Business Musings: Personal Paradigm Shift, Again
As I wrote earlier this year, the changes in the publishing industry continue to smack me in the head. I learned the old publishing industry very well—the one that existed from the mid-1970s to the late 1990s. I survived the early 2000s, and then indie publishing came along.
I started this blog—in a different form and under a different blog title—in April of 2009. All of the posts I’ve written about business remain on this site. You can see the evolution of my thinking over time. You can also see the evolution of the industry.
For example, I post my blog on Thursday. I used to joke that on Saturday morning, I had to duck, because all the newbie expert writers from the Kindle Boards would be outraged! Outraged, I tell you! at something I wrote. I could predict it. If I disparaged Amazon or Kindle or The Accepted Way of Doing Things (2010-2011 version) on Thursday, on Saturday morning I’d get dozens of comments I could put on the blog, and another thirty to forty that were deliberate trolling.
These people were Righteous and Angry and Certain Their Way Was Right.
Most of these people have now gone on to other things.
Writing is tough. Those early days were a gold rush for a lot of writers, but as gold rushes do, the money settled out, paying a handful of early adapters very well, and a bunch of others not so much. The people who sell services around the gold rush—from editors to marketers to designers—make more money than many writers do now just like the owners of the general store and mining supply companies used to back in the days of the real Gold Rush(es).
I decided early on that what I needed to do was have a real business plan. I also realized I needed to continue to learn. I had a feeling this new world would be different from the old, but I didn’t know how different. I planned as best I could, and rode the wave on other things, making some mistakes as I went. Because I had a strong base under my business, the mistakes were never catastrophic (although several were annoying), and I learned from each and every mistake—sometimes pissing and moaning the whole way. (Okay, mostly pissing and moaning.)
What I find I have the most trouble with, though, are some embedded assumptions that come from learning a similar business inside-out-upside-down-and-backwards. When I rely on my old publishing assumptions, I often make the wrong choice—for me.
And I think that’s the hardest thing I face: There is no one shining path to success any longer. There used to be. You had to get an agent to sell your books traditionally—or you had to be really persistent to do it yourself. There were a lot fewer IP attorneys in the 1980s; that’s a profession that has just started to come into its own in the past 20 years. So hiring a lawyer was often a waste of money. It’s essential now.
Once you sold to a traditional publishing company, that company helped your name grow. I had sold 8 novels before my first hit print. All of those sales were multi-book deals, which I had fulfilled before my first novel hit print. Granted, they were with two separate publishers, in two different genres. Two of the books were collaborations with another new writer (Kevin J. Anderson), and the remaining six were in three-book contracts, all under my name.
Obviously, there were no non-compete clauses in any of those contracts, and I wouldn’t have signed those contracts had there been. (I wouldn’t sign one now, either.) Both publishers knew about the other, and they planned to work with each other to build my career. No one told me to slow down, no one told me to write less, no one confined me to a genre.
It wasn’t heaven by a long ways. There were problems. But it was a lot better than it would become by the year 2000.
When I started out, you could—and did—sell novels over drinks with an editor whom you had just met (or were friends with). Once the novel deal with struck—details to be determined later—you let your agent know, and he/she/it (yes, “it.” I stand by the “it.” Some of those agents deserve an “it.”) would negotiate those pesky details, bumping the advance to accommodate the agent’s cut (and more), and sometimes moving a book from a mid-list title to a frontlist title.
More often than not, though, the agent rubber-stamped the deal you agreed to over dinner.
You knew your editor, you knew your agent, you shared meals and drinks with them, you watched them work their magic at various conventions, and you knew what you were getting into (kinda sorta). Yes, there were writers who never left home, but they were the exception, not the rule. And they didn’t sell as much.
It had become essential, in an odd sort of way, to go to conferences and conventions to make connections. If you didn’t have much of a travel budget, it wasn’t really a problem because every state had conventions—often every town—and you would get an opportunity to meet editors there.
In fact, the first national editors I met were at a romance convention held in Madison, Wisconsin, in the early 1980s. I have no idea how big the convention was, but almost all of the writers were local Wisconsin writers. The editors came from out of state. I sat quietly and learned.
Then Kevin dragged me to a science fiction convention around the same time period. There were two major differences—there were more men at the sf convention and everyone there seemed to be wearing long Tom Baker Doctor Who scarves (homemade, of course) instead of pink business suits. Otherwise, very much the same. Local authors, national editors, lots of business getting conducted over dinners and drinks and just standing in the hallway.
