Business Musings: Rip Van Winkle Syndrome

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Poking around through old last week, I found some predictions I had forgotten about. I wrote, in 2013, both in unfinished and finished blogs that it would take years for traditionally published writers to realize the world they’d been writing in was long gone. I could see that moment coming, as contracts ended, and new contracts started up.

What I didn’t foresee, and should have, was that traditional publishers would cut so many major bestsellers from their lists. Writers who made lots of money for the company had sales declines, just like everyone else.

Rather than negotiate a new contract, their publishers (particularly Penguin Random House) would stall and no longer answer queries about a new deal. Often these writers got new editors (several) along the way, and the new editors wouldn’t return phone calls to writers or their agents.

It was rejection by silence, the most nasty product of the new marketplace. Some editors would have the guts to tell their writers that any deal wouldn’t be to their liking. And some editors, off the record, would say that no deal was forthcoming.

Not until the writer or the agent pressed did the writer find out that their bestselling career had come to an end.

Now, most of these writers were not major bestsellers. These writers were making consistent six-figure incomes every year, not seven-figure incomes. Their books were selling well, until the entire industry upended itself, and rather than invest in a known product, their publishers threw these writers under the bus.

The moment I had predicted had arrived in late 2015, and got worse through the next year, and into 2017. Only I hadn’t expected it to be so brutal. Writers with solid careers were simply cut from publishers’ lists with no thanks, no by-your-leave, and no respect at all.

I had expected something else entirely. I had expected protracted contract negotiations that would end up with the writer making pennies compared with the deals that the writer had in the past. That’s what I expected for this second tier level of bestseller.

The midlist writers had already been cut from the lists, and I expected more midlist writers to get cut. Traditional publishers had long since stopped building writers’ careers, and hoped only for big mega bestsellers.

Traditional publishers had figured out, about 2005 or so, that their current business model worked on hope, not on hard work. They would rather buy a brand-new untested author, lock them up for a two-book contract and hope that those books sold better than the books already in the stable.

That didn’t work, so a lot of careers have been cut short.

But the second-tier bestsellers—I simply expected them to take less money than they had before.

And some of them are. One friend tells me that per book, he makes exactly one-tenth of what he earned ten years ago. He’s writing more and getting paid less. He’s also not getting royalties or subsidiary rights sales, because publishers are licensing everything.

He would indie publish, he tells me, but he doesn’t have the time. He’s just trying to keep his head above water.

He made millions from about 1990 to 2007, and saved none of it. Like many writers, he thought the money would continue.

The major bestsellers are having the awakening that I had expected for the second-tier bestsellers. Book contracts for non-savvy major bestsellers come with big numbers—both in money and in time. What I had found, in one of my old blogs, was a note that in October of 2014, Danielle Steel had signed a ten-book contract with a publisher that would keep her writing for them until 2020.

The original link has long gone cold, but I found one anyway, without the 2020 mention. The deal was for North American rightsA second, related deal, occurred with Pan MacMillan in the UK.

This is how publishing used to work, and was still working as of three years ago at ;east, for some of the big names. It might continue to work this way for Steel, whose novels seem bulletproof.

But there are cracks around the foundation. John Grisham made a telling comment to The New York Times when his latest novel Camino Island was released earlier this year.  Here’s how Janet Maslin of the Times reported his comments:

He doesn’t worry much about book sales either, except he’s very alert to the numbers. “The biggest change for me has been that I’m selling about half the books I sold before the Great Recession,” he said. “Maybe a little bit more than half. This is discretionary spending, and people are not spending.”

In reality, book sales have risen consistently for the past several years now. But Grisham isn’t the only traditional writer to see his sales decline.

In fact, his sales have declined less than most major bestsellers’ sales. After I became aware of that comment, I watched Camino Island’s performance on bestseller lists. On the USA Today list which tracks sales (not some whim of the list builder [cough: New York Times]), Grisham was number one for weeks.

On the new Amazon Charts, introduced at the same time as the book’s release, Camino Island was in the top five books being read, and always the top new book being read on that list. (I’m assuming the Charts only follow ebooks, since we paper readers who buy from Amazon don’t report our reading habits.)

Grisham still has loyal fans, but his readership has declined to his core readers. The folks who read him when they needed to read something reliable and couldn’t find any books by someone they loved, abandoned him with the rise of ebooks. Which was…wait for it…just after the Great Recession.

When Grisham’s contract is up, his publisher will want to keep him. But they probably won’t offer him the money they offered in the past. Nor will he get as sweet a deal as he got before the Great Recession.

