Business Musings: Twelve Years

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On April 2, 2009, I started a blog with this:

This post marks the beginning of an experiment. I will post sections of a work in progress—a book tentatively titled The Freelancer’s Survival Guide—here, on my website.

If you go back and read that original post, you can see how tentative I am about the whole concept of an online blog. Two friends, Michael J. Totten and Scott William Carter, had a meeting with me and Dean and talked to us about new ways of publishing.

In 2009, blogging—with a donate button—was new. This was before Patreon, before Kickstarter, before all kinds of innovations. And now, twelve years later, blogging the way that I do it has become…well, not passé, exactly, but not necessarily the preferred modern way to do things.

Old hat. Old fashioned.

Weird how time flies.

And it flies fast. I was going to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the blog, but Allyson Longueira, who runs our company WMG Publishing, got diagnosed with a brain tumor and was in surgery around that point. We weren’t sure if she was going to survive, and we had to keep the business alive at the same time.

Then, last year, on April 2—Well, you were all around in 2020. You know that’s when the entire world was shutting down. We were worried about survival once again, and certainly not in the way that we expected.

So here we are in 2021. Most of us are excited about getting a vaccine. We’re using words like “opening up” and “returning to some semblance of normal,” because the past year has been anything but.

Reflecting on that time and those changes is almost impossible. Trying to imagine this world from the perspective of 2009 is well, I’m either afraid I would have believed me and panicked or (more likely) I would have reacted like the character in Julie Nolke’s YouTube series “Explaining The Pandemic To My Past Self.”

Really, when you think about all that happened since January of 2020, well, yeah. Really hard to believe.

But the pandemic was easier to live through because of innovations we didn’t really have in 2009. The Kindle was just premiering then. We didn’t have Zoom. We didn’t have much social media (maybe that’s a good thing?) and we certainly weren’t as connected online as we are now.

The changes are astonishing.

Just today (as I write this), I got an email from a friend who is very invested in traditional publishing. He’s worried about how something he published will play “in the field.”

I stared at the email. What field? I wanted to ask. Because you can play in the remaining sandboxes of traditional publishing, but that “field” has gotten narrower and narrower.

Since it’s no longer a monolith, and it’s possible—no, better—to publish without it, the very idea of worrying what the curators think startled me.

Yet, when I reread the original post that started this entire publishing blog, I see that attitude underlying every sentence.

I was writing a blog that would become a book, and doing so with the online support of the readers. I honestly didn’t think anyone would read the post, let alone send in a few dollars to back what I was doing.

Yet, in the end, blog readers supported the entire Freelancer’s Survival Guide, which evolved into something huge, because of questions. Those initial donors got the ebook for free from me as a thank you.

This, in the days before Patreon. I sent a PDF via individual emails to hundreds of people. It took almost a week to get all of the emails out, something I can do with a couple of clicks on Patreon now.

I also can use BookFunnel to deliver the ebook in whatever format readers prefer. (Remember the format wars? Remember how we argued about open formats versus closed formats? Remember the problems with design and tables of contents and, God, just about everything?)

I transitioned from writing the Freelancer’s Survival Guide to a general publishing business blog 18 months after that first post, and haven’t looked back.

I didn’t make that transition because I needed the money. I did it because the world was changing so rapidly, I needed to analyze what was going on. I do that best when I’m writing about it.

(In the early days of the pandemic, I started revising the Guide, but life got in the way. I’ll be continuing that later this year…on the Patreon page.)

The changes haven’t really slowed in twelve years, but they have bifurcated a lot. Now, we all have our niches. I want to learn some things about publishing. I don’t know as much any more about the nitty gritty of actually uploading things because I’m not doing it. I own a publishing company filled with really good people who do a lot of the detail work without my input because they’re so much better at it than I ever would be.

Although there were times in the past two years when I worried that the company was in danger—first with Allyson’s illness, and then with the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. I knew I could learn about the changes.

If anything, indie (self) publishing has become…well, not easier, but more streamlined.

As I noted above, we can do things with one or two mouse clicks that would have taken all day in 2011. And might’ve been impossible when I started this blog in 2009.

I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around this post for days and days, and I’m only sure of a few things:

I still have a career when so many of my peers do not. This spring has apparently been about some kind of life review for me. A writer who is doing a history of the sf magazines had me read the chapter about my days editing The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. He has the facts right, but so much is not there.

Since this culture is different, the struggles that I had as the first female editor of the magazine that I had never talked about —the viciousness and the abuse and the sexism—would now be things I could discuss on social media, and actually get some support for. Back then, I had a few friends I could talk to, but mostly we knew I had to take it or walk away.

I walked away eventually, but not because of that. That sexism and nastiness was just part of the air in the 1990s (and the 1980s and the 1970s and…y’know). I had little recourse.

