Cultural Change And The Traditional Writer

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From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

It’s been a heck of a year. Or two years. Or three. So much has been happening—not just in my life, but in the world—that it’s almost impossible to keep up. And here, in the United States, the news cycle moves so fast that a short story I wrote and sold as science fiction almost a decade ago about updating news features every thirty minutes or so seems remarkably quaint. Every thirty minutes? Some days, the breaking news stories pile on top of each other in the space of minutes.

We cannot keep up, and a lot gets lost in the noise. The rapidity of change is part of that noise. We’re getting used to this frenetic pace, and forgetting how things were as recently as five years ago.

Yet, because we’re human beings and because we have lives, we sometimes miss the memo. Or the piece of news that puts everything together. Or we forget the initial assumption that makes the change visible.

And…we don’t always change either. Not right away. We get stuck in something we were told by professors or by our best friend or by our parents. We get stuck in dreams and hopes and desires, and we don’t realize that those things might no longer be possible in the world of 2018.

Or we think that the dream we formed in our twenties is still attainable twenty years later. That dream might not be attainable, and that’s not because we’re older and somewhat different. It’s because the world in which that dream was formed is no longer the world of today.

I’m as susceptible to this as the next person. It took me until I reached my fifties to realize what nostalgia actually is. It’s not a rosy-eyed longing for what used to be; it’s a sad and somewhat hopeless wish for a world we thought we understood. If you actually look beneath the surface of that nostalgia, you’ll find that old world was as complex as this one, and what we thought we understood was only the superficial surface of that world.

That superficial surface is getting scraped off. Sometimes visibly and rapidly scraped. The whole appalling Harvey Weinstein mess scraped a lot of lies off the surface of some actress’s careers in Hollywood.

. . . .

It’s the suits’ job to guess what will make a profit in the entertainment industry. But those profitability decisions shouldn’t be based on skin color or gender or a whisper campaign. Even “positive” things aren’t always positive in the eye of the artist.

I’ll never forget the day my brand-new editor called me to tell me good news about my very first novel. He was relieved, he said, to discover that I was pretty. So many female fantasy writers weren’t, according to him. And because I was pretty, they were going to promote me and my book heavily, so could I send him a stunning photograph to make his job easier?

I didn’t want to. I was heartbroken, to tell the truth. I wanted the money behind my book because the book was good, not because I hit some physical cultural ideal. I actually said that to him (because I’m not the quiet sort.) Oh, I said as politely as I could, I thought you wanted the book because it’s a strong novel.

It is, he replied. The fact that you’re pretty just means we can market it properly.

I didn’t send a cheesecake photo, although I sent an okay photo. I didn’t let a photographer take a cheesecake photo of me for a major photography book on fantasy authors either, even though that had been her orders from her editor. (The exact orders? Kris is pretty, so make sure the photo of her is sexy—even though I was a major editor and award-winning, bestselling writer at the time, jobs that had nothing to do with my looks.)

That was how decisions were made than, and often how they’re still made now. The Deciders, to use a term that I find somewhat laughable, make hideous horrible mistakes based on all of the wrong things—or worse, based on some kind of whisper campaign, something the person who is being whispered about might not even know is going on.

And yet…and yet…

Here’s what I don’t understand.

As more and more of these stories are coming out, not just in the entertainment industry, but in every industry, writers aren’t applying what they’ve learned across to their own careers.

So many writers still want that traditional “validation.” They want someone else to take control of their career. They want someone else to praise their book and make it a bestseller.

They want to put their entire artistic and creative future into a machine that’s designed to chew people up and spit them out—even if those people aren’t on some blacklist.

I see writer after writer after writer who wants to sell their books to traditional publishers or who want to go into Hollywood with a “free” option or who willingly give away the rights to something just for “the opportunity” to play in this shark tank.

. . . .

The film industry hasn’t yet gone through the full-fledged transition that book publishing and comics are going through right now. It’s not easy to make a film without big money backing and get it distributed worldwide. It is possible to write a book and get it distributed worldwide now.

