Business Musings: Poor Poor Pitiful Me Is Not A Business Model
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Last week, I wrote a blog about the Authors Guild letter of 2016. I explored a number of things about the letter, but avoided the one thing that annoys me the most.
The letter’s tone.
It begs. It whines. It pleads.
Don’t believe me? Read it.
For those of you too lazy to click on the link, here are three examples of what I mean from the letter itself:
•It is time for publishers to give authors the respect, compensation and fair play they deserve.
•And authors should be able to get a fair shake even if they don’t have powerful agents or lawyers…Why not do the right thing by all authors and eliminate those provisions for everyone?
•Without serious contract reform, the professional author will become an endangered species and publishers—as well as society at large—will be left with less and less quality content. Publishers need to treat their authors equitably so they can keep writing the kinds of books that have enabled the publishing industry to achieve the financial and cultural status it enjoys today.
Note the repetition of the word “fair” and “equitable.” Yeah, all well and good, folks. But the Authors Guild is writing a letter to large corporations begging those corporations to give up profit and advantage because it’s “the right thing” to do.
How nice, and sweet, and naïve of these people. In a perfect world, maybe, some Powerful Publisher will grant its Poor Little Writers a few more crumbs from the Big Kids table.
But a friend of mine, who started and ran a multimillion-dollar business (not publishing) for decades, has a saying. Whenever he hears or sees something like this, he gets an impish little grin, and says, “Fair is in August.”
For those of you outside of the United States, he’s referring to county and state fairs that show up every summer, with carnival rides and cotton candy and all sorts of circus-like entertainment.
In other words, the only place that “fair” exists in the world of business is the business of carnivals—hence, fair is in August.
The tone of the Authors Guild letter reminds me of children begging their parents for one more piece of candy, one more movie, one more toy from the toy store. “It’s not fair!” the child whines. “Suzy gets one! Why can’t all the kids have the same toys?”
It’s not fair. Nothing in life is fair.
And no large for-profit business, which is answerable to shareholders, is ever going to lose a profitable advantage because it’s somehow fair.
Here’s the truth of publishing, folks. Those terms the Authors Guild is fighting for, the thing they want all authors to have? Some authors already get them. It’s not that the industry refuses to grant the terms to all authors. It’s that the industry gives those who have some kind of clout in a negotiation more respect—and better terms—than someone who rolls over and whines.
That clout doesn’t have to be multimillion dollar book sales. That clout might simply be backbone. From my early days as a beginning writer, I asked for good contract terms. And because I asked, I often got them. It wasn’t like the publishers refused everyone, but they certainly aren’t going to give good terms to someone who is too dumb to ask for them.
What the Authors Guild has done here is pleading, whining and begging. They aren’t exercising clout. They have no clout here. They even acknowledge it. They write:
•When negotiating with known agents, publishers often start from previously negotiated contracts that remove many of the most draconian provisions handed to unagented authors.
That sentence, by the way, shows the Guild’s agent bias. Because a lot of us have received better contract terms without an agent than any contract we had negotiated by agents.
The Guild undercuts its entire argument by saying that some writers get better terms than others. Or rather, the Guild shows in its letter that the publishing industry is already doing some of what the Guild asks.
The Guild asked that the publishing industry “give authors the respect, compensation and fair play they deserve.”
The publishing industry gives the writers who make the industry a great deal of money respect, compensation, and in some cases (see James Patterson) fair play. These 3 things are not unreasonably withheld from big name or star writers. They are often withheld from middle-of-the-road bestsellers and others because those writers refuse to use the clout that they have.
Granted, in the recent past, the major publishing companies were the only game in town. But they are no longer the only game in town. A major bestselling writer can—and should—walk from any deal that does not meet her contractual and business needs.
Hell, every writer should do that.
But of course most writers won’t. Instead, an entire group of them beg for scraps from the Big All-Powerful Evil Publishers, proving to the publishers that writers are idiots and publishers hold all the cards.
I already bludgeoned the Authors Guild letter last week, so why am I going back to the same trough? Because this poor-poor-pitiful-me attitude has become the norm in the publishing industry right now, and I’m really tired of it.
