Isn’t that a great word? I’ve always wanted to use it, and now would be the time.
I have a group of letters in my in-box (both the real one and the virtual one) from aspiring writers, asking for advice. The letters are sitting there unanswered, because I don’t know what to say.
Once upon a time, I could tell an aspiring author to read a lot, to write the best book he or she could, to join a writers’ organization and to submit queries to agents. I could suggest to an aspiring romance author that he or she might build credentials and audience – and gain experience – by publishing with a house that didn’t require authors to have representation, like Harlequin. Then I could wish the author luck and move on.
That’s what I did. I sold eleven books to Harlequin without representation and had very good editors. I learned a lot in those years, then learned more from my editor at Berkley. All along the way, I had books published and built audience. By the time I got an agent, I had an established readership, publishing credentials, and a pretty good idea of what I was doing.
That was how the world used to work. Many many authors followed that same path.
Now, I really don’t know what to say to these authors. A number of factors have come together at roughly the same time to change the book market and the way publishing works. As a result, it’s not easy to suggest a path to an author – there are lots of different paths and it’s not clear which will work best for any individual author.
In no particular order, let’s look at the changes and their implication for new writers:
1. Physical bookstores are disappearing. This wouldn’t seem at first glance to have much to do with new authors, but it does. Physical distribution of books, as a result of the disappearance of bricks-and-mortar bookstores, is very hard to come by. This means that physical visibility is hard to come by. Once upon a time, a reader would go to a bookstore, maybe on a regular basis. That reader would know which local stores carried a good selection of books in the niche that reader preferred, and that reader would know who in the bookstore was also an avid reader in that niche. There would be an extensive stock in the reader’s preferred niche and the staff – or those who were also enthusiasts – would recommend new authors to readers. The power of this word of mouth that existed in bookstores really can’t be underestimated, especially when it comes to growing audience for new authors.
This problem is compounded by the fact that other retailers now stock books, mostly because they tend to focus on stocking bestselling authors. Not new authors, or even rising authors. Bricks-and-mortar bookstores have also begun to stock fewer new authors and rising authors, which makes their stock selection more similar to that of other big box non-bookstore retailers of books, and makes them less of a useful destination for avid readers.
Where is a new author’s book sold? Possibly only online. Ouch.
People talk about the challenges of “discoverability” now, a particularly acute problem for newer authors but one that plagues all of us. How do you know when your fave author has a new book coming out or when an interesting debut book is published? The old method of SEEING the new book in the drugstore, grocery story, bus depot or bookstore worked pretty well in terms of keeping us all aware of what was newly released – and also led to a lot of impulse buying, at least in my case. With the disappearance of bookstores, and other outlets focusing more heavily on bestsellers at the top of the list, that method doesn’t work nearly as well. I think this is part of the reason that many people – like me – actually buy fewer books now. That, in turn, simply accelerates the disappearance of physical bookstores and physical books, which again, diminishes visibility.
It’s far easier for a book to sink into oblivion without making a ripple in this market. That was always possible but it tended to be the exception, not the rule. Now I would venture to say it’s the other way around.
2. There is also the question of visibility in digital bookstores. Online vendors have bestseller lists, which often provide the best visibility for books. In essence, readers have “voted” for these books with their money, so it’s a democratic measure of what is good in the market. On the other hand, how does one get on those lists? For a new author, this task can be particularly daunting. There are advertising opportunities, but I’m not sure that any of them work as well as the bestseller lists in terms of promoting an author’s work. As the market shifts to digital sales of digital books, a lack of visibility becomes a greater and greater issue.
What is working for many authors is making a book free for a period of time. This works because online retailers – like Amazon – compile two “bestseller” lists, one for paid and one for free, and run them side by each. They’re actually counting downloads. So, having a book make the top ten list in the free column can give it visibility. And when the title “comes off free”, that visibility can carry over to actual sales. Publishers, however, do not use books for promotion (at least the Big Six don’t) and will not make a book free, as a matter of policy.
