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Monday, June 16, 2014

Whither the World of Book Publishing?

For decades traditional publishing houses were the steadfast sentinels guarding the formidable gates to book publishing. They and they alone determined what got printed and what didn't.

Unknown authors (and even some who were not so unknown) were often frustrated and disheartened by the deluge of rejections spewed out by the "Big Houses" who published something like 70 per cent of all books in America.

To demonstrate how that tightly controlled system worked, here is the way my last two non-fiction books were published:

  • With book number one, I used an agent, wrote a 30 page detailed proposal, flew to New York, made the rounds of some 8 major publishers with my agent and pitched the book. I sold it to a publisher and got a $35,000 advance.
  • With my next book I did not use an agent. Instead I queried a few editors I knew at different publishers and wrote a 5-page proposal. One editor liked the idea of the book and I walked away with a $100,000 advance.
With a track record like that you might think I would have done the same thing with the novel I just published. I didn't.

Why? Because as much as I enjoyed working with the two traditional publishers I have seen major shifts in the world of book publishing--shifts that tell me we have entered a new universe of egalitarian publishing.

For example, the book I just published is the first in a trilogy. I know exactly how I want the stories in each book to unfold and I don't want some editor telling me to change the plot or recast it in some other way. I also want to manage the way the book looks inside and out. In other words, I want to be in control. If the books are successful then I know I am on to something. If not, then I will change my approach.

The point is I and I alone made that choice. It wasn't made for me by an editor thousands of miles away.

It's that kind of creative freedom that I think is one of most exciting things about the new world of book publishing. For the first time since the pamphleteers of 200 years ago, authors are back in control of the art they create.

Today just about anybody can publish a book. The once formidable gates to the book publishing universe have been ripped open and anybody with a computer and access to The Internet can walk through. It is a phenomenon that is driving nothing less than a rebirth of creative writing.
Amazon and the e-book tsunami are largely responsible for that and for the resulting evolution of the Independent ("Indie" or "Self-Published") Author.

The exponential growth of Publishing on Demand (POD) companies and the emergence of small and medium-sized publishers, who are not as picky when it comes to taking a chance on a new author, have all opened up new opportunities for authors whose work otherwise would never see the light of day.

Add to that the vast array of self-publishing companies that will publish just about anything if an author can come up with the cash, and suddenly readers have more choices than ever before.

Granted, some (and I am being kind here) of what gets self-published today would not have made it out of the slush pile or past a first reader in the Big Five houses (Penguin-Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan).  

But history shows us that publishers don't always recognize good writing or a book's market potential.

Take look at these examples--and these are just the tip of the iceberg: 

  • Louis L 'Amour received 200 rejections before Bantam took a chance on him. His books have now sold 330 million copies.
  • Zane Grey received the following advice from a publisher: "You have no business being a writer and should give it up." His books have sold 250 million copies.
  • After five years of continuous rejections a mystery writer in Great Britain finally wins a publishing deal. Today Agatha Christie's book sales are more than $2 billion.
  • “I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years,” one publisher told this author about his manuscript. But Vladimir Nabokov persisted and his book "Lolita" went on to sell 50 million copies.
Inept assessments like those are what keep a lot of writers writing. There is always hope that SOMEONE will recognize your amazing talent.

If you trawl through the millions of books Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple have in their online stores you are sure to find some gems written by unknown authors who have collected their share of dispiriting rejections.

This vast literary cafeteria is filled with books featuring just about every known writing style and device--and then some. A few of these devices and styles work. A lot more don't.

Some novels lack the most basic elements of acceptable storytelling--plot, pacing, character development, tension, climatic release, etc.  And some non-fiction books are deficient in trustworthy reporting, reliable research, credible sources, and compelling writing.

Yet there they are, ready to be downloaded into somebody's Kindle or Nook or Sony Reader. In this new egalitarian world of books the bulwarks that once stood between authors and readers are collapsing as never before.

Book blogs, specialized book websites such as Goodreads, Createspace, Smashwords and social media sites such Facebook, Twitter, Google-Play, and LinkedIn all provide readers and authors with places to meet and interact with one another.

I belong to several of these groups and I am amazed at the zesty exchange of ideas--many untried and unproven--that flow freely through the Ethernet. Unlike the "push" world of traditional publishing, this new "pull" marketplace of ideas is allowing readers to vote with their wallets. They are deciding which new gimmicks, genres, and ideas will flourish, not Big Publishing. 

In short, readers who rummage through the millions of today's online titles will themselves decide if a new book about bloodsucking hummingbirds or a team of time-travelling trollops will find a global market.

And much to the amazement of traditional publishers many self-published POD and e-books that never would have made it over the transom, let alone onto the slush pile, are selling and selling well.

Readers know what they want and market savvy indie authors are learning to write for them.

Lesson learned!





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