Business Musings: Surprises in the New World of Publishing

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You’d think, after all these years, nothing about the changes in publishing could surprise me. And really, what happened this week didn’t surprise me as much as it surprised me because it happened to me.

And it caused me to think of some things I hadn’t considered at all.

As many of you know, I’ve been writing these posts about four weeks ahead. This one was written on March 12. There are four more posts that I wrote before this one, but which will come out after it. (My Patreon supporters see them when I finish them.)

What happened this week? I started a Kickstarter for my Fey series. I’m doing something on this Kickstarter that I don’t normally do. I’m asking my readers to set a deadline for me.

Normally, I don’t let anyone into my fiction writing, but I kept putting off the return to the Fey. There are some real-world reasons for that. It is taking me months to put the world back into my head. Literally months, because I need to reread all seven volumes. I know the stories and the story I plan to tell, but some of the details are lost to time.

Usually something like that doesn’t stop me, but it did here, and part of that was the history of the Fey books. I suffered so many traditional publishing problems with those books that I probably have mild PTSD. I have a lot of anger about the way the books were treated, and about the way I was treated.

I should probably say that I have a lot of unresolved anger about it, because, with traditional publishing, you can’t confront anyone without losing your career. All you can do is move forward. (Hmm, sounds like the Diving books, right?)

I had several deadlines over the years, all to return to the Fey, all of which I blew past, with lots of great excuses and actual reasons. I thought of having Allyson at WMG give me a deadline, but I didn’t ask, because I felt it unfair to her. The onus was on me to finish these books, not to find someone in my daily life to push me (and be the subject of my wrath).

Finally, I came up with the idea of doing a Kickstarter. I would ask my readers to support the Kickstarter. I set the deadline before the Kickstarter started. If we didn’t hit our goal for a novella, then I was off the hook.

Oh, my, we hit the goal in less than an hour. I had let the people on my Fey newsletter list know this was coming, and they were thrilled. I should probably tell you that I get about one letter per week asking me to finish the Fey. I knew there was interest, but not this much interest.

That was the surprise. It was a humbling and wonderful surprise. I am unbelievably thrilled.

The other surprise came buried in my reaction to all of this. As many of you know, I do a lot of ruminating on my daily run. My subconscious offers its opinions on things, even things that I’d repressed a bit.

The day after the Kickstarter not only started, funded, and hit two stretch goals (!) in hours, my internal critical voice said, Well, don’t count on this to ever happen again. To which my very quiet, much abused muse, offered hesitantly, But this is a Kickstarter, not traditional publishing. The funding is vastly different.

Oh, my, is it.

Let me explain.

With traditional publishing, the writer is essentially at the mercy of a handful of people to help a project become reality. Once the writer has approached all of the publishers in her genre and has been turned down, the project is dead. For the record, the Fey never was turned down. I let it go on bad advice.

I’m dealing with a lot of decisions I made, mostly taking said bad advice, as part of the Fey. I’m writing a concurrent book while I review, called Lessons From The Writing of The Fey. The book will be published as soon as I finish the next Fey book, but each chapter will appear on my Patreon page as I finish them.

We’re including Lessons From The Writing of The Fey in the Kickstarter as one of the backer rewards, along with a series of videos (by me) for readers as well as an online writing class inspired by those lessons. (You can get one, two, three or all of those things. Just look at the Kickstarter.)

So here was the nut of that little contretemps between the two sides of my brain. I had received a large advance for the first books of the Fey and a smaller advance for the Black Throne series (books six and seven). Those books spanned the 1990s collapse in the distribution system, and their treatment reflected some of the outside business problems from that collapse.

But the lesson that my critical voice took was this: You can’t count on an advance of any size. The project is probably doomed anyway. Why are you trying?

My much-battered muse knew the truth of the Kickstarter: No one person was offering me one gigantic payment for the Fey. The Kickstarter was (and is) designed so that hundreds of people put up $5 for a novella. That’s it. The more people who participate, the more money the project makes.

Instead of relying on an ever-decreasing number of genre publishers (or rather, genre publishers who offer advances higher than $5000), an indie writer with Kickstarter and Patreon and general book sales online can return to the various wells several times, because the indie writer isn’t asking for a fortune. The indie writer is supplying content for a reasonable price, but doing it on a very small level ($5) for hundreds or thousands of people.

