Business Musings: Paradigm Shift (Rethinking The Writing Business Part 16)
I knew, when we planned this year’s Business Master Class, that bringing in a representative from the Global Licensing Group would be essential for the business-minded writers who were attending. I did not realize how essential.
One of the reasons it was so essential was Deidre Manna-Bratten herself. She came in as prepared as a non-writer could be to explain licensing to a bunch of IP holders, and she was willing to do a role-playing hour with Loren Coleman of Catalyst Game Labs.
Those four-plus hours with Deidre were great for the attendees, and the two meals that I had with her and some of the other instructors were…instructive.
Let’s see if I can explain why.
Writers never see themselves as powerful. In fact, writers beg people to “buy” their work, when really, what the writers want is a license. They want a traditional publisher (for example) to license the Worldwide English Rights to produce and distribute the writer’s novel in hardcover, paper, and ebook.
Writers beg for this “opportunity.” They want an agent who takes 15% for the life of a very bad deal to represent them, and the writers beg the agent to take them on, not realizing that the writer hires the agent, and pays them a commission.
And once we discuss movies and TV, any common sense the writer has left just vanishes. Writers often give their work away for free, thinking that somehow this free (and very bad) movie or TV deal will make them rich. (I dealt with two of these “deals” this week alone, trying to warn writers away from them. One writer listened; the other didn’t. Sigh.)
So, writers have been in a one-down position for so long that they see their profession as something they have to luck into, rather than something they can work for. Dean and I have fought our entire careers against this attitude, and it is probably the main reason that we spend so much time teaching.
When I went to the Licensing Expo in May of 2018, I realized that there was an entire licensing world that we writers could tap. I’d been trying to find that world for decades now, and it just fell into my lap one day, when I went to meet Loren (a longtime friend) for dinner. I brought Dean this year, and that led us to rethinking our entire business model.
And we are the ones who tell writers that they should control our IP.
I had given this dichotomy some thought as we planned for the Business Master Class. It was difficult for us to make the mental shift from books to all types of licensed products, and I knew it would be difficult for other writers.
But I didn’t expect what I saw.
First, though, Deidre: She gave her talk, told the writers repeatedly how open the licensees (people who licensed work from intellectual property (IP) holders like, um, writers) were to working with new types of IP. She explained how to approach the expo, how to learn about licensing, and what to think about.
I was up there with her for the second hour, and sometimes I had to translate the questions. Most of the questions were somewhat incredulous. You mean that we can license toys connected to our series…without a movie getting made? You mean we can negotiate our own deal and it will be fair? You mean…?
Deidre was honest: She didn’t say any of this was easy. But she did seem a bit flummoxed by some of the questions, and even more flummoxed by my translations. Mostly, I had to explain traditional publishing and how it worked. She was incredulous.
I also had to explain that even though almost every writer in the room was indie published and owned their own company, they had kept that traditional publishing attitude of the writer being at the bottom of the food chain.
At dinner that night, she brought up the relationship that writers had with traditional publishers, and all of us—six writers who also owned businesses and had ceased doing business with our traditional publishers—explained the situation yet again.
Wow, Deidre said, leaning back in her chair. Now I understand why I felt like I was talking to a room filled with abused spouses.
Yep, that’s what those of us who were “raised” in traditional publishing were. We had been in an abusive relationship. And it was—is, for those who remain in it—an upside-down relationship.
Because traditional publishing has tossed out the standard licensing arrangement, building some kind of hybrid which allows them to buy the copyright from the writer, without outright stating that they’re buying the copyright.
(The traditional publishers—particularly the big publishers—couch this in legal language that says they’re licensing such-n-so rights, and then, in the warranty, they state they will hold these licenses for the life of the copyright, unless certain conditions are met. Those conditions, such as out-of-print clauses, are meaningless in today’s world or impossible to achieve.)
Traditional publishers rarely uphold their side of the agreement. They don’t distribute the books according to the contract. They fudge their numbers. They actively lie on their royalty statements. And they make it impossible for the writer to see what’s happening until the problems are already underway. If you have questions about this, see my blogs on contracts or, heck, just read a bunch of the Business Musings blog posts on this site.
Deidre’s comment was insightful and accurate, and I thought so at the time. But I didn’t realize just how insightful and accurate it was until the following morning.
We started with several role-playing scenarios that Deidre and Loren had planned. They had a lot of fun with it. Deidre changed her hair when she played different characters. Loren changed his posture. They explained who they were in the role-play and why they were doing things that way extremely clearly.
I was the one who came up with the role-playing idea (and Loren & Deidre enthusiastically agreed to it), because I figured the writers in attendance would be afraid to try to talk to licensees. It’s a rare writer who understands how to approach in-person discussions about licensing their work.
I wanted to show the writers there was nothing to be afraid of, and no need to do some of that elevator pitch malarkey that plagues writer’s conferences. The role-play and the licensing fair is about two different businesses (writer and licensee) feeling each other out to see if they want to partner on a project together. Nothing more, and nothing less.
Loren and Deidre portrayed IP holders talking with licensees. The two of them ran through half a dozen scenarios, and explained once they were done.
But they paused after the first two short scenarios to see if anyone had any questions. And one writer had the courage to raise her hand and say, “Loren, you asked Deidre a lot of questions. How did you know what to ask?”
Deidre and Loren looked at each other, confused. I was confused for a moment too. And then I realized what had happened.
In that scenario, Loren was playing the licensee. And Deidre was the IP-holder. In other words, Loren was a gaming company asking a writer some questions about her IP to see if he could make a game from her novel series.
And in that scenario, Loren (as the licensee) was in the one-down position. Because to make the game he was envisioning, he needed the IP from Deidre (as the IP-holder/writer).
