Business Musings: Traditional Writers (Fear-Based Decision-Making Part 5)
The other day, I got an email from a writer friend who was about to give advice to one of their friends. Seems that friend had a niche how-to book for parents who are dealing with a certain kind of health issue. My writer friend asked me, Is there any reason for this person to go to traditional publishing?
I looked at the whole thing with an unusual thought for me: Some niche products might do well in traditional. The friend of the writer friend (hereafter known as FoWF) wasn’t in this for the money or even to hold onto rights. FoWF wanted to get information out there, and really, wasn’t trad pub the way to do so?
I started answering my friend by email, and as I did, I realized that publishers know nothing about this niche field because there are no books about it. Which meant that FoWF would have to educate an editor, find places to market the book on their own, do all the social media, and…eventually FoWF would discover that the traditional publisher has no in with the places that could effectively sell this book, like seminars for parents of kids with this issue.
The more I typed, the more I realized that, nope, trad pub wouldn’t help FoWF at all. It might even hurt them, because the book wouldn’t sell well, which meant that it would probably go out of print. And it would be priced too high, so that parents struggling with this issue and day jobs and all the things parents struggle with probably couldn’t afford it. So I wrote:
But as I type this, I realize they can probably do all that on their own.
So, never mind.
No, there’s no advantage to traditional publishing.
Yeah, even I get tripped up once in a while, thinking—hoping—wanting traditional publishing to have some benefit for writers.
There really isn’t any. And anyone who would do a modicum of research about the field they’re trying to enter would learn that pretty darn quick.
In fact, traditional publishing itself tells you that in a myriad of ways—and has since I got into this field forty years ago. The evergreen article just appeared in that company town rag, The New York Times, in April under the title, “What Snoop Dog’s Success Says About The Book Industry.”
The article had this little tidbit: “…about 98 percent of the books that publishers released in 2020 sold fewer than 5,000 copies.”
That would be new releases, not backlist.
But here’s the thing that the company town rag doesn’t tell you: For decades, the majority of new releases from traditional publishers sold fewer than 5,000. For decades.
The new figure in this little equation isn’t the 5,000 copies; it’s the 98 percent. If you combine that with the other statistics that came out about our pandemic year, you’ll see that this is up by maybe about a third. Bookstore sales, which are generally frontlist, were down 30% in 2020.
We don’t have the statistics on how many frontlist books felt the impact of the closed bookstores which is why I think that percentage is higher, but we do know this: trad pub doesn’t know how to market direct to consumer, nor do they know how to market to any place other than a bookstore. Their ebook prices are too high, so a lot of readers migrated to other new-to-them books, which included a lot of backlist.
But the backlist isn’t up as much as trad pub would want you to believe. Backlist sales were 69% of all book sales in 2020. In 2019, backlist sales were 63%. Yes, the pandemic accelerated the rise of the backlist, but not by as much as the trad pub editors are screaming about.
And yet, traditional publishers don’t put any money into their backlist. They make backlist books extremely hard to find. They take the paper books out of print.
In May, I got Nora Roberts’ new book, and in the Books By Nora Roberts section up front, it had this gem: “Ebooks by Nora Roberts.” Those ebooks were the titles she wrote for Harlequin back in the day. Apparently, some not-so-brilliant exec figured that Nora’s fans who hadn’t read those books were undeserving of a paper edition.
Yeah, that’s pretty damn dumb. But I’m not seeing much intelligence from traditional publishing these days.
Nor am I seeing much from writers who want to go into traditional publishing. In May, Dean wrote a blog post about a writer we’ve both known for a decade, who has been revising the same book for six years, at a Big Name agent’s command. Yeah, that agent has sold some amazing books. That agent was an amazing editor, back in the day when he bought my first novel.
But the market in which he first saw her manuscript is so drastically different from the market today that I have no idea why he’s still stringing her along. He asked her to write a new book for him, which she did, but then he bailed on her when the pandemic hit.
Note that he’s an agent, who has no authority to buy books at all.
Nor do I understand why she’s still in touch with me and Dean, because we’ve been urging her for years to write something else, anything else, and to get out of this trap. But she claims to be happy with the situation.
And she’s not alone.
I get emails all the time from writers like her, writers who are happy to have an agent for the book they want to publish through traditional, writers who like telling me that my head is up my ass for not promoting traditional book publishing, and—last week—a writer who asked, sideways, if I would be his agent for traditional publishing because I “clearly know so much about the business.”
What are these writers doing?
Well, not thinking for one.
