Business Musings: Sustainability
The big topic among successful indie writers in the last six months of 2017 is the possibility of burnout. Writers are slowly realizing that the pace they’ve maintained through the last few years isn’t sustainable.
Worse, it has become clear through data and anecdotal evidence that the more a writer produces, the more her income rises.
But that fact, coupled with the fact that incomes have fallen for indies in the past year or so, has given rise to something like panic among the successful indies. They’re having to work harder or just as hard to maintain an income that seemed to come easier in 2015.
And you know what? That’s normal.
I know, I know. You didn’t want to hear that. Because indie writers saw their incomes rise and rise and rise in the first three years of the gold rush. It seemed like every single thing the indie did increased her revenue.
And then, in 2016, those things didn’t work any more.
Now, before the comments come in, I am aware of the fact that Amazon changed its Kindle Unlimited payouts during that time. I’m also aware that Amazon changed the algorithms over and over again, so it wasn’t as easy to game those algorithms.
I am also aware that some self-publishing venues, like All Romance eBooks went out of business, taking a lot of writers’ incomes with it. And other venues, like Smashwords, no longer attract new customers the way they used to.
I’m not talking about those changes, although they did have a major impact on a lot of writers’ careers. I’m talking about the changes in income to writers who were not rushing to every new way of doing something, writers who were not gaming algorithms, writers who were producing a lot, interacting professionally with their fans, and doing everything right.
Those writers received major rewards, both in sales and in income, in the early years of indie publishing. Those rewards have diminished, because we are entering into a mature market.
What does that mean, exactly?
In business, markets respond to things in similar ways, whether we’re talking markets for shoes or markets for books.
When something is new, everyone wants it. When something is new, the growth is usually exponential. We see that in all kinds of new markets over the years, from desktop computers twenty-five years ago to smart phones ten years ago. There’s always something cool, and consumers flock to it, sometimes in very large numbers.
In publishing, we went through a shift, from traditional only to anyone-can-do-it indie, because of the rise of the neat-o ereader, the Kindle, from Amazon, which gave that ereader a platform and an ecosystem.
Year to year, the number of people who joined the new ecosystem was huge. Other players created viable ereaders and ebook ecosystems. You didn’t just have to use Amazon to publish a book. You could do it on other platforms.
And the book didn’t have to be an ebook. It could be a print on demand book with little or no upfront cost.
But ebooks were where the money was, and the ebook growth was astonishing from 2007-2012.
To improve matters even more for indie writers, the traditional publishers really messed up their entry into the new market. First, the traditional publishers didn’t take ebooks seriously. I had books on my Kindle from traditional publishers that were simply bad scan jobs. Those books were often unreadable, with incredible scanning errors, like symbols instead of letters, words that the scanning program guessed at and missed, and entire missing pages.
For the honor of reading that terribly scanned book, traditional publishers overcharged, usually double the rate of the mass market paperback—if there was a mass market paperback. Really early on, those publishers charged the same price as a hardcover book for the ebook.
Then, in the States, we learned that the major traditional publishers had conspired with Apple to keep ebook prices high. That caused all kinds of problems for traditionally published writers, but indies reaped the benefits. While the ebooks from big name writers were either overpriced (and badly produced) or completely unavailable, ebook readers took a chance on writers they’d never heard of. Readers bought a lot of ebooks, particularly in romance where the prices were artificially low.
Romance writers have slowly raised their prices in the past few years because the low-low prices were unsustainable and created other issues. But by then, those indie romance writers had developed the same kind of fan base that traditionally published big name writers had.
It happened in other genres as well. But unfortunately a lot of those early ebook writers in non-romance genres got lured by the siren song of traditional publishing. So the writers who were writing in “more acceptable” genres made paper-only deals or sold their books back to traditional publishers, destroying the momentum that the writers had had as indies, and often angering their fan bases (because the prices had risen to the artificially high traditional levels).
For the writers who remained indie and had had early success, their numbers continued to rise, and so did their income.
Until it didn’t.
Yes, there were the changes at Amazon. And yes, there were other factors, like Brexit in Europe and a contentious election in the U.S., but that sales decrease would have happened without the rise of ebooks. There are natural ups and downs in the book publishing industry, and those downs were part of a normal trend.
Just like the fact that book sales decline in the summer months (particularly August) and tend to rise in the fall. There’s an annual rhythm to buying patterns in every single retail industry, and it would behoove writers to learn the buying patterns in their little corner of the book-buying world.
However, I’m not talking about the annual ups and downs.
I’m talking about the way that markets develop over time.
First, there’s a gold rush, and everyone thinks they can get rich—because the early folks did get rich. Or at least, they did well. Then more and more people join the marketplace, and even though the revenue grows in that marketplace, its spread over more people.
In the gold rush phase, the growth is truly exponential. It doubles or quadruples or sometimes grows by factors of 100 from year to year.
In a plateau, the growth is still huge—anywhere from 20-50% per year, spread out over more producers of that product.
Then the market matures.
A mature market grows, but not at that astonishing pace. Growth in some sectors is 5-10%. Before the gold rush, traditional publishing as a segment of the overall consumer marketplace grew at about 4% per year.
I am not looking up the statistics to write this piece, so I don’t know the exact number for the growth in the publishing sector right now, but I would guess it’s about 15% or so, if you add in audio and the burgeoning markets in other countries.
That’s amazingly good. But it’s not 200% over the year before.
When you go from a gold rush to a mature market, your income goes down, even though the market share grows.
That change doesn’t happen to everyone, of course. There are some outliers who will experience a greater growth. But there are fewer and fewer of them in a mature market. And usually even the income of an outlier follows a pattern.
But let’s talk about the average writer/publisher business right now. This is indie only. You traditional-only folks don’t factor into this discussion. Your business is in an even greater disruption than the indie world, and your income will decrease farther, faster, if you can sell to your traditional publisher at all.
