Posts Tagged Cloud Atlas

Why playing safe in publishing is riskier than ever

I tweeted this piece yesterday by agent Jenny Bent : ‘Why reader taste differs from publisher taste‘. I urge you to read the whole article, but briefly, she’s talking about what’s wrong with the way the industry tries to second guess what readers should be offered – whether literature or popular fiction. A friend on Twitter came back to me and said ‘come come, surely it can’t be that bad?’

Jenny’s in the US, and I’m on the other side of the Atlantic. But here, it is indeed that bad.

I know a few agents, and they’re tearing their hair out. An agent recently told me ‘editors in big publishers are basically readers for marketing departments’. Another said in the past year she’d got more than 10 excellent books to editorial board, with all the editors staunchly behind them, but marketing vetoed them. An editor I know – very senior in terms of job title and the publisher she works for – laments that she is no longer allowed to accept the rich fiction she loves to read and has to publish shallow sure-fire supermarket titles.

Jenny says books are that too quirky or defy comparison don’t get a chance. Again, that’s the same here.

The interesting and popular authors I like wouldn’t, I’m told, get published if they were starting today. Especially not with their most ambitious work. David Mitchell would be told to take Cloud Atlas away and keep it on his hard drive. Kingsley Amis wouldn’t be allowed to hop between genres. Michael Morpurgo wouldn’t be allowed to write a non-genre novel about horses. Holes by Louis Sachar? Forget it. And David Almond’s Skellig. Readers seem to like them, though. They still buy them.

It’s the big monolithic publishers I’m talking about here. They were a good model five years ago but they’re breaking down because they can’t take the interesting books. But the smaller boutique publishers are a different matter. They can – and are being – much more adventurous. The economist Tim Harford has in fact written an entire book on this subject (Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure), about how you cannot prevail in today’s business environment without a willingness to experiment and take risks.

One of the things that’s so nice about Jenny Bent’s piece is that she pays tribute to the self-published writers who are getting out and finding their readers. That’s something we’re not hearing enough of. Some self-published authors I know who’ve been to conferences recently felt like they were about to be chased away with pitchforks.

Reviewers, who you’d think were less restricted, haven’t yet caught up with the fact that quality, competent, worthwhile authors are self-publishing. The theory goes that this is because journalism is funded by advertising and indies don’t buy expensive adverts. Whatever the reason, this industry needs to find a way to give good self-published writers a fair chance at creating a decent and widespread reputation.

But there’s no point in negativity, and ending on a whinge. The other thing I’d like to say is that the agents, editors, and publisher sales forces I’ve met are all book lovers too. It’s just their end of the business that’s broken. Thankfully, as Jenny points out, we’re all now building a new one.

(Thanks for the picture, Frankh)

Rant over. Do continue in the comments if you feel so inclined…

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You have an agent: why self-publish? The hybrid writer

Charles Dickens self-published sometimes. And he sat on chairs the wrong way round (thank you Smabs Sputzer)

Writer Laura Pauling dropped by one of my recent posts and asked this rather interesting question:

I’m curious about your decision to self-publish as I believed you had an agent?

Yes, I have an agent. Not just one, actually; two. Jane Conway-Gordon for my adult fiction and Piers Blofeld of Sheil Land for my MG/YA work. Agented up to my eyeballs and beyond, in fact. And yet I’m self-publishing My Memories of a Future Life. What gives?

Well, My Memories of a Future Life is one of those awkward novels that agents love, editors love – but it’s not what publishers are buying as breakout novels at the moment. It’s come back from editors with notes that said ‘we loved it but was too unconventional’.

It’s a matter of timing. My Memories of a Future Life has a speculative element and would have done fine if I’d been submitting it at the same time as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Iain Banks’s The Bridge. But a lot has changed since they came out (particularly The Bridge, which was published in 1986).

So what’s a girl to do?

Even six months ago there would have been a stigma if a professional author self-published a work of fiction. But some books fit the high-volume needs of the publishing industry and some are better as a slow-burn cult discovery.

This doesn’t mean we don’t need publishers. Far from it. But it does mean that professional authors are developing a hybrid approach. Alina Tugend wrote in The New York Times this week that many traditionally published authors are now choosing to self-publish some of their work. The Bookseller recently featured a group of established writers from all genres who are bringing their own projects to Kindle with their own ebook site – Kindle Authors UK.

Writers are creative people. From time to time, what we create doesn’t sit within well-established genre boundaries. But that doesn’t mean people don’t want to read it (I refer you to paragraph 4…)

And we’re only following in the footsteps of other industries. Buffy creator Joss Whedon made Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog himself, rather than take it to a network. But he hasn’t turned his back on mainstream film and TV.

And I’m not turning my back on conventional publishing. Just because My Memories Of A Future Life doesn’t fit the industry’s needs doesn’t mean my other books won’t. Indeed, my MG/YA novel, Life Form 3, is on editors’ desks right now. Because writers today can do both.

Should you self-publish too?

If your novel is solidly in the middle of a high-selling genre and isn’t getting a sale, perhaps you still have work to do. But if you’ve got a book that’s earned its spurs by securing an agent, has had good feedback but hasn’t made it through the marketing department, maybe you should think about self-publishing too. (In fact I talked about this a while ago in this post here… and a lot of you had plenty to say…)

Laura has also asked how I’ll be promoting the novel, as I usually blog only about writing. It deserves a post of its own, so I’ll deal with that tomorrow!

In the meantime, tell me your thoughts on the changing nature of writers’ careers. Personally I love the hybrid approach – some of my books will be right for mainstream and some will be better as indies. It gives us all more freedom to have fulfilling and viable writing careers. It brings readers a wider breadth of work. It keeps the artform fresh. What do you think?

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