Business Musings: Living In The Past

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Three things happened in quick succession recently, that forced me to write this blog now, not, say, months from now.

First, a writer friend astonished me by saying they have finally gone indie, after being urged to do so for more than a decade. They’ve been unable to sell a book traditionally for that entire decade, but they’ve kept writing.

Only…they’re not really ready to go indie, because they want to pay someone to design the book’s interior for both ebook and for paper. They want to pay someone else to design their cover, and they want to pay yet a third person for marketing.

I’m afraid my hair was on fire as I answered them…as gently as I could…informing them that they could do most if not all of these things on their own. They were looking at a cash outlay per book of a minimum of $5,000—and they wanted to publish a book per month.

I have no idea if this friend is wealthy. I do know that as a start-up, with zero track record outside of nonfiction and short fiction, this person would not earn back the full $60,000 they spend on this plan for years and years. I warned them about scammers, I gave my writer friend links, and I know that I overwhelmed them. But Good-freakin’-God, this person and I had the same conversation in 2012, when doing everything they discussed was a lot harder.

Then I sent them to a service…that went out of business, like every other service. (Except this service did not steal the writer’s IP in the process, like so many others had.)

I know other writer friends are trying to triage with this poor person, but I’m thinking, just let this writer spend the money. They’re actively refusing to learn modern publishing and have actively avoided it for 12 years. It’s not going to matter how much most of us yell; that person will not take the leap into indie.

Then, at lunch, I mentioned an older writer friend of ours, a writer in his eighties who declared fifteen years ago that he was retiring from writing because he was about to hit seventy. He crept into indie publishing with some unpublished backlist titles, then published all of his out-of-print titles and finally, about eight years ago, published a brand-new newly written book.

Yeah, this writer has help, because he’d run a business in the past, so he built a new business (after he retired) that resembles WMG. Someone else handles most of the publishing details, and he has social media folks because he can afford them. (He is wealthy, having had movies made from his work and because he’s a good money manager.)

Lo and behold, this guy, who fifteen years ago said that the words have dried up, has published at least 10 newly written books since that first one eight years ago.

I got a newsletter from him on the same day as I had gotten that other email about the writer who wants to be taken care of. Dean got the same newsletter and we discussed it at lunch.

I mentioned how this eighty-something writer had secretly unretired, and Dean said, “If he had stayed in traditional publishing, he wouldn’t be writing anymore. It’s indie that brought him back to life.”

Completely true. Not only has indie brought his fiction back to life, but he’s doing all kinds of creative marketing things, like limited editions and special editions and fan-favorite editions. He’s participating in bundles and is talking about a Kickstarter, but worries that he lacks the time, because he doesn’t want to take time from his latest novel.

Lately, I’ve been having issues with creeping into my sixties, so I was looking at my eighty-something friend and marveling at his production. Also he’s more than twenty years older than me, so if I keep writing at my normal pace for twenty-five more years, imagine…

Well, age was my focus in thinking about my friend, not indie/traditional. But Dean is exactly right. This writer friend was being destroyed by traditional publishing and he found a way out. He loved indie so much and loved the freedom it gave him even more, so all those stories in his head returned.

The other writer? They just want someone to take care of them, the way they imagine traditional publishers will.

I understand the “taking care of” attitude. That was how we were all brought up in our careers back when traditional was the only thing we could do. We were told that these people would take care of us…only none of them ever did. Not even with the bestsellers.

But I had a different revelation earlier in the summer. (I actually wrote a more general column about it for The Grantville Gazette.)

As regular readers know, I got very sick in June. Unable-to-get-off-the-couch sick. Unable-to-read-or-write sick. Unable to do anything challenging, including watching something that required brain power.

So after wending my way through the three most recent Star Trek movies (which I was seeing for the umpteenth time), I channel surfed, and found myself on an old episode of Magnum P.I.