That self-published book just won’t get the attention that a handful of books got thirty and forty years ago. But that 2018 book will stay on the virtual shelves while the older books rarely stayed on any shelf.

There’s a lot of upside to indie. A bit of downside too, which we’ll be discussing in the next few weeks. But the biggest upside to me is that we are not subject to the whims of someone who will only spend money to market a book on a writer because she’s pretty or because she meets the current cultural norm.

(I just got offered a big quick turn-around tie-in novel this past month, for which I would have been paid in the low six-figures. When I said I wasn’t interested and offered to give the person a list of writers who might have the time to write this project, she asked if any of them were female. I said no, none of them were. [I wasn’t looking at gender; I was looking at availability for a rush job.] Well, to be honest, she said, we only picked you because you were the most visible female tie-in author we could find. We don’t want men at all. Again, that flash of disappointment rose in me. I was chosen, not because my work is good, but because I’m female. I understand the corrective urge in the marketplace, but jeez, that comment felt as insulting as having my book marketed because I was considered pretty 25 years ago.)

Writers who choose to take their novels and their nonfiction books into traditional publishing are choosing to give their careers to the “tastemakers” who sometimes make their decisions based on their prejudices, their “understanding” of a marketplace that (in reality) does not exist, and who will do their best to destroy anyone who questions them.

Think I’m exaggerating? I’m not. I’ve been through my share of whisper campaigns too, including one that went on for nearly thirty years—from the moment that guy lost a big prestigious job to me until the day he died.

. . . .

If you’re going traditional, you need to be made of alligator skin. You need a hide so thick that nothing can pierce it, or if something does, you need to have a system to deal with the pain so you can get up and move forward again.

. . . .

Is becoming a traditionally published author so important to you that you’re willing to succeed on any terms? Is becoming a traditionally published author so important to you that you’re willing to put your career (and your copyrights) in the hands of people who still haven’t figured out that diversity means more than publishing a few books about discrimination?

. . . .

Because, as a friend of mine once said, becoming a professional writer is easy (relatively speaking). Remaining one is hard.

Your job is to have a writing career, not to publish a single book. So be careful who you partner with over the years. Make sure that person, that company, the conglomerate is trustworthy.

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.

PG doesn’t usually excerpt as much from a blog post as he has done with this one.

Kris is talking about some very important issues for authors, so he took the liberty.

PG would like to add a couple of additional thoughts.

As Kris implied, no conglomerate is trustworthy, including publishing conglomerates or conglomerates that own publishers. These are organizations made up of people who come and go. Sometimes they come out of desperation because it’s the only job they can find. At other times, they leave unwillingly because management changed or prior raises had made them too expensive and they were fired. Or the publisher was sold off to another conglomerate which was focused on financials and didn’t understand the book business very well.

The traditional publishing business is a sinking ship. If you’re a smart graduate with a degree from Wharton or Harvard’s Business School, do you go to work for a publisher? How about Barnes & Noble? Of course not. PG would bet serious money that a recruiter from a major publisher has not been seen at any hiring event at a top-tier university professional school in years.

Are there any talented people left at large traditional publishers? Yes, but they’re getting old and their salaries are expensive. They’re wishing they had taken that alternate path several years ago, but it’s too late now.

Somebody higher up in the corporate structure who needs to cut costs because profits are trending down will send instructions to bring personnel expenses in line with reduced sales forecasts. The big book deals that experienced staff pulled off in the 1980’s and 1990’s don’t count anymore. Ready or not, it’s time for them to leave publishing.

After those firings, anybody with a brain who is still working at that publisher will start sending out résumés and burning up the job boards. When they leave, someone less-qualified will replace them.

U.S. subsidiaries of European publishing conglomerates have the additional problem of explaining to Günter that, unlike German book buyers, U.S. consumers think ebooks are great and there are no restrictions to prevent online bookstores from selling books below their suggested retail prices. And, although Günter thinks it’s an obvious solution, unfortunately, it’s illegal for all the US publishers to meet for a drink and agree on mandatory minimum retail prices. A year later, the same explanation will be required for Katarina, who replaced Günter when he got a big promotion.

