Monday, June 02, 2008

Risky Business

Let's talk about risk.

According to the dictionary, risk is the quantifiable likelihood of loss or less than expected returns.

Many activities have some sort of risk associated with them. Travel. Sex. Sports. Even eating, though the risk may be long-term.

If you look up stats on car accidents, or heart attacks, you might wonder why we still speed or eat french fries, because the risk is great.

The answer is that we weigh the benefits of these activities against the risk, and judge them worth doing anyway. So we dive 100mph while eating a gordito, because the odds are in our favor that we won't have a burnout and then v-fib.

Gambling may be the most calculated, and the most honest, risk we expose ourselves to. The rewards and risks, and the odds for both, are all laid out for us.

But our careers, on the other hand, are places where we tend to minimize risk as much as possible. We feel fortunate to be employed, and much of what we do is geared toward making sure we stay employed. Since our families are often tied in with our jobs, we can put up with a lot of crap at work in order to make sure the people we love have enough money, food, clothing, shelter, and XBOX 360 games in order to be happy.

When your job is one that involves a great deal of luck (you knew I'd get to publishing, right?) and you've worked very hard to be published, the last thing you want to do is rock the boat and lose your place in line.

Writers are conditioned to be grateful. We should be grateful---more people make their livings playing major league baseball than writing fiction. But that doesn't mean we should devalue ourselves.

I've always been about making money for my publisher. I feel a writing contract is a partnership, and if one partner is making money, so is the other.

But what if your partner isn't doing all they can, or should, be doing? You're doing your best. Writing good books. Promoting like crazy. Making money. But rather than try to grow, your partner is content with how things are. And your partner assumes that you're content as well, because you're damn lucky to be published in the first place.

I feel this situation is a problem. Perhaps not for all writers. Some may be happy with where they're at, and content to ride the status quo. Other writers, however, feel frustrated and trapped, because leaving their publisher and/or agent to try and go elsewhere involves a great deal of risk.

Is a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush if the bird is crapping all over your wrist?

One of my many core beliefs is that we should die regretting the things we haven't done, not the things we've done. Making a mistake is better than doing nothing at all.

Yes, walking away from an agent or publisher is hard. After all, they believed in you. Gave you a chance. Made you some money. You like them, and they like you. And if you leave them, you may wind up worse off.

But writing is a business, and the most successful business people take risks. That's just the way it goes. You have to be willing to lose big in order to win big.

How do you know it's time to part ways with your business partners? Here are a few signs.

You aren't getting feedback. If your agent/editor doesn't reply to your concerns in a timely, efficient manner, you aren't high on their priority list. Why should they be high on yours?

You're being handled. If you're treated like child, patronized, condescended to, then this isn't a good relationship. Ditto if you're shuffled off to underlings.

You have different plans for your future. This is a big one. If you want to go somewhere, and they want you to go somewhere else, how hard are they going to work to get you where you want to be? Even if you both want to get to the same place, do you agree on how to get there?

You aren't growing. Look inward. Are you doing all you can to grow? Are the people who are supposed to help you to grow actually helping you, or hindering you?

You want more money. Face it, we all want more money. But you can't ask for it politely. You have to demand it, and go elsewhere if you don't get it. But you will never win a negotiation if you aren't willing to walk away. Is your agent willing to play hardball, even if she loses? Is your publisher so committed to your success that they're willing to make a substantial investment in your future?

You aren't happy. This is ultimately the only thing that counts. Playing he said/she said doesn't do anyone any good. You need to take a close look at your professional relationships, weigh the good against the bad, and decide if you want to stick around.

But that's the thing. It's YOUR decision. It's YOUR career. Yes, other people are helping you make money, but you're helping them as well. Your books, both past and future, are a commodity.

Commodities are traded, bought, and sold, all the time. They change hands. Many hands.

Look closely at your career. Is it time for you to change hands too?


  1. Does this mean you're switching agents, JA?

    The more I see of the biz, the more I realize that the agent and publisher are not your friend, a person who operates from the position of the writer's best interest but from their own best interest - their own pocketbook.