A standard business has phases. I’m going to use the phases that I used before, earlier this year, in a piece on what was going on after All Romance went under. In that blog post, I quote from a Harvard Business Review article by Neil C. Churchill and Virginia L. Lewis. The following information comes from them.
An individual business goes through five stages. They are:
- Existence. At this point the business comes into being, and will discover if it can actually exist in the marketplace.
- Survival. Can this business survive? Not Just make it day to day. As the article says, at this point, “formal planning is, at best, cash forecasting.” A lot of businesses remain in this position for their entire existence. (Decades, even)
- Success. The business becomes stable and profitable. The owners must then decide if they’re going to expand or remain static. Sounds like an easy decision, but it’s not. Churchill and Lewis break this down even more, but for our purposes, we’re sticking with the above definition.
- Take-Off. The business grows, often exponentially. This is a scary period, because the business had reached stability and now it feels like the business is back in survival mode. In fact, this is the most dangerous place a business can find itself in. Mismanaged, a business will tumble from here to survival or bankruptcy. And that can happen damn near overnight.
- Resource Maturity. The business is established. It can forecast both its profits and its year with some kind of accuracy. It can plan its future (barring unforeseens like meteors falling from the sky or investors tanking the economy a la 2008/9).
The turmoil in the overall publishing industry has settled a bit. Many of the related businesses have hit resource maturity. They can predict their profits and their year somewhat accurately.
Some writers have hit that space too.
But most writers who came in during the gold rush and had success never went past Stage Two: survival. The writers thought they had gone past that stage because they had earned so much money, sometimes tens or hundreds of thousand per month.
Most writers who achieved that goal, however, had never run businesses before, and they made beginner errors. The biggest beginner error there is happens to be financial.
It’s believing that the early months or years of high earnings (usually caused by excitement over something new) can be sustained over years. So if a writer came in, grew her business so that she was earning, say, $20,000 per month, then she believed that $20,000 would come in month after month, year after year.
Some writers were seeing income of $100,000 per month or more. And some writers had a $10,000 average month with spikes of $50,000 on months of new releases.
When you believe that the income is always going to be there, you spend more than you should. Everyone new to business does that. Hell, everyone does that, period. That’s why lottery winners go bankrupt. They think the money will be there forever.
And it isn’t.
So, a lot of writers hired a lot of help. I know of one writer who hired ten different employees and put them on real-world payroll. That writer was earning $100,000 per month (that she admitted to and the algorithms confirmed). I knew she was in trouble when I learned that one of her employees on payroll was her lawyer.
Lawyers are great folks, but they work by the billable hour. It’s better to have a variety of lawyers you hire as needed than one lawyer you pay monthly, whether you need his services or not.
Her expenses, just on salary, had to be around $50,000 per month or more. And then she bought a new house, and new cars for everyone, and, and, and…
She’s still writing. Still making money. Had a huge windfall a few years ago, which is probably funding her overspending. But if she hadn’t had that windfall, she’d be hurting.
Because the market has matured.
Some writers have maintained that incredible income from the gold rush period by writing more, faster and shorter and goosing their sales through promotions and a few other gimmicks that will work in the short term.
But you only have two options when income goes down:
- Increase revenue somehow (see above)
- Decrease expenses
Decreasing expenses is the sane and healthy way to deal with a down income year, but that’s hard to do for a variety of reasons. If the expenses are employees, particularly friends and family, laying them off is painful and emotionally costly. If the expenses are a suddenly unaffordable house, then moving and buying new will take time from someone already pressed for time.
And so on and so forth, all of which deserves another blog post.
There’s another barrier to decreasing expenses. It’s admitting that the income has gone down, which is, to some writers, like admitting failure.
When you work for yourself, whether you own a retail business, a law firm, or a writing business, you deal with cash flow. Cash flow is how the money flows into and out of the business.
You might have a business that makes a gross profit of $240,000 per year. Your expenses are $15,000 per month, month in and month out. You figure that you should be making $5,000 per month–$240,000 divided by 12 is $20,000. So $5,000 profit, or an annual profit of $60,000 per year.
Yet it doesn’t seem to work out that way for most businesses, especially ones with an uneven income base.
Running your own business is not like getting paid a salary. Some months, you might bring in $100,000, and the next month, $10,000. If you didn’t handle that $100,000 right, then you could have a cash shortage the very next month.
Because expenses are regular, even when income is not.
So, a $240,000 writing business with $15,000 monthly regular expenses cuts much too close to the bone. Because you won’t have enough cushion to weather the ups and downs of cash flow.
Writers with that kind of income continue to write fast, trying to stay ahead of that ticking clock of expenses. The writers try all kinds of promotional gimmicks, trying to keep the monthly income the same or higher than the month before.
Ultimately, the writer writes harder, faster, more and more and more until…as we saw in last week’s piece…the writer burns out.
And then, the writer usually doesn’t cut expenses fast enough to save the business. Or, in the middle of burnout, cuts too far, and damages themselves further.
Part of the problem here is the writer’s attitude.
The writer has a short-term outlook on a long-term career.
Because of the way most indie writers came into the publishing business—backwards and unprepared, just writing, producing, and publishing—the writers never came up with a game plan or even thought about what they’re doing.
What they have all done, almost to a person, is start a manufacturing business. They make something, and sell it, and then make something else, and sell it.
The problem is that, unlike most manufacturing businesses, writers can’t hire someone else to produce the something—let’s call it by that good old economics term, a widget. The writers can’t get someone else to manufacture widgets. Writers can’t have the assembly line working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks per year.
