Escaping Stockholm

the essential kit

By reader request, I’m posting Judith’s entire Escaping Stockholm essay as one post, too, for ease of linking and perhaps ease of discussion. I shall, however, put it all behind a cut tag straight off, in order to not re-flood the friends’ list. :)

If you wish to break it out and read each section individually, here you go:

Part One | Part Two | Part Three

Otherwise, onward!

Escape from Stockholm: An Epic Publishing Saga
Find Judith Tarr on LiveJournal | on Twitter | & at Book View Cafe

So Catie and I have been having this conversation. It started with her post on money, and I finally snapped, after years of keeping politely quiet. I said, “I am horrified at what I see writers of your particular generation having to do in order to pay your bills/satisfy your publishers/keep your careers alive.”

I’m not really as old as God, but I came in at a younger age than many of my publishing peers, so I’ve been around a while. I made my first sale in 1983, having had an agent for a couple of years. So I’m having an anniversary this year, come to think of it.

My first agent was young and fierce and determined to conquer the world. She started as assistant to Virginia Kidd—whose clients included Ursula K. Le Guin and Anne McCaffrey. Le Guin was a great name even at the time, but Annie while beloved within the genre had yet to become a monster bestseller. She was still a midlister, though a very popular one.

So I came in, all fresh and dewy, and I got the Talk. The one that lays out the agent’s hopes for the new author’s career, cools the author’s jets when she tries to go roaring off in every direction, and sets her up to establish a nice professional profile right from the get-go.

Two things she told me that I want to go into here, because they’re relevant to Catie’s interests.

1. Don’t be too eager, too fast, too prolific. Don’t inundate publishers with ideas, or swamp them with proposals. It’s not just that you’ll saturate the market, it’s that they’ll start to think you’re buyable by the gross. You want to keep them a little bit hungry. Make them want you. Get them bidding on you and fighting over you, because you’re not giving away all your ideas at once or for cheap.

The same applies once you’ve sold. Don’t let them find out how fast you really can write that book, do those copyedits, read those proofs—or they’ll start pushing you harder and making you work faster and demanding more and more and more until you can’t work at all. Take the full time, and insist that it be enough time. Not 24-hour turnarounds. Get ten days or two weeks in those contracts and make them stick to it. Publishers are inherently inclined to slop all over the place—and the author, at the end of the line, ends up paying for everyone else’s missed deadline. Don’t let them get away with it.

2. What I see for you is a long career, well grounded, with sales sufficient to bring in around $40K in royalties a year, and advances around the $50K mark. Solid high midlist. A book a year, consistently. No more than a book every nine months; see above re. market saturation, but also, author burnout. Many authors can do a book every other year and still maintain profitable careers, but if you can do one a year, that’s better. We’ll hope for a bestseller, but realistically, what you’ll do is build a career that keeps you going for decades.

Right. The tissues are over there. If you’re done weeping, with grief or laughter or both, I’ll go on.

That was what a good midlist writer could expect in 1983. Even in 1993, midlisters could make a decent living, though there were signs of tightening up. More authors were getting cut after two or three books. Willingness to wait on an author the house had confidence in was pretty seriously eroding. Building careers wasn’t happening so much any more. The first sidesteppers had begun—authors whose original books hadn’t done so well, but by changing their bylines, they found new life and stronger sales.

Still, a decent but not wonderful midlist advance was $25-30K, and two books a year were looked at somewhat askance; if one was a little too prolific, one looked a little desperate, you know? Mass market was still strong; top sellers sold in six figures (that’s units sold, not money earned), and a title that sold around 20,000 hardcovers was nice but not exceptional. Debut authors might be paid peanuts ($5000 or less), but they could hope that if they caught on, they could head to that $25K level and beyond, to $50K and higher.

At the lower end, the book would usually be a paperback original. Hardcover was where the money was: higher cover price, bigger royalties. Hardcover, and mass market a year or so later, regular as clockwork. Hardcover got money and reviews. Mass market brought in the tens of thousands of readers that made a lasting career. Paperback writers dreamed of breaking through to hardcover, and quite a few did.

