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.

* * *

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

31 comments

  • 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.

    And that is the unvarnished truth, Kameron. Would that more people understand that.

  • “Writing is a craft. Publishing is a business.” Might as well print that, stick it to your computer screen, and read it daily until it becomes a career mantra. Then act accordingly. Thanks for this piece, Kameron.

  • I have a question regarding agents – if I’m planning only to self-publish, do I need an agent, or is a lawyer versed in the publishing industry more useful? My understanding of agents is that they serve as liaisons between writers and publishers, which strikes me as unnecessary for self-publishers. Am I (quite probably) missing another vital agent function?

    • Pros of Agents for Independent Publishers:

      1) They often have connections to help sell foreign and media (TV/Movie) rights.

      2) They sometimes have connections to freelance editors and cover artists which could be very helpful.

      3) Experienced agents often have good insights into improving the book itself.

      Cons of Agents for Independent Publishers:

      1) They take 15%, forever, no matter how much or how little it turns out they actually do. And sometimes they don’t do much.

      2) If they work for an agency (or even if they don’t,) they could die/retire/get fired and leave your work in the hands of another agent, who might not be so awesome. Or they could sell their agency outright to another agency.

      3) They may try to apply rules that just don’t work for indiepublishing that they’ve learned in tradpublishing and mess up your book and/or your sales and marketing.

      4) If they want payments sent to them and then to send you your cut, you open yourself to massive financial vulnerability.

      • “1) They take 15%, forever, no matter how much or how little it turns out they actually do. And sometimes they don’t do much.”

        Well, they won’t take 15% of, say, your self-published earnings — that’s yours, unless it goes through something like Amazon White Glove, in which the agents are more explicitly involved.

        “2) If they work for an agency (or even if they don’t,) they could die/retire/get fired and leave your work in the hands of another agent, who might not be so awesome. Or they could sell their agency outright to another agency.”

        Though here, you could just leave the agency, then.

        “3) They may try to apply rules that just don’t work for indiepublishing that they’ve learned in tradpublishing and mess up your book and/or your sales and marketing.”

        Can you explain? The agent doesn’t actually do anything to market your book. That’s not really their bag of tricks. They will have little actual effect on a self-published release that an author doesn’t want them to have.

        “4) If they want payments sent to them and then to send you your cut, you open yourself to massive financial vulnerability.”

        Can you explain this, too? I’m not clear on the ‘financial vulnerability’ aspect. It it just because you’ve set up a middle man in terms of payment?

        — c.

        • As for your last question, I’m not Marc, but I think he means things like this:
          (Sorry, the header on that page is a bit weird). Skip down to the eighth paragraph, where he explains how his agent pocketed royalties due to him.

        • 1) I have seen multiple reports of agents, including agents from large well-known agencies, who expected 15% of everything an author published during the representation, whether the agent had anything to do with it or not, let alone whether it was self-published or not. Many agents may not do that. Most agents may not do that. But some agents will do that. So while my assertion was perhaps a bit strong, the point remains. :)

          2) But you’re still in bed with them, forever, on everything you published during the representation (and maybe sequels and derivative works or even, depending on how bad the representation agreement was, more than that.) If they go all Miss Emily on you, it doesn’t necessarily help that you have another bed to sleep in every other night.

          3) Your agent is teh awesomesauce, noble host, but not all agents are so filled with Win. Many are petty, bossy know-it-alls who would cheerfully apply so-called Great Truths of Publishing to indiepublished books just as readily as they would apply them to to aspiring tradpubbed books. So in that sense, it’s probably not so specific a peril to indipubs, though if you want I can provide some specific examples that apply the principle to indie works.

          4) Essentially, yes. If you have the Bad Kind of Agent in #1, I can totally see them requiring you to set up payments from KDP, et al, to flow through them, which means that you’re in the same boat as the many, many, many authors over the years who have been underpaid, or not paid at all, by their agents. At best it adds delay: at worst, it’s an opportunity for embezzlement on a massive scale. And normally, employees don’t pay their employers: employers pay their employees. I see absolutely no reason for this bizarre setup in the first place, tradpub or indiepub.

