Friday, July 16, 2021

Don’t Write For Free, by Josh Stallings

Q: “I recently heard a comment that the big publishers are trying to hold onto an old model of publishing that doesn’t work so well anymore. Is this true? Why doesn’t it work, and how could the model be changed?”

A: I self-published books in the early days of that movement. I have been published by a micro publisher, and (currently by) a stellar independent publisher. I have good friends who have been published in every way possible. With my lack of experience with legacy publishing houses, I’ll attack this question from a slightly different angle, looking at the book business as an industry. And more importantly, what do I want in trade for a piece of my hard-won sales dollars. What can I rightfully expect?

(*For a brilliant overview of publishing scroll back to Cathy Ace’s Wednesday post. )  

State of the Books Business:

(This is based on my experience, so odds are I got lots wrong.)

The Times, London, ten or so years ago had an article claiming, in the new publishing economy only the rich or retired would be able to afford writing careers. They foretold the death of the midlist writers, and to some degree they were correct. 

TANGENT ALERT — I remember when Hollywood studios had a couple of big tent pole films a year and the rest were smaller films, dramas and comedies shot on reasonable budgets and thus could make a return on investments. The 1980’s brought us all- mega-hits-all-the-time. As an added bonus we got sequels ad infinitum. It happened (not un-coincidentally) around the same time electronic and beverage corporations started buying up controlling interests in the studios. — END TANGENT

With legacy publishers merging and being bought by media companies, they have taken on a much more corporate approach to business. Thus they, too, are in the blockbuster business, placing a greater weight on  high-concept material than ever before. The all-important tight “elevator” pitch that swept Hollywood is here to stay in publishing.   


Add to this, a seeming anomaly, with more outlets like e-readers, phones and other devices to read a book, the income of most writers has fallen. Even bestselling authors are struggling to make ends meet. Fact is, most crime writers I know have full time jobs to support their lives and write books as a beloved side-hustle. The lucky ones write for TV or film, but those gigs are so all-consuming that it often leaves them with no time to write books. 

The loss of sales looks like a twofold issue: one, people who would never steal a book unless Abby Hoffman told them to (a reference for any old hippies out there,) will happily download an ebook copy without paying. The second thing was Amazon made self-publishing an easy click away. The good news, the gatekeepers couldn’t stop anyone’s books from getting to readers. The bad news: not everyone is at a place in their career where they should be publishing. This freedom flooded the independent book market, making it even harder to make a living at it.

Yes — before anyone yells at me — it’s more complicated and nuanced than this. Some self and independently published books have broken huge, and some midlist writers continue to be published by legacy houses. 

Moving on…

Why do we need publishers? Originally it was because they owned the presses, and the means of warehousing and distribution for crates of big heavy objects. Both no small things. However, print on demand and ebooks have somewhat rendered this argument unsustainable. But that isn’t—or it shouldn’t be—all a publisher offers. 

Here’s breakdown of what I love and need from a publisher:

A really good editor, someone who can see what I was going for, and where I missed the mark. A great editor can take a good book and make it fantastic. “You have twenty pages at the most to hook a reader, and as written, you’ve lost them.” I hated hearing this about TRICKY. But I trusted my editor, and the book is better for it.

A really good copyeditor. I’m dyslexic, so the need for this should be self-explanatory.

Marketing. People whose job it is to see the greater potential of your work in a cultural sense and can exploit this to reach beyond your friends and fellow writers.

Art directors who can come up with an eye catching cover, that both pleases and sells.

There are more but this a good start. All of these jobs you can do, or hire out. But it is both time consuming and expensive. And I have discovered with my novels I spend so long describing the roots and moss, that I lose the forest entirely. 

As for marketing—and movie marketing was my job for a long time—when it comes to my work, again, I can’t see the wider context of it.

Are these tasks worth between 90% and 75% (depending on hard cover, ebook, etc…) of the book’s revenue? Maybe. Is 10% to an agent worth it? 