The episode aired in 1987, and because it was 1980s TV (and Magnum), the technology in the episode was current, if not a little ahead of what was available.

I was having enough trouble with the ancient cars and the fact that everything looked out of date. Then T.C.’s daughter gets kidnapped and the team jumps into action. They come up with a plan to catch the kidnapper using money that Higgins gave them from Robin Master’s account (and, it feels weird to tell you all this without saying SPOILER, but if you’re that interested in a TV episode from 1987…well, not my issue).

The money is in the ubiquitous bag, of course. They’re going to put a tracker in the bag, and Rick will use a computer to monitor the tracker. The computer is the size of my desktop screen, but is clearly a brand-new late 1980s laptop. The tracker is the size of a dinner plate.

How anyone could miss that thing in a bundle of money is beyond me.

The team promises to stay in touch…on their walkie-talkies. (Those things were hard to ignore too.) Magnum is the one who receives the instructions from the kidnappers (why him? I don’t remember. Because his name is on the show?). He goes into a hotel room, finds a cued-up video tape showing T.C.’s daughter and that day’s newspaper…and of course, enough details to give the good guys a clue as to where she was being held.

Then the instructions come across the landline in the hotel room. And everything gets put into action…as the commercial break hits and the daytime commercials (hemorrhoid cream, Medicare Advantage, dentures ack!) roll.

I sat there stunned—not at the commercials (okay, the commercials), but also at the technology.

I was a full adult in 1987, divorced and on my own, working very hard at breaking into what was then known as publishing because there was no traditional to add to it. I learned every nook and cranny of that profession upside down, backwards, and forwards. I learned as much as I could as in-depth as I could, and then proceeded forward.

Over the years, I learned other things about that profession and I kept learning and growing. I found ways around the things that no one told you about until you experienced them (like what to do when your excellent career tanks through no fault of your own), and I still continued forward.

I started writing this blog—409 posts so far—to convince myself that indie publishing was viable, and then when I realized it was, I continued the blog as a way to keep learning and growing and moving forward in my writing career.

I can see myself, publishing in whatever way is viable twenty-five years from now, just like my eighty-something friend.

But my other writer friend? They got started later, but all of the teaching they absorbed was from the 1980s or earlier.

In fact, everything all of you have learned about traditional publishing from traditional publishing is still rooted in the 1980s.

The days of walkie-talkies and landlines and trackers the size of dinner plates.

That writer friend who wants to be taken care of? They believe that books were beautifully designed back in those days and yes, some were. Usually specialty press books done with an eye to the interior beauty.

But regular books?

Those of you with a 1980s hardcover on your shelf, go pick up the book. Turn to a random page. Take a look at the typeface. Then look to see if the lines on the page are actually lined up.

I read a lot of older books and what catches my eye every single time is that the interior design is much harder to read than the designs in modern computer-generated interiors. Books set on a linotype and hand-pasted were as good as the person doing the pasting. Then they were printed on machines that sometimes failed, and ripped off parts of the page.

Those books are not beautiful on the interior. They can hurt the eye.

Books designed in the early days of computer book design had the usual early days of any computer anything problem. Some of those books have missing chapters or repeated chapters or a failure of spellchecking. (You know what I mean: someone accidentally put the wrong word into the spellchecker so the spellchecker inserts the wrong word instead of the right one.)

Everything this writer friend who wants to be taken care of believes about publishing is as out of date as the radio in Magnum’s borrowed Ferrari.

The thing is…we all get comfortable with what we learned from the days we learned it.

For a long time, I kept all of my books from college, including the texts from my baby science classes like my Physics for Poets class (yes, that was what it was called). Until I dropped the book in one move or another, and actually read the page before me. Everything on that page, and I do mean everything wasn’t just out of date. It was wrong.

Science had moved on. Kris’s library hadn’t.

