The Challenge of the Writer

I happened across this post last week on the blog of author Warren Adler about what he calls “The Novelist’s Dilemma”.  But when he writes about this dilemma, he doesn’t mean one he faces, as a novelist.  He means one that people like me – or others who are already published but not yet well-established – must face.  He’s talking about the challenge of the changing paradigm of the publishing world and what that means for new writers.

The publishing industry, he argues, is one in flux.  The field of publishers has been winnowed through the massive trend of mergers and consolidations more commonly seen in other industries.  The 90’s and early 2000’s (the aughts, if you like) were a period of rampant mergers and consolidations across many industries, especially within the media, and that’s a trend that continues through today.  The corollary seems to be that as the industry has consolidated, the number of new titles purchased each year by the top publishers has decreased, and that represents a huge challenge for new authors.  The only problem: the data (such as I can find) don’t fully support that assertion: the tracker of book publishing statistics in the US, Bowker, has collected data on the number of books published over the past twenty-ish years, going back to 1993.  Looking at the data, we have to adjust slightly for two factors: first, a change in their data collection mechanism in 2006 and  second a huge explosion in 2007 and 2008 in the number of “on demand” and other unclassified books that were published.  But if we narrow our focus just to the “Fiction” line, where we can guess the majority of novels are published (with a number of others also published in the “Juvenile” category) we can see that, although some years have had been down over their prior year (such as 2005 over 2004) the general trend in the number of books published is upward (for instance 2005, though lower than 2004, was  higher than 2003 and 2006 and 2007 both higher still) – although this data only goes through preliminary statistics for 2008.  Still, that’s encouraging.

But Adler is right about the incredible explosion of non-traditional “opportunities” such as through “print-on-demand”.  The challenge this represents is simple: POD publishing does not come backed with the marketing investment and know-how of traditional publishers.  Getting published these days is easy – there are more options than ever before for authors who just want to see their work in print.  Getting your name out there, and getting people to buy your books, is as hard as ever.  What these data don’t give us is a segregated view of traditional publishing houses versus small press, vanity press and other publishing avenues.  So even from these data, it’s hard to tell how the landscape has changed for new authors, or how it will yet change.

Frankly, if I wanted to be “published”, I could be so tomorrow (well… if I actually had finished writing my book, that is).  I can buy my own ISBN (Bowker manages these in the US) and submit my work to a POD publisher like “Virtual Book Worm” or “Lulu” (usually, you can buy your ISBN directly from these POD publishers, since you’d have to buy a “lot” of numbers if you bought them yourself).  Just as frankly, I’m about as well off doing this as printing the book myself, three-hole-punching each page by hand and snapping them in a three-ring-binder.  These services frequently take a very large set-up fee, they don’t typically offer editing services (but I’m sure you can pay someone, somewhere else, to do that for you, too) to make sure your book is polished, and they don’t have the marketing clout or capabilities to  help you get your book out there that a traditional publisher has.  In other words, today’s POD publishers are yesterday’s “Vanity Press” – and the reality is it will be very difficult to make back your investment via booksales.  That’s another side to Bowker’s data that we don’t see: of the thousands of new books published each year via POD and other similar options, how many sell more than a handful of copies?

Of course, there’s a flip-side to this coin, as well.  For the entrepreneurially-minded writer (especially one who has proven marketing chops and knows what he or she is doing), these POD services (along with the editing services that I’m sure exist, but am too uninterested to look up) can be necessary.  If the writer is willing to set up shop and treat his writing as a small publishing business (outsourcing the “publishing”, “printing” and “editing” to firms better able to handle those activities) and is willing to do the huge amount of leg-work needed to get his book listed in distributors catelogs (not an easy task by any means, I am sure), on bookstore shelves (they being notoriously jealous and protective of that space), and into readers’ hearts and minds, then POD can certainly be a viable option.  But the writer who can make that business model work is a rare breed. 

At the end of the day, though, I’m still not sure I believe it’s any harder for a new writer to get noticed by the big publishers than it ever has been in the past.  I remember stories of the legendary difficulty for new writers in getting published even from my childhood.  It’s been difficult for new writers for decades.  I’m not sure there’s ever been a time when it could be said to be “easy” or even “not monumentally difficult” to get published.  Even if we could one-in-a-thousand new writers would succeed in days gone by but now it’s one-in-ten-thousand or one-in-a-hundred-thousand, the difference, to those of us who are not the one (or not yet the one), is essentially immaterial.

The story has changed a little – the details of the challenge are different in the world of the internet, blogs, e-readers, etc. – but the the basic premise is still the same.  Work hard, read a lot, write as much as possible, polish polish polish, and fight, each day, to get your work out there, into the ether, into an editor or an agent’s hands, and see if it sticks.  In the end some, many, most will fail.  But we will be no worse for the journey, nay we will be better for it.  And godspeed to that man or woman who’s work trascends the mediocre, pulls the interest of editors and agents, and takes flight.  (I just hope that one is me, someday.)

Happy writing.

(P.S.:  The above thoughts are not in consideration of the recent Amazon vs. Macmillan kerfluffle.  Honestly not sure, as yet, what that means for the future of undiscovered authors like myself.)