By Alexa Padgett
The first inklings of change in the publishing industry crystallized prior to one of my literary agent boss’s bi-annual trips to New York City. Between making appointments and traveling to see the editors and publishers, three of her long-time contacts called to say they’d been laid off. This was in 2009.
The landscape over the past seven years has changed dramatically since those days—the rise of Amazon’s Kindle and the ease of e-book consumption being the largest—but unfortunately, the publishing industry is still trying to get its bearings. The recent announcement of more lay-offs at Berkley/NAL are just the latest in the long string of consolidations and continued efforts to pull a legacy industry into the digital age.
What does this all mean?
It means change has come, and appears to have settled in for a nice long visit. The rise and fall of digital publishing houses like Samhain is testimony to the continued ebb and flow we’re all struggling to grasp tightly between our sweat palms. In Jason Illian’s article, he points out how Barnes and Noble struggles to re-brand itself and that Penguin-Random House UK is shuttering one of its largest print distribution centers. On March 22, 2016, a report by French writers spelled doom and gloom for the entire publishing industry there.
But publishing—and by extension—writing is not gloomy or filled with doom. Seriously. Sure, it’s changing in scary ways. (The furor caused by Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited comes to mind.) But, guess what? Change also means opportunity. As with any revolution, there will be winners like indie authors J.F. Penn or Liliana Hart. And there will be losers, like Samhain and the discouraged French novelists making less that $20,000 per year.
Yes, of course the Big Five (Penguin Random House, Hachette, Macmillan, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster) are still looking for quality manuscripts. In fact, in 2014, Random House stated they debuted between 200 and 250 authors. The problem is there are fewer acquiring editors, thus fewer editors to pitch. Which matters. Because in publishing, we’ve all seen the “while I liked this, I didn’t love it enough to champion it” rejection. Diversity in editors means diversity in traditionally published books. With the continued reduction in editorial staff, I worry about continued—or, ideally, more—diversity in books in print.
Now, the money for a traditional contract, well, it ain’t great. According to Brenda Hiatt’s survey, the advance ranges from zero at a digital-only press to a median of $2,000-$10,000. Some authors make more, much more (think J.K. Rowling, George R. R. Martin and Neil Gaiman). Others make little or nothing as an advance. But the number that troubles me most is the earn-out, which shows many authors aren’t meeting book sale quotas for their advances. Yes, authors keep the advance, but they never see any additional funds for all that hard work. Part of the reason? Not enough marketing and promotion support from the publisher.
As an author, your job is to have a platform—a web site, a Twitter handle (preferably with more than your three closes friends as your only followers), a Facebook author page, maybe an Instagram and Tumblr account. Yes, these you do yourself. And the bigger the potential readership you bring, the better. But it’s not an all-or-nothing deal. Many debut authors don’t have much of a platform because they don’t know how to build one.
Every writer’s dream is to sell a novel—for a huge advance—and let the big, NYC publisher take over the marketing and promotion of your book. I’ll add one more publisher to that list: Kensington/Zebra. So you have a shot at six different houses, each with a variety of imprints, each searching for the NEXT GREAT NOVEL. The companies want it, desperately. And there are definitely reasons to stay the traditional route, some of which are espoused in this controversial article by Ros Barber. (I disagree with Ms. Barber on many of her speculations on self-publishing and have to point out she’s making “£5,000 for two year’s work” – definitely not a living wage.) But her point about literary fiction is a good one: If you want awards and the esteem of fellow literati, traditional publishers and literary journals will better suit your journey. On the flip side, Harry Bingham found he couldn’t stomach poverty while his publisher’s coffers grew.
So what’s a writer to do?
Write the stories you want to read. Then decide what success means to you. Whether you choose to go completely independent, through a traditional publisher, or the hybrid route, at the end of the day, you have to be happy with your decision.
No, traditional publishing won’t magically turn you into an international success and handle all that dreaded self promotion. And no, indie publishing doesn’t mean you’ll spend 90% of your time marketing, as Ms. Barber states in her article.
No matter which route you choose, you’ll have to do some of your own promotion and marketing. No matter which route you choose, you’ll have to be your book’s best advocate. And no matter which route you choose, you have to live with results.