Thursday, September 2, 2010

What Do Writers REALLY Need?

Steve writes:

In an article in the Huffington Post, writer Philip Goldberg champions writers continuing need for publishers in the ebook and print-on-demand (POD) age, where self-publishing has become an attractive and available option.

His premise is based on two main points.  The first, that writers need advances.  The second is that writers need editing.  Here's the link so you can read the article yourself if you'd like

I don't totally disagree with what he has to say.  There are some valid points in the article, but I think they're used to support a very flawed conclusion. Traditional publishers offer many things in their deal with writers.  Some of those things we'd rather not have.  Some we might want, but don't really need.  And some we definitely need, but publishers may not be the only, or the best, way to get them.

I think it's important when thinking about publishing these days to deconstruct it and try and rebuild the system from scratch. Just because we need Thing-A and Institution-B does Thing-A in the current system does NOT mean we NEED Institution-B unless Institution-B is the BEST and most cost-efficient way of doing Thing-A. This applies strongly to both of his points.

Let's go to point two first, that writers need editing, since this is far-and-away his strongest argument.

And actually, I'm going to skip to the past part of the second point, just to get it out of the way...

The need for editing, fact-checking, etc. in general applies much more strongly to non-fiction books than to most novels. Sure, novels need editing and fact-checking as well, but if a novel trips over a fact it's usually just an embarrassment (and usually one that most readers will completely miss). If it happens in a non-fiction biography of a contemporary person, then you might just have a lawsuit on your hands, or at least something that necessitates (as has happened several times in recent years) a recall or cancellation of a book.

In fact, in general the requirements for a non-fiction book are so much different than the requirements for novel that I'd argue that the two are FUNDAMENTALLY DIFFERENT PRODUCTS. In the physical-book world, the two share so much infrastructure and production commonality they they're usually done by the same companies in overlapping facilities. But other than that, there isn't any logical reason to cram them together than there is to combine a company that makes corn-flakes with one that makes soap-flakes, just because they both come in upright cardboard boxes of similar proportions.

Now, many of us, maybe most of us, will be writing non-fiction books at some time or another, but I'm assuming that MOST of the writers reading this blog consider themselves primarily novelists. In any case, I'd simply say that the lesson here is not automatically to think the same assumptions apply to a non-fiction project as one of your novels. They are different beasts, and as the market evolves towards ebooks and POD, those differences will become far more obvious and important. Consider their requirements on their own merits.

Now, getting back to the first part of the second point (confused yet?), I think he's made a very good case. But it isn't a case that we need a publisher, it's that we could almost always use some editing, and those two aren't the same at all. Books aren't edited by publishers (speaking of the company, and not the job-title here), they're edited by editors, and editors are just employees of publishers. Editors could be employed by anyone: themselves, the author, a temp agency, the Geek Squad at Best Buy. It doesn't matter. They're still editors, and if they're good ones, can still provide the same function. A publisher is NOT required.

And any of us who have been around the business for a while know plenty of good editors that we've enjoyed working with who are currently out of a job (or at least, an editing job).  If I want a good, experienced editor, and I'm willing to pay the right price, I'm certain I can get one.

But let's deconstruct this some more. What IS an editor? What is a GOOD editor? What element or elements separate a good editor from the average Joe/Jane on the street? Is it a matter of education or experience? Talent? Love of books? To be honest, I'm not sure, and I'd be interested to hear what people have to say about it.

The article describes a typical copy editor as "an underpaid English major who loves books." But that describes a lot of the baby editors most experienced writers have dealt with as well.  For those of us a of a certain age, it can be disconcerting meeting our editor and learning they're young enough to be our child (or grandchild!).

Yes, if they work for a New York publisher, they presumably have had the benefit of training and advice from more experienced editors. Maybe they're worked on many books in a support capacity before stepping up as a solo-editor. Presumably even a typical junior editor has had the experience of doing a good number of books (though SOMEBODY has to be their first book, and it might be you).

 Still, I keep thinking of that basic description. Underpaid (or underemployed) English Majors who love books aren't hard to find in most any town in the country. In fact, there's almost always an excessive supply. If you need an editor, how difficult would be be, really, to recruit and train your own?

