Open Letter to Robert J. Sawyer

Dear Robert J. Sawyer,

I wanted to talk to you at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Gold Conference this year, but I never made it over to you. So much excitement, intrigue, and chatting with my tribe. Since I couldn’t speak to you in person, I figured I’d write an open letter, saying now much I loved, loved, loved your talk on Saturday night.

Yeah, it wasn’t all fuzzy puppies and inspiration, but what you said blew me away. My mouth hung open the entire time, and I kept glancing over to see if the publishing industry was sending in shock troops to pull you down from the podium. You were a firebrand, and dang, I kept thinking, “He can’t be saying this stuff. Someone is going to stop him.”

But no one did because you were speaking the truth. Authors are either abused or ignored much of the time. We get paid pennies for our words, even at the professional rate, and we don’t get raises. Pennies a word, like it was the 1920s while agents went from 10% to 15% and publishers are having record years.

I am signing up with the Author’s Guild and I promise to do my part for the resistance.

Yet, the problems authors face are legion. Part of the problem lies with us scribblers ouselves. Maybe all of the problem lies with us.

In this day and age, anyone can write a book and publish a book. I find that amazing, exciting, and wonderful. I think there has never been a better time to be an artist because distribution has been solved. The internet has opened the world up and as artists, we have a platform we can use. Yes, it’s never been noisier and books have never faced the competition we face now.

For example…

Dude, I can watch Sword Art Online on my phone. I can play amazing video games with mind-melting graphics day and night. And TV has never been better. Jessica Jones, man, Jessica Jones.

When I was a new writer, I heard Andrea Brown, the literary agent, speak and she said I’ll hear that books are dead, the publishing industry is in trouble, and it’s the end of days every year for the rest of my life. I will hear that the book business is a goner until I die. So being an author has never, ever been easy. Never.

If all writers wrote books as a business, I think the entire industry would be different. We would be paid better and things would be more fair. However, not all writers write to make money. That, I think, is the crux of the problem.

Some write for status, and I talked about that in a blog post for RMFW last year. I love that post. Here is the link.

Some write books because they love them, and yeah, they publish them, but it’s not really to make money. Andrew Weir wrote The Martian on his blog because he loved hard science fiction. He never really wanted to publish it, but his fans insisted. And he hit it HUGE!

E.L. James wrote because she wanted a sexier Twilight. And she hit it HUGE! And she admits she is not a writer. She just got stupidly lucky.

So what are we to do?

People will always want to read books. Books are magical, and you can’t get the same experience with movies, TV, or video games. Reading is a unique experience.

You are totally right in saying we need to unionize and demand to be treated fair. Whether we can all be loud enough to change the industry, well, I just don’t know.

For me, I am going to write and I am going to publish and I hope to transition to full-time writer at some point, but I have a day job. Like I said, I’m with you. We shall storm the gates of hell.

I’m a hybrid author, I have some Indie stuff, I have some small press stuff, and I’m looking to break into the big game to use their marketing arm, though I’m doubtful about that action working out.

It’s funny, any power I have as a writer comes from readers. Look at what Taylor Swift did with iTunes because she had the clout of her fan base. She forced their hand. I think really successful writers can do the same.

I have a series with Kevin J. Anderson’s WordFire Press, and working with the WFP team has been great (the contracts are extremely author friendly). We are a coalition of independent authors who support each other, and what we do at sci-fi/fantasy conventions has proved very effective in selling books. I feel very lucky.

In the end, we authors do have power. Yeah, Amazon doesn’t have our best interest at heart, but having your own website and selling directly to the customer has never been easier. If I can get enough of a fan base, my options become greater.

So for me, it goes back to writing what I love, playing the game, and continuing the march forward. Staying open and aware to all of the possibilities.

But dang, what a wonderful keynote you made. Moving, shocking, and in the end, I did find it inspiring.

We are a beleaguered group of feisty heroes, marching against an army we have no chance of defeating. We are children of a grand legacy of artists, who have always been out numbered.

And yet, we will soldier on.

Because that is what we do.

