The main mission of The Creative Penn is to empower authors to take control of their writing career, so it’s wonderful to interview business-minded, traditionally published author, Ruth Ware, on the show today. She explains why self-editing is the key to writing a book that might get a book deal, plus why authors need to understand their contracts and to always think like a freelancer, not an employee.
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Ruth Ware is the award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of five crime thriller novels, including In a Dark, Dark Wood and The Woman in Cabin 10, which have both been optioned for screen adaptation. Her books have been published in over 40 languages. Her next book is The Turn of the Key.
- On changing genres and changing pen names
- How publishing has changed since Ruth got involved in the early naughts, including a shift in the balance of power
- On the language of love and relationships in publishing
- The reality of being a full-time writer and why you are always a freelancer, not an employee.
- The pros and cons of selling world rights
- The intricacies of publishing contracts
- The importance of peer support when contract terms are unfamiliar
You can find Ruth Ware at ruthware.com and on Twitter @RuthWareWriter
Transcript of Interview with Ruth Ware
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I’m Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com, and today I’m here with Ruth Ware. Welcome, Ruth.
Ruth: Hello, and thank you so much for having me.
Joanna: Oh, it’s great to have you on the show. Just a little introduction.
Ruth is the award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of five crime thriller novels, including ‘In a Dark, Dark Wood’ and and ‘The Woman in Cabin 10,’ which have both been optioned for screen adaptation. Her books have been published in over 40 languages. And Ruth I’ve seen your books like all over the world, which is super exciting.
Ruth: It’s really exciting for me as well, I’m not gonna lie.
Joanna: It has been but let’s turn back the clock.
Tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing.
Ruth: I’ve always written. I was always, even before I could write, I was telling stories to my little sister and my teddy. I started all these kind of long-running sagas and my Barbie dolls had these amazing kind of Jackie Collins love lives where they were always falling in and out of love with each other.
And as I got older the stories just got longer and longer and I started to type them out on my mom’s typewriter and my dad’s computer. And eventually, by the time I was a teenager, I was writing pretty much book-length things. I will hesitate to call them novels because they were deficient in a number of kind of important areas, but they were definitely, they were on the way there.
But I never really thought that ordinary people like me could become writers. It always seemed like something someone else did who was more important and had more special things to say. So I kept scribbling away and I kept not doing anything with the books. And then after I went to university, I studied English at Uni which I don’t think it was any help whatsoever to my writing. It was just something to do.
And after sort of a variety of jobs, I ended up working in the book trade, which on the one hand was a really good apprenticeship in some ways for writing. It gave me a really good insight into how high the bar was and how good a submission needed to be to get through as well as some of the kind of more obvious pitfalls.
But the side effect was a massive attack of stage fright. And so I just I carried on writing all through my ’20s beginning of my ’30s. Didn’t do anything with it, just kept putting these books under the bed. And really, it was only when I had kids that I realized that my writing was a hobby and that basically, I didn’t have time anymore for hobbies and that if I wanted to continue doing this I had to find a way to make it pay because I had to be able to afford some childcare to claw back some time because I was working at the same time.
So with that, and two small children and everything else that goes on in life, I knew that the writing was just going to end up going down the plughole with all my other interests and trips to the gym, and the hairdressers and all that, and I couldn’t quite bear to let it go. So it was that in the end, that pushed me out of my comfort zone and made me kind of do something and start subbing to people.
Joanna: Wow, that’s so interesting. And we’re going to come back to working in the book trade. But you mentioned noting how good a submission must be. And I want to ask you first about writing because on your bio page, I was looking at your website and you have tips for writers which is fantastic. And you say that learning how to self edit is one of the most important things for a writer and that made me laugh.
Why is that like one of your biggest tips and any tips on how to do it?
Ruth: I think when writers do ‘how to’ things they always focus on what their particular obstacles were. You can only go by your own personal journey. And certainly for me in spite of working the trade I did that classic debut novelists thing of writing out a book, basically correcting the spelling mistakes and then pressing print more or less. Well, actually emailing it out because most submissions are done electronically now.
But I didn’t take the time to step back, look at it, figure out what was working and what wasn’t working. I got a lot of initial interest. Virtually everybody I sent it to requested to see the manuscript, but I ended up getting turned down or around.
And the reason was because basically, I hadn’t edited it, I’d pressed print pretty much on my first draft. And it was only after that, that I sort of realized what I had done. And I could have kicked myself because it’s writing advice 101, is to, to make a book as good as you can before you send it out.