Even if the writer hires someone else to do the actual uploading and publishing and marketing, at some point, the manufacturing model falls apart for writers. Some writers hire ghost writers to pretend to be them, but there are very few excellent ghosts. If the ghost writer is at all inferior, the readers will start leaving the product.
Other writers hire co-writers and are obvious about it. Again, readers won’t buy everything, and many will only buy the books by the original writer (and even then, might start to mistrust that the original writer wrote that book). It’s one way to solve the manufacturing problem. In fact, it’s probably the best way.
It keeps the widgets moving through the algorithm, supplying the need, and maybe even creating a need for the product.
But once a product becomes ubiquitous, a consumer will buy less of it. The consumer will think that product will always be there. Or they’ll move on to other things.
So, as a manufacturer, you’re always looking for new markets for the widgets, remaining on a never-ending treadmill until you pull a Kris maneuver and fall off. (That’s why I like running outside. I am one of those people who fell backwards off a treadmill. Sigh.)
If you want to sustain your writing and publishing businesses, you have to stop thinking like a manufacturer. You need to start thinking like an artisan. By that I mean, you are “a person or company that makes a high-quality or distinctive product in small quantities, usually by hand or using traditional methods.”
As you can tell, this requires a completely different attitude than the one you had before. You acknowledge that your supply of new product is limited. You plan for the limitation—which is not imposed from the outside (not enough consumers or markets), but from the inside.
I am not saying that you need to stop thinking big. Artisanal businesses can — and often do — become multimillion dollar businesses. You’re familiar with a lot of those businesses, like certain vineyards with their annual yields or microbrews or some fashion designers or restaurantuers or jewelry makers.
The difference between an artisan and a manufacturer, at least in the arts, is the difference between working harder and working smarter.
Most of the writers who are writing so fast they barely have time to eat aren’t thinking about subsidiary rights sales or finding other ways to leverage the products they already have. For the manufacturers, everything has to be new, new, new. They don’t embrace their older product, except to hope that it sells to the same markets they’ve been tapping before.
There are a million ways to make money off your existing product without writing another word. I’ve dealt with a lot of them in various blog posts. Understanding and using copyright properly will help you turn your manufacturing business into an artisanal one. (If you don’t know what I mean, read this post on copyright)
Making the shift from a manufacturing business to an artisanal one requires a shift in thinking and in the way you approach your products, your books.
Changes from how much work can you do to how much work can you sustain year in and year out.
That’s a very different way of approaching your business. You figure out your business plan on a level you can continue to do, not on a level dictated by your expenses (and your level of panic).
You figure out what you want to write, not what the market demands you write. If you want to write what the market (your readers) demands, fine. Do that. But if you don’t, then don’t.
Produce as much as you can while sustaining your health, your family, and a bit of relaxation time.
Open a calendar for the next year and figure out how many writing days you have. Add days for what a friend of mine calls “admin”—uploading, cover design, publishing, blurb writing, marketing. Add in at least one day off per week.
If you have children, factor in time with them every day. Block off your vacations, the workshops you attend, and anything else you might do. If you have a day job, block that out to.
Do this planning by the month.
Every month will look different. Try as I might, I can’t seem to get more than 23 writing days in a month, and I have employees to do the admin. But I also have days off, and meetings so that I can make sure the business(es) run smoothly, and I also do other things, like run workshops and such.
Make sure your writing goals stretch you a little, but are comfortable. Make sure you don’t leave the computer exhausted each and every day.
Calculate how much you can write in those writing days—not at top speed, but on average. If your top speed per day is 5,000 new words, and your lowest speed is 1,000 new words, plan for 3,000 new words per day. Then multiply those words by the available days in a month.
So, for a full-time freelance writer, running her own business, let’s say on average, she has 20 writing days in a month. She writes, on average, 3,000 new words per day. That’s 60,000 new words in a month. For Dean, that’s just over one novel. For me, that’s half to two-thirds of a novel. Or a bunch of short stories. Or short stories and a blog and a quarter of a novel.
Block out your time, then figure out the most pressing projects, and put those projects into the time. Calculate over a year, and you’ll end up with the number of books you can promise your most ardent fans.
You probably won’t hit that every month. So figure you’re going to write 500,000 words that year instead of 720,000 words. (Or some of the words will be marketing or blurbs or other things.) For some of us, that’s five full-size novels. For others, that’s eight or so.
That’s a lot of books and words and writing, without a serious hard push for the writer I described here.
Some writers will do less. Some will do more.
Whatever it is must be enjoyable and sustainable for the writer.
Switching from a manufacturing model to an artisanal model means that you will take a hit in the pocketbook. That’s the hit you manufacturing folks have been trying to stave off by working ever harder for diminishing returns.
At some point that cash flow hit will occur no matter what, particularly if you grind to a complete halt.
So to make the switch, you’re going to need to slowly change your business model.
You will probably have to decrease expenses, whatever that means for you.
But let’s just talk income for a moment.
You need to figure out how much money you will need per month to live comfortably. If you’re manufacturing, you might be earning, on a regular basis, much more than your monthly needs.
You need to take that calendar again, and figure out how much money you will need to earn over and above expenses to be able to put a large chunk of it into savings. That chunk will get you through the transition from manufacturing to artisanal.
(Save that money. Don’t put it in risky investments, like stocks. Have it accessible, and as close to cash as you can get. It’s working for you by giving you less risk in your writing. You need liquidity at this point, not a few extra dollars.)
For some of you, particularly those of you living at the very edge of your income and saving nearly nothing, you might have to work the manufacturing model for another year or two. You need to decrease your expenses as you enter into those two years, so that you can put a lot of money you earn in the bank.
Then after you have savings, then you move to the artisanal model I mentioned before. You will write what you want, on a schedule you can maintain.
That’s your goal. That’s how you avoid burnout.
Even if you manufacture for a year or so, having an end-date will also help you avoid burn-out. You know when you can climb off that treadmill.