3. Traditional publishing is in flux. There is a lot changing in traditional publishing, and more that should be changing. Because of these changes – and in contrast with my own experience – I haven’t seen traditional publishing work well for a debut author for quite a while. Editors are stretched thin and their focus is on the top of the list. It’s uncommon for new authors to get much feedback, assistance or teaching – that’s in addition to possibly not getting any distribution. We do see some agents taking on editorial responsibilities, insisting that the author revise and polish the book before it goes out to publishers. I personally think this is backwards and not a good solution, but independent of my opinion, new authors have seldom been able to get representation easily. It’s the old Catch-22 of publishing: an author needs a credential to get an agent, and an agent to get a credential. So this option of agents editing is one that exists for only a few authors – whether it works or not.
At the same time, the midlist has been steadily disappearing for a decade or more (mostly because of the distribution issue). Some authors don’t write blockbusters or aren’t ready to write one yet – publishers have no place for those authors any more, when once the midlist was full of them. The midlist is eroding and I think that even debut slots are going away. (If nothing else, advances for debut slots are dropping, as they are for category slots.) It’s very unusual to see a new author marketed well by a traditional publishing house.
Can I really point an aspiring author in the direction of New York in good conscience? That system works well for some authors, but those authors are not typically aspiring romance authors. Very few of them are debut authors. Do I really think that category still works well for new authors? Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. Hmm.
4. On to the next option for authors! Digital self-publishing has moved past its first flush of success. In 2011, there were authors right on the cusp of the change, authors who did very well with the emergence of digital self-publishing. They established themselves early, but now that market is moving into a kind of maturity. It is saturated with content – some good, some not – and in many ways, the issue of visibility is even more acute in this niche. A new author self-publishing a debut novel has no credentials or references or audience, and it will likely take a long time for that book to attract any attention, independent of how good it is. A debut author who self-publishes will take on a good bit of cost and responsibility, perhaps without even knowing everything he or she should, and might not see a reward. For that reason, I don’t think this is a path for the uninitiated.
5. Digital-first publishing has similar moved beyond its beginnings. Those publishers are no longer focused on erotica and erotic romance, but are expanding their lists. How well they do that will depend upon the house, the editor and the work. Whether this avenue is a good solution for a new writer again is uncertain. Some houses are professional and do good work – others appear to be quite fly-by-night. I am sorry to say that I have been reading some digital-first work lately and have been shocked by the quality of the editing. This makes me angry for the authors involved – I feel that the houses are using authors to get content but giving very little in return. Some of these houses create strong cover art, and some do not. Some of these houses do good promotion for their authors and some do not – I know many authors involved with these houses who have made the shift to digital self-publishing, because they felt they were doing all the work but making less money. Is this a good move for them? Only time will tell.
Where do new authors learn and add to their skills? How do new authors find their audience? Without knowing the answers to these two questions, I don’t know what to tell aspiring writers in terms of charting their career.
I do think that successful authors in future will have a hybrid list. Some of their works will be digital-first and some of them will be print-published. Some will be novellas or shorts and some will be full length novels. Some will likely be self-published (when the author gains experience) and some will be published by traditional or digital-first publishers. That blend is probably critical for a new author, too, as he or she will be more likely to find a footing when working from several fronts. It depends upon the author building a marketing platform and a connection with readers that exists independently of any publishing house. It also relies upon the author being comparatively prolific, and the publishers not insisting upon exclusivity. Even so, it’s not a solution that will work for everyone – and it’s a complicated solution to offer to a new and aspiring writer.
In one way, it’s exciting that there are so many possibilities for authors in this new market. In another, it makes it far more complicated for authors to decide their strategies, simply because there are so many choices. I suspect that when I do answer those queries, a good percentage of those aspiring authors will be daunted. And maybe that’s a good thing – because the ones who accept the marketing of their work as the challenge it is are most likely to be the ones who succeed in this marketplace. Hmm.