Kristine Kathryn Rusch

The Current State of Disruption (Planning for 2019 Part 1)

27 December 2018

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

 For years now, I’ve done a year-end review, examining what happened and where the industry stands.

. . . .

I wrote down lists and links and reviewed notes and thought long and hard about things…and still couldn’t figure out how to wrap my arms around what I wanted to talk about.

I initially thought about combining the different parts of the industry under topics, and examine the topic rather than that part of the industry. But the industry is diverging in some important ways, making that way of writing these blogs exceedingly difficult.

This afternoon, it struck me: I write the year-end reviews so that I can focus on what to expect from the year to come.

So rather than look in detail at what happened in 2018, I’ll be looking at what happened with an eye toward the future.

. . . .

A reminder: I write these weekly business blogs for other writers who want to make or already have a long-term career. If you’re just starting out, some of this stuff won’t apply to you. If you’re a hobbyist who never wants to quit your day job, again, some of this stuff won’t apply to you. Don’t ask me to bend the blog toward you. There are a number of sites that cater to the beginner or the writer who doesn’t really care if she makes a living.

. . . .

For the most part, however, dealing with beginner and hobbyist issues doesn’t interest me. I’m a long-term professional writer who has made money as a writer since I was 16, who has made a living at it since I was 25, and who started making a heck of a great living at it by the time I was 35. I started writing these weekly blogs to make some kind of sense out of the disruption in the publishing industry in 2009. I did it for me, because I think better when I am writing things down.

The disruption continues, albeit in a new phase (part of what I’ll discuss below), and so I am focusing on what I need to focus on for my long-term writing career. I hope that some of these insights will help the rest of you.

. . . .

The disruption in the publishing industry will continue for some time now. Years, most likely. I don’t have a good crystal ball for how long it will go on, but we are past the gold rush years in the indie publishing world and have moved into a more consistent business model. It’s at least predictable, now. We know some patterns and how they’re going to work.

. . . .

The disruption in traditional publishing has gone on for nearly two decades now. It began before the Kindle made self-publishing easy by giving writers an easily accessible audience. Traditional publishing became ripe for disruption in the 1990s when the old distribution model collapsed.

Many of you saw it from the outside—the decline of the small bookstore, the loss of bookstores in small towns, the rise of the bestseller only in chain bookstores. All of that came from a collapse in the distribution system, from hundreds of regional distributors down to about five. (I don’t off the top of my head recall the actual number.) That made publishers panic. They couldn’t figure out what kinds of books sold best in the Pacific Northwest as opposed to what sold well in the Southeast, and worse, they didn’t have time to figure it out.

(When I came into the business, a top sales person for a major book company would know that science fiction sold well in California and quest fantasy sold well in Georgia, that the Midwest really enjoyed regional books, while New Yorkers often didn’t.)

Bestsellers sold everywhere, so publishers ramped up the production of already-established authors and sent those books all over the nation. Then, when the crisis leveled out, the publishers did not return to the old ways, scared of what to do. They continued to push for huge sellers rather than grow newer books.

Writer after writer after writer got dumped by their publisher in this period, while some new writers made fortunes because they wrote books that were similar to existing bestsellers.

When the Kindle came around and disrupted publishing, both writers and readers were ready for something new. That combination of forces created the blockbuster indie sellers—which were not blockbuster to traditional publishers. (The writers were making significantly more money, but selling fewer units than trad pub bestsellers.)

Hold that thought for a moment while I remind you that another disruption—a different one—was hitting publishing at the same time. Audiobooks went digital, and exploded. It became easy to download an audiobook and listen to it on your iPod (remember those) or your favorite MP3 player. Some cars made it easy to hook up those players to the sound system of the car.

And thus, commuters wanted everything on audio, and the demand in audio grew exponentially. As so many industry analysts said five or six years ago, if the Kindle hadn’t come around, the big story in publishing would have been the audiobook.

And here’s another publisher problem: most publishers never secured audio rights to the books they published. That money went directly to the authors.

. . . .

For years now, those of us who watch business trends have predicted that book sales would plateau. In reality, “plateau” is the wrong word for overall book sales. Those continue to grow, sometimes in ways that aren’t entirely measurable. New markets are opening all the time, bringing in new readers.

The system for measuring both readers and sales is so inadequate that we can’t count the readers we have, let alone the new readers who are coming into the book industry sideways. However, there is a lot of evidence—scattered, of course—that new readers are coming in. (I’ll deal with this in future weeks.)

Readership is growing, but individual sales are mostly declining. Traditional publishing’s fiction sales are down 16% since 2013. Traditional publishing has a lot of theories about this, delineated out in the Publishers Weekly article I linked to.

Indie writers believe a lot of the trad pub sales migrated to them. Maybe.

But some of what happened here was the inevitable decline from the gold rush of a disruptive technology.

Let’s look at traditional publishing for a moment. Traditional publishing moved to the blockbuster model at the turn of the century, meaning that the books that were published had to have a guaranteed level of sales or the author’s contract wouldn’t be renewed. The sales rose, partly because traditional publishing was the only game in town.

