Business Musings: Surviving The Stupid

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I sometimes think I live in a constant state of outrage because I read the news. Every day, there’s something new. I occasionally divorce myself from the constant barrage by going on a news-holiday or a Twitter-holiday, so I sometimes miss the current stuff.

Imagine my surprise, as I scanned through Twitter a few weeks ago, to see a writer I follow go after Tor for its library policies. Um…what?

Turns out that Tor, through its parent company Macmillan has started a program in which libraries cannot get ebooks of the latest Tor releases until four months after the book is released.

Remember this is traditional publishing, so velocity is important. How fast a book sells has an impact on whether or not that writer’s next book will even get an offer from the publisher. And here—stupidly—is a publisher that has decided that library ebook sales aren’t worthwhile.

Tor/Macmillan’s reasoning? To see if library ebook sales are the reason that the company’s ebook sales are so low. That thinking is so damn stupid that I can barely type the words.

Rather than go into the reasons Macmillan’s ebook sales are low which I can digress on for hours, let me share what Nate Hoffelder said on The Digital Reader in July, when this news initially broke:

Macmillan  has poor ebook sales because they have adopted a policy of discouraging ebook sales in favor of print sales. Macmillan adopted this policy in late 2009 when they conspired with Apple and 4 other publishers to violate antitrust law by forcing Amazon to accept what is called agency pricing, a system where the publishers set the price and retailers are prohibited from deep discounts and sales.

That is established historical fact, and so is the antitrust suit brought by the DOJ, Macmillan settling the lawsuit,  its punishment, and Macmillan’s return to agency in 2014.

Apparently, corporate think has decided that it’s better to decrease sales to increase sales. (How Orwellian.) They’ve also got on the bandwagon of punishing people with budgets and limited income. The enthusiastic readers on a book budget—folks who provide great word of mouth during that crucial velocity period—are not worth Macmillan’s time.

The problem is that these enthusiastic readers aren’t going to be able to purchase the books themselves. Many library users are unable to make regular ebook purchases, especially if the ebooks are priced at $9.99 and up, like the Tor books. I’ve seen arguments that the libraries will still get the paper books, but that doesn’t mean that these readers want paper books.

Tor/Macmillan believes that these readers can and should wait. Which is risky on the one hand—there are always new books to read—and idiotic on the other. The readers who want a book now are the book’s most dedicated consumers. Word of mouth has become even more important in 2018 than it was ten years ago, thanks to the advent of social media, online book sites, and all kinds of blogging.

Readers will forget the books four months from now in a normal world. (Unless they sign up for a waiting list, and even then, they might not be enthusiastic about getting the book after that much time.) And even if they don’t, how pissed off will they be that they couldn’t initially get the book at the library?

Readers don’t blame the companies for these decisions. They blame the writer. And the blame started almost immediately, as you can see from a post by one of Tor’s most successful authors, John Scalzi, after the news broke. He wrote,

As I am a high-profile Tor author, people have been emailing me to ask what I think about the policy and/or to complain about it…. if you’re contacting other Tor authors about this, please please please be kind to them. They didn’t have any say about this pilot program, can’t do much to change it at this point, and might feel they can’t respond for whatever reason. Not everyone feels, shall we say, as insulated from consequence when they open their mouth as I do…


Let me tell you, as someone whose novels were traditionally published for decades, it sucks when your publisher makes a totally stupid decision that’s going to have a negative impact on your career.

If you’re a smart author, you’ll know what the impact will be. Most traditionally published writers happily know nothing about the business of publishing, so when they get their royalty statements and their sales are down yet again, or when they are unable to sell the next book in the series, or when their publisher cancels their fat multi-book contract because sales are down, those writers are surprised. (See my blog post on “Learned Helplessness”  to understand some of this.)

Sometimes ignorance is better, I have to say. That surprise will come six months to a year after the fact, and the writer won’t be able to do anything. Unlike, say, me, the writer who knew what was going on with the business errors in traditional publishing. I’d see the mistakes, flail about trying to solve those mistakes, worry for six months, and then see the expected result.

