(Forgive the length of this, I’m mid-rewrite and trying to edit an antho, too, which is way overdue, and I don’t have the time to make it brief.)
What prompted this – proximally – was Joe Konrath’s very funny analysis of the Hachette memo and my older son’s reaction to it, which was “they’re all feeding on the poor, underpaid writer, and they don’t understand they’re driving most writers to despair, block or just plain starvation.”
He’s right. That goes without saying. That goes right into the “they don’t know how angry the average writer is.” (They also don’t understand how tired, how sick, how poor the average writer is.) But wait, there’s more.
The other side of this was Dean Smith’s article about “what industry treats its suppliers this way?” talking about getting a form rejection two years after sending in a query, (btw, Dean, I once got a form rejection, SIX YEARS AFTER ASKING FOR GUIDELINES. No, not submitting. JUST asking for guidelines. Well respected house, too) and blaming writers (in part) for letting the publishers get away with this. I agree, and I don’t, because, wait, there’s more.
This week I heard of an agency which didn’t use to have an agency clause coming up with a new and improved agency clause that not only gives them part of your income on that property forever, (yes, even after it goes out of print and the writer himself resells it again) but also with a clause I’ve never even heard of, which requires writers to pay 15% of his or her income should the writer self-publish.
That people are signing this feeds into Dean’s “because writers let them”, but I’m going to bring out the extenuating circumstances.
Writers let them because most writers still don’t realize they have any alternative. And because for years – decades? – now, writers have not just been used to this treatment, but they’ve known they had to take it, because the alternative was not working.
It started with the basic setup of the field. Every writers’ group, every conference, every single older pro told you you had to act professionally and behave like a professional. This was true. It was essential for survival in the field. I think every writer who was trying to make this a full time job was also aware of how ridiculous it was. And every writer lost a little bit of self-respect every time he acquiesced to this ridiculous game of pretense.
Okay, you don’t think it was ridiculous? Let me put it to you this way: you get a new job. You’re required to show up on time. You’re required to do absolutely everything pertaining to the job to the best of your ability, on time and while looking good. But the job, while taking up 40 hours a week will pay you five thousand dollars a year or, if you’re very lucky, ten thousand. Oh, yeah, to keep this job, you’re required to go to conferences and events at your own expense and on what should be your downtime. When you complain you get told the door is there. And you get laughed at for expecting to make a living at this because, well, no one does. You can always get a real job on the side. If you’re like me, you survive by doing three or four of these jobs at once, but most people can’t. And meanwhile, all the time, if anything at all goes wrong on this job, you get blamed, even if it was their machinery that failed.
How ridiculous is that? And how ridiculous is it that not just the publishers, but the other pros and all the fans enforced this “you’re a writer, you have to act like a professional.”
The publishers enforced this because, of course, it served their interests. Also, for them, it was a job and they were professionals (they made far more than ten thousand a year, mind. And they made far more on each book, too.) Fellow pros told you this, because you had to. It falls under “it’s the only game in town.” Also, you didn’t talk about it. The code against discussing advances and pressures was strong, and if you griped at all it was only with your closest friends. To do it elsewhere risked it getting back to the publisher and destroying your income source, such as it was. As for the fans – most of them have no clue. Again, writers don’t talk – or up till now didn’t talk about this. What fans heard about were people like Stephen King and J. K. Rowling. And while they might be aware that people like me don’t have that kind of dough, or that they hear about those cases because they’re exceptional, so they imagine people like me make whatever they consider average money per book – probably anything ranging from $30 000 to 100 000 depending on what they think is average money for a white collar profession. I know way back in the eighties, when I was just a fan, I thought books paid about $20000 a book. I was already wrong, then. They paid $5000 to $10000. They still pay $5000 to $10 000.
Someone complained before because I called the old, traditional publishers a cartel. I got the same old tired speech one always gets about “wanna be writers” that don’t make it in this field, and how in every artistic field only a very few at the top make a living.