In that period, if you went to bookstores all over the country, and followed that up with a visit to the grocery store, as well as a visit to a story like WalMart or Target, you’d find the same group of books on the shelves. A few more in Target than in the grocery store, and certainly more in the bookstore, but still, the same books. And the airport bookstores were the same way.

If a reader needed reading material, he only had a few hundred titles at any given time in the stores to choose from. So the reader read the best of what he found, not necessarily what he wanted to read.

Then the disruption happened. Kindles and ereaders proliferated. Readers found books they’d been searching for, often for years. The readers also found some genres and subgenres that they hadn’t seen in a decade or more, usually books by indie writers that oculdn’t sell to the big traditional companies.

The boom in ebooks grew and grew and grew. (And if traditional pubishing hadn’t dicked around with pricing, their book sales would have grown even more.) That’s why the S-curves on that graph grow precipitously in between Stages Two and Three. Adoption increases revenue for a very very very short period of time.

That kind of growth is not sustainable for years, though. That’s why I say it was an inevitable plateau. If you’ll look on that graph again, though, you’ll see that both curves end higher on the y-axis—the profit axis—than they were at the beginning.

But hitting that plateau after years of rapid growth and, in the case of traditional publishing, a near-monopoly on the market, is painful. And that’s what we’re experiencing.

Also, sales are spreading out. I’ll talk about this a bit more in the next couple of weeks. But think of it this way. Instead of a lot of readers reluctantly reading the latest blockbuster because they’re trapped in the airport and can’t find anything else to read, those readers are now downloading dozens of books on their phones, and reading a variety of things—some of which we don’t have measurements of. Those readers have left the blockbusters they barely liked behind and found books/authors they like better.

So the money that would have gone to five different authors at three different publishing companies is now going to twenty authors, and only two of those authors are with traditional publishing companies. The books the readers are reading, though, aren’t the latest blockbuster by that author, but an older book that came out a decade ago. The price is lower, and the companies aren’t interested in those sales. They want the newest book to sell the most copies.

The consumer spends the same amount of money, but spreads it out over a wider range. Many of these sales are untrackable. Not all of those twenty authors report their sales to anyone, and not all of those sales were made through traditional channels. A few of the authors sold on their own websites. Some of those books came out of bundles. And some came out of a subscription service like Amazon. The traditional publishing companies lost most of the revenue, because their book sales have legitimately declined.

But that doesn’t mean people are reading less or that fiction reading is declining.

I’m not the only one who sees this. Mark Williams of The New Publishing Standard had the same reaction to the traditional publishing fiction numbers that I did. He wrote on November 18:

The big problem we have is that the fiction market, much more so than the wider book market, is so fragmented now, thanks to digital (by which I mean not just ebooks and audiobooks but online POD and most of all social media democratising the promotion of fiction titles), such that it seems like fewer people are reading fiction, but the reality is likely just the opposite.

The fragmented market is but one thing we’ll talk about in the next few weeks. We’ll look at how writers can use that market to their own advantage.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

PG always appreciates the analysis Kris and Dean bring to the publishing world, traditional and indie. He was going to add a few of his thoughts to Kris’ excellent post, but, perhaps as a result of holiday hangover (not the alcoholic kind), his little gray cells are not as well-regimented as usual.

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.

Here is the most recent Kris Rusch book selling on Amazon:

Business Musings: Generations

6 December 2018

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

The sf field is getting hit hard right now with a clash between generations. The clash isn’t a minor one: it’s over the future of sf. It’s about bringing in diverse voices, which sf failed to do (mostly through the gatekeepers who were [and some still are] bigoted against anyone who is not a white male). Some of the voices that are coming in are strident. Many are accusatory. A few are judgmental.

All have legitimate grievances. When you’ve been pounding on a door for years, and the door finally cracks open, you don’t say thank you. You say, What the hell? I’ve been trying to get in here for a long time. Didn’t you hear me?

Some of that generational conflict broke out on social media the morning that I’m writing this. A tone-deaf member of the older generation tried to defend himself, and failed miserably. Another member (in a different genre) has attracted national news because she was so overzealous in her real world job that she literally cost young black men decades of their lives. Her behavior back then (and now) is news to some of her younger fans. It had been so long ago that I never put the writer with the prosecutor. (I don’t think she’d been writing back then.) That terrible thing she had done is back in the news—and it should be.

That’s what some of her defenders miss. We should be discussing misuse of power and the harm we do, even as we think we’re doing good.

. . . .

I went into my office and grabbed . . .  Creative Quest by Questlove (with Ben Greenman)

. . . .

[Questlove] deals with generational change. He expresses it in metaphor.  (which is probably why I like the book: I think in metaphor.)

Once, as a young man, he walked along a train track after a train had left and wondered how long he had before another train would mow him down. He moved that physical thought into the creative realm.

How long does an artist have alone on a track, heading to the future, before another artist comes up behind him, and takes his place?

Questlove knows that art isn’t a zero-sum game. He doesn’t mean that only one artist can be on that track at one time. He really is discussing being the cool, the new. The person creating the wave, or riding the crest of the wave. Being the cutting edge.

