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Every year, the Las Vegas Book Festival takes place three blocks from my condo. Every year, I watch the tents go up for the outdoor presentations and the book sales, and every year, I think, Hmmm, maybe I should go.
A few years ago, I tried to get a ticket the day before to see one of the featured speakers, not because of a book he’d written, but because he’s a personal hero of mine. Unsurprisingly, since he’s uber-famous, the tickets had disappeared months before. (The festival is free, but you still need tickets to attend the big events.)
As you can probably tell, I don’t pay a lot of attention to the literary scene here in Las Vegas. There’s a writers institute here that focuses on traditional publishing. It condescendingly includes “genre fiction” in some of its programming, but the people it puts on panels wouldn’t make a panel at a major sf convention or comic convention. Maybe a small town sf convention in the 1990s that had no budget at all. Maybe. Because they just don’t have the credentials.
This year’s Las Vegas Book Festival has some good panels on romance and a rather silly “genre fiction” topic combining…wait for it…history, horror, and sci-fi. There is a worldbuilding panel with a few writers who actually build popular sf/f worlds. But for the most part, this festival still shows its literary and traditional publishing roots.
Which is why I keep forgetting about it, year in and year out.
I do keep an eye on the book programming of the various tiny local festivals, just to see if a friend will show up or to get tickets to see someone whose work I adore. Last year, a friend and I went to see Roxanne Gay as part of the Wave In festival (which included music and art as well as books). We sat outside in the heat at Springs Preserve to listen to her excellent talk, as well as the interview conducted afterwards.
My friend, also a writer, asked why I didn’t go up and introduce myself to Roxanne Gay before the event, when she was sitting alone. I didn’t for a variety of reasons. Usually those introductions are awkward. If the featured writer hasn’t heard of me, then they’re embarrassed or dismissive. If they have, and it’s through my editing, there’s a chance that I rejected them. If they have, and it’s through my writing, there’s a chance that they don’t read or like that sf (mystery, romance) crap.
Just better to let me be a reader-fan than it is to try to impose on their moment in the sun.
Besides, I’m keeping a low profile with the local literary scene, a decision that I realized was a good one when another friend with a long career in science fiction moved to the area. She was treated by one of the organizations like something that needed to be scraped off their shoes. That’s embarrassing too, but not as bad as being recognized.
Because if you are—and they like your work—they want you to do everything for them, usually for free, because you’re local and you don’t have to have a travel budget.
Again, not for me.
Over the past two decades, speakers bureaus of various types have arisen. Writers and other creatives can sign up. They will get speaking fees, often in the four to five figures, as well as expenses to headline a festival like the one that happened here in Vegas over the weekend.
These tiny festivals can afford the fees because someone in their organization is great at grant writing. The grants are often specific—they want x dollars to fund these exact speakers for this particular literary festival… and more power to these festivals.
I love it when people talk about books—even though I really don’t want to be the star attraction at all anymore.
I did it a lot back in the day. About 20 years ago, I did the math. Even with all expenses paid and a small stipend (no one was paying five figures for a writer in those days), I lost money. I always had to pay for things out of my own pocket. I tried to be a good guest too, and would buy something at auction. I was quite judicious about my expenses. With one exception engineered by Julius Schwartz of D.C. fame, I never treated all of my friends to a large meal at the most expensive restaurant on the convention’s dime. For those of you keeping count, that’s one meal out of maybe five hundred at various conventions over 20 some years.
Yeah, been there, done that, paid those dues.
What really caught me, though, was when I figured out my hourly rate for writing versus my hourly rate for all of these trips. Even with good book sales at these conventions, I never ended up clearing more than $20 per hour. (I suspect it would go up now, thanks to indie publishing, but not by much.) If I stayed home, I made a minimum of $500 per hour.
The math really doesn’t work.
It still doesn’t work with the $5000 or $10,000 or $20,000 appearance fee. Maybe if I got the upper end, it might work out. Or maybe not.
Because here’s the rub, at least for me. If I stay home and write, I get a product that I can license for the rest of my life plus 70 years. If I speak at a book festival, that speech is usually gone right after I say it. If not, it’s on the festival’s website, not mine, and they make money off it, not me. Unless, again, I’m that churlish writer who won’t let them record what I’ve done.
These days, by the way, those recordings are usually included as a condition of getting that large appearance fee.