Everything that writers believe traditional publishing will do for them, from beautiful covers (have you looked at some covers lately?) to good copy editing (have you read trad pubbed books lately? I have and the copy editing is atrocious) to marketing (what marketing? Seriously? What marketing?) comes from the 1980s or older.

If those things were being done well then (and marketing was, for bestsellers), those things are not being done well now. If they were done poorly then, they’re worse now.

But more than that. You all know how I feel about traditional publishing, so let’s put this in the indie context.

Most indie writers base their expectations on the traditional publishing model that I mentioned above. The indie writers learned the same 1980s or earlier model, so these indies are doing what they can to goose initial sales, to increase velocity so that a new book will go out at thousands of copies (even if they’re given away).

Then the indie writer forgets about their older books, thinking the backlist is worthless. A lot of indies don’t update their covers after a few years, and certainly don’t go through their inventory when a new subgenre becomes popular. Or when a topic becomes trendy and they have an “old” book that is on-topic.

There are no old books now, folks. There are newly published books and new-to-the-reader books.

New and old is a traditional publishing concept based on physical shelf space, which was limited. The virtual shelf space is unlimited, so readers can find an old title just as easily as a brand-new one.

You can do marketing yourself (better than trads ever did) and market a title that’s six years old right next to the novel you just finished.

To use traditional publishing expectations, methods, and nomenclature is as silly as running to find a payphone to call 911 when you have a perfectly good cell phone in your hands.

We’ll never be able to convince that first writer I mentioned to do indie publishing right. We (the friends) will watch them publish that first book, spend thousands, and then watch it sell maybe 100 copies in the first month (if they’re lucky).

I’m braced for the inevitable this doesn’t work conversation.

Because if you’re thinking the old-fashioned traditional publishing way, 100 copies will be a stunning failure.

If you understand modern publishing, though, those 100 copies might be 150 by mid-year, which might be 200 a few months after that, and maybe more later. Over time—and there is time (unlike traditional) that book will sell more  copies than it ever would have in a traditional publishing house…and the book will still be in print.

Win, win, win.

I’ll be honest, though. I’m still thinking about that Magnum episode, wondering what attitudes of mine are stuck in 1987. When I think about 1987 as 1987, I’m aware that it’s 36 years ago.

When I think about some of the things I did, I can feel how long ago that was.

When I think about what I’m writing now, what I hope to write, and what I did write back then, 1987 feels stunningly close to yesterday.

I’m sure I’m stuck in certain years and attitudes. I’m trying to shake them off—or at least evaluate them and see if they’re worth keeping.

I know it’s a long process. If you dig back on this website into the original blogs from, say 2011 or 2012, you’ll see a lot of different attitudes from me than I have now. It took me a long time to convince myself that indie publishing would work.

Very few people were making a living at it ten years ago. Hundreds—thousands?—of writers are doing so now. It should be easier for writers to understand that this is a viable path.

But, if they don’t realize that their training is out of date, then they’re going to have a much tougher time of it than the writer who understands that the world of 36 years ago is long gone.

Everything has changed, and continues to change.

Long about this point in the year, I find myself needing to delve into this year’s new technology to see if it is right for our business at this moment in time. Delving into new tech always feels like a pain, but it’s not. It’s what keeps our publishing business alive.

Writing is writing is writing. We’re storytellers and we’ll tell stories.

But getting our stories to the readers in the best possible way? That changes all the time.

Keeping up is hard, but it’s necessary. Not just for technology’s sake, but for our writing.

My eighty-something friend proves that. He had given up on writing when he thought he’d have to deal with the horrors of traditional publishing for his remaining years.

When he realized that he could control his writing and his publishing, his creativity roared back.

I’m inspired by his longevity and his willingness to change. I think his long career as a writer comes from that willingness to change.

Writers who don’t look to the future, or at least see the present, are never going to have careers that last forty, fifty, or sixty years. Maybe ten years, if those writers are lucky. Maybe. Or maybe only four or five.

It’s sad, really.

