Business Musings: Raising The Bar
I haven’t had a lot of contemplation time in the past month, but I sure have a lot of notes about things I want to contemplate for this blog. One problem I have living in Las Vegas is that the weather is no longer a prompt for me. Back when I lived up north, the shortened days combined with the overcast, cold, and generally cruddy weather reminded me that the year was nearly over.
Now, I wake up to sunshine, notice the shortened days only because it gets dark early, and am startled that we only have a few weeks left in the year.
So many big plans, so little time to execute them.
In the past month, I’ve done two major writing business conferences—our Business Master Class and 20BooksTo50K, both in Las Vegas. Our Business Master Class is geared toward long-time professionals and people who want to have a sustainable career.
20Books was started by people who have only recently come into the business and are very focused on making a lot of money, selling a lot of books quickly, and sharing methods for doing the same.
The two conferences done back to back can inspire whiplash, because the focus is so different.
When you’re brand-new to a profession, you don’t have the long-term vision, and, sometimes, don’t feel like you need it. The long-term will take care of itself.
The problem is that the long-term never takes care of itself. What you learn, after trying and failing and then succeeding, is that nothing is permanent and what works today won’t work fifteen years from now.
But fifteen years is a long time away, right? Except that fifteen years ago was 2004, edging into 2005, which is still in the 21st century, albeit before ebooks really took off. For some of us, 15 years is double our lifespan (in which we went from high school to college to full adulthood). For others, 15 years bring different changes.
For example, for me, that 15 years took me out of a strong traditional publishing career, into one that was sputtering, into a decision to make a living mostly writing short fiction and romance under a pen name, and then diving headfirst into the indie publishing movement that started with the sale of the Kindle.
Not as dramatic as going from high school to adulthood, but just as life-changing.
I’m talking about duration because that’s one of the things that caught my attention during the two conferences. Everything at our master class was geared toward the future—how to continue writing, how to make more money (yes) but how to do it in a way that doesn’t require an almost-impossible physical effort, how to set up a writing business so that the business can survive (and thrive) throughout your life and long after your death, and so on and so forth.
Everything at 20Books was geared toward the now—what genre sells best? How do I sell more books this year? How do I use Amazon and the other services to increase my sales? What are the new advertising models? How can I increase my productivity? And so on and so forth.
Both models are great, and useful. I love learning what other writers are doing, particularly indie writers, because they have found new ways to get their books in front of readers, new ways to promote those books, and new ways to save time while working hard.
I sort these new methods by a pretty simple method: Can I do it now? Can someone else do it for me as effectively (or better) than I could? Is it worth the time to learn this new method (for me or someone else) or will the method cease to be effective within the year? Can I modify this new method to work with what I’m already doing?
That sorting technique is hard won, because I had my young writer days too, when I thought the methods we newbies were using were the best methods and they would make us rich and famous. And they did make us a crapton of money and did make us famous in some circles. (Here’s another hard-learned lesson: you’re rarely famous in all circles.)
But those methods are beyond irrelevant now that I’m a writer of long-standing, in a publishing world that is as different from the one I started in as the publishing world of the mid-19th century. (In fact, some of the publishing stuff from the mid-19th century is more relevant now than the stuff from the last 20th.)
Methods change. Genres change.
And constantly chasing both puts you behind the curve, not ahead of it.
I talked at 20K about the pursuit of perfection, based on my book and blog posts of the same name. [link] (In theory there’s a video of it, but I can’t find it.) And Dean talked about the same thing using different language.
We got a lot of good feedback, some of it direct, and some of it indirect, saying that our voices were a breath of fresh air in a rather overheated conference. We urged people to go slowly, to find their own path, and develop their own voices.
Those are the things we’ve said for more than 25 years now, after our first big crash, which was caused by using unsustainable methods to force our writing careers forward.
I planned to write about the differences between the two conferences after 20Books, but I didn’t want to rehash what I’ve said in previous posts and what I said at the conference itself (and at other places). So, I set the post aside (mentally) and thought about writing something else.
(Then I got too busy to write anything except a novel that’s going gangbusters.)
I’m exhausted from the past month, and sometimes, when I’m exhausted, my creative voice gets louder. It figures out a way to write something I’ve been noodling on from an intellectual standpoint.
