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The headline screams: LOCAL AUTHOR GOES OUT OF BUSINESS!
Ever see that? How about a blog titled: “I Can’t Make A Living Writing Any More”?
Writers are strange creatures. I have complete strangers hit me up on twitter asking me publicly if I’d recommend an agent for them. Or look at their queries. Even their manuscripts (nothing compared to what agents get hit with). Next brain surgeon I see on twitter I’m going to ask him for some free surgery, since my brain seems a little off. Seriously.
Ever have someone ask what you do, and when you answer that you’re a writer, they say: “Never heard of you.”
My reply is: “What’s your name?” and when they tell me, I say: “Never heard of you either.”
Nah. I give them my card, a book if I have one handy. Every person is a potential reader.
Writers, we tend not to value themselves. And one of the rules my wife has taught me is: We teach people how to treat us.
I just realized I’m writing this blog after writing yesterday’s blog about Bernie Madoff. The mind works in mysterious ways. Real subtle, there, Bob.
Back to teaching people how to treat us: when I do consulting or keynoting for Who Dares Wins, outside of the world of publishing, I quickly learned that when asked my fee, if it were too low, I might not get the gig as they then felt I wasn’t very good if I didn’t charge much. Almost the opposite of being a writer, who will give away their first born to give a talk, somehow thinking they will eventually sell books.
You have to consider not only the actual talk, but your expertise. When I present Who Dares Wins, I’m not just giving a company a two-hour presentation. I’m giving them the benefit of decades of experience as a Special Forces student, team leader, operations officer, commander, soldier, instructor at the JFK Special Warfare Center and consultant to previous organizations. Also, being a NY Times bestselling author who has sold millions of books and started up a successful publishing company that has thrived through extreme turmoil in the entertainment business. That stuff is hard to come by. Rare. It’s worth something.
I do feel uncomfortable when someone asks how much I charge for a talk, particularly in the writing world when I know money is tight for the organizations. I remember, though, what I was told one year at the Maui Writers Conference. A CEO of a very successful company told me that in the corporate world, to get the kind of high level expertise that was being given at Maui one would expect to pay tens of thousands of dollars. And all these best-selling authors were getting was a plane ticket and a hotel room for their collective experiences and expertise.
I believe writers should value their expertise. If asked what you charge, consider who is asking, what is being asked, and what value it will have to those who receive your expertise. Remember, all they can do is say no, or tell you what they can pay. Or you can always negotiate. One technique I use for some of my day long presentations is give a percentage of my book sales at the event back to the organization. This is a win-win situation.
Remember: if we don’t value ourselves, no one else will. List to Harlan Ellison — Pay The Writer (warning language)
Write It Forward!
It’s a great life. I’m my own boss. I wear shorts and t-shirts in the summer and sweats in the winter to work, which is in my house. I sit at my desk with a great view of the TN River with a blank stare, drool running down the side of my mouth, and I’m working. Well, not really. Because no one’s paying me for my great thoughts. They’re paying for my writing.
I’ve been doing it for over a quarter of a century and here are some harsh truths I’ve learned about making a living as a writer.
1. No one owes you a reading. You have to earn it.
2. The minute you think you have it made, your career is over.
3. You have to be ahead of innovation, not following it. I get rather bored lately reading blog posts and tweets and comments from all the gurus making predictions, comments, yada, yada, because I’ve had the bisque. That doesn’t mean there isn’t much to learn. I do read them. Now I focus more on the subtext. But other than that, a lot of it is the same old, same old. But I also have to accept for many writers, it’s new. Still, I also remember what some of these same ‘gurus’ were saying 3 or 4 years ago. Uh-huh. Nevertheless, it’s incumbent on a writer to pay attention to the business side.
4. Listen to those who have skin in the game. I make my living selling stories to readers. If you want to make a living selling stories to readers focus on those people. Those who make their money in ancillary ways off of the book business? Listen to them but also understand their motives are different than yours. Many of them want to make their money off you. Caveat emptor.
