Saturday 7 April 2018

What I've learnt from 10 years in this industry

I haven't posted in a while, so...

*wipes off dust* *puts up some fresh flowers* *opens shutters*

Right, that's better. 2018 got a little bit busier and more distracting than I'd have liked. Job is still busy, then February was marred (and busy) due to my partner getting a really nasty bout of food poisoning, and March saw the biggest catfishing scandal yet as well as turbulence around a big publisher and a formerly influential person in the industry, plus announcements that other publishers are closing. Regular followers of this blog (or anybody following me on social media, really) know that one of my predictions every year since 2014 has been: We ain't seen nothing yet.

The good news is: I think we're largely through the big publisher shakeout. I expect 2-3 further deaths of publishers over the next 6-18 months, and I know one is in the works that's not yet common knowledge. So as publishers pop like soap bubbles, leaving nothing but a vaguely soapy smell and a few microdrops of liquid if they go nicely or a hell of a lot of authors stiffed out of their royalties if they don't go nicely, I see responses from authors that largely consist of: "WTF? BUT WHERE WHERE CAN WE TURN NOW?"

And that's a legit question, after the deaths of heavyweights Samhain Publishing, Torquere, Loose Id (imminent), and a host of small and medium ones. I made a list once and we've seen around 15 publishers close in the market since the KUkalypse punched the floor out of our industry.

Short answer: pull head from the sand, get organised, get back-up, get educated, get in control of your own career. I founded a GLBTQ self-publisher group on Facebook for that end. Feel free to join. It's a no-promo, moderated group for questions around self-publishing.

(Aside, has anybody else noticed how many former "big name" authors who would reliably publish a book or several a year mysteriously stopped in around 2015? Yeah, me too. Some have simply vanished - pop goes the soap bubble - others are still around on social media but seemingly not writing. I know a couple formerly very productive full-time authors with decent-sized royalty cheques who got a day job and vanished. I'm one of the authors who were previously aiming to go full-time and then saw the road before me washed away thanks for Kindle Unlimited and quickly U-turned, and thank gods I did.)

Long answer: The game has changed. It changed in mid-2014 thanks to Amazon tilting over the apple cart. Many players in the industry spent 2015, 2016 and sometimes even 2017 in denial, hoped for a return to the good old days and some have woken up to the fact that those days are over. We're heading straight for winter. The publisher deaths have most definitely shown that the industry isn't the same - neither are profit margins, or financial return on investment. There's a reason some publishers have been pushing hard into other language markets (German, French) and audiobooks - there's still a bit of money to be earned there, but it requires capital to get to those few pools of fresh water.

In my about 10 years in the industry, here's a few things I've learned, and they're really common sense.

1) Have a legal agreement in place with a co-writer, before you write a book. You might think that rights and money won't be a problem as you'll just signed up with a publisher and they'll handle royalties and money. Wrong. What if the publisher goes down, what if your "bestie author friend forever and ever" thing doesn't last and you're no longer friends, or even no longer talking? I've seen a lot of co-writer relationships go from "OMG LUV U 4EVAR" to icy silence, at times mutual legal threats. What if the book you write earns $10,000+? Will you still be friends when that kind of money comes in? How well do you really know that random person you met on the internet? Spend the money on a lawyer, it'll save you tears, anxiety, stress and possibly having to go to court. At the very, very least, put down in writing who owns what, who has what rights to which characters/plots, what happens in case of your (or their) death.

2) Don't catfish; don't lie about who you are: Our genre has a weakness for "pretty young gay/bi  male writers" - as the catfishing scandal with Santino Hassell has shown. And "Santino" wasn't the first or the last. I've seen a lot of catfish; they burst onto the scene, they have lots of sob stories, collect money for illnesses, disabilities, or whatever story they'll tell, and always have a catastrophe ready in time for their next book release. The nastier ones organise their fanbase into some kind of stormtroopers and attack dogs (there are quite a few authors that people don't DARE review negatively on Goodreads) and weaponise them. We have female authors who pretended to be gay men because "everybody did it", "that sells more books", "those were different times", and who had the balls to then attack female writers as writing "bad men", "bad gay sex" or "exploiting the gay/queer experience" - while doing the exact same thing. Catfish make the industry unsafe for actual queer people - such as trans* guys who'll inhabit the male role because it's authentic to them. Every catfish makes trans* people less safe, less accepted. I can't even begin to talk of the damage that Santino Hassell (and her catfish sisters) have done to transfolks I know. Don't do it. This is a genre where being a woman (or other) is perfectly acceptable. Women writers sell a hell of books. Don't make people unsafe for kicks and to maybe sell a couple more books. You'll be found out and burn everything you've built. "Santino" lost a dozen or so publishing contracts and all credibility, and that's a LOT of work she put into books (*playing the world's tiniest violin here*). She also royally screwed her co-writers (see point 1).

