As someone who makes a living off writing, it’s always worth paying attention to the professional side of a convention schedule. At FantasyCon 2017, that meant attending a panel on “The Author as a Business”.
The panellists were lawyer and podcaster Marguerite Kenner, agent Juliet Mushens, author Heide Goody, and publisher Francesca T. Barbini. That’s a good mix of expertise and perspectives, which is exactly what you want on a panel like this. After all, there are a lot of different ways to operate these days and understanding that is part of making writing work for you.
For me, much of this panel was a useful revision of things I’ve heard on podcasts or read in articles before. There’s a lot of information out there, it’s hard to make it all stick, and hearing an interesting discussion on it reminded me of things I’d neglected, as well as shining new light on them. But there was one over-arching theme that came up and that’s worth sharing:
Know exactly what the rules are that you’re working by.
This can mean getting a lawyer to look over your contract. It can mean sweating the details of what rights you’re giving someone to your work. When writing with a partner, it can mean setting out clear rules for how you’ll work together and how the profits will be split.
These details aren’t always exciting. They’re not always comfortable topics of conversation. But if you’re going to be a professional, they’ll affect your livelihood, and that means they’re things you need to know.
The readership of science fiction and fantasy is pretty divided at the moment. This leads to conflicting advice for authors. Sometimes you’re told to be daring, air your own voice, and represent the under-represented. Other times you’re told to play it safe, that you’ll only get anywhere by focusing on familiar stories with Eurocentric settings and white male leads.
So what’s going on? Which advice should you take?
As I see it, that depends upon how you want to build your career.
Writing for Mass Readers
On the one hand, there’s trying to build your career through direct appeal to the mass market. That means playing it safe so that you’ll appeal to the nervous links in the chain of big publishing. The aim is to produce something that can uncontroversially grab a chunk of the casual reading market. You write is people who read sf+f but aren’t heavily involved in the geek scene. You write for those who read to relax, not to be challenged.
Writing for Core Fandom
On the other hand, there’s trying to build your career by appealing to the hard core of fandom. If you succeed then these enthusiasts will advocate for you, push your book on other people, and generally big you up.
Recent years have shown that the majority of this set like diversity. They run events like Nine Worlds. They wear badges telling you their preferred gender pronoun. They keep the magazine market afloat against the pressure of financial common sense. They vote awards to Ancillary Justice. They kick over the bins of the patriarchy just to hear the sad puppies scream.
These are the people who want something novel and want it now.
There’s Wiggle Room
This is a model of what’s happening, not an absolute. Real writing sits on a spectrum between these extremes. But if you think about which one you’re aiming for, you have a better shot of understanding and reaching your audience.
Personally, I’ve never thought it through well enough, though I tend toward writing for core fandom, as shown by the mix of stories in Lies We Will Tell Ourselves.
If you write, which of these markets do you tend to write for? And what do you look for as a reader? Let me know in the comments below.
There’s a fine line between snobbery and maintaining standards. A line that has less to do with the nature of the thing being criticised, and more to do with our sense of identity.
A Publishing Debate
I recently heard about a falling out between a publisher and a freelancer. The details aren’t mine to share, but it’s safe to say that snobbery and standards played into it. The freelancer was wary about the publisher, thinking they might not live up to the standards they expect in publishing. The comments that came from this left the publisher feeling attacked, facing standards that looked snobbish to them. It was hardly the Amazon/Hachette blow-out, but it wasn’t pretty.
It’s just one example of the sorts of verbal spats that are currently happening all over the world of publishing. The internet has allowed a far larger number of people to set up as publishers. The world is full of tiny firms pumping out ebooks and small print runs, not to mention self-publishing writers like myself. For traditionalists, this has led to a decline in standards. For the indies and self-publishers, it’s a democratising shift that will replace or reform an industry mired in outdated practices.
You can see it elsewhere too. Is a piece of modern art boundary pushing or nonsense? When someone introduces costume standards at a live roleplay event, are they creating an atmospheric and inspirational gaming or being a ‘costume Nazi’ (yes, people really use that phrase; no, I don’t think Hitler ever dressed up as a goblin).
It’s Identity, Stupid
In the same way that the Clinton electoral campaign once tied everything back to the economy, I find myself repeatedly coming back to identity politics. Maybe that’s a reflection of an era obsessed with identity. Maybe it’s one of the better tools we have for understanding modern society. Maybe it’s just my own private obsession. Regardless, we’re going back to that well.