This spring, I also ran a Kickstarter to jumpstart my continuation of The Fey series, which I’d been putting off because—you guessed it—I had to review everything. As I’ve been reviewing it, I realized that so much of my experience of that series comes from the behind-the-scenes difficulties in traditional publishing. (I’m blogging about this on my Patreon page, and that blog will be a book eventually.)

And then I had to assemble another book, Stories from Pulphouse: The Hardback Magazine, which is where my editing career started. What astonished me, in addition to how much time had passed, was how far my colleagues’ careers had come…or how long ago their careers stalled.

Not to mention how many of my friends/colleagues/mentors had died in the intervening 30+ years.

I had a good mainstream traditional publishing career in the 1990s. The industry more or less imploded at the end of the decade, and I was surviving in the remnants by 2009. It was tough; I wasn’t sure how I was going to keep making a living at my writing at that point.

If the Kindle hadn’t come about, if the ebook revolution hadn’t happened, if indie publishing hadn’t taken off, I’m not sure I would have continued making a good living at my writing. I probably would have made some kind of subsistence living with the fiction, and done something else on the side.

Or, hell, I don’t know. I do know that at one point, around 2007-2008, I considered taking a radio job as news director of a local radio station…until I saw the salary. Even with a diminished traditional publishing profile, I could have earned that entire salary in a month or two as a published writer, doing a lot less work.

I’m doing a lot more work now, but my earnings are greater than they’ve ever been, and my opportunities are through the roof, like they are for all of us.

The nifty thing about indie (self) publishing is that it continually opens doors rather than closes them. There are more opportunities than I can discuss here, more ways for writers to realize their dreams than there ever were in my writing lifetime, and that trend has only grown in the past twelve years.

Rather than explore each of the changes in this post—not that I could, because there are so many—I’d rather hear from you in the comments. What was the most revolutionary change for you in the past decade or so? What bit of technology? What piece of advice? What realization?

We’ve all gone through a massive rethink in our publishing attitudes. Let’s take a tiny dive into what that really is and means.

I do have to say one thing, though. Thank you all for being part of this weekly blog. Thank you for being there through the good times and the bad. Thank you for challenging me, for enlightening me, for pointing me to new things, for keeping me on my toes. Thank you for the financial support to keep the blog going, and thank you for surprising me, even now, with all the things you do.

You’re the best part of this weekly blog.

Thank you.

“Business Musings: Twelve Years,” copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / ifong.

18 thoughts on “Business Musings: Twelve Years

  1. Self-publishing became a viable option shortly after I started the querying process for one of my books (the first one I was actually interested in publishing, although I’d written several others). I did a ton of research before jumping in, because I had heard all the pre-Kindle warnings about how self-publishing would ensure that not only would you not sell any copies of that book, no publisher would ever buy anything from you after that. But two things made me take the leap, and I’m so glad I did.

    The first was that I had read a lot of horror stories about how writers had a lot of trouble selling another book if their last couple of books hadn’t done well, and how it was common for careers to fizzle out after three books or so if those books didn’t take off. I’ve always been a long-term thinker. I didn’t care whether my first book was a hit. I cared about being able to publish my tenth and my twentieth. With self-publishing, I saw an opportunity to build a career for myself in a way that actually fit my priorities.

    The other was that writing is an extremely solitary endeavor for me. I always had trouble with critique groups, for instance, because the easiest way to critique a novel is to submit chapters as you finish them, but letting someone see a project before the first draft was even finished killed the project dead for me every time. The thought of needing to develop an idea in collaboration with an agent, before the first word of the project was even written, was something out of my nightmares. But that was How It Was Done, or so all the blogs told me. I can’t describe the feeling of relief when I realized self-publishing meant I wouldn’t have to let anyone near my unwritten ideas. (Of course, after I started publishing, I promptly lost six years of writing time because the constant drumbeat on self-publishing forums about “write for readers, write to market, write books readers want to read” meant I always had an imagined audience in my head stomping all over my solitary process. But that’s another story.)

    I’m still untangling the assumptions I internalized in my “aspiring author” days, and how they affect my views of publishing now. I used to read all the agent and editor blogs that were popular back then, and dutifully memorized their advice. In retrospect, a lot of it was personal preferences disguised as immutable rules—like one blogger’s frequently-mentioned hatred of rhetorical questions (a quick Google search shows me that the “no rhetorical questions” rule is still being circulated widely, mostly by people who don’t know where it came from)—but I didn’t know that then. I thought my career would be over before it started if I submitted a manuscript on the wrong weight of paper, because that was what the blogs told me.

