Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

Ten years on

It's ten years (almost to the day) since my first novel – City of Pearl – was published. Here's ten things I've learned in that time that I wish I'd known back then, and what I plan to do about that in the next ten.
If a week is a long time in politics, then a decade is a bloody eternity in publishing. There are things I've learned that would have been very handy if I'd known them way back in 2004, there are things that people did tell me but I didn't realise how true they were at the time, and there are things that nobody would have told me anyway. And then there are things that have changed so much in ten years that I probably wouldn't have believed them even if someone had told me. So, Ten Things, in no particular order:

1. To a big traditional publisher, the customer isn't the reader. It's the book retailers. As someone who's had working experience of market research, marketing, and branding, I've been surprised by how little publishing knows or even tries to find out about its end users compared to other industries.

2. To the agent, the main person to keep happy is the publisher – not you, the client, even though you're the one paying. (Unless you're one of the handful of mega-star writers. That's different economics.) I found I did better on my own. Influence isn't always about who pays; it's about who the gatekeepers are and how narrow the choke point is.

3. A lawyer usually works out cheaper than an agent, and they don't need to keep publishers' goodwill. They're very handy. But a contract is only worth the money you can expend on enforcing it in court. Otherwise it's just paper that can be ignored by the financially stronger of the signatories.

4. It's easy to get so bogged down in the publishing machine that you as the writer forget your customer is the reader, nobody else. You can also forget why you started writing in the first place, and it stops being enjoyable. You can get that fun back, though.

5. If most of the money your product makes is for other people, all you'll get if you're lucky is a pat on the head. Save your best efforts to make money for yourself. Gratitude and admiration aren't accepted at any supermarket that I know.

6. If you'd told me in 2004 that I'd have 12 NYT bestsellers by 2014, I'd have been ecstatic. Now I know better. It's far exceeded what I thought was an ambitious business plan ten years ago (which was to get one NYT in the first five years) but it's done me no bloody good at all as an author. Be careful what you wish for.

7. You don't have to sign away most or all of your rights because it's the industry standard thing to do. Publishing contracts are drawn up by publishers to favour publishers, naturally. Educate yourself on contracts and shop around. There are many more options available today.

8. Traditional publishing seems slower today at getting stuff on the shelves. An editor tells me this is due to the "three seasons" having become "two seasons" in sales terms. (By which he means the timetable for selling to book stores. Not to you.) Small publishers seem to be able to move faster; and self publishing can be instant. You'd be surprised how much bearing that can have on your earnings, quite apart from your sanity.

9. Writing full time is a worse idea than I'd imagined, although not having to commute is still a bonus. Even if you don't need to, keep a second job or something else going just to stay in touch with the wider world. Suzy McKee Charnas warned me about the "hamster wheel" syndrome at Clarion. She was right. Absolutely right.

10. Readers. Readers, readers, readers. Did I mention readers? It's more important now to have a direct dialogue with your customers. Publishers get bought out or go down the pan, editors leave, editors stay but forget you exist, and even their bosses move on, but your readers will stay with you forever if you treat them right by giving them what you've led them to expect from you. And it's readers who pay you in the end.

Publishing has changed out of all recognition since I started. I think the entry of players like Amazon has been healthy for both writers and consumers. I've said in various articles that publishing bears no resemblance to any other industry I know, and not in a good way. Amazon's forced change on it as much by providing a user-friendly alternative to print as it has by being better at getting products to the customer.

There are, of course, many other companies that have been chipping away at what's been called the "shared monopoly" of big publishing, but it takes a big bugger to credibly challenge another big bugger, and Amazon is big. What's that you say? Online retailers have screwed book stores? Well, publishing is the quiet end of the entertainment industry. It's not essential utilities or the health service. It doesn't need to exist and nobody's owed a living in it; not small stores, not me, not the big chains, and not publishers. Instead of understanding traditional publishing better as I found out more about it over the years, I realised that I was understanding it less and less. I see it behaving more like the public sector. Maybe that's what happens when organisations of any kind reach a certain size or become too defended. I'm sure there's a business studies book on that.

So, yes. I sort of like the prospect of this brave new world, in my unreconstructed Thatcherite way. Bring it on. It may be in a state of flux right now, but if there's one industry where the market can and will decide, provided it's given the chance, then it's publishing.

Throughout my working life, I've changed careers roughly every ten years. It wasn't planned so much as a natural cycle that emerged, sometimes because I found myself on sinking ships. And if I've been doing things the same way for ten years, I've probably hit the dangerously fine dividing line between really knowing my stuff and getting too frustrated and bored out of my skull. You've heard me say quite a few times that I run on business plans, because writing is a job like any other. So what about the next five year plan, then?

I'm going to throw away the plan. That's my plan. I've taken drastic steps to create some free time this year, time that I'll be using to write what I like and publish or even transmit it when I want to. I've been on a treadmill for a decade and never had the space in my schedule to write anything purely on spec or for the hell of it. My time was contracted seven days a week, in fact. Yes, that was entirely my own choice, and I'm not pretending this is Real Work like getting shot at or saving lives. But it still ate years of me, and time is the one thing nobody can buy back.

On August 8 2012, I said on this blog that I might try alternative publishing – I was referring specifically to e-books – if I ever found the time. Well, the time is now. You're a long time dead, as a TV colleague of mine used to say. I'm going to continue doing franchise comics (because comics are always a joy to work on) and you'll probably see a couple of tie-in books that I'd already committed to before I took the decision, but the rest of my writing time this financial year* is going to be spent having a crack at scripts, e-books, audiobooks, dead tree novels, and maybe even serialisations, as the fancy takes me. I might even do a few creator-owned comics. I'm going to experiment, see what falls out, try different publishing channels, and evaluate the results. And then I'll see where that leaves me. Might sink, might swim; but doing things differently is always a positive experience, even if it turns out to be tough.

(*My financial year runs April to April. So this is coming up to New Year for me. I celebrate this ancient fiscal festival by trapping an accountant in a Wicker Man and forcing him to watch the remake of the eponymous movie, complete with bees, bear suits, and totally missing the point of the original.)