Saturday, May 9, 2009

(Self) Publishing in 2009

Get ready for Ghost Notes in Audio Book!!! It's coming your way June 15th!!!

It's been brewing for years, the discord currently surfacing between authors and literary agents.

For those of you who don't know, agents are the gatekeepers of the publishing industry. If you want to get a book published in the traditional publishing market, you do it, by and large, by getting an agent.

This job evolved necessarily out of publishers not wanting to read every manuscript or idea that came over their transoms. It's the agent's job to go through this mess of email and paper to find gems worthy of presentation to an editor at a publishing house.

By all accounts, it's a difficult job, one that has agents dealing with lots of disgruntled authors, who never seem to understand why their latest bit of brilliance doesn't merit the attention of a publishing house, or why their current published novel isn't getting reviewed, or why their glowingly reviewed novel isn't getting an adequate marketing push, or why their adequately pushed, glowingly reviewed novel isn't selling.

All of this agent-author discontent has surfaced lately on agents' blogs, often rolling into the comments sections.

In short, there are lots of anonymous and not-so-anonymous authors flaming agents for one egregious sin or other.

What strikes me about this current dust-up is that both sides seem to be ignoring the real problem.

The reason life has become more difficult for many of these folks is the declining interest in fiction in general--and non-genre fiction in particular--a side effect of a decline in book reading over the last few decades.

As fiction readers disappear, money dries up at the publishing houses and they narrow the scope of what they are willing to take on, which narrows the scope of their list.

In other words, if you don't write in an established (money-making) genre, your novel had better be undeniably good (and marketable) if you want it published.

It's gotten so bad I've contended that many Nobel laureates--Faulkner, Bellow, etc.--probably wouldn't have gotten their first or even second novels published in the current traditional publishing environment.

In 2009, no one in the industry seems to want writers who need nurturing. They want you to show up on their doorsteps fully formed. It's a business, after all, and while everyone in publishing loves literature, they're not going to endanger their careers because you, writers, need to be validated for your hard work by a traditional publishing house. They need a pretty good reason (the hope of making you both money) to go out on a limb for you.

Writers, on the other hand, dedicate years to their craft, often sacrifice tens of thousands of dollars for graduate school, get up early, stay up late, put up with family members who scoff at them for "playing writer," expend thousands of hours of leisure time plugging away at their works-in-progress in the hope of one day publishing at a reputable house for enough money to allow them to quit their day jobs.

You can see why there might be some tension between these two groups.

I think some of the tension can be alleviated by one simple thing.

Agents, through blogs, correspondences, and appearances at writing conferences, have the ears of many--maybe most--prospective writers, and I think they do a fantastic job emphasizing the fundamentals of writing for publication. I'd sum their spiel up as follows:

"Work on your writing for years. When you feel it's ready, get involved in some kind of writing group and get many opinions of your book. Take the criticism to heart. Rewrite your book, hone your craft, keep making it better and better. Then, when your book is as good as it can be, research the industry well, spend a great deal of time writing a sparkling query letter and submit your project to any agent you feel might have an interest in it."

Great advice, no doubt, but they usually follow up with this:

"And if all of that fails, put that novel in a drawer and get started on your next one."


Here's another option:

"And if all of that fails, spend as little money as you can self-publishing your work, giving yourself a taste of what it's like to be a published author, while you work on your next book."

Authors who dedicate much time and effort to works-in-progress can benefit greatly from self-publishing their books. First of all, they get to see their books in print, which most authors will admit is one of the great pleasures of the writing life. After that much time dedicated to their craft, getting this little reward is the perfect way to celebrate. It also might help lower the blood pressure of many an aspiring writer, keeping their Internet frustration to a minimum.

Moreover, the author gets a chance to see on a micro level what life is like for a published writer. They get to see, for example, how difficult it is to get people interested in a new author's work, how difficult the proofreader's and cover designer's jobs are, what it takes to get a review in the local paper or a reading at a local bookstore, how many book sales said review or reading might yield, what it takes to turn merely one new reader on to your work.

These authors might decide that the writing and publishing life isn't for them and move on to something else, thereby getting them out of the queue and off agents' backs.

Others writers might cultivate a deeper appreciation of writing and publishing and try even harder with their next book. These authors, who later may move into traditional publishing, are sure to be understanding when the New York Times doesn't want to review their novels, or not freaking out when they find a typo, or when their first week's sales numbers don't rival J.K. Rowling's.

And unlike traditional publishing houses--which are no longer run by pipe smokers in double-breasted suits but by shareholders with double-digit growth expectations--self-published authors take risks. They publish outside of genre, think outside the box and try hard to reach non-traditional audiences. Getting the best of them in the book-selling trenches might be a great way to foster fledgling markets.

Finally, a self-publisher relinquishes no book rights. In other words, when a previously self-published author's next novel sells nine million copies, an agent can always take that early work back to the traditional market. No harm, no foul.

The consolation prize of 21st Century publishing is that traditional and self-publishing need not be seen as an either/or choice, any more than playing in the minor leagues would forfeit a player's shot at the majors. Agents would be wise to embrace this new era of cheap, easy self-publishing to their own ends, if only to reduce the amount of angst coming at them from authors who are supposed to wait forever for an industry that, frankly, may never come to them.

Yours in laying down the law,


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