That’s the focus here.

Because being the cutting edge is addictive. And it makes an impression on our brains as artists. Some artists continue to chase being cutting edge (which puts them behind the cutting edge train, to use Questlove’s metaphor). Others loudly defend that they once were cutting edge. And some move quietly forward, learning and growing, and accepting that they can only be cutting edge once in their careers.

Judging from this book, Questlove and the Roots belong to the latter group. Yes, they’re still learning and growing, but they’re never going to be the hot thing again. They might become more popular than they were in the beginning, but they will never be that new, surprising voice again.

We only get one chance at that.

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.

Your Basket is Leaking

2 December 2018

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

In October 2018, Sears filed for bankruptcy. The form of bankruptcy the corporate heads chose was something called Chapter 11 here in the U.S. It means that the company—once the largest retailer in the entire world—will be able to reorganize and, if they’re lucky and the folks running the company are smart, they might be able to emerge from bankruptcy with some of the business still intact.

The key here isn’t the details of Sears’ bankruptcy. It really isn’t even Sears itself which, when I was a child, fifty years ago, was a fixture in America. It’s the trajectory of the company.

. . . .

By early 1940s, Sears’ catalogue became  known as the Consumer’s Bible. In the 1950s or so, Sears started opening brick-and-mortar stores, and by the mid-1970s, the brick-and-mortar business overshadowed the mail order catalogue.

Mismanagement, a failure to keep up with the times, and a large corporate structure led to a decline starting in the 1980s, exacerbated by the rise of Wal-Mart in the 1990s. Sears still had a lot of value after the turn of the 21st century, but not in retail. The value was in its properties and its stock, and eventually that declined as well.

And now, Sears—mismanaged to pieces, its mail-order business (and famous catalogue) a distant memory—has almost thrown in the towel. They’re fighting for their existence. Very few adults alive remember the store in its heyday.

But look at that trajectory. Mail order on one item only. Then more items. Then unrelated items. Then becoming one of the biggest companies in the world. Then adding brick-and-mortar.

Does that sound familiar? Think of it this way: instead of mail order, think online. Instead of watches, think books. And then realize that Amazon shares much of Sears trajectory, only on a slightly accelerated pace—and without the name changes and the obvious added partners.

Sears to Wal-Mart to Amazon. There is a direct line. Wal-Mart is still fighting for dominance, but they’re no longer fighting Sears. They’re fighting Amazon. And Amazon is probably fighting some other company with a good idea, some company that I’m not entirely aware of.

Why is that important?

Because currently, Amazon is the biggest online retail company in the world. (Wal-Mart is still the largest retailer, but Amazon has moved up to second there as well.)  Amazon is exceedingly important to the indie writer movement. In fact, indie publishing would not be where it’s at without Amazon’s innovation with the Kindle ereader ten years ago.

In that time period, a lot of self-published authors have used Amazon’s ecosystem to make themselves, if not wealthy, then at least comfortably well off.  Many of those writers don’t even market their work outside of Amazon at all, preferring to use the tools provided by Kindle Select to promote their series and their work.

Early on, writing advice for indies (as I’m going to call writers who work outside of traditional publishing) centered on an Amazon-only strategy. If you look at my earliest blogs on the publishing industry, back in 2009/2010, you’ll see me constantly defending myself against that very argument. I learned as a young freelancer to go wide—and that was back in the early 1980s. Relying on only one source for income—no matter how large that source is—is never a good idea.

. . . .

Having been in traditional publishing, with its weird rules and limitations, meant I had learned early on how angry readers get when they can’t get a book that they want. I didn’t want to replicate that experience for them, particularly as I took back control of my publishing, so I never even considered Select.

Although, I had to admit, I was envious at times of writers who could manipulate that system to raise their profiles—at least on Amazon. It would have been nice to have access to the same tools. Eventually, I developed a few new pen names (for a variety of reasons, and no, I’m not telling you who they are), and they experimented in Select.

The Select promotion tools are good until they’re not, as everyone who plays in that ecosystem knows. Amazon changes the system, and then the indies figure out how to best use that system, and then Amazon changes it again.

There have been complaints about Amazon and its practices from the start. But savvy writers have known that Amazon started this revolution, and no matter what they’ve done, we all owe them big for that.

But…then there’s the argument I’ve been making on this blog since at least 2010. Do not put all your eggs in one basket. Even if that basket is the biggest online retailer in the world.

I still get pushback on that advice. But not as much as I used to. Because some of the big pro-Amazon indies are beginning to see cracks around the edges of Amazon. There’ve been too many changes to Select, too many broken promises, too many costly mistakes.

Some of the formerly pro Select-only gurus are now quietly going wide. A few others, trapped in the ecosystem, are using other tools to make their novels available before they put the books into Select. They’re still gaming Amazon’s system, but they’re gaming it to keep the income coming—until they can move out of the exclusivity trap that they had allowed Amazon to build around them.

For the writers, though, who continued to argue that Select was the only viable place to play, October and early November were a difficult time. Writer after writer here in the U.S. noted that their international sales had declined dramatically.

