Business Musings: Idle Thoughts
Late Saturday night, I finished teaching a writing workshop about history, alternate history, and time travel for professional writers. We read a bunch of books, worked on technique, and talked about turning points in history.
Turning points are important for time travel and alternate history. Identifying turning points and then postulating what would happen if something went differently is an essential skill for the time travel or alternate history writer.
I ended up exhausted after the workshop—which really isn’t fair, because I was exhausted going into the workshop because…September, as I said in a blog of that name. I’m clawing my way out of the fatigue, but my brain is still making random connections—the thing it does when it’s really tired. I don’t go from Point A to Point B in this state. I go from Point A to Point 243 to something way off the grid.
So, last week, as we discussed Vienna of the 1920s and Baghdad in what we Westerners call “The Middle Ages,” I found myself thinking about lost cultures and lost worlds. Sometimes those worlds disappear in an instant—Hiroshima in 1945—and sometimes they disappear over decades (the world before the Enlightenment) and sometimes they disappear in a few years, as many places in Europe saw in the 1910s, 20s, and early 30s.
Those thoughts, still swirling in my head, came to fruition the other day, as I realized we’re losing a world in publishing. The traditional rules that governed our industry since the late 19th century are going away. Some people still play by those rules, but for the most part, we’re in such a new environment that it’s as if the Industrial Revolution happened and a handful of us haven’t yet discovered coal.
There’s a weird sadness with losing a world, even if that world isn’t particularly beneficial. I’m not sure I understood nostalgia until I hit my 40s, but when I did, I realized I wasn’t longing for the world that was. I was longing for the understandable nature of the world—the idea that the rules I learned were fixed, and that I could make my way through and around them because I had mastered them.
In this new world of publishing, the new rules aren’t always evident. The industry hasn’t settled down, and we don’t know what will be familiar to people three generations from now.
We’re groping our way in the semi-darkness, trying to figure things out. And it’s deeply unsettling.
Or it was, for me, up until some point this year. Now I feel a lot more grounded. I hadn’t figured out why I’m feeling that way either—at least I hadn’t figured it out intellectually. Usually, when I feel calmer, it means I’ve accepted the change or I believe that the new place I’m in is somewhere better than I was before.
In the case of this new world of publishing, my brain understood that I was in a better place long before my emotions did. But my emotions are starting to catch up.
This morning, I was doing some noodling around, preparing for another project when an idle thought crossed my brain. Did you know, my idle thought said, that you’ve already earned more money on a novel you’re releasing next year than you would have earned as an advance?
Why that idle thought decided to present itself at that moment, I’ll never know, but it certainly stopped me from the prep on the task I was completing. I decided that my idle thought couldn’t be right, so I had to do some math.
I finished the book in July. Tentatively, the book was scheduled for the late spring because another book in the series had to come first. I sold subsidiary rights to the July book almost immediately, and the money added up fast. It beat the last traditional advance I had gotten for any book in that series, and it also beat any traditional advance I had gotten on books in that genre in the 21st century.
And I haven’t even published the book yet. In fact, the book’s publication date had to be moved to the fall because of one of those subsidiary rights.
What caused this? Granted, some of it is the reputation I have built over the decades as a writer. I contacted the subsidiary rights editors and asked if they wanted the book. They asked to read it, they read it, and then they contracted for it. (They clearly would not have bought the book on my name only—that’s rarely done any more, because of tightening budgets.)
So, my name got the contact and the quick response.
The book itself got the deal.
The fact that I did not have an agent facilitated those deals. There was no back-and-forth in a game of telephone, me telling the agent to tell the editor, etc. I sent the book, I negotiated the contracts, and I finalized the deals.
In fact, I can imagine one of my former agents actually arguing me out of one of those deals, probably saying it would “hurt” the book. Yeah, right. No. These deals have benefited me—
And I out-earned an old-fashioned traditional publishing advance. I’m still releasing the book around the world in paper and in ebook next fall, so at that point, the book will begin earning in those formats.
Quick, fast gravy. What a surprise to me.
This comes on the heels of an astoundingly successful Kickstarter subscription drive for Fiction River. I know a lot of you participated, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
One of the reasons the Kickstarter succeeded was something else that’s relatively new in this brand new world: Fiction River’s volumes remain in print. So, as we were designing the Kickstarter, we could offer all kinds of deals on past issues of Fiction River, as well as future issues. (If you still want to subscribe, you can go to the website.)