Since I always got sick on the road, I could never really write on the road like some of my friends do. And good for them. I’d rather stay home, get the work done, do some leisure activities that I enjoy, and…keep the pounds off. My years of travel and eating on someone else’s dime led to a 60-lb weight gain for me that it took two dedicated years to lose…after I stopped traveling a lot.
But, thanks to indie publishing, I don’t have to do this kind of traveling anymore.
With about three exceptions, though, most of the writers/speakers at this year’s Las Vegas Book Festival do not make their living as writers. I define making a living at writing like this: the writer must make at least 6-figures, year in and year out. If they have a day job, it’s because they love the work, not because they need to supplement their income.
Because of the changes in traditional publishing, most writers simply cannot make a living like the one I mentioned above. The contracts are abysmal and license almost everything, including auxiliary rights like audio. The contracts are nearly impossible to get out of. There are very few traditional markets anymore, and the books themselves—even the bestselling novels—sell a fraction of what bestselling books sold in the 1990s.
John Grisham noted this in a New York Times article in 2017. He said his books sold half of what they sold in 2007. The 2007 numbers were significantly less than the 1990s numbers for all bestsellers, as Publishers Weekly documented in those days. (Now, Publishers Weekly no longer prints sales figures for the major bestsellers, like they did for decades.)
I have no idea what Grisham’s sales figures are these days, but I wonder if he wrote the sequel to The Firm that just appeared because he wanted to revisit the character Mitch McDeere or because his agent/editor told him the book might sell better than his other recent novels. Or maybe both reasons apply. I know I often think of revisiting some earlier characters just to see what they’re doing.
Be that as it may, unless you’re a long-time bestseller like Grisham or Nora Roberts or Stephen King, you need to supplement your writing income with something else. For some writers, that means going into debt to get an MFA so that they can teach at a local college or university. (Weirdly enough, universities don’t believe in bringing in professors who actually work in the field they’re lecturing on; the universities want someone with a degree who maybe has published something. Don’t get me started on how bad that is for the students.)
For other writers, that means getting on the library/festival circuit. If the writer can command five figures per appearance and keep their own spending at a minimum, they’re actually making more per appearance than they might make on a book advance. And maybe they’ll sell a few books for their publisher in the process.
They’ll also network, not just with other print writers but with screenwriters who show up at these things. The writers still might not make a living by my definition, but at least they’ll be working in the field without grading papers.
The other thing these writers get is something matters to many of them, something called validation. They get the approval of an editor at a publishing company who decides to spend some of that company’s money on their book. They get the attention of festival attendees. They get written up on local blog sites or in local papers (if the community still has one). They get interviewed by someone connected to local television.
It’s a very 1990s way to live, without all of the money that used to go along with it. Most of the writers who still take traditional deals were raised in the 1980s and 1990s, a period of time that Molly Jong-Fast, daughter of Erica Jong (and a writer in her own right) calls “peak book tour.” This kind of writerly fame is imprinted in their brains as “this is how it is done.”
Savvy writers in the 1980s and 1990s could make a living with the occasional book and the annual tour. No traditionally published writer, coming in today, could make a living like that. Which is why these book festivals are filled with writers getting a stipend and hoping to make some kind of inroads that will give them the career that they once imagined.
I certainly don’t have the career I imagined. I don’t think any writer gets the career they envisioned when they were starting out. Writing is, by its very nature, too haphazard. We write what we want to write, even the traditional writers when they start out, and that doesn’t always fit into the mold that exists in our heads.
As a young writer, I thought I wanted Nora Roberts career, but my hummingbird brain is too flighty for that. I can’t write the same kind of book, with a romance in the center of it, every single time. I also wanted Stephen King’s career, but I don’t have the same kind of horror mentality that he does. Nor am I willing to face the darkness every time I sit down to write.
I’m happy with where I’m at, but I wouldn’t be here without the massive change in publishing that came with the arrival of the Kindle fifteen years ago. Now I can write what I want and market it directly. All of my training, including the businesses I’ve owned, made it possible for me to jump into that world easily.
I do a lot of work and I have used the money I make to hire a lot of help. There’s still more work to do than all of us can accomplish, and that’s okay. Writing indie makes it possible for me to be as creative as possible, writing what I want to write when I want to write it.
It also broke me out of the need to travel. I can say no to almost everything.