So I took the best part of a year really and I gave it to friends, which you’re often told not to do, and I can understand why. Because everybody’s mom thinks their is book amazing and will tell them to say because they were the best supportive parent or supportive friend or whatever so you really do need to pick your mates carefully.
And you want it to be the type of person that if you went into a changing room and tried on a dress and said, ‘Do I look amazing in this?’ You want it to be the kind of friend who would say, ‘Actually, do you know what? It doesn’t suit you.’ And not everybody will do that, and not everybody will be honest about your writing.
But if you can find someone who is your kind of reader who loves the kind of books that you want to write but who is honest enough and supportive enough to give you their unvarnished opinion in a nice way, not in a critical way, that’s gold dust and you should hang on to those people. And luckily, I’ve got three or four friends who are amazing at that.
But the best thing that I did for my writing was to start to critique other writer’s works and I joined an online critique group, which sadly doesn’t exist anymore. And participated in a sort of round table exchange. I guess a little bit like an MFA almost.
People would swap extracts and talk about each other’s work. And although I found the feedback on my books really useful, what I found most useful was critiquing other people’s works, because there’s nothing like figuring out what isn’t working in someone else’s book to sharpen your eye for the same problems in your own work.
It’s amazing how often you’ll notice something in someone else’s work and then go back and read your own book and find the same thing in it. And it was at that point that I started to be able to look at my own work with a little bit more detachment and to say, “Is this really working? Is this paciest part? What’s the shape of this book? Does it have the right kind of peaks and troughs in the right places?” And I had never looked at my work that analytically until I started to do it to other people’s.
So yes long answer to quite a simple, it seems like quite a simple bit of advice. But being your own sort of not your own harshest critic but your most constructive critic is I think really important. And ultimately, only the kind of book that you’re trying to write.
Sometimes you’ll put a piece up for critique, and someone will try and rewrite you into their style or into, their own favorite author. And, I didn’t want to be Raymond Chandler, that’s not who I am. I think he’s a great writer, but it’s not my style. And I’m never going to write that kind of, clipped paired prose so having someone try and take out all my adverbs or whatever is not what I need.
But I have gradually come to learn the kind of writer that I want to be. And, I hope to be able to get my prose a little bit closer to that before I pressed into my editors.
Joanna: Great advice there. And I think this is something that a lot of authors get wrong, and a lot of indies, and this is difficult in the self-publishing world, of course, because people can actually press publish. They don’t just have to press print or submit. So I think that’s a great tip.
Now I wanted to ask you, because you didn’t go from that first book to best-selling award-winning, all the success. You were previously published in the YA fantasy genre under another name, Ruth Warburton.
I wondered why the switch of genre and the switch of name, which seems really common in traditional publishing?
Ruth: There’s two parts of the question. Sort of my personal reasons to it and for it, and why it happens full stop.
For me, it was because I was working in adult publishing when I wrote my first book and I didn’t want to submit to anybody I worked with. I had this absolute fear that I was secretly really rubbish and that it would be a painful experience for all of us if my kind of colleagues that I had to work with had to sort of, generally break it to me that I was completely delusional.
So I only started subbing when I wrote completely by accident, really a YA novel, and I wrote it for fun, and then looked at it and suddenly thought, “Gosh, what, actually, this is so different to what I work with that I could send this out to agents.”
I didn’t know anybody in the children’s publishing world. I didn’t know any children’s agents. They didn’t know me. And so it was suddenly incredibly freeing to be just another slush pile author. So that’s what I did. I sent it out to only to children’s agents who I’d never worked with before and it gave me permission to fail in a way which was so freeing.
Unfortunately, it was picked up. I ended up publishing five YA books which were reasonably, they were pretty successful, had a great time. And then I think having done that, I’ve felt like I proved myself in a way.
And the sick idea I had clearly could not be a YA book. It was my first adult book, which was the premise of it is a murder on a hen night. And that was so core to the plot, and could clearly never have been adapted to be suitable for teenagers. There’s not many kinds of 16-year-olds are out there getting married and having hen parties. So it was clear right from the outset that it was going to be an adult book.
We all like to think that we’re kind of we’re special and unique writers and of course we are, but we’re also brands. You have a certain type of style, you have a certain type of reader, they’re looking for a certain type of thing. And it’s a bit like nobody wants to buy, I dont know, Chanel perfume in a Heinz ketchup bottle. That is confusing to the readers.
You want to know when you buy this type of book, you’re getting this type of product. So having made a name for myself as a YA fantasy writer, this was clearly something so different that it needed a different name.
