it.
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“Business Musings: Talking to Writers,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo Inc. / lordalea