Why do people cling so rigorously to certain standards, useful or not? In a lot of cases, it’s tied to their identities. If you’re a manager who prides himself on being part of a professional office culture, and you associate that culture with suits and ties, then you’ll dress in suits and ties. You’ll make that the dress standard for your office. Your clothes and your office are markers of who you are, deeply connected to your sense of value. If someone comes along and says “do we really need to wear suits in this office?” then you aren’t just facing a rational question. You’re also facing a challenge to your identity, because being a good office manager, and good offices being places people dress up smartly, are part of who you are. The odds are good that you’ll come up with rational sounding reasons to maintain that standard, because you’re defending your sense of self, regardless of what actually makes sense.
If you’re doubting me on this, consider how seldom people wear suits and ties these days outside of offices. Now consider how many offices – even ones where no-one faces the public – insist on an old-fashioned smart dress code. Heck, consider the fact that dressing that smartly often symbolically distances employees from the customers they meet. There’s a mismatch here, but it’s so common we take it for granted.
Flip that over and look at the person who wants to dress casually at work. The suit isn’t familiar to them. It’s a piece of clothing they have to own but wouldn’t otherwise spend their money on. They’re being told that how they dress and see themselves aren’t good enough for this work. That’s an attack on their identity, and it looks to them a lot like snobbery.
Back to Publishing
Now lets bring this back to the business of publishing, and our dispute between a freelancer and a small publisher.
That freelancer has spent a lot of time, money and effort reaching a level of skill and training that makes them acceptable in the system as it stands. They live up to its standards. They feel valued because they’ve met those standards. Letting those standards slip would undermine their status and sense of self. They’ll find rational sounding reasons to defend the status quo, and in doing so attack indies and self-publishers, because of how they feel, because their identity is under attack.
The small publisher, on the other hand, has spent lots of time, money and effort producing books. People are buying them. They’re proud of their books. When they’re told that their work doesn’t meet an old standard, that looks to them like snobbery. It’s someone shooting down their status and sense of self. They’ll find rational reasons to defend their way of working and in doing so attack the status quo, because of how they feel, because their identity is under attack.
See the Other Side
For those of us watching the industry that makes our books, recognising this means recognising that change is never going to be smooth and easy. Just like the arguments over this year’s Hugo awards, people care because even arguments about other people can threaten their identities. Eventually middle ground may be found, but not until we’ve got through lots of ugly, unproductive arguments that any sane person should step back from.
And if you get caught in a debate about anything, and you think you’re upholding standards or facing snobbery, then stop for a moment and think about how this looks from the other person’s point of view. What about them are you attacking in defending your perspective? Acknowledge that, be careful about that, and things might get a lot easier.
Last week, Amazon announced that they are going to change the way they pay authors for books read on Kindle Unlimited, the Kindle subscription lending library. There’s been a lot of opinions expressed about this, of course, but here’s my two pence worth.
I think the pay-by-page thing is a really good idea in the context where it’s being applied – Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited lending library. It’s going to slightly reduce my income through there, as most times people borrow me on Unlimited are for a very short book, but that’s fair enough. It’ll stop people gaming the lending system by deliberately filling it with short books, while still letting those with legitimate short books make some money off it. The suggestion I saw that Amazon might later extend this to sales is an interesting one, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for it, but right now it would go completely against Amazon’s self-publishing business model. They very carefully give control to authors, including control over pricing, within some fairly generous limits. It’s a good model to motivate authors in a way that profits Amazon, and pay-per-page for lending achieves the same goal in a different way. I’d be surprised to see them spread pay-per-page to sales, but then we live in surprising times.
Someone suggested that this model might lead to padded and unedited stories, so people are reading more pages. I’m sure a few unscrupulous and stupid publishers will do that, but in the current market, which contains a huge amount of choice, I don’t think it will get them far – especially in a subscription service like Kindle Unlimited. People reading from the front end of this pay-per-page model have access to a huge library of books to choose from, and the real money for an author is in getting them to stick with you. If you present a 200 word story padded out with 200 words of crap, lots of readers won’t continue to the end, never mind the next book, so you might only get paid for fifty pages. Whereas the leaner, better 200 page version is more likely to get 200 pages of payment and maybe more on later books, as well as taking less work. Sure, some people will game the system, but the more I think about it, the more I think this whole thing could reward good writing.