And there were kind of practical reasons as well like my crime novel had a certain amount of blood and gore and swearing and bad behavior and I didn’t want my little 13-year-old readers thinking, ‘Oh, great. Ruth Warburton,” and picking it up and getting outraged letters from their parents and stuff. So it just seemed all around like a really great idea to have a fresh start, a fresh kind of name.
And it’s not a secret in any way. In fact, I deliberately chose my crime name to be quite similar to my previous writing name because I didn’t want it to seem like I was sort of trying to deceive anybody. But it’s just a really, it’s a really easy way of making the distinction and telling the reading public this is this audience, this is the other audience.
Joanna: I think the reason I’m asking also about why publishing does this is and this is not about you this is a kind of a publishing question is the author someone like Paula Hawkins for example with ‘Girl on the Train’ was billed as a debut, whereas that was actually a debut under a new name.
You and I both know quite a lot of authors who this has happened to. They’ve been billed as a debut and actually they have a backlist under another name. And I think sometimes it might not be a secret but it’s not well known.
Is this a really common thing in traditional publishing?
Ruth: I wouldn’t say it’s common, common but certainly the agent, Lizzie Creamer, has written about “bad track,” which is a reference to the way that increasingly bookshops make their buying decisions based on the author’s previous sales figures.
And that can be a real problem if you’ve written something very different or something much more ambitious or something that just frankly has potential for a bigger audience. And yet, the buying decisions are being made on your previous novel, which was, I don’t know, a quirky niche thing about beekeeping in the Yemen. That sounds quite commercial now that I’ve said it.
Joanna: Yeah, that sounds great.
Ruth: Thanks. But it’s a very blunt tool and using a different name in that sense is a way to reset those pre-conceptions for each book as it comes and assess it on its own potential.
Certainly, in my case, I was quite careful always to say that it wasn’t my debut adult novel because obviously I had written other books and that wasn’t a secret.
I think the other thing is that the trade loves a debut. When you’re shiny and new you have unlimited potential and booksellers and publishers feel that. In some ways, being able to press the reset button on your career can be quite useful and authors do on occasion make use of it.
Joanna: I can see that and it’s funny because I think publishing is so full of smoke and mirrors. It feels like there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes and that’s one of those things that when I discovered it, I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s kind of crazy.’ But then of course, I use different names as well now.
I wondered, since you talked we’ve talked a bit about working in the book trade, how have things changed in publishing since you first got into it?
Ruth: Oh, I mean, just so much. So I started working in publishing just after the year 2000. People were still, faxing stuff around. They were still couriering author photos because we didn’t have scanners in the office to digitize anything.
And of course, most importantly, the ebook didn’t exist. Everything was still print books and the high street was where you bought your books.
I don’t think in some ways the ebook has changed the publishing landscape quite as much as people thought it might when it first came in. I think there were real expectations that it might be, like a Napster kind of scenario where suddenly, overnight, almost the CD market just collapsed. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case.
The print book market is still pretty healthy. But it’s completely changed the options and the possibilities for authors. And it’s changed the balance of power to a certain extent. Now, it’s fantastic that writers do have a solid plan B if they, if they don’t want to be with a traditional publisher anymore. If that route’s not working out for them, they have other options which for a long time they absolutely did not. So I think you can’t really overestimate the amount that the ebook has shaken up the landscape in that respect.
Joanna: You’ve mentioned they’re selling in bookstores, and I think selling in physical bookstores is one of the main differences between a traditionally published author and a self-published author because, even though we have print books, they’re sold online. Even if they’re on blackwells.com or whatever they are, they’re sold online.
You and I have talked before about this and we know both traditionally and self-published authors.
What are the things that authors get wrong or the things that authors think is untrue about publishing or assume incorrectly about the publishing process?
Ruth: Oh, Crikey. Specifically, I don’t know what the one thing is the people mostly get wrong, but I think there are huge amounts of misunderstandings and assumptions on both sides.
I think one of the biggest sort of, not traps exactly, but one of the most dangerous things authors can do is – I’m speaking for traditionally published authors here because obviously, it’s very different if you’re self-published – but they imagine that their publisher is their employer.
I think it’s really important to remember that you’re not an employee in the same way as someone who’s working for the publisher. You are a freelancer and your publisher doesn’t owe you a living, unfortunately. You’re only ever as good as your previous contract. And that can be something that’s really difficult to get your head around.
And the other thing that I think can be really difficult to remember is there’s a lot of very emotive language in publishing. People talk about being dumped by their agent or by their editor. And when editors receive a book that they adore, they sometimes write what’s called in the trade a love letter to the author, and it’s basically designed to make you choose that publisher.