          • “1) I have seen multiple reports of agents, including agents from large well-known agencies, who expected 15% of everything an author published during the representation, whether the agent had anything to do with it or not, let alone whether it was self-published or not. Many agents may not do that. Most agents may not do that. But some agents will do that. So while my assertion was perhaps a bit strong, the point remains. :)”

            Eek. That’s onerous. Likely resides in a contract one signs with an agency, though — so hopefully if anyone sees this, they won’t sign it.

            “2) But you’re still in bed with them, forever, on everything you published during the representation (and maybe sequels and derivative works or even, depending on how bad the representation agreement was, more than that.) If they go all Miss Emily on you, it doesn’t necessarily help that you have another bed to sleep in every other night.”

            This is true — and again, resides in the agency contract. Some of this is reasonable — if the agent actually sold the book, then that sale should continue to serve that agent. But sequels/derivatives/other rights — ew, no.

            “3) Your agent is teh awesomesauce, noble host, but not all agents are so filled with Win. Many are petty, bossy know-it-alls who would cheerfully apply so-called Great Truths of Publishing to indiepublished books just as readily as they would apply them to to aspiring tradpubbed books. So in that sense, it’s probably not so specific a peril to indipubs, though if you want I can provide some specific examples that apply the principle to indie works.”

            That’s true, though even here I’m not sure how they would actually affect the indie-published release in any meaningful way.

            “4) Essentially, yes. If you have the Bad Kind of Agent in #1, I can totally see them requiring you to set up payments from KDP, et al, to flow through them, which means that you’re in the same boat as the many, many, many authors over the years who have been underpaid, or not paid at all, by their agents. At best it adds delay: at worst, it’s an opportunity for embezzlement on a massive scale. And normally, employees don’t pay their employers: employers pay their employees. I see absolutely no reason for this bizarre setup in the first place, tradpub or indiepub.”

            Again, this is very much talking about Worst Case Scenario with agents. I’m sure it’s happened, but it also isn’t common.

            — c.

  • Thank you for telling it like it is. Reminds me of Cher slapping Niclas Cage in Moonstruck. “Snap out of it!” I’m smiling grimly at the fact that I’m one of those that needs to study hard before signing my first contract.

    Aloha,

    Doug

    • That helps a lot, but I’d also note that knowing the specifics of publishing contracts and what’s typical is useful. My agent just negotiated something for me where I was like, “Wow, is that a thing we can do?”

      • Being a specialist in a different area, I’m sure that’s very true. You can screw things up royally dabbling in an area where you don’t know what you don’t know!

        I’m also sure I’m a loooong way from this being an actual issue :)

        Thanks for the great advice & your book is now on the TBR list.

        Cheers
        KT

  • Excellent advice. The hardest thing for a new author to do is to bother about the content of the contract. They are given a piece of paper that if they would only sign it they will become a published author. Dream come true. I wager that 90% of new authors in that situation don’t even read it, and of those who do, none of them understand it.

    I have the benefit of a Master’s Degree in business, and a law degree. During the time I practiced (I don’t any more, so don’t ask. I write novels now) I did a lot of contract writing and review. All boilerplate contracts are designed to benefit the person providing it, while providing little or no protection for the person on the other side. For example, most real estate contracts provided by real estate agents say that if they are sued by either party, that both parties are responsible for attorney’s fees. So, if you are the buyer, and the seller sues the agent, you have to pay the agent’s attorney’s fees, even if you had nothing to do with the contract.

    But look at such a contract. It’s a thick, dense, and opaque mountain of gibberish that half the time I didn’t know what the fuck they were trying to say (so I rewrote it). The same is true with a contract with a publisher.

    The contract my publisher gave me was unsignable. I negotiated with them on several points, most of which they agreed to. In the end, the only reason I signed the way it was was that it could be rescinded in its entirety with 90 days’ notice. Now, to me that is not a contract, but an agreement to do something until you don’t want to do it any more, but that makes a lot of the other terms less important. I also retained the copyright.

