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The Challenge of the Writer

February 5, 2010

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.)

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 5, 2010 8:58 am

    Well, Stephen, I’ve been a pro writer for 25 years and thanks to the rise of corporate publishing (media giants snapping up publishers in the late 80’s/early 90’s) and the commodification of books, I don’t think literature in North America has ever been as vapid, moronic or profit-oriented. Publishers now cater to the semi-literate–since intelligent, well-read readers have abandoned them in droves. So we have folks like Stephanie Meyer and Dan Brown, manufacturing books with a Grade 6 reading level.

    Smart, discerning readers now have unlimited access to the web and the burgeoning writing scene found there. Much of it is amateurish, embarrassing…but you also have authors like me, who have grown weary of the ineptitude of agents and editors and are determined to forge their own path. I’ve made over 300,000 words of prose available for free reading and downloading on my site and in the process have gained tens of thousands of new readers around the world.

    In April I will be releasing my first print-on-demand novel, SO DARK THE NIGHT. My intent is not to make gobs of money or become rich, it’s to retain complete control over my work, right down to the selection of fonts and cover art. I don’t care if Random House or Harper Collins come calling with offers–unless those offers include the kind of absolute control I now have over the content and look of my books. I made the switch to the web three years ago and no longer even submit my novels or short stories to editors. As far as I’m concerned, traditional publishing can kiss my ass…

  2. February 5, 2010 10:31 am

    Thanks for the comment. I certainly have to respect the thoughts of someone with more experience than I on the matter. But I’m not sure I agree with the conclusion of your analysis. On one hand, I’ve never read either books by Stephanie Meyers nor Dan Brown. But even if I accept the postulate that they’re vapid or moronic, can I really blame the publishers (or consolidation in the publishing industry) as the real cause of that?

    Here’s where I’m coming from on this: in my day job I work in business and most evenings instead of writing (as perhaps I’d rather be doing) I spend more of my time curled up with textbooks or HBS cases or in class working on my MBA. In other words, while I may not always agree with it, I have a certain insight to the business perspective, and I can say with a certain degree of confidence that your average business only does something if they believe they can make money on it. For that to work, though, there needs to be a market – a group of people willing to trade money – for what the business sells. Sure, that sounds obvious, but the point is that if Stephanie Meyers or Dan Brown are making boatloads of money from their work, it’s because a lot of people like what they do so much that they’re willing to fork over cash for it. Except in certain illicit circumstances, its hard to blame a company for realizing it might be profitable to meet those needs.

    I’m also not sure that there aren’t other explanations as well, assuming there really is a lot of drivel out there (putting these blockbusters aside). Let’s say, for instance, we have a really simple book market and only 10 titles are published in a given year. Two of those titles are complete garbage. Then the next year twenty titles are published, and five are garbage. The following year, 40 titles are published nine are worthless. Each year, we’ve seen a growing number of bad novels published, but the overall percentage of bad novels out of the whole market hasn’t changed significantly – some years its gone up, some years its gone down, but never very far in either direction. If then, as the data seems to indicate, the number of titles published in a year really has exploded over the past ten years, then we’d expect from that that the total number of rotten books would likewise have increased. The rising tide raised all ships.

    All that said, I’d also like to note that my wife and a number of other friends have greatly enjoyed books by both Stephanie Meyers and Dan Brown, so I am somewhat disinclined to be critical of them (besides being unqualified to do so without having read them in the first place) lest it appear I criticize my wife and friends (my wife assures me she does sometimes read my blog). I’m sure you can appreciate that I can’t afford to do so. And I certainly don’t begrudge any writer his or her success. I know the call and the passion many – I believe most – writers have for their work, and if they can indulge that passion and do it so well people are willing to pay them to keep doing it, I am happy that’s the case. In fact, that they are successful suggests something to me about their work, something worth learning from. By the same note, I certainly do hope you success and good luck with your venture on preparing SO DARK THE NIGHT. As someone with some experience, I suspect you may be more prepared for the challenges and vagaries of self-publishing via POD. (In fact, I would postulate that it is most probably people with more experience who can best make this model work.) Good luck!

  3. February 5, 2010 11:22 am

    Thanks, Stephen. Good, thoughtful response.