Bullshit. What’s more, bullshit with more bullshit sprinkles on top. Pardon the language. Yes, most of the “wanna be writers” in this field don’t make it. We once sat down and estimated – back of the envelope – the percentage of novels that get accepted. We had several major editors and authors around a table at a con, so we had rough numbers. I think the percentage we came up with was that 3% of the novels ever get accepted at any level, including the “pays in copies” level. IF we’re going with pro level add a zero to that. Three in a thousand, maybe. Most wanna be writers write more than one novel, of course, so let’s say that five percent of wanna be writers ever get a novel accepted. That’s ninety five writers who either give up or write novel after novel and never get anything sold. (And yes, most of these will be painfully bad. But not all. Sometimes it’s a matter of really ‘not fitting our requirements’ and given the time it takes to read anything, and the fact we were told to submit to one house at a time, it’s quite possible to write five novels and have them all “rejected” without ever being read.)
So much for the “wanna bes.” Now let’s take the beginning professionals under the old model. They’re taking 5k advances, (or I hear now the average is 3k advances.) BUT they get a chance at the big time, right? And it’s based on how good and how marketable their writing is, right? And the more books they write, the more chance they have at breaking out, right?
Ah! No. To begin with most of those beginners crash and burn in two years, due to nothing but publisher error: bad covers, bad marketing, just total lack of interest. The sane ones, too, realize they’re being treated like cr*p and walk away to do something more pleasant, like, say, sell their bodies on the street.
Those who remain? MOST of them – because if you’re one of the ‘cool kids’ and picked out of the crowd for extraordinary promotion and special treatment, usually due to the fact you know someone or the publisher finds something about you (not your book) “exciting” or “sexy, you’re picked out on the first book. And usually (only one exception I know of) you didn’t get the beginner advance – will write book after book after book for something between 5 and 10k a book.
Now, an exercise for the class – we are told, over and over again that publishers lose money on these 5 and 10 books. Mind you what they use to back this up is that the writer often doesn’t “earn out” and start earning royalties on their book, meaning the advance is never paid off. Here’s the thing though – most writers only accrue between 6 and 8% royalties on each book. Normally on the book’s discounted price. So, if you bought a book for $12 on Amazon, you just gave the writer the princely sum of 75 c for that book. (And likely the writer paid 15% of that to an agent.)
Yes, yes, the publisher used to have to pay a certain sum to produce and distribute the book. But look, economies of scale and all, it normally wasn’t that much. The fantastic sum of something like 100k per paperback book (not per unit, in aggregate) is floated around and young writers believe it, but the rest of us aren’t that dumb. Yeah, I’ve seen the list of prices for other artists’ and professional services that go into producing your book, and I find it astonishing that the only one that’s paid less than the average writer is the copy editor. And it’s not that much less, by the way. Yes, I am even willing to believe that it was once upon a time very expensive to produce a paper book. Say, thirty years ago. But hey, I was a small press publisher once, and I can tell you, the expense per book decreases with the number of books printed, even if they’re not the same thing, and print on demand technology really made all this much cheaper. I think 100k always – ALWAYS – included things like publicity, which midlisters got nothing of, the price of a high-paid receptionist to bring the chief editor coffee, offices in downtown Manhattan, etc. Now, even if you throw that in, you’d have to also include personal massage and the chief editor’s starbucks bill to reach half that sum.
And then, whether the book “earns out” the authors advance or not, I’ll point out it strains even my eager and credulous spirit to believe that they would keep buying book after book after book after book, if the publisher weren’t earning what they put into the book and a considerable markup besides. (Hint, I’ve done the math, and yes, they are.)
We put up with it. We put up with it because we had to. Did publishers en mass blacklist you, or get together and conspire against you? They didn’t have to. It was a very small industry and without them you couldn’t get on shelves for enough people to see you to buy you. They all got together at coffee shops, a bars, at parties. A word in the right ear about your being “difficult to work with” – true or not. I watched a high powered agent destroy a promising career with this sort of innuendo, and it wasn’t even true – and you’d find all doors closed. After all, they had – they thought – unlimited supplies (and they never got that one writer wasn’t like the other, btw) so why put themselves out for what might turn out to be an unpleasant experience.
So, let’s say you’re as stubborn as I am, and by dint of working yourself into the ground, you managed to make a living from the salt mines – what kind of things did you put up with, while smiling and looking professional?
We’ll pass on the accidental, casual messes: the horribly inappropriate covers, for instance (and no, I’m not talking about Baen. Actually Baen is much better than average on all this, including tolerating a certain amount of back talk. Baen was the only house EVER to admit to me THEY messed up – the cover of Draw One In The Dark – and to make up for it by giving me a new cover and, oh, yeah, by buying more books, even though that one did crater due to cover), or bringing books out four months apart, without the slightest effort at getting them on the shelves, or insisting I change stupid things in the books, thereby making them less marketable. Almost all these offenses are non-intentional and big companies drop the ball sometimes. My husband used to work for large corporations and he ran into the equivalent, often.