Ironically, I was thinking about this before I saw the tweet from my friend on the Tor/Macmillan library stupidity, because that same weekend, I finally assembled an omnibus edition for my novel FantasyLife.

I’d been putting the edition off for years, partly because I had other things to do, and partly because it was painful to revisit the novel.

It was caught in several traditional publisher stupidity moments. I had been writing a series of short stories about a made-up section of the Oregon Coast. I loved working on those stories, and they reflected my life in Lincoln City. When there was a “storm of the century,” I wrote about it. When there was a tsunami warning, I wrote about it.

FantasyLife was going to be the first novel in a series about a family of women in Anchor Bay, a town that we hadn’t yet seen in my short fiction. I was working with one of my favorite editors of all time. His company, Pocket Books, had just given him a major fantasy imprint. He was going to publish the books in hardcover and give them a lot of mainstream push, to get them on prestigious bestseller lists and reviewed in major journals.

His idea was cutting edge in 2001, when we first starting discussing all of this. Even though the Harry Potter series was only four years old (and not yet done) and it was pretty clear to anyone with a brain that the series was a phenomenon, the gatekeepers in traditional publishing believed that Potter was for kids and adult fantasy was dead.

By the time I had turned in the book, a new CEO had been installed over Pocket Books and the fantasy imprint was murdered before it even got started. Mine was the only book turned in (and paid for). FantasyLife was going to be published in mass market now, with no publicity, a stock art cover that had nothing to do with the book, and no publisher support at all.

All my editor friend could do was apologize. He quit the business entirely about a year later, and I don’t blame him. He’d had enough.

Because I was me, I saw immediately that this book would be published dead, and the second book in the series would tank, and all of it would have a terrible impact on my career, because these books were under the Rusch name, like the Retrieval Artist series was.

The book was on its last slide to publication, and at that point, I couldn’t afford to buy it back. (That would have cost about $250,000, and I didn’t think that Pocket would allow me to negotiate a payment plan.) But, after a lot of wrangling and help from my editor friend, I managed to get the contract for the second book canceled. I also let my Retrieval Artist editor know that some bad numbers would come from Pocket and those were not my fault.

She had nearly a year’s prep time on that, and managed to finesse it (“Fantasy is a different, poorly selling genre,” she told her bosses) so that it had no impact on my other series.

It took a lot of work to save my career because of some boneheaded move by the higher ups at that traditional publishing house.

And to make matters worse, they published a version of the book that had mistakes I had fixed and they deliberately changed the title from FantasyLife to Fantasy Life.

Anger, frustration, fear—all of those things came flooding back whenever I looked at that horrid stock art cover. And I really didn’t want to approach the book at all.

For the last ten years, I have slowly chipped away at the contract I signed with Pocket Books. They won’t give me back English language world rights, but I got everything else, including the rights to put the book in an omnibus edition.

In other words, this traditional book publishing experience is still annoying, particularly since they’re selling the ebook version for a paltry $15.99 (Yes, I’m not kidding.) The “trade paper” edition is a photocopied version of the mass market, on bad paper, and is priced close to $20. I’m embarrassed by this.

The readers who really want the book buy it anyway. And I wanted the omnibus with my text and the proper title in their hands. I just couldn’t bring myself to revisit old frustrations.

I did spend part of that weekend angry as I put this entire thing together. I remembered my initial love for the project, how it felt to write the book, and all the plans I had for the series. But I also found all the letters I wrote to Pocket Books and the letters they wrote in return, trimming down that initial license (in the contract) one term at a time.

I wouldn’t have finished the omnibus edition, with the relevant short stories in the front, if it weren’t for that cagey Allyson Longueira, publisher of WMG. She knew how hard it was for me to get to this, so she gave me a deadline. When that didn’t work—because the initial deadline had no teeth—she put the as-yet-unfinished omnibus in an upcoming dark fantasy Storybundle and told me that I could substitute something else if I wanted to.

We had previously used all my dark fantasy novels in previous Storybundles. It was FantasyLife or nothing at all.

And if I didn’t get her a copy of the book by Monday, WMG would have no time to put the volume together before the Storybundle went live in mid-September.

