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Posts Tagged mainstream publishing
‘There’s never been a better time to be a writer.’ I’ve seen this mantra frequently over the past few years in blogposts, conference reports and news items. And I don’t disagree there’s been a lot to celebrate.
But from what I see right now, this time is also tougher for authors than ever.
Indie authors feel it in their book sales. Hands up who is in a forum where the chief discussion is ‘what can I do about my dwindling sales?’ ‘Anybody else had a dismal month?’ ‘Should I drop my book’s price, put it on Kindle Unlimited, write something more popular, send out more emails, spend $$$ on a marketing course?’
The traditionally published authors I know are faring little better, with shrinking advances, ill-supported launches – even the authors who have awards to prove their worth.
Last week I was having an email conversation with a wise author friend. As we confided our worries and frustrations, I felt we were describing the state of the author 2015, and were probably echoing many other conversations going on behind closed doors.
So I thought I would open those doors. Come in. Come and see how authors are thinking about their careers right now. And see why, in spite of the rotten state of the book market, we keep the faith and stay true to our standards.
I have permission to quote my friend’s words, but he wanted to remain anonymous. So we’ll call him Oscar, in honour of the internet tradition of attributing everything to Mr Wilde.
Oscar: I’m looking forward to Ever Rest.
RM: It will be a while before Ever Rest is fit to show. When it is, I’m going to look for a new agent. It’s so desperately hard to get fiction noticed, especially if you write odd-lit like me. I have friends in mainstream publishing who give me furious pep-talks about how I’m on a hiding to nothing by publishing literary fiction as an indie. Even my own husband says it. And they’re right. I need a way to prove myself to the serious reviewers and opinion formers.
An example. I recently applied to the Royal Literary Fund for a grant. I’d been assured by another sponsored author that they would consider a writer who had published two literary novels, but when I checked their rules I found they excluded self-publishing. Nevertheless, I wrote explaining my background, teaching credentials, why I’m indie (more about that here ). Their reply was ‘you haven’t commercially published sufficient work’ and they refused any further discussions. This is the hole we find ourselves in, trying to get indie-published work recognised.
Oscar: You’re a smart lady to be looking for an agent. I’m beginning to think the biggest part of the indie movement is to smack the big machines into better behaviour. They have the money and power to do what we cannot do.
The tides will turn. I watched it happen in photography. Just please keep doing what you’re doing. It’s needed. Without people like you, we could lose literary writing in this mess. And it is a mess. I can’t believe some of the things I’m reading from authors who make big money.
RM: Speaking of which, you’ve no idea how many people who say to me ‘can’t you just toss off a series to get some bestsellers’?
Oscar: I tossed off a series – and then I pulled the books. I felt dirty.
I have an agent friend. In 2014 he was flying high, making sales, getting high-profile assignments, negotiating foreign rights. He said all of that is over now. It’s hard to sell *anything* to a trad house because we’ve lost our attention span for long form. Everybody is on Twitter. No one has the time to read. He has always been a force of nature, enormously talented, confident that he can take on the world. This throws me for a loop.
I check in on Kindleboards now and again. Yesterday I saw an author who started out making $13,000 a MONTH on four poorly written books say she’s now ghosting for other indies to make ends meet. Another author posted about the publication of his new ‘novel’, which is 117 pages long with lots of white space (probably 15K words) and selling for $2.99. Everyone was fawning over him and his swift production.
I saw Joanna Penn remark that we aren’t in competition with each other, but with so many other forms of entertainment. People do *not* sit still for long, unless they’re binging on Netflix for hours on end. How are we to compete with that?
Some authors are doing exceptionally well. They crank out a book a month and direct it at a very young audience that does not yet know the value of a dollar. I know scads of young adults, and they read copious amounts of books, but they’ve got to be free. I nearly blow an artery when I hear them say how poorly written the books are, how many grammar and style errors there are – but they don’t care.
As for craft and quality, in one forum I saw people asking others to stop putting out junk. The remarks degraded, as they always do, to people defending the ‘raw’ writing their fans demanded. Many admitted to using no editors at all, claiming it took the edge off.
RM: [Unprintable. Gentle reader, don’t ask.]