The writer who asked the question had heard the subtext—Loren in the one-down position—and had immediately assumed he was the writer. Because he was in the one-down position.
I stood up from the back and clarified that Deidre was the writer in this scenario and Loren wanted to partner with her.
And the room emitted a collective sigh. Almost everyone had misunderstood what was going on in the same way that the questioner had.
The writers in the room expected to always be in the one-down position, so they were getting confused. Because what was going on in front of them made no sense without the proper context.
That moment was breathtaking for me. I realized just how firmly writers have locked themselves into a powerless position in all of their business dealings.
After the role-play and the specific questions about it, I joined Loren & Deidre to talk about making deals. And again, confusion reigned for a moment.
Because the writers were having trouble understanding that they as the IP holder were the powerful ones in this relationship. The writer could approach a licensee if they wanted. Or, more likely, the licensee could woo the writer. The writer set the terms of the deal. The writer could walk away, easily. The writer had something the licensee wanted, and the writer was the one who ultimately decided if the deal got made.
In fact, it became clear that morning that if a writer went begging to a licensee, the licensee would wonder what the heck was wrong with the property or the writer or both.
Because in licensing outside of Hollywood and traditional publishing, both sides of a deal are equal partners. Both sides decide to work together, and both sides have a stake in the deal succeeding.
I can’t tell you how many times Deidre said that a good licensing deal was a win-win for both sides. Or how many times the writers looked at her with disbelief as she said that.
After the workshop ended, writers told Dean and I repeatedly how valuable the hours with Deidre were. Life-changing, one writer said. Said another, I knew it would make a difference. I just hadn’t realized how much of a difference.
A writer that Dean and I have known wrote a thoughtful letter after the class. This writer is so good at putting things into perspective in a succinct way, and he is the first person I know who described the experience of moving from the old traditional way of doing things to running an IP-licensing company as a paradigm shift.
Yeah, yeah, I know. I makes my living with the words, and I shoulda come up with that, but I didn’t.
But it is a paradigm shift. If we are going to pursue a licensing strategy for our writing business, then we need to think about what we do in a new and different way. I’ve been exploring that throughout this series, starting with the post on “story,” but I didn’t realize until the Business Master Class that I hadn’t gone far enough.
Because I have (mostly) jettisoned that one-down position from my writing business, I had failed to realize just how many writers—even indie writers—are still stuck in it. That explains the whole day-job writer attitude that I discussed a few weeks ago in the post titled “Three Kinds of Writers.”
If you don’t see your work as worth anything except what it can sell for today, then you make the wrong kinds of business decisions. So many writers had moved from begging traditional publishers to “buy” their books to begging readers to buy their books. And that shift feels natural to writers, although readers are very uncomfortable with it.
Just like consumers are uncomfortable with people who beg them to buy things inside a department store. Readers like to shop for what they want, and while some are susceptible to that kind of pitch, most are not. Readers hate to be made to feel guilty about not buying or not reading and, like the consumer in the department store, they’ll do everything they can to avoid that person making the inappropriate pitch.
How do you make the paradigm shift from powerless writer to powerful owner of IP? The first shift has to happen in your own mind. Just because you haven’t yet licensed much of that IP doesn’t mean that the IP lacks value. The IP is waiting there for you to work with it, inside of publishing and out.
Seeing yourself and your work as valuable is tough for writers, particularly those who went through the “rigors” of an MFA, followed by all those years of begging traditional publishers to “buy” their work. All those experiences did was browbeat the writer into feeling unimportant and valueless—which couldn’t be further from the truth.
I’m a lot farther ahead on this road than most writers because I know business, and I’ve stood up for my writing for decades. I still ended up feeling battered and bruised because of the unhealthy relationships I had with some of my traditional publishers.
And if someone like me, who really didn’t want people to trample on my IP, could feel battered and bruised, I’m sure writers with no knowledge of business and no understanding of the legal sides of intellectual property, feel even more out of control and downtrodden.
When someone like that—like me, in some instance—is told they’re the one in control, they have a hard time believing it. But you can’t exercise control unless you know you have it.
I wrote this entire blog series on Rethinking The Writing Business to help me reshape my business, and to outline—for myself—how much control I really have in these areas.
I’ll be doing more on this, I’m sure.
But I want you to have that image in your head of this room full of high-powered writers, many of them New York Times bestsellers, failing to understand that they were the ones in control, because that experience is so unusual for them in publishing.
I wish you could have seen them as the light dawned, as they realized that they are moving into a part of the industry where they are the ones in charge. Even though that feeling is overwhelming, it’s also freeing.
I think that’s why so many writers left this class in a good mood, despite their long brand-new to-do list.
Paradigm shifts aren’t easy. If you’re having trouble with these concepts that I discussed in the past 16+ blog posts (eighteen, really, if you count the success and failure ones), that’s okay. Realize that you can’t change your mindset overnight. It will take a concerted effort to make that shift.
The effort is worthwhile, though. I suspect we’re going to see a sea-change in the way writers behave.
And that’s a good thing—for those of us who love to write, and those of us who love to read.
I had hoped to be a little farther ahead on my blogs after this Master Class, but I ended up with some other duties and less time than I expected as people remained in town for days afterward. And then there was this rest-thing that my body demanded I do. Dang, being human is hard.
Anyway, there will be more on the Master Business Class in future blog posts. I’m also going to compile these 16+ blog posts into a writing book, which my Patreon supporters (at a certain level) will get for their patronage.
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“Business Musings: Paradigm Shift: Rethinking The Writing Business Part 16,” copyright © 2019 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / olivier26.