    By encouraging writers - especially mystery writetrs to write series - they count on branding to sell books, and not any publicity they'd have to do. Publicity costs, and the publisher is all about profit margin. No publicity for you = more mone for them.

    They operate on the volume system and force writers to sign these multi-book, multi-year deals. That way they don't have to negotiate a contract for each individual book. Negotionations and the drawing up of contracts costs them money.

    IMO, writers need to think long and hard about making anything more than a one book deal. They need to realize that their agent is ultimately more loyal to the publisher than they are to them, and any advice they give to the writer is always from that POV of loyalty to the publisher.

    I see mid-list series fiction as ghetto most writers - especially mystery writers - get stuck in - once you're there - the biz is designed to keep you there. By keeping you at a low advance level you're forced to pay for your own publicity - a hole they've forced you to keep digging.

    So many of my writing friends have signed multi-book deals recently - and are quite happy. But my guess is, in a few years that happiness will be long forgotten, and replaced with bitterness and regret.

    I have a quote from Washington Irving posted in my blogroll that sums up the perfect attitude that every writer needs to adopt when dealing with this industry.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Anonymous11:03 AM

    Interesting post. Thinly veiled references to actual events?

    On another note, congratulations on your Barry nomination.

  4. JA, great post as always. Being an author is a business plain and simple. How many risks you are willing to take depends a lot on how strong a hand you hold.


    Multi-book deals are a two way street. If you really feel it is such a bad deal, why sign in the first place? On the other hand, knowing that the publisher is with you for more than one book allows you to focus more on writing and marketing and less on worrying about what comes down the road.

    I don't feel tied into something with a multi-book deal. I feel freed up.

  5. If you're writing a series, then a multibook deal seems like a good idea, to me.

    I don't think agents are anyone's friends-- they're business people. It's all about business.

    And that's how authors have to look at their relationship too-- even when it comes down to rocking the boat.

    I've heard that many small presses like former-mid-list authors. These midlisters are good for X number of sales, and that number is often what a small press looks to do anyway.

    Hopefully I can remember this when (if) I move from writing the novel to publishing the thing. =)

  6. Anonymous6:58 PM

    98% of what a publisher is supposed to do is take a MS and covert it to a book that actually appears in stores and in libraries. If the publisher is doing that, it's doing its job. How fast they answer phone calls, etc., is all periferal and doesn't mean very much.

    An author should ask one question: Is my book in stores and libraries? If the answer is "yes," the author should chill out and say, "thank you."

    Keep the big picture in mind.

  7. Great post, JA!

    I think a lot of authors forget that this is a business, and not personal. Things they wouldn't stand for in any other profession, they put up with as an author because they are grateful to be published.

    And they don't pay attention to risk analysis and risk mitigation like they would in any other business.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful to be published, and grateful I keep selling. But I also do my due diligence, know what's going on in the market and approach everything I do as a writer (except my actual manuscript writing - the creative part) as a business decision.

  8. 98% of what a publisher is supposed to do is take a MS and covert it to a book that actually appears in stores and in libraries. If the publisher is doing that, it's doing its job. How fast they answer phone calls, etc., is all periferal and doesn't mean very much.

    An author should ask one question: Is my book in stores and libraries? If the answer is "yes," the author should chill out and say, "thank you."

    Keep the big picture in mind.

    So we should be grateful the book is in stores? How many stores?

    Is ten stores too few? A hundred stores?

    How about if there's a copy in every single bookstore? Is that the publisher doing it's job? Should we be grateful for that?

    Then what of the writers who have ten copies of their book in every bookstore? What about the writers who have their books in non-bookstore outlets, like Wal-Mart, Walgreens, Costco?

    What about the writers who are in the bookstores on the new release table, face-out, at 20% off? Do those books sell in greater numbers than that single copy spine-out in section?

    I agree that writers should thank publishers.

    But when should publishers thank writers? When they've earned out their advance? When they spent a lot of time and money promoting their books? When they've gotten good reviews, and been nominated for awards?