While the Kickstarter was going on, a couple of volumes of Fiction River were in two other promotions through Storybundle. Readers could get ten books, including a Fiction River, for a low price, read the Fiction River volume, and then decide whether or not to promote the Kickstarter. A number of people did that—piggybacking promotions, which worked really well.
I’d love to say we planned it that way, but as I wrote in a previous blog, the timing was mere happenstance. (One of those promotions has ended, but the other continues, if you would like a deal on some ebooks and to sample Fiction River.)
I’ve curated some bundles through Storybundle and I’ve learned a few things. For example, if your agent published your ebook, then I’m not going to work with you, even though most writers consider that “self-publishing.” (I have no idea how that is “self”-publishing, but to each their own, I guess.) Agents don’t understand the concept of bundling books with other authors and actively get in the way of getting the book into the bundle, let alone contacting the author. It’s a true nightmare.
The other side to bundling with other authors? There are writers who write great books and expect everything to come to them because of it—everyone else should work hard, because they wrote something. Then there are writers who write great books and work hard to get the word out. Finally, there are the writers who haven’t learned their craft yet, but sure as hell can promote anything.
In a bundle with other writers, the writers who write well and work hard are the ones you want. Because readers aren’t dumb. If you sell them a bundle filled with bad books, then the readers aren’t going to buy another bundle. But if you sell them a bundle filled with writers whose works they enjoy, then the readers will return, both to a bundle and to other works.
Bundling works like an anthology: readers might not like everything they bought, but the price is low enough that the reader is happy to give the new-to-them writers a try. Including an anthology series like Fiction River in the bundle adds even more writers that readers will learn about. And that’s a win-win.
These opportunities wouldn’t exist without the new world.
I’ve been crossing back and forth into the old world a little with some of the promotions for Women of Futures Past. I’ve been doing some radio promotions—many of which are just great. The DJs are knowledgeable and easy to talk with. They know what they’re about, and they made it easy on me. They want the broadcast to be good, and modern, and helpful to their listeners.
And then there are the old-school guys, who haven’t looked at the product, get your name wrong (repeatedly, in my case), and want you to explain something complicated in five seconds. It’s particularly hard when the old-school DJ misunderstands your project and gets the information backwards. These guys don’t ask how readers can find the material; these folks are just filling up air time. I get it. I used to work in radio. And when you’re faced with 8-minute content blocks throughout your 4-hour shift, you see everything as a ticking second on a clock, rather than thinking of your listeners and their needs.
I’ve done a lot of podcasts over the past several years—more podcasts than radio interviews, to be honest—and I’ve found that podcasts, while time consuming, are a lot more fun. The podcaster asks you to talk with them at length about a subject, and it feels like a discussion among friends.
I have no idea if either method moves books, and honestly, I don’t care. Because, as I’ve written before, discoverability isn’t about moving books from a single interview. It’s about making sure that readers hear about you from a variety of ways and sources.
Most of those ways and sources exist online these days. I’ve done podcasts based in Australia, England, Denmark, and Canada as well as the U.S. I try to keep the podcasts to a minimum, partly because if I’m on an hour-long podcast, I lose an hour of writing time. But I do prefer a podcast to an 8-minute radio interview, strictly because I can explain things to someone who is actually interested, rather than someone who sees you as a bridge between commercial breaks.
The other nice thing about podcasts is that they fill a niche for me that sf conventions used to fill: the podcast enables me to interact with like-minded people while other like-minded people listen in. Rather like a panel. Since my health is preventing me from traveling as much as I would like, I still get to have interesting conversations with people I’ve just “met,” conversations we all can enjoy.
Plus, podcasts remain. For example, let me share three podcasts with you. There’s the podcast I did most recently, with Castle of Horror on Women of Futures Past and a few other projects.
Then there’s the podcast I did with Jonathan Strahan a year ago now, on the same book, with everything fresh in my brain because I had literally turned the book in a few days before.
And finally, here’s my favorite podcast from the past year, done with Mark Lefebvre and the women of the Uncollected Anthology. We were all punchy, and that makes for good ear candy.
These would all be ephemera back in the day, talking about projects you couldn’t get any more except through a used bookstore. All of that has changed, at least for me.