When I sell my sf novellas to various markets, I generally make a few thousand dollars. There aren’t many fantasy novella markets (that I’m aware of), so I knew writing a Fey novella would be something that would go up on sale without any magazine publication.

That put me off for years, honestly. This small Kickstarter was a way around that as well.

Only I’m going to get way more money for a novella than I would have any other way. Because readers are showing their interest in the Fey and getting me to write more Fey. That’s amazing.

Here’s the other cool thing about the Kickstarter: It feels like an advance, but it isn’t. An advance, in book publishing terms, is an advance against royalties or, in real world parlance, a loan that gets paid back with each book sale.

So traditional writers start out in the hole. They’ve been given a loan to write their project, and then the lender keeps track of how much is getting paid back. (It’s a truly stupid system, rife with abuse.) As you can guess from my language, the loan is almost never paid back—at least as far as the writer knows. (If the royalties were computed differently, the advance would be paid back much sooner. Which is why publishers never sweat the fact that most books don’t earn their advances. Well, really, the publisher makes money whether the books earn their advances or not [unless the advance was unrealistically high].)

Traditional writers, in other words, rarely make more than their advances, and if they do, the money comes in smallish checks every six months or so, accompanied by an indecipherable royalty statement. (Writers who have audited their publishers often find thousands of dollars in missed payments—provided the auditor can get to the bottom of all of the creative accounting.)

Technically, Kickstarter projects start out in the hole as well. Usually, I try to have the writing done by the time I do a Kickstarter, so we can just fulfill. That’s what has happened with all of the Diving Kickstarters, and will happen with the next one.

But this Kickstarter is designed to get me off my butt and go deep into the Fey, so I am deliberately setting it up on a somewhat traditional model, in that I’m getting paid before I finish the writing.

Okay, so Kickstarter gave me my advance. Once we fulfill—send all of the rewards to all of the backers—then, my advance is paid off. With luck, that advance will be paid by August, after I have finished the novella. Maybe even sooner.

After that, every single book sale is gravy. And unlike traditional writers who have earned out their advances, I will make 70% of each sale. Traditional writers make 10-15% (maybe one or two get 19%, but no one gets more than that. See my licensing posts to understand why). These days, traditional writers often aren’t even making that much, because their contracts include massive discount clauses.

What those clauses essentially say is this: if the book is sold at a discount (Walmart, Target, Costco), the writer will get a much smaller royalty (generally 2%). Sometimes, the writer gets no royalty. Those hardcover books you find in a bin for $5 at places like Office Depot? Writers get no royalty on those sales, because the books are being sold at what’s called a deep discount.

And we’re not even going to discuss traditionally computed ebook royalties.

So, here’s the thing: I will repay this advance on the Fey novella by providing readers with the novella and the rest of the rewards that I have promised in the Kickstarter. And then the novella begins its “real” life. It’ll sell in hardcover, trade paper, and ebook on all of the various platforms for years and I will earn money on this book for years.

I can put the novella in reprint anthologies (if anyone asks me to) or Storybundles or other marketing projects that haven’t even been born yet.

The Kickstarter, then, will act as it is supposed to. It not only kickstarts the project, but it kickstarts the earnings as well.

So, that argument my critical voice made? That’s an argument that comes out of the Fey’s traditional publishing history. The reason my stupid agent convinced me not to write the next books of the Fey was because she didn’t think she could get anyone to pay me for them. (She fucking didn’t even try. [Oh, sorry. Lots of anger there.]) I was dumb enough to listen.

The project got stalled, and that might’ve been inevitable. (There’s no proof that the agent was right, and no proof she was wrong either.)

Here’s the kicker. I am reviving this project, and the next books are 100% under my control. (Okay, 90%, because time, tides, and health issues might get in the way. Or life, as we like to say. Sometimes it takes its own turns, as we all learned in 2020.)

I can choose to do a Kickstarter again on the next book in the series or I can choose not to. I have no idea how much each Kickstarter will make, but the Kickstarters are not dependent on some employee at a big corporation. They’re dependent on how many regular readers of mine see the Kickstarter and how many of those readers really want to spend $5 to get the next book ahead of publication.

The amounts will fluctuate. But they’re much easier to achieve than selling a book in this modern traditional publishing environment.

It’s really a nice thing, and somewhat humbling—whether the Kickstarter succeeds or fails. If the Kickstarter fails, well, then either you built it wrong, you started too early, you didn’t have a large enough readership yet, or a hundred different things.