The big battles of 2014 and 2015, from all of the fighting over the meaning of Amazon in the past few years to the in-genre squabbling over the Hugo awards that science fiction indulged in last year to the hue and cry indie writers have treated us to over the various changes in Kindle Unlimited since its inauguration have all had the same basic complaint.
Someone—be it a publisher (that Amazon is Evil argument) or a writer (the rest of it)—believes they’re entitled to something, and when they don’t get that something, they complain loudly, on social media or in traditional media or via group letter or through (in sf’s case) hateful spiteful posts about the opposing parties.
Only a handful of people take responsibility for the situation they’re in—if, indeed, they are responsible. Only a few actually analyze why the situation exists.
And even fewer take positive steps, effective, business steps to resolve whatever problem has them upset.
The screaming, the whining, the crying serves no real purpose. For some reason, these entitled people also believe they are victims. Some people actually are victims of a bad situation (see people of color and the treatment they got from the publishing industry), but many people are simply victims of their own ineptitude.
Poor Poor Pitiful Me is not a business model—or rather, it’s not a successful one.
I’ve run a lot of businesses, and I’ve managed others. Generally speaking, the whiners are people who don’t do the work. They’re the ones who think they should be rewarded for showing up and warming their desk chair.
The people who do the work identify problems and find realistic solutions.
What the Authors Guild wants is pure fantasy. They want international conglomerates to give up their profit margins and the ownership they’ve contracted for in creative works because it’s “the right thing” to do.
Maybe a small business owner with a heart of gold might consider better contract terms from the outset. Dean and I did when we started Pulphouse and that’s one reason the business collapsed: our contracts were so writer friendly our business owned nothing. So when it came time to sell the business, we had nothing to sell.
We’ve never made that mistake again. We try to be writer friendly, but when we do anthologies and other projects, we protect ourselves first now, something we hadn’t done in the past.
Writers fail to look at things from a business perspective because they’re “artists” who got into writing so they wouldn’t have to soil their hands with something as dirty as learning math and copyright and tax law. The writers all want “people” for that. And then complain when the “people” they hire take advantage of them.
Problem: Your publishing contract with a Big Five Publisher has all those horrid clauses in it that the Authors Guild is complaining about. (I guarantee that your contract has even more bad clauses than that, and some of them were inserted by your agent).
Truth: You signed that contract. You had a chance to negotiate it. If the publisher refused, you could walk away. But your agent advised you to sign? Did he sign on the dotted line? And what kind of agreement do you have with him? Did a lawyer vet that contract? Did you understand what you signed? Did you ask for changes in those clauses?
Then learn from it, and never do it again. Educate other writers about it—that’s what I’ve done—and learn how to walk away from a bad deal.
Problem: Amazon is taking over the world.
Truth: Right now, Amazon is the big Kahuna in the retail side of the publishing industry. It has clout and it is using that clout to great advantage. Twenty years ago, Barnes and Noble was the Big Kahuna in the retail side of the publishing industry. It had clout and it used that clout to great advantage.
Secondary Truth: Amazon wants to be the Big Kahuna of retailing—not just in publishing, but in everything like, y’know, Walmart. And that’ll happen for a while. But take a look at business history. The big companies have a heyday. Think U.S. Steel. Think IBM. Think Microsoft.
Be patient. This too will pass.
Learn how to use Amazon to your advantage, but for godssake, understand that their dominance will last a decade or two, if that. Plan accordingly.
I could go on, and on, and on.
The first thing you writers should do when someone whines about some kind of problem in the publishing industry is to see if that whine has a basis in fact. I got pissed in the last two years when people kept repeating the myth that women cannot succeed in science fiction. I researched it, found out where the myth came from, why the damn thing won’t go away despite facts to the contrary, and am doing something about it.
Because it matters to me.
I could have sat on the sidelines and whine about the lack of respect my fellow writers have accorded me and the other female writers of sf. But I chose to do something. See this website. Look for the upcoming anthology—from a traditional publisher (Baen) run by a woman (Toni Weisskopf).
And I will continue to do something—not just for women, but for the history of the field, which, I learned as I dug into the women in sf thing, is getting lost.
I care, so I’m making some proactive change.
If you care that writers sign bad contracts, then by all means, discuss the bad contract terms. Educate your fellow writers. Learn how to get better terms. Learn how to negotiate.