Finally, a deadline with teeth. I gritted mine, and finished the omnibus, along with an introduction. Then I realized that I had some short story deadlines coming up and something in that world would be perfect for at least two of those deadlines.

Huh. My willingness to work in that setting was coming back…even though I live in the desert now.

Then, that tweet. I went to the Twitter account of an acquaintance to see if she was reacting to any of this. She wasn’t. Although she might have in July. I didn’t go back that far.

The reason I went to her page? Her new release is so successful that it’s flying off store shelves. Literally. It’s gone back to press several times in just the past few days.

Which means…that libraries probably don’t have a print copy of this highly successful book. They don’t have an ebook version either. And her fans are going to get royally pissed.

Not at the publisher. But at the library, at the bookstores, and at her.

Because traditional publishing is making a boneheaded error—one that will have an impact on all of its science fiction and fantasy writers.

This comes at a perilous time for Tor. Their founder, Tom Doherty, moved upstairs into an honorary position in March, and was replaced as President and Publisher by a long-time corporate middle management guy who might or might not do a good job. If this library thing is any indication… well, you already know how I feel.

I feel somewhat bad for the writers stuck in this library situation. Not entirely bad, mind you, because if they had learned business, they would know that their publisher has a habit of chewing up and spitting out writers like crazy, and has for decades. Three books and out, usually, unless something takes off. And it used to be that awards and award-nominations were enough to save a writer at that company. That changed as the bean counters rose to the top of the business, and will probably get worse now that Tom is gone. He loves science fiction, and would occasionally swoop in to save a great voice that wasn’t selling well.

I doubt that will happen anymore.

As for me, I love the reminder that I can do whatever I want with my novels and with my career. I can revive the proper version of FantasyLife. I can write another book in that series…or not. It’s not dependent on the whims of some corporate overlord.

Indie (self) publishing has been around long enough now that I sometimes forget how good we have it now—if we choose to run our own businesses.

I have also blocked out just how awful traditional publishing was to most writers, including me. I try not to look at the train wrecks happening to my friends and colleagues who are still being traditionally published. But sometimes, like today, it is hard to look away.


This weekly blog was one of the first indie things that I did, way back in 2009 (which seems like a century ago, instead of less than a decade). The blog’s success is due, in large part, to you readers. Thank you for supporting me and for being vocal about what’s going on, pointing out situations to me, and asking questions that force me to think hard about all the changes in publishing in the past twenty years.

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“Business Musings: Surviving The Stupid,” copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / Elnur.


32 thoughts on “Business Musings: Surviving The Stupid

  1. This comes at a perilous time for Tor. Their founder, Tom Doherty, moved upstairs into an honorary position in March, and was replaced as President and Publisher by a long-time corporate middle management guy who might or might not do a good job <<

    Apologies for a “late to the party” comment, but I had a vague sense that Patrick Nielsen Hayden has been de facto in charge of Tor for about a decade now, possibly longer. For both editorial and business matters. That’s not correct?

  2. When I saw the news, I was gobsmacked. Now that I know Tom is being phased out (whether it’s his own choice or not) it makes a lot more sense.

    One of my two “I’ll buy the ebook no matter how much it costs” authors signed with Tor for a three book deal, then got so mad at her other publisher that she snatched up all her books and moved everything to Tor. She self-pubbed the last book in the series that wrapped last fall, and she’s starting to experiment with it a little more. I’m hoping she’ll eventually go totally into it. She’s had some health issues that have delayed multiple scheduled releases this year, and I’m sure those conversations weren’t pretty.

    I don’t know why, but it continues to amaze me just how out of touch the suits are with how their businesses actually operate.

  3. Just wanted to let you know that your blog is no longer feeding through to goodreads. That’s the reminder I use that it’s time to catch up on blog posts. I miss seeing yours there.

    1. Yes, library ebook prices are two to three and a half times MORE than what we as readers pay. That’s why, as an indie, I refuse to play that pricing game. I’ve priced my ebooks for libraries at a little less than I do them for retail.

      I’m a heavy library user and I’ve long thought they get ripped off with ebook prices. So I decided not to rip them off.

