Business Musings: The Importance of Ship Size (Yes, This Is Related to AI Audio)

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Dean has a phrase that he uses often, especially when he’s teaching. He says writers have to give themselves time to turn the ship. By this, he usually means that writers need to change their thinking, and that takes time.

He also uses it for businesses. If you have a small boat, a canoe or a kayak, turning the ship is easy (ish. It’s never entirely easy.) If you have a cigarette boat, the kind that’s built for speed and mobility, then turning the ship is normal.

But if you have a cruise ship or an aircraft carrier, something that can handle thousands of passengers, turning that ship takes time.

The reason I mention this is because I made a mention in last week’s post on my AI audio research about WMG Publishing. In reference to redoing work we had already done, I wrote, “[W]e have 1,000 books. That’s a lot of time [to redo them], even if each book only takes fifteen minutes.”

I know a lot of readers just glossed over this, but I didn’t even as I wrote it. We run up against the 1,000 books problem over and over again.

We run into it when Amazon changes some important algorithms or Ingram decides that cover specs should be different. We run into it when some of the distribution systems change their pricing page, adding or subtracting foreign taxes or mandating a minimum price per word count.

We’ve had the 1,000 books problem almost from the beginning. When indie started, over twelve years ago now, Dean wanted all of our books and stories available online. That was our focus when we started WMG Publishing, and became an even tighter focus when we hired Allyson Longueira. Her original mandate was to publish everything on our bibliographies. It took time and several employees, but we managed to do it.

Keeping up is the problem now. So when a new program enters the independent publishing sphere, we have to choose what products to put into that program—if we try the program at all.

At times, because of our size, we have moved from the earliest of early adapters to the folks who bring up the caboose. We do so partly because of the 1,000 books, partly because of time, and partly because we’ve seen so many good ideas die a few years in because of poor execution—or because consumers did not pick up the idea, no matter how good it was.

When we do decide to move to a new platform or try something new that has come into the business, we have to triage. Those of you who are following our leap into our online store can see that triage in action.

We can’t upload everything all at once. We don’t have the time. Our employees have 120 hours per week to get things done. To get everything we have to do done. When we add something new, something else gets set aside.

Dean and I also have a lot to do, but we’re not focusing on the day-to-day minutia of the business. That’s for the staff. We have a staff because we wanted to keep writing. Because publishing has changed so much and because there is now a seemingly infinite number of things a publisher can do to promote one book, let alone 1,000 books, that 120 hours per week is a drop in the bucket.

Dean and I can literally stay ahead of the team with the books (and shorts) that we finish, because the team has so much to do.

That’s why I’ve been handling the AI audio. I won’t be doing all of it—the books will be through WMG—but I did the research, and I’ll continue to do my blog, plus other pet projects.

Dean has pet projects as well.

Sometimes we do things that logically should go to WMG simply because we don’t want to overburden anyone.

So, we triage. We have email chains and discussions about which projects should get the attention first. We talk about how many person-hours it will take to adopt a new program, and is that program worth removing person-hours from another program.

Sure, we could hire someone else, but those of you in corporate or those of you who have run businesses know the problem with that: Training also takes time, and that time often has no real return, particularly if the employee does not work out.

We do use freelancers on occasion, but even that sometimes requires training. Everything is a juggling act.

Let me be really clear here: What we have is a good problem to have. We have too much material rather than too little. I’m not sure we’ll ever get it entirely under control, but we’re trying. And sometimes we forget how hard what we’re doing is.

A case in point: one way that we got most of my inventory into ebooks was to post a new Free Fiction Monday story every week. For more than four years, we put up a new, never-before-posted story on the site. Now, we repeat stories, but I try to make sure that the stories haven’t been seen in years. And every year, we’re still posting about 10 new ones (sometimes more).

When we hit that final story, when the inventory was up, did we stop to celebrate? We didn’t. Because it wasn’t a focus any longer. We should have celebrated. That was a monumental task. But we were on to other things. New mountains to climb and much more to do.

The difference between what we do at WMG and what traditional publishers do is vast. But the biggest difference is this: We keep our inventory fresh. We know what we have. We actively churn it, discuss it, and figure out what would be best to use when and where.

For example, WMG runs a really cool promotion called Every Day’s A Holiday At WMG. For a tiny subscription fee ($5 per month), subscribers get a free weekly story, and discounts on books and online workshops, and whatever else they feel like sharing.

That moves the inventory, and it also brings new readers into fiction that might have disappeared years ago.

Nothing fades when we work this way. Books get new promotions when something else in the culture makes them relevant. Covers get updated. And then, as I mentioned above, we figure out how to move them to new platforms, when there are new platforms to move to.

That’s what we’re doing with audio right now—and with the store. With the store, we’re trying to put all of our series books there first. Then we’ll move to short stories and novellas and standalone books.

With audio, we’re going for nonfiction first, so that we can experiment. Then we’ll follow with the most popular series or the ones readers have asked for.

What that means is that a different set of books will appear on audio first as opposed to the books that are appearing first in the store.

