Authors Can Be Stupid: I Just Want To Write

This post was written by Michael A. Stackpole. It originally appeared on his Stormwolf website on 2/6/10, is reprinted here in its entirety with his permission, and is the fourth installment in his series on common myths and distractions in authorship and publishing. The first installment is here, the second is here and the third is here.

One of the laments that is oft heard concerning the coming changes in the industry is this: “Look, I just want to write.” The whole idea is that the writer in question enjoys writing. All they want to do is just to turn out stories. They don’t want to have to learn HTML. They don’t want to have to learn how to put things in an online store. They don’t want to learn about different ebook formats, or set up accounts with online booksellers or find an artist to create graphics for their work.

I understand the sentiment.

And I understand it’s unrealistic.

Imagine, if you will, a really good cook who decides to open a restaurant because, “All I want to do is cook.” If all you want to do is cook (or write) you don’t open a business. You get a job. There is a significant difference between the two. In a job you have no control over your circumstances, you have bosses telling you what to do and to do it over again, your choice of assignments is not yours and, in short, you have very limited control over your work environment and situation. You are at the whim of others.

When you open a business—and this is what every writer is doing—you have to pay attention to the bottom line. The idea is to be profitable. If you cannot find an advantage in doing things, don’t do them.

Every single day I have to make decisions about what is going to be the best way for me to occupy my time. Sometimes, as when I have an assignment, writing a story that will pay me in a couple of months is a good idea. It may not pay me much, but there is usually another angle that I want to work. Perhaps I’m working with friends. Perhaps the subject is one that I enjoy. Perhaps the story goes into an anthology with a hot theme. I constantly have to measure the angles so that when the work is done, I am getting ahead. I am expanding my audience. I’m providing an entertaining read that will draw more folks to my work. I’m adding another story to a world of mine, which feeds my current audience and encourages new folks to buy the older work.

Sometimes there is zero monetary profit in a project. A number of years ago I was asked to contribute a story to a charity anthology. I immediately agreed. I like the cause. Lots of other, high profile authors were going to be in the book, too. The organizers wanted to try peer-editing, which was a cool concept. The good will and publicity certainly would be a plus.

That could all make me sound like a cold and calculating bastard. Fair enough. But cold and calculating is what has allowed me, since 1987, to be my own boss. As I noted in a previous post, three years ago Bantam dropped me as an author. I spent the next two years without a contract. And yet, in both of those years, my business as a writer showed a profit. How? By finding writing jobs. By finding other ways to make money using my skills. Via digital sales, via teaching classes, via industrial, not-for-external publication jobs. My market had collapsed, and yet I found a way to make my writing pay.

If you have the attitude that you “just want to write,” then just write. But don’t lament the fact that you’re not making any money. That’s like saying you’re hungry, but you don’t want to get up and make yourself a sandwich. It’s playing the victim. Playing the victim won’t get you anywhere.

A number of folks have pointed out the 80/20 rule of business. Eighty percent of your profit comes from twenty percent of your product line. In publishing it’s much worse than that: ninety-five percent of the profit comes from five percent of the line. Two key points here: First, you want the entire line to be making profit. You know a minority of it will make most of the profit, but you have to do the things to see to it that the rest of the line at least breaks even, like advertising and sales support. Publishers don’t do this. They only do sales support and effective advertising for that 5% of the line. It is a model that bets on the “sure thing,” ignoring the fact that there are no “sure things.”

Second, you have to expand the line and change the mix. If you have items that are not profitable, you cut them. And then you open up other markets. You explore new opportunities. You find new ways of having income flow in your direction. You still work from your core strength, but you find new ways to profit from it. In this way the contribution of the 80% of your line is still in the black.

Many authors are resisting or denigrating the idea of digital self-publishing. This is like a farmer saying that the produce sold from his roadside stand just isn’t as good as the stuff you buy in the grocery store. It’s nonsense. If a writer provides samples (free, or low-cost stories), readers will have the means to make informed decisions about where they want to spend their entertainment dollars. Sure, will digital publishing mean that anyone whose ever wanted to write can have a storefront? Absolutely, but if consumers demand samples before they buy, the good writing will be weeded out from the bad very quickly.

And there are other ways to have stories rise to the top. Watch this space for some project announcements very soon.

Here’s the true tragedy of authors who don’t want to attend to the business side: every single one of us has inventory that isn’t doing anything right now. Could be a novel that never sold. Could be a handful of short stories that sold years ago and haven’t been seen since the anthology or magazine went out of print. Could be we get an idea for a story tied to current events, or we want to do a story that we can sell and donate the money to Haiti relief. The current publishing model doesn’t support such things, but digital can and will.

Let me give you two examples of ways that digital publishing works for both the authors and readers by circumventing economic necessities that encumber the current business model.

1) I’m not alone in having one or more novels which are of professional quality, which the large publishers rejected because, in their opinions, the books would not sell enough copies for them to bother with. Setting aside the issue of publishers’ lack of demographic data on reader tastes, the idea is that since the book would not be a huge bestseller, in an editor’s opinion, it goes unbought.

