A Conundrum…A Long Conundrum (Be Prepared)

This is a long one, so grab a cup of coffee and get ready to mull with me…

I’ve been mulling over one of many, odd conundrums that seem to exist in the murky world of mainstream publishing. It’s an obscure, opaque condition writers can run into with a first novel.

It is an undisputed fact that most books sell poorly. No matter whether they are mainstream published with the requisite fanfare, or Indie Published with the fanfare authors can muster on their own. Very, very few books become best sellers, let alone covering their own publishing run costs, with the one exception of POD books.  It can be depressing for any writer who really has the drive and desire to publish.

Now, if we take a look at publishing from the Literary Agent’s perspective, facing the fact expressed above, they must concentrate upon books they are pretty sure they can sell, and remember, they are selling to in most cases, long-established publishing relationships. Personal relationships.  An agent "vetting" a book reduces the risk for the publisher substantially.  It also cements relationships within in the industry. 

There are clearly observed, followed trends in book buying. What readers buy in numbers is what publishers need to publish.  It is a matter of economics, especially in the downturn we are all experiencing. 

Most publishers show great pride in their discovery of a new author with a great, new voice, especially if their work has marketplace traction.  Let’s assume the writer writes fiction, which is harder to sell well than a self-help, non-fiction title.  So the writer starts out with reduced expectations.  The publisher will promote and distribute the book, but probably not as well as they would if it were determined to be a current "best seller" genre book.  The author is still heavily responsible for promoting the book as much as possible in order that a great number of readers is exposed to it, just like an Indie Author must do.  No difference, yet.

When the book sales begin, for most new authors, they will be initially slow.  If you browse discount sales table at book sellers and library fund raisers, you’ll find books from recognized writers, but titles you probably never heard of.  Some of them are early work that didn’t gain market traction. I have several of these in my personal library — some from hugely selling writers, whose initial work wasn’t grabbed up.  Some of it is good, some of it is really terrible by comparion with later work. 

Taken as a whole, despite a huge outpouring of argument I’ve heard regarding the traditional role as gatekeepers, protecting the public from an influx of bad books, mainstream publishers produce bad books too. They also produce good book that don’t sell well. Right now, they can’t afford to tie money up with many mistakes, so they will rely more and more on LIt. Agents to only send them really saleable new work. This puts tremendous pressure on agents to dismiss the overwhelming majority of work submitted, in favor of book genres and styles that are currently enjoying success.

That, by and large, leaves most new literary fiction authors out.  Once a new author’s book is as good as it can be honed, assuming the writer wants to publish these days, the only option seems to be Indie Publishing, for one big reason.  An author who writes well, but whose genre isn’t currently popular, may get an agent to represent them, but if, after the launch and a year on the market, with book poor sales, the publisher will blame the agent.  Depending upon their financial committment to the book, they may cut back on their reliance on this agent.

Publishers today, can rarely afford to put their money towards tenuous future sucess. They need success now. An agent must help create success in order to keep their own bills paid and cover more than their expenses. If a represented book languishes, the agent will think less of the writer’s work, in fact being less than anxioust to pitch the next one.  The writer gets a bad rap, right at the start. A smart writer with an eye to the future would want to avoid this kind of situation. 

Poor booksales, are a killer of potential for everyone involved, yet without promotion, review and backing, good sales are very hard to achieve, even if your book is a jewel.  Most of the — hell, all of big media press goes to best sellers, not to competent novelists working in a literary genre.  The web is full of blogs and writers articles confirming the "death" of literary fiction.  I believe that it is a premature announcement, personally. On the other hand, if you write literary fiction, you must either adapt and begin writing in genres that sell (read: vampires, serial mysteries and religious conspiracies) or be realistic and expect that you won’t be the first best selling author on your block.

Confronting that fact tends to deflate the writer’s ego pretty quickly.  But you can always blow it up again.  By choosing to publish independently, you eliminate most of the poor industry associations that plague most debut novelists.  You are still required to produce work as good or better than anything mainstream published. To do less work in honing your novel is just foolishness.  You will need to involve outside editors, whether paid or unpaid. You will need to keep submitting your work to agents and to online reviewers, but all of the results will reflect upon your involvement. If you were accepted as a mainstream published new author, and your first book did poorly, you would probably not have the automatic deal for your second book anyway. Be realistic.  If you are an Indie Published author, when it’s time to move on, you can move on with little of the baggage that would accompany you to new pitches after a lackluster track record. 

Another important force in mainstream or Indie Publishing are book reviewers.  Reviewers also like the cache and potential financial gain of being in on a great ride, so they are also becoming more selective. Indie authors, unless self-published with traditional distribution will find most mainstream doors are closed to them.  I’ve read repeatedly on the web that the one bright spot in reviews for Indie Authors seem to be the Amazon Top Reviewer List. Not all are actively accepting new book submissions, but the ones that are — and you have to be very selective yourself, pairing your work with the individual reviewer — will read your book, and give you a review that will sit on the page where your book appears.  It doesn’t seem to matter if your book is self-published or not, and online promotion is one area where Indie Authors usually shine, or at least glow brightly! Besides the obvious, these reviewers have followers, sometimes in the hundreds of thousands! It will just cost you the postage and a copy of the book.

So, the daunting task of getting a first novel published can be a conundrum — a puzzle within a puzzle.  Translation: you’re damned if you do, and almost damned if you don’t.  Fortunately for Indie Authors, some of the most opaque, inscrutable parts are missing, along with an out-of-pocket percentage here and there. This leaves you free to find your readers and provide them with entertaining novels, at less risk to your long-term reputation, and less risk to your financial health.

Whew!  Thanks for having the patience to listen to the whole sermon.  Let me know if your experiences differ, how and why, or if you can add anything else to this dicussion.