Oscar: My agent said there are precious few of us left with the attention span and appreciation of finely crafted work, and we need to hold on to each other dearly. That’s all fine and well, but how much longer can we continue buying each other’s books?
But it’s not all doom. My partner and I are deeply involved with theatre and have watched that die a slow death, and even Masterpiece Theater removed ‘Theater’ from its name so people won’t get turned off by it. We hang on because it is an eternal artform waiting to be re-born. I believe the same is true for longform, literary novels. It’s a cycle, and the cycles are moving faster.
RM: Right. Who would have thought, five years ago, that Hilary Mantel would be a household name? Listen, while publishing sorts itself out, we write. Have a look at this interview where the musician Sarah Kirkland Snider is talking to Porter Anderson about the sense of connection and completeness we have when we create good work. That’s what it’s about.
Oscar: There is a passage from Nevada to Utah called The Virgin River Gorge. It’s at least a thousand feet deep and so beautiful it makes one’s heart stop. It was carved by a small body of soft water that moved slowly and peacefully because it was the only thing it knew how to do, the only path it could take. With time, it created the impossible and a majestic beauty and monument to the power of unyielding persistence.
Be the water.
Do you have days like this? How has this year been for you in your writing and publishing career? My door is open.
author standards, friends, Hilary Mantel, literary author, low book sales, mainstream publishing, Netflix, Oscar, publishing, quality in self-publishing, Royal Literary Fund, self-belief as an author, self-publishing, self-publishing literary fiction, The Virgin River Gorge, tough times as an author, writers' forums
Last year I wrote a post about whether I’d advise an author to publish or selfpublish. A year on, the landscape for authors is remarkably different – or perhaps not remarkable if you’ve been waiting for a bubble to burst.
Indie authors have seen sales plummet because of the sheer numbers of books available, and subscription schemes such as Kindle Unlimited have created a breed of readers who won’t shop outside a limited free list.
Might this mean it’s better to be traditionally published?
Not from what I’ve seen. My friends with trad deals aren’t having a good time either. Leaving aside royalties and advances (which seem to offer little financial reward for all the hard work writing), their books aren’t getting a decent chance for a long-term future.
A friend whose first novel won a major award in 2012 has just watched his fourth novel launch with no more fanfare than a tiny paragraph in a Sunday paper. His only other support was a training day on a social media course. And don’t even ask about rights grabs – where authors might wait years to reclaim a book to publish it themselves.
Tough times, my friends. So savvy writers will be looking for smarter ways to publish.
Since my last post about this we’ve seen a growing trend for indies to work in collaboration, teaming up with similar authors to release box-sets of ebooks, finding partners to exploit other rights such as translations or audio (either via ACX or other means – here are my posts on my own collaboration with my voice actor Sandy Spangler). Collaborators might be paid up front or in royalty splits. Further back, indies have collaborated by teaming up to create products (like my course with Joanna Penn, now unfortunately nuked by EU VAT rules) or forming long-term collectives (Triskele Books, itself a collective, has been running a series on various well-established collectives ). Joanna Penn has a mighty post about joint ventures with other creatives.
And that’s just the start. I think the authors of 2015 will be watching out for advantageous ways to partner up and we haven’t seen the half of them yet.
Indies who collaborate get
• shared marketing muscle, to connect with more readers
• shared expertise (editorial feedback, blurb and press release writing)
• shared contacts (editors, proof readers, designers)
• a shoulder to cry on, behind the scenes – and tough love when necessary too.
Does it sound familiar? Indie author collaborations are attempting to create the best of what a traditional publisher does. And this means we should…
View traditional publishing deals as collaborations
And so this means the smartest way to suss out deals from traditional publishers is to consider them as collaborations. What will they do for you that you could not do yourself? What are they asking from you in return? Is it reasonable?
No one I know writes a book to sacrifice it to a bad deal (see my remark about rights grabbing above). On the other hand, no one wants to turn down an opportunity that would be good, as far as can reasonably be forecast in a world of fickle readers and luck.
So this is what I’d say to the 2015 writer who’s asking my advice on whether to selfpublish or query traditional publishers.