I have no idea what will happen to Danielle Steel in 2020 (or 2019) when it comes time to negotiate her next book deal.

I can’t imagine that these major sellers will leave traditional publishing.

But so many people whom I never expected to leave are being kicked out. Some have savings, some don’t, but many are going from making a hell of a good living off their writing to making nothing.

So they’re popping their heads out of the sand, looking around, and seeing that indie writers are making money. The traditional folks who are joining us now out of necessity are where the rest of us were at in 2009-2012.

The world of indie publishing is new and scary to them. There’s a lot more information than there was when many of us started seven to eight years ago, but there’s a lot more misinformation too. And on top of it, the scams have become sophisticated.

It’s harder to tell when someone is a legitimate source of information or offering a legitimate class in modern publishing technology than it was not so long ago. And these people, who have experience in a world no longer available to them, are starting over in a world that looks familiar and isn’t.

In the past week, I’ve had three interactions with writers/publishers who have no idea how their world has changed.

  • One publisher asked me for the name of a newish professional writer to write work-for-hire for his gaming company. I told him the world was different, and I no longer know young writers who are willing to sell all rights just to get a foot in the door of traditional publishing.

That’s true. I don’t. The writers I know are either making a living as indies or are working at it. None of them want to write work-for-hire and most don’t want to be published traditionally. All of them know they can make more money as an indie than they would ever make in modern traditional publishing.

I ended up recommending two authors to him that this guy already knew. Both writers no longer have traditional publishing careers, but both refuse to learn how to publish indie and so, now, spend all of their time on social media, complaining that they can’t make a living any more.

They can use the money, and he already knows they’re good writers. I doubt they’ll make much, but that pittance will be more than they’re making now.

  • One writer is putting a toe into the indie waters without doing any research. I fear for him. He asks me the occasional weird question, such as should he pay $500 to take a course in how to use Scrivner. Um, no. I keep pointing him to free sites, my blog, Dean’s blog, publishing podcasts and other places to learn, and he consistently refuses to dig into the reading.

He’d rather take a course from a scam artist. Or, in truth, he’d rather pay someone to publish his book. But he knows that paying $5,000 for one book is not going to allow him to have a career, so he flails.

  • One writer—well, really, several writers— are coming to our Master Class. They’re aware that the world has changed, and they needs a lot of education on how to publish as a hybrid writer. They’re coming for the information and the networking.

These writers made a good living not too long ago. They’re now in a transition, but at least they know it. And they know how to find the information and the support group that will help them with the transition.

It’s tough enough for those of us who have been indie for years now. Every year, we run a Business Master Class and every year, we throw out 90% of the previous year’s notes. The industry changes that much and that fast. The best thing about the Business Master Class is the networking. We learn a lot while the class goes on, and afterwards, we can ask on the email list if someone has done X, and if it worked. Chances are someone on the list has tried X and has an opinion or a shorthand way of doing things.

We move on and we move forward. The others are stuck.

I remember how overwhelming it was for me to make the transition to mostly indie. I’m not entirely indie. My short fiction is still hybrid, as is all of my work in translation. But I can’t see any situation where I would ever go back to a traditional publisher for my novels. The contracts are awful, the lack of support profound, and the benefits nearly nonexistent.

The traditionally published writers who are being cut loose or who are being offered terrible deals are just beginning to realize this. And they’re at a complete loss as to what to do.

I feel for them. I really do.

I see a lot of nastiness about these traditional writers from indie writers, but the indies don’t understand. The indies believe the traditionally published former bestsellers should know what was going on in the indie world, when there had been no need for these traditional writers to know any of that.

They were writing their books, selling them to traditional publishers the old-fashioned way, and not paying attention to anything except writing.

That’s how traditional writers are trained (and spoon-fed this by agents and publishers who take most of the book’s profit). The traditional writers have been doing what they always did.

Until they were suddenly cut free.

I liken them to Rip Van Winkle. For those of you who aren’t Americans and didn’t have to read this tall tale (written by Washington Irving) in school, Rip Van Winkle was a somewhat shiftless man who liked his drink. He went into the Catskill Mountains one afternoon in 1769 (I think) to avoid his nagging wife.

He has a strange dream about bowling with bearded men (who are always depicted as dwarves) and awakens to find his beard is long and the musket he always carries is rusted.

He wanders out of the mountains into a strange situation. His wife is dead, his children are grown, and the very world has changed under his feet. He’s been asleep for twenty years, and in that time, the American Revolution happened, and the Brits lost.