Payment was still, for the most part, half on signing and half on delivery of the completed ms. Gradually as the decade went on and publishers started being gobbled up by huge conglomerates, payments became smaller, more frequent, but also wider spaced. A third on signing, a third on delivery, a third on publication, was not uncommon. If one’s agent was tough enough, the publication payment might be turned into a time-limited deal (signing/delivery/6 months post-delivery), but it got harder and harder to move that mountain. The days of one’s editor running over to accounting to physically chase down a lost or delayed check were fading fast; accounting might not in be in the same building, or the same city, or the same continent.

Those were the days. Authors could make an actual living writing midlist books at $25-30K a pop. My best year, when I signed the six-figure contract, was $80K. My average was $50-60K. Advances ranged from $25K to just shy of $50K.

And that was US and Canada English. World English didn’t come along until later, and agents were not happy with it and got it cut back to North America if they could. World rights? God, no.

Option clauses? As restricted as possible. “Next book-length work in this exact subgenre or specific series.” Non-compete clauses? Bitch, please. Basket agreements and joint accounting? Not if you could possibly avoid them. Rights granted? First North American English serial. Nothing else. Ebook, audio, video/film, all that? Not in the deal. Life of copyright? No effing way.

That all came crashing down at the start of the new millennium. For me personally, two things happened: computer sales figures available to anyone who looked, so that publishers really knew what authors were selling for, and I was always a critical success but the readers never shared the enthusiasm; and the general implosion of the industry, which hit everyone hard, even the big bestsellers. When Publisherdammerung hit in 2008, along with the general crash of the economy, I was able to scrape out a contract or two more, but the world just wasn’t the same.

I stepped out and over and found another way to survive. So much so that after the first couple of years, I stopped even trying to come up with proposals that my agent believed he could sell. I’d changed worlds, not at all voluntarily at first, but as the industry continued to evolve, it became a conscious choice.

So what does all that ancient history have to do with Catie and her peers?

Well, for one thing, it’s why I’m so horrified by the sheer, massive number of words they are all expected to produce every month, every year, to keep their bills paid and their publishers satisfied. A book a year? Dream on. Three, four, five, more—they are grinding out multiple thousands of words per day, day after day, and being paid well below $25K per book. They’re being worked to death.

Some successful midlist writers have shared their numbers. $30K a year is considered a good living these days. $17K a book? Edging toward the high end. $10-15K is good money. That $30K represents multiple works, short and long, rather than one work, let alone royalties.

Oh, sure, there are a few millionaires, and some bestsellers who have to be making six figures a year. (Maybe. That’s an illusion, too, I’ve been told here and there. Bestseller numbers ain’t what they used to be, by a long shot.) But mostly? It’s a sweatshop.

In Stockholm.

Today’s writers in midcareer, say ten years along, grew up as writers during the heyday of the Nineties and the turn of the Millennium. That was when the hardcover/trade paper/mass market model ruled. You got an agent who took care of you and helped you come up with book projects and presented them to editors, who bought them and shepherded them through production. You ended up with a book to hold in your hands, and mostly it was done for you, though you might do a book tour or attend some conventions to help the book sell. Your job was to keep writing new books and selling them on proposal (if you were established enough), so that agent and publisher could do their thing.

And that, if you wanted to make real money and be respected for it, was really the only game in town. Self-publishing was vanity press, ick. Small presses that paid no or minimal advances weren’t much better, unless you were literary or an academic. Ebooks hadn’t happened yet. Backlist, past the first year or two, was dead unless you hit it big, and then your publisher might bring out a boxed set or an omnibus. But mostly it bloomed and died—which was a real problem if your trilogy or series took too long to come out or ran into trouble with distribution or sales, so that the early volumes were gone by the time the last one was available.

In one way it was lovely. Agent worried about money. Publisher worried about production and promo and distribution. Author worried about getting the next book written.

In another way, as the economy tanked and distributors and bookstores collapsed, it created a serious problem, because authors raised under that system, or raised to think they would be pursuing their careers under it, were horribly unprepared for what the publishing world had turned into. They were raised in a kind of learned helplessness—with Mommy or Daddy Agent worrying about the business end, and King Publisher handling everything once the book left the author’s desk. Many authors were the literary equivalent of the prince who can’t put on his own shoes.