So, I have this book. I will never recover the time I’ve invested in it. If I turn around and publish it in digital form for $5 and I sell three copies a month, the sales of that book alone will cover the cost of my website and more. The cover illustration will cost me $25 or so, maybe as much as $50; so the sales of the first fifteen will cover that cost. After just fifteen books, I’m profitable, and I’m making the money now, not having to wait for a publisher to get around to send me money in six to nine months after a copy is sold. If the current sales figures for digital sales just hold steady, without any push on my part, I can sell a dozen copies a month, putting $50 or more dollars in my pocket a month. May not sound like much, but it is $50 more than I have right now. In ten months, that’s an iPad.

2) Back in 1997 I had a novel come out titled Talion: Revenant. The book sold well over 50,000 copies here, and sold in Germany. I already have the start on a sequel: Talion: Nemesis. Since Bantam has rejected me, they don’t want the sequel. Because they hold the rights to the first book, no other publisher wants to pick up the sequel, despite the strong sales figures and the fact that this is the single most requested volume for a sequel that I’ve got. (And if you want to register your support of my doing the sequel, please feel free to do so in comments.) Why won’t anyone else pick it up? Because sales of the current book would drive sales of the previous one, allowing Bantam to profit off their efforts. Even using current (and crude) models for estimating sales of the next book in a series, Nemesis would be projected to sell a minimum of 30,000 copies, which is a ton in the current environment. And yet, this sort of thing is seldom done under the current model.

If I do it as a digital book, and tap into that 30,000 sales figure, I’d been looking at a gross amount of money running, conservatively, at $100,000 on a $5 digital book. Even if I sell only a fraction of those copies, even if I only sell 10,000, I’d make more than I’d be paid as an advance for the book in the traditional model. Regardless, every dollar that flowed in would be one more dollar than I had before. Low effort, low cost, high profit. Why wouldn’t I do it?

And why on earth would I listen to anyone who denigrates digital self-publishing? I’ll let you in on a big secret here: those same authors are reading these very blog posts, and are the first to pigeonhole me at conventions to learn how they can do what I’ve been doing. They’ll be doing all this very soon, claiming that it’s different for them because of [insert feeble rationalization here]. Smile and nod when you see them.

In either scenario, providing samples for free to entice folks to buy would be part of the package. So folks would not be buying a pig-in-a-poke even if they had no idea who I was or what I’d done.

The simple facts boil down to these:

1) The old system has never treated writers well. Publishers have continued to cut back on services that build author careers, now expecting us to do that for them. This is not to suggest that publishers do not provide services that benefit writers. They do. But they have shifted things that they used to do onto the backs of writers, and they have not increased our cut of the take to compensate us for doing that new work. And if we refrain from doing that work—or even if we do it, but not well enough—it becomes grounds for severing their relationship with us. In essence, they throw a hundred infants into the ocean, and then rescue the five that bob to the top—who then go into the next load of a hundred and go right back into that cold, cruel sea. Lather, rinse, repeat—how long can you tread water?

2) Authors already have work product to which they own the digital rights, which they are not making available. This is akin to a farmer having produce the distributor doesn’t want and his failing to erect a roadside stand to sell it. The effort to get that material out there is minimal, and the reward is immediate.

3) The dark side of the digital world is this: you can never audit a digital royalty statement. There is no way to tell how much end-product has been delivered. A one meg file to which a gig of bandwidth has been devoted does not mean 1,000 sales. It could be one guy has failed to download that file on all but his 2,000th attempt. If an author does not sell his own work, he has no baseline against which to judge the sales statements coming in from others. (Based on my experience, transfer failures affect less than 2% of transactions.) Since publishers will be paying us substantially more for digital copies of our work than they do physical copies, and since the paper trail is a lot more difficult to break down, it behooves authors to be collecting data by which we can verify what’s going on.

4) Authors say they don’t want to learn graphics or HTML or anything else. Great. Have your spouse, child, grandchild, friend, assistant, unpaid intern or willing fan do it. It’s work that needs to be done. If a pipe breaks in your house, you don’t sit around in a flood lamenting the fact that you don’t want to learn how to be a plumber. You find someone who can fix things. HTML, Graphics and the rest are things others can fix. Incorporate them into your success.

All that said, there are still folks who will say, “I just want to write.”

Fine. Do that. Just don’t complain when the business isn’t going the way you want it to. Either you take control of your own destiny, act like an adult and make the business work; or your forfeit the right to wail and gnash your teeth about the vicissitudes of publishing.


©2010 Michael A. Stackpole

Michael A. Stackpole is a New York times Bestselling author with over forty novels published including I, Jedi and Rogue Squadron. He was the first author to have work available in Apple’s Appstore. He has lectured extensively on writing careers in the Post-paper Era and is working on strategies for authors to profit during the trying time of transition.