Well, it has been quite awhile since my last post, hasn’t it? My only excuse is that school has kept me busy. But, I’m on Christmas break now, and I shall try to keep up with this better. For my reopening, I shall post the monster paper I wrote for English Comp this semester. I think my writerly friends will find it interesting. The title doesn’t quite fit anymore, but hopefully it doesn’t meander too much. Without further ado….
The Poor Man’s Approach to Publishing
This paper explores the problems with the current publishing market and potential solutions for dealing with them. Chapter one defines the problem and gives an introduction to the two main types of publishing. The next chapter examines the consequences of these problems and introduces the idea that problems in the publishing market affect much more than just the market itself. Chapter three presents several solutions to these problems, going over such things as P.O.D. presses and query letters. Chapter four studies the feasibility of the solutions presented in the previous chapter, stating which options a potential author will likely find the most useful. The final chapter steps away from the individual author’s standpoint and looks to the future, speculating on the results of various changes in the publishing market. Overall, the discussion contains an overview of the publishing world and how an author can handle it.
A Sea of Presses
“The only thing I was fit for was to be a writer, and this notion rested solely on my suspicion that I would never be fit for real work, and that writing didn’t require any.” Russell Baker
The modern publishing market is huge and labyrinthine. So many stories circle the world, created by millions of authors and thousands of publishers. Getting one’s own work published, even achieving a modicum of success, seems easy at first glance, especially as a writer producing high quality fiction with deep meaning. But the market does not work that way. Low quality, mass market books of little literary value flood the shelves. Publishers don’t want to consider an unknown writer who doesn’t have an agent. Agents don’t want to consider authors who haven’t published novels. One can simply browse through Writer’s Market, a listing of publishers and agents, to see the truth of this statement. Breaking into the market and becoming a successful author of fiction is, in actuality, very difficult. Hostility towards newcomers runs rampant in the modern fiction publishing market, and for unknowns who want to achieve successful careers as novelists, this problem often becomes insurmountable.
Granted, there must be standards. Publishers cannot simply accept every manuscript that comes their way. Literally thousands of poorly written dishrags of books circle the P.O.D. and self-publishing market. If publishers accepted everything sent to them, the market would fall into an even worse state than it already stands in. Standards would drop even lower. Publishers and authors would lose respect in the eyes of readers. Nevertheless, the general reaction to the possibility of bad literature entering the market has, in fact, kept an unknown amount of good literature from publication. Publishers, taking such extreme measures to keep poorly written books out of circulation, often let potentially exciting offerings from unknown authors slip through the cracks.
One can think of the publishing world as a castle, standing guard over a dragon’s hoard of treasure. The authors make the peasants, some of whom have enough luck to be hired into the castle’s staff. A few of them even become treasurers for the local lord, and gain access to the dragon’s hoard. But the rest? They languish in the village. Without finding a chink in the castle’s defenses, they will likely never see its marble halls.
The “castle” has two entrances. It has two main paths for a prospective author to take towards publishing a novel, two chief categories of book publishers. “Traditional” and “nontraditional” publishers form the primary groups of publishing houses. In traditional publishing, the generally accepted and “old-fashioned” model, an author sends a manuscript or query letter to a publishing house, which then reviews the submitted materials and decides if it should publish them. If the publishing house decides in favor of the manuscript, it will pay the author an advance, edit and format the book, create the cover art, and market and distribute the book (James-Enger, par. 2-3). Traditional publishing houses have many resources, and much to offer an author. However, manifold problems exist for an author using this method. It takes a very long time, the author has little control over the process, and most traditional publishing companies won’t consider un-agented submissions (Fawcett). Also, a number of “gatekeepers” involve themselves in this method, the basic submission guidelines of the publishing house being the most obvious of them. If a manuscript does not meet the guidelines, the publishing house will discard it without a second look. Even if they accept the manuscript, it must still get past layers of editors.
Agents, another important aspect of the traditional publishing process, make another form of “gatekeeper.” Like diplomats of the publishing industry, they work as go-betweens who use their contacts and influence to get an author’s work noticed and hopefully accepted by a publisher (Agent Query.com). They can assist an author greatly, and in fact, most large publishing companies won’t even consider manuscript submissions that don’t come from an agent. Capturing an agent presents an author with many of the same difficulties as capturing a publisher. Quite a few agents won’t accept submissions from authors who don’t have published books. All of them will need a cut of the profits. Agents share information with each other, which one must also consider. If an author happens to offend an agent, or show himself to be hard to work with, other agents will find out, and they can make things even harder. Getting and keeping an agent presents a very tricky problem for unknown authors without much money to spare.