But this profession is for optimists, and those willing to learn, willing to try, and willing to grow. Everyone else will have a little luck, a little success, and a long decline.

I’ve learned that the hard way.

I admire writers like my eighty-something friend, and feel sorry for my other writer friend. But I learned long ago that you can’t rescue someone from their own assumptions. People have to find the way out of the blocks in their own brains on their own.

That’s a tough lesson to implement, but those of us who have careers that span decades have seen a lot of people come and go. We’ve learned to stand back and let other people make their own mistakes.

Some people surprise us and climb forward. Most do not.

It’s sad, but it’s their problem. And that’s the hardest lesson of all.


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“Business Musings: Living in the Past,” copyright © 2023 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / Knowlesgallery.

12 thoughts on “Business Musings: Living In The Past

  1. But I learned long ago that you can’t rescue someone from their own assumptions.
    And yet, I get the feeling that you still try, through this blog.
    At least I know that your blogging sometimes felt that way to me personally. You’re inspirational. A lifeline of sanity and honest self-reflection.

    People have to find the way out of the blocks in their own brains on their own.
    Quite. To each the responsibility of their own choices, or lack thereof.

    1. Sometimes people listen. It might be too late to avoid the first mistake, but then they have resources to help them avoid the second. I give up when it’s been decades, like that writer friend. We just listen to the complaints and then talk about story or life.

  2. My own experience has a good deal in common with that of your eighty-something writer—but I can draw a few distinctions. First of all, I never decided to stop writing; I did in fact conclude that I might well be done writing novels, that it was entirely possible I had aged out of it. That has seemed likely more than once in the past ten or a dozen years; my physical and mental energy is not what it once was, which strikes me as only appropriate. I no longer narrate audiobooks, although a few I’ve published in recent years are the sort best voiced by the author; my concentration flags, and my voice falls apart after a couple of hours. I read far less than I used to, and with less enthusiasm and less satisfaction. I have far less of a passion for travel. I’ll be 85 in June, and that’s way longer than I ever expected to get to be, and I’ve long been mindful of Mario Puzo’s observation: “After 75, you’re playing with the house’s money.”

    But you know—an idea would come along and I’d give it a whirl. And, when no end of works in progress died after 20 or 30 or 40 pages, I’d take it for a sign. As I’m considerably less well off financially than your eighty-something friend, I knew I’d miss the income new work might generate. But I figured I’d live well enough with what I’ve got, and what my backlist would continue to bring in.

    Because that was how I first embraced self-publishing—by reissuing my very extensive backlist, first as ebooks and then in paperback. This didn’t by any means enrich me, but as I was always cheap enough to avoid spending money on covers, and because the number of books I’ve written is legion-plus, I’ve come out consistently ahead. And I broadened my approach by teaming up with German and French translators to bring out much of my work in the two major markets in which commercial publishers had somehow lost interest in me. Again, not much profit in it—but some, and enormous gratification.

    My first venture in self-publishing new work was a collection of Matthew Scudder short stories; I might well have persuaded my publisher to do it, but couldn’t see it myself as a viable property for a traditional house, It wouldn’t stay long in the stores—there were still stores then, as you may recall—and it would be out of print soon enough. So I published it myself, and it brings me income every month, a dozen years later.

    I self-published The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons in 2013 because it was the urge to do so that got the book written. I never showed it to a commercial house, and enjoyed the indie experience. A few years later, I would have been delighted to have a commercial publisher take on Dead Girl Blues, if we could have gotten a decent offer from a strong house. When this didn’t happen I was half-relieved; I’m of an age that doesn’t welcome a two-year wait to see a book on sale. When I do it myself, the waiting time is more like six months, and half of that is the preorder period.