Sincerely,

Aaron Michael Ritchey

 

Aaron Ritchey
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Aaron Michael Ritchey is the author of The Never Prayer and Long Live the Suicide King, both finalists in various contests. His third novel, Elizabeth’s Midnight, was called “a transformative tale for those who believe in magic and in a young girl’s heart” by Kirkus Reviews. In shorter fiction, his G.I. Joe inspired novella was an Amazon bestseller in Kindle Worlds and his steampunk story, “The Dirges of Percival Lewand” was part of The Best of Penny Dread Tales anthology published through Kevin J. Anderson’s WordFire Press. The first two books of his young adult sci-fi/western epic series, The Juniper Wars, are available now also from WordFire Press. He lives in Colorado with his wife and two ancient goddesses of chaos posing as his daughters. Learn more about Aaron on his website.

3 thoughts on “Open Letter to Robert J. Sawyer

  1. I’ll grant that Sawyer’s keynote had us talking – and keeps us talking – about the industry and our place in it.

    I don’t agree with much of what he said.

    Amazon is not the Great Satan (okay, I’m paraphrasing). The contracts hammered out between Amazon’s lawyers and the publishing companies’ lawyers are not the same contracts we indies have. I’ll be talking about the bucket of pennies model with Mark Stevens on the RMFW podcast next month.

    I don’t believe that self published authors are ruining publishing. I agree that they are undermining the publishing oligopoly by eroding their stranglehold on distribution.

    I don’t believe that publishing is being disrupted. I believe that reading has been disrupted. It’s an easy mistake to make unless you know what a disruptive innovation is. A lot of people are using that term – disrupted – as a shorthand for “my business model doesn’t work any more.” While that’s a common side effect, it ignores the fundamental principles of innovative disruption – specifically – that the disruption delivers goods/services to an under-served *consumer*.

    Organizing writers into unions doesn’t really seem like a good way to get a living wage for more writers. It looks like a good way for publishers to trim their catalogs further by only accepting books from authors with proven track records. Shatzkin’s comments from the other day underscore this notion that publishers are becoming more risk averse as the market shifts.

    I should note that AG will allow me to become a full member as a self-published author. Their threshold for “professional” is only a little higher than SFWA and their dues are only slightly higher. What I don’t see is any clear rationale as to why I should join. (In fairness, I have that same conversation about SFWA.)

    My big take away from the keynote was that there’s still a lot to talk about.

    Like how do we value our work? By the word? By the cover price? Or by the royalty check.

    Like how do we produce our work? By sweating out a manuscript and tossing it over the fence? Or by owning the work ourselves and producing the works we’re proud of?

    I don’t know. I’m not holding up any answers, but I think there are a lot of questions we could be asking.

    YMMV.

  2. Interesting conversation!

    I, too, loved Sawyer’s talk. He said many new and good things and some things I’ve been trying to say, only he said them very clearly and with a lot more street cred.

    I never got the impression that he hated Amazon or viewed self-publishing as ruinous. In fact, from my short interaction with him and from a few other comments, I have the impression that he fully supports self-publishing. Saying that some stuff on the market is poorly done — and he’s not wrong — is not the same as saying that no one should be putting stuff directly on the market.

    Likewise, no one in books can afford to truly hate Amazon 🙂 but we can be very realistic in how we look at the behemoth. We’ve already seen Amazon reduce royalties in markets where they became dominant. We’ve already seen how companies like Wal-Mart first lower retail prices to kill their local competition and then raise prices while paying suppliers and employees less. Having our eyes open and being watchful is not the same as hating. It’s a reason I have wide distribution instead of being Amazon-exclusive.

    I don’t pretend to know the answer to the union question, but like Nathan, I think there is a lot of discussion which can come out of this. Mostly I think he has a fantastic suggestion that we should not be divided — neither by genres, nor by publishing paths. Writers are writers, and we can all work together.

  3. I didn’t agree with everything he said either, but did it ever hit home when he said that writers were paid pennies per word in the 20s and still are today. The rate of pay has never even attempted to keep up with inflation.

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