You’ll need to make a brand-new business plan. Almost everything you see for indie writers is based on the manufacturing model. Produce books at this pace, do that kind of marketing, make sure your newsletter comes out with startling regularity, and you too will earn millions!!!
If you change to a model you can sustain, then change your business plan accordingly. You might need to market differently. Maybe you keep your newsletter frequency up. Or you rebrand old product to keep your books alive in the algorithm.
That’s up to you to figure out.
Or you reduce your income expectations. Live a bit more frugally, and take care of your health.
If you do that, you’ll be surprised at how much money you’re still earning. And writing will slowly become fun again.
I’m assuming your goal in this writing business is the same as mine—to have a lifelong career. That means you need to regulate your pace, take care of your health, spend time with your family, and learn how to rest.
If you want a lifelong career, then you are running a marathon, not a sprint.
It’s okay to sprint every now and then. In fact, that’s a really good challenge. It shows you what you can and can’t do. But don’t sprint every single day.
Lifelong runners learn that rest days are as important as the days you run. It helps the muscles heal from the microtears that running (or any exercise) causes. It helps the runner maintain her sanity and, yes, remember just how much she loves the exercise.
I get itchy if I take two days off in a row on my writing. I like writing too much to take too much time off.
But I’ve had times when I’ve been burned out, when I have had to crawl to the computer just to get a page or two. Then writing is no fun at all, and not worth doing.
To sustain a lifelong writing career, writing must be something you enjoy. It must be. Because it’s too demanding to be done long term if you grow to hate it.
Besides, why do that to yourself?
Making The Change
For a lot of you, this transition will be hard. You’re going to have to alter the way you think about everything. You’re going to have to do some serious analysis of your goals, your desires, your income, and the way you run your business.
You’ll also have to make some hard choices—do you lay off some of your employees? Do you really need that marketing service that charges you $50 per month?
Figure out what’s best for you, not what the gurus say.
Also, locate your sense of panic, and see if it is coming from an unsustainable business model or if it is coming from a desire to meet the needs of every single reader. (You can’t, by the way.)
Start with self-care. Make sure you get the right amount of sleep, and that you eat right, and that you exercise even a little bit every day. Make sure you spend time with friends every week, and family every day.
Stop saying I have to and start saying I want to.
Figure out who you are away from the writing. If you can’t, then you’re either a writer to your core or you’re working too hard or both.
If you can’t do all of this and keep up your writing pace, that should tell you something.
So go cold turkey. Take a one-week vacation without your writing computer. No laptop, maybe a tablet that you can’t write comfortably on. Go to a beach somewhere, get sand between your toes, and start answering these questions.
I guarantee that will give you some clarity.
Then make the changes.
Slowly, and in the way that’s best for you and your family.
I hope I’m still seeing your books ten years from now. Because that means you’ve made the switch.
That means you’re going to have a lifelong career—and you’re going to love it.
Please share this blog with your writer friends.
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“Business Musings: Sustainability,” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2017 by —-
I’m not sorry to have missed the “Gold rush” years, as I’ve always looked at whatever small business I’m in ( Tree surgery, wood work, weddng photography etc) with a business head on, and when I look at some indy’s business plans (using that term loosely) I see an unholy mess, either they are earning hand over fist and spending everything they earn, or they are making an increasing loss year on year whilst kidding themselves that it’s an investment.
I know one guy who is spending 20k a year on facebook and amazon advertising to support a 20k gross income stream – you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see what’s wrong there,but if you challenge him about it he says “But Mark Dawson spends ten times as much” … well yeah, but hes making a profit (that thudding sound you can hear is my head hitting the desk in frustration)
And lets not even consider the guy who’s making a small 5 figure profit but putting it all into bitcoin because ‘it’s a sure thing, it says so on facebook’
I’m thankful for some voices of sanity such as your’s, your husband’s, Joanna Penn’s etc urging calm and sustainability in the maelstrom of people who are in danger of finding out the hard way that ‘there’s no top to this market’ isn’t true anymore and probably never was
[…] been spinning my wheels and grinding my gears, having a few successes and a great many failures, the indie publishing market is matured. Things are a lot more pay to play now. You’ve gotta pay real money for book covers. […]
KKR from comments thread above:
“Overseas, the growth potential is exponential … A lot of those countries have seen explosive cell phone growth … I have no idea what the potential market is, but figure that readers have been underserved for generations. Book sales are growing worldwide, and that will continue through the next five to ten years.”
While we are all understandably focussed on the US as the biggest and most convenient single market, there is, as Kris says, a world of potential out there most indies and many publishers are oblivious to.
Ponder the following:
As I write this comment (December 18) the Big Bad Wolf sale is just coming to an end in Malaysia. Big Bad Wolf? It’s the biggest book sale in the world. And, no, nothing to do with Amazon. 4.5 million books were available at a non-stop (24 hour) book sale that ran from Dec 8. Last year the event had to be extended by two days just to let everybody in.
Similar Big Bad Wolf sales happened this year in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand, each event attracting hundreds of thousands of readers buying literally million of books.
Right now the Singapore BookFest is happening. It began on December 15 and will finish on 24 December. 600,000 people are expected to turn up, buying books.
The Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) and Bangkok (Thailand) International Book Fairs both regularly get upwards of two million visitors.
In Saudi Arabia the Jeddah Book Fair is happening right now. 275,000 people are expected to attend. The Riyadh Book Fair earlier this year had 375,000 visitors.
The Beirut Book Fair in Lebanon finished earlier this month. 180,000 people turned out for the event.
The Casablanca Book Fair in Morocco had 350,000 visitors. The Amman Book Fair in Jordan regularly gets a quarter million visitors. The Muscat Book Fair in Oman had 820,000 people turn out.