The whole language of agents and editors and publishing is all wrapped up in the language of love and relationships. And it’s not. It’s a business relationship. These people may be friendly, but they are not your friends.
Your editor’s primary responsibility is to their employer, which is the publishing house. So no one will ever care quite as much about your book as you do as an author and I think it just pays to keep reminding yourself that at intervals.
Joanna: I love that you said that because and that’s actually why I invited you on the show because I’ve heard you say things like that. And I think being a business minded, traditionally published author seems quite rare.
Most authors do have a day job. That’s the truth of it, isn’t it?
Ruth: I did for a long time as well. It’s, unfortunately, author incomes being what they are, most people need to have two strands of income.
Joanna: You have had incredible success and I wondered, what’s the reality of being a full-time author? Is it that you just sit in your Garret writing all day or are you doing lots of other things.
Are having to do marketing, speaking, traveling, that type of thing?
Ruth: It is a real kind of left brain right brain thing because ultimately if you wanted to make a lot of money, you would not become a writer. We would all be, I don’t know, in finance or banking or something like that. So it’s not what motivates people usually to take up a career in writing.
The reason we all want to be writers is because we are storytellers, and we love words and we love stories. But that said, if you want a career in writing, you do need to switch that side of your brain off on occasion and try to treat it like a job, which I do.
I have office hours, which I keep. I pretty much try to show up every single day. Write for a certain amount, keep up with my admin. I am religious about doing stuff like reading my contracts, querying anything that I don’t understand.
There was a terrifying survey. I think it was carried out by the Society of Authors a few years back. And I can’t remember the exact figures, but it was something like 50% of authors did not know whether they had sold world rights to their publisher or not. Which is the equivalent of not knowing whether you own or rent your house.
This is a fundamental question. I had read it and I honestly thought that I made a mistake or something and then I re-read the piece. And that’s not knowing whether you’ve sold your IP or not and your IP is your living.
It’s the only thing that as a writer that makes you money, and if you don’t know whether you still own that or not it’s incredible to me that anyone could be basing their livelihood on that and have not bothered to find that out.
I appreciate that a lot of it is down to the way publishing contracts are worded very confusingly. There are lots of terms that unless you, it’s like Dick Cheney would say is the unknown unknowns.
If you don’t know the difference between joint accounting and single accounting then you may not understand quite how important it is that at the end of a long paragraph of legalese is tact jointly accounted and yet that can make the difference between your book earning out or not.
For anybody who is wondering what the difference is, in publishing contracts you typically sell more than one book because publishers want to invest in you as a writer and in your career and you will get an advance set against each book.
If those advances are jointly accounted, it means that you have to earn more royalties than all of the advances added together before you start getting any money. So if you have one super successful book and the others don’t perform quite as well, the super successful book has to fill up all the pots of money for the other books before you start to get money for it.
Whereas if contracts are singly accounted, it means each book has its own separate pot of money. So you will start getting money for the super successful book as soon as that pot is filled up without having to worry about the fact that all of these other pots are still half full.
And it’s small things like this that can make a difference in some cases of hundreds of thousands of pounds. But unless that you don’t know it, you don’t know whether to query it with your agent.
I don’t think anyone is trying to keep authors in the dark but there’s an awful lot of kind of convention and confusing language. And authors don’t ask the questions very often. Perhaps because they don’t want to bother people or they don’t want to look ignorant, or they don’t know how important these small details are.
Agents aren’t always the best at explaining it neither are editors because to them, it’s so super obvious what something is. They forget that there was a time when they didn’t know the difference between these things. But there’s no question that I will not ask and no clause that I will not query because, this is my livelihood and I need to understand all of this to know what position I’m in.
Joanna: Again, I’m super glad that you talked about that. And it’s so interesting. I think a lot of authors are just grateful that someone thinks their work is good enough to publish.
You talked about emotive language and the ego side and the validation side is a big part of why people go the traditionally publishing route I think these days. But it’s interesting you did mention their licensing world rights.
I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about contracts right now that basically, publishers want world English rights, all formats including audiobook, ebook, print rights, etc, for the whole world. And they’re not up for negotiation.
Is that something that you’re aware of or you think just you have to negotiate?
Ruth: There’s pros and cons here. It’s definitely something that anecdotally publishers are making much more of a push to own all rights connected with a book. And you can understand why because if they make a huge success, particularly, in the home market.
So say if you’re a British writer, and you spend a long time working with a publisher, a British publisher. And they edit the book, they spend maybe years in some cases making this book as fantastic as it can be, they market it beautifully, it wins prizes.
