A Tale of Two Writers: Changes in the Publishing Industry

I have been an aspiring novelist for a long time. I’ve now self-published four books, but I probably wrote an equal number before I began any of those. I don’t really sell any books, but I find that it is a much more satisfying hobby than it used to be.

I think many aspiring authors used to look at writing as something like hitting the lottery. The way the process worked, you wrote a novel, then began sending out letters to agents or publishers trying to get someone interested in your book. For me this meant a series of form rejections returned in the self-addressed, stamped envelope that I’d provided with the first three hard copy chapters of my manuscript or whatever that particular agent required. The hope was that you’d become the next Stephen King or John Grisham. Someone would pull your manuscript out of the file, see its genius, and you’d be raking in huge advances.

This system was, is, because it still exists, one that depends on a large number of middle-men. Whether you believe that their judgment is sound probably depends for the most part on whether one of them likes your novel and offers to help you get it published. I’ve recently run into a couple of interesting examples of this process. I’ll draw my conclusions, but give you the facts as I know them so that you can draw yours.

The first relates to an author that I discovered in the newspaper. There was a front page spread in the style section showing this author of his first novel leaning on his desk in a spacious office, arms crossed, the large window behind him. The picture you’d see if you looked success up in the dictionary. I read the article and found that this author was a relatively senior official in the State Department. He’d written a novel based in Africa (as have I). A high-powered agent grabbed his book because Africa is the big thing now, and he was launched.

I was interested in this not only because I’ve written a novel set in Africa as well, but also because it sounded like something I’d like to read. I found it on Amazon. It wasn’t available yet, but you could read an excerpt and it had some advanced reviews. I read the excerpt. I read like a memo with a few expletives thrown in to make it earthy. I could stand a couple of pages before I closed it and turned to the reviews.

The reviews by major newspapers were included as part of the book’s blurb, and uniformly agreed that it was the greatest novel since, well since whatever your favorite great novel is. The Amazon advanced reviewers were mixed. A few also loved it. Most had a similar opinion to mine. As I recall the author’s novel, both Kindle and hard copy, was priced in the $14 to $15 range. Well outside what someone would pay on a speculative bet on an unknown writer. Hence all the publicity. No doubt in addition a high-powered agent this writer has friends at the newspaper in question who got him the front page spread.

The second author is one I found on a group read at Goodreads. If you’re not familiar with Goodreads it is a web site for avid readers. Some of the people reading this author’s first novel gushed about it, others found it incomprehensible. I read through an excerpt and quickly joined the incomprehensible camp. In fact, the part I read could best be described as gibberish. I looked into the author a little more, and was shocked to find that he’d received a half million dollar advance for his effort. Finding an agent for a first novel is difficult. Being paid a half million dollars for something like that seemed impossible.

I dug a little more and finally found the missing piece of the puzzle. This particular first time has a father, with a different last name, who is an extremely successful author. No doubt this connection had something to do with his advance.

So what’s the moral here and what does it mean for someone who wants to write novels? Any system loaded with middle-men who spend their time going to lunch with each other and claim to be experts on the market is fraught with these kinds of decisions. In both cases the agents and publishers involved seem to have found an author, rather than a novel, they believed that they could sell. Also, both of these people no doubt have contacts in the press and elsewhere to help them get the word out on their new accomplishment.

If you are one of those people who like to write but don’t have contacts or a resume that will impress one of these folks, what should you take away from this? The main lesson for me is that self-publishing is fundamentally changing how the industry works. It hasn’t necessarily made finding success as a writer any easier, but has put a lot more of the responsibility of that success it into the hands of the author.

The lure behind the agent/publisher path is that it sells itself as the portal to success. The reality is somewhat different. Unlike the two writers described here, most authors who get publishing contracts have to do their own publicity. The publisher saves its money for established authors or those who it thinks it can sell, such as celebrities. Authors also lose control of their pricing in this world. If you are a new writer who wants to find readers, you can sell your self-published work for $0.99 or give it away. Established publishers price even the digital editions of new authors much higher.

For me, self-publishing has turned writing into a combination hobby and small business. I spend about half of my time on actual writing and editing, and the other half on trying to find readers for my work. With four completed novels, up to now I have put most of my energy into improving the product. I think that my books are getting better. As they get better I enjoy writing them more.

While the quest for readers can be frustrating, it is fundamentally different than in the traditional publishing industry. I spend my time trying to find and interact with readers, getting their feedback, and using it to make my writing better. This is much more positive than throwing manuscripts over the transoms of people who are possibly not even reading them.

There’s a lot of dross in the self-publishing world, but there’s a fair amount in the traditional publishing industry as well. Agents and publishers say that the move to self-publishing will kill the industry. I can’t say whether or not it will, but I do believe they have themselves at least partially to blame. In my opinion, by focusing on contacts and who you know at the expense of trying to evaluate and develop new writers, they are acting as a catalyst for people using technology to eliminate their roles in the market.

The punch line for me is that writing is a word of mouth business now. I’m trying to find people to interest in my work, and would love to hear from you.

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