Ode To Traditionally Published Authors

I just got back from the annual Sisters in Crime luncheon in Chicago’s Greek Town where I was one of the guest speakers, along with Sara Paretsky and Barb D’Amato. All of us were at one time President of the National organization, which many of you know is dedicated to the development and promotion of female mystery authors. Of course, there were lots of questions about today’s publishing environment, and what authors and/or aspiring authors should do.

I “grew up” in the traditionally published world, behind Sara and Barb, both of whom are among my favorite authors . Sara has been on the NY TImes Best-Seller list more times than I can count, and Barb’s books have been highly acclaimed with praise and awards as well. They are authors who probably don’t have to worry about the “new world,” although Sara does do Facebook and Twitter, for those of you who are interested. I, on the other hand, am not as storied as they are, and do have to navigate this Brave New World.

Someone at the luncheon asked us what we see as the biggest change in the new age of publishing. I decided to expand on my answer with this blog. Again, this turned out to be longer than I wanted. So get comfy before you start.

As it happens, I was thinking of writing a blog geared specifically to traditionally published authors even before the luncheon, but then two other authors beat me to the punch. I highly recommend you read both blogs. Each makes excellent points, but one is more closely aligned with my personal philosophy, and veers close to what I wanted to talk about.

First, the blogs. Edan Lepucki, who attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop says this. And Kris Rusch, a prolific author who’s been published in several genres says this.

Now, a bit of background: I’ve generally had wonderful experiences with traditional publishers. I started at Penguin. Berkley Crime Time published my four Ellie Foreman mass markets. At the same time  the hard covers of those mass markets were published in a unique (at the time) subsidiary rights arrangement with Poisoned Pen Press. Berkley subsequently dropped me, but Poisoned Pen kept me in print. In fact Barbara Peters and Rob Rosenwald are responsible for saving my career, and I will always be indebted to them. I went on to publish my two Georgia Davis thrillers with Bleak House Books when Ben and Alison were around, and they were fabulous. Now I’m with Allium Press of Chicago and Emily is a dream to work with.

However, the most valuable lesson came when I was dropped by Penguin.

It was not a good day. Not at all. I cried. I drank. I ranted. But when I finally picked myself up off the floor,  I realized that if I was going to survive in this business, I had to become a business. Sure, I liked the cachet of being a writer with a modest following and modicum of respect, but bottom line, I needed to step in and control my career, such that it was. Poisoned Pen did make it easier, but despite their support,  I needed to learn how the business works, where I belonged in it, and how I could grow. I hate to say I realized I had to “brand” myself, because it’s such a cliché now, but a lot of my efforts were and are exactly that. Building my brand. My “inventory”… my “stock.”

And that, traditionally published authors, is an attitude that self-published authors have WAAAY over most of you. You have been managed by publishers and agents, perhaps to the point that Stockholm Syndrome has set in. You feel unable or unwilling to do anything to upset the apple cart. You are trying to please THEM, whereas it should be the other way around.

I remember when I was starting out and authors would say, “well, my agent told me…” or “I have to run this by my agent/editor/publisher (take your pick).”  At the time I thought they were bragging… as in, I’m important and good enough to have an agent, editor, et al. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe they really did ask their agent’s permission before they wrote a short story or went to a conference or started a new series. If they did, or if you do, might I suggest you re-examine what you’re doing in this business? You are — or should be — the boss. Your agent works for you. You license your work to a publisher. You make the decisions.

Unfortunately, not enough traditional published authors have that attitude. But pretty much every self-published author I’ve ever come across DOES. And they’re constantly coming up with ways to add value to their brands. I am involved with a group of indie authors. I’m also involved with a group of traditionally published authors, and I’ve got to admit that the indie authors are the ones with the creative ideas. They are always thinking and willing to experiment, sometimes in ways I’ve never considered. But they are also always focused on the bottom line. What will this do for us? For me? For our sales?

Does this mean I have “gone Indie?” Of course not. I hope to continue to be published traditionally. I love the community, the reviews, the relationships, the bookstores. However, I now evaluate every opportunity that comes my way, including those from traditional publishers, to see if it is a sound business decision.

Btw, those decisions don’t always involve dollars and cents. Sometimes it might be wiser for me to be published traditionally, despite not making a lot of money, knowing I will get reviews that will be worth their weight in gold down the road. Or perhaps the distribution of the traditional publisher is deeper and wider what I could do myself.

Other times, it might make more sense for me to publish myself. Particularly if it’s a prequel or a sequel to an ongoing series. Or a short story that sets up or concludes the series. Or an audiobook that I can produce through ACX (which is a godsend for midlist authors, btw… If you have the audio rights to your books, RUN, don’t walk to ACX.com right now.)

Still other times, I might be in it primarily for the bucks.

But, you see, that’s my choice. Yours too.

I know several indie authors who refused deals with reputable agents, because they concluded an agent couldn’t do anything for them that they couldn’t do on their own. I know other indie authors who have signed with agents. I know plenty of traditionally published authors who are producing e-books of their backlists just to have them available. I know other traditional authors who are doing e-books because any dollar they make is found money.

None of these reasons are stupid. They are all the result of authors who have seen the writing on the wall. And that writing says “Writing is my business. Not my agent’s. Not my editor’s. Mine.”

To that end, I want to again recommend Kris Rusch’s latest blogpost. If you are a traditionally published author, eventually you’re going to be signing a new contract. You should – at the very least – be aware of the issues that will impact you now and into the future. Read this. Print it out. Keep it near you in contract negotiations. Remember that contract is skewed toward a publisher’s interests, not yours. Don’t automatically accept everything without knowing what you are giving up. Ask yourself, or a lawyer, (I recommend you hire one to review the contract), whether it’s a fair contract. If it’s not, what price are you paying? Can you live with it?

You don’t have to. You do have options. But only if you take control. Btw, this is not rocket science. All it requires is a slight shift in your mental attitude. From… “they like me, they really like me”… to  “What are you doing for me today? Tomorrow? For the long term?”

See? Not hard at all.

Have a great week.


PS It happened again…  You know that sophisticated drug tunnel they found on the border?  Well, Georgia Davis knows all about it. Life imitiates DOUBLEBACK.