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 says that very few, if any, large organizations are unchanging.

Since he has watched the tech world, from the inside and the outside, for a long time, he has seen a great many changes.

Microsoft is not the same organization it used to be. Neither is Apple.

WordPerfect was a wonderful product and a superb organization in its day, but it’s gone now. Ditto for Lotus 1-2-3, Novell and Netscape. In some cases, former tech giants continue as zombie caricatures of their former selves, but the spark is gone.

The personal influence of a strong executive can profoundly shape an organization. Think of Sam Walton and Walmart. When that entrepreneurial executive leaves or dies, it is quite common for such organizations to change. The Sam Waltons and Steve Jobs of the next decades aren’t working for today’s Walmart and Apple. They wouldn’t fit.

Jeff Bezos and Amazon have a similarly tight bond. Amazon has mirrored Bezos’ personality in many ways.

But Amazon has become an extremely large company and the Bezos influence travels through lots of management levels and and subordinants’ decisions before it reaches indie authors and individual consumers. Bezos simply can’t know about everything Amazon is doing today and he’ll know even less next year.

PG thinks the Amazon plan to have two headquarters locations, which later morphed into three headquarters locations is Exhibit A in demonstrating that Bezos has taken his hands off the wheel.

While widely-dispersed major “headquarters” locations may make it easier to tap into a larger geographic pool of talent to fill the entry-level and middle-management jobs, PG suspects it’s going to be a management mess with queens and kings of little Amazon kingdoms sprouting everywhere.

Bezos’ ability to effectively provide vision, leadership and shape Amazon’s corporate culture is going to be substantially diminished. Any future Jeff Bezos-type Amazon employees who might have the talent to continue the level of innovation and organizational excellence he established are not likely to rise through this type of management structure. And their chances of catching Bezos’ attention and obtaining his help in rising through Amazon by their job performance will be slim.

 

Getting To The Stories You Love

9 November 2018

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.

 

 

 

 

Surviving The Stupid

21 September 2018

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

Imagine my surprise, as I scanned through Twitter a few weeks ago, to see a writer I follow go after Tor for its library policies. Um…what?

Turns out that Tor, through its parent company Macmillan has started a program in which libraries cannot get ebooks of the latest Tor releases until four months after the book is released.

Remember this is traditional publishing, so velocity is important. How fast a book sells has an impact on whether or not that writer’s next book will even get an offer from the publisher. And here—stupidly—is a publisher that has decided that library ebook sales aren’t worthwhile.

Tor/Macmillan’s reasoning? To see if library ebook sales are the reason that the company’s ebook sales are so low. That thinking is so damn stupid that I can barely type the words.

Rather than go into the reasons Macmillan’s ebook sales are low which I can digress on for hours, let me share what Nate Hoffelder said on The Digital Reader in July, when this news initially broke:

Macmillan  has poor ebook sales because they have adopted a policy of discouraging ebook sales in favor of print sales. Macmillan adopted this policy in late 2009 when they conspired with Apple and 4 other publishers to violate antitrust law by forcing Amazon to accept what is called agency pricing, a system where the publishers set the price and retailers are prohibited from deep discounts and sales.

That is established historical fact, and so is the antitrust suit brought by the DOJ, Macmillan settling the lawsuit,  its punishment, and Macmillan’s return to agency in 2014.

Apparently, corporate think has decided that it’s better to decrease sales to increase sales. (How Orwellian.) They’ve also got on the bandwagon of punishing people with budgets and limited income. The enthusiastic readers on a book budget—folks who provide great word of mouth during that crucial velocity period—are not worth Macmillan’s time.

The problem is that these enthusiastic readers aren’t going to be able to purchase the books themselves. Many library users are unable to make regular ebook purchases, especially if the ebooks are priced at $9.99 and up, like the Tor books. I’ve seen arguments that the libraries will still get the paper books, but that doesn’t mean that these readers want paper books.

Tor/Macmillan believes that these readers can and should wait. Which is risky on the one hand—there are always new books to read—and idiotic on the other. The readers who want a book now are the book’s most dedicated consumers. Word of mouth has become even more important in 2018 than it was ten years ago, thanks to the advent of social media, online book sites, and all kinds of blogging.

. . . .

Let me tell you, as someone whose novels were traditionally published for decades, it sucks when your publisher makes a totally stupid decision that’s going to have a negative impact on your career.

If you’re a smart author, you’ll know what the impact will be. Most traditionally published writers happily know nothing about the business of publishing, so when they get their royalty statements and their sales are down yet again, or when they are unable to sell the next book in the series, or when their publisher cancels their fat multi-book contract because sales are down, those writers are surprised. (See my blog post on “Learned Helplessness”  to understand some of this.)

. . . .

This comes at a perilous time for Tor. Their founder, Tom Doherty, moved upstairs into an honorary position in March, and was replaced as President and Publisher by a long-time corporate middle management guy who might or might not do a good job. If this library thing is any indication… well, you already know how I feel.