    There are a few things to takeaway from this post:
    1. All contracts are negotiable.
    2. Have a lawyer read and advise you it. You it’s not that much money. They will explain the thing to you, and tell you how you’ll get fucked if the thing goes south.
    3. Be prepared to walk away.
    4. Know what the fuck you’re signing

  • I would add that what she says about publishers also goes for agents–they are not your friends. In theory an agent may work for you, but in the real world agents need their relationship with a particular publisher far more than their relationship with a particular author. So having an agent tell you that a contract is a good deal is no substitute for checking out the contract independently. Many of the authors that I know who signed terrible contracts did so with the enthusiastic endorsement of an agent.

    • This is a good point. I know many writers who have had three or four agents because of this. It’s also important to find the right fit for where you are in your career. Many agents are just happy to sell whatever you send them, to whoever wants it. If your goal is to build a career and theirs is just to make a sale (and sale) you may find yourself at cross-purposes. Sometimes it’s also a matter of style – some agents are far more hands-on than others, which works for some writers, not for others.

  • If I wasn’t scared before about walking into the Mount Doom that is Getting Published, I sure as heck am now! But that’s probably a very good thing. I know me, and if I’d never read this article I’d be EXACTLY the kind of sap to sign away my entire life to a publisher/agent because they seemed “really nice.” So thank you times a million for writing this post, Kameron – you may have just saved me from my Future Self.

    And ‘The Mirror Empire’ is going on my Wish List – I’ve heard so many good things about it from several different sources that being without it in my paws is no longer an option :)

  • A case in point: My creative memoir earned the college of fine arts and humanities’ outstanding thesis award in 2012 and I immediately got an email from a publishing company. Their deal? Three percent for me and they wanted all international rights, all my research materials, and all my photos. When I wanted to negotiate, they disappeared. No great loss.

  • The best advice I’ve ever heard on approaching publishing contracts went along the lines of “Read the contract assuming that, five minutes after you sign it, your publisher will be hit by a bus and their evil twin will take over the business” — if there’s *anything* that looks like it builds in room for things to go badly for you, push back.

  • Writers by nature know the power of mere words. What an interesting perspective to think about them shielding themselves or being crucified by the power of the words in their contracts. And people say there are no spells in the real world.

  • I’ve never heard “boilerplate” used quite that way, but I’ve always had an agent. From my experience, “boilerplate” means a clause that not even an agent can negotiate, at least to any real degree.

    The problem I’ve had is new writers saying, “I don’t care about money, I just want readers.”

    They don’t understand that it doesn’t work this way, and that not making money is far from the worst thing that can happen to a writer.

    • That may be what agents think it means, but it is not what lawyers think it means, and that is Reason #106 why most people would be way better served by having a good IP lawyer than an agent, if they could only have one or t’other.

      • “That may be what agents think it means, but it is not what lawyers think it means, and that is Reason #106 why most people would be way better served by having a good IP lawyer than an agent, if they could only have one or t’other.”

        I don’t agree with the lawyer over agent sentiment — in Hollywood, most IP lawyers are good stuff. In publishing, most IP lawyers don’t know the deals. They don’t know what they can get, they don’t have relationships with publishers, etc.etc. — if one is concerned, paying a lawyer to look over a contract is fine, though I wouldn’t expect them to actually court deals for you, because that’s not their job.

        It is, however, an agent’s job.

        — c.

  • I guess there is more business to writing than just the publishing side. You’ll either write for fun (and then you can ignore it) or you want it to provide your chow (than every aspect of writing will be business: from research to marketing, from style to topic).

    Concerning the points from Kameron, i can only agree. With my first (and so far only) book, i made every possible mistake. But luckily i was able to buy the rights back (for far more than i received in the first place) and (slowly) got back into the black ;-).

  • Such a great post. Thanks to both Chuck and Kameron for posting. I think learning about “the business side” is HUGELY important for authors. The industry is tight lipped, but there is a lot of information out there – especially from hybrid authors who do both. You really need to be up on “both sides” of writing…both the creative and the business.

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