    And so on. I keep thinking I’m probably finished, and if that’s the way it is, well, fine. But I wrote two new books in calendar year 2022, to my own utter astonishment; The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown came out last October, and The Autobiography of Matthew Scudder goes on-sale on my birthday, June 24th. I think I’ve written some of my best books in the past decade, but what do I know? I could be wrong about that.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Larry. I greatly appreciate it. I also love this part: So I published it myself, and it brings me income every month, a dozen years later. Exactly. My backlist is doing the same. Only we don’t even call it backlist anymore. It’s just books that folks haven’t read yet. (It’s hard to make that mental shift.)

      I greatly appreciate all that you wrote. I feel the same about waiting to publish something. Now the delay seems somewhat pointless. Or sometimes, it’s my choice as I haven’t finished the entire series yet. Lots of fun ways to go about all of this. Which is what makes it all quite grand.

    2. Dear Mr. Block,
      thank you for chiming in! I didn’t know there was another Bernie book out, and I’ll get it pronto. You won’t remember me, but I sent you a Bernie-inspired book some years ago. The appeal of burglars just stuck with me and I had to write it. You had responded with a revelation of the theme of your first 11 or so books, which just cracked me up at the time.
      It helped me validate my writing to my husband.
      It had also had me realize that yes, it’s possible to change genres. It’s possible to train reader expectations.
      My husband and I both enjoyed The Burglar Who Counted Spoons for Christmas all those years ago. Now I know what he’s getting for his birthday ?

  3. Great Post as usual.
    Spot on for us indie writers to take heed. There are ways still not discovered to promote your book. I relish this. I hope your writer friend see’s himself in your post and comes to terms with changing his perception on book promotion/marketing and other such methods as a Indie Writer/publisher/promoter must deal with to be as successful as they can.

  4. I’m 68 and I have 30 books to write (I have a spreadsheet! ). Fortunately, both my grandmas lived to their 90s, so I have some time here. I’m teaching myself to dictate more of my writing, as my hands are undergoing some age-related warranty issues. Yes, that process needs work, but I don’t hurt all night long after a 3k day, either.

    So here I am, on book #8.

  5. I love 80s music, especially the music videos from the 80s. They were having fun. The 90s on was a desert for music. Ten years ago I stumbled on Goth Metal. Hot operatic babes with killer lipstick sing in front of metal bands. Wow!

    Tell your friend about LibreOffice. It is free, and was designed to do book page layout, as simple or fancy as you want. If she can use a word-processor she can do her own book layout.

    In 2013, Lawrence Block indie published The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons. He listed his Interior Designer on the copyright page. I tracked her site down when I bought the book, and all she did was follow the guidelines Createspace had available. Nothing fancy.

    Have your friend buy the paperback from 2013 and see if she likes the layout.

  6. I appreciate you not giving the name of your “not ready to indie” writer friend… but there’s no problem with identifying Lawrence Block as the successful eight-something writer. 🙂

  7. So many thoughts.

    First, I thought I was very, very naughty for doing my own interior formatting and my own cover design. “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” is what everyone says. But I’m cheap. And I was an artist and designer before I was a writer. So I roll my own anyway, and here you’re saying that’s just the sensible thing to do? Wow. (I happen to think my formatting and cover art looks pretty darn good. And yes, my facing-page margins align at the bottom and I have no mercy on widows and orphans. So there.)

    Second, I loved the Magnum, P. I., reference. I just want to go back in time and hug all those guys. Funny about me, though: my approach to late ’80s tech is, “Wow, that was pretty cool and advanced . . . for 1987.” I think it’s neat they were using it. But as you point out, it’s 36 years later and we can’t stay there. We didn’t with tech and we can’t with publishing.

    Which leads to my last thought: I’m a member of an online writers’ group where 85% of the members (at least) still entertain hopes of being traditionally published. Is there any point in trying to wake them up about it? Or should I continue to keep my mouth shut?

    1. I don’t see a problem with leading by example rather than lecturing. Share what you’re doing rather than what they should do. There will be plenty who will resist, but there are many who are thinking about it and not talking about it who you might sway.

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