I make it sound easy, but it’s not. It took years for me to wean myself off that life. My media work as a broadcast journalist taught me to speak in sound bites whenever I’m interviewed. Once I get interviewed by someone, they invite me back over and over and over again, because I can say a lot in a succinct manner. I could make a living going from festival to festival. I’d be sick, of course, but I could manage hauling my butt out of the hotel room to talk to people before lying down.
After I had decided I wasn’t going to travel anymore, I got asked to give a TED talk in Telluride, Colorado. It was one of those moments that tested my resolve: I knew how much a TED talk would help my visibility. I also knew that I’d be down for about a month after that, especially with the altitude and the travel. That was right before we moved to Las Vegas, when I only had about four hours of actual ability to function on a good day.
It wasn’t worth the sacrifice to me. Not just because of the math, above, but because I really didn’t want to be known as a public speaker. I am a prose writer, and that’s what I love to do.
The indie world has made it possible to do what I love all the time. I’m often overwhelmed by the opportunity here. I make a very good living at writing, just like I had in traditional, only now I have control over my output, what I publish, and what I choose to write. (Well, as much control as my cranky muse gives me, that is.)
I’ve been thinking about this difference for a while. I’ve watched a lot of people I respect choose to go the traditional route. They really have no idea that there’s no living to be had at it, but they gamely do what they must. Some end up brokenhearted, but others seem to thrive in this new world.
It’s just not for me. I’ve been contemplating the differences in the careers for a while, because I’m staring down the barrel at the end of the year. I always do a year in review, and about two weeks ago, I decided I wasn’t going to do that series.
After all, everything is changing rapidly. What I write this month might not mean as much next month. Events from January feel like they occurred before the pandemic. I figured everything was changing too fast to do a year in review.
So I sat down tonight, in fact, and started the blog on why I’m not going to write a year in review. But as I did, I thought of some things I needed to address anyway. I began to make notes, thinking that I would write a single post about the year, mostly a list of the changes.
Only I wanted to discuss a few of them. They’re significant.
And then I took a break and watched those tents go up for the festival and realized that one of the things I wanted to discuss was the different career paths between traditional and indie.
I’ve said for years that these paths would eventually diverge. What I do as an indie writer is so very different than what traditional writers do. They have different concerns than I do, and they honestly don’t seem to care that the contracts are bad and they won’t earn a living. A lot of them never expected to in the first place.
It’s a different mindset. Traditional writers nowadays aren’t chumps just because they make that choice, and indie writers aren’t hacks because we make our choice.
It’s still part of publishing.
And I have things to say about both types of writer. Still.
I didn’t think I had until a few hours ago.
I needed to write this piece, though, maybe as an outline for me on how to approach the year in review. There are things that traditional writers need to know, but there are also things that indie writers need to know.
The world itself is changing. Social media is less of a thing. AI has crept into every aspect of our lives. Controlling our work has become more important rather than less.
So there will be a year in review. I’m not sure when it will start, but it’ll get done.
When I saw Roxane Gay last year, I was struck by the undercurrent of her talk. It mentioned, more than once, about how difficult book tours and traveling was. But there was no question in her mind that they were necessary.
And they are for the kind of career she has chosen.
Me, though, if I choose to spend a hot spring evening sitting outside in Springs Preserve, I’m going to do it to listen to someone else, rather than giving the talk myself. I didn’t have to do a book signing afterward. If she had been a dull speaker (hah! Not her), I could have left early and felt no remorse at all.
I have no idea how many rubber chicken banquets I’ve choked down or terrible talks I’ve had to sit through politely while I was sitting behind the speaker on a stage.
I love that such a life is not a requirement for a 21st century writing career. I was around during those peak book tour years. And as glamorous as most wannabe writers think those days were, that perception was very wrong. They were grueling and somewhat humiliating and always exhausting.
Today, while a bevy of traditional writers arrived for the Las Vegas Book Festival, carting their luggage through airports, finding their hotel rooms, politely sitting through a dinner with the organizers, I wrote 6,000 words—3,000 on my work in progress and now this blog post.
I also had a lovely lunch with some local writers and as soon as I finish this, I’m going to walk from our place, past those tents, to get some fresh donuts before heading back home to sleep in my own bed. Tomorrow I’ll get up and run past the tents before the festival starts, and then while everyone is giving the same old panel on the same old topics, I’ll be writing.
I have actively chosen this world.
I hope that at least some of the writers at the festival have actively chosen theirs as well.
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“Business Musings: Totally Different Careers,” copyright © 2023 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2023 by Kristine K. Rusch