For that matter, what level of editing is necessary for a given writer and project? Does a person who has written a dozen novels or a hundred need the same level of editing as one publishing their first book? (My thought is, usually not.) And if an experienced author needs less editing, do they need a full-fledged editor at all? Maybe what they need is that copy editing (I sure do!) and fact checking, plus an objective voice to spot weaknesses in the work. Maybe all they really need is a good first reader, or a couple of good readers. Is it even possible that, at some level, a strong and involved editor working with an experienced and confident writer becomes more of a hindrance than a help?

So, I agree that most all of us can benefit from editorial assistance. But I think it's quite open to debate what form that assistance should take for a given writer or project, or where it can (or should) be obtained.

Now, let's go to his first point: Advances.

As writers, we're used to advances, and who doesn't like getting big checks (commas!) in the mail? But do we NEED them? I'm not so sure, and in fact, I think we might just be far better off without them.

First of all, what IS an advance, anyway? It's a loan. It's a loan against presumed future earnings (or actually, royalties on future earnings) on a book that the publisher has purchased rights to. In general, the terms on this loan are pretty terrible. In general, the term where the bulk of the loan will be repaid (or not) is generally no more than a few years, often not much more than a year. But during that period, we can expect to pay no less than 90% of earnings on the book.

Okay, okay, that's not fair. The total income on the book isn't yours, and never would be. The publisher is taking their production expenses, retail mark-up, overhead, profit, etc., out of that 90+%, PLUS the usual interest and cost of a loan, so maybe it isn't as bad a deal as it seems. But actually, what kind of deal it is really depends on the book.

We presume that the publisher is smart enough, based on their long and vast experience, not to advance more than they expect to make on a given book, but that isn't always the case. We know that a lot of books don't (at least as far as our royalty statements are concerned, we really don't know about the publisher's internal P&L) ever make a profit. The loan isn't repaid.

Of course, that happens with conventional loans too. Some loaned money doesn't get repaid. There's risk, and presumably the cost of that risk is generally understood and built into the cost of the loan. (Not always, as the current financial crisis shows, but it SHOULD be that way, and most of the time, it is.) Some loans will not be repaid, but enough will, and with enough associated interest and fees to make the system profitable.

So, if your book earns back its advance, and not much more, than maybe it isn't a terrible deal. If your book doesn't come close to earning out, then quite possibly it's a GREAT deal. But the more successful the book, the more questionable the deal becomes in some ways. The more books you sell, the less significant the production costs and overhead become. Printing, warehousing and shipping costs should also benefit from scale. But you're still getting charged a relatively huge rate against the income you're generating.

Worse, while the advance money presumably shows up before the income stream starts, royalty income is often long-delayed. The nature of modern publishing is that the fate of most print books is decided within a few weeks, or at most a few months after it hits the shelves. But the byzantine nature of the publishing and bookselling business is such that the income may lag YEARS behind. The publisher loans you money on the front side, but on the back side, you're loaning money to THEM, and the writer is STILL paying a high interest rate on every bit of return!

That's probably part of the push amongst established best-sellers for huge advances. (Sure, there are a LOT of other factors, but...) I'm assuming that agents, and may authors, have decided that it's a far better deal to get the money up front, even if you know the publisher is going to lose out on the back-end of the deal. But that moves the problem around, because when the publisher loses money on a project, it comes from somewhere else, probably a worse deal for smaller writers who don't have as much clout.

But let's look at the other end of the spectrum. There are lots of reasons a book doesn't earn out, and as I said earlier, you'd presume that the publisher manages this risk and would never INTENTIONALLY buy a book they don't expect to pay its advance back. Unfortunately, I don't think that's always the case either. I think publishers buy a lot of "quality" books that they don't expect to earn out, books that feed someone's ego rather than the bottom-line. I think they sometimes buy vanity projects from successful authors that are far less commercial than their typical projects. I think they sometimes buy bonehead books that don't have a chance-in-hell of commercial success because somebody in the company had the clout and ego to push it through. Maybe I'm overestimating how often these things happen, or how significant the losses are, but I'm pretty confident they DO happen.

And when they do, the books have to be balanced somewhere. It won't be off the best-seller with the inflated advance. No, it will probably be in the big, gray, middle-area where most of us live.

Whatever is going on, publishers have the ability to slide risk (and profit, and loss) around a vast range of books, both in terms of volume, profitability, and type, and while I think it's safe they'll do this in a why to offer maximum benefit to themselves, there's no reason to assume that they'll do it in a way to benefit YOU, as an individual.

