Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Writing survival tips? Too late, you're already dead

After last night's writing session, I stayed up after midnight reading the blog of Dean Wesley Smith, a pro's pro and author of 70 or so books. His comments are stunning and eye-opening. I'm not saying the advice works for everyone, especially since he writes a lot of science fiction and fantasy, fields in which a few publishers will still look at unagented manuscripts. He talks about "Killing The Sacred Cows of the Publishing Industry." In fact, he's writing the book.

Since this is part of the goal of my collaboration Write Good or Die, I'm talking with Dean about using some of the material. I knew of him, of course, but didn't seek him out until finding the blog of his wife Kristine Kathryn Rusch, herself a prolific writer with a bibliography as long as a river and also a wellspring of practical advice. In fact, her blog is about a "survival guide" for writers, eerily similar to Write Good's subhead of "Survival Tips for 21st Century writers." I think, between the two of them, they just might make it!

Throughout my career, I have paid attention to the small details while focusing on the big picture. I never felt my industry partners in the past cared as much about those details as I did. I understand, because they have different priorities and goals. As well they should. But I didn't adequately fight for what I believed to be right, and those details did turn out to matter. To me, not to them.

The old, broke, and sick living-legend author is practically a cliche now. Professional organizations, conventions, and communities rush to their rescue with fundraisers and benefits. That's heart-warming and inspiring, but also deeply sad at its core. Agents and editors and publishing corporations are not building pension funds for writers. In most cases, they go, "Here is a lump sum, buy your own insurance, pay your own taxes, and by the way, we'll control your content for X number of years and take 90 percent of everything. Oh, and the agent will take 15 percent of that remaining 10 percent. Be grateful. Now go out there and hustle this book for us at your own time and expense, or we'll dump you. And still tie up your rights."

It's insane. Even right now, the lure of "ooh, I have an agent," and "ooh, they really, really like me" is a heady tonic. And, even now, practically speaking, it's the absolute best way to be a "professional writer." That shows the sad state of this occupation, and the lowly fate of most writers. Even the people who love us don't treat us very well. Below the blockbusters, all the rest of us are bottom feeders.

I've always thought of my writing as products of my creation, products of my ownership, and that rightly I should wring income from them for as long as I live, and even pass that income on to my heirs for as long as the works are protected by copyright. I should be free to exploit those products, and achieve the majority of the profits. Dean Koontz refers to his books as "annuities," income-bearing properties. Obviously he's made mistakes, as admitted through his hilarious newsletter, and hasn't been afraid to change agents if things weren't working out.

A writer friend of mine was telling the story of one of his book deals, and when the agent was hemming and hawing a little, the acquiring editor said, "Let's just add a zero to the end." No matter the numbers, that is just plain stupid. A little hesitation automatically increases the property's value by a factor of ten? Would this have happened if the editor was spending her own money? And they say New York isn't broken? Hey, I am happy for this writer, and this writer deserves it.

But please spare me the whining about how major publishing needs to be preserved and protected with artificially high ebook prices so that we can "save the independent bookstores." I am willing to bet if corporate publishing and distribution were decentralized, there would be an explosion of independent bookstores. Of course, they'd better be selling decent coffee and have a POD kiosk, as well as some sort of digital catalog or library. They might even start having book signings again. You know, the part with the writers.

I guess the preservation of any culture depends upon your personal stake in it. If you are an agent getting easy deals, why should you care about the long-term well-being of your clients? If you're an editor who will probably get fired if you don't deliver a blockbuster, why should you risk your neck for a "small book" with a lot of heart? If business as usual is keeping you fed, why bother to change? If you're a writer, why not trust your career to the people who know how all this is supposed to work, for your own good?

Heck, look at me. I'm willing to trade words for magic beans. I'm as stupid as anybody.


John Hornor said...

I don't know if I felt like "ooh, they really, really like me", maybe a little, but after I had a chance to cool down and stop polishing my I'M POPULAR button they sent with the contract, I thought "ooh, my books have a chance to be read by more people through a major publisher." But, I'm not quitting my dayjob, which I actually like, or holding my breath.

But that's just me. I don't claim to understand publishing. I know I want certain things and right now, going the traditional route is what I'm shooting for and most likely I'll be able to make more money that way than going with a small press. I don't think major publishing needs to be preserved, by any means. But I do believe they're not gonna go out without a fight.

author Scott Nicholson said...

Well, I don't blame you, John, but I would also encourage you to read Dean's blog first! Might show you some of the "warning signs" which hopefully won't pop up.

author Scott Nicholson said...

Also, the "more people" part might not be as true as it appears--shelf life can be very ephemeral, and NY has no interest in carrying dead weight.

Dark Intruder said...

Very nice entry, Scott. Some good food for thought.