Even with Women of Futures Past. I brought that project to a traditional publisher, Baen Books, because—let’s be honest here—they’re not a traditional publisher. They’re a major publisher, yes, but not a conglomerate. They’re an independent publisher, with an easily identifiable owner and a clear vision. They’ve been innovative in new technologies for thirty-plus years, and they’re still nimble.
In fact, many years ago, they moved out of the New York area to get away from the massive overhead, and have taken other risks as well.
They have an existing infrastructure for print books that gets those books into the stores I wanted Women of Futures Past in, as well as an infrastructure that allows libraries to see the book easily and enables some schools to get the book too.
I could do that with the businesses I own, but that would have been reinventing the wheel. And the Women of Futures Past was timely. So, oddly enough, I went into the old system to get a timely project into the right places—something I could do, because my writing business is now nimble too.
(And for those of you who’ve been following the contract series, Baen, with its small structure, has a lot more room to negotiate on the points that interest me.)
Baen’s been fun to work with. They’re amazingly responsive and I’m learning a lot about the new world of publishing from them, which surprised me.
They have a podcast as well, which I’ve been on once, and will be on again in a few weeks. They’re doing a lot of innovative things, which I admire.
Does that mean I’ll do all my books with a traditional publisher? Nope. It means I’m taking my work one project at a time. I have a few more Kickstarters planned for upcoming projects. I’m working on something only a few people know about, as a complete experiment, because I can. I have a list of projects I need to finish, and some editing projects that are quickly moving off the back-burner.
Plus, I need to revise the contract series I worked on all summer for an upcoming Storybundle, so I have a hard deadline on that as well. That project, funded through the blog, is yet another way this new world works for me. I couldn’t have written contracts and dealbreakers without all of you. Instead, I would have just bitched about the way that the Big Publishers (5? 4? 2.5? Who knows) work these days, as well as the way agents work. Dean and I would have taught classes to a dozen people at a time, hoping to get the word out, rather than blogging to thousands like we do now.
Sure, people ignore what we say at times, and I don’t mind that. So many of you have written to let me know what you have learned or how you used it, and believe me, I find that both touching and valuable. Thank you.
Here’s what I realized, maybe even during this insanely busy month. I realized that deep down—on that emotional level—I don’t want to return to the world that was. Yeah, sometimes I’m nostalgic for the rules—not because I want to follow them, but because I knew how to creatively break them, and I missed knowing where the fissures and cracks that I can manipulate are.
But I so strongly do not want to return to that world that I now have trouble advising writers who do want to enter that world. I find it annoying that they even ask me how to get there and how to succeed.
There are so many more opportunities in the indie-publishing world, so many more ways of doing things, so many ways to control and guide your own career, that when I hear a young writer want to give all of that up for an advance that won’t even pay their house payment for a month or for “validation” (whatever that means) or for someone to “take care of all that business stuff,” I just want to walk away. Or say something totally inappropriate.
I don’t do either — yet— although I do recommend they go elsewhere for advice. I’m no longer a one-stop-fits-all blogger. I’m where I’ve always been: pro-writer.
But the pro-writer position these days is in the indie world, not the traditional one. Hybrid is great for some of us, so long as we choose it because we’ve looked at the options and decided that straddling both worlds is good for us or a particular project. But 100% traditional? It’ll only come around and bite you in the ass.
And I no longer want to be a part of that. I don’t want to help writers get harmed, even if that harm is five years after the initial decision gets made.
The old world of publishing is fading away, like the pre-industrialized world did in the 19th century. The world that is taking the place of the old world of publishing is one I greatly prefer.
I’m lucky to have made it here, with all of these amazing opportunities. It’s such a rich new world that I’m overwhelmed at times.
And honestly, I can’t imagine coming of age in this world, with a wholly different perspective. That’s something for younger bloggers, who never aspired to an agent or a publishing contract, to blog about at some point.
Although I realize it’s hard to blog about something as familiar as air.
I’m still exhausted. I need to put together some projects that I promised for this week, and I also need some sleep. So I’m wrapping up this blog now, and I’ll write something with more depth next week when, in theory, my brain will return in some kind of coherent manner instead of serving up random idle thoughts.
Until then, enjoy whatever you’re doing. Because this world is so much more fun than the one we’re leaving behind.
And that’s something I know for a fact.
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“Business Musings: Following The Crowd,” copyright © 2016 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2016 by Canstock Photo/rfcansole.