3) Have a pseudonym; don't share your personal information on the internet, or really with anybody: Almost related to 2). I've had close contact with readers, fellow authors, and a smattering know my "real name" (I'll argue that point, as my "real name" is the name give to me by others, and this name is the name I've chosen for myself). Based on how quickly relationships go sour, make sure nobody can weaponise the knowledge against you. There are stories of publishers referring to authors by their "real name" rather than their author name at conventions or in other public spaces, but even without that kind of shocking breach of privacy, use your pseudonym always. Get a PO box or similar if you need to receive mail. Don't give anybody personal information. There are stalkers out there who'll hunt you down in the real world for shits and giggles. I've heard too many stories of employers etc receiving "things you want to know about your employee" emails with screenshots etc. Being active in the industry is like sex - always play safe. Always have one layer of protection between you and the nasties. Get used to saying, "I'm $pseudonym", do not add, "but my real name is $real_name." In this industry, your pseudonym is your real name. Feel free to use your real first name if having a second name is too disturbing. Personally, I turn my head if anybody around me addresses an "Alex" even in a professional work context. This is my real name.

4) Don't make this your only gig (aka Don't Quit Your Day Job): I'm re-iterating what I said further up. I've seen authors quit their day jobs in 2012 and return to work in 2016. Some gave up teaching positions or jobs that are hard to get back into to chase the dream. Gods, dreams are powerful, and so are myths. Anybody who's ever taken a pen in hand to write a story has that dream of "quitting the day job" (raising my hand here). And some people hit that income threshold, whether it's $1,000/month, or $2,000 or $3,000. And there are some very rare cases who can make it work - having a spouse who makes a hell of a lot of cash, or standing to inherit a cool million from rich parents absolutely helps, as does the sustained ability to write a novel a month that people want to read, and by sustained I mean 5-35 years, because that's your job and you'll likely have to do it until old age hits (and I hope you paid into a pension during that time!). For Americans, make sure your healthcare is covered somehow, because being too ill to write can happen. In some cases, that's not an option. There are authors who are disabled, ill, carers and/or already retired. Everybody's circumstances are different. Sadly, I've seen authors who were doing rather well in the boom years of the early 2010s end up having to rely on Kickstarters and GoFundMes.

5) It's winter and we don't know whether there will be a spring (aka "patience, diligence, hard work"): Being a writer in the genre was pretty easy while it was growing. I knew a dozen people who were pulling in six figures a year. The genre has changed, there are more writers, more books being written, and I don't think the genre is growing anymore. Competition is hard. Being seen is difficult and can feel impossible. Staying productive as your income stagnates at a (low) level isn't easy. I know very talented writers who are just about breaking even - they can pay for covers and edits with their takings, but don't actually make any money. In that place, being a writer feels like having homework every day without ever graduating. There's never a prom ball where you're the king or queen of the ball. Plus the nasty high school cliques are out there and trying to get you. All of that is true and I still believe - almost against evidence - that people who put in their work, who keep writing, who keep learning, who keep at it will get "there" (wherever "there" is for you). We don't know whether things will ever change or get easy again. The only thing we can do is to put in the work and cultivate ourselves to the point where we show up and do it, and keep doing it, and remain patient. Patience, hard work and diligence can wear down mountains. Be more like Dashrath Majhi. Find your mountain and carve a road through it.

6) Look after yourself: The single most important resource you have is your ability to work, ie your own body and mind. I know authors with chronic pain, authors struggling with postural issues, and gods know I've always chosen "write another chapter" over "hitting the gym" when given the choice. The truth is, looking after yourself - nutrition, keeping your body in working order, hydration, and sleep, means you will be more productive in the long run. After I hit my forties I realised that I really need a full night's sleep to function at my mental peak. I've learned exercises to release the back pain I sometimes got from too much sitting. This year is also the year I'm starting to seriously tackle my weight. Does that mean I'll write less? Maybe in the short run. It's not worth to write more when you can't move or your body deteriorates while you force out yet another chapter. You're not just a machine that has to function in order to write. You're not just a typing machine. Keep yourself in the best possible condition so you'll be able to write for many more years.

7) A career is made up of many books: Some people think writing 1, 3 or 5 books will change their lives, thanks to the media which focuses on the "debut wonders". To be honest, the only thing that does change after book 1 is the sudden realisation of "I can actually write a book!", which, yeah, is magickal. Regarding making a life of it, try 10, 30, or 50. I have friends who've written 200 books. One more is no big deal. They show up for work, they give it their all, and once it's written, they write the next. Writing can be like breathing in that way. Once you start, it's just something you do. Write it, write it best you can, try to keep learning with each one. Write the next. Keep going.

