Interesting Times: A Writer’s Survival Guide

09 February 2016

Bestselling US author Dorien Kelly on how we can make these interesting times the best of times to be a writer.

There is a saying we hear in my country and perhaps yours that is part blessing and part curse: “May you live in interesting times.” It seems that for the creatives – the artists, the musicians and writers among us – life has always been full of peril as we try to share our work with the world. But as life speeds up and information bombards us, our industry has grown interesting indeed.

The gates of popular fiction were no longer guarded by the publishers.

Thirteen years ago, when my first novel was published, the greatest challenge was actually getting published. Once you had an agent to hold your hand, a publishing contract and an editor to call your own, you felt as though you had really reached success. You were most usually ushered through the publishing process with people there to support you but, in my experience at least, life began to change about ten years ago, because people were reading less and were finding more entertainment elsewhere, courtesy of the internet. My publishers reduced their editorial staff, so that the editor who had once taken great pains to help me enhance my story was now more of a copy editor, correcting only small errors. The publisher’s publicist, who at least once had presented publicity plan that included a few print advertisements, was now a mythical creature – harder to find than the unicorn. (I will add that with my publishers at least, I have never been able to get them to give more than a vague description of the sort of publicity that they would provide. I have been at this a very long time and it’s not customary in the US for them to give you a detailed plan in your contract.) It fell, and continues to fall, more and more to the writer to find a way to make one’s work stand out, to try and create the word of mouth that makes sales grow.

But some have done what we creators do best: they have innovated.

And then times grew even more interesting for me. In large part thanks to the technologies that make e-books attractive to readers, the gates of popular fiction were no longer guarded by the publishers but broken down by the ‘barbarian’ self-publishers – and I say this to you as a barbarian self-publisher – so don’t get me wrong. Over at the publishing houses in a very short time, I watched advances to new authors drop precipitously and I watched my overworked editors given even more authors to handle, if they were lucky enough to keep a job at all. In fact I lost my very favourite editor very quickly. Traditional publishing struggled, while at the same time some of the truly talented, and yes, very lucky, self-publishers of popular fiction found and grew a phenomenal audience. Many of my traditionally published colleagues reacted with anger, as though successful self-publishers had somehow cheated them. But I knew that beneath their anger was fear. Fear that their role was changing and that they could not, or would not, keep up. I would remind them that change is truly our only constant in life and that it could be exciting to embrace it, if we can find the courage. Some of my friends left the industry altogether. Some remained only with their traditional publishers and learned to live with their declining revenues from work.

But some have done what we creators do best: they have innovated. They have accepted that other writers are not only their competition but also one of their strongest tools for success as they build a career in this electronic age. They have realised that perhaps what seems like disaster is in fact a blessing, because this is one of the best times to be a writer. Our choices are actually growing, and we have more power now to share our work with the world and be fairly compensated.

I’d suggest that only through cooperation are we going to be able to supply the care and attention that our traditional publishers once could.

If we are careful when reviewing our contract terms with our traditional publishers to be certain that we’re not bound to a ‘non-compete’ clause that would forbid us from self-publishing, and, if we think to the future, be certain that our reversion rights in an out-of-print clause are able to be quickly and fairly acted upon, we can both publish traditionally and self-publish. And this is where working with our peers can be such a positive thing. What our publishers were once able to do for us in great abundance, we can now do for ourselves.

n 2012, I was lucky enough to join with nine other writers of mystery, thrillers and romance in order to cross promote each other’s works to our readers, and also to share information about both our traditional publishing contracts and our efforts at self-publishing. We happened to create a legal entity to do this because we were choosing to also publish a non-fiction book (The Naked Truth About Self-Publishing) and some fiction, but an arrangement can be much less formal than that.

The key was choosing our numbers wisely by looking at the strengths of each person. I brought a legal background as well as a decade in traditional publishing. Others brought marketing talent as well as their reputations as authors. And then some were the outliers: those who were making awe-inspiring amounts of money by self-publishing their novels. And yes, I’ll admit, I was a little jealous of all the money they were making.

Together, we have found that we can keep on top of almost the daily changes in self-publishing and in the traditional publishing industry. We can watch Amazon and see how they change not only their visibility algorithm but also discuss what we feel is their ultimate goal with their subscription service. Under the Amazon subscription program, which many self-publishers now use, an author must publish a work only with Amazon and no place else. While each person must make their own career decisions, I never advocate for any system that requires exclusivity. We can (and should) work with Apple iBooks in order to see them grow to a robust platform, because the more choices we have as writers, the stronger our business will be, and the better we control our futures.

We even have a translation expert in our author support group and now I understand what rights translators hold in other nations and what the expected rate of pay might be, so I can decide whether it makes sense for me economically to self-publish my works in translation. We share piracy sites as soon as we find them: we always discuss what services might work best to have our works taken down on the piracy sites because, as you know, as soon as one site is taken down, another pops up the very next day.

Share contract terms. Share the increase in sales that you might, or might not, have experienced through certain types of advertising.

I’d suggest that only through cooperation are we going to be able to supply the care and attention that our traditional publishers once could. And whether we’re traditionally published, self-published, or both, we only become stronger by sharing information: that, at least in my experience back in the dark ages ten years ago, authors tended to keep to themselves. They were afraid to share this information, yet now, as we share our power has grown.

If you’re starting out, I urge you to find people that you trust and work with them openly. Share contract terms. Share the increase in sales that you might, or might not, have experienced through certain types of advertising. Be open to changes and suggestions from your peers. These are interesting times – really. But with determination, they can also be the most satisfying of our professional lives. And I wish you the very best in yours.

© Dorien Kelly


Dorien Kelly is a New York Times bestselling author of sixteen novels and four novellas. She also works as Administrator of Authors Coalition of America LLC, an association of twenty-two independent authors’ organizations representing text writers, songwriters, visual artists, illustrators and photographers. Dorien holds a Juris Doctor, magna cum laude from Michigan State University School of Law.

This speech was originally given at the International Authors Forum meeting of creators in Puebla, Mexico, in October 2015.