Kameron Hurley: Surviving The Game (Writing As Business)

Well, hello, Hugo-winning author, Kameron Hurley. Why, yes, you may swing by the blog to talk about writing as a business, and slap a little sense into all of us gabbling little art-monkeys. And sure, people should totally know about your brand new epic fantasy, The Mirror Empire, which is written with such punk verve and angry earnestness that I cannot help but adore it.

Everybody else: gather around. Kameron has words for you.

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“Look man, I do what I can do to help y’all. But the game is out there, and it’s either play or get played.”

– Omar Little, The Wire

I had a colleagues come to me recently gushing excitedly about selling their first novel in a two-book deal. “That’s fabulous!” I said.

“I mean… the advance isn’t a lot of money, but I know the publishers and they are great people,” they said.

“Do you have an agent?”

“Oh, well… it’s not for very much money. It’s like $500.”

Alarm bells started going off in my brain. A $500 advance is basically just “go away” money. It’s pat-you-on-the-head ha ha money. “Oh, well… what kinds of rights are they asking for?” I said.

“Oh, you know, everything. World English rights, foreign rights, movie rights…”

“OK, stop right there. You’re going to give a publisher complete ownership of your novels, including movie rights, for $500?”

“Well, the publishers are really nice people…”

Ok, my friends, let’s back up. I know a lot of people in publishing. Many of them are super nice. Very few of them are your actual friends. Publishers are running a business, and surprise! Your work is the product. It’s their job to get it as cheaply as they can and control as much of it as they can. It’s your job to license it to them for as much money as you can, with as little control over its various formats as possible. That is the game. That’s the business.

Whether you’re self-publishing through online platforms (yes, by publishing on a platform you’re agreeing to a business arrangement – ever check the terms and conditions?) or publishing traditionally, you are a vendor/contractor agreeing to give someone else a portion of the proceeds of your work in return for a service – in the case of those online platforms, you’re paying for the platform itself. In traditional publishing, you’re paying for editors, marketing, covers, distribution, and sales teams.

Either way, you have entered into a business relationship. You’ve become a businessperson, whether you like it or not.

And those businesses you’re partnering with? Are looking out for their best interests, not yours.

I hear this a lot in publishing “Oh, but they are such nice people!” The people at my current publisher, Angry Robot, are super nice people. I love them to pieces. But I’ve seen their boilerplate contracts. Many of the editors at Tor – also nice people! But… I’ve seen their boilerplate, too. Name a publisher and I can name you nice people there who nevertheless will hand over boilerplate contracts to new writers because that’s simply corporate policy (“Boilerplate” refers to a standard, unnegotiated contract that the publishing house’s lawyers have approved and hope authors will blindly sign, thinking it can’t be negotiated or that it must be totally on the up and up because shouldn’t a major publishing house be trustworthy? No more than any other corporation, my friends). Publishers and online platforms like Amazon and Kobo are not here because they necessarily love authors and the written word (some do) but because there is money to be made. They offer their services because they are businesses.

You are too.

There have been a long string of really nice people running publishing houses who still stole their authors’ royalties, went bankrupt, or worse. Someone being “really nice” says nothing about what kind of deal they’ll offer you. At the end of the day, you can be sure that even if you’re thinking that writing is a happy, pleasant friendly circle jerk among friends, your publishers are thinking they’re engaged in a money-making business, and they’re treating it as such. Even if you’re signing with some mom-and-pop shop publisher that’s your best friend and her husband stapling pamphlets themselves, if you sign over all your rights to them, your rights become something they own, so if they go bankrupt or want to sell off rights to license your work to someone else, you’ll have zero say in the matter.

All that protects you in this business is the language in your contract. And that’s language that you sit down and study before anything goes wrong, when everything looks great, when you’re heady with the idea of publishing your first book, or your first book with a major press, or your first series, or whatever. It can be difficult to imagine, in that heady, carefree moment, all the things that could go wrong. But having been through many things that went wrong in my career, let me say this: there’s a lot that could go wrong, and you need to keep your head out of the clouds when you’re sitting down with a contract.

I get, though, I do: it’s easy to forget that publishing is a business when you’re just thankful somebody bought your work. A lot of newer writers get terrified that if they push at the contract in any way, that the offer will be rescinded.