I’m not a naturally gregarious person. I am about as introverted as they come. I pretend to be extroverted and that mostly works for me, but I still have that zzzzzzt reaction (rather like touching a live wire) when I meet another person as introverted as I am. Often we can’t talk at all, because we recognize that we’re kindred spirits and we want to run to our respective corners.
I learned to survive and even thrive in that old environment. I love conventions, not because of the business, but because of the fans.
Once I became an established author, the only way to interact with the fans was to go to a convention. I met my readers there, and they told me what they liked, what they didn’t like, and what they wanted. Book signings were also nice for that, but less concentrated. Usually at a two-hour signing I met a handful of people who had actually read the book, and a whole bunch who wanted to sample the book. even when I had lines out the door, they were equal parts established readers and new-meet-the-author readers.
The internet crept in slowly for writing. I was an early adapter. I got my first website in 1996 or so (and put a notice of it in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction which I was editing at the time, getting the web address so hilariously wrong that a dozen readers wrote in to correct me). There was interaction back then, and growing e-mail from readers, but it wasn’t hugely significant. Most people weren’t on the internet yet, and if they were, they were interacting on boards rather than websites.
This is one area where the music industry diverged from the publishing industry. (Otherwise, they’re in a time-warp parallel—what the music industry went through 10-15 years ago is what publishing is experiencing now.) Musicians had MySpace (remember that?) and it helped start many, many bands and singers. YouTube became more influential over time, but in the beginning, MySpace was the go-to place.
Writers didn’t have that—except in isolated pockets. Dean spent a lot of time on the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds AOL board. I popped in and out of the boards for the readers of Asimov’s and Analog. But mostly, these were isolated communities. The community aspect of readership grew with Goodreads, but those readers (at the time) didn’t want to interact with writers; they wanted to interact with other readers.
Slowly this all changed. I get mail daily from readers now. I interact with a lot of them on Twitter, and on Facebook. I have a lot of interaction here on the blog.
In fact, the problems I’ve been having with the website come from growth. For the last few months, you’ve probably noticed that the site has gotten slower and slower. It’s because my webhost has a lovely feature: it throttles sites that get too big too fast, as mine is doing. I am in the process of moving to a dedicated server, which costs both money and time. My other choice is to move to another web host, but that too would cost both money and time. I investigated, of course, but it looks like (at the moment) staying the course is best.
What this means for you all is pretty simple: You’ll have to put up with a slow response from my site through early April as I migrate everything to a dedicated server. Then things should move smoothly again. (Sorry!)
The difference between my site and other author sites is the growth—and the fact that I’m doing it in public.
The growth is a good thing. And it’s been astonishing. The site hasn’t grown exponentially because of one blog or one major book. It’s grown over time into a go-to site for free fiction (on Mondays) and free nonfiction (on Thursdays).
I’ve been surprised by it only when it comes to my attention, such as these past few months. Just like my Twitter followers. They continue to grow. And so does Facebook—all without me pushing. But the response I get is good, and here’s the thing:
More people interact with me and my work on a daily basis than they did when I go to a convention. I was a Guest of Honor at MileHiCon last October and I had a blast. I love conventions. But MileHiCon had 1,000 attendees per day (spread over three days), and not all of those people came to see me. I doubt that most of those people came to see me.
I interact with more people than that on social media every day, and they did sign up to see me or spend digital time with me. I’ve known that for years now, but it hasn’t really sunk in—and it needs to.
You see, I had one of those life realizations this month. An unpleasant realization, at least for me. As many of you who follow this blog know, I have a lot of chronic health problems. They remain under control when I’m at home because I can control my environment—most of the time, anyway.
I have many allergies, and I have an allergy attack about three times per year, usually in restaurants or movie theaters. I’m so used to the signs now, I vacate before things get bad. However, at the anthology workshop this year, I had a severe allergy attack precisely because I wasn’t expecting it. I was deep into the reaction before I even noticed. I suffered the repercussions of that for more than a week.
That attack was the final shot across the bow. I’d been getting sicker and sicker when I traveled, but I figured I could manage. However, if I had had that particular allergy attack on a plane flight, I would have had to go to the hospital (and that was the best case scenario, even if I had used oxygen and an EpiPen). I finally, deeply, realized what Dean and various doctors have been dancing around for years: in 90% of the cases, I shouldn’t travel at all. Travel will now be an Event for me, something I plan like a military campaign. Usually it will not involve plane travel, because it’s just too dangerous.