    I think the biggest and most harmful idea I (and a lot of other people) internalized was that there’s a sharp line between a successful writer (defined as someone who gets a publishing contract—never mind what happens after that) and (ugh) an “aspiring author.” With self-publishing, there’s no equivalent to that sharp line, no sign from the publishing gods that you’ve “made it.” I see a lot of people using income that way, these days—this is my personal theory on why the term “six-figure author” has gotten so popular. (And as a definition of success, it makes as little sense as thinking a single publishing contract means your troubles are over and you’re one of the Chosen Few forever. What if, for example, you make six figures one year but not another? What if you make six figures but spend most of it on marketing?) I’ve been doing this for almost ten years, and I still have to fight the thinking that tells me I have no career if I haven’t crossed some magical line.

  2. One of the biggest changes for me is I no longer have friends and family with conventional business careers looking at me cross-eyed when I try to explain trad publishing. And they were right. It didn’t make sense. They understand indie publishing for the most part because I am creating a product and putting it for sale in the marketplace.

    In fact, my husband was looking forward to attending the Business Master Class last year because I was going to use it as part of teaching him about the publishing side of my business. Now, we can watch the videos at our own pace while I walk him through my August and October releases.

    Thank you, not just for the business, but for finding a way to put out the BMC and other classes safely with COVID still raging!

  3. I can design my own covers now. Believe me, that’s something I NEVER thought I’d be able to do. It took a couple of years to learn Photoshop and some simple design principles (I’m very particular about book covers) but I did it. Now I can write a short story, design a cover and publish it all over the world in just a few days, a week tops.

    I have even designed covers for some writer friends. It makes me very happy to be able to help out in that way.

    I am having an absolute blast.

  4. The Kindle ebooks was my realisation that I could publish a story the length I wanted it to be. I have learnt a lot about copyright and licenses from this blog. Thank you for the time you do this.

  5. “What was the most revolutionary change for you in the past decade or so? What bit of technology? What piece of advice? What realization?”

    This is what did it for me. The proverbial straw/camel. Your post: Business Musings: Three Kinds of Writers (Rethinking The Writing Business Part 14)

    I had known about indie-publishing for years and have writer friends that have taken this path. They love it. Told me to do it. I didn’t listen. I watched videos of writers discussing it. But that was for them, not me. I was stuck on being trad published. Partially because I write children’s literature and I don’t know (hadn’t educated myself) whether indie-publishing will fly with school librarians, parents, etc. Still don’t know.

    But in 2019, I was three days into NanoWriMo, furiously writing my novel and had a tantalizing thought — I really like this — and I want to publish this myself. The thought seemed to come out of nowhere.

    Later on that night after hitting my daily writing quota, I zipped over to your blog for my weekly reading (refreshment). And your post struck me like a thunderbolt. Your breakdown of the three Writer models. I felt especially dazed at these words:

    “I have no issues with a writer who looks at the work involved in indie publishing and decides it’s not for her…provided she understands what she’s giving up to be traditionally published. And provided she knows that her career will probably end with her keeping her day job.”

    That’s when I realized I have to do it. I have to indie-publish my work. I wasn’t against trad publishing. I was for myself. I realized that not only could I do it. But I wanted to do it. I wanted to be the business-minded indie. Thousands of other writers were. Why not me?

    Yes, for children’s lit I may need to stick with trad model. But, I also write YA, which I will indie-publish. And who knows what I will write in the future?

    So while I continue to write, I read your blog, take your (and Dean’s) classes through WMG Publishing and educate myself on the indie publishing process as a business. And, I bought The Copyright Handbook as a present for myself.

    This is my first time posting here. But because you asked and have given such a wealth of information year after year I wanted to show my appreciation by joining your conversation.

    1. Oh, so glad it all helped, Tisha. And there are indie published, well known children’s book writers. I have some friends who are very active, but I don’t know much about their community. Anyone on this blog…?

  6. The biggest change for me was a sense of commitment to building and new writing and publishing business. I can do this thing now, in large part thanks to you and Dean, and the supportive community you have built. Life is good, writing is fun once again, and even though we aren’t out of the woods yet, I have a firm sense of direction and purpose once again.

  7. When you update the book don’t get rid of the old book. Having the context of the old book answers so many questions. You might consider bundling the first book in the back of the ebook so that we can buy both. That way you can refer to the first edition and people can read the difference. Put it in the appendix.

    I have every book put out by a famous agent that I will not name. HA! Reading his books now illuminate what was happening then. Even when each book came out, they were brilliant commentary on the years before, but they were already out of date. Each time I would read one of his books, I would say, “I wish I knew this years ago when it actually mattered.” The world was constantly moving on.

    His books are out of date, to me, yet thirty years later, people are still trying to live in the world he described.

    Context is everything.

    Nobody is writing the history of what happened from 1990 to now. The world changed and the events are contained in memories, not books or articles. You and Dean talk about how you guys discuss everything in your workshops, never writing stuff down. The problem is, only a handful may remember that stuff, but millions of people will never have access to it.