      I don’t have any library sales yet, but it’s still nice knowing that I might get them one day just because they can buy an entire series from me for the price of one ebook from someone else.

  4. There exist the possibility, remote as it is, that whoever came up with the “hold off on Library sales” idea knows it won’t help sales and is simply proving that library e-books sales do not have a negative effect. If in their firm someone has been blaming library sales instead of the high price of their e-books for poor e-books sales this may be an attempt to let them hang theirselves.

  5. I’m just going to set up a comfy chair over here on the Carpathia, and watch this abysmal industry (trad publishing) keep on sinking by its own hand. I reckon we about at the point where the boilers start tearing loose from their anchors and go crashing through the inadequate bulkheads and smash through the stern of the ship on their way to the ocean floor 3,800 meters (12,5000 ft) below.

  6. Kris, another reader fan, not writer here. FYI, the storybundle link in your newsletter goes to an Anarchist bundle, so your FantasyLife book is not there yet. As to this post, would say I can’t believe how stupid that is, but I have been learning from your blog how ridiculous traditional publishing is. And you are 100% correct that readers don’t care who the publisher is, we just want to read the books. I use library ebooks to sample new authors, and I can do it at any time from my home.

  7. The library ebook postponement reminds me, somehow, of an event back in the early days of the World Wide Web. A man with a website was actually bringing suit against another man with a website for the crime of linking to his site. Yes, the plaintiff actually thought that the defendant was somehow stealing from him by the act of sending more eyes to the plaintiff’s site. Hadn’t asked permission, you see.

    Unclear on the concept, I suppose. Never heard how it turned out.

    1. Must be one of the masterminds behind the new EU directive to tax linking. News sites expect people will pay to link to news.

      Or they won’t, and there goes the rest of the newspaper dinosaurs…

  8. I read a copy of Fantasy Life from my library two years ago and loved it. I was hoping that you would write another book and make it into a series. Now I am hopeful. I am just a reader but follow your blog religiously. Please keep up the great work you do explaining both the craft and the business of writing.

  9. Your FantasyLife story gave me goosebumps. “they published a version of the book that had mistakes I had fixed and they deliberately changed the title from FantasyLife to Fantasy Life” – AAAAHHHH!!!! I decided to pursue self-publishing for many various reasons, and you just gave me yet another one. I’ll be posting on my blog in a few weeks about why I made that decision, I have even more material to quote now. Brrrrr…

    You mention “that tweet” – am I missing something? A link?

    All the best and thank you for this post!

    1. I did not add a link to my friend’s tweet. Right now, she’s happy with her publisher. If there’s justice in the world, her series will become a TV series, and she’ll remain happy with her publisher. I am not holding my breath, however.

  10. Well, that explains why Tor’s pricing for “books” 2-4 of Martha Wells’ Murderbot series went bonkers (9.99 for three 140-page novellas). Also explains why I haven’t bought those books, in any format. It pains me, as the series is great, but come on, I’d just feel like a chump for paying that.

    1. I’m with you. [sigh] I loved the first Murderbot book, which was reasonably priced. Went to get the next one and… holy sheep! o_O Nope, I don’t pay those prices for electronic novels.

      They’d sell so many more books if they priced them reasonably. I wish someone in NY would figure that out. :/


  11. I ran into this not too long ago when looking for a new book by an author I haven’t read before at my library. They had the print version, but not the ebook. So I did what I usually do: I requested that they purchase the ebook. In response, I got a link to the ebook, which they’d ordered but, of course, hadn’t acquired yet.

    I initially blamed the library, just like you say a reader would. I don’t remember how I discovered this was a Tor policy for ebooks, but not too long afterwards I found out. And had the same reaction as you did. Stupid!

    Due to aging eyes and arthritic hands, I read most fiction and a lot of non-fiction on my Kindle. Reading a print book is painful. I’m not going to pay $9.99 for an ebook from a new-to-me author, which is why I was looking on the library site.