And then an author must consider nontraditional publishing–i.e., self-publishing. Once scorned, even considered an “axe” to an author’s career, self-publishing has become more popular and accessible in recent days. Self-publishing, and achieving success with it, still presents a difficult problem. On the one hand, self-publishing would seem like an easier route to take than traditional publishing. After all, the author doesn’t need anyone to accept his manuscript (James-Enger, par. 7). With a little time and effort, he can get his book out into the world without having to deal with agents or editors or slush piles. Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy. Self-publishing often causes an author more difficulties than traditional publishing. From an author’s viewpoint, expense constitutes one of its chief problems. The author must pay large sums–in the thousands of dollars, with some vanity publishers–to publish a book. For example, AuthorHouse, a self-publishing company, charges almost six-hundred dollars for a basic publishing package (Authorhouse.com). The author will receive no help with editing, cover art, or marketing unless he pays someone else to do it. Without plenty of funds or an extensive set of skills, the author will have a very hard time making any progress with self-publishing.
Expense and lack of support don’t make up the only problems an author who attempts self-publishing will face. Marketing, for example, often proves itself as one of the biggest obstacles to becoming a successful, self-published author. The author will have to do all the marketing on his own when he self-publishes a novel. Marketing a novel well enough to make money off of it is not easy. Without the right tools, resources, knowledge, and connections, it becomes well-nigh impossible. And this says nothing of distribution. Even if an author has strong marketing skills, most bookstores and libraries won’t stock self-published books. Quite often, Internet venues like a personal website or Amazon.com (James-Enger, par. 10) provide one’s only option for distributing self-published books… and even so, there is still more.
Self-publishing also has something of a bad reputation. Imagine a knife store that gets its inventory from a collection of random people who may or may not know the first thing about metalworking–and proudly advertises it. The store would fail within a month. Few people would voluntarily make purchases from it, and likewise, most bookstores would rather stock books from well known, reputable publishers than self-published books from unknown authors.
Bleak prospects line the walls for unknown authors. Many writers look at the obstacles arrayed against them, those towering castle walls, and give up with hardly a fight. But great numbers of people have become successful, published authors, and even the poorest, most unknown person can certainly do it again. Publishing simply requires time, effort, dedication, and sometimes a steady source of funds. Later sections of this paper will explore options for the prospective author. It will also go into more depth on the consequences of the difficulties with modern publishing, for both the individual and the book industry as a whole.
Pan-Cultural Chaos, Or a Prayer for Open-Minded Editors
In the previous chapter, this paper discussed the problems with the publishing market; it also discussed the difficulties a prospective author must face in his quest to become a successful novelist. The consequences of these problems and difficulties are several, and as a thousand tiny germs can sicken a strong man, they affect much more than simply the book industry or the individual author. The consequences stretch across society. It’s relatively easy to point out the consequences for the individual author. The large scale consequences are both much harder to spot and less widely recognized. A few problems exist, but one of the largest results of the difficulty with getting published in the modern market also forms one of the most insidious: a stagnation of modern literature. The lord of the castle, in refusing to give full consideration to all those who approach his doors, keeps himself in ignorance of the fascinating ideas they might bring him.
From the individual standpoint, as a lone man or woman staying up ‘til all hours of the night writing some hopefully inspired piece of fiction, the consequences make themselves clear enough. Almost every author will have a very hard time getting his book published. Often, it won’t get published at all. Even the most famous, bestselling authors of the present day received numerous rejections. J.K. Rowling tried to get Harry Potter published twelve times before someone accepted the manuscript (“The JK Rowling Story” par. 40). One author says “I received something like 50-100 rejection letters, some of which now make me laugh” (Schwabauer). An author can write stories for his entire life and, due to the way the publishing market works, never see his books in print.
This problem leads into another, perhaps more dangerous, problem. For many authors, the difficulty of getting published in the modern market causes much discouragement. Some authors don’t mind the difficulty–they aren’t writing for publication, just for their own enjoyment. It doesn’t bother them if no one ever reads their work, because they don’t mean for others to read it. But many, perhaps most, authors genuinely hope to make a living from their writing. The discouragement that results from the struggles to achieve that dream can seriously reduce an author’s inspiration, confidence, and willingness to write. This makes it much harder for him to write new stories, which of course makes it even less likely for him to get published.