Make changes. Make choices.
And learn business.
People who succeed in business know that business is inherently unfair. People who succeed in business don’t whine about fairness. If people who succeed in business discover something is unfair, they figure out how—within the context of the business relationship—to make things more equitable.
Sometimes that’s a really easy fix.
And sometimes it requires a cultural shift.
Cultural shifts take time and a lot of heavy lifting. A lot of effort. A lot of conscious thought.
Which is why I said last week that I’m happy the Authors Guild letter started a conversation. It will get a few people asking the right questions.
Unfortunately, it won’t get everyone else to stop whining and expecting the people who benefit from the system to be magnanimous.
That’s not human nature, folks. If you want to change the system, illuminate the problems, make rational suggestions for change, then you act accordingly.
The first thing you do is reclaim your own power. (Or, if you never recognized your power, claim your own power.) Yes, you, you poor poor pitiful writer. You want to be traditionally published, which means you’ll be negotiating with a representative of an international conglomerate who has more lawyers in their hip pocket than you’ve seen in your life.
Don’t hire a damn agent (who might also reside in that publisher’s hip pocket). Most agents don’t have law degrees and don’t understand contracts any better than you do. Don’t negotiate with publishers with an English major at your side.
Hire an intellectual property attorney. Learn what you’re licensing (copyright, dammit). Understand how contracts work.
Yes, poor poor pitiful writer. That’s hard. That takes time away from your art. That requires you to actually educate yourself and be responsible for your own actions.
That means you might make a mistake or two and sign a bad contract.
Once you’ve learned what you did wrong, don’t do it again.
Every time you hear yourself whining, stop and step back. Remember that whining is not a business model.
Figure out if the solution is easy or hard.
Easy might simply mean that you have to stand up for yourself.
Hard might mean that what you want isn’t possible the way the industry stands now. The question then becomes do you fight to change the industry or do something different?
Indie publishing has made it possible to step out of the traditional system and be creative without all the strictures that traditional demands. The new world of publishing is freeing, but hard in its own way.
The new world of publishing is as brutal as any capitalistic system is. The people who succeed are those who keep fighting, not those who sit around whining. Yeah, the fight might take years.
If the fight is worthwhile, then do it.
And yeah, it’s okay to whine. In the confines of your own house, to your closest friends, but not on social media.
But when you step into the business arena, do so with confidence. Stand strong. Believe in yourself and all you can do.
If that sounds like it’s impossible, then maybe this business isn’t for you.
Truth: Writers own small businesses.
Being a small business owner is hard. Not everyone is cut out for it.
And if you don’t like that fact, then go into another profession. Preferably one that provides a salary and a tolerance for chair-warmers.
If you are willing to learn, willing to stand up for yourself, and willing to try to figure out the perspective of the other people in the same business, then maybe you have a shot.
And…if this blog post pissed you off, you might want to take a step back and ask yourself why it did.
Because here’s the last truth of the evening:
Whining is easy. Working is hard.
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“Business Musings: Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” copyright © 2016 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2016 by Canstock Photo/Yayayoyo.
21 responses to “Business Musings: Poor Poor Pitiful Me Is Not A Business Model”
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“That requires you to actually educate yourself and be responsible for your own actions.”
… you know, like an adult in an adult world. Most adults don’t have someone ‘taking care of them.’
This will no doubt annoy a lot of people. And that’s good. Because it might get them thinking.
Before I ever sold any writing (I do both fiction and non-fiction), I worked up to being a Major Accounts Sales Representative. My job as Major Accounts Sales was to target Fortune 500 companies. Hard work. Damned hard work. But a lot of fun.
As I worked my way up the corporate ladder, I saw lots of whiners. Since I worked in the same general industry from when I was twenty, till I was fifty (when my body fell apart), I saw many of the same people for thirty years. Most of them were still doing the same thing when I had to quit because I couldn’t work anymore. Most of the whiners didn’t seem to have learned a single thing, and most of them seemed averse to learning anything new.
Your message will bounce off most of the whiners. But even the worst of the whiners can and do learn, given enough time, and enough input from a clue stick. And they will learn, even if they spend years whinging and complaining.
Please keep up the good work. I often refer people to your articles when they have publishing issues. They are incredibly valuable.