    The publisher's job is not just to make the books available. If it was, publishers wouldn't need sales departments, or marketing departments, or advertising departments. Yet the publishers have these departments, so it makes sense that they should SELL, MARKET, and ADVERTISE.

    The "big picture" isn't about being grateful for the opportunity to have a book on the shelf at the local library.

    The big picture is to make money, which is the same big picture as in every other profession.

    It's also, ultimately, to be happy. If you're happy being published, and don't need to writing to pay your bills, more power to you.

  9. Anonymous8:18 PM

    "The big picture is to make money."

    Sorry to hear that.

  10. Sorry to hear that.

    Idealism is great, until you have to eat.

    Publishers seem to be concerned with things like money and profit.

    Maybe writers should be too.

    Unless you live on a monestary where all of your needs are met. Or your writing is subsidized by the government, leaving you able to devote all of your energy to creating works of art instead of paying your bills.

    If you really think I'm wrong, write a terrific book, find a publisher who will guarantee it appears in every bookstore and library, and tell them to keep all the money for themselves because it isn't important.

  11. Anonymous11:48 PM

    JA, I'm going to sign in as anonymous for obvious reasons. I agree with everything you're saying but the problem is you're trying to fight a fixed game. It doesn't matter if you write a great book, it doesn't matter if you write what should be a blockbuster, what matters is writing a book that for whatever reason takes off, and fuck knows why that happens. What publishers are now doing is spreading their bets. They'll publish 10 books, all very good, invest little in each one, and hope that one of them takes off. The reason that one book takes off could be it's a great book, could be it's the right book for the time, could be just pure luck that it received the right endorsements, buzz, whatever. And the other equally good 9 writers are left stuck in midlist hell to die on the vine. Other top publishers won't take their new books no matter how good they are because their other books didn't sell well enough, and they're left with litle recourse other than to sell their books to small presses who pay little or no advances. It's unfair and it sucks, but it's the way the industry works.

  12. Anonymous 8:18, what if JA said that the big picture is about staying published, rather than about making money?

    After all, publishing book after book is the dream of most writers. But the reality is, if an author's first book doesn't sell well, bookstores may not take a chance with the second one. If then the second book also sells poorly, the author may not get a third book published at all.

    Simply being grateful to one's publisher is fine, if the writer's goal is to publish only one book.

    If, however, the goal is not only to get published, but to stay published, then yes, an author has to concern herself with money, and whether or not her books are making any.

  13. Anonymous7:45 AM

    Here's my point. A lot of authors complain about publishers. But a publisher isn't a guarantor. The publisher is just a conduit between the MS and the reader. If the publisher makes the conduit work (i.e. get the book in stores and libraries), then the publisher has done its job. So sit back at that point in time and say thanks.

    What happens next isn't up to the publisher, its up to the readers. Some books will take off and some won't. In fact, most won't. That doesn't mean its time to badmouth the publisher, or complain about phone calls, etc.

  14. Anonymous7:47 AM

    "According to the dictionary, risk is the quantifiable likelihood of loss or less than expected returns."

    This thesis statement should have left no doubt about the post's topic: financial risk. It amuses me that some people are shocked--shocked!--by any suggestion that writers might want and need to make a living, especially when they are warned so fairly and forthrightly that their sensibilities are about to be offended by a guy who perceives a connection between a book contract and mortgage payments.

    There are other sorts of risks associated with writing, most notably creative risk, but one can only address so many issues in a single blog post. The issue of financial risk is as important to working writers as it is to anyone in any other profession.

    That said, the various types of risk are related, just as they are in business. If you build a portfolio of low-risk stocks, your return on this investment is likely to be correspondingly low.

    I started out writing shared-world fantasy. There's quite a lot about this sort of writing that I like, and since people kept offering me book contracts, I kept writing it. I don't regret this, but I DO wish that I had ALSO tackled more high-risk projects; in particular, that I'd written more creator-owned fiction. After nearly twenty years and over twenty books, I have yet to publish a book to which I own sole copyright. That's . . . not great planning.