If it’s a terrible time to be an employee at a traditional publisher, PG suggests it’s also a terrible time to sign a publishing contract with a traditional publisher, a contract that will last for years and years and years and years with no way out. Günter says all contracts will be enforced according to their terms.


18 thoughts on “Cultural Change And The Traditional Writer”

  1. When people make decisions we don’t agree with, it’s often because they have considered some variable we don’t consider.

    It’s worth asking people why they want a traditional contract. There is no reason to think all those people want to be like us.

    • It’s a fair question for newcomers.
      Some do have valid reasons; different goals and value systems.

      Others are just misinformed. Those might be open to evangelizing if one is so inclined.

      To be honest, I’m not.

      I never considered a tradpub deal something worth submitting to. Faced with “industry standard” terms as the price of admission, I just walked away. Being published never meant that much to me.

  2. In defense of tradpub contracts: they don’t require you to sign in blood.

    (But read the fine print to make sure your soul isn’t involved. And count your limbs, afterward.) 😉

  3. I’m German.

    I wouldn’t sign up with any big German publisher anymore. Most likely, I wouldn’t sign up with any German small press either, anymore… same as any US big five.

    I doubt that book-price fixing laws will go away any time soon here in Germany, either. Which means my main indie markets will be in the English-language countries. Which explains why I write mostly in English…

      • More competition, though.
        Niche markets can be very profitable under the right conditions. Problem is, the “right conditions” is exactly what the publishing establishment on the continent doesn’t want to emerge.
        A loss for both authors and readers.

  4. I’m surprised there aren’t some publishers or new publishers using their acquisition staff to spend their day on Amazon finding those books that are moving rather than rejecting submissions. They could cherry-pick what’s already a proven seller and offer them a favorable contract. They’d also price their eBook at in the $2.99 to $9.99 amount as the main profit center for that book. I’m not saying I’d accept that, but I bet a lot of authors would.

    • Their problem would be offering said writer something worth the writers while. If they’re a proven seller it means they’re edited/covered well enough, so what could someone offer that the writer doesn’t already have?

      • Everyone has a price. Think of books you have on offer. What advance/royalty would you take? Authors do this for film rights because that can’t do that themselves. I’m suggesting they’re are authors who’d rather cash out and write the next one.

        • I can sell them the film rights without selling them control over the rest of it. The rest would depend on what rights/control their contract then steals away.

          • If someone approached you with six figures, 5% of future earnings for film and book rights, you’d say “no?” Some authors would say “no” but some would jump at the chance. Hugh Howey smartly sold all but eBook rights.

            I’m not advocating for publishers to do this, I’m just surprised more publishers are inticing authors with cash now deals. I’d probably be a “no” unless they could do what I strongly felt I could never do.

            • Howey might be the last case you can cite.

              The big publishers are no longer doing those deals. Now it’s all or nothing. And increasingly, it is nothing.
              Even proven sellers are being dropped if, say, the audio rights aren’t bundled in for free.

              (That being the clincher: they want all rights but only offer what they offered for print only.)

            • Sure six figures – if I get those six figures up front.

              Let’s say you have a series with the first three of what might end up a five to seven book set are selling well.

              They might tell you it’s six figures for rights to the whole series but only offer you high four/low five for the first book. For that onetime outlay they now own and completely control the entire series and can then price that book one where it won’t sell and keep rejecting your book two for whatever reason until you’re old and gray.

              Before someone says it can’t happen they need only look at the news almost any day, ‘big company buys out little company’, and that’s all we really are, little companies. If the big company has a use for the product they re-brand it as their own, otherwise they keep/sell off the useful bits and toss the rest in the trash. If your series was pulling in the readers eyes/time away from what the big business was trying to sell they might see it as chump change to pay just enough to take that competition off the market.

              I’m not doing hot enough to have to worry about all this anyway, but I do remember some of the writers trad-pub ‘had’ tried to ‘buy’ laughing that they weren’t even offering what those books were already earning those writers every three months or so (several years back on these TPV pages …)

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