I feel somewhat bad for the writers stuck in this library situation. Not entirely bad, mind you, because if they had learned business, they would know that their publisher has a habit of chewing up and spitting out writers like crazy, and has for decades. Three books and out, usually, unless something takes off. And it used to be that awards and award-nominations were enough to save a writer at that company. That changed as the bean counters rose to the top of the business, and will probably get worse now that Tom is gone. He loves science fiction, and would occasionally swoop in to save a great voice that wasn’t selling well.

I doubt that will happen anymore.

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.

Blip or New Reality?

12 July 2018

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

A lot of times on this blog, I deal with the problems in publishing. Bad problems, like agents embezzling, traditional publishers not paying royalties, income going down, or sales not up to expectations.

In the early days of indie publishing, I would also blog about the problems of success. In our workshops and classes, we call them problems you trade up for.

Just because a person is successful—in any business—doesn’t mean that the problems in their life have gone away. In fact, success brings its own share of problems.

And like all of you, whenever I look at the next rung on the success ladder, I don’t want to hear about the potential problems. I say, Bring ’em on! And I mean it.

But when those problems arrive hand in glove with success, you need to deal with the problems properly to make the success last.

In the past year, a number of writers have had the marvelous difficulty of “sudden” success. And they’ve contacted me about how to handle it.

As many of you know, I’ve been dealing with a lot of change in my life, and it wasn’t until things have settled down these past few weeks that I realized just how many times people have asked about a certain problem in indie publishing that doesn’t appear (in the same obvious way) in traditional publishing.

I got another such inquiry this week, put quite succinctly and clearly, and I realized that the problem the writer was dealing with wasn’t unique to that writer. It happens to a lot of indie writers, and they’ve been talking to me, and I just hadn’t put it together because my focus has been elsewhere.

A little background: the writers who’ve been contacting me listened to me and the other writers who’ve been around a while. These newer writers wrote and wrote and wrote. They wrote in series as well as standalones. They set up their websites and their newsletters, but didn’t do a lot of promotion until they’d had at least ten books published.

Then, something hit. For one person it was a Book Bub that goosed the sales in the entire series. Another writer experienced exponential growth from month to month to month, as more and more readers discovered the series. A third writer saw a huge bump in sales every time a new product (be it short story or novel) in one series got published.

There are a bunch of other variations on this, but you get the idea. These writers have a lot of product, and they’ve been watching sales increase. Then, something—and it varies—hits, and the writers see their sales increase massively.

In one writer’s case, the book sales went from pay-the-electric bill money to three-times-the-paycheck money. In another writer’s case, the book sales went from 10 per day to 100 in every book in the series.

In every single case, the change caused a life-changing increase in income—or it would, if the sales continued.

So after a month or two of these increased sales, the writers contacted me and asked:

Is this a blip or will the sales fall off a cliff?

. . . .

Well, essentially, all huge book sales are a blip. Stephen King’s books don’t sell on release what they did in the 1980s; J.K. Rowling’s non-Harry Potter book sales are lower on release than her Potter books which are, by the way, selling steadily, but not at the stratospheric numbers they sold at in the early part of this century.

That stupid old adage what comes up will come down applies here.

But if you think about sales bundled together as a ball tossed into the air, then extend the metaphor. Sometimes that ball catches the wind and goes at the high level for a long long time, only to land somewhere unexpected.

Sometimes the ball lands on a roof, and it takes forever for the ball to fall down (if it ever does).

Sometimes the ball goes straight up, and comes down into the thrower’s hands.

And on and on and on.

. . . .

  1. Realize that it will take months to know what kind of pattern your sales have hit.

Blip? Maybe. Your sales might plateau. Or grow. Or the increase might only last a few weeks. Or it might last a few months. There is no way to know in the moment.

  1. Plan as if this increase is a blip.

Bank the money. Spend only what you would have spent if this increase had not happened. Keep the money separate if you possibly can, so you know how much you’ve earned that’s additional.

I would bank the money for three months before spending any of it. That way, you’ll know a few more things than you knew when the blip started. You’ll know if the sales are increasing or decreasing or staying the same.

If the sales continue to increase, cautiously figure out what you want to do with the added money. Three months is not enough time to decide if you should quit your day job (unless the money is 3 times your annual salary), but it is enough time to cautiously invest the money in some things for your business—a new computer, say, or something that will make the day-to-day easier.

Or just keep banking the money, saving up for whatever is next on your writing bucket list (like quitting the day job).

If the sales have plateaued, then keep banking the money. You don’t know if this is the new normal yet or a long blip. Give it another three months.

And if the sales fell off that cliff, then you can be happy that you did not make any major life changes in response—and you now have some extra cash in the bank. Yay, 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.

In ancient days when PG handled some consumer bankruptcies, more than one financial collapse happened in the aftermath of a client receiving a significant amount of unexpected money. It’s far more difficult to scale back financially after you’ve increased your spending than it would have been to continue to spend at the level that was sustaining you before.

The Mercedes people still want their monthly lease payment even if you’re back to Fiat income.