Not only is business “unfair”, life is “unfair”. I’ve been disabled all my life. No one promised me anything-not even a “chance” of anything. Learning the ins and outs of contract language can be challenging, but it’s worth it in the long run. Legalese is a language, just like French, English, Spanish or Esperanto (and its ‘rules’ probably make more sense than English grammar rules do).
Thank you for an interesting read.
Ten days ago, I read a blog post titled: “I don’t read any self-published author” by an author who also writes reviews on her blog.
The blog post angered me, because in my opinion, it was contemptuous to indie authors. It also got me thinking about my own experience, and I realized that there were many blogs or websites who never reviewed any indie author.
I could have whined about that on my own blog. Instead, I created a list (the list was improperly named “black list” before I realized that was a mistake on my part) where I referenced all the websites and blogs that never review any indie authors, inciting other authors to help me build that list.
I had some backlash because of that. Some people called me a Nazi. My “big” blog posts usually draw around 200 unique visits, and I got more than 4,000 in a single day (and 6,000 during past week-end).
I had to make apologies to some bloggers I had unintentionally offended.
Since then, I’ve written another blog post listing the blogs and websites which review indie authors.
As I explained, one of my goals was to create a buzz, because that buzz was for me a tool that would help me spur a cultural shift in society. Many people do not realize that there are no books of indie authors referenced on many “established” websites.
I also wanted a tool allowing indie authors not to ask the wrong persons for a review.
I wanted bloggers to be clearer about what books they review.
Regarding publishing, I do think that the non-disclosure clause is the main thing that enables publishers to hide so many horrid clauses.
That, and the threat of legal proceedings.
If those clauses were discussed in blogs with the publishing companies which use them identified, if there was a Wikileaks of the bad contracts naming names, thinks could really change faster.
In my humble opinion.
Your remarks about Amazon’s market dominance are spot-on, Kris. I used to be a business reporter. When I began in the 90s, big-box stores like Borders, Barnes & Noble, Media Play, and a couple others, had come on the scene and were taking huge bites out of the book and CD markets. Within a few years, those bricks-and-mortar chains found themselves up against online retailers and the once-dominant big boxes had to adapt and some of them didn’t make it. I’ll be amazed if Amazon commands the same competitive position in a 10 to 20 years as it does today.
Heh, you must’ve read my mind today Kris. I was rather sorry for myself today, thinking man, this writing thing is sooo hard. But yes, “Fair is in August”. I tell myself quitting isn’t an option because I’ve quit before, and I really regretted it. Thanks for this kick in the butt 😉
In my (European) Country, you have to have a certain Level of education to practice certain crafts and trades. It is an atavism of the guild system.
You start as an apprentice, after a few years you can take the exam to become a journeyman/woman.
At that Level you can work at any Company of your trade as that Kind of craftsperson.
If you want to own the Business however, you have to become a master craftsperson, learn accounting and attend Business classes.
I AM a cowardly and lazy. I dread taxes and contract phrasing, so my learning proceeds slowly. But I am well aware that it is my responsibility alone to educate myself, to run my Business and to own up, when I sign something.
Especially because I want to se myself as an Artist, I need to learn Business… it’s the only way to become a master craftsperson instead of an Amateur.
As an Indie writer I’m all for taking control, but I believe you have misread the Author Guild’s intentions. I don’t think their letter has anything to do with asking publishers for a fair deal, I think it’s a way of drumming up public sympathy and/or setting a fire under authors themselves. Because you are right, the Guild has no clout. That is why it needs the support of the public and authors in general – to drum up the clout to ‘go on strike’.
I know unions have historically not had a lot of clout in the US either, but here in Australia we know the value of drumming up support from the rank and file [and the public]. And that is exactly what I think the Guild is trying to do.
At the moment, mid-listers are deserting the ranks in dribs and drabs, which is fine for them, not so fine for the ones they leave behind. For the ‘Give me what I want or I’m gonna leave’ tactic to work, it has to be done en masse.
Given that many traditionally published authors are trapped in contracts from which they cannot exit, I don’t think the Guild’s strategy will work, but I have to applaud them for at least trying /something/, even if it’s too little, too late.
