Business Musings: How Writers Fail Part 10: Blame

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I spent most of the morning trying to start this post. It’s not like me to have trouble writing, particularly a nonfiction post, but I simply couldn’t do what I had planned.

What I had planned was simple: Because of all of the news recently and the timing, I had planned to start the Year In Review blog posts early. I’ve always hated that they bleed into January (and given the amount of news and changes this year, they probably will anyway), but I couldn’t start, not without addressing something that has been bothering me since last week.

Last week’s post focused on the way that the world is changing and how that’s impacting writers. More specifically, a lot of writers are suffering from decreased sales, and are blaming various world events for the sales decrease.

Yes, we are in particularly dark times and yes, every day is stressful, and yes, our focus as human beings is being pushed and pulled in a hundred different directions at once.

It’s not always thus, but damn close. I have often found myself wondering what it was like for folks at the start of the Second World War, coming off a worldwide Depression and a pandemic and a market crash and another war…

Sometimes I think I’m so tired that I can’t take much more of this constant drama and change, and then I realize that my parents lived through that nightmare and the father of one of my closest friends in school crossed the Alps to escape the Nazis, but lost his entire family anyway and had the courage to start a new family.

Life stuff happens, the world changes, and it’s our job as artists to continue changing with it. Sometimes it’s our job as artists just to survive whatever this world throws at us.

The point of last week’s blog wasn’t to upset people although I lost some supporters because I “got political.” Life is political, folks. Deal with it, and understand that not everyone agrees with you. Leave your bubble sometimes. Some people who reposted the blog got attacked for other reasons, including being successful while some folks were having a hard time. Those jealous folks need to read the post in this series titled “Competition.

The point of last week’s blog was to give writers—well, everyone—tips on how to make it through all of the ups and downs of living. There are some straightforward ways to do so, and I put them in that post.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about the impetus for the post. Writers had been complaining enough about loss of sales that the Six Figure Authors Podcast did a special episode just to talk about how to deal with sales.

The reason they did is because so many people were complaining about their sales being down—and blaming all kinds of things, from the war in Ukraine (!) to inflation to the economic uncertainty.

And yes, those things are factors, just like this election cycle here in the U.S. has been a factor. It has eaten people’s attention the way that a presidential election usually does. And there are a lot of other things going on, some of which I will deal with in the year in review.

The changes are, in some cases, huge, and the implications will also be huge. I’m not sure I’ll see what all of those implications are, but they’re going to make a large difference.

One of those large areas is traditional publishing. I started a list of changes going on there in August, and I will examine them, mostly so you indies can point out to your friends why traditional publishing ain’t what they think it is.

And that’s where I stalled this morning.

Because what kept going through my head was something else that happened this summer. A lot of fascinating information came out in the anti-trust case brought by the Department of Justice against Penguin Random House, which wanted to merge with its competitor, Simon & Schuster.

Spoiler alert: this week, PRH lost this case. The DOJ won, so unless there is an appeal, there will be no merger. (And maybe not even then.) I will deal with this in-depth in coming weeks, because it will have an impact on all of us, small and large publishers alike. (Oh, a tease!)

During the trial, devastating information came out about the traditional publishing industry as it exists today. Much of this was stuff I knew, more or less, and a lot of it has existed as long as this version of traditional publishing has existed.

But one particular statistic shocked all of us. From Jane Friedman’s industry newsletter, The Hot Sheet, on August 31, 2022:

…of the 58,000 trade titles published per year, fully half of those titles “sell fewer than one dozen books.” (Not a typo, that’s one dozen.)

There was a lot of Strum und Drang after this statistic appeared. Within a week, some professionals made good points that mitigated the numbers a bit, but not a lot. For example, Kristen McLean of BookScan in a comment on  Lincoln Michel’s newsletter on the publishing industry found that according to her company at least (and we can debate the value of that company later)

…only about 15% of all of those publisher-produced frontlist books sold less than 12 copies. That’s not nothing, but nowhere as janky as what has been reported. BUT, I think the real story is that roughly 66% of those books from the top 10 publishers sold less than 1,000 copies over 52 weeks….

She changed the data subset quite a bit to “frontlist” and other things, and the statistics are still unbelievably awful. We’ll deal with why that is in some upcoming posts.

But as I prepared to write them, that 12-copy statistic floated around in my head, along with the war in Ukraine and Covid and inflation and the election and realized it was all connected.

Because the traditionally published writers had a pretty uniform reaction to the statistic, that half (of all books) or 15% of top publishers’ frontlist, sells 12 copies or fewer.