    So these days, I'm trying to structure my writing efforts more along the lines of an investment portfolio. I have a shared-world novel under contract, but I'm also writing an on-spec novel with a co-writer. One project is familiar and has a predictable income, the other is new in a dozen different ways and may never get off the ground. It's a good balance, both financially and creatively.

    Working writers HAVE to consider risk and return. In this post JAK focused on business partners, but there are a bazillion other sorts of risks to consider. Is it time to venture out of shared-world writing and tackle a creator-owned project? Is it time to switch genres, or retire an ongoing character or series? What about e-publishing? Or experimenting with ways to offer online content to the reader at no charge and still make money on the project?

    One final thought: It seems to me that "risk" and "opportunity" are near synonyms. If you aren't willing to take on one, you're less likely to encounter the other.

    (posting anon since I can't sign into my Google account)

  15. Good comments so far from everyone.

    It doesn't matter if you write a great book, it doesn't matter if you write what should be a blockbuster, what matters is writing a book that for whatever reason takes off, and fuck knows why that happens.

    I agree, to a point.

    Publishers do have some control over a book's success. If they spend a lot on the advance, they have to protect that investment with a larger print run, which must be protected with a larger marketing budget.

    I've said for year that the one with the most books in print will sell the most books. This means having books, in quantity, available wherever books are sold. Advertising and coop can make readers even more aware that a book exists, resulting in more books sold.

    So, yes, on an even playing field, 1 out of 10 may take off. But I don't see an even playing field. I see a 10% of authors getting 90% of the marketing budget.

    I'm not competing against the other midlist authors. I'm competing against the bestsellers. But I'll never get into the Superbowl if I don't have a town to sponsor me.

    If, however, the goal is not only to get published, but to stay published, then yes, an author has to concern herself with money, and whether or not her books are making any.

    I agree, at the start of a career. But after a half dozen books have been published, and it looks like the writer is in this for the long haul, it's less about staying published and more about getting bigger.

    Consider a successful local restuarant. If they're making steady money, they need to consider expanding to seat more diners. Or open up a second restuarant in another town. Eventually, they may want to franchise.

    Staying alive is great at first. But there is opportunity to thrive.

    What happens next isn't up to the publisher, its up to the readers. Some books will take off and some won't. In fact, most won't. That doesn't mean its time to badmouth the publisher, or complain about phone calls, etc.

    It's only up to the readers if they know the book exists and either embrace it or reject it. But most readers don't know most books exist.

    Branding and name-recognition account for most bestsellers. The more people aware of an author, the more books an author will sell. James Frey has proved this with his current bestseller.

    An author can't make that many people aware of her on her own. She doesn't have a far enough reach, or enough funds.

    But publishers can, and do, have the reach and the funds. Through advertising, coop, discounting, print runs, distribution, and marketing, they can make more people aware of a book, which means more people will buy the book.

    This involves risk on their part. It's much safer to publish a bunch of books, support few of them, and hope one takes off.

    Yet, if you look at the NYT bestseller list, there are very few surprises. The majority of bestselling books are from known authors.

    Now comes the chicken/egg question. did theybecome known, then get coop? Or did coop help them to get known?

    Based on my years of studying this industry, it's the latter. First you get the coop, then you get the large audience.

    If you're a midlist author who has been around a while, and your books are making a profit, and you know the only wayto get to the next level is to get coop, and you know the only authors who get coop are the ones who have big advances because then the publisher has to protect their investment, then it's obvious what you have to do.

    I'm not badmouthing anyone. This post is all about taking risks in order to grow.

    If your agent or publisher won't take risks, maybe it's time to go.

    And if your agent or publisher won't take your phone calls, I'm betting they aren't interested intaking risks on your behalf.

    One final thought: It seems to me that "risk" and "opportunity" are near synonyms. If you aren't willing to take on one, you're less likely to encounter the other.

    Perfectly said.

    To make money, you need to spend money.

    Can publishers give every new author coop? No. Only 1 out of 5 books makes a profit, and a 50% sell through is considered industry average. This business is hemmoraging money.