To say I’ve been upset about this is an understatement. Part of the upset, though, comes from the Old Ways of Doing Things. I felt like there was no point—what would happen to my career?
If this were 1990, I’d be in serious deep doo-doo. I’d have had to work very, very hard to maintain some semblance of a career.
But this is 2016. I’m better off staying home. I can interact online with more people. I will have time to implement some things I’ve been wanting to do, like podcasting and other things. And I can continue the daily party that I love on social media.
Am I saying that writers shouldn’t travel for their careers? Heavens, no. Kevin J. Anderson and I have had parallel careers since we met in college. His has always been somewhat different than mine. We’ve watched each other from afar, trying to figure out if the other person’s way is better.
In 2016, Kevin will appear at 22 different shows, mostly comic conventions, promoting his work and the work of writers he publishes in WordFire Press, which he co-owns with his wife, Rebecca Moesta. I learned in 1992 that traveling almost every weekend is deadly for me: Dean and I did 26 shows that year, and it took years to recover from that, but I was younger then and my allergies weren’t as bad. (Nor were the chronic health problems.)
Kev is doing amazing things in his in-person promotions. He’s selling a lot of books, and managing to work on his own projects while on the road. He’s always been able to do that. He also does as much (or more) social media than I do.
Yet we’re equally successful in our various businesses. Our methods are different, significantly different now. We both have employees who help with various aspects of our career. His are focused on maintaining his business in his absence and helping with the conventions. Ours are focused on growing our online business and getting the business established so that it doesn’t need me and Dean there on a daily basis.
Similar goals, but different ways of getting there.
And that’s what I’ve been having the most trouble with these past two weeks. Once again, my brain has difficulty wrapping itself around the idea that there is more than one path to success in this new world.
I’m aware of it: Hell, I preach it here on the blog almost every week. But apparently, deep down, I’m still stuck in the (almost literal) ruts of my “upbringing” in traditional publishing. When I default for myself, I default to the One True Path idea—and I default hard.
So, this blog is really not for you. It’s for me. It’s a reminder that in this modern world there is no longer One True Path. There are as many new paths as there are writers. The internet has opened the world to all of us, and we can pursue the careers we want—or at least, the parts of the career we can manage.
You probably won’t see me at conventions from now on. But you will see me online, hear me in podcasts, and possibly see me on video podcasts. (I hope!)
I’ve finally made the decision I should have made years ago: I’m traveling rarely if at all. Fortunately for me, the precipitating event happened at home—and poor Dean didn’t have to take an emergency flight to some strange city in the middle of the night because his wife had to go to some strange hospital in an ambulance.
I’m still struggling with this. I know if I remain consistent and follow my routines, I’ll stay healthy. I’m good at consistent, as you all know. I hit this revived blog for 67 weeks now, even though I gave myself permission to take a week off now and then. Have I? Hell, no. I’m not that person. I like streaks and I’m good at them.
The biggest struggle for me with this decision has concerned those old career expectations. I really want to go to conventions, but they’re no longer necessary for the career, as I wrote last year. I really want to meet my editors in New York, but most of my editors don’t work in New York any more—and I already know them. Or, in the case of my novels, I don’t have traditional publishing editors on those projects at all any more.
It’s a paradigm shift for me. And a true one. Thomas Kuhn, the man who coined the phrase “paradigm shift,” defined it as “a series of peaceful interludes punctuated by intellectually violent revolutions,” and that’s kind of how it feels for me.
I blog peacefully during the interludes, and I struggle mightily in the violent revolution. These last few weeks have been revolutionary for me, and I’m still dealing with the fallout. I’m slowly achieving the other part of Kuhn’s definition. In those revolutions, “one conceptual world view is replaced by another.”
I’m getting there, of necessity. But I’m getting there.
It’s just amazing to me how deeply the old worldview has held my subconscious, and how hard I have to work to dislodge it. As an observer of my own process, I’m fascinated. As a person deep inside that process, I’m frustrated. If only change happened quickly and easily.
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“Business Musings: Personal Paradigm Shift, Again,” copyright © 2016 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2016 by Canstock Photo/lenm. Image in the middle of the blog copyright © 2016 by Canstock Photo/norwayblue.