The writer reaction? That can’t be true. Someone is making that statistic up. It must be a lie.

Okay, people. This was testified to. In a court of law. Under penalty of perjury.

This was not some statistic assembled by a person who hates traditional publishing. This was a statistic, self-reported in court, by the defense—the publishers themselves.

This statistic is as reliable as publishing information gets.

Ever.

Nope, nope, nope, nope. Can’t be true. It’s as if writers stick their fingers in their ears, close their eyes, and sing la-la-la-la so the information won’t penetrate.

They had a dream to be traditionally published. Writers get rich when they publish traditionally. They become famous. They don’t sell twelve copies in the space of a year. That’s not possible.

When I first saw these writer comments, my level of frustration hit an all-time high. These numbers—and a lot of other truly ugly ones—came out in that court case, enough to make it very clear to anyone who was paying attention that traditional publishing is not a place any writer wants to go if they want a consumer to find and read their book. (Or as Vox put it, in their headline on the case no less: Book Publishers Just Spent 3 Weeks In Court Arguing That They Don’t Know What They’re Doing.)

So here’s what will happen next. Some writer, starry-eyed, will get an agent (finally!) and will let that agent “submit” the book to various (read 5, maybe 3, maybe just 1) publishers. The agent will get the writer a deal that is disappointing (low four figures), but the agent will promise that this is just the beginning and everything will improve and oh, don’t worry your pretty little writerly head about the contract; I got that part for you.

Three years later, when the agent no longer returns the writer’s texts, emails or phone calls, and the editor was laid off long ago, and the writer’s third book in the series can’t even get another small advance, and the writer never saw the full four-figures because the agent took 15% and the writer’s dreams were crushed and no one else is offering anything, and oh, yeah, how dispiriting is it to have that the first book had to be revised four or five times just to get through the agent, twice with the editor, and once after a bad copy edit, well, then the writer will become a teacher or will retreat to their little garret above the stairs, and maybe not write another word, because they’re ashamed that their baby—on whom the publisher slapped one very ugly cover and did no promotion—didn’t make the writer rich or famous or even sell more than five hundred, maybe 1,000 copies.

Or maybe 12.

Dreams crushed, hopes dashed, the writer will lash out on social media, at writing workshops, and at conferences—at the publisher, the editor, the readers themselves for being too stupid to buy the book. But never the agent, because there’s always that tiny hope that one day the agent will return phone calls again and maybe make another sale.

The writer will firmly say that No one told them that publishing was hard and books don’t sell well in this system. The writer will take no responsibility for their own lack of research and business knowledge, for the fact that they trusted someone with their money and their dreams without even vetting them (that would be the agent), and gave up all autonomy so that other people could make them rich and famous and help them fulfill their dreams.

When those dreams shatter, it will—of course—be the fault of the other people because the writer certainly can’t take responsibility. They wrote a perfect book, a brilliant book, a book that—in other hands—would have been the book of the year, if not the book of the century.

Whew.

I’m tired just thinking about this.

It’s one of a piece with blaming declining book sales on the war in Ukraine or inflation or the election. It’s an act of willful blindness.

Here’s the truth, people. Book sales rise and book sales fall. They go through cycles. Readers’ tastes go through cycles as well. Sometimes a small shit-ton of readers love books about vampires and sometimes only the true fans of vampires read vampire books. Reader taste as vague and unpredictable as the weather.

Entertainment isn’t food. We humans need food to live, therefore we have to buy food daily. We don’t have to buy entertainment. We can make our own entertainment if we need to.

There’s a built-in market for entertainment, but that’s for all entertainment.

What writers have to build is a market for their work. Not for books in general. Not for some subgenre. But for books by…Kristine Kathryn Rusch who is a different writer than Kris Nelscott who is different from Kristine Grayson. All of those names are mine but each has a different fanbase that overlaps slightly with the others.

That fanbase would like more books to exist. When the books appear, that fanbase wants to be notified…but the fans will buy the books when the fan is good and ready and not a second before. There are ways to get some readers to buy immediately such as write in a series and make sure that each installment is better than the last.

Wait, what is “better”? Well, that’s subjective, isn’t it. One fan’s better is another’s worst book of the series.

It sounds, in a vague way, like I’m defending traditional publishing here and their cluelessness, and I’m really not. There’s a lot of business stuff that a publishing company can do to guarantee sales and to increase them incrementally over time. Traditional publishers do little or none of that.

A lot of small indies, run by business-minded writers, do many of  those things. Many of those business-minded writers do it better than I ever will.

