Authors Can Be Stupid: I Just Want To Write

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 . 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.

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42 Responses to “Authors Can Be Stupid: I Just Want To Write”

  1. Mike,

    In point 3 of your summation, you state “publishers will be paying us substantially more for digital copies of our work than they do physical copies”. In my ignorance, could you clarify that for me? Is that because there is no printing cost or wholesale selling to distributors and all the other middlemen cuts that more of the sale goes to the author? Should that be “proportionally more” instead of “substantially”, or perhaps both?

    As someone who just had his first solo work published (digitally), taking in no small part a lot of your advice from seminars at GenCon, I know I have more to learn and I appreciate your insights. 🙂



  2. Under current contracts, the ebook income is split between an author and publisher on a 50-50 basis. (Some of the most recent contracts have attempted to shift this to 25-75 in favor of the publishers.)

    So, a print book pays 10% of the cover. Amazon and Apple will pay publishers 70% of the cover. Authors, then, will make 17.5 to 35% of the ebook retail price. An $8 paperback pays the author 80 cents. The same ebook will pay the author $2.80 or $1.40 depending on their share percentage. It will take 6-9 months for the author to get the money.

    If he sells direct, he keeps $5.60 and gets it immediately.

  3. I would gladly pay $12-$25 dollars for a copy of your next Talion book, in any format. I have often wondered why there has been no sequel to my favorite book. Thank you for providing me with much entertainment with your writing and may you have continued success.

  4. Mike,

    Great post!

    OK, you are in support of the dreaded “self publishing” that most writers with publishers swear is a horrible thing to do. My question is: do you support this at the beginning or only after a writer is traditionally published and have started gathering an audience?


  5. As a reader, this sounds like a good idea up until one point: the fracturing of formats. I don’t want to have to install a different application on my iPhone for each author; I’d rather just download files in a standardized format (which means not PDF, since it’s worthless for ebooks on anything but paper; ePub is my preference, but I’d settle for something else open that I can convert as necessary) that I can use with my reader of choice.

    I enjoyed Talion: Revenant and would buy Nemesis if I can read it on my iPhone comfortably.

  6. Robert,

    At this point in time, because we are in transition, you have to do BOTH. Self-publish samples to build your audience, use traditional audiences to reach those who are not comfortable yet with digital.

    More on the Myth of Established Authors through the link.

  7. Andrew,

    A week or so ago I posted about epub as the coming format. I will be supporting it because, like you, I think being able to port stuff between machines is a good idea. I made that decision before i learned the iPad would support epub, but the subsequent news makes the wisdom of my foresight even more pleasing.


  8. I had thought that you had, but I only thought to look at the store, not at old blog posts. I’m glad that you reminded me of that, and I look forward to it. 🙂

  9. Gosh DARN it publishers! I want that Talion Sequel!!!

    (no chance of reselling the rights since it’s out of print?)

    And having willing fans do it: um, YEAH! (nt that I’m volunteering. Unless I have a fan of my own who will grade all these lab reports.)

  10. Timothy Fitzgerald 06. Feb, 2010 at 10:14 pm

    I would gladly pay for a new Talion book Mike.

    I would also gladly pay for that Merlin Bloodstone novel I thought you mentioned at one point, and that In Hero Years…I’m Dead novel you mentioned during national write a novel month a few years back.

    Also, I have 2 friends that I know would also buy a Talion sequel, or any books you want to publish digitally, as they are very much into digital readers.

    I admittedly prefer reading books over anything in a digital format, the feel, the texture, the smell are all just so much more pleasing to me than reading anything on a screen. However, I will gladly support such a format if it enables exciting authors, such as yourself, to continue to put out entertaining work and actually be read!

    I am a huge fan of Robert E Howard, and have continued to try and collect his entire works. Reading about finding that huge trunk filled with his previously unknown works, and thinking how those could have been lost to the world is just tragic. The idea that much of it was lost before Glenn Lord found it is equally disappointing.

    However, if someone had not taken that interest in Howard and unearthed so many of his unpublished stories (ranging from excellent to clearly juvenile efforts) they would have been mostly lost to the reading public.

    Howard died young so he was more unique, but it just goes to show that it is very likely we have lost many great stories over the years from talented authors simply because they were deemed “unpublishable” due to the climate of the time or what-have-you.

    The idea that digital publishing may allow many authors to get their content out to the world, good or bad it may still entertain, and not be lost is just exciting. I will support any format that allows that to happen, as well as continuing to support book buying of authors I like.

    bring ’em on Mike. I think I have bought almost everything from your store already, by all means, put up more!