Each change requires thought and discussion. Every decision is based on what we know right now. Some of those decisions will have to stand for years (because we might not have time to revisit the decision) and some are only temporary—we hope.

It’s a problem that many writers don’t have yet, so they don’t understand why it seems like I’m dithering on adapting something new. I might not be dithering. I might be investigating…and I might end up deciding that something isn’t for us.

Or maybe I’ll decide that it is, but we don’t have time.

Or maybe we’ll dive right in, because we can’t leave money on the table any more.

It’s a strange place to be, but it’s fun too. I’d rather have too many choices than not enough.

And the cool thing about the world we’re in now is that choice seems to be everywhere. We can do all the things…if we can only find the time.


What I described above is just one way that a publisher has to look at the world as opposed to the way that writers of one or two books look at the world. If learning more about this way of thinking interests you, try this classic workshop that WMG offers: Think Like A Publisher. You can find more about it and other workshops in our searchable workshop website.

If you want help with time management in general, I have a Freelancer’s Guide Short Book on the topic called, appropriately, Time Management. (You’ll note that, as one of the older titles, this book has not yet moved to our online store. All that triage!)

And the regular reminder:

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“Business Musings: The Importance of Ship Size,” copyright © 2023 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / Goodday.

9 thoughts on “Business Musings: The Importance of Ship Size (Yes, This Is Related to AI Audio)

  1. I have 18 books in three genres under three pen names I’ve been making into audio books using Google Play software. Not going to lie—it’s a job, and a huge time commitment, but that’s all it is. It’s my time, spent on a platform which is easy to use, with voices I’m happy with. I could never afford creating these audio versions otherwise. I did hire out two, a few years ago at a cost of 6k, both of which I’ve since retired from selling—they were that bad. The Google narrated books, while not perfect, are better, the price is certainly much better, (got a quote of 80K to do them all professionally—yikes!) and I have the ability to create another form of my existing catalogue now. Breaking free from exclusivity in the best feeling in the world. Next up—my own Shopify store. Then it’s write and release one book at a time, wide, and in all forms I can make happen, building on my 18, selling myself, selling wide, building my brand. Long time coming. I guess I’m a slow learner—but I did get here.

  2. So what I **think** I’m hearing is that the ideal size of a publisher’s inventory should be about 250-350 books, so that the never-ending changes can be experimented with more easily without sacrificing the ability to produce a livable income. Right? Or would you disagree?

      1. I’ve taken your Master Class (twice now) and understand derivative rights well. It’s been very helpful!
        I was referring to the nimbleness of a company to address an onslaught of change. It seems that a smallish-to-medium publisher would be able to address them better.

        1. You’re still limiting yourself. At some point, if you’re running your business right, you’ll have more work than you’re ever able to do. At that point, you’ll consider hiring help, which you should not do until you have a year’s worth of salary or contractor payment in the bank. Which will put you even farther behind.

          A good business will always have more work than time to do it in. That’s when you need to start prioritizing, as I wrote about in the piece. It will also save you from chasing fads and learning how to recognize real opportunity.

  3. I’ve been thinking about the ship analogy, but instead of using a passenger ship, why not think of it as a Lakes ore carrier? For years, they relied on tugs to help them maneuver into docks, where it could take days to unload their cargo. Then they changed to the self unloader, and changed the shape of their holds so the ore would roll onto the conveyor belt and be carried up through the boom to the shore. And they use bow and stern thrusters to parallel park 1013’ long ships. (Watching the Tregurtha back up the St. Louis River is amazing.)

    So maybe the problem isn’t the size of the book catalog, maybe it’s the shape of the holds, or the method used to put them out is fighting against an unseen natural force that can be harnessed. Maybe instead of pulling, pushing would be more streamlined. I don’t know the answer, but I thought maybe offering a different way of framing it might give someone more experienced and skilled than me a spark of inspiration.

    1. Thanks, Kristi. I grew up on Lake Superior. My next door neighbor was a tugboat captain. I thought of using that analogy. I thought it was too obscure. Thanks for bringing it up because it’s a good one.

  4. Hi Kris! Congrats on going live with your blog audios.

    I just read this one, then thought I’d try the AI audio (on my phone). Downloaded the Book Funnel app, and it all loaded fine. Started listening, and had to stop. I just can’t handle these AI voices. The intonation problems drive me crazy. Speeding up to 1.1 or 1.2 does help a bit, but still…

    Am I being too picky? Will it ALL be like this eventually, even for fiction? I’ve been eyeing AI audio hoping to dive in with my novels, but I just can’t stomach the way it sounds. Yet. Maybe in the future?

    Thanks for what you do.

    1. You’re not too picky. That’s your taste. I have a professional reader in one of my books produced by Audible Studio whose intonation and constant mispronunciations of common names (in other countries, such as a Scandinavian first name) drives me absolutely nuts. Yet that person has narrated several of my books and has a huge following on Audible. So be aware that your readers might want audio books and that your taste might get in the way of them receiving the books. Even if you have a professional narrator. (I don’t know what I would have done if I had hired that narrator directly. Certainly made them redo the names.)

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