All that said, some good has resulted from these difficulties. According to one author,
Discouragement made me see that I had to either write what everybody else thought I should write and increase my chances of acceptance, or give up on writing, or write what I felt passionate about with little regard for the market…You could say that the discouragement and resistance helped me to take a realistic look at who I was and why I wanted to write (Schwabauer).
Serious literary authors must master their craft, hone their skills to a level of deadly sharpness. At the least, they must become knowledgeable in all the other areas necessary for publishing. One can look at the difficulties, not as a hindrance, but as a powerful learning experience.
Still, equally clear consequences show themselves in the book industry itself. A lack of new, talented authors in the industry, of people bringing fresh vision and ideas, forms one of the biggest consequences. Very unusual or potentially controversial stories will rarely attract publishers, because of the potential risks involved with putting them in print. Most publishers only want to publish books they think they can sell. If the publisher doesn’t feel as if it can sell a book, then the book won’t get published, no matter how brilliant the author or story. This, though it does prevent some poor writing from getting into the market, also keeps many potentially very interesting authors from publication.
This unwillingness to take a risk branches into other problems. A further negative consequence exists for the book industry, which comes in the definition of “what will sell.” Quite often, the books that sell have little literary value. They offer nothing to the reader but cheap thrills and ideas that have been done too many times to retain any freshness or interest. Mass market books, little more than dressed-up clones of what has gone before them, invade the book industry. This causes the definition of “what will sell” to become even narrower, which builds on itself in a cumulative effect. As time passes, publishers accept fewer and fewer varieties of stories, which causes fewer and fewer to be acceptable. The trap in this situation shows itself clearly. The definition of “what will sell” continues to shrink. This definition would broaden and the circle would break, if publishers became more willing to put out unusual stories. People would have more options to choose from.
The narrowing of the definition of “what will sell” in the book industry translates into a much wider consequence for society as a whole: a stagnation of literature in the modern world. With the exception of a few standouts, the last decade has not seen many new books written with any real literary value. Myths, legends, and stories make up the hearts of all cultures. Stories change the way people think. They affect one’s most deeply ingrained ideas. If literature is stagnating, drowning in mindless repetition of what’s gone before as it seems to be, then will society not stagnate as well? Will the heart of culture not be lost, corrupted, made shallow and empty?
How To Succeed (or Not)
Dealing with the publishing market presents many difficulties, but with perseverance and hard work, the prospective author can achieve success. A discussion of different methods, as well as the pros and cons of these methods, follows.
A few common methods exist to go about getting published traditionally. On the simplest level, an author can query as many publishers and agents as possible, ignoring any strictures on simultaneous submissions (which many publishing houses have). As one author says,
One [rejection letter came] from a publisher who said they would not consider simultaneous submissions, but were inconsiderate enough to sit on my novel submission for over a year without returning even a form rejection in the SASE I provided. When they finally replied to my query, their letter said, in essence, “What? You sent us a novel? We must have lost it.” That was the last time I respected a ‘no simultaneous submissions’ policy (Schwabauer).
Unfortunately, this method often will not prove effective–especially if an author’s query letters don’t match up to the rather high standard. An author should invest a great deal of time into writing good query letters, as they make up a very important aspect of the traditional publishing process. It would go beyond the scope of this paper to discuss methods for writing successful queries, but books and the Internet hold a plethora of resources on the subject.
There is more to the querying dynamic than quality of writing or inattentive submissions editors. The changing market constitutes another reason for the frequent failure of the mass querying strategy. Publishing companies make attempts to predict the market, of course, but no one can truly say what consumers will want to purchase tomorrow. So, a prospective author should always keep himself aware of the current fiction market, what’s hot, what isn’t, what the publishers want to see. To this end, an author should obtain a copy of Writer’s Market, a book which contains a listing of publishers and agents, their submission guidelines, and the sorts of books that they currently publish. An author can “chase the market” and write only what publishers want, in an effort to gain acceptance. If vampire stories are hot, then write vampire stories. However, this method doesn’t always prove effective. In the current, highly unpredictable market, keeping track of publishing trends can stymy an author.
Also, “chasing the market” often requires an author to give up what he most wants to write, in exchange for something of transient popularity. For example, Amish fiction or “bonnet novels” have become quite popular in recent times (MacGregor, par. 11). Not many authors dream of writing bonnet novels, and how long will this trend really last? An author should write what he feels passionate about, because passion will never go out of style. In one author’s words,
If you are writing in a hot genre, you may find that you can get by with half-baked plots, characters and ideas. That is, you can make a living selling vampire stories when vampire stories are hot. Or Amish stories when Amish stories are hot. Or, what the heck, Amish Vampire stories when that market comes into its own. But why write stories you have no passion for? What’s the point? (Schwabauer).
