Escaping Stockholm: Part 3

the essential kit

Introducing the third and final part of author Judith Tarr’s inspired rant on the changes in the publishing industry, and the expectations we writers have come to live with and accept.

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

Part One | Part Two

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.

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14 thoughts on “Escaping Stockholm: Part 3

  1. Bravo! Bravo, a thousand times. You’ve said, far more eruditely than I ever could, what I’ve been banging on about for, oh five years now. What a wonderful summation. Authors need to be able to earn a reasonable living. If that means some middlemen need to offer far better value, or go, I think I know what readers would vote for.

    1. Ah, Dave, I’m delighted to hear you weigh in on Judy’s thoughts, since it seems to me you’ve been banging on about this sommat too. :) I was genuinely thrilled with the email conversation Judy and I were having, and about her commentary about the industry changes, and it’s so cool to be able to try and get this out there for more discussion and understanding!

  2. Fascinating stuff. And don’t forget that there are loads of freelance illustrators and graphic design companies, particularly ones just starting out, that would love the chance to do your book cover (and for less than you might expect).

  3. I’ve never seen this expressed so clearly and brutally. It connects the dots that I missed when I stepped away from publishing and into screenwriting.

    There is one more thing a publisher can do right now that can’t be done without–credibility.

    The credibility to be recognized by SFWA and eligibility for various awards. Not sure how that can change.

    1. I think we’re at a stage right now where a little brutality is a good thing. Ripping the bandages off, you know?

      And oh yes, the credibility is an *excellent* point. An excellent one indeed.

  4. Re: credibility. Credible to whom? This question ties into “What can a publisher do for you that you can’t do for yourself? …Get you into review markets[?]”

    That is old-think, IMO. You want to get into review markets and receive awards as a selling point for the publisher to make your case to large box booksellers. These awards and review markets are irrelevant to a large portion of book buyers — those who buy books (print or electronic) online. Barnes & Noble stores (not their online arm), Walmart & Target don’t want to pick you up? So what. Big deal. Chances Walmart & Target would are low anyway for the vast majority of traditionally published writers.

    “But how will I make money?”

    Same way I do with no awards, no genre organization sanction, no presence in review markets. And I am by no means an outlier — at least not in my genre. I just scraped past the six figure mark in royalties earned for 2012 (even after subtracting expenses to take my work to market) and am on track to double in 2013. And, truth be told, I’m not working very many hours per week. Nor have I leveraged all my property as well as I should have by now (print, audio, translations, etc.).

    Also, since I’m not potentially under the umbrella of the SFWA or HWA, I would like to note that RWA has decided to join this decade. Self-published writers, with proof of income, are eligible for full membership (PAN) if a novella length work or longer has earned $5000 in royalties ( While this is a higher hurdle than traditionally published romance authors must jump, it is relatively insignificant. (I am not, however, familiar with RITA award and similar rules as they do not interest me.) SFWA and HWA writers need to get evangelical for equal treatment by their organizations. NINC also accepts as full members self-published with a 12-month 5k royalty history on self-published novels.

    Anyway – maybe didn’t sound like it, but I just wanted to let ya’ll know the water is the perfect temp, we have lots of cabana boys and girls, drinks of every color, plus towels and plenty of sunscreen and tanning oil per your preference. Oh…and pool noodles or whatever those things are called. So come join us with a title or two. You’ll be pleasantly surprised!

  5. It’s a common misconception that the rules for Nebula Award eligibility are the same as the rules for SFWA membership. But they aren’t.

    Original SF/F published in English during the calendar year is eligible for the Nebula.

    People who should know better have said that you have to be an SFWA member to win the award, but that isn’t true either. Many non-SFWAns have won. Titles from the big 5/6 publishers are eligible. Titles from the big 3 magazines are eligible. Titles from online sites and independents are eligible. Fiction on your blog is eligible.

    Reallio trulio.


  6. Thank you for taking the time to spell out the history of the publishing landscape so succinctly! It’s fascinating to see how authordom slowly grew into a “this is the way we’ve always done it” culture. I loved the retrospective, and how you brought it home for the midlister/backlister.

    One thing, however, that I would point out is that it seems the author who can harness the new paradigm and also write fast, stands a better chance of establishing that “long tail” more quickly than his traditional publisher peers. Therefore, abandoning the produce model and its archaic out-of-print stupidity and embracing POD and epublishing could be quite the boom for the entrepreneurial author.

  7. ‘The credibility to be recognized by SFWA and eligibility for various awards. Not sure how that can change.’

    Does it matter? Awards don’t increase sales by much. Credibility might; but then self-publishers are earning credibility by having professional presentation; great covers and blurbs and a strong opening sample. It’s much less obvious who is indie and who is trad, on the e-sellers lists, than it was two years ago.

    Readers don’t care much about trad pub ‘credibility’. They care about *quality*. They don’t have the faintest clue who the publisher of their favorite author is, and they wouldn’t notice if it changed. They notice if they enjoyed the book or not.

    Only actual sales matter. Awards and reviews don’t pay your mortgage.

  8. Amazing! Just went to Rt where they trotted out beloved authors from when romance was just starting and guess how many of them couldn’t afford to be there? How many stories of sacrifices that were made so they could go. Too dang many. That’s how the industry treats their legends. They should be ashamed of themselves.

    And in terms of awards…did Stephanie Meyer win any? How about EL James or even JK Rowling? I might be wrong but I think people loved them and awards had nothing to do with it.

  9. “

    “Go read it. It’s long and the beginning rambles and there are ramifications the author isn’t seeing”

    I’m curious to know what Kris isn’t seeing.

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