It takes a lot of self-awareness to have a career in the entertainment field. To understand that there are vagaries in the market that will make some consumers watch what they spend. The key is to make them spend their limited dollars on your work.

But that’s not an inflationary key. It’s an everyday key. If you are the kind of writer they will buy whenever you produce a book, then you’ll be the kind of writer they will buy when they only have a handful of dollars to spend—whatever the reason.

One big part of your job as a writer is to become so good at telling stories that the people who love that genre of story will want to read your work first. (And so will some people who claim they hate that genre, but that’s a blog for another time.)

Note what I said there: you have to become so good at telling stories. Not at writing words. At telling compelling tales.

And this isn’t a one-time thing. Just because you’re good doesn’t mean you’re great. You should always be learning, testing, and growing.

That’s craft. It’s a lot of work to keep your writing fresh. Your readers—even it’s only 12 of them—will leave if they can predict everything you’re going to do. You need to entertain yourself first, and readers will follow.

But how will they follow? Will they be distracted by the next possible World War III? Will they stop reading while they’re looking at rising gas prices?

I’m being a bit snide here, but that’s what has really bothered me about these ideas of blaming outside events, and it has always bothered me. Outside events happen, but life goes on.

People need something to help them relax and unwind. That might be a glass of wine at dinner. It might be some trashy TV show. It might be an sf novel.

People will tune out of the world when they can. There’ve been actual studies that show the biggest readers of romance fiction are people in high-stress jobs, from firefighters to the active-duty military to health care workers. Because they need something uplifting after their terrible days.

Writers need to accept that. They need to understand that book sales go up and they go down—and just because mine are down doesn’t mean yours are (and vice versa).

The blame should never be external.

Yes, there might be a war or inflation, but that didn’t cause your book sales to go down (unless you actually own a bookshop in Kiev). What did cause it? Maybe the platform you’re on. Maybe the fact that most readers who would normally buy your book didn’t know about it. Maybe the fact that you only have one book.

Just keep writing and keep publishing, and look at the advice in the previous blog. There will be hard times. Expect them. Learn how to survive them.

Most writers vanish from the world because they made bad business decisions. These days, any writer who sells a book via an agent into traditional publishing is a writer who knows diddly about business. That writer is naïve in the extreme and doesn’t understand the industry they’re in.

In the distant past, it was possible for writers to claim that they had no idea how poorly run traditional publishing was. The bullshit coming out of traditional publishers was strong. But in the past twenty years, the information came out…and then, during this trial, traditional publishers admitted under oath that not only did they have no idea what they were doing, but they never ever followed standard basic business practices.

Their business has stayed afloat because readers love to spend money on books, and the book deals that these publishers made with their very naïve bestsellers allowed the publishers to keep 80-95% of the money that each book made.

In the good old days, that was more money that even these profligate folks could spend. Now, money is getting tight, and that’s one of the reasons these large publishers are trying to consolidate. Bad business practices work when massive amounts of money pour in. When only a small fortune trickles in, then bad businesses will eventually downsize or even collapse.

Writers who say they never saw this coming never looked. That they could get caught in this mess never occurred to them because they’re AHrr-Tists who don’t have time to learn about messy business things. They can get an agent for that.

Sigh.

Yes, agents screw writers all the time. Sure, publishers take too much money and give no real services for the privilege of publishing a writer’s book.

Most writers blame the agents and publishers for that.

But, folks, the writers were the ones who sought out the agent. The writers were the ones who agreed to the deal with the publisher.

The writer’s signature is on those contracts.

Not the agent’s signature, not the editor’s signature.

The writer’s.

And most writers don’t even understand what they signed.

Writers who blame things like the weather and the economic downturn for a lack of sales are no different than the writers who complain that their traditionally published book didn’t make them rich or famous or even give them the chance to sell another book.

Those writers don’t take responsibility for their work. They don’t seem to realize that readers want more than one novel. Readers want the next book.

Those writers don’t take responsibility for their choices either. It’s a lot easier to blame the agent for a bad deal than it is to ask why the writer was so happy to sign onto that bad deal.

Sometimes, yes, an outsider will cause a crisis. Then the writer needs to ask themselves how they will extricate themselves from the situation. The writer needs to save themselves. No one will come to their rescue.

Writers need to grow their business. Growing a business requires the writer to have a variety of projects. Growing a business means that the writer needs to figure out how to weather storms, be they economic storms or sudden shocks to the system. Growing a business means learning how to deal with success.

Growing a business means understanding contracts. Hell, growing a business means understanding that you are in a business, and you need to act accordingly.