It created a crippling dependence. Agents would tell authors what to write, how to write it, and when—“because that’s what I can sell.” And authors would be afraid to argue because they needed an agent to get their books onto editors’ desks (publishers having shifted the job of slush reader into the agents), and agents were inundated with submissions, and what if Agent doesn’t like me or fires me? What if I can’t get another agent? How will I ever sell again?

And meanwhile publishers were doing all the production, the packaging, the distribution—but not the promo. Gradually, they had shifted that onto the authors. Authors were feverishly printing bookmarks, holding contests, even hiring publicists at more than the amount of their advances, to promote their books. And oh, the anguish if a publication date was moved or a book was (or still is) seen on a bookshelf before that date. Total, total freakout on publication day. What if it doesn’t sell? What if it misses the golden sale period by a day? What if the other books in the series aren’t out at the same time? What do I do? What can I do? What if it fails? How will I ever sell a book again?

In 1983, a publication date was just a guideline. We might have a party, because, hey, book is out. But we didn’t freak out over it. Trade books, as opposed to category romances which were time-critical (as they were effectively periodicals), had weeks and months to prove themselves. It was a great shock when in the Nineties paperbacks started having a shelf life of a few weeks, then a month, then a few days. That had not been the way it was at all.

It changed things for authors in dangerous and pernicious ways, and not just because their books suddenly had to hit it big immediately instead of being given time to find their audience. It changed the way authors related to their publishers. It robbed them of any real time, or power, to get their books out there and under readers’ noses. It also placed many of them in the position of feeling as if the agent were their boss instead of their employee, and turned that whole relationship on its head.

And it was, still, the only game in town. There wasn’t much choice if an author wanted to keep her books and her career alive. She had to do what she had to do, and that was write more and more and more for less and less and less, and spend more and more and more time promoting and pushing and praying. It was a classic abusive relationship, workplace edition.

But while this was going down, and authors and imprints were going down with it, something else was happening. The world was changing. Ebooks started happening. And their share of the market kept growing. And growing.

Before anyone says, “Oh, but that’s slowing down, or it’s tiny in proportion to overall sales, or or or,” let me state categorically that publishing is not dead, it’s not dying, and books (in whatever form) are not going away. Ebooks are a symptom, not a cause, and they’re only one of many reasons why things have changed so much in the business. What is dead is the publishing world that I grew up in. The one I described above. That one.

And that’s the world all too many working authors are still living in. Or trying to.

Agents and publishers have a vested interest in keeping them that way. Agents because their main source of income comes from publishers, and publishers because they need authors in order to have books to publish. Obedient authors. Compliant authors. Authors who maximize profits while minimizing expense. They really would prefer that those authors be instant bestsellers. No slow starters, please, or books that need time to find their niche.

A few agents have tried to ride the ebook wave by offering backlist publishing services—setting up clients’ backlist for sale in digital form. A few publishers have done the same, and a smaller subset of those have experimented with digital imprints. They’re doing something about that particular change in the world, though with varying degrees of success, either ethical or financial. What none of them has done so far is really succeed at it, or even show much understanding of it.

Now here’s the thing. I’m not talking about new authors here. They represent a different set of issues, and they get massive amounts of bandwidth everywhere else. I’m talking about (and to) established authors with a backlist and a readership that will come back for more. Some of these authors have been let go already due to lack of sales, or have had to sidestep or take cuts in advances to keep going. Some have soared to bestsellerdom (a much shorter flight than it used to be, but it’s still notable). Many have reached or are reaching a crossroads. A tipping point.

And they don’t know it. Or if they know it, they’re in some form of denial.

“I signed all my backlist over to my agent to make into ebooks. I know it’s a probable conflict of interest for the agency, and the terms are pretty crappy, but I just don’t have time to do all that and I don’t know how and I just want to write the six books I have on deadline in the next three weeks and and and.”

“There’s this ms. I submitted five years ago and the editor never got back to me on it, and every time I ask her she says she’ll get back to me tomorrow/next week/next month/the tenth of never, and I don’t know, should I tell her she can’t have the exclusive on it any more or or or?”