  11. I couldn’t agree more. I mean, some people are so passionate about disparaging self-publishing. In my mind, I honestly don’t see that my two pubs are doing anything that increases my sales. So the idea of me doing it myself and keeping more of the money sounds like a great idea to me. I just see opportunity.

    Of course, I won’t only self-publish and drop everything else. Having one’s hands in a lot of pots is always good… Diversify and all that: important in stock markets and writing. 🙂

    I just need to write faster. Always that whip. *sigh*

  12. Although I am confused about one thing. Why do you have to “choose a format?” Pick a side and swear by ePub? Why not just put it out there in all formats? It’s easy-peasy to put it in another format. I’ve never self-pubbed, but I’ve helped others convert things. It’s not like you HAVE to choose a side…

  13. Natasha,

    It’s not so much that you have to choose a format, it’s just that there are three right now that you should have covered: Kindle, epub and PDF. Once you have them nailed down, you’re good on virtually all the devices available. Going beyond those things isn’t going to substantially increase your sales, as I understand it.

  14. I would be all over a Talion sequel. I’ve been hoping for that for years…and I know at least three other people who feel the same way (I introduced them to your work and have encouraged them to buy all your other works as well). And all your blogs about digital publishing have been a huge help to my friend and I who have not had a lot of luck in getting stories published. Thank you for all you do.

  15. Mike, here’s my vote for Talion: Nemisis, In Hero Years I’m Dead and The Merlin Bloodstone book. I’ve enjoyed all the Bloodstone stories and would love the novel. Also, I want to say that I totally agree with this series of post. I ranted about this over on Dean Wesley Smith’s blog so I won’t do it here, but I think that you’re really hitting the nail on the head here. Great posts.

    I think I like the name of these posts even better than Dean Wesley Smith’s Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing, though his cover is better. 🙂 You have to get a book cover. Maybe one of some authors in a zoo?

    Anyway, thanks Mike.



  16. Great post, Mike. I’ve made my two books available in four formats. PDF, epub, mobi(Kindle), and pdb(ereader). That last is still used and runs on Palm pilots primarily, but it also has a great program to read on the computer…the best out there by far. So I like to make that one available as well.

    Personally, I prefer reading on my IPod Touch. So any books I buy, I would rather have them digital.

  17. Looking forward to seeing that Talion sequel, would definately purchase given the chance. Mind you if it should happen to show up on some service such as blurb so that I could place it on the bookshelf next to it’s predecessor I’d be ecstatic.

  18. I don’t see why the choice seems to be between big publishers and self publishing (or both). That would mean each author must have his or her own store front on their own site and/or major online stores (like Amazon). Why don’t groups of authors get together to create group store fronts? That way the store front leverages the “established audiences” of each author to the potential benefit of all of them? That way fans wouldn’t have to know a name in order to find a good author’s work.

  19. Bobman, it’s not either/or, it’s all of the above. Authors can and should join together on projects to leverage audiences, but you’re missing a key point.

    As an author you simply must have a website. You must make efforts to drive traffic to your website so folks know what you are doing. And since you have a website, you might as well sell your stuff from your website and make the website pay for itself, if nothing else.

    The goal is to maximize profit. Sure, putting your work on a variety of sites so folks can find it is great; but since you will make the most selling your work off your website, each author should start there and work outward.

  20. I would also like to see the Talion sequel in whatever form. That was the first book of yours I ever read and have bought all your books since then. Thanks.

  21. Mike,
    Gotcha! Thanks for the reply and the clarification. 🙂


  22. 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.

    Hiya, Mike. I just recently discovered your blog.

    I’m completely dumbfounded at this whole scenario. Are other publishers reluctant to take up Nemesis for no other reason than that Bantam owns Revenant? Or are there other contractual considerations that come into play?

  23. Mike, I would love to buy a new Tailon book, as I see others have already posted. I think that the means of distribution of fiction, and the availability of works of fiction will amaze us all.
    My problem is that I become a fan of authors, and can not “get into” the works of other authors. Fortunately, some of these authors have found various means of making some of their work available through their websites.
    Hopefully, in the near future, the access to the different types of formats and readers will be sorted out as I live in dread of getting caught as Beta model when everybody else uses VHS.

  24. I was actually going through this trying to find out if you had gotten back the rights to sell Talion:Revenant on your own as an ebook. I managed to read my copy to death. It’s probably one of the few books I’ve actually done that to instead of just the exaggerated claim. I would be all over Talion:Nemesis.

  25. It’s not contractual considerations, its simply that frontlist (a new book) drives backlist (old books). Since they will not profit from the backlist sales of that series, they’re not interested in frontlisting a new book. It’s understandable, if a bit shortsighted.

