Kristine Kathryn Rusch has written a couple of sobering posts about the state of the publishing industry and changes going on in it. In The Fear Chronicles, she talks about bad decisions publishers make because they are fearful of coming changes in the industry. In another post, Professional Writers, she comes down hard on writers who take “crap deals” (and then seek her approval). That post, too, features fear as a theme, because the main reason given by the unnamed writers who accepted those deals (zero advance ebook deals), was that they didn’t want to make their editor “mad” and thereby shake up their perceived fragile relationship with the publishing house. They were afraid of losing that all-important next book contract. So afraid that they are willing to literally work for free in order to keep it. So afraid that they are accepting advances only 50 percent, or even 10 percent, the size of their last advance.
When does working with a major New York publishing house cease being a business relationship and start being wage slavery? Pro writers scoff at magazines and blogs that invite people to write for free in exchange for “exposure.” Well, isn’t that what these publishing houses are doing with their “You write for no advance a story that we will sell for free on the internet, and in exchange, you can have the implicit promise that we’ll CONSIDER offering you another actual publishing contract?”
The problem I am seeing, as a writer with 1.75 novels written that I would like to see published, is that there doesn’t seem to be an actual path to success that doesn’t involve being exploited, and it makes me hesitate–a lot–over actually offering my work to them.
The problems inherent in the publishing industry include old media and new media problems. Old media problems include lack of promotion, “promises unfulfilled” (see Rusch above), lack of transparency, etc. New media problems boil down to one issue–erights. The big publishing houses are making a mess of erights, the standard 25% of net rate is unfair to authors*, and some publishing houses may be fudging their ebook sales numbers and paying authors less than they’re owed. (Again, there’s no transparency, no way for authors to check what they’re being paid against actual sales.)
Add to that the fact that the role of agents is expanding, and not in a good way. More publishing houses are using agents as slush readers, and most agents now see themselves as book doctors, and will request edits or even extensive rewrites before they agree to market a book. Many agencies, as well, are expanding into the epublishing business, and offering to publish their clients backlists–a practice that represents a conflict of interest and may violate ethics or even the law, according to Rusch.
The use of agent as editing intermediary adds an additional unnecessary step in the chain of custody of a book between writers and readers. Now editors are trying to predict what readers will like, agents are trying to predict what editors will like, and writers are trying to predict what agents will like.
All of this makes traditional publishing REALLY unattractive. The solution suggested by Rusch and her husband Dean Wesley Smith is to get involved in self publishing. The two seem to have done well that way, and they have quite a bit of advice on their web sites for writers interested in doing so. It’s a veritable font of information.
However, I have two problems with self-publishing as a solution. One is that it seems ideal for writers with a number of traditionally published books, but I’m not sure how one is supposed to make it work if you don’t have that track record and are trying to publish your first novel. Second, it’s just a lot of work and has the inevitable learning curve associated with it. Like most writers, I have a day job. Like many writers, I also have a family. That’s two jobs already. Actual fiction writing is my third job, and I have so little time left over from my first two jobs that I can barely find time to do it. I literally do not have time to become my own publisher, even if the idea sounded fun and challenging to me.
It does not sound fun and challenging. It sounds like a dreary slog. I have about ten hobbies I’d rather be pursuing than publishing and promoting my own books.
So that leaves me with some rather unsavory choices. I can try to get myself exploited by the publishing industry like many of my friends, and hope that I’m one of the lucky ones that has good sales and good support and try not to worry about the amount of money I’m losing on ebook sales (which increases dramatically year-on-year).
Or I can dive into self-publishing, which will automatically lose me status and respect among New York-published novelists, and cost me what little rest and sanity I have remaining to me. And, because I don’t have time to do it right, I will most likely fail.
Which would you choose? Would you take one of the crappy options outlined above, or would you sit on the sidelines and hope things get better?
I actually know FOUR real, published genre novelists who are sitting on the sidelines right now because of crap deals and a lack of opportunity for success. These are not failed authors. These are authors whose publishers failed them. Four of them. They are not newbies or wannabes. In fact, some have won awards.
If I can come up with four good, solid authors who have sidelined themselves to wait out the publishing craziness, there must be hundreds of them. Hundreds of authors writing and trunking books, or not writing them at all.
I don’t think very many new writers, trying to sell their first novel, are sidelining themselves, though. The myth of having “made it” when you get a contract from one of the Big Six is still powerful, and there’s a lot of peer pressure within the community to become a novelist. There’s a pecking order, and if you’ve “only” published short stories, a lot of writers don’t take you seriously. Many times I’ve heard comments by non-novelists dismissed or mocked because they “don’t know what they’re talking about.” And I’m aware of a number of networking opportunities that are not open to unpublished writers or writers who have “only” published short stories.
I’ve made intermittent attempts to get my first novel published, and have had intentions of sending my second novel to certain editors that have had positive feedback on that first one, but I am very unsure that I really want to accept a publishing contract. For one thing, I can’t afford to sell a novel for $3000. As a nonfiction writer, I have the experience of having my work valued, and I know that no publisher who offers me a $3000 advance will provide much in the way of promotion or support to get me enough royalties to make that worthwhile. I literally would rather trunk a book than take a typical advance of $3000 or even $5000.
Secondly, those e-rights are a real bone of contention. I had thought that if I got an offer on a novel, I might negotiate a print-only deal, and retain the e-rights myself (to self publish or work with an e-publisher with better terms). Kris Rusch tried this, though, and was given a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum. She left it. That makes it seem pretty unlikely to me that a new, first-time novelist could negotiate a print-only deal with a New York publishing house.
I hope and expect that within the next five years or so new business models and new publishers will emerge, and that authors will be able to offer their work to publishers directly without having to go through the agent/book-doctoring process, and that e-rights will be handled in a fair and transparent manner. Until then, I’m not really sure what I’m going to do, except finish the current book and start another.
*I’m so sorry I misplaced the link the very excellent analysis I read. I fail at bookmarking, and promise to do better in the future. If you know the link I am thinking of and have the URL, please help me out.