    As of today, I’m number 18 in the hold list for this book (which has arrived at the library). My library only very rarely orders more than one copy of an ebook, I assume because of the high price the publishers charge, coupled with their (also stupid) policy of allowing only a limited number of borrows per copy to simulate the wearing out of a print book. Seventeen people times a three-week borrow period tells me it could be over a year before my turn to borrow the book comes. With any luck, it will be available in 6-9 months. By which time I will have lost interest or be in the middle of another library book that I had on hold for an extensive period of time.

  12. It boggles the mind that they would be focused on making money and then shoot themselves in the foot. I’ve wanted to buy the Travis McGee series and read them, then study them for writing purposes. I figured the ebooks would be a cheap alternative for that. Forty year old book, publisher backlist….and how much is it on Amazon? $15! They really don’t understand readers at all, and don’t seem interested in understanding readers.

    1. I wanted to read the exact same series, but no way would I pay that much for 21 ebooks. Random Penguin wouldn’t even offer a discounted price for a 21-in-1 box set. Luckily my metro area’s library digital consortium had the entire series available, so I read them all using Overdrive.

      Some points about libraries for indie authors:

      A number of commenters on the John Scalzi blog post that Kris linked to said they use library ebooks to sample unknown-to-them authors they wouldn’t pay full tradepub prices for. In other words, libraries are an avenue for discoverability.

      Which is another negative for indies going exclusively with Kindle Select. The only ways I’m aware of for an indie to get into library distribution is through smashwords or draft2digital.

      1. If you distribute directly through Kobo, that’s the best option to get into OverDrive, since they are owned by the same company. However, eBookPartnership and PublishDrive also distribute to OverDrive. I don’t recommend distributing to OverDrive through Smashwords, because on the library purchasing backend Smashwords books are segregated into a separate section of the site and not in the main catalog. That means librarians doing the purchasing selection might never find the book unless someone specifically requests it. I know eBookPartnership is not that way, but I don’t have access to the library backend anymore so I can’t check on Draft2Digital or PublishDrive books. I highly doubt the ones direct through Kobo are segregated.

        Also, eBookPartnership distributes to Ebsco ebooks and Hoopla, which are two other services for ebooks in libraries, and Draft2Digital distributes to bibliotheca, which is another library distribution service. I don’t know about how the terms for those three platforms are for authors, but both of them are growing services in the library world, and providing some much needed competition for OverDrive. For those interested, Ebsco ebooks are more focused on non-fiction and scholarly books (they are the main distributor for ebooks to academic libraries), so if you write scholarly non-fiction that is an excellent option for increased visibility.

  13. (I hope it’s okay to say this here; if not, please delete my comment.)

    I’m sorry it was painful to revisit Fantasy Life [sic].

    I remember loving the novel when it first came out, and when I got the assignment to proofread the omnibus, I was delighted. Turns out I’d forgotten a lot of it so it was as if I was reading it for the first time—and I loved it even more.

    I hope the experience ends up being a positive one so we get more stories in this world!

  14. Having been in the corporate world on and off for 30 years, I have a feeling the Tor/Macmillan thing falls into the “new veep in charge” problem. Every time we’ve gotten a new veep in the corporate world, they would choose whatever new-management fad was hot at the time, or that they personally loved, and try to jam it down on us peons whether or not it fit the type of work we were doing. The reason was that if a veep did nothing and the department kept being productive, they wouldn’t get any credit for it. If they CHANGED something, however, either the change would work, in which case they’d get promoted to the C-suite … or it would fail miserably, in which case they would jump ship to another company and try again … or nothing would happen, the peons would get the blame for not buying into the new paradigm, and the veep would stick around for a year or two then move on elsewhere to try again.

    As far as the library thing, it sounds like a veep changing something to see if it boosts sales. If it crashes and burns, veep leaves with golden parachute, leaving the authors on the Hindenburg. If it works, the other publishers will follow and veep gets bonuses and promotions. If there’s no difference, then it’s a matter of taste, and we’ve already seen the monoliths prefer paper.

    At least, that’s what it looks like from the trenches in the corporate world.

    But I do enjoy these stories from the publishing world, as painful as they were for you and your fellow authors. Thank you for sharing.

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