5. Trust no one. From the classic I, Claudius: Herod [to Claudius]: Trust no one, my friend, no one. Not your most grateful freedman. Not your most intimate friend. Not your dearest child. Not the wife of your bosom. Trust no one. Okay, that’s extreme but essentially, no writer should count on anyone else professionally. Your agent, your editor, your publisher: they are not your friends inside the business. They are not your business manager. They are people who you work with as a self-employed part of the publishing machine. They might love you, but when the numbers don’t add up—later, gator.
6. Publicity doesn’t equal sales. You can be on the front page of the NY Times and unless the story is specifically about your book, it doesn’t lead to sales. I’ve actually BEEN quoted in an article on the front page of the NY Times, one of my books was mentioned, and I got a whopping bump of about four sales because the article wasn’t about the book. I interviewed for a NY Times article that came out this past weekend and didn’t make the final editorial cut. Whatever.
7. You can be as ‘right’ as you want to be but still fail. I only have to be right for my business. Not anyone else’s. What works for me will not work for anyone else. Stop trying to prove you’re right to others. They don’t care.
8. People lie. Writers are professional liars. I’ve listened to keynotes from writers and known they weren’t telling the truth. I’ve seen ‘deals’ posted in Publishers Marketplace and known the agent was grossly exaggerating the sale. No one blogs about “my career has gone down the crapper”. Nope. People talk about good things. So don’t let it discourage you when everyone seems to be doing better than you. Often they’re hanging on by their fingernails.
9. No matter how good your writing is, someone will not like it. In fact, the better it is, the bigger the pushback. The more successful you become, the more people will try to take you down. Don’t let them. Also remember, you need haters to succeed. Like a relationship– we’d rather have hate than apathy.
10. Math wins. Always. The Content eBook Blob is eating up a lot of midlist self-pubbers. Remember the movie The Blob? 1958? Steve McQueen? Every book that is digitized is on the shelf forever. No one is walking the aisles with computer printouts removing those that are beginning to ooze. And every day more and more titles are added.
11. Nobody knows everything. When we go to industry events, I constantly remind my business partner, Jen, that no one there knows everything. Of course, she sometimes reminds me I don’t know everything. Despite having my wife call me a contrarian, I’m afraid I have to disagree with both of them. Anyway, most people in the business know only a niche. In fact, the larger the organization they are part of, the less they know. People pretend to know a lot, but that’s because they’re . . .
12. Afraid. Fear rules many things in life. Fear is insidious. Repeat the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear from Frank Herbert’s brilliant Dune:
13. It always comes back to content. Bundles, Bookbub, sacrificing goats; they all have their place. But it always comes back to content. Write good stories. Then more good stories. And you will succeed.
Want more good stuff? Sign up for my newsletter. Click here! If you sign up, you get a free book. And, like those late night commercials, get the book and we throw in a wonder-roller to remove dog hair. Okay, that was one step too far. NOTHING removes dog hair, as Cool Gus consistently proves– I just had depot repair on my Macbook Air and they found dog hair inside it.
You get a free book for signing up. That’s pretty cool. And Ides of March is up for pre-order.
And remember. It actually is the best time ever to be a writer. Because the only one who can stop you. Is you.
While many are focusing on publishers and bookstores and other aspects, the producers of the content are the second most important component of the business, with readers being #1. The key is how the changes in publishing affect the author and how the author needs to factor reality into their business plan (regardless of how they feel about it):
- Amazon will expand its Print-On-Demand capability with kiosks in colleges, airports, malls and other locations.
- We’ve blogged about the issue of Barnes & Noble; any author who isn’t factoring in their business plan the possibility of B&N going the way of Borders, doesn’t have a business plan. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen, but hope is not a business plan.
- The eBook market is still growing. Print is fine for bestsellers, but for the midlist, there will be less and less rack space. We see numerous predictions that print sales will continue to grow and that eBook sales are flat or diminishing. This may be true for the Big 5, but overall, it’s wrong. Indie authors will continue to chomp away at the market share of the Big 5. And we’ve seen a lot of wishful thinking in the publishing world that isn’t reality. But, hey, don’t you still watch Betamax? But VHS won that, and now you watch on that? But then cable. But now streaming. And then? But many in publishing are saying we’re going back to VHS. Same with music going digital, even though most people don’t know that good old vinyl actually produces a better sound!