Regardless, if an author only cares about getting published, “chasing the market” deserves consideration as a strategy.
Next, an author must consider which publishing house to query, which would provide the most effective method for publishing, which he would most like to work with. One of the Big Five? A large house outside of that powerful group? A small, little-known press? This choice will have a large effect on whether or not an author’s manuscript becomes published, on how much money he makes from the publication of his novels, and on how much work he will have to put into promoting his book after publication. Many authors pursue publishing contracts with the “Big Five.” The Big Five make up the largest portion of the traditional publishing industry: Scholastic, Random House, Penguin, Bantam, etc. Their numbers and exact constituents fluctuate, because they often buy and sell parts of each other (Allen, sec. 34 par. 1). They can make or break an author. Most authors only dream of getting published by them. One must typically achieve significant success in smaller, more mundane publishing endeavors to be considered by the Big Five. In addition, even if an author is lucky enough to have his manuscript accepted by one of the Big Five, it likely will not last long, as they usually keep a book in print for only six months. They also won’t publish authors who don’t have agents. Still, they can bring nearly instant success, recognition, and popularity, and many authors chase after their contracts.
Pursuing either a small press or a large house outside the Big Five constitutes a potentially more effective option. Small presses, such as Zumaya Publications, Elixirist, and Flying Pen Press (Writer’s Market), typically offer the easiest prospects for getting published, but also offer small payment. Some authors prefer them because they keep books in print for many years and sometimes put a more significant effort into promoting them than larger houses–as they have fewer books to sell, they must make larger efforts to profit from what they have (Allen, sec. 33 par. 3). On the other hand, many small presses prefer to have the author himself heavily involved in the promotion process, and don’t offer much assistance with marketing (Barnard, par. 10). A prospective author should also keep in mind that small publishing houses have higher failure rates than large ones. For this reason, among others, many authors prefer to seek out the “large presses.” These publishing houses have considerably more weight to throw around than the small presses, as well as higher payouts and bigger sales. They tend to last longer. Though they lack the size and influence of the Big Five, landing a contract with them will certainly be less of a challenge, and they will probably bring an author more recognition than a small press. The prospective author must ultimately decide which sort of publisher to use based on the kind of book he has, and the sort of dreams he has for it.
As far as dealing with agents goes, an author must move with caution. Every author who follows the traditional publishing route must decide whether or not to hire an agent. A difficult and time consuming process, this involves many of the same methods as going straight to a publisher. The author sends his query letter or manuscript to the agent, who reviews it and determines whether or not to read further. If he likes the manuscript, he’ll then follow much the same process as the author, and attempt to land a contract with a publishing house. Agents usually have an easier time of this than authors, but one can’t be certain that his manuscript will even get looked at. Many agencies have a bad reputation for leaving query letters sitting in their inboxes indefinitely without looking at them or replying to the author. As with publishing companies, writing only what’s hot when querying agents can make a workable plan. Of course, whatever an author writes must seize the reader’s attention, even among its specific genre. If his story has nothing interesting to offer, it won’t much matter if it’s part of an extremely popular genre.
So, the author had best ensure that he’s writing a good, unique story. This may seem like a much-too-obvious solution, but the further development of writing skills certainly won’t harm one’s publishing efforts. Some ways to do this include joining a writer’s group and getting critiques from peers, attending workshops and conferences to learn tips and tricks of the trade, and of course, writing as much as possible. Writers who attend conferences also have a good (or at least, much better) chance of meeting editors and agents, who can at the least provide feedback on the marketability of the author’s work. Regularly attending writer’s conferences can provide a good method for building up contacts in the publishing world.
But not all authors want to follow the traditional publishing route. Many of them prefer to self-publish. Self-publishing has become much easier in recent days, and it seems that the future of books may find itself in self-publishing (Grossman). Self-publishing can even lead to a contract with a traditional publisher. If an author achieves success with a self-published book, a publisher may offer to buy the sequel. As Daniel Saurez, a self-published author quoted in the article “Books Unbound,” states, “I really see a future in doing that, where agencies would monitor the performance of self-published books, in a sort of Darwinian selection process, and see what bubbles to the surface. I think of it as crowd-sourcing the manuscript submission process (par. 15).” Of course, one must first achieve that kind of success on one’s own. First, the author must consider what sort of books he wants to write. Not everything is well-suited for self-publishing. One small press editor says that, in general, an author should only self-publish if he’s writing a short story anthology, a book of poems, non-fiction for a niche market (such as a handbook for identifying UFOs or a local history book), and other such things (Allen, sec. 4 par. 5). Essentially, self-publishing tends to cater more to “niche markets.”