Looking more broadly, this is a change in Amazon’s relatively new lending library platform. The whole thing is pretty experimental. Their self-publishing sales platform is now well established, and making a change like this there would be much more disruptive and create far larger backlash, for better or for worse.
Looked at in the broadest sense, Amazon are too smart to try applying a single model to everything. They understand that’s not how the internet works.
In short, I think this is probably a good thing. It more closely aligns the interests of authors and readers within Kindle Unlimited, and that should lead to rewards for authors being more closely connected to a good reading experience. Surely that’s a win-win situation.
The word ‘customer’ has a certain grubby, commercial ring to many people working in the arts and the public sector. I say this having striven all my life to work in those sectors, and as someone wary of the ‘people as sources of money’ thinking that can attach to the word.
The problem is that ‘customer’ actually has two different and related uses. Sure, it can mean someone with whom you’re entering into a commercial transaction, providing something for money (lets call this an A-customer). But in the absence of any other word to fill its place, many organisations and systems thinkers also use ‘customer’ to refer to anyone to whom you’re providing a good or service (lets call this a B-customer).
Amazon and Hachette and customers
If you pay any attention to books as an industry then you know that there’s currently a dispute between online bookseller Amazon and publisher Hachette. If you follow any authors or book bloggers you may also be aware that it’s become incredibly divisive within the industry, with fierce words put forth on all sides.
For me, the deciding factor in this is customers. Putting the customer first isn’t just empty rhetoric – in the long run it’s what leads organisations to success. Publishing is going to keep changing, evolving towards systems that serve B-customers better because that’s how they’ll get the money out of A-customers. Any argument about publishing that doesn’t begin and end with the reader experience, taking authors into account along the way, is flawed. Publishing exists to provide readers with books, and if you don’t remember that then you’re doing it wrong.
I’m seeing a lot of arguments, especially on the Hachette side, that are doing it wrong.
TV streaming and who’s the customer
This ‘customers first’ thinking is also why I think streaming services are going to win out over traditional TV channels.
Traditional channels have viewers as their B-customers, the viewers of their shows. But their A-customers, the people paying for it, are the advertisers. As someone recently pointed out to me, if you’re not paying for something then you’re not the customer, you’re the product. As a result, those A-customer advertisers have pulled TV in directions that are less satisfying for the B-customer viewers, the shows drowned out by the volume of adverts. Given other cheap options, viewers will go for a more satisfying experience, and the service will die.
But I don’t want to be a customer!
There’s no point burying our heads in the sand. If you want to sell books, if you want to read better books, if you want to make smarter decisions about your work whatever that work is, then you need to be thinking about A-customers and B-customers. Even great art works by serving people’s needs and desires. And no-one but customers is going to pay your bills.
Picture by Images of Money via Flickr creative commons
I’ve reached the point in my life where I’m too old and too damned weary not to do what I think is right.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some grey-haired, wizened finger struggling to type with fingers shrivelled by age. But after many years of doing what I thought was expected of me I don’t want that burden any more. I don’t want to live beneath the weight of others’ expectations or my own discomfort at the compromises I’ve made. I want to work in a way that is meaningful and authentic to me, my values, my view of the world, not one boxed in by managers and executives.
So many depictions of characters in popular culture tell us that you reach a point in life where you have to let go of some of your ideals, where you compromise with ‘the man’ and you realise that it’s not so bad after all. But for me it’s the other way around. After years of office work I realised that the cost of that compromise was wearing myself down from the inside with my own discomfort, that doing something I was happy with mattered more than stability and security.
That’s why, if I can, I want to try to make money self-publishing. Not because it’s the easy option, or because other routes have failed me – I haven’t even tried them yet – but because it’s what I believe in and, if I can, I’d like to do things my way. I believe that creators should retain control of their work. That the mechanisms of publishing and IP laws should protect artists not companies. That we should all take responsibility for our own lives.
This doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t go with a big publisher if the option presented itself on a platter. But that’s unlikely right now. What is certain is that I’m going to have to put a lot of work and a lot of emotional energy into getting anywhere, and I’d rather put that energy into what I believe in.