But it’s easier to blame declining sales on some external event. Just like it’s easier to blame a bad book deal on an agent or a publisher rather than look in the mirror and realize that you, the writer, agreed to that deal.

Writers who refuse to take responsibility for themselves—in both their successes and their failures—will not have careers. Oh, they’ll have some luck for a few years, but that’s all. Writers who want careers that last for decades need to understand how to survive in good times and bad. They need to learn from their mistakes—and the first part of learning from a mistake is realizing that you made a mistake in the first place.

It’s okay to get mad at someone for giving you bad advice…as long as you also get mad at yourself for taking that advice. Then, make sure you never make the same mistake twice.

Blame gets in the way of learning. And learning is the only way that we grow.

So writers who blame are writers who remain stuck—sometimes forever.

This career is not easy. It’s not for the faint of heart. But it is for those who are willing to take a clear-eyed look at what’s going on around them and, without blame, figure out where to go next.

*****

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“Business Musings: How Writers Fail Part 10: Blame,” copyright © 2022 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / andrewgenn.

8 thoughts on “Business Musings: How Writers Fail Part 10: Blame

  1. You told the story of my traditional publishing journey. One of the difficulties as a trad published author is that we are supposed to think about ourselves as a business, but we have no information or influence. Now that I’m indie author I am so empowered because I see the sales data and can make decisions to generate sales. I also think of myself as a small business which means weathering the storm of being a starter. Thank you for your blog post.

  2. Wow, as a person who’s been sitting on some novels I haven’t even started for 30 years and finally getting off my duff to actually start writing, it always seemed like finding a traditional publisher was the holy grail. I realize that I haven’t really even considered the business side of things much, other than knowing at some point there would be a contract to look at and sign. Much food for thought in this article. Thank you!

  3. Hi, Kris,
    I keep seeing what I call a backdoor rejection from the agents–the writers all talk about these with hope because it appears the agent may be interested if they accomplish these things.

    1. Telling the writer they need a certain number of followers on social media. Exactly how would an unpublished writer without a readership get such a following that would lead to sales?

    2. Requiring developmental editing. I’m sure some writers happily throw money at this, expecting that once they’ve checked that box, the agent will represent them (whereas, the agent may then require social media followers). Others will see the price tag of developmental editing and decide to give up.

    3. “Make these revisions and I’ll look at it again.” If you combine revision with a return to beta readers, then to developmental editors, that’s probably at least several years.

    All these keep the writer spinning, filled with hope. If they took the time to understand the business better, they probably wouldn’t get taken by this.

  4. I’m an Indie mystery writer and I’ve crossed paths and sat in Zoom writing sessions with mystery writers seeking traditional publishers. The refrain I hear over and over is they want to go that route because they don’t know how to market. I’m going to link this article to them the next time I hear that. Mostly though I’m planning on leaving that environment because I can’t stand the ignorance in otherwise smart people. The only difference I hear now is that they say they’re going to try for a year to find an agent than go Indie. Sigh, they’re planning on losing a year of their life chasing something that doesn’t exist.

  5. I’ve been meaning to go look at my own stats ever since I saw that testimony. I knew it was bad, but that seemed really bad. I have one series that doesn’t sell well — I have faith in it, but it doesn’t. And still? The fewest sales of any of the books even in that series is 8 books — and that book came out three months ago.
    But I’m an independent author, and I try to do what you write about and treat my career like a business.

    Years ago, maybe decades ago? I went to a Writer’s Digest conference — it was in Portland, and I was in Portland. (Must have been early 90s then). I was appalled. It felt like a scene Charles Dickens would write — please master, may I have a bit of your time? It was if agents and publishing house editors got off on humiliating writers. Like you I have a journalism background, and as badly as that industry treated its people, I’d never seen anything like it.

    I kept writing. The books kept languishing in my desk drawer (and then in my computer). And indy publishing came along and revolutionized publishing forever. I was a journalism professor by then, and was teaching about the publishing industry. When my health forced me to take early retirement, I pulled out those manuscripts, and revamped them, started publishing on Smashwords, and kept moving forward. Not without setbacks of course (2016 election hit me hard for a while). But I now have 30 plus books out. And all of them have sold at least 8 books. And no one humiliates me for their own ego.

    TMI, I suppose, but your column hit me profoundly today. We have seen a complete revolution in how books are written, published and sold. Exciting times to be a writer.

    Take care. (And I liked your last article. If we who use words, don’t use our words for the good of the country, what good is it to have words?)

    Lois

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