    And frustrating as hell.

  26. I first read Talion: Revenant years ago.. I’ve been waiting for a sequel ever since. I no longer live in the US, and I usually use ebooks to keep up with books I want to read these days (buying english language books are so damned expensive here), but even if an e-version weren’t made available I’d comb through the bookstores here to find it and pay the outrageous prices. And if all else failed, I would order the book online, have it sent to a friend in the US, who could send it to me, along with the requisite shipping costs.

  27. Chris,

    You should see an ebook version of Talion: Revenant very soon.

  28. A bit shortsighted? I’d say incredibly shortsighted. They’re stepping over dollars just to pick up a few dimes. That business model makes no sense to me. What I mean is…

    Okay, so the sales of a new book will help drives sales of an older book. The older publisher doesn’t want you, but the new one does. You’ve got a built-in audience that has clearly stated that they’re interested in a sequel. If you continue to write sequels, who will stand to profit the most? Clearly, the publisher of the sequels.

    Further, if not owning the rights to the older book is the issue, then why not offer to buy those rights from the older publisher? Strikes me as a GOOD BUSINESS decision in the long run.

    I’ve been reading lots of stuff lately (at Dean Wesley Smith’s site and elsewhere) on how bad writers tend to be at business, but this, to me, sounds like even publishers aren’t terribly good at business, either. Methinks there might be a market for a ‘rogue’ publisher who is actually interested in writers in your situation and helping themselves and writers like you to make more money.

    I can understand why it’s frustrating for you. To my way of thinking, however, they’re freakin’ insane!

    Finally, this sort of scenario also strikes me as a somewhat compelling argument AGAINST writing series novels.

  29. Just to clarify: Further, if not owning the rights to the older book is the issue, then why not offer to buy those rights from the older publisher? Strikes me as a GOOD BUSINESS decision in the long run.

    I was speaking in reference to what the new publisher could/should do.

  30. I greatly enjoyed reading Talion: Revenant back in college. It was the first of your books that I ever read and the reason I call myself a fan today. I would purchase Talion: Nemesis in a heartbeat, but would you consider releasing it through Amazon? I bought a kindle about a year ago and I love it. If not, I may need to break down and consider getting an apple product of some kind to read your future works on.

  31. I loved Talion: Revenant. Two of the major characters in my current roleplaying campain are called Nolan and Morai 😉 Can’t wait!

  32. Mike, I’m all over your Talion sequel when it comes out.

    Thanks very much for an amazing stream of recent blog posts!

  33. @C.J. Stott:
    Even if not, you could use USB or the Kindle email service to upload the file.


  34. Mike:

    I just wanted to thank you for this post. You have so successfully articulated everything I have believed about the “self-publishing” angle since I first went indie back in 1999.

    To me, there is no doubt that authors will be able to make a decent, sustainable living selling “small” numbers (by mainstream publishing’s reckoning) of digital titles direct to consumers…while having much more creative freedom.

    It’s a future that I am very excited about.

    On the format wars, yes EPub, Kindle and PDF do cover most of the bases…but let me throw in a vote for making available HTML, txt…and maybe RTF.

    IMO, the advantage of HTML and txt is that they are universal and readable on almost any device without any additional software. PDF is quite common but the results can be less than visually pleasing…i.e. the file is formatted with a different screen size, so incessant pan and scrolling is needed once you get a comfortable type size.

    I’m not sold on the long-term viability of the Epub and Kindle formats…maybe they’ll last, maybe not…but I have no doubt that txt and HTML will be still quite common a decade from now.

    Bill Smith,

  35. @Christoph

    I appreciate the suggestion, but loading the file is not the problem. Some formats display differently on the kindle. I have not tried an epub file yet, but my previous experience with pdf’s on the kindle’s screen has been disappointing to say the least.

  36. Ah and this answered the other as well. I would vote for Talion: Nemesis. 🙂

  37. I just wanted to say: Talion sequel? Squee!

  38. Magnus Knoblauch 23. Mar, 2010 at 5:43 am

    I just want to read more fantasy or sci-fi novels from you again. 🙁 I miss your writing terribly.

    But, yeah, a Talion sequel would be awesome, I really liked Nolan and the others.

  39. I support the Talion sequel too.
    I honestly don’t know if I would buy it electronicly- I’ve enough Luddite in me that I really strongly prefer a physical book. But I would cheerfully pay hardback or trade paperback prices while saying “Yes, more Stackpole to read!” And if it is only available electronically, maybe that would be the push to shell out for a reader…

  40. I liked the fruit from the roadside stall analogy so much, I borrowed it as the theme of this post about self publishing. Thanks for the inspiration Michael…


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