    But if you're the 1 of 5 that is profitable, doesn't it make sense to put more money behind that author?

  16. "Risks" = "Opportunity" is pretty interesting. I was reading an article in Time Magazine written by a guy who has written about hugely successful companies. The one thing that crops up over and over again is that the hugely successful companies have continued to take risk.

    It's not hard to see the problem. As he interviewed entrepreneurs and company start-ups, he found a lot of the people involved didn't have much problem taking risk because they didn't see it as taking a risk. As one of them said, what was the worst that would happen, he had to spend a couple years paying of $100,000 in credit card debt.

    But once your company (read writing career, if you will) starts to become "successful," i.e., you're making money and you're paying bills with it, then your risk starts to change.

    And that's what he noticed about these companies, that even though they had millions and millions of dollars at stake, they were still willing to double-down on a gamble to position their company and in the case of these dominant players, it was successful. (He didn't apparently study the ones who blew it taking those risks, but noted that a lot of companies that focused on consolidating and solidifying their current position instead of going to the next level, or gambling on the next level, very often lost significant market share as a result).

    That said, it's easier to gamble when you don't have anything to lose.

  17. Thanks for the comments, Mark.

    As to those who are speculating that this blog entry was about my career...

    I blog about publishing, and the things I learn, observe, and experience. Every blog post, to some degree or another, is about my career, because my opinions are skewed through subjectivity.

    I don't know all. I only know what I can see, and can only draw conclusions from the things I've studied.

    One of the observations I've made, again and again, is that luck plays a part in publishing.

    It takes luck to land an agent. Luck to find a publisher. Luck to amass a large audience.

    But you can improve your luck by writing the best book you can.

    I'm learning you also can improve your luck by signing with the right agent, and accept the right deal with the right publisher.

    Which means that writers may have more control than I previously believed.

    We can write great books. We can promote like crazy. And while we can't buy coop space in bookstores, we can sign with publishers who buy coop space in bookstores.

    If your publisher doesn't do that, then you can risk trying to find one who does.

    It's only a matter of convincing another publisher that you're worth the investment. Which is within your power, if you have a platform, can negotiate well, and have representation that shares your confidence, enthusiasm, and goals.

    Or I'm wrong, which is always possible.

    Though I'm not wrong very often... :)

  18. Great post. I wish more writers would focus on writing as a business and the business of making money. I also wish that writers had the opportunity to branch out and try new series or new stand alones more often. I am not a big series reader. I'll read through maybe 3 in a series and then I'm pretty much done. But I still like the author' style obviously, and I really wish other works were available. That's part of the reason I loved the ebooks that JA made available. They were very good and a great change of pace.

  19. I agree with what you're saying JA, and your post is very timely for me personally. Thank You for re-enforcing some points.

  20. Joe, you're right about needing to be happy in what it is you do. Life's too short to be miserable. Sometimes a change is needed, even if it's not an upward one.

  21. I had to comment on this. I don't think this is a tirade against publishers or agents at all and in fact I'm incredibly supportive of what you're saying because it's very similar to what I try to say on a daily basis.

    Publishing is a business and authors who treat it as such are the most likely to have success. In any business the employees with the greatest success are those who take charge as much as they can. Granted there are always limitations in any career path as to how much control you have, but simply handing it over to the publisher, your boss or the company you work for isn't going to get you where you want to be. Working with your agent and your publisher won't guarantee a bestseller, but it will help you get the attention you deserve and need.

    Great post!

    --jessica faust

  22. I loved this post.

    I think it's smart to consider the risk of being in this business. Writing is one of the oddest business models out there. Luck is involved. Risk is involved. And I agree with whoever said "amuses me that some people are shocked--shocked!--by any suggestion that writers might want and need to make a living, especially when they are warned so fairly and forthrightly that their sensibilities are about to be offended by a guy who perceives a connection between a book contract and mortgage payments."