But there’s more to it than that. They’re terrified of going down a path that they see as mostly untested. Never mind that many writers have been making a living at publishing their own books for a decade now. One of those writers, Lindsay Buroker, mentioned on Twitter last month that she’s been freelance for ten years now and has published roughly 80 books.
In the same amount of time that this other writer wrote one entire novel—and made zero dollars on it.
Examples like Lindsay’s, though, seem to make no difference to writers like the one I mentioned, because that writer is operating out of fear.
The writer wants someone to take care of her, and she’s not alone. She doesn’t want to learn the business. Like that writer who wrote to me, she wants someone else to learn the business so that she can…what? Be famous? Because writing clearly isn’t her passion, or she wouldn’t have wasted all this time on one book.
But writers who want to go into traditional publishing feel they need several things. They need a curator—an editor—to tell them what they’re doing right or wrong with their books. They need an agent to “defend them” and do the messy stuff like learning contracts and dealing with money. They need a marketer to buy ads in all those (non-existent) places that advertise books. They need someone to handle sales and bookstores and…
They’re just too scared to do any of it themselves.
And that’s a shame.
The fact that there are vestiges of the 1950s and 1960s versions of publishing, where some of that stuff actually did happen, still around makes it hard for these folks to step out of their comfort zones and learn how the business is actually done these days.
And if these writers manage to sell something to a traditional publisher—a big if, as you can see from that writer above—they will sign away their copyright for a 4-figure advance, and lose their chance to ever have a writing career outside of what has become a small and narrow niche of publishing.
That niche is small and narrow. Bookstat with its narrow little focus on the big players in the bookstore economy found that of the 2.6 million books sold online in 2020, only 268 of them sold more than 100,000 copies that year. (I added that year because remember, traditional only looks at recent sales, not cumulative sales).
One blogger wrote this after she found that statistic:
As an author, this is distressing. If I can spend two to three years writing a novel and my best case scenario is having it sell a couple hundred copies on Amazon, perhaps it’s time to face the music and realize that writing books—like knitting or playing the harp—is nothing more than a hobby. Something I can do for fun on the weekends but should never hope to earn a living from.
Note all the fear in that paragraph. Two to three years writing one novel. What the hell? What is she doing the rest of the time? Actually playing the harp? Because real writers write. They don’t have people look over their shoulder, go over every word, churn out a paragraph a day, and then have agents ask them to rewrite the book to make it presentable for some editor who is going to lose their job in a year or so anyway.
But scared writers? They need to be told if they’re telling the right story with the right words. They need someone to hold their hand throughout the entire process and then, they’ll be distressed when they learn that their lifeless manuscript, which has lost all the energy it ever had because it’s been rewritten to death, only sells a few copies.
They let non-writers, like agents, into their process believing it’s the only way to achieve their dream, a dream that the rest of the world—including the company rag, The New York Times, tells them is impossible.
Since it’s impossible, it’s okay for them to go to trad publishers like beggars who want a scrap. Because that’s all they’ll get anyway, and they should be grateful for it, dammit.
Fear keeps them from being equal partners in a publishing process, fear opens them up to scam artists, embezzlers and other thieves, and following the “accepted way” of doing things—a way that doesn’t work in the 21st century—will eventually make them bitter and sad and perpetrators of the “it’s impossible” myths.
Is it impossible to get a book published? No, not even traditionally.
Is it impossible to make a living at writing books? Damn near, in 2021, if you’re going to traditional venues only.
Is it impossible to make a living writing books? Not if you’re indie, but it’ll take a few years. I’ll deal with those fears next time.
Almost everything writers who are still traditional or trying to be published traditional do comes out of fear. And that’s a shame. If you don’t understand why, then go back to the very first post in this short series.
Fear gets in our way, and forces us to make so many decisions that are bad for us. When it infects something that we love, like writing, it also destroys our dreams. And we become willing accomplices in the destruction.
That makes me sad.
This weekly blog would not exist if I had decided to send my Freelancer’s Survival Guide to traditional publishers back in 2009. Since then, the published guide has sold hundreds of thousands of copies—although, in its first year, it only sold 100.
The business has changed. Writers need to change with it. That’s why the folks who support this blog have kept it around for eleven years.
And a reminder: We are running the final half-off all writing workshops sale on Teachable. We’d been running these sales during the worst of the pandemic to keep you all home and writing. The pandemic is not gone, but with the vaccines, it seems like the worst of it might be behind us. (Fingers crossed.) So after this sale, no more. If you want to stock up on workshops, click this link, choose your workshops, and add the coupon code THELASTSALE.
This sale will only run for a few more days.
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“Business Musings: Traditional Writers (Fear-Based Decision-Making Part 5),” copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / kvkirillov.