- The rapid ups and downs on digital bestseller lists will continue with Bookbub, first-in-series free, pricing specials, etc. Perusing a top 100 genre list on Amazon reveals about 20% of the names are there consistently. The rest churn quickly. This churning leads to:
- The midlist will continue to suffer, particularly the traditionally published midlist. Many established mid-listers who ignored the rise of the indie and hybrid author and stuck to their publishers will rue that decision as print runs shrink and their eBook royalties remain at low rates and they will never see their backlist rights reverted.
- Venturing into linking books with non-book markets. As Jack Canfield expanded his Chicken Soup books into markets that previously did not rack books, eBooks will be sold through non-traditional venues. This is something we are actively pursuing at Cool Gus, with some intriguing possibilities in 2016 that we’re very excited about.
- Pre-orders will be key to an indie/hybrid author’s success. So much so that Bob’s business plan for 2016 is based on having the pre-order for his next book in the current book, with six titles coming out.
- For a previously unpublished writer, we recommend trying to go the traditional route of publishing (agents, trad publishing house). This might be blasphemy among indie ranks, but the number of successful indie author without having a traditional backlist is tiny, tiny, tiny. Unless a new author has a unique angle, extensive marketing skills, or is related to Oprah, a traditional publisher offers a better shot. That said, the odds of success that way are as tiny, tiny, tiny, too. But it’s actually less work than writing the book and learning how to be a publisher from zero experience.
- More bestselling traditionally published authors will dip their toes into hybrid waters. They can’t talk about it in public, but it’s on their minds. Many are uncertain because it’s a territory they’re not familiar with. Having been on both sides, we understand those concerns and have designed Cool Gus for exactly that scenario.
- More start-ups trying to sell boiler plate services to indie authors and trad authors trying to go hybrid, and even more failing. Some like Reedsy have a good business model. As does Audible ACX; but overall, anyone trying to go hybrid has to realize there is a reason publishers exist and have so many departments.
- This means there will be a focus on what we call the Author-Centric-Team. Where people experienced on both sides, traditional and indie, will offer exclusive, on-going services and expertise to a limited number of authors; while allowing the author complete creative control and final say on all business matters. These bestselling authors will do this primarily for the creative freedom, but also for higher eBook royalty rates and control of their own business. Most importantly, they will do it in order to retain their rights to their own work—the most significant business decision an author has to make. The hugely successful handful of musicians learned this the hard way: you have to own the “masters” of your work. It’s your legacy. No matter how big a name you are, unless you’re Shakespeare, your legacy won’t last long once you stop production, unless you, and your family, own the rights.
I went into the Army during the Reagan era. I went into the Infantry, the “Queen of Battle.” Everything in the Infantry back then was built from top down. We operated as part of a “combined arms team” with artillery, armor, aviation, etc. We were a cog in a very large machine.
After my first tour in the First Cav Division, I put in my paperwork to go to the Q Course, to become Special Forces qualified. My battalion commander signed it, but told me my career as an officer was over. Special Forces was considered an additional assignment, not a career assignment. What that meant was after a tour in Special Forces, I would return to the Infantry but would then be one tour of duty behind my contemporaries. I wasn’t very concerned about that. I figured if I was going to be in the Army, I wanted to be in the best part of the Army, so off I want.
Then the Cold War ended, but the Army didn’t really change much to adapt. There were some minor adjustments, but nothing substantial. Special Forces became a separate branch in 1987 for officers, so I removed my crossed rifles of Infantry and pinned on the crossed arrows of Special Forces while I was at the Infantry Officer Advanced Course, which was not popular.
The First Gulf War was largely conventional and General Schwarzkopf was not fond of Special Operations (like most high ranking officers of the time), so they were under-utilized. Then 9-11 happened and the units best capable of dealing with this new type of warfare were Special Operations. Terrorism had always been around. But it took something so dramatic to cause change; and even then, the Army was slow to adapt. Any large organization takes time to change; it’s the nature of things.
In the modern world, the focus is on small, elite units, capable of a multitude of missions. Able to respond quickly.
Traditional publishing has been around a long time; with little change. Print book sales are still consignment. The publishing process from query to bookstore is still agonizingly long; I’m seeing deals being announced now on completed manuscripts with pub dates of 2017. Royalties are still paid as if computers were never invented and capable of real time reporting. It’s the nature of large organizations to keep doing things the same way until change is forced.
