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Old 08-25-2012, 08:59 AM   #1
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The Business Rusch: The end of the unprofessional writer

Around here we hear a lot from publishing insiders and techies but not as much from the writers' side. Those tend to congregate in other places. I try to visit some of those just to get a more complete picture of what attitudes are like on that side from writers not named Morrison, Turow, or Grafton.
Especially on the business side.

So, from Kris Rusch's highly educational website:

With the understanding that a professional writer is one that *gets paid* for their work, we have an interesting look at how the *business* of writing is changing and leaving the old-guard of traditionally-published authors somewhat... exposed, shall we say?

A few quotes:
A decade or two down the road, the model that we once called “professional” for writers will disappear.

That model depended on writers writing on spec until they sell something. Those writers need a day job to support themselves. Those writers once they sell something then hire an employee with no legal training who negotiates their contract. Then that same employee, who usually has no literary training, vets all of the writer’s future works.

For this single sale, the writers will get an interest-free loan that they do not have to pay back if their book fails to sell well. If the book does sell well, then that interest-free loan will be paid off and the writer will receive a percentage of the book’s cover price (in theory) for each copy sold. Of course, cover price might be subject to discounting (at which case the percentage paid to the writer goes down) and the definition of sold might include free copies given away in hopes of goosing remaining sales, but hey, who is counting?

Wait. The answer to that is no one. Because accounting programs at most traditional publishers are so behind the times that they can’t handle e-book royalties in any sane way. In fact, an intellectual property attorney tells me that in a recent contract negotiation with a traditional publisher, the publisher’s attorney removed a phrase the lawyer added. That phrase? That the publishing house was to provide “true and accurate” royalty statements. “True and accurate” is a legal phrase generally put in other business contracts in which one party fills out an accounting for the other party. But traditional publishers…well, apparently, they don’t want to do what other businesses do.
Hmm, maybe there *is* a reason why all the BPH apologists keep saying antitrust shouldn't apply to publishing. Apparently accounting rules don't.

In my view, the digital revolution, with easy-to-market e-books and the rise of easy-to-distribute print-on-demand books (with little capital outlay), means the end of the un-professional writer.

Seriously, folks. How can a writer call himself a professional when he doesn’t do anything that another profession would call professional? He may have one or two skills—writing and/or storytelling—but he has no others. He might not be able to balance his checkbook. He certainly doesn’t ask for an accounting from his business partner, the publisher. In fact, he doesn’t even see his publisher as his business partner, but as someone who runs the company, someone for whom he is grateful, someone who runs a “vital institution” that has “supported” the highest achievements in culture in the past sixty years.

Imagine any other small businessman asking his business partner for a salary instead of part ownership for the same work. It’s ridiculous and shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what a writer does and how his business operates.
Professionalism has other definitions beyond being paid, of course.
One is upholding respect for their craft and profession:

A few weeks ago, I communicated with an old friend who told me she quit writing altogether. She complained about the lower advances, her inability to sell something she wanted to write, and the rudeness of editors who actually told her that she had lost her talent. (Bastards.)

At the same time, Ursula K. Le Guin, one of science fiction and fantasy’s most acclaimed authors, made this revelation to

Within the last few years only, on my three fantasy novels Gifts, Voices and Powers, I had [pressure from publishers to make my work more conventional]. I had, as always, good editors to work with at Harcourt, where they were published, but there was an increasing pressure to make them more like Harry Potter — there’s just no getting around it. And since I write a very, very different type of fantasy and different type of literature from the Harry Potter series, there was no way I could go along with that. I just had to resist it. But, you see, that’s very late, and it’s happened as publishing was beginning to lose its sense of direction and its purpose, and get very confused by corporate pressures on all sides.

I would argue, in this instance, that the traditional publishers and their minions were the ones acting unprofessionally. To ask one of the world’s literary treasures to write like someone else is unconscionable.