    I have three kids two dogs and a mortgage. You can bet if I am going to be spending my life doing this, I plan on making some money at it. Kids start getting whiney when they're hungry and getting rained on from lack of shelter. Maybe other people's children are better behaved?

    Getting published is easy, STAYING published requires a little extra work.

  23. Anonymous1:39 PM

    I guess I'm a little more outspoken about this issue--the people who sniff disdainfully at writers who admit they are working professionals--because it's the third profession I've had that draws observations of this nature.

    I started out as a music teacher and church musician, and lemme tell you, there are a lot of church-going folk who balk at the idea of paying music directors and soloists. Janitors and secretaries, no problem, but musicians are supposed to perform for the glory of God. I was a teacher, which meant, in many folks' opinion, that I didn't require a living wage because I only had to work six hours a day, nine months a year. (Yeah, right.) Now a full-time writer, I have no patience left for people who want confuse my profession with their hobby.

    If these folks simply have to get this sort of thing out of their systems, I suggest they browbeat physicians for taking money for healing the sick when they should be motivated solely by a desire to help people.



  24. I like you more and more each day, Elaine. :)

  25. If you feel like your agent is on the publisher's side rather than your own, then you should definitely move on.
    My career took a turn for the better when I created a business and strategy plan last year. My agent suddenly realised I was serious, and has made some great suggestions - and sold books for me. I try not to complain about publishers because I don't think it's professional.
    But I do take notice of who's getting the publicity dollars, and how I'm treated. That's part of the business I'm in. I walk into a large bookshop and I analyse who's got display space and where my books are.
    I'm definitely into growing my business, and while I do as much as I can in terms of promotion, I agree with JA - the publisher has to do their part too. And the best way to ensure they do is to push for a bigger advance.

  26. Anonymous4:04 PM

    You make some great points.

  27. Hi, Joe

    I can't wait to read Fuzzy Navel. It's definitely on my summer list. Your post couldn't be more timely for me. I'm definitely in midlist territory these days. And though I have a good relationship with my publisher, there have been some things that make me go "Hmmmm..."

    I'm also at a bit of a crossroads where a new book deal is on the horizon, and I'm really going to need to press for a better deal. I love to write, and I KNOW I have lots of stories to tell. But I need to be able to justify the time writing draws away from my family. My wife and I went back over my royalty statements and averaged out what we're actually receiving per book--not just straight trade sales but ALL discounted sales, everything--and the amount was pretty sobering.

    I'm hopeful that my publisher will go where I need them to go. They are a good house, and they've given me incredible production on the physical design of my books. But I think I really need to consider more of the business element this time.

  28. This is one of the liveliest comment threads I've had a chance to read. I nearly said contentious but I think that would be overstating the passion everyone is bringing to the table.

    One thing I will chime in and mention is how similar this is to the music industry and why more artists are releasing their material independently than ever before.

  29. Here's an inspiring story for you, JA. I interviewed author Garth Stein with the TV show a few weeks ago. Garth's latest novel was passed over by his agent, who had sold his previous two books. The reason... the agent didn't believe his latest book (narrated by a dog) would sell.

    Garth's response? He left his agent, found another, and that agent sold the book to Harper-Collins, who has gotten completely behind the novel.

    The book hit #22 on the NYT list the week following publication.

    What was his first agent (Mort Janklow) not seeing, that so many others apparently see in the novel?

    If anything, this just underscores the subjectivity of one person's opinion in this business (and potentially how one person can kill [or make] someone's career).

  30. Excellent topic and a good argument, JA. As usual. Sometimes I truly wonder if everything in publishing (and maybe everything in life, too) is just one giant crapshoot. One agent hates your stuff, even though he's had success with several similar books, the next loves your stuff, and can't wait to take a chance on you.

    But it's always good to keep in mind that this is a business, and agents and publishers are making business decisions. It only follows that authors should too.

  31. Any writer who intends on selling their works is taking a risk. But, if the writer has a business plan, then that risk is modified.

    Agents are their own best friends; if they like the writer's work then there may be a future there.

    Thanks for a great post.


Thanks for the comment! Joe will get back to you eventually. :)