There's also the issue of how "advance" the advance is, anyway. If you're getting money for a book not yet written (either one you sold on proposal, or a follow-on book in a multi-book contract), that's good. At least some of the money may show up well in advance. But we know, publishers have always tried to minimize this, and they're squeezing it harder than ever. Smaller advances, broken up into more and smaller payments, coming later in the publication cycle. Even when the trigger for a payment occurs, we have to wait. Even assuming business-as-usual, the check may not be paid for weeks or months. It may have to clear through an agent. Our banks may sit on the checks for two weeks before releasing the money. If you see actual money within two months of "on signing" on "on delivery," or the dreaded and vague "on approval," then its a red-letter day.

If things AREN'T as usual, you may not see the money until months or even years later, if ever. We've all been there.

Okay, let's just assume I went too far up the crazy-tree on that rant and put it aside. Let's just agree that it's a loan, and that the terms are, at best, somewhat somewhat questionable. Now, in what business school do they tell you go borrow money for your business from the first loan provider that makes an offer, and not even INVESTIGATE other options? Yet, that's exactly what we do when we take an advance. At least we (or our agents) have a chance to negotiate the terms, but we all know that our ability to alter them is pretty limited. The basic assumption is fixed, even that we take the advance. From what I've heard, several successful authors have tried to negotiate away their advances in return for a larger and more immediate royalty payout, and I've never heard of a publisher welcoming those terms. They LIKE the way things work now. They WANT you to take an advance, so they can game the system the way they always have. They just want the amount of the advance to fall within a narrow range provided by their own P&L.

So: Loan required. Terms of loan only marginally negotiable. The only loan provider is the same guy who sets the terms for all other aspects of the agreement and reports all the costs and incomes to you. That describes a company-town setup to me, and company towns are rarely favorable to the workers.

For pretty much every writer I know, and I suspect even for people at the top of the field, publishing is a world of feast and famine. Even for people at the top of the game, it seems to be long stretches of nothing between large and unpredictable paydays.

That's just not a good way to do business. It makes it difficult to plan, and difficult to manage cash-flow. Failure to manage cash-flow can get VERY expensive, as you're often forced to borrow MORE money at outrageous fees (and yes, late fees on your utilities and overdraft charges at your bank are just a VERY expensive way of borrowing money). It makes it even harder to keep health insurance in place. It makes it hard to make cash-outlays (both personal and business) at the most advantageous times, under the most advantageous terms. And for all but the most disciplined of us, I think there's a natural tendency to go splurge-crazy when the big checks show up.

Currently, publishing is all about what my friend Kristine Rusch has quite-wisely called "the produce model." When we write something, it's produce. It's polished up, put on the shelf, and it either sells quickly, or not at all. After a few weeks or months, it stinks up the place. You sell what you can at huge discount, then dump the rest and move on to the next fresh thing. This is fine for publishers, who have no shortage of fresh things. Not so good for writers who usually would be content to ride the slow-boat of income as long as it continues to sail.

The more we move into ebooks and POD, the less we're forced to be tied to that model. We can write a book in the anticipation that it will earn money (a lot, or a little) over a long time. Write more books while still getting income from the first. Write sixth and tenth books while you still get a little income each from ALL your earlier projects. The more you write, the quicker you write, the smoother and more predictable your paydays become. If you need to borrow money, shop for a loan. Don't take whatever deal the company store will offer you.

Yes, we'll miss the big checks. Yes, it's wonderful after a long time as a starving writer to get your first advance check. But in the big picture, do we NEED that advance? Probably not. Would most of us, on most days, be far better off with a smaller, steadier flow of cash? I think we would.

This post originated as a message I posted on a private writer's message list, and has been revised slightly for blog use.  But in doing so, I've thought of several additional important functions for writers currently served by traditional editors, and which were not covered in Goldberg's post (including the one I think is most compelling of all as a reason to stay with traditional publishing).  After some thought, rather than appending discussion of them to this post and muddying the waters, I've decided to deal with them in a follow-up message.  Look for it soon.  - Steve


  1. Excellent post! Your explanation of the advance as a loan is one I never thought of and makes SO much sense. I also agree the long tail is more attractive for writers. The more you write and have out in the world, the more money will trickle in over time.

    I think the lure of the big advance is desired by a lot of new writers who want a big payday or by some people who think they want to be writers but really want to be an “author.” These are the type who don’t really enjoy the writing but want to have written.

    Mind you, if someone wanted to throw a huge cheque (Canadian spelling!) at me, I wouldn't say no! Although, after your "loan" explanation, maybe I should rethink that!