“My agent hasn’t sold a book for me in ages. I’ve sold a few at conventions and in conversations with editors, and she’s handled the contracts, but is she really doing her job? I need her, I really really need her, you have to have an agent, but but but.”

“I want to write this totally different book from anything I’ve done before, and I think it could really put me on the map, but my agent/my editor/my publisher says no, I have to write another one exactly like the one I did before. They really know the market and they know what will sell, right? I guess I’ll just forget about the idea and write Endless Annal of Quest Chronicles Volume LXVII, even though sales have dropped and the advance is half what I got for the first one and it’s been falling like that years now. Because if Different Book tanks, that goes in the computers and will kill the sales of my next book and I can’t afford that and and.”

“I have to have a contract. I can’t go on my own. I don’t have time/energy/expertise/skills/distribution/promo reach. I need an agent. I have to have a publisher. There is no other way.”

“I have to write six books this year. And revise eight more. And write fifteen short works. And freelance. Because I can’t afford the bills otherwise. Nobody can afford to pay me more because advances are falling across the board because bookstores are closing and distributors are imploding and sales are dropping and and and.”

There is a grain of truth in much of that. The problem is that in every statement, the author is missing a key point.

This is no longer the only game in town.

Oh, she’s acknowledging it when she says she can’t deal with it, but she’s not thinking about what it really means. Or how she can make it work for her. She’s living in Stockholm, where Daddy Agent and King Publisher have her convinced she’s this helpless, delicate little creative type who can’t possibly take her career into her own hands and succeed.

We had that in 1983, too. Bad agents, bad deals, publishers’ decisions that killed books and careers. The difference then was that authors couldn’t go much of anywhere else if they wanted to get those books to stores and reviewers and readers.

Now they can.

“But the work! The skills! The crowds!”

True. It’s work and it needs skills. And there’s an awful lot of what used to be the slushpile clogging the system, only now it’s the Kindle free-and-cheap collection.

But you aren’t a newcomer. You have a backlist. A readership. A platform as they say in the PR business. If you can use it to get higher advances, good. You should. We used to push, back in 1983 and 1993. Pushing doesn’t seem to happen as much or as strongly now. The options have shrunk. Terms have become worse and worse, along with the dwindling advances. The walls have closed in. There’s just not the same amount of negotiating room as there used to be. Authors to have to take it or leave it, more and more.

Or do they?

The tipping point is here. The point at which you realize you can make more money self-publishing or crowdfunding than you can get as an advance from a publisher.

So the question is, What can a publisher do for you that you can’t do for yourself?

Pay you an advance on your book’s projected earnings. Edit, package, and distribute your book. Get you into review markets. Get you the numbers, as a matter of course, that smaller presses or individuals can’t get. A major publisher can do all that.

Or can it? And if it can, what terms will it set on those services? How much advance? What percentage of royalties? Paid how often and after how long? Will the book be edited with care and professional skill? Will the packaging be superior to what you can do yourself with a stock-image account and a cover designer? And even distribution—can or will the publisher get the book out in sufficient numbers and in enough markets to make it worth their while to publish your next book?

I can’t answer those questions for you. If the answers are that a publisher’s efforts can exceed whatever you can do on your own, then the answer is, “Yes, I need a publisher.”

But will you in a year or two or three, when at the speed of geological time, your book sees print? Will you gamble that the pace of change will slow or shift, and tie up your book for years, with low royalty percentages and, increasingly these days, awful option and reversion clauses, because, right now, you can’t see any other viable option?

You are most likely going to have to do your own promo no matter what. You may, as I see with increasing frequency, be encouraged to pay an editor to help you polish your ms. before you submit. You’ll still get a cover done in-house—I haven’t heard that that’s changed (yet)—and your publisher can afford to print and warehouse large numbers of copies, but how long will that last? It’s going to start making more sense to print copies on demand, with bookstore shelf space shrinking by the day. And now that space is going to have to compete with self-published works, because this has happened:

Go read it. It’s long and the beginning rambles and there are ramifications the author isn’t seeing, but what it means for you is that, suddenly, that big barrier to getting your book into stores? It’s gone. Oh, there’s still the bottleneck issue and the problem of getting stores to notice you and stock your book, but is that really any different from the situation you’re in now?