Over a million people turned out for the Algiers Book Fair in Algeria. Egypt’s Cairo Book Fair hits two million.
The Sharjah Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates a few months ago saw 2.38 million people crowd through its doors.
Pakistan’s Karachi Book Fair, just ended, had 600,000 people cram in.
None of these countries have Kindle stores (Singapore has an Amazon store that doesn’t sell books). For most of these readers Amazon is a river in South America.
Speaking of South America, the Sao Paulo comic con has just finished. It had more visitors than the New York comic con – 220,000 against 200,000. The Sao Paulo and Rio Book Fairs in Brazil this year had 800,000 and 680,000 visitors respectively. Argentina’s Buenos Aries Book Fair gets 1.23 million visitors on average.
A nice day out for bored people who don’t actually read?
The 2016 Karachi Book Fair sold 200,000 books in four days.
The Rio Book Fairs regularly sell between 2.5 million to 3.5 million books.
At the Sharjah Book Fair this year books to the value of $56 million were sold in eleven days.
At the Big Bad Wolf sales where usually over 90% of stock is cleared during the 24/7 sales events, there are special storage areas where readers can take their bought books, leave them safely, and go back for more.
In Iceland this year ebook sales are up 60%. In Myanmar a third English-language bookshop has just opened. In Vietnam, where the Ho Chi Minh City Book Fair gets one million visitors each year, a second Book Street – entire streets given over solely to books – has just opened.
Iceland, Myanmar and Vietnam are again countries where the Kindle store isn’t an option.
Countries like Argentina and Uruguay hold special events like the Night of the Bookstores, catering to hundreds of thousands of eager book buyers. Iceland is currently holding its Christmas Book Flood. Each November a freshly-printed book catalogue is sent out to every household in the country.
In India next month two of the world’s biggest book fairs will be happening, in New Delhi and Kolkata. Both will see at least two million visitors each. Kolkata is traditionally the world’s biggest book fair with 2.5 million people turning out.
And I’ve barely scratched the surface here of the “invisible” global book trade not being tracked by Bowker, or Nielsen Bookscan or Data Guy.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing the USA, UK and handful of European countries are the only countries where books matter.
In fact the global book market is far bigger, and far more interesting, than most authors and publishers realise.
I’m Mark Williams, Editor-in-Chief of The New Publishing Standard, tracking the Global New Renaissance day by day.
Mark! Thank you! I had heard about your site at the Business Master Class that we do, but your url got lost in my firehose of information. I just signed up to get your posts daily. This is spectacular. Thank you!
Ms. Rusch, thank you for this. I won’t bore you with details, but the section titled “Scheduling” is precisely what I needed to hear. So thank you again.
The thrust of this article pretty much parallels what happened to the popular music business forty years ago. Although this may sound simplistic, success, in whatever venue, is all about supply and demand and barriers to entry. Until about the early 1970’s the music business, largely unintentionally, managed supply, demand and entry barriers through the musicians union and record labels. As the union, through all fault of its own, became largely irrelevant and technology democratized publishing, the supply/demand equation tipped upside down – almost exactly what’s happened with print.
In 2017, I made 16% of what I made in 2012. 19 titles out, including 6 just released in 2016. 2015’s royalties were only 40% of 2014’s. I don’t have the advertising budget to combat Amazon’s constant pushes toward exclusivity and AMS ads and no other retailer cares or has the resources to challenge them. The western e-book market has already stagnated, so good luck to anyone.
It’s all pay-to-play now.
Great post, Kris. It reflects an ongoing conversation I have with my nearest and dearest indie friends as we try to make this career both sustainable economically and satisfying to the soul. Having been schooled in traditional publishing myself, I never overspent during the big months. Fully 50% of the income I’ve made in the past three years is still sitting in my business account. To me it represents “three years of future income that allows me to write whatever I please in that period.” Signing audio contracts this year has made my income rise again. Though I didn’t live through the golden years, I’ve made a living as an author for three years, and I know how rare that is, and I’m more grateful than I can express that I’ve had the opportunity and the necessary luck to live the dream. And great readers who talk about my books–which is, after all, the point, finding those readers who want to read what I fictionally say.
That’s the best way to do it, Lou. Those of us who have been in business for a long time (any business, really) know how important it is to have money put away for those months that don’t go as expected. Or years that don’t go as expected, which for many folks was 2016. Great post.
[…] Author Kristine Rusch has covered this topic at length and in depth, mainly from the perspective of a crowded indie author market. I’m particularly interested in how the services market for indie authors is evolving, and who might survive over the long term. […]
I feel like this paints kind of a grim picture of the indie market, which is still booming from my point of view as one of those early indies who benefitted tremendously from the gold rush. Even with the ups and downs in the market, it’s still the best time ever to be an author.
I’m sorry you find it grim, Marie. I don’t mean it that way. I’m seeing a lot of writers leave the business, though, because they set up their own personal work system incorrectly, running faster and faster for less money. I’m afraid on the financial side and with sustainability, you’re one of the outliers.
My income is way up as well, because I followed my own guidelines in this piece from the beginning. I maintained a sustainable pace, not a balls-to-the-wall pace. I suspect you did the same thing. If a writer worked hard, but not overworked, she stayed in the business. If she overworked and spent all she earned, then she is in trouble now. Those are the writers that I’m writing this piece for. (And unfortunately, there are a lot of them. Take a look at the comments on the burnout blog, if you don’t believe me.)
I agree with you 100%. It is the best time to be a writer. We have choices, which we never had before. But we must also learn how to run our businesses, something many writers never learned how to do in traditional publishing.
Kristine, I’ve been published both indie and small press since 2010 and I agree with you completely. I can see it happening to many out there. Thank you for this insightful blog. I hope many authors read it. These are things they need to know. And they need to see this as a business, too, and learn how to handle the ebb and flow of income. I am working smarter, not harder, and don’t intend to push my output beyond 5 or 6 books a year, which is more than enough for me.