Licensing Opportunities

21 June 2018

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

I think the moment writers dream of being published, they have the same wish. They want to write the books of their heart. They want those books to reach a vast audience, and they want someone else to worry about doing all the things that turn a book from a rectangular object on a shelf into a vast global empire a la Harry Potter.

Most writers expect their agents to help with that. Some think the publishers will do it all. Even more writers believe that once they make a movie or TV deal, the magic will happen. Their heroine will become an action figure. Their hero’s face will decorate a throw rug. Even the feline sidekick will find images of herself for sale in the plush toys section of every toy store and bookstore on the planet.

Not to mention the new stuff—the apps, the games playable on every device, the YouTube channel, the Instagram feed, the Spotify playlist. The old-fashioned stuff too. Socks and t-shirts and posters. Tchotchkes that come directly from the book, like Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans from Harry Potter. The first time I saw a packet of those, I laughed out loud with pleasure.

But it’s not that easy to have products made from your book. Most books don’t easily lend themselves to toy or product licensing. Most books aren’t popular enough, truth be told. And many don’t have the imagery or built-in products like Harry Potter did. (Rowling was simply showing how kids could get into a craze, so she invented a bunch of crazes, which then became actual crazes. Nifty cool, in my opinion.)

Most publishers barely have time to put out their monthly schedule of books. And most publishing houses don’t pay attention to subsidiary rights aside from translation rights and film/TV rights. Thinking about other types of marketing, licensing, and sales is simply impossible for them. They don’t have the staff, and they certainly can’t do it for each book they publish.

In fact, most publishers only respond to requests. So if some game company comes to them and asks to license the board game rights to The Handy Dandy Money-Making Novel, the publisher will figure out if they have those rights to license (chances are they do, these days) and if so, then they usually say yes, without any negotiation at all.

There is, as my poker-playing husband is wont to say, a lot of money left on the table each and every day.

. . . .

You can license anything to anyone, if you know what you’re doing. And knowing what you’re doing is the key. Most book agents haven’t even been to a [large licensing] show like this, let alone have any idea what they’re doing when they get there.

The larger agencies, with movie and TV arms, have a licensing division, but even then, those agencies usually sell the rights for their clients to one organization—say a movie studio—and don’t worry about licensing the coffee cups on their own.

Money left on the table.

And I know why it happens. It happens for the very reason that writers want to hire someone else to handle everything for them.

Learning a new world—any new world—is a lot of work. And you need to be a bit forward to handle a licensing fair. Most writers aren’t. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t attend.

. . . .

But you’re going to need to give this part of your business some thought as well.

Most writers don’t, except to say that their agent handles this stuff. I was in the middle of writing this post, having just come off the rights fair, when the Donadio & Olson news broke, and I took time out to write that first blog post about the extreme problems with agents. I recommended that writers avoid agents at all costs, and got tremendous blowback, including comments like “I can’t hold an auction for foreign rights without an agent” and other myths.

(Ironically, I was Googling that particular tweet because I couldn’t remember how it was phrased, and saw that a German publisher contacted that same author on Twitter because the German publisher “emailed your literary agent and never got a response.” You cannot make this stuff up. Seriously.)

So, I wrote about the problems with agents and financial mismanagement, ignoring the actual rights licensing and other things they fail to do.

I did meet a few agents at the rights fair. Agents who specialize in licensing the rights to “properties” that are “bankable.” None of the agents I spoke to, briefly, handled books that weren’t already big gaming or big movie projects. (Yes, I spoke to the agents. Research, y’know.)

Here’s the thing:

Indie publishing has disrupted traditional publishing, yes. But indie publishers (and writers who consider themselves self-published) have pretty much built their businesses on the old traditional publishing model.

That model is based on innovations made in the early 1960s. Traditional publishers have not moved off that model at all. This is why James Patterson has his own division (which he runs) inside of Hachette, his U.S. publisher.  The article I’ve just linked to here, on that division inside Hachette does not mention licensing outside of the traditional publishing norms of TV/Movie and translation. Patterson has added a few things, like a literacy campaign, but I didn’t see much about other types of licensing.

He’s creative and innovative, but his creative innovations are very 1990s, partly because he’s working inside the traditional publishing industry—which he disrupted (and continues to disrupt) all by himself.

You can see the book industry’s disinterest in this licensing fair just by searching for the word “book” on the website. Chronicle Books and Sourcebooks were there, but not as the companies themselves. Rather, they were represented as part of someone else’s marketing campaign.

I found Penguin Random House’s booth in the armpit of the floor, back in the part with some exhibitors for whom English was not their first language, and some smaller exhibitors like quilters.

Penguin Random House has thousands of properties that could be exploited as brands and for licensing. You’ll note in the photo above that they only focused on three for some inexplicable reason.

The big comic book companies were all present. Marvel and DC were there, of course, and they were hard to miss.

. . . .

Why should you care? Because this is the part of the business that built LucasFilm. George Lucas retained his licensing rights when he made the tiny deal for the distribution of the original Star Wars movie. There’s a lot, lot, lot of money in marketing, branding, and licensing, if it’s done right.

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.