No, when I think back, under “soul killing” what comes to mind was an event nine years ago. Out of the blue, my publisher, who had NEVER done any promotion for me, calls and tells me they’ve booked – and paid – for me to attend a conference across the country. Do I want to stay two extra nights? They’ll pay for them.
This was roughly the equivalent of a fairy godmother materializing in your living room and offering to turn your pumpkin into a carriage. So, why am I complaining? Oh, you just wait.
First, even if I’d been inclined to take a two three day vacation without my husband (I wasn’t) there was a small problem. I was told of this a month in advance and, oh, yeah, the night I was required to be there (panel early morning) was my fortieth birthday, for which we’d planned (duh!) a celebration. Worse, my son’s eighth birthday was five days later, and we’d already invited kids to a big party at our house. A party for which I was doing most of the work, of course (remember how much I get paid.)
Still it was a nice idea, and of course companies require this of employees too (though as I’ve said, they pay somewhat better.) And heck, maybe they were finally doing something for my books. Also, saying no wasn’t an option, if I ever wanted to work in this here town again.
So I went. I had my doubts, mind you, because this was a conference for middle school English teachers, and the books that my publisher wanted me to promote were my… Shakespeare series. A series that’s written in a language that half of my college-graduate friends say it’s “too difficult.” I’m not sure about that, but it sure as shooting is too difficult for a middle schooler. Yeah, okay, my older son read them at 12. BUT he also read Roman history for fun when he was 6.
However, the best was yet to come. I sat on this panel with twelve other writers all of whom had books actually appropriate to and marketed to middle schoolers or their teachers, and something became obvious: I was the only one who’d been sent without promotional materials. (I was also the only one whose book included oral sex on the kitchen table, but the publisher might not know that.) Everyone else had PUBLISHER PROVIDED (must emphasize this) brochures, hand outs, book marks and coupons for discounts on the books at all major retailers.
On the way out of the panel I went by my publisher’s booth, which was giving out “samples” to the teachers. I’d been instructed to, so I could sign stock. Guess what? Yeah, I know you’re surprised. Not only had they no stock, but they had NO IDEA I was there or why (I was starting to wonder about that second one myself.)
But wait, there’s more. I got home – flew back immediately after that, so I could do preparations for the kid’s party – dead tired, and I found out that WHILE I WAS GONE notices had arrived in the mail telling me that series – yes, the series whose promotion was so important that I HAD to be sent out of town on my fortieth birthday (and yes, I told them that when they first told me) – had been taken out of print about a week before my trip. Because, yes, those letters had been mailed before I went.
Screwup? Sure. BUT note that I NEVER got so much as a “I’m sorry” from the people who organized this screwup, even a passing and grudging one. Note also that they probably to this day say “we gave you all this publicity and it never took off.” In fact, that was probably the entire purpose of the trip.
So, did I complain and move on? Move on where? Well, sure, I started working for other companies. (Months later, I got Baen, which I’m still happy to work with.) BUT it was the same industry and I still had to be nice and “grateful” for the “promotion opportunity.” (Which might have been marginally useful if I HAD at the time written anything else that might be suitable for middle schoolers. Heck, technically I still haven’t, not suitable for teachers of middle schoolers, at least.)
And that’s the explanation for Dean’s oft repeated “writers are stupid” and “writers let them.” He came in twenty (?) years before I did, when the field was not as monolithic, so he never got the spirit beaten out of him as badly.
HOWEVER now we have alternatives. Oh, sure, everyone tells you that indie publishing doesn’t pay much, but look, it’s a game of numbers, and numbers I can do. I was trained for this (at the end of the publishing whip.) And there are a few others, like me, who have seen the open gate and are running for the hills.
And this is where I come upon another point of disagreement with Dean Smith. I could be wrong. I might very well be. Horrible man for being right, Dean is. Makes an habit of it. But I don’t think I’m wrong. I think he’s not seeing the whole picture partly because writing divides by “generations” (they’ve nothing to do with age, but with when you broke in.) I don’t think he knows how bad it got for my generation, and therefore he doesn’t know how STUPID publishers have got and how convinced of their own infallibility.