It’s complicated, they are both artistic and business decisions. Subjectively, do they make the work better? Objectively, do they increase sales enough that my piece of the pie is smaller, but my income greater than what I could generate on my own? Clearly when a book comes out it is all educated guess work. I know my past track record, but every book is different. And sometimes sales fall a bit when striking out into new territory as an author, and the gains may not be seen for a book or two.

I don’t know if publishers paid for travel in the past, but I felt good when starting out if my sales paid for BCon and LCC trips. I remember I was at a bestselling writer’s signing in Carson, or another small So Cal town. I think five readers showed up, including me and my son. When I later asked why travel so far for so few readers, they said to me, “I do it partly for the readers, sure, but mostly to shake hands with the people working for the bookstore.” They were aware that these folks work tirelessly to get our words into readers hands. 

Scott Montgomery at Austin’s Book People has led more people to my books than anyone I can think of. When Scott asks me to travel to Texas for a reading or panel discussion, I do it. I mean it helps I have family in Texas to stay with, but I’d work it out if I didn’t.

Which brings me to a… RANT—Scott has never treated independently published writers (me) differently from the likes of Joe R. Lansdale. He put us together on a panel because he saw something in our work that sparked. And I suspect because he knew that getting me in front of Joe’s readers would help to broaden my readership. 

This is something the crime conventions fail at more that not. My first Bouchercon was Chicago 2005, where all the more independent writers were stuffed into an overfull basement room. This remains true today. Most panels pair best and better selling authors together, while up and coming or marginalized writes are smooshed in the small rooms at times where they have no way to compete for new readers.

There have been notable exceptions, such as LLC in Vancouver. I was on a panel about neurodiversity, it was diverse group of writers and because of it I met readers from all kinds of backgrounds, and tastes. We all read broadly, I have readers who also love cozies, hell, I love a good cozy. Why do the conventions rigidly separate writers as if it was a Borders bookstore? (Yeah I know they went out of business, kinda my point.) 

Why isn’t an author who writes “Small Town Police Procedurals,” put on the social justice panel? I know this means more work for the organizers, but the deal is we writers are paying to be the entertainment (and admittedly to get to hang with our peeps.) From a business standpoint, if these events don’t show an uptick in book sales that at least covers the cost of attendance, we really need to question their validity. — RANT OVER!

Final important note,

I don’t write for the money, in fact I’ve written and hidden away more words than I’ve published. I — like most writers — am driven to write. I do it for the love of the craft. I’ve dug ditches and I’ve driven taxis, and getting to spend my days inside these books is the greatest job I can imagine. And yet…

Because of my racial and gender privilege I was able to stash enough money from film work so that when the chance to write full time came I could jump at it. That’s not true for all, or even many. If we want diverse books, we need to make sure writers are being treated with equity.

Again, we’d write for free, and have, but we shouldn’t have to.


Catriona McPherson said...

This stands along with Cathy's piece on business from Wednesday - a stellar read.

Ann Mason said...

What Catriona said.

And Josh, TRICKY is a masterpiece.

Trust me. I am a nurse/reader/retired old f***

James W. Ziskin said...

Great post, Josh! Wonderful rant about panels, too. Thank you!


Josh Stallings said...

Thanks Catriona and James, glad it worked for you. And Ann, praise from a nurse/reader/retired old f*** means more than you can know.

Susan C Shea said...

Agree with Catriona, that last rant is great. The panels get tired as it stands and program organizers should adopt your suggesrted model!

Michele Drier said...

Boy, there’s so much to unpack here I dasn’t start. Just this, and this and this and….please come rant at my house any time you want!
And having put together the panels for virtual Bouchercon last year, I agree the process needs an overhaul.

Josh Stallings said...

Thank you Susan and Michele. And panels are really difficult, to do it justice you need to actually know all the writers work. We may need panels to schedule panels, and look for the larger connections. Without really mixing it up, “inclusion” feels like ghettoization.
Again thank you all for the suport.

Gwenivere said...

Josh as you know I love your work and enjoy turning other people on to your oeuvre (fancy pants word there).