The responses I’ve already had following yesterday’s post are a big help in giving me the confidence and guidance I need. So thank you to those who’ve shared their knowledge. Now comes the hard work of acting on it.
Think how quickly we’ve shifted from CDs to downloads and streaming as the main way of acquiring music. You think that won’t happen to your precious books? That’s what the old vinyl fans said, and sure they’ve still got their specialist shops and collectors bins, but in the space of two decades they’ve become an obscure cultural niche. Change is coming fast.
The Titanic turned
Some people predicted the downfall of the old music industry through the democratising power of digital distribution. It’s a wonderful dream, and one I hope to see fulfilled at some distant time. But companies aren’t vast ships heading inexorably towards the dooming iceberg of progress. They change. They adapt. They find ways to turn a profit. They’ve successfully ridden the wave of digitisation in music and, much as they’re struggling with it right now, they’ll adjust successfully to the changes in publishing.
Did the Earth move for you?
The current period of upheaval has potential to change the balance of power between authors, publishers and readers. But exciting as it is, it’s unlikely to change the fundamental landscape of the industry, at least in the medium term. Authors can now live without big publishers, but the publishers will find ways to make themselves valuable to authors again. What we do right now will affect the details of the future shape of the industry, but much as it might pain me to say this, the broad picture will be pretty similar twenty years from now.
So this: Things are changing fast. In ten years time publishers and authors will be making more money off e-books than physical ones. But the big publishers will still be making most of the money, even if more diverse voices are making a living pecking away at their market.
Current changes have the power to democratise the industry. But while these changes will happen quickly, that democratisation will take time.
Now I’m off to write a novel. Better make the most of this chaos while it lasts.
Picture by Jose Mª Izquierdo Galiot via Flickr creative commons
Did you know that the vast majority of popular novels sold through Amazon are now ebooks? That independent publishers are making huge inroads into the book market? That all of this is producing very heated and often ill-evidenced debate?
If you’re anything like I was five years ago then you had no idea. But the publishing industry is going through a period of huge disruption, and the choices that we make, as readers as well as writers, will shape its future.
The other name on the spine
Do you pay attention to which publisher’s books you’re reading? Or is the only name you notice on the spine the author’s? It might not sound important, but who publishes a book really matters.
Until recently big publishing houses dominated the market. As is the way with business, the number of companies was shrinking through a history of takeovers and closures. But recent years have seen independent authors and small publishers take off in a big way. While the big publishers still claim to be in control, recent well-evidenced analysis by Hugh Howey – here with commentary by Joe Konrath – indicates that the underdogs now represent around half of popular genre sales in the growing e-book market.
And as self-published authors regularly receive 70% of the price of their e-book, as opposed to maybe 12% when going through a big publisher, that’s big news for the writers in question.
Paper vs electrons
What’s that you say, it’s only e-book sales? Well, yes, but the same data indicates that over 85% of genre bestseller sales through Amazon (and by bestseller I mean top 2500 titles, not just the elite top 100) are now e-books.
Sure, some types of books, like textbooks and illustrated books, still sell almsot entirely in a dead tree format. And of course this doesn’t cover physical bookshops, where it’s all about pulp and print. But the books seizing the popular imagination, the Dan Browns, George Martins and bodice-ripping romances, are increasingly selling in electronic form.
Stop Knighton! It’s not that straightforward
OK, yes, the situation is far more complicated than this, and because of limits on the available data it’s also very unclear. Commentators on the issue, whether the million-selling Hugh Howey or the Mighty Mur Lafferty, make this point clear – the big publishers aren’t going away any time soon, and neither are paperbacks.
But the lack of clarity is a sign in itself. If it’s not clear what’s going on then that’s a sign of change, of disruption, of a situation that no-one fully understands because it’s not staying still long enough to map out.
What about you?
As a reader, why should you care?
Because this means that your purchases are helping to direct the future of publishing. Because the format and publisher you choose makes a huge difference to how much your favourite author receives. Because all these changes mean far more diversity of books to choose from – sure, it’s a chaotic age, but for my money that makes it a golden one.
And those of you reading this who’ve been published, whether by a company or through self-publishing, what’s your experience been like? Am I discussing interesting trends or talking rot? Has this disruption affected you? Is it good for you or bad? Leave a comment, make your voice heard.
Picture by Jose Mª Izquierdo Galiot via Flickr creative commons