All that isn’t to say that self-publishing a novel won’t work. Christopher Paolini, author of the extremely successful Inheritance series, started as a self-published author (Grossman, par. 14). Another self-published author, Lisa Genova, attempted traditional publishing many times over, but no one wanted her novel, Still Alice. She finally gave in, paid a few hundred dollars to a self-publishing company, and published Still Alice herself. A year or so later, it had reached the New York Times best-seller list (Grossman, par. 2). So, having decided to attempt to self-publish a novel, the author must then decide which self-publishing method to use. Publishing through Amazon makes for an extremely easy time getting one’s book onto the market. Within a few minutes, an author can have his book listed in Amazon’s Kindle store, with the option to print copies as people order them, all for no charge (Amazon.com). Easy? Yes. But marketing that book, actually selling it once it’s available, poses a potentially very great challenge.
Those don’t make up the only options for self-publishing. For the more wealthy prospective authors, vanity presses provide a potential avenue toward publication. Though some consider the term “vanity press” as synonymous with self-publishing, a distinction must be made. Vanity presses do all the work of publishing (cover art, editing, printing, etc), much like a normal publisher, but their funds come from the author himself. They make up a portion of the self-publishing industry; the fact that they generally offer full-service publishing separates them from the other self-publishing options available. However, as with most self-publishing options, vanity presses typically require the author to do all or most of his own marketing. They tend to have bad reputations, and many of them make profit by scamming hopeful authors. A few reputable vanity presses exist in the market, notable among them AuthorHouse and Morris Publishing (Allen, sec. 32). However, publishing with a vanity press will usually not be worth the time and money spent or the potential damage to an author’s reputation it can cause.
P.O.D. presses, such as Lulu, sometimes present a better option than publishing via vanity press. P.O.D. stands for Publish On Demand, a process by which an author submits a novel for sale, and the P.O.D. press prints copies as people buy them. Amazon uses P.O.D. technology for its self-publishing service, and authors have achieved success by using it. With this method, the author usually won’t have to pay much money, as the P.O.D. press will simply take a commission from the cost of each book the author sells. Though clearly advantageous cost-wise, this method presents difficulties in the areas of marketing and distribution. Some P.O.D. presses, like Lulu, offer distribution services through their websites, certain bookstores’ websites, or Amazon.com (Lulu.com), but many do not. Most P.O.D. presses also do not offer marketing services, so an author must promote his novel on his own. Thirdly, the higher per-book cost necessitated by the commission paid to the P.O.D. press can put people off. Most people aren’t willing to spend twenty dollars on a paperback. With strong marketing skills and a good book, an author can achieve success with P.O.D. publishing, but the potential cost can outweigh the benefits.
One must carefully weigh the options before opting for any single method. Small press or large press? The Big Five? Vanity press or P.O.D.? With numerous options available, an author can at times feel overwhelmed. No choice, however, will result in irredeemable consequences. Too many mistakes will certainly make the road to publication much rockier, but another path, a second chance, always exists.
There is one more problem this paper must discuss–the potential dangers to society of the modern publishing market’s obstinacy, of the narrowing of the definition of “what will sell.” As previously discussed, when publishers believe that only certain kinds of books will sell, they won’t publish anything else. As they further specialize, the variety in the market shrinks. While probably an entire book could be written on the subject, this paper will only touch on the issue and how to handle it. In essence, solving this dilemma would require publishers to change their standards. Rather than accepting for publication only the novels they believe will sell, they must accept stories with unusual and varied viewpoints, stories that will broaden minds and introduce new and interesting ideas to the culture. This wouldn’t require publishers to accept every book that came their way, regardless of quality; rather, they would have to choose with a mind towards bettering society. Indeed, one could argue that publishers, as the legislators of the book market, have a moral responsibility to publish books, not for money, but for the benefit of readers. Who could guess where the market would go, what new ideas would be produced, how society would change, if this were the case? The possibilities are limitless.