But here’s a secret, folks: publishers buy your work because they think they can make money on it. If they don’t think they can make money on it, they’re not going to offer you a contract at all.

Secret number two: having a crappy publisher who owns your series and squats on all the rights to it is far, far, worse than having no publisher at all.

I have a colleague who, on realizing he wasn’t just a writer, but an actual small business now, went through the Small Business for Dummies book cover to cover, looked up additional resources from the book, and read those too, just to get a solid understanding of stuff like taxes, negotiations, profit and loss, vendor relationships, contracting workers (assistants are awesome, when you reach a certain level of busy). It’s been invaluable to how they think about writing and publishing as a business, and getting ahead in said business.

The biggest mistake writers make when they first get into the publishing game is thinking we’re all friends and everyone is here because words are magical. I love stories. I’m quite passionate about them, and I understand their power. But after the meltdown of my first publisher, and the horror and agony of realizing all that protected me was contract language, I’ve become a lot more savvy to the business end of things.

And that doesn’t just mean signing everything your agent sends you without looking at it, either. Having an agent isn’t enough. Agents are human too, and stuff slips through. At the end of the day, this is your work, and you’re the one responsible when you affix your signature to a legal document. When I signed my new deal with Angry Robot Books for The Mirror Empire and its first sequel, I went over the contract so carefully that I ended up catching a typo in the boilerplate that apparently no other author or agent in Angry Robot’s six years as a publisher had ever caught.

I am very careful about what I sign.

I’ve spent my whole life studying writing, from storytelling basics to matters of craft; learning the rules only to bust them all down again. I’m working constantly to get better – at plotting, at character, at slow information reveals. When I read books now, I don’t lose myself to somewhere else so much as I’m actively studying these novels the way I would a text book. How did the writer pull off that narrative switch? How did they lead up to this big reveal?

Yet few writing workshops or writing advice essays talk about the business end of being a writer. Folks who level up in craft well enough to start selling work are a far smaller pool of potential readers/consumers of writing advice than people just generally interested in writing, so you don’t see these frank discussions happening as often. Pair that with the notoriously tight-lipped nature of writers about the publishing business, who still fear reprisals even for talking about stuff publicly that everyone knows (like the fact that boilerplate contracts are not friendly to writers, duh), and you get a perfect recipe for naïve writers raised that just being creative and knowing how to word well will make them super successful.

A writer with no head for business isn’t going to make a living with the words they write, no matter how glorious, how well-crafted, how extraordinary they are, outside an incredible run of good luck. In truth, there are few things more heartbreaking than an absurdly talented writer who cannot take criticism, budget for taxes, cut loose from a bad agent or publisher, or look out for their own interests. When I look back at the writers who came before me, I see a lot of seminal work from writers who died poor and in pain, owing huge amounts of back taxes, ground under by a business that is built – just like any other business – to benefit corporations and the already-well-monied. Words are grist for the mill. Words run the world, and like any other worker, we’re very often ground down to get that product.

This rule applies wherever and however you publish that work, or generate income from writing, because the reality is that most successful writers are publishing with big houses, putting up their own work online, and doing freelancing work for corporations and small businesses on the side – yes, all three, and more, in varying combinations. Becoming a one-person writing business, an entrepreneur, is a far less romantic idea than drinking a beer on the beach for an hour while fiddling with your laptop and cashing checks, I know, but welcome to being a professional author.

This is a business, and the sooner you start thinking of it as a business, the less time you’ll spend mucking around yelling at clouds because the world hasn’t recognized your genius yet.

So get an agent. Educate yourself about publishing contracts, about rights splits and licenses, about taxes and negotiations. Start studying up on how to manage yourself as a business, not just a person who writes. There are a billion places out there who want to tell you how to write, and sell you on how to write. But once you can write, you need to do more. You must take charge of your own career, or someone else will take charge of it for you.

You will get a lot further, and be a lot happier, as the master of your own game.

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Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire, as well as the award-winning God’s War Trilogy, comprising the books God’s WarInfidel, and Rapture. She has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. Hurley has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed MagazineYear’s Best SFEscapePodThe Lowest Heaven, and the upcoming Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women.

Kameron Hurley: Website | Twitter

Mirror Empire: Amazon | B&N | Indiebound