I’m afraid you’re the one who misunderstands,acflory. The Authors Guild–in spite of their name–is not a union. Unions do have the ability to speak for their members and to have their members take action. The Authors Guild is a “society,” which is based on education, which is something it does not effectively do. (See last week’s post.)
I’m not a writer. I was a lawyer with my own small practice and am now semi-retired. Seldom did anything in my practice annoy me more than these closed, clannish areas of the law where certain lawyers effectively formed a club which dominated the area. Virtually all industries involved with the arts and entertainment fall into these categories. Some big sports bodies here in Australia actually accredit agents, and seek to vilify and discredit the few agents who eschew such accreditation.
Publishing is not alone. There are many industries who have developed their own set of murky practices and terms. They then seek to work only with lawyers, agents and other professionals who are familiar with the practices of the particular industry. When a lawyer outside of the club first looks at, say, a publishing contract, the first reaction is one of sheer horror. Even surely they must be joking! Just trying it on!
Sadly, they are not. A long list of suggested changes will often result in some well meaning advice to your client behind your back. Advice that your lawyer is not familiar with the industry and its practices, and that this lack of familiarity will probably lose you the once in a lifetime opportunity. Other lawyers will be suggested. The lawyers for the publishers concerned will make some changes, but will insist that many grossly unfair terms remain, on the basis that it is standard industry practice. The artistic client, often above such worldly matters, will want to proceed. The wise lawyer will advise in writing against it. The client will proceed anyway.
Some professionals within the particular industry “club” retain their professional integrity, warning the client of the unfairness as well as the realities. Others seem to have lost any semblance of integrity and effectively prefer their own interests in maintaining their relationships with the large players in the industry over their clients interests, Advice to the client may be little more than yes, this is a standard publishing contract. And the thought of agents negotiating contracts literally sends shivers down my spine.
All this is but one of the reasons why I have derived a great deal of satisfaction from the success of Indies and Self-Publishing, and of Amazon. Even were Amazon to become the monopoly that some shrills currently claim it to be, it is difficult for me to see how it could abuse its power more egregiously than did the actual oligopoly of large publishers.
Kris’s advice is absolutely correct. Even if you are writing only for the sheer love of it, have no interest in business and do not see yourself as being in a business, don’t take the attitude that you are an artist and above all of it. You do not want to give away the rights to your works for the whole of your life and beyond in return for a paltry advance which will probably never earn out, a few bundled services which are cheaply and easily available from freelancers, and a marketing plan more likely to be honoured in the breach rather than the observance.
This is horrifying, Darryl.
It is horrifying, but it is also reality. Which is where Kris’s advice is excellent. I suspect these terrible terms in publishing contracts came about largely because authors did not and mostly do not view themselves as being either practical or commercial. They trust people they should not to protect these interests. Agents looking mostly to line their own pockets, in an industry which had created a situation where even getting such an agent was a major achievement. Lawyers with conflicts of interest or thoroughly stockholmed.
My post may not appear to be positive, but it does have good news. Protecting yourself is up to you. You can self-publish. Amazon’s terms are much fairer than most traditional publishers, and if you are unhappy you can walk away with the rights to your work intact. And if you do want a contract with a Big Publisher, your option to self-publish can be a strong plus for you in negotiations. If you want to use an agent, then be very clear in your own mind what the agent brings to your corner and the cost. Take the trouble to enquire and research so you can pick a good one. And don’t be afraid to negotiate the agents terms. Use a lawyer to do so. Use the same care in picking your lawyer. In business this process is sometimes called due diligence. And be ever alert for conflict of interest. Use a lawyer to negotiate terms of contract with the publisher, not an agent. And if your lawyer comes back to you with a contract giving your work away forever to the Publisher,, containing draconian non-compete clauses, making it impossible to get your work back, emasculating your royalties for even a 1 cent price drop, or some of the other terrible clauses which even a brief Google search will reveal, ask them why. And ask yourself whether you should not be looking for another lawyer.
As Kris said, it is a tough world. Very unfair in many instances. But you are not powerless. Nor stupid unless you choose to be.
The minute I read the headline for this, I started grinning, but not because it was about traditionally published authors and the Authors Guild. I started grinning because indie authors behave the same way.
