I had a nice conversation with a literary agent last week (Yes, I had contacted him about some of my work). In the course of our conversation he told me that the issue with the big publishing houses (what’s left of them) is that they want to pigeon-hole writers. Meaning you’re Joe Schmo, mystery writer, or June Schmoon, historical fiction writer.
Why is this significant? The big houses are now controlled by the bottom line, i.e., “What’s his platform?” Which roughly translated means, “How many books can we expect her to sell in the first month? The first quarter? The first year?” You see, to the biggies, this isn’t about story or writing or writer development or literature, etc. It’s about sales of “product.”
So I have to ask writers, particularly those struggling to be published or to find a readership, even the lower-list writers: Does this accommodate how you write? How does this fit with what you want to write? If you’re like me, if you write regularly, you have tons of ideas for a novel, a short story collection, a memoir. As a writer you have the freedom to pay attention to the ideas as they come, to write the most compelling ones, perhaps a mystery, a fictional biography, a literary novel, and then a memoir. What this agent was telling me is that if you aspire to be published by the biggies, be prepared to be limited in what you will write. Genre novels, for instance, are where the money is these days – if you don’t believe it, look at the titles on this week’s New York Times Book list. Even literary writers are beginning to embrace certain aspects of genre writing in their work.
What’s the solution, particularly if you’re just now starting out? Of course, many writers are going the indie route: write whatever you want, have it edited professionally, have a cover designed, obtain advance reviews, publish it with one of the DIY publishing services. After all, however you’re published, you still have to do the hard work of cobbling together an audience, and that means lots of time marketing. But there’s another route: the small houses, and there are now hundreds of them. They may, if your venture with them is successful, want to limit your writing scope, too, but there are advantages: more access to the publisher, her editors, his cover designers. Possibly a better deal on royalties. But one caveat: don’t accept a contract that allows your publisher to control your access to other small publishers.
Yes, it’s tough out there. Yes, the pub biz is in flux. Yes, it takes a lot of time to build an audience. And yes, what I’ve spelled out here may not be a wise strategy next year. But you owe it to yourself to spend a little time regularly in assessing publishing’s big picture and what’s in it for you.
Visit my website here, where you’ll have an opportunity to download an audio eversion of my latest, Sam’s Place, as well as select book review podcasts. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you.