My friend Suzanne Murray leads writing workshops, acts as a creativity coach, and leads literary trips to Ireland. I was fortunate to work with her for over a year. In the near future I’m going to introduce Suzanne to you more formally through an interview, but today I wanted to share some correspondence we had about the current state of writing and publishing.
I think this is useful for anyone writing and thinking about taking the leap into self-publishing, or anyone who just wants to know what all the talk is about.
Suzanne wrote to me with the following question:
What does the writer need to know or understand about the current status of publishing and the direction it is taking? What do you see for the future of publishing?
Here’s my reply:
What writers need to know about the current state of publishing is that it is undergoing epochal change. Every part of the publishing industry is being affected by digitization, the rise of social media, and the unrelenting pressure on profits throughout the business.
Book publishing has been a tradition-bound business. The books themselves—where I’ve mostly been involved—have barely changed since the 15th century, they’ve only gotten easier to produce and consequently, cheaper. Technology has, until very recently, been in service to the way authors, publishers and booksellers have arranged the business of publishing.
In the meantime we continue to operate with the standard agent-publisher-author relationships, with the same consignment mentality in the bookselling world, in which all books are returnable for full credit. But the difference is that everyone knows this world is coming to an end, that most of the old structures will not survive the next change in publishing, and that the structures that do survive will be fundamentally different.
Today’s writer, even if they are lucky enough to quickly get a book contract from one of our major publishers, needs to know:
- How to find resources online. The abundance of resources online is simply staggering. From writing forums to free-writing websites, from agent blogs to writing webinars, you need to know how to find trustworthy sources of information.
- How to build a “platform,” online and off. Publishers are making more decisions based on the marketability of the author, rather than the book itself. Authors with huge online followings simply represent less risk for publishers today. Can you deliver a fan base along with a manuscript?
- What their options are for publication. Many of the changes going on right now in publishing are due to the growing popularity of digital printing and print on demand distribution. This technology has put the ability to produce books into the hands of the ordinary person. Anyone sitting at a computer can now take a manuscript they’ve written and get very good looking softcover books a few days—or in some cases a few minutes—after putting in an order. And they can do this without spending any more than the wholesale cost of the books they buy. The explosion of self-publishing spurred by this technology is creating new types of publishers, new organizations, and new vitality and credibility for Independent publishers. Each of the different paths you might choose to get published has its own risks and rewards, and you will have to know them before you can decide which path is right for you.
- What kind of personality they want to project. Many writers have taken to blogging and other forms of social media with joy and enthusiasm, and they have multiplied their options for marketing their books and connecting with their own “tribe” of readers. Less gregarious writers may need to find a way to represent themselves where they can attract potential readers. I don’t mean to say that all writers are seeking readers. I’m saying that we write to be read, and whether you have 3 dedicated readers or 3,000, every writer has an investment in completing the loop, in being heard.
- How to interact in social media. Every few months it seems like there are new ways to connect to people who share our interests. But the online environment has its own social norms, and spending time on social media pays dividends if you can make yourself heard in a way that interests, instructs, or entertains people. Many writers have their own websites, they blog regularly, and may have a presence on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media sites. Writers need to know how to establish themselves and foster long-term relationships within the context of a tsunami of tweets and status updates, to build connections that are lasting.
- That e-books will bring an even bigger change to publishing. E-books, readable on computers, have been around for a long time. Amazon’s Kindle has gotten people used to reading on a dedicated screen that tries to mimic a book. Now the Apple iPad looks ready to launch us into the next phase of the e-book revolution. E-books give writers even more options. Some authors are scared of the potential piracy of their works. Others are giving away books as fast as they can, or looking the other way at thosands of pirated books because it helps them build their brand. But as digitization in all its forms spreads, e-books will eventually become the norm, and printed book will become special editions. I don’t see printed books disappearing soon, but the eventual dominance of e-books in their place looks inevitable.
- How to take the long view. The one thing that’s certain is that we don’t know what will happen next. Magazines want to quit cutting down trees entirely and find a home on something like the beautiful multi-media screen of the iPad. Although it’s harder than ever to get an agent, more agents are approachable online than ever before. Sanity lies in the long view, in nurturing your own creativity above all. If you seek an audience, or publication, start putting yourself out for others to discover, and enjoy, now. You can’t start too soon.
Suzanne, it seems to me the biggest obligation writers have is to the truth of their writing. The next most important thing for anyone who thinks about publication is getting educated. Start off with a good book, be open to new influences, and learn as much as you possibly can. Get involved in the hundreds of discussions going on. The process itself is its own reward.