And this morning, the creative voice broke through—because of an Entertainment Weekly article. If you want to call what they’re doing “articles” these days. (I think the revamp of the magazine is a big fat failure. Sigh.)
Every issue, EW has what it calls a “Must-List” which is usually the best of the upcoming week (back in the day when the magazine was actually weekly) or the best of the month (now that the magazine is stupidly monthly). The December issue’s Must List is the best of the decade.
So, rather than a forward-looking list, this month, EW chose to look backwards on this entire decade. Which was, I swear to you, the first time that I realized that not only was the year’s end just around the corner, but so was the end of the decade itself.
Holy crap, Batman!
Anyway, EW has cute little headers for its Must List, and Number 3’s is “The Decade of the Diva.” I find this weirdly insulting (how come women are divas? How come this can’t be the decade of the woman? How come…oh, anyway), but I know it wasn’t meant that way.
The powerful woman they highlighted is Beyoncé. In a little less than 500 words, this item lists many of the ground-breaking things she did in the past ten years. I urge you to read it.
But what caught my attention were the last four sentences:
To be a successful pop star today is to be comfortable with your own ubiquity, but to be an icon is to turn that ubiquity into something that breaks barriers. It’s to consistently pull off the impossible. It’s to do what Beyoncé did at Glastonbury, on Lemonade, on Beyoncé, at Coachella. It’s to consistently raise the bar until it’s no longer surprising when you do.
Okay. Let’s parse this. Get rid of the words “pop star” and replace them with “artist” or “writer” if you prefer. And let’s get rid of the word “impossible,” because clearly Beyoncé wasn’t doing the “impossible.” If it were impossible, she couldn’t have done it. Let’s replace “impossible” with “uniquely your own.”
And let’s try those last four sentences again:
To be a successful artist today is to be comfortable with your own ubiquity, but to be an icon is to turn that ubiquity into something that breaks barriers. It’s to consistently pull off something uniquely your own. It’s to do what Beyoncé did at Glastonbury, on Lemonade, on Beyoncé, at Coachella. It’s to consistently raise the bar until it’s no longer surprising when you do.
Note the sentence that I didn’t change. That’s the last one.
It’s to consistently raise the bar until it’s no longer surprising when you do.
What that means is that fans of Beyoncé—and anyone who is familiar with her work—are no longer shocked when she surprises us with something amazing. We expect her to challenge us or the business or conventional wisdom. That’s as much a part of her art as the notes she sings. And that’s a good thing.
When an artist achieves that goal—raising the bar until people are unsurprised that the bar got raised—that’s when you’ll hear others say things like, “Beyoncé can do that because she’s Beyoncé. No one else can do it ever.”
Those two statements are only half right. Beyoncé does do things that raise the bar because she’s Beyoncé and the things she does are unique to her. So that part is true.
It’s the second part—the excuse—that isn’t. Every artist can raise the bar. Not in the way that Beyoncé does, because the way she raises the bar is unique to her. But in their own way.
In a recent interview with AARP The Magazine, guitarist and musical innovator, Carlos Santana, makes this point for someone at the beginning of their career. He discusses his beginning.
I wanted to sound like B.?B. King and Otis Rush and all the people I loved….Go inside a closet, turn the lights off, and play, and try to sound like them. And then I didn’t sound like them. I sounded like me. I didn’t realize that it was a blessing instead of a curse. But when I stopped trying to sound like somebody else and really paid attention to me, I heard that sound that goes through all people’s hearts.
Santana’s original voice extended to the way he does business, and part of that includes finding ways around conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom says that, in the music business, singers become famous. Guitarists don’t. And yet Santana has had a fifty-year career, and is so famous that most people only know him by his last name.
Santana’s way—Beyoncé’s way—is the harder way to go. And even though I’m not as famous in my chosen line of work as either one of them are in theirs, I chose to blaze my own trail. Sure, I imitated, and often worked in other people’s universes, particularly early on.
Another rule: I only worked in worlds that I liked. I learned a lot of techniques then, and I also learned how hard it is to come up with something that has the freshness that the original creator brought to that world. In fact, it’s impossible. All those of us who toil in someone else’s world can do is find (and, with luck, hit) the combination of elements that the fans of that world expect.