Your comments about being crammed into a basement room really resonate with me—I can’t tell you the number of panels I served on that were…”Oh panel?! (Pointing) Go down this long dark hall, around the corner and past the bathrooms. You’ll find it.” Whether as a panelist or as an attendee I always wanted to see the “big name” empaneled with the “little name” and the “no name” to hear their different work and how they all intersected…. To be fair to Michele, it is hard sometimes to make that happen!

Keep fighting the good fight!

Josh Stallings said...

Gwenivere, 1) thanks for spreading the word about my work. 2) You are so right, the doing of fixing panels is hard. If these cons are to survive we need to come together and reimagine what they could be, maybe with white boards, and stumble our way to a direction / vision of what we want. Until we all know where we want to be, we can’t get there. Also to change it will take the big selling writers demanding inclusion on their panels. Moving away to the tiered and rigid genre way of looking at writers is a huge undertaking, but in the end we can find our way to exciting new times.

Clea Simon said...

Thanks for this, Josh. All - including the rants - is so important! I'm with you in thinking that the work a trad publisher does is worth it, but ask me again in a few years...

As for paying for travel, a little historical perspective. (Yes, I am old.) My first book came out in 1997. I was given a tour, all booked, all paid for. Drivers meeting me at the airport and everything. When an old high school buddy got her local B&N to host me, the publisher paid for a driver from my last tour stop. Next book, 2001, I got booked on a major NPR show and publisher paid my airfare. (They also got me on a big morning show and put me up in NYC, but I got bumped by the news of anthrax being delivered to the Senate - this was autumn 2001.) Third book, also with a major NYC publisher, I got booked on the same NPR show. Publisher said, "That's great! Tell us how it goes" and that was it. (Note: these were all nonfiction, but I believe it was industry standard for the majors.) My mysteries have all been on smaller presses but from what I can tell, I doubt even the majors are giving out those perks quite so routinely anymore.

Michael W. Sherer said...

Josh, great post, but let’s get back to the question at hand: “how could the model [of legacy publishing] be changed?”

As someone who’s been published by almost every type of publisher going—legacy, mass market, POD, library edition, self-publishing—I’ve seen the good and the bad.

Yes, legacy publishers do provide valuable services, but given the fact that POD and e-books do exist, why haven’t publishers taken advantage of those advances? Why do legacy publishers continue to insist on printing, distributing and warehousing huge quantities of heavy objects that will end up at a recycling facility, or worse, in landfills? And why do they insist that to pay for those valuable services they must charge readers $15.99 for e-copies of a published book? Especially when they’re taking 75 percent of the proceeds?

As much as some of us may love to hate the monster known as Amazon, legacy publishers should instead look to Amazon as a model. Thomas & Mercer, for example, an Amazon imprint, offers all the same valuable services of a legacy publisher—editors, designers, cover artists, marketing and promotion staff—but don’t charge their authors 70 percent for those services. Instead, they give authors as much as 70 percent of the cut. They don’t charge readers exorbitant prices for e-books, but price them more along the lines of mass market paperbacks.

Why aren’t legacy publishers using huge e-mail blasts to build awareness of mid-list or marginally known authors to a wide readership? Why aren’t they offering e-copies of books on promotion for $0.99, or for free even, to get copies into the hands of readers and begin to build word-of-mouth and online reviews? Why aren’t they printing smaller numbers of books using POD technology closer to local markets to save on warehousing and distribution costs?

These are all SOP for Amazon imprints because Amazon also treats publishing like a business, but it also recognizes the value of content and content-creators, which is why so many big-name authors are abandoning their legacy houses and signing with imprints like T&M. Talk to any Amazon-published author and you’ll likely hear raves. I’m one of the few who will rant but on the whole still had a very positive experience there. In fact, the biggest gripe I have with Amazon is that it’s becoming too much like a legacy publisher, paying such exorbitant advances to lure in the big fish that mid-list and marginally known authors are getting left behind.

However, of all the publishers I’ve had, T&M/Amazon has done the most and been the most successful at selling any of my books. And the book T&M published was nominated for a Thriller Award. Even that, however, wasn’t enough to break me out as an author, and T&M dropped me after one book. That’s the hard reality—publishing is a business. No one but authors can do it just for the love of it. And we can't do it either, without day jobs.

bamgosoowm said...
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