And then an American publisher picks it up, and they don’t have to do any of that work that the British publisher has done. It’s already edited. It’s already, proofread, it’s already in really good shape, it’s already got marketing behind it. The British publisher doesn’t get anything from that. They’ve done all of that work, and the American publisher is benefiting from it. So I can understand why publishers do it basically.
But from an author point of view, you have to understand what the pros and cons are and there are pros. The pros should be that if you’re selling more IP, you should be getting more money for that. Absolutely. And you should also be getting more security because if your publisher has world rights, they have a much bigger incentive to make the book work.
Because if they don’t, they will be losing not only all those home sales territories, but they’ll be losing the potential to sell the book to other territories as well. Because if they haven’t made a success of it at home, it’s going to be much more difficult for them to sell it abroad to in translation or to other publishers.
But from the author’s point of view, when you sell those rights, what you’re giving up is a cut of each of those deals. So effectively at that stage, you have two agents. You have your own literary agent who will be taking a percentage of the original deal to your publisher and then you have the publisher who will be selling on all of those rights to other territories and each time they do that they will be taking a cut of those sales.
So you as the author will be getting a much smaller share of the pot and potentially too you’ll be giving up a degree of control.
We’ve seen situations in the newspaper. Francesca Simon who wrote the Horrid Henry series has been very vocal about the fact that she has not received any income, well, any significant income from either the Horrid Henry film or TV series.
That was a deal that was brokered by her publisher because she had sold the film and TV rights to her publisher. Had she had those rights herself, she might have been able to negotiate a better contract, one that ensured her more income from the success of those deals. But as it was, it was all bundled up, sold as one and her publisher had pretty much the control over the deal as far as we know that’s how it’s been presented in the newspaper report, certainly.
So yeah, it’s swings and roundabouts, and there’s arguments for going both ways but the key thing is that you have to make an informed decision, you have to understand what you are giving up and why you are making that decision. And I worry that not all authors do understand that when they make those decisions.
Joanna: I agree with you. And I think there’s a case for both ways, but as you say if you understand contracts. As we both agree, not enough authors know about this stuff.
Do you have any sort of ways that authors can learn about contracts, any sort of places or resources that you recommend?
Ruth. No. I don’t know, unfortunately, and I think there’s probably a market for a really good kind of publishing for dummies book. Not that any of us are dummies I don’t think but something that really demystifies the language.
Some publishers have started to get better about this. Some contracts have a glossary now and try to explain some of the more confusing terms.
But I’ve had situations where friends have said to me, “What does this particular term mean?” and I’ve Googled it and found six different, sometimes contradictory, variants of the way it’s being used by different publishers. And so it’s not surprising really that in that circumstance people are confused about it because these terms aren’t always being used consistently.
Negotiating contracts is a really, really specialist skill. I try to understand my contract, but I do it knowing what the norms and knowing what the hidden traps are that’s why publishers deal through literary agents and why as an author, I’m very happy to give up a chunk of my income to my literary agent because that’s their responsibility.
But now as far as teaching yourself, I wish I could say that I knew of a great website, that would demystify it all. I don’t, but somebody definitely needs to start one.
Joanna: Brilliant. I guess the other tip is, make friends with your other authors, your fellow authors, and there’s a lot of shared in the community that can help over time.
Ruth: Absolutely. Yeah. Authors are often your best friend as an author and finding out just what’s normal. The number of times I’ve had conversations with people where someone’s been, like, ‘This is happening. Is this, okay?’ Sometimes the answer is, ‘Yeah, yeah. I know it seems weird, but that’s just how it is.’
And other times the answer is, “No, that is emphatically not okay and you need to put a stop to it.” And often as a as someone just starting out in the business, there’s no way of knowing that unless you’ve had that conversation.
Joanna: I could talk to you forever but we are almost out of time. I want to ask about your next book.
‘The Turn of the Key,’ is out in August 2019. Tell us a bit about that.
Ruth: Well, as you may have guessed from the title, it’s slightly Henry James-ish, in the sense that it’s about a nanny who is… well, it starts off in prison. She’s writing to her lawyer from prison and she’s explaining how a death of a child in her care came about and why she was not responsible for the murder.
It’s set in a spooky smart house where things start to unravel and go very wrong over the course of the novel. That was great and fun to write and I hope people have as much fun reading it as I had writing it.
Joanna: And your other books too are fantastic. I’ve read a couple of them now. So where can people find you and your books online?
Ruth: I have a brand new spanking website just launched at ruthware.com or as the saying goes in all good book shops hopefully.
Joanna: Well, thanks so much for your time, Ruth. That was great.
Ruth: Oh, thanks for having me, Joanna.