Amazon launched in 1994. Selling books via snail mail. The Kindle was launched on 19 November 2007. Less than ten years ago. The first one sold out in five and a half hours, retailing at $399 (and Jen purchased her first Kindle in that five hour window). Publishing took little interest. I remember a panel of agents and editors at a conference in 2010 laughing about eBooks, saying why should we be concerned with something that has been less than 3% of the market? That is large organization mindset where the past dictates the future.
Then eBook sales exploded.
Publishers made some adjustments; the Agency Pricing war was fought. Publishers ‘won’. But now the party line is that this eBook thing has crested and print is coming back. Because people always want things to be as they were, what they were comfortable with.
But things have changed and will continue to evolve. I’m hearing a lot of grumbling from authors who are still working in an archaic business model where the focus is on the publisher, not the author or reader. Contracts contain pretty much the same boilerplate, with the addition of restrictions such as non-compete clauses. Publishers made record profits, mostly because of digital sales, where their overhead is low, along with low royalties paid to authors on those sales. In essence, publishers are still mainly geared to fight a conventional war in a digital age. There are certainly innovations happening and change is occurring, but for many to believe that things are static is irrational. To believe that things won’t continue to change at an ever-increasing pace is also irrational. But it’s the party line.
Not at this party. I was part of the evolvement of Special Forces from the red-headed bastard of the Army into the tip of the spear. Helped developed the Special Forces Selection & Assessment and the new Qualification Course. I went from being one of the last First Lieutenant A-Team executive officers to being among the first officers to put on the crossed arrows.
In 2010, I traded in my conventional publishing mantle for that of an indie author. I did so because I’d already been through a slow change in a large organization. I didn’t want to be part of another one, because often those who don’t adapt quickly get caught in the gears of change and crushed. I saw an opportunity to change quickly. I met Jen at a conference in 2009 and after a lengthy discussion about traditional publishing and digital publishing (something that Jen had already been involved in for five years) we formed Cool Gus. It was a steep learning curve to inculcate all aspects of being our own publisher in a different type of model from what I’d experienced in 20 years of traditional publishing. But in the back of my mind, the key was the future, not the present and certainly not the past. As the Internet drew authors ever closer to readers, we foresaw a day when more and more authors would want the ability to be in charge of their own creativity and career. To become a form of Special Forces.
At the core of Special Forces is the A-Team. 12 soldiers. Unlike the conventional Army, A-Teams most often conduct operations on their own, not part of a larger maneuver element. They are fast, agile, able to conduct a wide array of missions. The individuals are among the most highly trained soldiers. I envisioned Cool Gus to become an A-Team in publishing, working with authors who not only could write great books, but were also business savvy. The biggest thing I foresaw was a need for an entity that would not only make the author the most important part of the process, but also give the author complete creative control, not just of content, but over all decisions. But also have a single point of contact that gave expert advice and took care of the heavy lifting of all aspects of publishing, so the author could focus on writing.
We’ve had several bestselling authors go hybrid with us; one of our guiding principles is that the author’s overall career goes first, not just their career with us. What’s good for the author overall is good everyone, thus we wholly support their traditional career and adjust to adapt to it.
Jen and I sat down for a week not long ago, hammering out a revised business plan (we’re always revisiting things as the situation changes, much like Special Forces and since we’re small, we can change fast). And we pondered terms, because labels are important. We never really considered Cool Gus a publisher. But we needed something to call it that fit our vision. So we came up with Author-Centric-Team, not quite A-Team, but close: A.C.T..
We believe 2016 will be the year more bestselling traditionally published authors become hybrid. We’re going to blog more about this, because it’s a complicated issue in many ways. As always, something I preach in Who Dares Wins, also drawn from my SF background, fear has a large role to play. We are afraid of different, especially when the familiar seems to be working okay. For a traditionally published author to explore something outside their safe cocoon of agent/publisher and try something different is daunting.
We are evolving into the age of the author, not the publisher, and the need for an Author-Centric-Team is going to grow larger. We look forward to sharing this concept with you and also in getting feedback.