Six Things People Used to Say Were True about Publishing, but These Days …

… who knows?  The world the aspiring writer’s confronted with is a less structured, less restrictive, less certain place.  That, plus I’ve maybe changed my mind a bit about some of the stuff that used to be taken for granted ten years ago, back when I was scavenging for info on how publishing worked and what I had to do to get a seat at the table.

1.  Start with short stories.  This one was probably holed below the waterline even ten years ago, to be honest, but at some point before that it certainly used to be the prevailing wisdom that when it came to speculative fiction, one sensible route map for launching a career was to sell some short stories to the magazines and then ‘graduate’ to novel writing.  My impression is that nowadays a much higher proportion of novelists skip the short fiction stage and jump straight to novels.

There are all kinds of reason why it’s changed, but I suspect one of them is that there’s a much higher proportion nowadays of potential sf and fantasy novel readers who don’t pay attention to the short story outlets (new or long-established).  That, in many ways, is a good thing: the potential audience for the spec fic novelist has expanded far beyond the core audience of genre fans.  Personally (and despite rarely writing them myself) I still think short stories have enormous value as a craft-honing exercise for the aspiring writer.

2. You need an agent.  Well now.  This one’s complicated, and still – I’d say – more true than not.  But … but … the writing life’s changing fast, and the role and place of the agent is as much up for re-evaluation as any other aspect of the publishing business, now that the digital revolution is well and truly underway.

There’s the obvious self-publishing issue.  You don’t need an agent to get your novel in front of millions of paying customers now that the e-book is gradually becoming the key medium.  Unless you’re super-sharp and super-confident, and have plenty of time to spare, you probably still need one if and when the time comes to talk contracts with a publishing house (and most of them are, anyway, still very reluctant to look at unagented submissions as far as I know), but even then I wonder what the future holds.

One of my strong suspicions about this brave new digital world is that mid-list authors being published by the big publishing houses are facing an uncertain future.  Even if you can land a contract, my guess is that absolute income for mid-list writers is more likely to decline than rise in coming years, due to some combination of lower overall sales and/or the inevitable continuing downward pressure on e-book prices.  That being the case, sacrificing a non-trivial chunk of your income to an agent might eventually start to look like a really good reason to develop your own bargaining and negotiating skills.  Or your own self-publishing and marketing skills.

3. Advertising doesn’t work for books.  I can remember hearing or reading this repeatedly a few years back.  The consensus in the industry seemed to be that money spent on advertising a book was money that could probably have been more profitably used elsewhere (like buying high profile displays in bookshops, for example).  What actually sold books was word of mouth, covers and name recognition.  Advertising spend (posters, magazine adverts, whatever) existed to mollify self-important superstar authors and to front-load sales rather than increase them in absolute terms.  I’m sure the situation wasn’t as simple as all that, even twenty years ago, but I’m equally sure it’s a whole lot less simple these days.

I’ve heard self-publishers and niche publishers say that Facebook advertising (paid Facebook advertising, not just social networking) can indeed move the sales figures for books.  I can also see a scenario – in this connected, digitised, visual world – in which book trailers and other forms of online advertising, especially those designed to go viral, could have an effect.  But mostly, when it comes to thinking about the future of book advertising, it just looks like one of the ways big publishing houses could justify their existence in a hostile future.  If there’s any way of making book advertising work nowadays, I imagine they’re working and thinking hard to try to find it.

4. Publishers and agents have to love a book to take it on.  I was always slightly sceptical about this one, which you still hear now and again.  Not because I mistrust what publishers and agents say, but because the whole thing’s a business, right?  There are undoubtedly plenty of agents and publishers around who would decline involvement with a book because they don’t personally love it, even if they can see that it’s commercially very promising.  More power to them, I say.  But I’ve no doubt there are also plenty who are very happily, and sensibly, working hard to turn books they’re personally not exactly wild about into the bestsellers they believe they can be.

The very small publishing houses, who have their costs under ferocious control, can afford to be picky and choosy, restricting their publishing projects to those in which love of the material plays a major part.  The giants of the industry, which their overheads and mutlinational corporate masters – maybe not so much, in the testing years to come.  I mean, when the only certainty is uncertainty, would it really make sense to merrily turn down a book that looked like a seriously strong commercial prospect just because you didn’t absolutely adore it yourself?

5.  Aspiring writers shouldn’t try to follow trends.  I can think of a couple of reasons this used to be said, back in the day.  First, the time lag involved in writing a novel, submitting it to agents/publishers, revising it, getting it published and onto bookstore shelves, was so enormous that whatever trend the author had been aiming at had probably gone the way of the Titanic by the time their magnum opus actually saw the light of day.  Second, agents and publishers often seemed to be saying, in public, that what they really wanted to see was new stuff, not retreads of stuff that was already out there.

That trends exist, and persist, and are enormously powerful sales juggernauts seems indisputable these days.  Steampunk and urban fantasy, to name but two.  But what interests me more is the chaotic free-for-all that is the e-book market.  Low-priced, often but not always self-published, novels abound on the e-bestseller charts, and they can very easily be written and published a great deal faster than print books ever could.  Following a trend might starts to look more and more like an entirely sensible strategy, especially given that price and availability are quite clearly non-trivial factors in the aggregate purchasing decisions of e-book consumers, and perhaps more so than anticipated quality.

But me, I’d still say to any aspiring writer: ‘Write whatever you want to write.  If it’s similar to a lot of other stuff already doing well in the market, there’s no harm in that.  If it’s utterly unlike everything that’s ever been published before (unlikely, but you know what I mean), go ahead and write it.  It might turn out to be a triumph or a tragedy, but you’ll never know until you write the thing.’

6.  It’s not about luck.  Creating and sustaining a writing career has, I suspect, always been about three things: talent, persistence and luck.  I used to be pretty confident that luck was the least important of those.  I’m no longer so sure.  I am pretty sure that – even if it wasn’t always the case, which it probably was – persistence is now the only one of the three that’s indispensible.  And that’s all I have to say about that.


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