PUBLISHING: A THREE-RING CIRCUS
Publishing fiction is not what it was in my grandma’s day. The images I grew up with of writers, publishers and literary agents have been more of a hindrance than help in finding my way around this ever-changing landscape. Now there are multiple fields to play in and each one has different rules, players and strategies.
To me, these guys are the heroes of the publishing world. Sometimes it’s just a handful of people publishing books they love. They don’t sell large quantities and they don’t pay big advances (if they pay them at all). They take risks. They publish material from unknown authors because they like their books and want them to succeed, not because the marketing department says they should. Best of all, you can approach them unagented and they will look at your work. There are a great many small presses out there. Whatever your genre, there will be some that suit you. Unfortunately, the small press publisher can’t give you the publicity and promotion your book needs to sell well. Their resources are often not much bigger than your own. But they do give you something very important: credibility. The fact that a publishing house, however small, has taken a stand on your book says to the world, “This work is good enough to risk our business on.”
As the weeks of waiting—for an agent, for a publisher, for even a single short story sale—turn into months and even years, many writers begin to wonder about self-publishing. After all, everybody’s doing it . . .aren’t they? Last year, more than twice the number of books were self-published than were commercially published. This year, it will be even more. The cost of doing so is falling. If you are publishing electronically, the cost can be zero. The choice of methods, business models, service suppliers and distribution platforms is increasing. The stigma is starting to fade away. Current wisdom is that there is definitely a place for self-publishing as long as you don’t mind that you won’t sell many books or make any money. I know there are famous exceptions, but they are exceptions and almost all of them are extremely good at marketing, not a skill many of us possess. The vast majority sells a few books a month and earn pocket money from them.
THE BIG HOUSES
Publication by one of the major publishing houses is still the surest route to making a living as a writer. However, the odds against this happening are enormous. The large publishing houses and many of the mid-sized ones will not even read manuscripts unless they are submitted through a literary agent. Consequently, many agents are neck-deep in manuscripts and have no time to consider your work. It all depends on your query letter, a paragraph about the book, a paragraph about yourself and a hello and goodbye. Though it hardly seems fair to be judged on so little, the query letter is what keeps agents from becoming completely log-jammed. For this reason, agents are now as hard to find as hen’s teeth.
Sadly—and I mean that—I do have grand ambitions and I’m a lousy marketer. So I need the big publishers. Which means I had to spend a while finding an agent, something I only recently succeeded in. In fact, it feels like such an accomplishment, I don’t know if finding an actual big-name publisher would now seem much more of an achievement. At least now I can relax a bit, hand my work off to my agent and get some writing done. As for that three-ring circus metaphor, I suppose that makes us all clowns, doesn’t it?