Learned Helplessness

14 June 2018

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

I was in the middle of a long blog post about writers licensing the rights to their work when the news broke about Donadio & Olson embezzling from their clients. I stopped what I was working on and wrote a different post, because I finally had public proof of something I’d been saying for years: that important, well-known literary agents mismanage and/or embezzle the monies they receive for their clients. This has gone on for decades. It’s not something new.

. . . .

Then another reader wrote an answer post, taking me to task about telling writers not to hire agents.

He’s argued, calmly and politely, with my advice on agents before, so that wasn’t new. We disagree. He has his reasons for keeping an agent. I think those reasons are mired in the 20th century. But that’s his choice. He seems to be making an informed decision, and is taking a calculated risk. I don’t agree with the risk, but it’s his career, not mine. (I do hope he audits his agent regularly. He monitors the payments he knows are coming, but there’s no way to monitor the surprise payments.)

Then…weirdly…I started getting emails, direct messages, and notifications (from friends) of tweets taking me to task for advising that writers not have agents. I was called names. Well-known writers who have never met me wrote that I always give bad advice and that it figures because I’m …pick your hated POV here. (According to the posts, tweets, and emails {depending on who is upset with me}, I’m either bigoted or too PC. I’m against all women or too feminist. I’m always on the wrong side of every issue, and I lie, lie, lie.)

. . . .

Because you can’t fight myths with logic. Even when the myth forces the people spouting those myths to act against their own (and their friends’) interest.

In addition to the tweet-storm, I got some fascinating emails. I can’t share some of them—especially the ones from long-time IP attorneys who told me about the fraud and embezzlement at big name agencies. One IP attorney reminded me of the Harper Lee mess with McIntosh & Otis.  Ironically, according to Vanity Fair,

The agency, known as M&O, was created by Otis and her friend Mavis McIntosh, who had both reportedly left another agency in the mid-1920s after they discovered it to be highly suspect in its practices.

As I said, this crap has gone on for a very, very long time.

I got a lot of sad emails from writers who lost money to fraud, lost major book deals to ineptitude, and have given up on their careers because of agent malfeasance.

. . . .

[A] New York Times bestseller posted on my personal Facebook page that she was surprised people were talking about this issue at all (she was defending the people who were defending agents—although she hadn’t seen the truly vituperative stuff), because no one talks about agents in her experience.

Her comment was followed by a new writer who worried that he couldn’t sell to traditional publishing without an agent. To date, I’ve gotten six public comments, five personal emails and three messages on Facebook just like that, asking the same thing.

I got to noodling all of this in my head—more proof, more stories, lots of us who say we do better without agents, that we can handle our own businesses, and then I went to lunch with a new friend who has worked in the arts for sixty years. She handles her own business affairs, still.

. . . .

Artists are supposed to be feather-brained. Artists are supposed to be bad at business. Artists who are good at business are anomalies or worse. Artists who are good at business are only in it for the money. Artists who are good at business don’t understand art.

Of course, the people who are defining what that art is are mostly professors, who were unable to succeed at the business side of the art, so they have to keep their day jobs.

Some of those professors are writers with big book deals and agents.

As I was noodling all of this, though, what bothered me the most were two things in combination: that comment from the New York Times bestseller about silence and the variety of plaintive messages from beginners who are still pursuing their dreams of being the kind of writer they grew up admiring. But how do you get to one of the big five publishers without an agent?  one of those writers wrote on Twitter this morning.

Well, that assumes that a savvy writer wants a contract with one of the big five. The fact that this guy wrote the question this way proves he’s not savvy. I wouldn’t let anyone go into that shark-fest without a lot of education, the ability to negotiate, and a tough-as-nails IP attorney on their side. And even then, I would hope the writer has a good reason for going traditional, because the best negotiator in the world won’t be able to get the kind of deal that we used to get as a matter of course in the 1980s.

It was the comment though about silence that really got me. Because the New York Times bestseller was right: writers rarely discuss the problems with their agents. Writers only brag about their agent’s successes.

The writers who have been screwed by their agents are either too embarrassed to write a blog post like Chuck Palahnuik’s or those writers have signed a non-disclosure agreement as part of a settlement with that agent. Only a few of us refused to sign NDAs, refused the settlements. And when we talk about what happened to us, we’re called crazy, delusional, and outliers. When we say we handle our own business affairs, we get dismissed because we’re successful so it’s easy for us. We are lucky. Or famous. Or have connections no one else does.

. . . .

Every person in the world who starts a small business—and that’s what writing is…it’s a small business—learns how to conduct the business part of the operation. If the small business owner doesn’t learn that, then they go out of business really fast.

Artists have safety nets that most small business owners don’t have. A professorship based on a few published books and stories (as well as an expensive PhD). Or an ability to get grants. Or an employed and tolerant spouse.

The myth is that artists can’t make money. And before I confuse some of you further, I’m going to stop using the term artist (for dancers, painters, musicians, writers), and hone down to writers alone. But this applies to all of the creative arts. Artists have safety nets.

You’ve all heard that writers can’t make money, so why even try? You’re writing for the love. You’re writing to create something lasting. You’re writing to become famous or well-reviewed or accepted in your own literary circle.

