Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Publishing and Me, and the Great Freakout of 2010

When I started writing, older writers would often say things like, "The publishing world has changed! It's not like it was when I was starting." I'd wonder what publishing was like for them; they painted utopian pictures of editors who spent lots of time nurturing writers who showed promise but didn't have professional polish. They described bookstores giving "fringe" authors a chance, and not giving up on authors whose first books didn't sell well. They described publishing as a kind, gentle world where promotion was left up to the publishers and writers had nothing to do but work on their craft.

I don't know how much of that was factual and how much was romanticized. My guess is about 50/50. It's true that when I began writing professionally in 1997, the publishing world had become more competitive, more prone to the chain bookstores' "bestseller" mentality (leaving less space on shelves for books with smaller audiences, regardless of how well-written they might be), and more likely to give up on writers who didn't sell well out of the starting gates.

Probably the most important shift was to "platforms." No longer was publicity something we got to leave to others-- we had to get in there and stomp on those grapes ourselves and get our feet all stained purple and red if we expected to get some wine out of the deal. (Speaking of which, guh-ross!)

Although there was talk of platforms in '97, it's overwhelming now. Agents and editors want to hear your book summary in the first breath, and your platform in the second. Your great book idea is unlikely to sell unless you have something to back up the marketing of that book-- speaking engagements, a radio show, a popular blog, a zillion Twitter followers. Which means that authors today are busier, and less focused on just the writing. We have to be skilled not only in writing great books, but also in making online "friends" and fans, speaking to the media, and generally drawing attention to ourselves. That suits some people fine, and others (like me) wish we could just write and leave the sales to someone else. There's a reason I switched majors away from advertising, you know.

Most of my books are published by large and medium-sized presses. Some are small press books, and I've self-published a few niche titles and one anthology for charity. I wrote a few e-books back in the 90s and early 2000s, and I recently released one exclusively for Kindle. So, in short, I've published books in pretty much every way one can publish books. When I say I've written 19 books, I'm referring only to the ones that have been published by real publishers. In reality, I've probably written more like 26 or 27, but I don't count the others, just because I don't.

If you were looking at a graph of my career as a writer, you'd see a nice steady upward climb, for the most part, since 1997. And then came 2010. What the hell happened in 2010? In my view, publishing collapsed.

It didn't, of course. Books were still being published. But I went from being so in demand that I could pick and choose from a variety of great book offers to having to send out missives to every editor I ever worked with begging for assignments, and those assigmments paid less than they did a year earlier. I had to drop my "minimum" book fee and still couldn't find work. I second-guessed myself. I wondered if I should take up a career better suited to my strengths, like professional basketball. When my daughter told me she wanted to be a ghostwriter when she grew up, I just said, "Awww. That's sweet. Also, no freaking way."

(I didn't say that. She was 3. I would have fired myself as her mother had I said that.)

I confided in my writing friends that I was worried. Did I actually suck as a writer and it just took 13 years to catch up with me? "It's not you," they assured me. "It's everyone."

The publishing world as we have always known it was and is in trouble. At least one major publisher put a moratorium on new submissions, saying that it was not acquiring any new books indefinitely. Bookstores closed. Chain bookstores focused more and more on their cafes and DVDs and gift products and less on books, and still are in trouble. Amazon began selling used books on the same screen as new ones. As the economy tanked, people bought fewer "luxury" books.

One bright light in the well has been the emergence of popular e-readers, which was a long time coming. It took a lot of flops before we saw the Kindle and the Nook. But early evidence suggests that people who use e-readers buy a lot of books-- more than they would buy in print. And that's great, mostly. There's a new article out about how the vast majority of e-reading people claim they still buy almost as many paperbacks and hardcovers as before, but frankly, I don't believe them. And I don't believe that trend will continue if it is true. We're becoming an e-culture, and I, at 35, am already a dinosaur. I love my print books. Moreover, I love writing print books.

Several of my books would not work as e-books. The Marilyn Monroe Treasures and Celine Dion: For Keeps are the most obvious-- they're gorgeous, oversized gift books filled with beautiful photo layouts and removable memorabilia in vellum envelopes. How am I going to get a removable marriage license into a Kindle? I'm not. And I'm not even going to make many sales on Amazon of books like that-- those are books that people have to see in person to appreciate. They have to walk into a bookstore and notice the gold foil cover and open the pages and feel the textures and be delighted at the beauty of the layouts and the intimate feel of the memorabilia. I love writing those books. A culture dedicated to e-reading will kill those books.

A culture dedicated to e-reading will kill bookstores.

