From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:
One of the comments I heard the most at this year’s Business Master Class was a bit wistful. And the comment usually came in a discussion about something else.
- I sure would like to get to the place where I can do what you folks do: where I can write what I love.
- As soon as this [insert detail] is over, I might be able to write what I love.
- Writers who write what they love are really lucky. Sure wish I could get there.
Over and over and over again. Those phrases have been going round and round in my head, partly because I have a lot of compassion for the speakers, and partly in conjunction with other things that have happened this past year.
About a year ago, I wrote a blog post on burnout. It, and the subsequent posts, got reprinted in the magazine for the Romance Writers of America, the Romance Writers Report or the RWR. I got a lot of email from the original blog posts and from the RWR reprint. I had hit a nerve.
I was aware of the nerve, but not thinking about it too much, except to realize that so many writers were on the hamster wheel of doom—trying very hard to write more and more and more to make the same amount of money they had made a few years ago. We’re in a mature market now, and the highs aren’t as high (and the lows aren’t as low). Things do change, sometimes daily, in this new world of publishing, but the business models remain the same.
Dean and I have also been planning a new series of online courses which we call the Futures courses. We learned long ago that most writers don’t look very far ahead in their careers. Writers have no idea how to sustain a career past the first few years. That kind of long-term career takes not only planning, but a certain mindset, which some writers never learn.
. . . .
It’s also not fun to do something because you have to do it or lose everything. It’s better to do something because you want to, or you have hit that point in your career (or in life) that makes a change possible.
As Dean and I planned these futures workshops, we had discussion after discussion about what’s going on in indie publishing right now. In addition to the burnout, lots of writers who were the early adapters of self-publishing have disappeared. They quit, pulled their books down (!), pulled down their websites, and moved onto other things.
Even the early gurus of self-publishing have either given up or gone back to traditional publishing in whole or in part. Considering how outspoken some of them were about the evils of traditional publishing, you (I) have to wonder what caused the shift. And the silence. None of them are blogging any more.
I suspect I know. Because Dean and I have been around forever, we’ve seen a lot of writers come and go. In traditional publishing, the average length of a writer’s active career is about ten years. That clock usually starts with the first major professional sale, and ends when the writer either can’t handle the crazy of traditional publishing any more and/or when the writer can no longer sell a book to any traditional publisher due to a variety of factors (including but not limited to declining sales numbers, burnout, difficulty of working with the author, burnout, difficulty of working with the publisher, burnout).
. . . .
The thing Dean and I have come to realize is that indie careers have a shelf life as well. Most indie writers seem to be disappearing after five to six years of really hard work.
Much of that is burnout. Some of it, though, is that hamster wheel of doom and the mature market. When a market is new, it’s in a boom cycle and everyone gets rich. When a market is mature, it’s in a sustainable place where some get rich, while others make a healthy living, but nothing more.
The tricks of the boom cycle don’t work in the mature market, and making the shift to a different way of doing things is hard.
I’ve examined those things in the past, but the one thing I didn’t examine is a whole different side to the hamster wheel.
Writers who make a good living writing something they don’t want to be writing. Writers who aren’t writing what they love.
I think every long-term writer has gone through this phase, and the writers who end up with decades’ long careers have figured out a way through it.
. . . .
I’m seeing indies hit the same problems. Sure, they might have liked writing billionaire erotica a la Fifty Shades of Gray, but after a book every two months for the past five years, writing that subgenre has gotten old. And the indies find themselves in the place that Dean (and I) found ourselves in years ago: they’re making such a good living at what they’re doing that walking away is hard.
Or walking away will be detrimental to their families. I was single when I quit writing nonfiction. The only person who might have gotten hurt when I cut my expenses and took a day job was me. At that point, I rented an unfurnished apartment and couldn’t afford to buy a couch. I lived with one living room chair and a futon on the floor for a year—not something someone with a spouse and two kids can do.
That trapped feeling—the feeling that you have to keep writing this particular thing, whatever it is, no matter what—makes everything worse. You got into writing for the love, and now it’s no fun at all, but you need the income.
You are trapped by your success and that’s harder to get away from than being trapped by failure.
. . . .
The one option that is not sustainable, however, is to continue writing books you no longer enjoy writing with no way to get to writing what you love. At some point, you’ll have to add in writing books of the heart. If you don’t, you’ll burn out and vanish like so many indies before you.
Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.
As PG previously mentioned, he spent an enjoyable week in October attending and presenting at the Business Master Class conference mentioned in the OP, organized by Kris and her husband, author Dean Wesley Smith. In addition to their writing, Kris and Dean regularly hold workshops on various topics for authors. See WMG Workshops for more information.
PG has a couple of responses to the OP.
Where is the Revolution Today?
The Passive Voice sprang from PG’s fevered brain in 2011. Since its beginning, PG has uploaded almost 18,000 posts, proof that a little OCD can go a long way.
The first post on TPV was titled, Imagine There are No Bookstores , based on a now-disappeared post by a small publisher which discussed Amazon ebooks and their potential impact on traditional publishing and bookselling.
This post appeared in February, 2011, the same month that the Borders bookstore chain filed for bankruptcy. This bankruptcy would remove 650 large bookstores from the market within a very short span of time. Publishers large and small took large writeoffs for books Borders had sold but would never pay for.
In the previous year, 2010, Amazon reported $14.9 billion in book sales.
In 2010, Barnes & Noble had 720 trade bookstores plus 637 college bookstores (acquired in 2009). Barnes & Noble launched its ebookstore in 2009 as well.
Barnes & Noble reported 2010 sales from its trade bookstores of $4.3 billion, down 4.5% from the prior year.
In 2018, Barnes & Noble, still the largest bookstore chain in the US, continues its long decline.
In 2018, Barnes & Noble had 630 trade bookstores. Barnes & Noble spun out its college bookstores into a separate independent business in 2015.
Barnes & Noble reported fiscal 2018 (April 2017-April 2018) retail sales of $3.5 billion, down 5.4% from the prior year.
Amazon no longer publishes its book sales numbers in its annual reports to securities regulators or elsewhere that PG was able to locate, likely because, compared to the rest of Amazon’s sales, book sales are not large enough to be material from a financial point of view.
The Bookseller reported that Amazon’s 2017 revenues from book sales were up 46% in the UK.
In sum, the retail book business today is increasingly centered on Amazon.
Physical retail bookstores are in a continuing long decline. Publishers Weekly reports that, in 1991, there were 11 US bookstore chains that had 13 or more outlets, with total outlets topping 3,000. In 2017, the five chains on Publisher Weekly’s book chain list had 1,076 outlets. Just since 2011 the store count has fallen by 32%.
PG is going to cut off his expatiations at this point and continue them in another post.
Suffice to say, PG doesn’t believe that the revolution is over for authors and publishers. Electronic and communications technologies will continue to grow apace over at least the next several years and the population at large will continue to want stories, so the future is still bright for storytellers.