Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 22, 2017

Publishing: A Decade in Review

Kathryn Craft
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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About Kathryn

Kathryn CraftKathryn 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 Writingboth from Writer’s Digest Books.

35 comments on “Publishing: A Decade in Review”

  1. As we lose more bookshelf space every day, I think publishers could keep themselves competitive for author's books if they offer what Amazon does - Marketing. I'll be honest here - for me, they can keep their advance - I'm willing to take the chance on the quality and popularity of my stories - if they'd instead, give me good marketing. I don't mean the same old, same old that they've always done. They need to be innovative, and They're way behind in the race, and if they don't work at truly serving the needs that authors say they want, they're going to become obsolete.

    Unless Amazon becomes the monster in the closet that we all fear at night....

    So grateful to be publishing now, when I can be in control of what happens after I type 'The End'.

    Great post, Sista!

    1. The lack of marketing support is a universal complaint among any author not deemed a bestseller, so at least there's no infighting there! They seem to be tailing sales rather than driving them. Very fearful, as opposed to "you've got to spend money to make money."

  2. Print vs Digital. I came into this business when ebooks were in their infancy. No Kindles. People read on PDAs. The Rocketbook and eBookwise were the "big thing" in dedicated ereaders. Most ebooks were erotica, because that format allowed readers privacy. But an epublisher gave me my start, and for that I'm grateful. I got tired of hearing "Tell me when you write a REAL book, and I'll buy it." Now, if I'm at a signing, I'm more likely to hear, "Can I get it for my Kindle (or Nook, or whatever)?"

    One of my publishers was so far behind the curve that they gave their authors the e-rights after the book had been out a year. All they did was hard cover. That way of thinking made me LOTS more money than I ever got from the publisher.

    1. Yes, Terry, excellent addition. There was certainly a time when ebooks weren't "real." But especially in this era of price drop promotion, most authors would've lost without them.

      1. One of the few times I was in the right place at the right time. Now, that publisher keeps the ebook rights, but then, they had no clue what to do with ebooks and instead of having that "we have the right to any format that ever comes into being" clause, they left those rights with the author.

  3. The Indie market has been given a huge blow by Amazon. Now they offer third party sales on the site, meaning that their paperback and hardback prices are much lower than the original. Where does that leave the author? With absolutely no money at all. Those third party sellers have already purchased the books they are selling.The only time an author can count on any amount at all is through e-books. Amazon has dealt authors a huge blow, especially for POD.Reviews no longer matter except for e-books.Third party sales for anything else far out-rank traditional ones. Some are as low as e-books, giving the purchaser the opportunity to get a paperback if she wants without paying any more money for it than the e-book.

    1. Their power is frightening to be sure. But they are the most successful at marketing for their own authors, and driving (controversial!) change. Who knows what's ahead, or what traditional publishers will learn from their model.

  4. Great article! I'd say Traditional vs. Indie is the biggest sticking point for writers I work with. True, commercial publishers have a team in place, but that leaves the decisions in someone else's (the publisher's) hands. Indie writers can have a book that is "a product of a team" too today. Then Indie writers can choose their team (editors, artist, marketing gurus, platform). Which means more decisions for the writer to make but more control as well.

    1. So true. I've seen beautifully produced indie titles and plenty of...you know. Interior book design is an art and a science, for example, to which many self publishers give short shrift. With easy access to the needed educaton and tools, there's no reason not to put out a quality product.

  5. You make some really great points. I'm never sure if Amazon is a writer's best friend or the ultimate enemy. Missed you at Pennwriters this year.

    1. Thanks Susan! I think the jury still out on that one. Sounds like the Pennwriters conference was a great one this year. Sorry to have missed it!

  6. Nice wrap-up, Kathryn. Amazing how quickly things have changed. I guess the only thing we can count on is more changes to come!

  7. Wow. Let me say again: wow. Ms Craft, I always enjoy your essays, but I think this one is the best yet. Well put, all of it, especially cooperation vs competition. (Okay, full disclosure: when I see a new high-concept thriller from Carl Hiassen or Preston & Child, I think, "Damn! Wish I'd thought of that!") Nevertheless, I think you articulated the changes the publishing world has gone through.
    Hmmm. Think about taking the essay apart and expanding each section. I think you might have a book here.

  8. Another note. Terry Odell is right -- every time I sign or talk in public a very common question is, "Can I get an e-book?" The one I hate most is, "I bought the e-book and it did this or that on my reader. Can you fix it?"

    1. Gee, James--wow back! Thanks for the kind words. The only thing worse than the ebook criticism you mentioned is when people dock the author for it in reviews. Really, people? With the plethora of digital platforms, this is not under the authors control! If you think about it, it's amazing it works as often as it does!

      1. Hahahahaha. Kathryn, you made me think of one of the first reviews I got on an early Surf City Mystery. The writer loved the story, but pages fell out of his paperback copy so he had to ding it. As Clyde Barrow said in the movie, after he cut off some of his toes to get out of prison, and then got paroled anyway, "Ain't life a grin?"

  9. Great post, Kathryn!! I have nothing smart to add ... just nodding my head at every point.

  10. Kathryn, thanks for addressing this confusing and controversial topic. Regardless of egalitarian ideals of writers, at least among most women writers, there is a caste system in publishing. Unless you're one of the lucky indie breakout novelists, indie publishing is at the bottom. Having a NY agent and one of the big 5 publishers (is it still 5 or has it consolidated even more?) is at the top, with smaller publishers and hybrid publishing somewhere in the middle. I'm not talking sales numbers; I'm talking perception among agents, publishers and other writers. Readers couldn't care less. Not sure what my point is, except that the publishing pyramid exists and those of us not at the top have to work like hell to gain writerly respect. (In the interest of full disclosure, I'm with a small publisher, no agent.) Didn't mean this to come out so negative. I'm thrilled to even be where I am, but it bugs me that I feel the need to reach for the golden ring of a NY agent and one of the big 5. It won't change my writing, just the community's perception of it.

    1. No matter where we are in our careers we see how much farther we have to go. That is the very nature of the yearning that will keep us creating, and the ambition that will keep us reaching. But looking up also brings out all of the insecurities associated with our industry—how much better other authors are perceived on social media, how their agents or editors seem to revere them, how many more reviews/followers/whatever they have. Believe me, these fears torture everyone, no matter where they are on any hierarchy you might perceive. Sometimes we have to look back instead, and remind ourselves how far we have come. We have published books! I think balance comes in remembering that there is always more climb ahead of us—but that the base we started from is getting smaller in the distance. Hope that helps Densie!

  11. Kathryn, I know I'm late to the party here, but I'm so impressed by your roundup here of changes in the publishing industry. What I love most is how optimistic you are about the business (as well as the creative fun) of writing--what really strikes me is how many wonderful options we all have as writers to get our stories out there. Thanks for such a thoughtful discussion.

  12. You overlook a major disadvantage indies face which is lack of access to libraries. Library sales are now more important than ever inpart because book clubs only read books that their members can obtain at their local libraries.

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