    I’ve been an indie writer and publisher for over 20 years and I’ve struggled mightily to combat the notion that all self-published efforts are sub-literate or more the result of the author’s vanity than a reflection of real talent. I have many, many publication credits–appearances in numerous “Best of…” anthologies–and I happily walked away from it all when the new technologies (blogging, print on demand and podcasts) allowed me to finally achieve my dream of reaching out to readers without relying on gate-keepers like agents and editors (who have their own priorities and producing fine literature AIN’T one of them).

    I can foresee a time (rapidly approaching) when writers like Neil Gaiman, Stephen King et all see that they can publish their own books easily, with no overhead, print and distribute themselves and keep the lion’s share of the royalties. Who needs publishers? They’re top-heavy, inefficient and can’t compete with stream-lined approaches like print-on-demand.

    I’ll be viewing the next 2-3 years with great interest…especially when it is estimated that currently only 1/4 of the world’s population currently have access to a computer. That’s changing and QUICKLY and those folks represent a whole lot of potential readers–I intend to get my share…

    • February 5, 2010 12:06 pm

      This is exactly why I suspect that only those with more experience will truly be able to take advantage of the print-on-demand and e-publishing wave, with a few exceptions. Those who who know the business, and those who are able to build up brand name recognition for their work, are those who are most likely to be able to navigate the perils of the self-publishing world. Someone like Stephen King, people are going to buy his novels regardless of whether Random House or Doubleday or any other well-known publishing house is on the spine. And it’s someone with experience like that who’s best able to judge the amount of outside editing his work needs before its ready for the public (and can either pay for it or do it himself).

      For unpublished folks like me, however, that way lies madess, I think. I figure, for instance, I have between three and twelve regular readers on this blog (my wife notwithstanding). So, I’m no literary powerhouse, by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t have the confidence or experience to know how good my work is, objectively. To help with that, I’d need an editor – someone who can objectively approach my work and help me polish it. Without a publishing house to provide that, I’d need to hire one – except I have no resources to do so. If I presupposed that my work was well and polished enough without an editor, I’d still need to market my book to entice readers to read and buy it. And even with everything I know and have learned about marketing and branding during my B-school education, I still don’t have the resources to do what needs to be done to get my name, and my book, out there. On my own, without those resources how many books could I sell? A dozen? two-dozen? A hundred? A thousand? No more than that, best-case-scenario. My book could be the next Great Gatsby (with a fantasy-bent) and nobody would ever know because I have few ways to tell them. The internet is a really big place, and to rise above the noise there takes a concerted effort and significant investment. If you know what you’re doing, and have experience, those challenges are mitigated somewhat. But those skills and resources have less to do with writing ability and more to do with other factors (factors that those with years of experience in the industry are better-prepared to handle).

      That’s where traditional publishers come in, I think. As a for instance, I enjoy a few authors who publish through Tor. But along comes a new writer I’ve never heard of, published by Tor. And I think to myself, when I see this writer’s book on my local bookstore shelf “Hmmm. I’ve never heard of this guy, but he’s published by Tor.” So I pick his book up off the shelf, and read the back cover. My reasoning is, I don’t know this guy, but I like these other guys that Tor has published, so it stands to reason I might like this new guy, too. Maybe that’s not an accurate assessment, but it’s a valid line of reasoning.

      The challenge for new writers comes when, and if, the old pros do jump ship and start self-publishing. Bereft of their big money-makers, the old publishing houses are left with a stable of relative-unknowns. And readers, without the association between a publisher and their favorite authors, become less likely to pick up that unkown author’s work on the merit’s of the publisher’s brand-name alone. In this hypothetical world, I honestly don’t know how the unknown quanitities can rise to the top to prove their mettle. There are so many factors, besides their writing ability, that they can’t control that will influence whether their work ever gets noticed beyond a small core audience.

      From the devil’s advocate’s chair, though, I suppose it’s not that terribly different from the world of today. Today, new authors have to find a way to break through the noise and clutter to send a clear message to one of a handful of people: the editors who publish their work. That’s nowhere near an easy thing to do. Out in the brave-new-world of blogs, e-books, and self-publishing the task is similar, but the noise level is even higher, and the potential audience much larger (as in, you have to get your message clearly to more than just an audience of one, the editor, who handles the rest, but to each and every member of the end-audience that you actually want to reach). It’s still not impossible, but it sure sounds daunting.

  4. February 5, 2010 10:40 pm

    Just thought I’d share another set of thoughts on the issue, from another writer:


  1. New Media & the Future of Publishing « The Undiscovered Author

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