If it succeeds, well, that’s humbling too. It’s amazing to have such support, often from people you’ve never met. (Thank you all!)

Many of you are daunted by the idea of doing a Kickstarter. Dean and Loren L. Coleman are running a free class on Teachable called Kickstarter Best Practices For Fiction Writers. Investigate it. If you don’t feel ready, you have the knowledge in your back pocket for when you are ready. If you are ready, make sure you’re doing the Kickstarter the best way possible.

One other thing. As you can tell from this post, the Fey carries a lot of traditional publishing baggage for me. The Lessons From The Writing of The Fey is as big a part of this Kickstarter as the new novella is. If you’re interested in writing and business, then you’ll probably want to check it out.

Oh, and one last thing. If you want to read the Fey, the best way to do so is to back the Kickstarter at the $30 level. You’ll get all seven existing books of the Fey, the new novella, the only Fey short story (at the moment), four other fantasy novels, and $600 in online writing workshops (at the time of this writing), all for your $30.

So…lots of reading and lots of learning.

I’m feeling a little awkward here on the Kickstarter. I was slightly worried that I would balk at writing the novella under deadline, but I decided to soldier forth anyway. Nothing else was working, and I know myself well enough to know that once I’ve committed to an outside entity (and there’s money involved), I will fulfill that commitment even if it’s really hard to do so. Decades have shown that.

But I find that I’m excited about the project, more than I’ve been. I’m so encouraged by the response and, as I said, humbled. I expected it to be hard to reach the initial ask. The fact that we’ve far surpassed it stuns me.

I can’t do this often, because, as I mentioned in last week’s post, my time is limited. So I’ll continue to do most of my Kickstarters after the book is finished. But I now have a new tool in my toolbox. The get-me-off-my-duff tool.

You’d think I’d already knew that. And I guess I did, but thought it wasn’t for me.

Heh. Shows you what I know. I’m learning more and more about this new world of publishing, each and every day.

Thanks, all. You’ve made this a heck of a week.

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“Business Musings: Surprises in the New World of Publishing,” copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.


6 thoughts on “Business Musings: Surprises in the New World of Publishing

  1. M.C.A. Hogarth uses her kickstarters for work she’s already finished to prime the pump for her next project.

  2. I’ve known about Kickstarter for years now but, as with most kinds of marketing, there’s not much point doing it if ‘you didn’t have a large enough readership yet’. That said, I’m glad that you do. I’m looking forward to the day you announce a Kickstarter for the Disappeared. 🙂

    1. If you actually bothered to take our free Kickstarter class, you would know that what you just said was false. It won’t cost you anything to listen, and you’ll be able to add a new tool into your toolbox. You’ll even know when the timing is right, and that’ll be sooner than you think.

  3. “The reason my stupid agent convinced me not to write the next books of the Fey was because she didn’t think she could get anyone to pay me for them. (She fucking didn’t even try. [Oh, sorry. Lots of anger there.]) I was dumb enough to listen.”

    You know, it occurs to me that this is actually a form of gaslighting. And the creative accounting, mistakes and flat-out stealing while insisting that you are absolutely integrous and follow the highest standards of professionalism– that’s gaslighting too.
    And this practise of gaslighting authors is basically institutionalized and normalized, so if you challenge it in any way you’re a problem or high maintenance, and ‘don’t understand how things work’.

    And the other authors still buying in, despite having freedom and free will, are as helpless in their career as someone locked in a house with someone who wants to destroy their sanity.

    So glad the Kickstarter is a success and looking forward to reading the series for the first time.

  4. Congratulations on the success of your Kickstarter, Kris! It has been spectacular.

    I’m a bit confused about the concept, though. I’d always understood Kickstarters to be about getting backing to start projects, and this time, that’s what you’re doing. But as you say, you’d normally have projects already done before you put them up, and that’s certainly what I’d want to do. But is putting up a completed project contrary to the concept of a Kickstarter? What is being kickstarted, in such a case? How is that presented to potential backers?

    1. What those Kickstarters do is build audience (1) and (2) that audience gets the upcoming book before anyone else does. It’s a way of having exclusivity. Take a look at our other Kickstarters. Go to the Fey and click on our other Kickstarters for more explanation (it’s beneath the photo of me & Dean).

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