The sands, as the article says, are shifting. They always have been, but it’s getting faster. So fast that advice we gave or took six months ago is already outdated, and last year’s Must Do is this year’s Oh God Don’t.

Maybe you’re secure in the arms of your agent and your publisher. Your sales are golden, your editor loves your proposals, you’re hitting lists and winning awards. That’s wonderful. But even Stephenie Meyer says, “I’m only as good as my next book.” If that next book slips, or the sands shift again—what happens then?

In 1983, the answer was usually, “You drop from sight, never to be heard from again.”

But this is 2013. You have power I never dreamed of when I sat wide-eyed at First Agent’s feet, out by the mighty Delaware. You are not locked into a single way of doing things, or a single course for your career.

You have choices. Real ones, above and beyond, “Give in, give up, or say goodbye to your career.”

You do not have to take crap advances if your sales, on your royalty statements, say you can make more within a couple of periods, say 18 months from publication. And especially if you have demonstrated, through crowdfunding or through self-publishing backlist, that you can earn as much or more in less time. That’s the time to ask, “Is it worth it for me to write six million words this year for a fraction of a cent per word, when I can write a mere million and get paid more per word, and get paid several years sooner? And then do it all over next year and get paid again?”

You do not have to keep writing what your agent or editor says you have to write, unless you really are happy to write it. If you have something different or off your beaten track that’s begging to be written, you can self-publish it. Crowdfund it to get the packaging and editing you need. Or get together with like-minded authors—share skills and edits and production processes. You don’t have to spend five years building the group into a full-on Incorporated a la Book View Café, but you can find ways to get the collective works out and promoted if you really have to.

You have power.

You are not helpless. You are not captive. You can choose the publisher route if it works for you, and if the pros outweigh the cons. What you do not have to do is take lousy terms and lousier treatment because there is no other way to get your books into your readers’ hands.

And for the love of the Muse, think about the workload those publishers are dumping on you—or that you’re dumping on yourself because you can’t keep the roof over your head otherwise. It’s tough enough to get that many words out now. What about next year? Two years? Five? What happens if you start to burn out and the advances keep dropping and the bills keep coming and you still can’t see any other way but the sweatshop way?

It’s not just Omelas that people walk away from. Stockholm has a gate in the wall, too, and a road that’s much wider and leads to many more places than you might think, while you’re living inside and listening to Daddy and Mommy and the King.

–Judith Tarr
© 2013


  1. This is awesome. It is not directly speaking to self-publishers (e.g., me), but for those of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s… It really illuminates the changes, the challenges… And, yes, the potential benefits for y’all who’ve already got at least a small fan-base. I was delighted to find an old book self-published on Amazon, and hold some small hope that there may one-day be a sequel to it. (Your backlist is golden, people, golden. I say this as a reader.)

  2. AS a fan, may I say that I care not any more how my favourite authors publish? I buy ebooks. I’ll buy them from anybody. I buy the occasional hardcover just to keep Bakka-Phoenix here in Toronto up and running, because I like the people who run the place.

  3. Pure awesomeness.

    I sold my first in ’93 and was in that front edge of authors who saw the changing of the game. Never made it beyond the basic advance, and was scrambling to get out four books a year by the early aughts. These days I straddle both worlds–indie & publisher–and write to contracts that might as well be WFH as far as ever seeing my books revert is concerned. But even at this point, the indie work–and the prospect of more–has lit a joyful fire in my muse, and I look forward to shifting the balance of the work even more as time goes on.

    The thing that’s been missing all this time is choice–but now–with a backlist and a track record and with publishers forgetting that we have value–that’s changed. Not only choice, but options. Here, here!

  4. This is a fantastic, frightening, and eye opening article. I’m at that stage in my writing career where I need to change my business plan, and this gave me a lot to think about.

  5. Well done. Over the last three years I have been very ill and almost died. If I depended on traditional publishing I’d never be published. Now I am slowly gaining my voice again as my health improves. I have two e-books but many more stories I hope to produce. The greatest problem to self publishing if you’ve never had a publisher is finding readers.

  6. Thanks for a great thought proving article Judith. Lots to think about in here and the shifting dynamics of the industry are definitely something to be considered so an author can use it to their best advantage.

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