[…] https://kriswrites.com/2017/12/06/business-musings-sustainability/ The market is maturing, here’s how to sustain your business. […]
Love this article, but how do people spend that much money on their overhead? This is a simple business and should be a very low-cost one at it’s core:
Food, shelter, car. Be frugal, be smart. Live someplace cheap — as Scalzi points out, no need to live in NY, LA, San Francisco when you can live someplace much cheaper where the money goes much farther.
What you feel you need to spend on advertising (Bookbub-ish things, social media advertising).
Philosophy: Learn how to be happy on a very modest income and save as much as you can for the inevitable rainy days. Just like when you worked for somebody else.
Honestly, this should be a very low overhead business, shouldn’t it?
Great piece. As someone who developed software for 30 years, and saw markets mature in several areas, your observations correspond with my own.
I have one bit to add. The long tail appears to me to be quite significant for ebooks. Ebooks largely don’t go out of print. That means that the supply of ebooks to buy tends to grow geometrically. The pool of paper books grows much more slowly because the pool has, in addition to the inflow of new books published, a large outflow of books going out of print. I may have heard that in recent decades the rate of going out of print for paper accelerated with with changes in the inventory tax regulations. There is no inventory tax on ebooks and keeping them available for sale is nearly cost-free. In addition, books previously out-of-print are going back in the pool in ebook form.That means the pool of books for sale is ballooning.
I would love to hear your take on implications of the long tail for authors. My thoughts are that for individual authors, a continually growing pool of your books implies continually growing income, which is great. But it’s a disaster for the writing business as a whole. I don’t think that publishing is a zero-sum game where one author’s gains are exactly balanced by another’s losses, but the continually growing pool is diluting the shares, which adds a factor to declining auhor incomes that exacerbates the usual effects of a maturing market.
That would all be true, Marvin, if it weren’t for one fact: in the past 30+ years, traditional publishing didn’t market books to most consumers. People in rural areas especially did not have access to bookstores. Traditional publishers didn’t market to any other market after 1997 or so. So in the United States, the growth potential in the rural areas is just beginning. Overseas, the growth potential is exponential, since many countries have similar problems. A lot of those countries have seen explosive cell phone growth, so areas without bookstores or any other retail (besides grocery) now have access to books at their fingertips.
I have no idea what the potential market is, but figure that readers have been underserved for generations. Book sales are growing worldwide, and that will continue through the next five to ten years.
I don’t fully understand you Kristine. I agree that the internet has expanded the reach of the book marketplace. I have, for the most part, lived in a limited rural book market. The internet has certainly enlarged the market for a given author available to me, but, at the same time, the books availble for purchase has risen rapidly.
I am a mystery reader. Thirty years ago, I was limited to books in print plus used books sold in my neighborhood. Today, I can easily purchase books that were once unavailable to me.
Do you think that does not effect how I choose newly published books? I can buy the latest for 9.99 (or 1.99) or download a previously unavailable classic for free. That forces the new book to a higher standard. That must affect the market. My newly released mystery must now be better than a horde of classics to garner a read.
I don’t at all disagree that the market for books is growing as books become available to previously under-served populations, but the long tail of classics and old favorites seems like a drag on that trend.
Some believe that traditional publishers only tapped about 10% of the possible market for books. People who wanted books couldn’t get them except when they went to a used bookstore or into “town.” Now that has changed. And remember, the entire world reads English, so that market is now open as well. Don’t worry about competition. People love what they love. Become such a good storyteller they love you. That’s my goal, and sometimes it works!
I’m new here and this is my first comment. I’ve always thought that ‘Left Behind’ proved that there were huge markets that were unserved. A whole lot of “Left Behind’ readers were happy to buy books that told a story they wanted to read, but the publishing industry didn’t see them as a market. In addition, when I was in the Navy (1984-1993), I routinely saw women of color reading romance novels with blonde, blue-eyed heroines on the cover. We traded books all the time. Every one of those women would have been thrilled to read a novel about a heroine that resembled themselves. They would have paid full price. Did the publishing industry notice? No.
There are plenty of people who would be readers, if only they knew that there were stories being told for them.
Marvin, I’m a voracious reader, but also a very demanding one, and there are not yet nearly enough books that I love/will love. Fortunately, I love to re-read my favorites. But I’d really like there to be more new-to-me books that I enjoy. Currently, in any given month, I probably re-read 20 favorites and read 1 or 2 new-to-me books. I’d prefer to reverse that ratio, but there are not yet enough new books being published that I would enjoy. I can’t be the only reader in this boat. Writers who write for people like me should have a large potential audience. That’s anecdotal, of course, but it’s one subjective experience that parallels what Kris says about underserved markets.
Kris, this post is very timely for me–thank you! I’m in the midst of a huge life roll, and I’ve been looking at my attempts to work within the manufacturing paradigm (under a pen name, writing romance) and realizing that, with my current and for-the-foreseeable-future decreased writing output, it’s just not going to work. I’m never going to catch up with my goals, or at least I can’t plan on doing so. You’ve given me a great way to think about what and how to change. Thankfully I’ve always been a careful budgeter and I’m living on my day-job income, not having any success reaching a livable income with my writing, so changing my paradigm won’t materially affect me. I’ve set myself a note to revisit this article in six months, when I should be getting back to a new normal, to help myself work out what that means for my writing.
The more I talk to other Indie Authors the more I realize that the eBook sales are down across the board.
Conspiracy Theory: the decrease in sales coincides with new contracts signed between Amazon and Big Pubs a few years back, Amazon accepting Agency Pricing. What if the contracts had a stipulation that Amazon will not advertise the Indie Authors? Like informing the book buyers that ‘you may enjoy this book as well,’ an Indie Author’s book perhaps.