When you’re writing in your own world, you don’t go for the details that the fans expect. You keep that world organic and original to your vision. If you don’t, then you suck the energy out of your creation. You’re following your readers, rather than blazing new trails.
What fans enjoy, no matter the genre or the art form, is something that gives them a new perspective as well as entertains them. In fiction, they want a voice that they haven’t heard before, along with that voice’s take on the various stories that we tell each other.
What good writers do is make familiar stories new, so new in fact that they seem breathtakingly original. Musicians use the same notes in different ways using different instruments and rhythms to create stunningly unexpected works. Visual artists use color and light and shadow in ways that suggest a perspective that no one else has seen before, or will see again.
The toughest thing we do as artists is trust our own vision. If we don’t, we will not end up with a long career. Even as I was writing in other people’s universes, I was still writing my own novels and short stories, taking that learning and applying it to what I did, not what others had envisioned.
The key word in that passage is learning. I’m still learning my craft, and I hope to until the day I die. Every artist who has had a decades-spanning career says the same thing. Santana’s mantra is “Reinvent yourself every day.”
You can’t reinvent yourself without moving forward, without fresh experiences and new ways of looking at the world.
There are several keys to having a long-term career. Learning how to deal with failure is a big one. That’s my biggest worry for some of the folks who were presenting at 20Books. These writers haven’t experienced their first big failure yet. Their test afterward is whether or not they can pick themselves up after that failure.
On one panel, I noted that the long-term pros were either hybrid writers or former traditionally published writers, as well as maybe three or four writers who had been writing since the beginning of the indie movement ten years ago. The rest of the writers on panels had been publishing less than five years. That’s not long enough to learn how to have a viable career. If the panel had been held five years before that, one of the two indie writers wasn’t considered successful enough to sit on a panel of “successful” writers. And the writers who were successful for that time period are mostly out of the business now.
They didn’t learn how to handle failure.
A lot of the newer writers don’t have time to practice their craft. They’re writing a lot, but in treadmill mode, so they’re doing what’s called in running “junk miles” instead of quality miles. Sometimes, in running, it’s better to run a mile with purpose (even if that purpose is to clear your head) than it is to run five miles because it says you must on the schedule.
The problem with junk miles is that they can tire you out needlessly. The same with treadmill writing. At some point, your brain, just like your body, will need a rest. (That’s a hard learned lesson for me. I have trouble with rest. And yet I come back fresher and happier after a day away from running or writing. Sigh.)
I’m rebuilding my writing schedule to reflect my energy levels now as opposed to five years ago. And I’m trying to figure out how to find the right amount of relaxation in the schedule as well as a good daily word count that won’t turn into treadmill writing. It’s not an easy decision, and it’s unique to me and my physiology, my writing goals, and how I work.
The other key to sustainability is to look long-term. That goes back to my rules for the business side of publishing. Those rules are designed to get rid of the “shoulds” that conferences like the Master Business Class and 20Books unintentionally invoke.
If I want to be as successful as ____, then I should…
____ says the only reason he has a writing career is because he did [this marketing thing], and I should do the same…
____ says readers want a lot of books fast, so they can binge. I should write faster or publish more or…
Just do the best you can do. Strive for habits that will sustain you over years, not in the next few months. Practice. Learn. Improve.
Find your unique voice, and raise the bar—on yourself. Become like Beyoncé in this: Raise the bar so often until it’s no longer surprising when you do.
Once upon a time, writing this weekly blog felt like raising the bar for me. I wasn’t sure if I could sustain a weekly column on the publishing business every week. I wasn’t sure if doing so on a website (instead of print) would work. I wasn’t sure if I’d be talking to myself.
For over a decade now, I’ve written weekly, and surprisingly—at least to me—I’m not talking to myself. You’ve followed me, some of you for the decade, some of you for a few years, and some of you have only been here for the past few months. You ask questions, send me links, and point out areas of the artistic/business world I wouldn’t have seen without you.
I appreciate that more than I can say. Your support, short- and long-term, has made this blog possible, and writing it a highlight of my writing life.
I like thinking about the issues writers face, as artists and as business people. I thank you all for the opportunity to discuss with you the things that matter to me. And discussing them with you helps me clarify how I feel about those issues as well.