However, in reality, publishing is a business. Publishing houses exist, for the most part, for profit, and not for the betterment of society or literature. They will likely never publish books altruistically. A more practical method for solving the problem, then, would be an attempt to “nudge” the market in a better direction. Publishers could gradually shift the expectations of the public. Bestsellers are marketed, not made. Any of the large publishing companies could make a significant profit off of any book they chose, considering the resources they have at their disposal for marketing. Rather than choosing the books their analysts have decided people will like the most, they could choose books that present new ideas, other viewpoints, a broader scope. They could take a risk and use their powers to help up-and-coming novelists, instead of always relying on the old favorites. A new phenomenon could be born.
All that said, it will likely not be long before self-published authors can compete with the big time contract authors of the major publishing companies. One can already see it happening, as the self-publishing market grows bigger and bigger. New and better ideas will get out there, one way or another… but publishers, with their wealth and resources, could offer great assistance to the process. They could ensure quality of writing and large areas of distribution. They may or may not do this. But regardless of what happens, something must change for publishing houses to remain competitive.
And So, to Become Successful
Imagine this: you send a book, this golden story that you’ve poured heart and soul into for months or years, to a publisher or agent. A few months go by. At the beginning, you can think of nothing else but the book. You’re full of hope and nervousness. All you want is to see that letter or that email, with news that will break your heart or make it soar. But the time passes, and it doesn’t take long for the excitement to be pushed back by the humdrumness of day-to-day life, or perhaps the anticipation of writing the next novel. Then one day, you open your e-mail, and sitting in the inbox is a message from the publishing company or agent. Fingers shaking, you scan the lines. They’ve accepted the manuscript! Never expecting that they would like your story so much, you don’t know how to feel. You’d been braced for rejection. The relief and the joy comes in waves. You call up all your family and friends. Post triumphant statuses on Facebook. Perhaps dance around your house with a silly grin. Maybe people won’t want to read that novel so much, but it’s been published!
Or perhaps you self-publish the novel and upload it to Amazon. You put in a little effort to advertise it around the web, to friends, to businesses you frequent, without expectation that anything much will happen. For the first weeks or months, nothing does. But then, whether it got published traditionally or not, a few people buy the book. They write glowing reviews. Suddenly, it’s selling thousands of copies. Publishing companies approach you with million-dollar offers to put your story’s sequel in print. You’re planning book tours. The story becomes a New York Times bestseller, and you can’t help but smile and think of how, just a few short years ago, that story was nothing but a few words and figments drifting around your head.
Most writers have such dreams. The writer himself decides whether or not those dreams ever come to fruition. Any route to successful publication will present many difficulties. Only those with the fortitude and determination to overcome these difficulties will succeed. The method or methods the prospective author should use in his quest vary according to the person and the book in question, but a few general rules apply.
With that in mind, self-publishing usually makes for a more feasible route to the initial publication of a book than traditional publishing. The lack of gatekeepers means any author should find it very easy to publish a book through a P.O.D. or vanity press, or perhaps Amazon.com. The difficulty comes with sustaining the novel, keeping it in print, advertising it, etc. As a side note, with print on demand technology, the author won’t have to worry about the costs of keeping the novel in print, making P.O.D. publishing more feasible from a cost standpoint. At any rate, in general the author must have plenty of spare time and a fair amount of resources to self-publish successfully. The ultimate feasibility of self-publishing depends largely on the author’s own resources. If the prospective author has a good deal of time and money to devote to the venture, then self-publishing would probably make for a good choice. If he’s poor and working too hard to spend many hours a week promoting his book, then traditional publishing would make the best choice.
As for traditional publishing, it often seems less feasible than the self-publishing option at first glance. The likelihood of an author being accepted by any traditional publishing house appears quite small–only 1-2% (“Slushkiller,” sec. 3). Small presses, though possibly the easiest to get into, still present challenges of their own. The likelihood of obtaining a contract with one of them does not necessarily increase with decreasing size of the house. Many small houses only publish very specific materials, and won’t except the majority of manuscripts presented to them. The likelihood of getting into one of the Big Five houses is even lower. They, for the most part, have little concern for new authors and would rather stick to the established names they’ve been working with for years. Though perseverance and the right contacts can lead to obtaining a contract from them, the author could probably spend his energy more effectively elsewhere, such as in querying smaller houses. In the end, then, a medium sized publishing house may provide the most feasible option. But even so, remember that in most cases, only 1-2% of manuscripts get published traditionally.