Well, let’s be thankful that Amazon pushed for Indie Authors eBooks years ago when they were trying to sell Kindles. It gave us a taste of how it should be, and from now on we’re on our own, and only the tough will continue.
Amazon wouldn’t do that, Mit. It’s counter to their business model. They work with whoever makes them money. They’re a retail store. Indies make them money. They work with that, and try to co-opt those authors with their Amazon imprint. That’s not how great big businesses work. Besides, that would have been much too close to the Apple settlement for any big company to make another anti-trade deal with publishers. (Remember, the deal with Apple and the publishers was to control price, not to harm other businesses deliberately.)
As I’m wearing my business hat I constantly look for what works and what does not, like you do, Kris. Sales go up and down and I correct and improve as needed. So far I cannot find out why the sales had pancaked, just as you have written. I have a permafree eBook and even that doesn’t produce results, and I’ll terminate it in January. Aside from having lousy books, which sold decently in the past, what changed? Glut of eBooks, too many free eBooks, competition from Amazon imprint, or the Agency Pricing. The drop in sales coincide with Agency Pricing.
Now, even if that’s true there is nothing I or anyone else can do about it. Just understand that the playing field is inclined now. I won’t give up. I’ll look for other marketing opportunities.
Remember, Amazon is not the only market. If that’s the only place you are, then the changes there will have a greater impact on your business than if you go wide.
[…] Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch […]
[…] couple of days ago, Kristine Kathryn Rusch posted a blog about sustainability, along with the observation that “The big topic among successful indie writers in the last six […]
I’ve been (accidentally) running things this way from the jump, and ignoring advice that didn’t fit with the way I produce books… or on the schedule I’m capable of producing books I’m proud of. This article helps me formalize some of the things I’ve only done informally to this point, thank you.
[…] Kristine Kathryn Rusch has posted a brilliant piece this week about the real and not so glamorous life of a published author in 2017 – and it is not for the faint of heart.** […]
[…] THE GOLD RUSH IS OVER. In “Business Musings: Sustainability”, Kristine Katherine Rusch argues that the market for independently published books has […]
Thank you for summarizing what I’ve been thinking! Brilliant article!
What an excellent post, Kris. I really needed to hear that, but even more, I needed the reflection. Yes, I’m stuck in widget mode by necessity. Your plan on transitioning takes longer than I hoped for, but that’s okay. One way to forestall massive burnout, for me right now, is job hunting. I need to escape the house and the pressure to keep its lights on by my words alone.
BUT! But this resolve to escape gives me hope, because as I refresh my skills, I get story ideas. They have nothing to do with my bread-and-butter genre, either. I’m not going anywhere, but I sure won’t be publishing at warp speed. That way lies madness, at least for me. I’m not wired like Dean.
The pressure to produce is, in part, a product of the fact that we have trained the readers to “wait for the whole series,” and that we are so toxically available to their comments, opinions, and pesterings. I am grateful to my readers for sharing my world with me, and for paying part of my bills, but I need a measure of emptiness. I can’t create when the hive-mind buzzes in the back of my skull.
Part of transitioning to the artisanal model will be educating our newsletter subscribers that we are artisans, and that pushing for more of the same might have an unexpected effect.
(Like switching genres entirely.)
Some of them will unsubscribe, which is okay. The whole craze to “get branded right” is part of why so many of us are in the widget mode. I think I’ll unbrand myself a little by little until I can stretch like a cat again.
Not for nothing, Kris, I’m PRETTY darn sure you discussed things like this several years ago, when I first took pencil in hand to exorcise demons by writing a novel. (One that is sooo bad it’s kind of sad, TBH- as most first attempts are, right?)
Five years later, I earn a modest living doing this and I tell people I’m living the dream. The bills are paid, and I have an office in my home, and… well… it’s good. Could it be better? Sure. Could it be worse? LOL At the height of the gold rush, two years in, in Sept of 2014 my total income was $9.00. With seven or eight titles up.
I distinctly recall more than one time you discussing things such as ‘this ain’t gonna last guys’, and ‘watch your expenses, guys’ and so forth. Well, I listened, and I think that’s why I feel a degree of security and confidence. This is my small business. I love the reference to ‘artisan’ you made.
Thanks for putting this up, and yeah, I left a few bucks in the tip jar on my way out the door. I do that every year for the good blogs.
My best wishes for you, your family and loved ones for the Season and New Year.
Thank you, Jim, for noticing, and remembering. And for the donations over the years. I’m so glad that the career is working for you, and you’re enjoying the writing. The best to you and yours as well.
I had the same memory as I was reading this morning. It’s why I haven’t been surprised at the declining author incomes this year. I missed the gold rush years. I started too late and had too much to learn to catch that wave. I was thrilled when my writing business was in the black last year. (Fortunately, I’m retired from my former career, so don’t need the income to live on.) And a month or so ago, I started thinking that instead of trying to catch up with all those manufacturers, I was going to aim for being an artisan. I didn’t use those words, but they certainly describe the two ends of the spectrum. Thanks, Kris, for another excellent post!
Good assessment of the indie writing world, and one we don’t see elsewhere. It’s easy to fall into the manufacturing trap if that’s all you see everyone else doing. I especially get angry when I hear “So-and-so worked for me, and I’ve been doing it for five years!” The world was different five years ago (manufacturing mode), and what worked then doesn’t necessarily work now. But if you dare to disagree with these people, they tear you apart.
I discovered your blog only this year. I wish I had found it five years ago. I could have saved myself a lot of grief and maybe I wouldn’t be as burned out as I am.
“writers can’t hire someone else to produce the something—let’s call it by that good old economics term, a widget. The writers can’t get someone else to manufacture widgets. Writers can’t have the assembly line working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks per year.”