8) All eggs in one basket = bad idea: Over and over, I've seen authors fall in love with publishers and give them all, or most, of their books. Then that publisher goes belly-up, and the same author might get stiffed out of five or six figures as the "bestie friend publisher" runs for the hills, taking the royalties with them (Silver was such a case). Even if the publisher releases the books, you might end up in a place where you get back 20-40 books in one go when the publisher closes shop. That might mean commissioning new covers, possible re-editing, doing layout, or trying to find a new house for them (spoiler: almost nobody publishes previously published stuff anymore, and the few houses that do will be flooded with the hundreds of books from that publisher that just went out of business). Doing all that is an almighty pain in the neck - plus expensive and time-consuming. Minimise that risk. And this doesn't apply to Amazon self-publishing - Amazon is a hell of a lot stronger and much, much more stable than any small niche press. But even then I'm personally against going Amazon exclusive.

9) There's almost nothing that a publisher can or will do that you can't do or hire in more cheaply: I've run the numbers backwards and forwards, and it's pretty clear from all calculations that you can produce and promote books more cheaply when you do it yourself. You can hire a cheap editor, you can get decent covers for a few dollars these days, and you can hire a promo company if you don't have time to deal with bloggers and reviewers yourself. Giving a publisher 60% of your income forever might look like a good deal in year one, and then gets a worse and worse deal as the years roll through. (Caveat, there are lots of publishers I like and I might work with them in the future, but I'm at least 95% a self-publisher now and can't even begin to express how much I prefer that.) If you need help, join us in the group on Facebook and we'll help.

10) Don't be "just a writer": I learned that the hard way, when writing was the only thing I did. I neglected friendships, fitness, health, relationships (etc, etc) to be able to write another chapter. When people ask me how I write so much, I tell them "I don't have a social life and I don't watch telly." That's actually no longer true. I have relationships and friendships and I take time out to cultivate them. Yes, many of those people are artists and writers but they're more than that. I like them as people. I now binge stuff on Netflix. I spend more time with my partner. I made space again for other interests, I recovered my spirituality, I'm acquiring skills I'm interested in. All of that takes time I could spend on "doing another chapter", but I get a lot more out of being a well-rounded human being than being a speedfreak flesh typewriter. True story.

11) Honour your team/your readers: Over those past 10 years, I've seen authors being utterly horrible to their readers, their editors, their cover artists. For some, that seems to be a method. I've seen authors play readers against readers by creating an "inner circle" and admitting and excluding people on a whim, at times even disclosing secrets (real names, HIV status), and generally stirring the pot, manipulating people emotionally and mentally and then gaslighting them when they get caught. Just don't. Treat your readers with respect, because readers are the difference between "writing for yourself" and publishing. Publishing requires readers. Cultivate gratitude for every single one of them. Credit your artists, credit your editors for their hard work that can be invisible. Give kudos where due, where possible. It takes a team to create a book, and whether that team came together because of a publisher or because you hired them doesn't matter. Be grateful, be humble, honour the work and investment and love and energy of others.

12) Love the work: Don't write to quit the day job (though having goals is great), don't write for the money. Cherish the act of writing, the power of creation, the "laughing at your own jokes" and "falling in love with people who don't exist". That in itself is the reward of the path. Make it about "doing", right now and here, and not about a lack (of money, time, fame). Just decide you are a writer and do the writing, and the "having" will follow - whatever the "having" is for you. 


  1. Awesome!! #5 is always the most painful to accept

  2. These are all truths, and they've been mine for a couple years now, some of them longer than others. Thanks for sharing, sometimes it's good to know someone else out there does actually see things the way I do, that I'm not hallucinating, or doing it wrong.

  3. All good points.

    I'll just keep chugging away at my first drafts, and see where they'll lead me :)

  4. Thank you for sharing your thouhgts.This post was an excellent job! Maybe there will be better days for authors in the future, but for now we have to take what we can get and start from where we stand right now.

  5. Just a reader here, glad that people like you are writing and willing to share your earned wisdom. I wish you every strength

  6. Yes. #12 especially. Great post!

  7. Yes to all of this. Almost all of my eggs are in the self-publishing basket now and it feels like an uphill job to work out how to make that work. But having been two or three times burned by publishers, I'm not keen to go back to them even if there were lots of them around.

  8. I'm currently stuck at number 10 lol - but plan to change that this year :)