So instead of King George the III ruling colonies, George Washington is president of the United States of America. Nothing is the same. It seems similar—the town still exists, Rip Van Winkle’s favorite tavern still exists—but all the concerns of the people around him are different. The habits, the way that business is done, are all very, very different.

Traditionally published writers, particularly those who were doing well ten years ago, are Rip Van Winkle. While they were writing their books (in autumn in the Catskills), the entire world shifted underneath them. Because they had followed the rules and had the agents/publishers handle the business, these writers felt no need to keep up—because they never had before.

Now they’re dropped, one by one, into a world as strange to them as the one Rip Van Winkle found himself in. The structures (houses, taverns, churches) look the same, but the way things are done is very, very different. And to make matters worse, it’s not easy to explain how the changes came about.

Most of us lived through those changes, watched the changes day by day, argued about them, figured out how to navigate them, and found the best solutions for us.

These traditionally published writers need to learn everything, from business management to how to publish a quality book to distribution to how to avoid scams.

To make matters worse, no one who has been doing this for a long time wants to explain the beginner stuff. We went through that years ago, and we don’t want to think about it any more.

When I think someone is not serious about learning it, like the publisher who wanted a writer for a work-for-hire, I simply say that I don’t know anyone who could help him any more. I used to, but I don’t any longer.

If some writer whines and tells me that they only want to write and learning the other stuff is too hard, I nod and quietly make a note not to waste much time with them.

However, if a writer truly wants to learn, and continually asks good questions, I’ll help as much as I can. They’re going to have to do the heavy lifting themselves, though—reading blogs, finding the (free) instructions on the web, taking the occasional course from reputable folks.

I’ll steer those writers away from the scams. I’ll make sure they know where to find the tools they need to succeed. That’s partly what this blog does.

I’d like to say that’s why we put on the Business Master Class every year, but it’s not. We put on the Business Master Class so that we stay at the forefront of learning to negotiate this new world. Last year, Joanna Penn mentioned Teachable in passing to Dean, and now many of the courses and lectures we offer to help writers navigate this new world of publishing are available on Teachable.

It’s been a godsend, really, because before services like that existed…um…just a few years ago, we had to do a lot of the sign-up stuff by hand.

Those are the kind of changes that make all the difference. But they’re small and they’re subtle and they don’t make a lot of sense to someone who is staggering down a mountain with a rusted musket and a beard that grew a foot overnight.

Last year, several writers who were in the Rip Van Winkle phase came to the Business Master Class. One whined loudly about everything he was going to have to do. To be fair, he has always whined loudly about things—and then did them with great dedication and creativity. He did the same thing this past year.

He applied himself to learning the new world of publishing. He took his bestselling series—the one his Big Five publisher stupidly abandoned—and published the next two (I think) books himself. His numbers have remained fairly consistent from traditional publishing to indie. He didn’t lose readers. He gained some.

And something else he gained. He gained almost all of the profits from his own work. He didn’t share it with an agent. And he certainly didn’t get pennies on the dollar from his publisher.

As he delightedly said to me a few months ago, he has had his best financial year ever, and the year isn’t even over yet.

Yep. That’s what writers who overcome their Rip Van Winkle Syndrome can do.

Most traditionally published writers will emulate Rip Van Winkle, though. They’ll hightail it to the local tavern, like he did after his strange experience, drink and complain about what they lost.

The smart ones, though, will learn everything they need to know about this new world and will see the freedom it gives them.

Those of us who have been indie throughout the transition can help the ones who need help, by pointing out the scams, helping them find the right places to learn, and teaching them how the business actually works.

We’re going to encounter a lot of Rip Van Winkles in the next five or so years. Be understanding of them. Be compassionate. They’ve been drinking and bowling in the mountains. They had no idea that dawn would bring a completely different world.

You can’t make them accept that world. But if they want help, provide it. Don’t judge them. It took all of us a while to figure out how to navigate this place.

We were motivated. If they are motivated too, they’ll do well.

We only have to give them a chance.


This blog tends to focus on indie and hybrid writing. I’ve watched my own interest in traditional publishing wane as time passes. Which makes this blog less useful for the newly indie writer.

You’d think I’d run out of indie blog topics, but I haven’t. I have a long list of ideas, plus a book to assemble from the previous blogs on branding. I’m finding myself so busy in this indie world that I marvel at it, almost every day.

This blog is interactive. Let me know if there’s information I’m missing. Please share it with your writer friends.

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“Business Musings: Rip Van Winkle Syndrome,” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / onime.


13 thoughts on “Business Musings: Rip Van Winkle Syndrome

  1. There are parallels to this sort of thing going on in the infrastructure of traditional publishing, too. While we see lots of trad-published authors wandering in to indie groups, we don’t often run across the back-office folks from trad publishing.