You’re not writing to make money.

Only fools and hacks write for the money. The more someone publishes, the worse their skill must be. The more financial success they have, the more their writing abilities go downhill as they “sell out.”

That’s counterintuitive to the way that humans operate. The more humans practice something, the more they refine their techniques, the closer those people get to the top of their game. Their game might not be as good as someone else’s, but writers—like everyone else—improve with practice.

. . . .

This myth that writers can’t make money plays right into the hands of embezzlers and con artists. Think about it: I’ll handle your negotiations, your paperwork, your money, so you don’t have to bother your pretty little head about it.

Money gets pocketed, writers need those teaching jobs, and the leech who made the offer benefits from the myth. The writer sure doesn’t.

And then there’s the silence.

Silence is the hallmark of abuse.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch and thanks to Colleen for the tip.

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 usual, Kris gets to the heart of the matter in a way very few others do.

PG can’t go into any details because of client confidentiality issues, but today he finished reviewing an agency agreement from a large literary agency for a client.

It required more time than it has in the past. Not because the agreement was longer or more complex than the many others PG has reviewed.

It was the CYA paragraphs.

When lawyers are asked to review a contract, in addition to other subjects, clients want to understand what can go wrong if they enter into the contract, what their downsides might be if the whole thing goes south. It took PG a while to work his way through the potential downsides for the client’s proposed agency agreement.

This lead him to think more about the agency and publishing business and why some common practices that would be considered illegal and immoral in other settings are “the way things are done” in publishing.

PG’s Rule #1 for contracts is, “Don’t do business with crooks.”

A client could hire a whole herd (flock? colony? troop?) of lawyers to prepare the finest contract known to humankind. If the counterparty is a crook, the likelihood of the finest contract working out well for the client is still not good.

Crooks gonna crook.

PG just trafficked in a stereotype about crooks.

As a general proposition, while making one’s way through life, it’s not a good idea to deal in stereotypes. Every large group of people includes some that may fit a stereotype commonly associated with the group and others who are much different than the stereotype. In an effort to avoid wrongly stigmatizing those who differ from the group, society rightly takes a somewhat dim view of many varieties of stereotypes.

However, stereotypes can be quite useful and are utilized by most people in one form or another on a regular basis.

Who would you trust more, a drug dealer or an elementary school teacher?

There you go, stereotyping drug dealers.

Long ago, PG learned to be more careful about relying on the statements of a prospective client who was in prison than a prospective client who walked into his law office off the street. Are innocent people sometimes incarcerated? Absolutely. Are most people in prison innocent of a crime? Not really. Are most people really, really, really anxious to get out of prison and willing to do almost anything to achieve their goal? Pretty much.

Do common business standards and practices vary from occupation to occupation? Is an auctioneer expected to be more or less reliable when talking about the value of a piano being sold than a professional appraiser? Is there an unwritten code of conduct for auctioneers that affects their view of appropriate behavior when trying to sell something?

This is a long-winded introduction to PG’s concerns about agents and traditional publishers.

From a purely economic standpoint, an agent needs a good relationship with a handful of acquiring editors working at a small group of publisher much more than an agent needs a good relationship with an author who is mid-list or below in the publishing hierarchy.

Publishers who will pay a $100,000 advance for a science fiction novel are far rarer than science fiction authors are. This and other economic realities strongly influence the behavior of agents.

Looking at what’s really happening in an agent’s life, it would make more economic sense for the agent to work for and receive a commission from a publisher for locating a salable author than to pretend the agent works for the author and puts her interests first before the publisher’s.

This brings PG to customs of the trade.

Many years ago, PG learned about customs of the New York City garment industry while representing a client who manufactured and sold boatloads of inexpensive jackets. Some of the customs of the trade in the garment business were identical or similar to standard commercial law and others were much different. Those who regularly did business in the garment industry were far more concerned with applying the customs of the trade instead of anything the state legislature had ever written.

In this respect, the customs of the trade in New York City bore some resemblance to what was sometimes called “The Law of the Hills” in the Ozark Mountains of Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas.

In some cases, juries were more influenced by the Law of the Hills than they were by The Revised Statutes of Missouri or anything the judge might say about the case. While the state law might look askance at a husband beating up his wife’s lover, the Law of the Hills permitted such actions as long as nobody was permanently crippled.

PG posits that the customs of the traditional publishing trade, including the customs of the literary agency trade have created an environment in which an agent can do far worse things than fail to forward payment the agent receives for royalties from Russian sales to an author. The author’s never going to know and such an action won’t harm the agent’s reputation with HarperCollins even if someone at HarperCollins finds out about it.

When faced with a choice between promptly paying every penny of royalties due to an author and keeping the doors of the agency open, the customs of the agency trade dictate that the survival of the agency is paramount. An agent will make the same decision once, twice, three times — as many times as it takes to survive.

Thus, an otherwise honest and honorable group of people can be lead down a path that ends in systematic and large criminal diversion of funds away from authors and into agents’ pockets. PG’s gut tells him that this has happened at a great many agencies, both small and large.

It’s a custom of the trade.

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