With this in mind, an author’s getting an agent can greatly increase his chances of being publishing traditionally. Getting an agent presents many of the same difficulties as getting accepted by a publisher, except that the author probably has higher chances of being accepted by an agent. In turn, an agent can greatly increase the author’s odds of landing a contract with a traditional publishing house. If the author’s manuscript is good enough for an agent to want it, at least a few publishers will most likely feel the same way. Aside from that, in many cases the agent can use his contacts and influence in the publishing world to push the manuscript much more effectively than the author could himself.
As stated in the previous chapter, a few methods exist for and author to pursue a traditional publishing contract. The feasibility of mass querying, the first method listed, relies on the quality of the author’s query letters and the locations to which he sends them. Depending on the circumstances, this method can work very well, but it can also have a high chance of failure. If done properly, though, the author can expect more success from this strategy than from most others. Of course, it is also one of the more difficult to do properly, and the potential amounts of time the author must spend on researching publishing houses, writing and sending queries, and then doing more research can become rather prohibitive.
Research, in point of fact, often does not present as much difficulty as one might imagine. If the author knows where to look and has some good contacts (contacts, though not necessary, usually help), he can keep track of the publishing market with surprising ease. Plenty of resources exist in the public domain for those wanting to stay up-to-date on the publishing world. Writer’s Market, for example. It is not at all infeasible for a single author to keep himself in the know about the market. The difficulty generally comes in the amount of time the author must devote to his research. Many people don’t have that time. Even so, with time, or the lack of it, making the only real difficulty in this method, authors have no excuse for not doing at least a little market research.
Finally, the development of writing skills themselves probably makes up the easiest part of the whole process. Regardless of whether an author publishes traditionally or non-traditionally, he must have strong writing skills. An author who lacks writing skill, like a dancer with no rhythm, makes his art painful to its partakers. Even writers with little real talent for the written word can gain sufficient skill to be competitive. Basic good grammar and a solid grasp of the English language can make one stand out. The number of published authors with poor grammar astounds some readers. With a solid grasp of the language and a little practice painting work pictures, most anyone can become a skilled enough writer to publish a story. Now, naturally, some people will have a much harder time with this than others. But as previously stated, the development of writing skills most often makes up the easiest portion of the publishing task. Classes and books about writing abound, and one can never discount the advice and critiques of friends with a literary bent. No author can afford to neglect his writing skills.
As mentioned earlier in this paper, the stagnation of modern literature, and with it, society, has become one of the biggest problems caused by the nature of the modern publishing market. In the previous chapter, this paper listed a few potential solutions for the problem. Unfortunately, changing the modern publishing market, and society itself, has been and always will be quite difficult. In actuality, the solutions this paper listed are most likely little more than pipe dreams, though lovely ones. Affecting some change may well become possible, but it’s unlikely that the market will ever see a true turn-around.
Those wishing to make changes will have to start small. This means that people of good taste and fine literary discernment must band together to support a new, underground publishing market. With the advent of modern self-publishing and its ease of use, this could become possible. Consider the independent music industry, which has done much the same thing with a different artistic medium. When thought of in those terms, independent books and publishing companies seem much more feasible!
Writers of the Future
“It means your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one, both of you.” Doc Brown, Back to the Future Part III
Nothing stays the same forever. The publishing market, already facing attacks from the outside and dueling with its own anachronistic nature, must soon transform. The market’s entrenchment in society means that this change won’t happen immediately. But, like a cliffside filled with caves by the pounding of the sea, the currents of society will inevitably reshape the publishing world. Traditional publishers won’t have to be more accepting of potential authors… but neither will potential authors have to use traditional publishing methods to achieve success. Changes will come in a variety of forms, but this basic fact will fuel them. The common author will have to decide whether to view these changes as a hindrance or as a help.
The drift towards user-created content in modern society has already been a boon to self-publishing authors. As the drift grows in size, self-published novels will gain more and more acceptance from the general public, and as a result, the self-publishing market will likely grow. Traditional publishers, conversely, will shrink, as both readers and authors drift more and more towards self-published novels. Many traditional publishers, especially the mid-size ones, may disappear altogether. Small presses could well last, as their command of niche markets will continue to give them appeal to certain writers. The large presses likely have enough resources to hold out in the face of self-publishers for some time. Even so, the danger of erasure will force traditional publishers to change. They will likely become more open to submissions from new and unknown authors. This means that traditional publishers will probably start publishing many more books than they do today, especially e-books. The quality of these books may drop from their current level, but the traditional publishers will attempt to compete with the self-publishers by throwing their weight and resources behind producing mass quantities of books.