    So those of us who are interested in the invisible engines of the industry, like ONIX XML feeds for metadata and content, have a hell of a time coming up those learning curves. Now that PublishDrive and StreetLib are starting to offer ONIX feeds for input, I’m pioneering trying to do that as an indie (using ONIXEDIT) (cuz why not?). I’m an old IT techie and I understand the use of these sorts of standards and their strengths/weaknesses in general, but the expectations of the industry in practice (what retailers ignore from data feeds, for example) is part of a hidden culture that’s difficult to breach, though I’m making progress. Still, it’s in my personal wheelhouse and I like organized databases of materials.

    As we begin to scale up as micro-publishers, not just writers, those of us who want to may just keep on going, past the acquisition of the basic skills to write and distribute and market, and into the operating efficiencies of automation. There’s no barrier to it, and the available tools and services get better and better. We can do it as small companies with employees, or as one person with many hats, depending on our skill set — our choice.

    Great to have all those choices.

  2. It’s not just the traditional writers who have been sleeping but also the traditional support staff–publicists, marketers, editors. And now a lot of them are out of jobs and will have a hard time making a living unless they learn how indie publishing works.

  3. I can sympathize with these writers, but I have to admit that I have a very hard time understanding them.

    I’m of that certain age (cough. fif… cough) that remembers pulling up to a gas pump – and having a bouncy kid immediately come out and stick the nozzle into the tank, wash your windows, check your oil, your tire pressure, your water, your battery.

    Yet, I still learned how to do every last one of those things just as soon as I could reach over the hood. Even though I wasn’t one of those kids that was at all interested in auto mechanics, I still learned, and learned more over the years, as mechanics became more and more expensive. Although, sigh, there is less and less that I can do on cars these days without making an investment equivalent to setting up my own offset press operation…

  4. As always, a very interesting and thought provoking article. I wonder, though, what this influx of well-known writers will do /to/ the world of Indie publishing? Because they will have an affect.
    My hope is that they will bring an influx of readers with them as well, readers who have resisted ebooks in the past, for whatever reason. And perhaps readers who resisted /Indie/ as well.
    We live in interesting times.:)

  5. Absolutely spot on! You have nailed the complex issues facing an industry that ignored so much. Am old enough to remember buying nooks at indie stores…many perished with the big stores of Borders and Barnes and Noble. Now these are the stores for authors to make contact with the readers. It was baffling to watch the traditional publishing world ignore digital progress. Bill Patry writes of how we had a world of what publishers decided we would read. Now we have the world to explore. Kudos.

  6. Aha. This would explain the huge influx into our formerly tidy FB self-published writers networking group. Yesterday I had the pleasure meeting a writer whose defunct publisher landed her with a catalog of old titles, and now she has to republish them herself. I sent her to your course for blurbs, and shared my cover designer and proof reader contacts. I suggested she gets on ACX right away for audio. She is already working on the paper book end of things, and was entirely ecstatic. It must be hard (and parts still are hard for me,) but hey. I am still, as a writer of 4 years, getting so much help from others, all I can do is to pass it forward, right?
    Thank you for an illuminating piece that puts all these “new” writers into perspective.

  7. should he pay $500 to take a course in how to use Scrivner. Um, no. I keep pointing him to free sites, my blog, Dean’s blog, publishing podcasts and other places to learn, and he consistently refuses to dig into the reading.
    He’d rather take a course from a scam artist. Or, in truth, he’d rather pay someone to publish his book. But he knows that paying $5,000 for one book is not going to allow him to have a career, so he flails.

    Oh, Gods! You got McDojos !

    Best of lucks, truly. These things are poison.

    Take care

    1. I was going to comment on this segment as well because, if the course he was asking about was the one I think it was, the person who teaches it is not a scam artist as far as I know. People often need help in understanding how to use Scrivener, and although there are free videos and blogs and such available, taking a course is often the easiest way to become familiar with its features without being overwhelmed. (The one I took back when Scrivener was only for Macs was a lot cheaper than $500 though.)

      But it’s not at all the same as learning how to be an indie author. It’s a tool, just as Word is a tool, to make writing easier. But I get your point. Taking a class is often a way to procrastinate on doing the hard work. I’ve done it myself. You can pretend you’re being writerly without actually digging in and writing. Or ferreting out and studying the resources that exist.

      As you say, things are constantly changing, so this learning process never ends. I’m very grateful to you for your business posts and to so many in the indie community who have shared their experiences and their knowledge.

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