He says publishers are making an extraordinary amount of money in ebooks, and this is of course true, even though they hobble them with all sorts of price increases and delays in publishing. He says they’ll do very well in the future.
This is where I cough and raise my hand and point out cannibalism is a horrible vice and once it infests a society that society is, in fact, doomed. It might subsist for a while, though there are checks on that (which I will explain later) but the minute an alternative opens up, either through new lands opening for colonization or through invasion, that society is doomed. If publishing were a tribe, it would have gone cannibal years ago. EVERYONE in the chain feeds on the writer.
The check on this process is built in. Not only are there only so many writers, but these writers can only produce so much and – more importantly – can only produce so much at a certain level. What I mean by that is that not all writers are interchangeable. For the last twenty years or so, the two-books-and-out rule has burned any number of what could be major talent – talent the publisher had done nothing to develop and which was handed to the publisher fully formed and for free. Sure, there’s talent the publishers could develop, out there in the weeds, but publishers are neither designed nor know how to do that. Again, see what I said above. They think they’re dealing with an unlimited supply of writers, and that a writer is exactly like the other. It’s all on how you market them, after all. And their experience has borne it out, to an extent, because when you have a monopoly on getting books on the shelf, how many are on the shelf does make a huge difference on what even sells. Let me put it this way, if the reader can only choose from Mr. Cr*p and Ms. Slightly less Cr*ppy, Ms. Slightly is going to be a bestseller, because some of us have a wicked reading habit and WILL read, unless it becomes unbearable. In recent years, my standard for adding someone to my “buy” list was “Doesn’t make the throw book at the wall more than once.”
But, what’s that? Can you hear Dylan? Yes, the times they are achanging. And as I said, some of us are making a break for the hills. Not many yet. I’d estimate the number of midlisters who weren’t dropped and are choosing to go indie at something like 2%. However, I’d bet you we are some of the highest-producing mi-listers (which is why indie at this point makes sense for us.)
I suspect it is already affecting the publisher’s bottom line. Either that, or they’ve grown so dumb and full of themselves (because no one could talk back) that they’re trying increasingly crazier stuff in contracts, so we can’t run away. Agents… poor bastards, agents. We won’t even go into that. They’re screwed, they know they’re screwed and the only thing I hold against them is that those who are putting out the idiot clauses aren’t choosing to go down with their honor and dignity. It might be all they have left in the end.
BUT there’s an indicator that Dean, by moving in different circles, is in no position to see, but I am. Publishers are starting to court the “no hopers.” What are the “no hopers”? They’re a group of wanna bes who are usually more assiduous than the pros in going to cons and in promoting, even before they sell. You see them at con after con and if you’re a newbie or someone like me who is known to mentor, you get to know half a dozen closely and personally. Most of them are nice, nice people. You wonder why they aren’t selling. And then you read them. Let’s just say for most of these people, there’s only time to either work on writing or work on selling yourself (most newbies strike a balance.) And most of these people are unreadable.
Now, despite my name for them, some always moved out of this circle and into “published” or even “pro”. Miracles happen and a lot of these people had not inconsiderable talent. Given a good writers’ group, or a good mentor and a willingness to learn, some became publishable or even good.
But now the publishers are courting them en masse. Now, I can see what Dean would say “Well, Sarah, these books will be in print forever, and they don’t have to be good to sell a minimum per year. Since almost all of this minimum goes into the publisher’s pocket, publishers will be doing very well.”
Maybe. Perhaps. But I don’t think so. This is sort of like saying “we lose money on every sale, but we make it up in volume.”
Dean is not taking in account the reader. Right now, there’s still a certain amount of fast-diminishing stigma attached to indie. But if what the publishers are rustling up, in their absolute belief in their infallibility, are the “no hopers” that stigma will flip. After all, any no-hopers who are doing well enough will be making a break for indie, themselves.
So, traditional publishers will make a lot of money for the next five/ten years, after which they’ll become the market equivalent of Publish America’s offerings. How many people voluntarily want to read Atlanta Nights over and over again? Okay, fine, but how many English speakers?
Cannibal societies never prosper. For one, it’s hard to be really loyal while you’re afraid you’ll be lunch. Oh, sure, you’ll be nice to the chef, because you want to be the one eaten last. That is, until you see the possibility of getting away and surviving on your own. Once enough of the eaten get that, the chef is likely to end up with an apple in his mouth. Or elsewhere.
Me? I’m for the hills. You? Don’t be eaten.