A change in traditional publishing towards mass-production of books seems the most likely possibility. But perhaps more discerning individuals will take command, and the change will run towards quality rather than quantity. Because poorly written books and derivative stories will flood the self-publishing market, traditional publishers may choose to emphasize the quality of their own books. “None of those people really know what they’re doing,” they might say. “Trust our professional authors to give you nothing but the very best novels on the market.” They will set even stricter standards, and produce only the finest books. The traditional publishers will also attempt to take all the newest and freshest ideas for themselves, in order to put their books in an even higher league then those of the self-publisher authors. For prospective authors, this could make for wonderful news, as the authors may have access to more lucrative contracts; of course, more significant than the money would be the fact that anyone with a good enough idea would have a stronger chance of acceptance for publication.
Now, if the traditional publishers choose to compete with self-publishers on the basis of quantity, they will likely end up having to combine their resources to stay alive. The opposition from millions of people independently putting their books on the market could become quite stiff, and as previously mentioned, will likely destroy many mid-size publishers. In order to protect themselves, many of the traditional publishers, and especially the Big Five, will eventually combine themselves into one “super-publisher.” Even now, the Big Five buy out parts of each other and other publishers on a regular basis. Their ascension to a conglomerate makes the logical next step. This “super-publisher” would likely have quite a high degree of control over the literature that makes it into the market, which would of course give them a fair amount of control over society itself. Whether or not the publishing conglomerate would remain an independent entity or fall under the control of the government or some large corporation is debatable. Clearly, the results if the conglomerate did not remain independent would be immense.
Because this super-publisher will base its power on quantity of sales and books produced, the quality of literature will probably continue to drop. On the other hand, if the traditional publishers take the quality route, and begin producing the very best books they possibly can, a literary renaissance may well result from the market’s reshaping. The common man may not find these new books affordable. The traditional publishers, becoming smaller and more elite, will likely increase the cost of their books. Not everyone will have access to whatever good literature the traditional publishers produce. Thus, this renaissance may have a significant downside, only affecting the higher levels of society. Even if society produces good quality literature on some level, it seems that the common folks–the peasants waiting outside the castle–will still have a hard time obtaining it, and the best their culture has to offer.
Therefore, to attain true change, prospective authors must band together to ensure quality of literature. Though a writer’s guild already exists, in order to create change, a new group would have to rise. This group would have a different purpose than the current writer’s guild. For one, they would champion all writing, not just screenplays and the like. They would dedicate themselves to writing stories simply for the sake of creating a good tale, and they would not care overmuch about the cash. If someone forms this group or something like it, a literary underground with self-publishing as its medium would spring into existence, in counterpoint to the giant commercial publishers. Granted, this perhaps makes for an overly idealistic prediction, one unlikely to happen, but one can do nothing without first dreaming it.
Depending on the circumstances, this underground literature movement could achieve great success or dismal failure. If faced by a single super-publisher, the group would face great adversity. One could speculate for some time about whether this adversity would destroy them or make them stronger, but such would go beyond the scope of this paper. Even if many smaller, quality-focused publishers oppose the movement, rather than one super-publisher, its chances of success may not rise any higher. People would pay less attention to them if “official” publishers who focus on high quality books already exist. The chief difference between those publishers and the underground movement, aside from the size and resources of corporations, would be the movement’s concern with making books affordable to the everyday person. Emphasizing this difference would be crucial to the movement’s success or failure. In either case, whether faced by one publisher or many, the movement’s success would likely result a more accessible literary renaissance. By supporting it or anything like it with all the resources they can spare, people who care about the state of literature could greatly assist this movement’s success. But if the movement fails, literature will continue to decline, perhaps with ups and downs, but never again reaching the heights it once attained.
All this assumes that the rights to free speech enjoyed by modern American society continue to exist in the future. If these rights see any degree of reduction, it is most likely that publishers will indeed become a conglomerate, one influenced or run by whichever entity controls the government. In this case, derivative ideas and mass-produced books would likely become the name of the game, as free thinking is not conducive to an oppressive regime. Authors with new and brilliant ideas would have little to no chance, and in fact might even see persecution. The further suppression of literature would result in an even more extreme stagnation of culture.
But such speculation goes beyond the scope of this paper. Assuming that rights to free speech remain the same and a viable underground literary movement forms, and if people who believe in good literature will fight for what they believe in, the future of literature does indeed seem bright. For a time, it will continue to stagnate, but in some years, like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, the literary world will explode with color and interest.
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