1 Whether you intend to go indie or not, learn about selfpublishing
– then you’ll know how to weigh up the value of a publishing deal. As well as the advance (which usually won’t cover the time you spent writing), a publisher offers editorial guidance, copy editing and proof reading, cover design as appropriate for the audience, print book preparation, publicity using their contacts and reputation, print distribution.
Some (not all) are easy to source yourself or make good decisions about. Some can’t even be priced, like the publisher’s reputation – but see my remark above about the award-winning writer with his latest launch. Some of that value might be emotional – the confidence that everything has been done properly. This may not be as guaranteed as you think. There are traditionally published writers who sell enough to get meticulous attention from publishers, and others who get a tired, overworked editor who simply doesn’t have time to do the job as well as they’d like.
The more you know about selfpublishing, the more you can assess a publisher’s value as a partner. If you have tried to produce a quality book yourself, you’ll have a realistic idea of the value a publisher adds – or whether you can do well without them.
2 Be aware of the limits of traditional print and distribution
Distribution of print books is an area where traditional publishers have a clear advantage – (however, the Alliance of Independent Authors is working on a print sales project for indies ). Books in a publisher’s catalogue get promoted by a sales team. You get the heft of their mighty reputation! Result!
But let’s have a reality check. Go into Waterstones or another large book emporium. Look along the shelves where the books are spine-outwards. How many are there? Which ones catch your eye? Probably none of them. They’re the store’s wallpaper. You’re already cover-drunk by the time you’ve passed the books on the tables or in the window or in special display boxes.
A book in a store needs more than a meek slot in the alphabetically-ordered shelves to be discovered by a casual browser, no matter how beautiful its title or cover. So even if your book is going into big stores, it’s unlikely to be found unless it gets special prominence – both in the store and in the wider world. For that, the publisher has to spend money. Independent bookstores are a different matter as the selection is smaller and more personalised, but you still have to hope your book gets emphasised by the sales reps or the store will never hear about it.
3 It isn’t either-or
Whether you start as indie or traditionally published, you won’t always stay that way. Traditionally published authors might leave their publishers (or be dropped) and go it alone. They might selfpublish their backlist. Indie authors might begin on their own, then strike a deal. Some do all of it concurrently (hybrid authors), choosing what’s best for each project.
Some publishers are experimenting with partnering deals, where an author who is experienced in production keeps control of some stages of the editorial process. I like this model very much – it seems a good way to use everyone’s strengths.
Publishing and selfpublishing is now a spectrum. Most writers will zip up and down it, according to where a project fits.
3 Selfpublishing your first book
Don’t be in a rush! Although modern selfpublishing tools let you revise and tweak a naive edition, you cannot edit your reputation. Take your time. Do it properly. You’ve got a lot to learn – about writing to a publishable standard and about publishing itself. The world will wait – but it won’t forget if you mess it up. See my post here about leaving enough time to use editorial feedback.
The selfpublishing world is maturing. Suddenly I notice there are a lot of us who have been in this game a few years now, building solid reputations and devoted audiences. I think 2015 will be the year of the exciting collaboration – with other authors, with translators, with artistes from other media (such as voice actors). Perhaps with editors too.
We’ll choose what’s best for each book. We’ll also get more expert at putting a realistic value on contributions, including those of traditional players in publishing, both imprints and agents, and with luck this will lead to deals that are fair and fruitful.
Writing may be solitary. Publishing – and selfpublishing – doesn’t have to be.
Thanks for the dancer pic Lisa Campbell
The ebook of Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel is now available on pre-order. It will go on live sale on Twelfth Night, 5th January, and if you order beforehand you can get a special pre-order price.
Have you collaborated on selfpublishing projects – or struck an unorthodox deal with a publisher? Are there any success stories or cautionary tales you’d like to share? How do you feel about the prospects of the solo selfpublisher for 2015? Optimistic? Pessimistic? How do you feel about traditional publishing? Let’s discuss!
AFTERWORD Since I first published this post, Peter Snell and I recorded an edition of the radio show in which we interviewed two founders of an authors’ collective, Triskele Books. They gave us the lowdown on how they formed, how the collective works and the pros and cons. Listen by clicking the clever thingy below.
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