Turning Whine Into Gold
The economic crash in 2008 changed how business was conducted in the United States. In book publishing, as the era of the blockbuster gave way to niche marketing, some of the lines previously delineating warring factions grew blurry. This is a good thing for writers who previously spit on one another across such boundaries.
Do you remember how divisive these notions used to be?
1. Commercial vs literary
In 2012, when literary agent Donald Mass published his book Writing 21st Century Fiction, he suggested an upmarket fiction sweet spot in which a well-written, nuanced novel can still achieve the kind of commercial appeal that will keep it sitting on bestseller lists for months. But in a recent essay (The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, 3rd ed., Writer’s Digest Books), one of those bestselling authors—Jodi Picoult—said that despite her desire to remain both literary and commercial, the terms were mutually exclusive. “What makes a writer literary or commercial has far less to do with her writing than it does with marketing.”
The new word: Marketing. There is no qualitative industry standard for commercial/literary distinctions. If you are holding onto old wounds as to whether people think you are a “literary-quality writer” or a “commercial hack,” it’s time to let it go.
2. Big Five vs Small Press
The publishing continuum now holds so many niche distinctions that it’s hard to believe that we ever thought of being published by a huge corporation was any kind of bonus. We now live in an era in which everyone has access to the same kind of cover and interior design education, software tools, qualified editors, and marketing savvy. At the two ends of the spectrum, there’s no doubt there can be a difference in advance paid to the author, but that disparity may not be as big as you might think.
The new word: Distribution. The main thing you need from a publisher is to get it into bookstores. The proof used to be in publisher promotion, but the era of niche marketing has leveled the playing field. All authors must reach out to their own niche to promote.
3. Traditional vs. Indie
This divide almost caused a Civil War among writers who had once peacefully co-existed within the same organizations. Yet even this either/or has become a hybrid continuum. Traditionally published authors opt to keep their agents while self-publishing interim novellas, short stories, and unsold novels; agencies actually pay staff to identify and offer contracts to successfully self-published authors. And with their titles indistinguishable on digital and brick-and-mortar bookshelves, it has turned out that readers in search of a great story just don’t care who published it.
The new word: Storytelling. Whether your title is self-made or the product of a team, a great story represents a lot of hard work and oodles of decisions. Casting side-eye aspersions won’t improve your career. Go forth and be proud.
4. Amazon vs Bookstores
Right at the intersection of Controversial and Divisive you can find Amazon’s happy place. Its latest controversy seems pointed at driving down the value of books. Yet writers are no longer quite as sure that Amazon is all that bad. With its main website and its acquisition of Goodreads, Amazon holds the two biggest public repositories for author reviews—and agents and publishers want those numbers. The same writers urging readers to purchase their books at a local indie are begging them to go on Amazon to review. Many authors who sweated out their decisions to accept a deal from Lake Union or one of Amazon’s other traditional publishing imprints are now giggling all the way to the bank. Amazon, it turns out, knows how to market books.
The new word: Murky. Authors need to widely support the industry they hope will support them, and like it or not that includes Amazon, which has earned its designation both as a legitimate traditional publisher and a path for self-publishers.
5. Competition vs Cooperation
Here’s the main thing about niche marketing: you are no longer in competition with your fellow authors, each of whom has his or her own brand. Yes, there will be others in the same vein, but you can’t put out a book out a week. Those voracious readers need other works to consume until you’re ready with a new title—and guess what? You can suggest it, making them even more beholden to you. The Tall Poppy Writers—the marketing cooperative I belong to—loves to quote John F. Kennedy: “A rising tide floats all boats.”
The new word: Generosity. Cooperative marketing will not slit your throat. It will help other authors get started, ensure the health of the industry by continuing to lift up those at the front of the pack, thereby ensuring the popularity of reading in our country—all on a public stage where our agents, publishers, and readers can see us doing so.
Let’s quit wasting energy on outmoded divides in the publishing industry and point our efforts toward initiatives that will heal it. If a huge group of creative and intelligent and hard-working authors can’t make a difference, who can?
What do you say? What trends do you most appreciate from the last decade? Which ones do you think should go away? If you could change anything for the next ten years, what would you change?
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Kathryn Craft is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy, and a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” was included in the writing guide Author in Progress, from Writers Digest Books. Janice Gable Bashman’s interview with her, “How Structure Supports Meaning,” originally published in the 2017 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, has been reprinted in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, both from Writer’s Digest Books.