Anyone who’s in KDP Select knows that the per page payout for KU has shown pretty much a steady decline. (It ticked up a little, I think in November, but is back down again for December.) This has been the subject of much discussion on Facebook author groups. Seeing what was going on, I decided to uncheck the Select auto-renew box last month. A few others unchecked it this month. But there are a large number of indie authors saying, “But half my income comes from KU!” My reaction is, “How is that going to change if authors stay in the program?” Because Amazon is a business and is going to pay as little as necessary to keep content in KU. I think the only leverage authors have is to start publishing on other sites.
But the reason I’m grinning is that my inspiration to uncheck that box came from this quote:
“When the world changes around you and when it changes against you–what used to be a tail wind is now a head wind–you have to lean into that and figure out what to do because complaining isn’t a strategy.” Jeff Bezos
Yes! Thank you. This letter is especially whiny, but in truth much that I have read from the Author’s Guild is whiny in tone – unless it’s just being arrogant.
My concern with this letter is up until now the AG has always been in lockstep with big publishing, so much so that it has developed twin reputations for being indifferent to authors’ welfare. This whole letter feels to me a political move, or if you like the language of con artists, it’s the setup. Publishers can’t come out and declare that they are now more author friendly by answering to their legitimate critics, but if a known ally calls them to task, especially, an ally who would benefit from this too, then at a later date big publishing could make a show about contract reform, ect., and both come out smelling like roses.
I will tell you this, what I know about cons, I mean political strategies to gain trust, is if you thought the underhanded manuevers were bad before, they’ll be worse after this all settles down. Also, reform without legal consequences is useless. There was no call to real effective action in the letter. It is at best a nice show, at worst they are just playing big publishing front man.
But, of course, your advice about being your own advocate is the best defense against all forms of tyranny. I hope people listen.
No, your column didn’t make me angry, Kris. I’m relieved. Hard is relative. Over the last two months, I handled the majority of my parents-in-law’s care. And I was fine with that until one of my sisters-in-law made the comment that it was a good thing I didn’t have a real job. I calmly replied, “No, I have a company to run.”
Both that incident and your column are good reminders of what I really need to focus on.
Wow, that is so insulting, but sadly, not surprising, Suzan.
I don’t think her sister-in-law said that with any degree of malice but yeah it is insulting. Many people just don’t understand. Their view of a real job is oing to the office from 8-5, taking 45 minutes for lunch, then coming home.
Great post! Yes, writers have to take charge of their own careers if they want success. They can’t be little scared mice because the big cats will eat them for snacks. Unfortunately, writers prefer to be snacks instead of writers. Some of them will never learn and some of them that do get burned will sadly disappear because they don’t want to learn business and learn how to do it independently.
I did just this last week. Don’t want to share details, but: I asked a trad publisher “hey, would you like a book at these financial terms?” They said “of course we’ll take that!” No non-compete. No agent. No worries.
Never mind that we’d had a… er… “spirited discussion” about royalty rates on the prior book.
I didn’t have to say “or we can repeat that last argument,” or “or shall I knock on someone else’s door?” or any number of other things.
And I’m no Patterson. I’m a nobody. A nobody who hates confrontations.
If I can do it, anyone can.
Have the argument. Show them that you’re willing to fight. Demonstrate that you know your options. It is SO worth it.
Mike Plested and I interviewed Mike Stackpole at WFC 2011. In the conversation, he said he fought and got the rights back to nearly all his books. It took him a few years, but with self publishing on the rise, he felt it was worth it. The more he fought, the easier it became to get his rights back. When he asked why it was getting easier, he was told he was making too much noise and it was easy to let on author go when 1000 wouldn’t do anything. Those others got stuck when publishers decided that having an eBook out meant a book never went out of print.
I learned a lot in 2011 from Stackpole and I still hear his advice reworded by others around the net. Much of it remains true. Fight for what you want. Stand up for your self. Don’t just roll over and let yourself be taken advantage of. Self publishing isn’t a hobby, it’s a business and should be treated as such. Get educated and STAY educated.
Thank you for your blog and for helping those of us that wish to keep moving forward stay focused on what’s really important in this business…ourselves.
Just a shout-out that Mike Stackpole gave me some great advice back in that era of self-publishing, and his ingenuity and determination were an inspiration.