  2. Any time I'll take a monthly or even quarterly payday over an every-year-or-so advance and the pittance of many royalty checks. Unless my last name were Patterson or King or Clancy, etc. Their every-so-often checks are big enough to last a while. Of course I don't have any of those last names, so I'll stick with my monthly pay from Amazon and other sources.

  3. Great post, thanks.

    I've worked out a deal with an excellent copyeditor for my current indie work, and I'm really glad I'm working with her. It's not that the work wouldn't stand a chance without her, but she makes the work considerably prettier in many places that I missed, and I'm someone that really wants my prose to sing. We're trading a number of services with each other, and beyond that I'm only paying her $100 in cash.

    As for advances, there is something to be said for slower, more steady income. If most publishers treated authors well when it comes to reporting data quickly and making prompt payments, then things would be different. Unfortunately, authors haven't been treated well in many respects for a long time. The publishers who do well in the future are going to be the ones who start treating authors better NOW.

  4. Very astute observations. I had a career in business until I retired to write full time. Publishing has not made sense to me on a very fundamental financial level until now. Thank you. I knew there had to be payback somewhere. Publishers simply can’t spend more on book products than the return they will receive on their investment, unless the deficits are being compensated for elsewhere. Pretty scary stuff.

    I agree we don’t need advances (loans) but if we go towards PODs and epubs how do we handle marketing? Dean has ranted against self promotion in regards to funds coming out of our own pockets to do promo events. I wonder what the new models will be for POD and ebook promotions?

    Also, loved what you said about editors. Don’t get me wrong, I have a huge analytical brain, but when I write the creative takes over and it is very difficult for me to “see” subtle typos. I would love to find a copy editor that fits for me. Such services would help, but my experience with two them was enlightening in a frustrating way. One was very meticulous, no complaint there, but a lot of the time I paid for was spent stripping the life out of the work and my writer’s “voice” with it-- the result was absolutely perfect Shrunk & White, but it turned the writing to boring flat prose. In the end, I didn’t use 90% of the suggested “corrections” beyond typos and punctuation slips. When I am in town for the October workshops I’d love to talk with you about copy editors. It is tough getting started, most editors I have investigated want $4,000 to $7,000 per novel to copy edit. As a writer at the beginning of my career that is tough to do until I get a sizable income stream going.

    Great post. I put your blog on my favorites and will look forward to reading it regularly. Thank you for sharing your insights.

  5. I will take getting paid every month, based on actual worth, over some speculative ceiling placed on my work that determines its entire fate (as is true in virtually every publishing contract). Thanks for the insight.


  6. Yes! Excellent points. Thank you. I vote for steady cash flow over personal-finance boom-and-bust cycles.

  7. Writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch ( Http:// )was having some trouble posting and emailed me her comments to this post with permission add them myself. (Sorry for anyone who is having difficulties. We've somehow gotten targeted by Chinese spambots, and I've had to crank up the comment-posting security level to eleven. But judging from the number of comments on this post, it can't be TOO hard.) Anyway, Kris's comments follow:

    “Good post, Steve. Let me say one thing: Speaking as a Hugo and World Fantasy Award-winning editor of fiction, I *know* I need a good editor on my projects, not just a good first reader. My husband, Dean Wesley Smith, is a very good editor, but not for all forms of fiction (he missed something important on my latest romance). And, even more importantly, he has the husband problem. Which is that *I* think he's just flattering me when he says something is good. (Which means that I have the problem, not him.)

    So...for that reason alone, I need an editor. But what does a good fiction editor bring to the table? The ability to see an entire story in an almost Zenlike way. Unfortunately, many New York editors don't have this ability. They're as good as anyone you know who likes to read but not Zenlike brilliant.

    But there are some editors--at least one per imprint--who are spectacular, who see tiny tweaks that make a manuscript not just good, but fantastic. I've been fortunate to work with many of these people, and I would hire one of them in a heartbeat if I were self-publishing something.

    Here's the difference: In conventional publishing, you're stuck with the editor who buys your book, whether she's just a good reader or a brilliant editor. If you were to self publish and you have tons o'dollars (these folks aren't cheap), you can hire one of the brilliant editors. You're not stuck with the date what brung you to the party. That's a benefit...if you have the money to hire someone good *and* you have enough humility to realize that no matter who you are--bestseller, award winner, long term writer--you need one very experienced eye on the project.”

    So anyway. FWIW.