It's something I didn't even want to acknowledge as a possibility before, so this is kind of a step for me, typing it out loud. Here's the trend I see as inevitable: as people are more able to buy books online and on e-readers, they are less likely to walk into bookstores and even book sections of megastores like Wal-Mart. As bookstores' profits continue to dwindle, they will have less money to invest in books that aren't guaranteed to sell. That means publishers will publish fewer books, focusing their efforts on books by celebrities and politicians and authors who have already hit bestseller status. Fewer options in bookstores will make readers even less likely to walk into a bookstore, considering that-- at this moment-- everything they want is at their fingertips on Amazon.

"At this moment" is the key, because the cycle hasn't caught up with us yet: as publishers publish fewer books, consumers will no longer be able to find new books on every conceivable topic that are published by "reliable" publishers. That will shift toward self-publishers and e-presses. A major publisher is unlikely to publish a book with a small intended audience, so an author who wants to write that book will be foreced to either self-publish or forget the idea. But self-publishing means there are fewer guarantees for readers: the quality of self-published books is, at best, a risky gamble. Self-publishing authors often don't hire editors (or if they do, they don't hire qualified editors-- partly because they don't know any better); they don't have their work professionally copyedited and proofread and typeset and designed. In short, they don't go through all the same steps that are meant to ensure quality control in commercial publishing. (Again, let me emphasize the word "often," because I'm not trying to tick off the small portion of self-published authors who do actually follow all these steps.)

And I'm not even judging the authors who don't follow those steps... it's expensive! Hiring all those professionals and paying for an ISBN and copyright and whatnot is expensive. Add that to the fact that you're not getting an advance and there are no guaranteed royalties, and you're talking one heck of a leap of faith for those who don't have a lot of money to begin with.

So, end result, readers who buy self-published books are probably going to have a bunch of bad experiences with writers whose work isn't vetted, fact-checked, or properly designed. They may or may not get fed up enough to cut back on their book-buying habits altogether.

And where does that leave us career authors?

Again, in my Great Freakout of 2010, one of my other author friends who was previously very successful and had become... not so successful... told me that she had branched out. Now she was mostly taking on private clients for editing, consulting, and teaching work. She suggested I try that, too, but I was uncomfortable consulting and teaching when I was currently not succeeding at the very thing I would be teaching. I knew I had to get back on top before I could feel okay about telling others how to be a writer.

I swallowed my pride and took on assignments I wouldn't have taken since my earliest freelancing days-- articles for local publications, cheapie articles for websites-- because this is all I have and my daughter and I need a place to live. But I felt miserable about it. Then I pulled out all the stops and began trying things I'd never done before: I took out some Google ads, put out an ad on Publishers Marketplace, joined ASJA, started handing out my business card to people who spoke at seminars, asked for meetings with a couple of great agents.

And then the miracle happened. It wasn't just one thing or the other. I don't know how to pin it down, other than to say that I do believe the economy is rebounding a bit and people are more optimistic, but in the course of a couple of months, I got work... more work than I have ever been offered before in my entire career.

The swing was phenomenal, from scraping by to having to turn down multiple projects each week because I was just too busy. They aren't all the same caliber I had before; whereas I had gotten very used to having editors and agents come to me with their best projects, now I'm taking on more private clients who don't yet have an agent or publisher. But I'm taking them on only if I believe they have what it takes to get commercially published, because I can't stand letting people down. And the advances are still down; an editor who might have offered me a $40,000 advance a few years ago now offers $20,000, and I'm supposed to split that with a ghostwriting client. But at least the assignments are there.

When I mention that I have an overload of work now, I get a deluge of responses that say, "Give your extra work to meeeeee!," which shows me that not everyone is out of the woods, and that bums me out. When I first saw my work picking up, I hoped that meant that everyone's work was picking up and that the whole publishing world was coming back to living color again.

I'm trying not to let all these offers get to my head, though. I hope that this means my career is permanently back on track and that I can look forward to decades of smooth sailing where I'll never have to freak out again, but I still feel the publishing trends of tomorrow breathing down my neck. I still fear that, long term, we're going to lose most of our bookstores and many of our publishers. I fear that the genres that are best suited to e-readers (like romance, fantasy, and practical nonfiction) will do well while the books that are more often "bookstore finds" (memoirs by unknowns, gift books, graphic novels, pop-up books, etc.) will fade away. I fear that talented authors who aren't skilled at interacting on Facebook or speaking at conferences will lose their place in the publishing world. I fear the sky is falling, and I want to get all of us to help hold it in place.

I know I'm long on fears and short on solutions today. And I hope I'm wrong about most of it, and that e-readers really mean what the optimists think they'll mean. What I know is that for today, I'm okay, and my shelves are still full of wonderful books. My editors haven't lost their jobs, and the agents I work with are still getting by. There are a few new authors who are achieving stunning successes in the e-world in addition to the print world. For today, that will have to be enough, while we figure out who's in charge of holding up the sky.


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