Thanks ever so much for all you do.
“Business Musings: Raising The Bar,” copyright © 2019 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / Satura.
Thanks for the reminder/reassurance. I needed that this week.
I agree it’s better to fail occasionally or even often on your own terms than spend your limited writing time imitating someone else. At least then,your failure can teach you something about yourself.
Regarding 20Books50K, I appreciate the people who share their experience with up and comers, but I think it is problematic to conflate success at selling with quality of product. Doing so leads to a kind of circular reasoning I see a lot of in the indie romance writing community:
If your book were good it would sell. Next time write about topics which are just coming into vogue. Choose a genre which is on the verge of popularity. Ignore your yearning to write prehistoric romance and focus on vampires. Oh, wait, change of plan. Vampires are going out of style. It’s all about space frogs suspense now.
But I am not convinced choice of topic or even quality of writing will make the difference when it comes to selling. People sell all sorts of mediocre products online. To do that, you have learn to be a good salesperson. Lots of juicy opportunities for failure there too. 😉
The good part is, a writer who learns to be a successful salesperson, becomes free to choose the topic and style s/he loves and to grow and mature over time into a unique author. Kind of liberating, right?
Thanks for this reminder about doing what is uniquely yours and finding your own pace and career. In the past couple of years I admit to being a bit frenetic with the changes in competition and the seemingly quick drive toward production above craft and pay-to-play advertising. This is the year I decided to stop trying to chase or understand it because I simply can’t do it. It not only goes against every instinct I have about my writing, my voice, and the way I approach my books. It is also physically and mentally impossible for me to keep it up.
I’ve followed the 20booksto50K model but it’s really bothered me because of the expectations it builds for new writers. I also believe it doesn’t allow time for finding one’s voice. The pace at which one must write and the admonition for writing straight down the middle of the genre are two things that don’t work for me and never have. Yes, there is a group of readers who are insatiable and will read anything with the write tropes and genre satisfiers. But that same group is also well-trained to pay nothing or close to it for those books.
I do understand it works for a number of people, but not as many people as newbies want to believe. As you and Dean have always taught, I’ve valued the concept of a long-term career over the ideal of quick money. It is true I’d hoped to be making more than I do currently and that has sometimes made me wonder where all my hard work has gone. However, when I look back at my choices and the timing of life situations, I know what hampered my production and my earnings. However, I also know I would do it all over again in the same way because I made the choices that were right for me and could offer me a long-term career. I do know that I have a following who likes my work. My primary goal is to find more of them.
It’s now time, once again, to set my schedule for next year. To see what changes I need to make and how I can manage the balance I so desperately need even more as I get older. I’m convinced that the continued decentralization of control and content availability will eventually provide many more viable ways for creators to reap the benefits of the work. Your work on licensing is one of those. I also think that the work on blockchain systems, though still very new, will also eventually offer some exciting opportunities. We are still in the early days of indie publishing being a large percentage of all publishing (more than half now). That massive growth will open even more opportunities I probably can’t conceive yet.
You mention in the speech that you were on panels, do you remember which panels you were on.
They seem to be loading a ton more right now.
Fantasy, High-powered authors, and…um…something else. I can’t remember now. They blurred.
Your comment re: continuing to learn and Santana’s quote brings to mind one of my favorite quotes. From Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” — “That he not busy being born is busy dying.” Thanks for this excellent post.
Your talk was posted to Youtube a few minutes ago!
Wonderful, Tom. Thank you!
Thanks for the link. It’s a wonderful talk. I found the Bill Shakespeare thought experiment especially helpful!
Just like “South Park” did. The first season was already an earthquake,but they kept pushing the envelope, stuck to their guns no matter the backlash. Now they’re in an exclusive position, where they can take on socially sensitive topics, portray them in even outrageous ways, and people are like: “Oh, it’s South Park. THEY can, because… They’re South Park”. That’s how they got their independence and love from the public, now in season 23 and going strong.
When I read the words I lived up North, I found myself doing the whole every planet has a North in Chris Eccleston’s voice, when he played the new Dr Who. Made me grin.
Thank you for yet another post that knocked it out the ball park.
That shouldn’t surprise me anymore, but it does. It’s so uniquely you.