    BTW, I used to refer people to Dean’s blog all the time. The articles and comments were basically a master class on publishing. Then he started deleting everything because it wasn’t “important” anymore. Yet, how many times in the past year have people come to you about Trad publishing and agents. In the past when people had questions about that stuff I would say, read Dean’s blog, from first post to now, and all your questions will be answered. That’s not the case anymore.

    The past matters when people are still trying to live in it, as if those rules still applied. You guys have moved on, the rest of the world is still trapped in the 1990s.

    1. I don’t think he deleted all that much. And yeah, people are stuck. Good advice about the old book. I never delete anything. The tech moved on for me on some things, but I still have 90% of everything, notes to finished draft.

      1. I don’t think he deleted all that much. And yeah, people are stuck.

        Not even close. Everything is gone. And people are stuck because they never read the stuff you know, because all of the big conversations are deleted.

        Like I say, I would tell people to start at Dean’s first post and read everything, and all of their questions would be answered. So each time someone asks you old boring questions that they “should already know”, now you know why they are still asking.

        This is an example of what I’m talking about.

        Dec 20 2010
        The New World of Publishing: The eRace

        The articles would start a conversation, and the important stuff was in the comments.

        The archives listed on that page are still accessible. March 2008 to December 2010. Look through some of them and see what people are missing.

        Looking back at some of the posts that I harvested, I was shocked to see that Borders shut down in 2011. It seems like that happened just a few years ago, not ten. Looking back at those old post, the world has utterly changed. The discussions from those old post are scary like the Julie Nolke time videos.

        There is no way we could even begin to explain anything to those people ten years ago.

        Explaining the Pandemic to my Past Self – 1 Year Later

        1. Here is a post about agents from 2014, with comments about the famous agent I did not name above. HA!

          The New World of Publishing: The Assumption of Agents
          Posted on February 6, 2014

          The archive list on that page is from July 2008 to March 2014. That’s a six year period when the world changed. The archive is not the same as the one I listed above, so the thinning process had already begun.

          Between the two links there is enough information in the archive to refer people to when they come asking the same old questions.

        2. Thank you so much for this link. I remember being inspired by Dean’s post when he published it first. But I have only now become productive enough to be able to track my progress with a system rather than just in my head. I looked for this post because the idea is so very useful but could not find it on Dean’s blog.

  8. The biggest change for me was not to even try traditional submissions. It was too hard on me, as a disabled person, to try to compete – and I was 99.99% sure the answer to the process for my second project was going to be, ‘Very nice – but not for us right now.’

    I decided begging was unsatisfactory, losing control worse.

    So I went ahead, took the fifteen years, and published that first book. Lots of learning – but none of the angst that accompanied the first project. I’m into year six of the second book in the trilogy, and so what?

    Everything about self-publishing is learnable and at your fingertips. I have yet to learn marketing properly, but finishing the writing is the important part – otherwise, when people love Book 1, they have nowhere to go.

    Your posts have been a huge part of educating me on what the business side requires – even though most of it doesn’t apply to me (yet?). So I go at the writing daily at my snail’s pace – and know, if I’m alive, this is going to be finished, and I’m going to love it.

    THAT is happiness.

  9. After scrambling after too much advice and following the wrong Self-pub gurus, I think I have discovered my own system. And a big part of that is Draft 2 Digital. I can upload a book there and they will handle all the retailers for me, including Amazon. When I do a promo, I only have 1 place to change the price. And I can give it a start and end date and leave it there — all done. There’s no jiggering from one place to another, double checking retailers and fussing over it. I know people say I am “leaving money on the table” by taking lower royalties but it is so worth it for my sanity. I’m considering moving all my print over there now. And I’m using Findaway for my audiobooks in the same way. These consolidators have taken the most stressful part of the equation away for me. And it gives me more time to write.

  10. Thanks for all the years of great posts. I can’t remember when I started reading, but it’s been years now. I’ve learned a lot and I think the biggest change for me is that I started out trying to go the traditional publishing route but couldn’t make any traction there. Yet with indie publishing, I realized that I didn’t need gatekeepers to publish my work. I’m now 14 fiction books in and 5 non-fiction. Understanding that there are different services that I can use to build my business is a game changer. Thanks again and congratulations!

  11. Well, one bit of technology that I did not have in 2009 nor 2011 was Active Campaign or other email marketing platforms. They allow me to send broadcast email to thousands of people at once and nurturing them with past content through automated sequences. Most importantly, they allow me to develop my business with a list of contacts I own, rather than depending on Facebook, Google, Amazon etc.

    I discovered your blog a little more than a year ago as Joanna Penn mentioned it. Thanks for the thoughts and analyses you and Dean share.

  12. The biggest change to me was finally realising that I could do it.

    Years ago (yes probably around when this blog was started) I gave up on storytelling because it was ‘impossible’ to earn a living through telling stories. Instead of taking it as a challenge I wimped out.

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