It is a very interesting time for publishing. A while ago, I wrote a post called Self-Publishing 101 in which I discussed why my thoughts on self-publishing were changing, and my observations on how to self-publish well, and self-publish badly.
The Catalyst of Technology
Technology is the biggest catalyst in the publishing world. The internet has never been more powerful. Bookshops are crumbling beneath the power of Amazon. In a global economical crisis, people are more likely to buy discounted books online than spend time travelling to and then searching bookshops for the same book at a higher price. The rise of social media has created an immense jump in word-of-mouth marketing, with thousands of review blogs, websites such as GoodReads and people chatting on Twitter and Facebook. It means as soon as we hear about a good book online, we’re only a few clicks away from buying it for ourselves.
As for ebooks, who knows how they will eventually change the face of publishing. In May 2011, Amazon announced that ebooks outsold paper books. The future of ebooks is uncertain. Will they continue to rise in popularity because of their (usually marginally) lower price, instant deliverability, and easy portability? Or will they fade away once they hype has gone and people miss the smell of good ol’ fashioned paper?
The Development of the Publishing House
The last time publishing had such a shake-up was probably with the invention of the printing press. Before publishing houses existed, books were printed and sold by the vendor. Before the 1960s, the book publishing industry was predominantly owned by mostly independent companies whose only business was books. Growing profits made them attractive to larger corporations, and eventually these big corporations also started buying out independent book shops. With the immense growth of a few major companies, the smaller companies vanished, and the big companies gained control over the publishing industry.
While corporate profits have increased (which is good news for the shareholders) the type and scope of books have decreased. Instead of risking the publication of new titles by unknown authors, these corporations tend to stick with known authors and past success formulas. This, of course, makes it difficult for new authors with new ideas to enter the marketplace. (Source)
Self-Publishing Over the Centuries
Self-publishing has been around a lot longer than recent years, and held a lot less stigma. At first, before large corporations rose up to take control of the publishing process, those who owned or had access to printing presses because their own publishers. Then, self-publishing became a means for self-expression without censorship.
In 1644, John Milton published Areopagitica, in which he notes that writers can sidestep the censorship of the church and government by publishing their own books. In 1843, Charles Dickens feuded with his publisher over low royalties and goes on to publish A Christmas Carol by his own means. In 1917, Virginia Woolf and her husband set up their own publishing house in their home. The famous writers’ bible, The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White was originally self-published in 1918. (Source.) There is a very long list of famous and successful writers who are self-published.
Power and Control in Publishing
But as the publishing world changes, the power shifts. Publishing houses churn out millions of professionally developed books, and bookshops liaise exclusively with publishers. Both the publishing houses and the bookshops develop the book market as a precise science, giving readers quality products in a highly accessible way, therefore making the biggest profit. This model remained unchanged for a long time, and has become ingrained in society’s mind as the normal and correct way the publishing industry should be set up. Publishers become the trusted experts of the industry, and readers are happy to put their faith in them without a second thought.
However, when you are a passive consumer and are not immersed in the industry, it is easy to forget that the publisher’s main goal is not to bring you wonderful books, it is to make money. Publishing is always first and foremost a business. When the publishers hold all the power of the book industry, and independent book shops are swallowed by superpowers, we get a network of superpowers that hold all the control. And we still accept this as the norm, as how it should be.
Diversity is a Strength
Diversity in the arts is always a strength. Freedom of self-expression is a human right. In theory, the rise of self-publishing in recent years, made possible by the development of technology and the social media boom, is a good thing. However, inevitably a large proportion of self-published work is of a much lower quality than the traditionally published work we are used to. It had not been through the same channels of quality assurance, it has not been produced in-line with market trends, it has not had money spent on promotion. This, understandably, is how self-publishing gets a bad name.
Self-publishing, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Many of the products are poor, and this taints the better products before they can be judged on their own merits. It is a shame that self-publishing has such a stigma surrounding it. However, with a good product and tactful marketing, a self-published novel can be a success. Again, it comes down to technology. Print-on-demand is often expensive, but the production of an ebook is minimal. As ebooks continue to rise in popularity, and social media and the internet continues to be the most effective way of spreading word-of-mouth recommendations (the most effective marketing tool, in my opinion), self-publishing has hope.
For the author, self-publishing brings a level of control that would otherwise be stunted by a publisher, and the freedom of expression. For the reader, it expands the market. Some may say that filling the market with sub-par material is more damaging to the reader’s experience, but I have never found myself drowning in a sea of crappy self-published material, unable to surface to the good stuff, have you? Because of the way the market is set up online, we search for things that we want to find, or are automatically recommended items via clever coding. If a product is bad, it will sink and will not be visible. But if a product is good, it had a chance to rise to the top. Expanding the product range means only that there is a wider range of material that may rise to the top, and as I’ve said before, diversity is a strength. Self-publishing expands the consumer choice that superpowers have the ability to suppress.
The publishing industry has a diverse history. Its future is incredibly unpredictable. Technology today is the catalyst for its change, but the power for that change is in the hands of the reader. To me, that’s pretty exciting stuff.
Further reading: The History and Development of Book Publishing by Dr Ron Whittaker - The Early History of Books, Puritans to Pirating, Censorship and Consolidation, The Future of Books (Part 1), The Future of Books (Part 2).
In today’s post, Karolina Sutton (a literary agent at Curtis Brown) reveals what agents and publishers are looking for in a novel.
These are some highlights from her presentation at Royal Holloway, University of London.
- Agents and publishers want something extraordinary, something with an original concept.
- Imagination and good ideas make more money than beautiful writing.
- Short story collections are a bad idea – they are really hard to sell if you are a first time author. Instead, try pitching them to magazines.
- It is very difficult to ‘launch’ literary fiction without getting listed for a prize. It can be the difference between selling 300 copies and 2,000.
- Women’s/’reading group’ fiction = holy grail.
- Don’t write ‘coming of age’ novels – they aren’t original enough!
- 80% of rejections are because the novel is ‘too quiet’ and not distinctive enough.
- Titles are extremely important. Sometimes, novels can be accepted for publication solely on a fantastically brilliant title!
(One last interesting point: Publishers are only allowed to put forward a few books for prizes, so the smaller your publisher, the more chance you may have…)
Agents do want to fall in love with your work. But if you want to be published, good writing is not the only thing you need. There are a lot of considerations to be made about the state of the market and the saleability of your novel. If you’re pursuing publication through this route, these are some important factors to consider.
Next week: How to write great titles.