Right here, right now
“The times, they are a-changin,” Bob Dylan sang in his inimitable style back in 1964. (Never did like that song, personally.) While you could argue that perspective for just about any era, it’s particularly apropos for the publishing industry right here, right now.
The state of the industry
Epublishing is changing the game. In January 2011, ebooks outsold hardcovers industry-wide (not just through Amazon.com and yes, including university textbooks). That font of all things digital, Amazon, currently sells three times as many ebooks as hardcovers, a balance that’s likely to continue shifting and consume paperbacks, as well. And while everyone debates just when ebooks will comprise the biggest portion of the entire reading market, no one doubts that it will ultimately happen.
Publishing industry and bookstore profits are down and not merely because of the dawdling economic recovery. Paper printing costs aren’t likely to fall, which will continue eating into those profits, and Borders shot itself in the corporate foot by releasing control of their ebook commerce to Amazon just as the party got started, back in 2002. The big publishing houses, the so-called “Six Sisters,” are nervous and growing even more unwilling to take a chance on new authors, even those who have successfully wooed and won agents. Ironically, it seems both agents and editors are using digital self-publishing and epublishers as a proving ground, offering lucrative multibook deals to those authors who demonstrate they don’t need them.
So tell us some good news
But it’s not all doom and gloom (to exercise an embarrassing cliché). For writers the good news is, there’s a growing demand for their output. In particular, novelists who never stood a chance with the Six Sisters are seeing their work being snapped up by epublishing houses. This past week, at least four of my Facebook writer friends signed ebook contracts, most of them multibook arrangements. No, there’s no advance. But they’ll be earning more with their writing through epublishers, no matter how small the amount, than they’ve ever earned from New York.
Now here’s where it becomes seriously interesting. For decades, writers have been told to write the book, get it critiqued, rewrite it, and then polish it until it outshone a polyester suit. Everything had to be excellent—plot, characterization, story arc, pacing, tension, style, voice, and especially grammar—or the agent or editor would shoot back a form rejection. And all of these elements had to be demonstrated as excellent in the three sample chapters, bolstered by an equally riveting (and time consuming) hook, query, synopsis, and chapter outline.
“Wait a minute,” we said. “Not everyone is good at everything, much less excellent. We’re storytellers, not grammar Nazis. Isn’t that what editors are for?” Nevertheless, agents and editors expected, and accepted, nothing less.
That expected writerly balance, between the storyteller and the grammar Nazi, is something else that’s shifting in publishing. Right now.
Okay, here’s the good news
As my friends and I discovered to our delight, ebook publishers don’t expect excellence in all things because they haven’t forgotten the definition of the word “editor,” nor what the job entails. Nor have they forgotten that a writer’s first job is to tell a flat-out good story. Therefore, the balance between storytelling and grammar is something else that’s shifting within the publishing industry—back to where it should be. Epublishing editors are showing a willingness to accept manuscripts that aren’t grammatically or stylistically perfect, so long as the flame of a good story is there.
Does this mean you can haul out your convoluted NaNoWriMo attempt from ten years ago, send it to an epublisher, and expect a grateful acceptance? No world is that perfect. And writers should not be so unprofessional. Your submissions should still be finished manuscripts which have been through critique partners, proofreaders (even if it was your coworker’s nephew), and the entire polishing process. But when you do send it in, you’ll know it’s being judged on the story’s merits, not on your sense of pacing or ability to differentiate between their and they’re.
Nor does this mean all our problems are over. Instead, it presents epublishing writers with a series of entirely new problems—marketing the novel, creating a book trailer, building a web presence, attracting readers and reviewers, etc. But these problems were being shrugged off by the publishing houses onto their authors for years now, in any case, through the phenomenon known as “the incredible shrinking marketing budget.” This is merely addressing it before you land a New York publishing contract (which could follow) rather than afterward.
The other good news
For those writers who don’t want epublishing as their entire career, another option is to consider it an apprenticeship. It used to be that budding novelists signed on with publishers as pulp writers, churning out short (45,000 to 60,000 words), fun-to-read books sometimes as quickly as two per month. They learned the trade, they earned not a lot but some money, and many of them graduated to “real” novels, such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Upton Sinclair, and H.P. Lovecraft. Now writers can serve a similar earning-and-learning apprenticeship with epublishers. (Allow me to give a nod to Chris Stout, who first brought this parallel to my attention.)
With the news that Amanda Hocking has signed a four-book deal with St. Martin’s Press, this theory gains credibility. Remember, she couldn’t sell to the Six Sisters until she proved she could sell.
Thank you so very much Cheryl for imparting your experience and wisdom with us this Writer Wednesday. To find out more about Cheryl and her books click here.