And it wasn’t isolated. It happened to my friend, to Ursula, to me, and to hundreds of other writers. Every day, I hear about yet another writer who gave up or quit or got a job in a different field because they could no longer sell books into traditional publishing—not because their work had declined, but because traditional publishing had an increasingly narrow view of what “sold.”
Kate Wilhelm, after more than fifty years in traditional publishing, announced she was started her own publishing company this summer. Why? Because of the treatment she had received from her traditional publishers. Not just the editorial treatment (which is, frankly, appalling), but the contractual treatment as well. She wrote:

In the fall of 2011 I was offered a contract that was so egregious that the publishing house that sent it should have been ashamed, and if I had signed it I would have been shamed. I proposed additional changes to those my agent had already managed to have incorporated and each suggested change was refused. I rejected the contract and withdrew the novel.

That novel, Whisper Her Name, has just appeared from Kate’s own press. It is the first of many that will appear in upcoming years.

Yes, you read that right: Kate Wilhelm is now an indie writer.

As are many, many other writers, including Ursula K. Le Guin, who is a founding member of Bookview Café.
Writers are self-employed freelancers, not publisher employees. Not that you can tell from the way they're treated or (some of them) act...

Here’s the thing about Scott Turow. He never ever schlepped a manuscript around town. He sold his first book while still in law school through a friend on a pitch, and never ever ever wrote on spec.

Almost every other writer in the business, from J.K. Rowling to Stephen King, wrote their earliest novels for free, without getting paid for it. Then these writers tried to find a market.

That was how professional writers worked in the bad old days.

The only difference between then and now is this: Writers can publish their own works and get them to the readers. Sure, writers who don’t foot the bill for copy editing and a good cover probably won’t sell well. And writers who haven’t yet learned their craft won’t sell well either. But writers who have interesting stories to tell will find an audience—and in fact might find a larger audience than writers ever did in the past.

Does that make these new indie writers unprofessional? No. They’re actually doing what millions of other business owners do. They invest in themselves and their ideas, take those ideas as products to market, and do the best they can to make the products sell.

That makes the new breed of writer professional. They’re not waiting for an interest-free loan from a business partner that forces them to hire an employee before they earn a dime. They’re not trying to cram their artistic vision into a box in which it doesn’t fit. They’re actually learning how to be professionals in all aspects of their craft—from writing and storytelling to marketing and managing the accounts.

In the past, thousands of “professional” writers have been screwed by their agents and by their publishers. Lawsuits happened from class-action suits like the one against Harlequin at the moment to suits against embezzling agents. Many writers just turned the other cheek, found a different publisher, found a new agent, or quite publishing altogether.

Many had no idea they had been injured at all because they had no idea how business—real business—worked. Figure out how many copies their books sold? Their publisher will tell them. Figure out if they deserve money for those sales? Their agent will tell them. Figure out if the book actually arrived in the marketplace on the on-sale date? Their bookseller will tell them.

I don’t see in any way how any of that behavior is professional.
Traditional publishing has gotten worse in the past ten years, not better. Any time you doubt me, think of a business which tells writers with large fan bases like Kate Wilhelm and Ursula K. Le Guin to accept crap contracts and, oh yeah, stop writing your way and start writing like someone else. That’s not functional. That’s a business falling apart.
Well, at least an old-school business model falling apart.

The true professional writers will publish indie. You have to be professional to survive in a market that requires business savvy as well as creativity.

So mark my words: the era of the unprofessional writer is over. Let’s hear it for the professionals. The ones who will make a living writing books that they want to write, not books they’re told to write.
There is a lot more in the column and elsewhere on the website but the gist is that as publishing has changed over recent decades, the skill set needed to survive as a professional writer and make a living at it has changed. That writers have to be more business-like and wary of "standard" industry practices than before because trusting "the universe" to take care of them isn't going to get them very far in the new reality.

Many professions require you to stay current and aware of developments and changes so that you can continue to be valuable to your employer. Writing may not have been one in the past but it pretty clearly is becoming one now. And when the employer is yourself...
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