Sadly, they can, which is why since the introduction of KU, scammers have been finding ways to game the system. Regular authors cannot compete with ‘names’ who release one or two titles per month because they employ ghostwriters. This is a bigger problem than most authors or readers reseal. Just check out the Upwork.com website for ghostwriting and you will be as sick as I am that hundreds of ads for poorly paid ghostwriting jobs in the Romance sector are posted weekly. I have chatted to several authors who, because of financial hardship, chose to ghostwrite. In the past two years ’employers’ have become greedier, wanting more content for less money. They are usually male marketeers who use female pen names, and they are all chasing the All Star Bonuses Amazon give out to the highest ranking KU authors. Amazon don’t check who they are giving these bonuses to. Who gives $25k to someone without checking? It’s simple to just look at reviews to see that there is something dodgy going on.
Your post has lots of really great advice and it will be a huge shift for authors to go from writing constantly to a more artisan outlook. It’s how I’ve been thinking ever since I got into publishing – I want a long term career and not to be a flash in the pan.
I do believe that we can all have a better ride, and more chance of longevity as authors if Amazon actually does something about the thousands of frauds abusing the system.
Yeah, I deliberately chose not to talk about ghosting or co-writing (with the coauthor doing all the work) because I assume folks reading this blog want to have their own careers, with their own writing, not a publishing career putting out books that have a brand but not their point of view. (I hope that’s clear. There’s a huge difference between being a Brand who supervises and a writer who creates.)
This is a great essay, Kris. Thank you. I appreciate the way you lay it all out, in terms that make sense. I also appreciate that you talk about manufacturing for a year or two, and then shifting the model. It helps my thinking as I keep working on my longer term business plan.
That manufacturing phase is where I currently am. And I’ve planned it to be temporary. First, knowing I wanted to change careers and make a go of full time fiction, I downsized and slashed my living expenses to the bare minimum while working hard on studying craft. Fortunately, because of my life situation, this was possible.
Over the past two years, I’ve ramped up my production. This year, I published 4 novels –75k each– plus essays, short stories, and collections. 2018 I plan to publish 9 novels –55k each– (plus short stories, essays, collections). 2019? I currently plan to publish 7 novels (plus…). 2020? I’ll need to re-assess when I see how ’18 and ’19 go. I have a feeling I’ll even out at 6 novels per year, but who knows? But I want plenty of widgets in my store by that time.
Will this work out for me financially? I don’t know yet. 2016 I almost broke even just on the writing business without paying myself – and that included paying for a lot of craft workshops, conferences etc. 2017, I’ve got a slight business profit (even after paying for conferences). 2018, I hope to pay myself.
This article will go into my files as I strategize, so thanks again.
Wow, what a great post! So much to think about. I was just reading a comment by a fellow who was getting fed up with all this ad stuff and how much money do you throw into this business before throwing in the towel. That writer needs to read this.
I’m just starting out and still figuring things out. I don’t make an income from this. I have to concentrate on building a catalogue. The ones I see are definitely in manufacturing mode and I don’t know they have maintained it for so long. I sometimes wonder if they are trying to stay above water or what. Makes me curious.
Thank you for this. I’ve been reading a lot of things where they talk about indies publishing novels and novellas about once a month and saying that you basically have to do this to be successful and I’m feeling like I’m a pretty fast writer but I can’t imagine thinking I had to do that for years at a time and have any enjoyment of the process.
I’m not even as financially successful with writing as I’d like to be but I keep working at it and I know my books are getting better and I can writer better books faster, but I know I can’t have fun writing twelve books in twelve months right now, maybe I won’t ever do that. I can write four books and a bunch of short stories pretty easily. Some years it might be six and fewer shorts but it’s hard to predict, because if I’m going to write something I’d want to read, it has to be fun.
Interesting that your post came up in my RSS feed at the same time this article did, dealing with the first part of your essay:
Thanks for sharing!
I guess I should have edited that link a little…
Feel free to edit if you wish.
Just this summer, in my review of McCaffrey’s career (I’ve been reading her entire corpus, God help me), I broke down her books by year, and saw much of what you describe here.
The 70’s were good to Anne, she was an SF darling, with Pern paying her way. She did okay in the 80’s, still riding her Pern momentum, but didn’t succeeded in developing a second lucrative IP while facing significant pressure in emerging cool trends and mass media IPs. In the 90’s, I could see where she began actively working to increase her output, presumably because Pern was no longer a financial juggernaut and the book world had changed, having corporatized. The new contracts most not have been so rosy. She wasn’t at the top of the heap any more and a number of joint venture by her appeared. As those ventures didn’t repeat, I suspect that they either weren’t very profitable or weren’t satisfactory to the parties involved. By the late 90’s, she had begun working with a few other authors exclusively, while her solo books often devolved into plotless messes. I suspect that her later team ups were due to cognitive issues. Every title by her in the 2000’s was a joint writing project, even her “solo” works.
I bought a copy of your free-lancer guide, and almost gave myself a hernia when it arrived. 😉
Thanks for clarifying things on how to survive as a writer. I believe this is the best business planning I have seen on things. Besides the “write, publish, repeat” mantra. This makes things more workable, especially for myself.
Wow Kris. You write a lot of good blogs that mean something to me but this might be the most important one yet. I’ve worked in and run manufacturing departments and I am also a fiber artist so I have to say your analogy is spot on for me.
You’ve given serious writers the keys to a good life. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’m going to bookmark this and read it every day until it becomes part of me.
Thanks, Kris – very interesting and worthwhile post.
I love your advice because it’s so logical and balanced, and because it feels so intuitive to me. Others’ advice to writers usually leaves me panicky. Yours always feels like a soothing relief or a fun challenge.