Thursday, February 17, 2011

Changing landscapes...

I see that Borders bookstore chain in the USA is in serious financial difficulty. Some commentators are blaming this on the economic times and some on the rise of the e-book. Both elements have probably played a part, and we don't after all know also how well managed Borders is/was.

For our purposes though, if the second contributing factor - the rise of e-books and their associated viewing platforms, e-readers - have played a part in this then this is a change than is unlikely to be rolled back. But... what does this mean for writers. Well, it would be very difficult to say that the last few years under the current model of major corporate publishers has been good for writers in general. It likely has for those at the top, but not for grassroots writers, or certainly writers looking to get a start in publishing, which is after all where most of the readers of this blogsite will fit. It certainly hasn't worked for niche writers (life writing, histories (not on the grand scale), poetry, speculative fiction).

In Jocelyn's interview snippet below she talks about self publishing. One of the most interesting developments I've witnessed since beginning writing with the intention of being published is the change in public perception towards the self-published book. Self-published books have always been around in specific fields (philosophy, mathematics, local histories etc) and to a degree in fiction, but there was a perception that the self-published book was a lesser choice, that it had failed to gain commercial publication. This may once have had a certain amount of truth in cases, and there was certainly often an issue with the quality of the production (outside of the quality of the storytelling itself.) But it has become so hard to have works commercially published in the last decade or so and the commercial publishing conduit become so skinny that writers began to see self-publishing as their only hope. This is not always a reflection on their fear of being commercially accepted. That is a very important distinction. If publishers are opting out of publishing fiction, then self-publishing becomes not an exception or option but a necessity. As an example one major NZ publisher (the NZ arm of a multi-national) said at a seminar I attended late last year that they'd chosen their ONE NZ fiction book by a new author, for publication in 2011. That's right - one. That skinny conduit has to burst some time, though not, it would seem, via the traditional channel.

That's where self-publishing comes in. That too is changing dramatically. In the past the self-published author developed an intimate relationship with their car boot and the NZ Road Atlas. One of the major issues and roadblocks for the author has always been 'I'm a writer, not a salesperson.' True, but there's a new atlas out now, it's called the internet. Well it's not that new, but the ways the writer can use it are. One problem I struck when my first novel came out was pretty obvious - 'Who are you?' Legitimate and appropriate question. One thing I hadn't done was build up a profile first, so I had some currency when it came out. In those days that was done by submitting short stories to literary magazines and entering competitions. I didn't really do either. But now the internet, and specifically the Blogosphere, yes I know that word takes some getting used to, are revolutionary tools to get yourself about. Listen to Jocelyn talk about pre-selling her financial advice books by building up a profile blogging. Blogging is also good practice for writing and learning how to promote your work, even if you're not a natural salesperson.

So the changes currently happening are:
  • traditional publishers are cutting down the number of titles they sell
  • bookstores are squeezing publishers for work about celebrities, famous names that already have market visibility
  • major bookstore chains themselves are in trouble
  • your chances of getting a fair hearing for your work via traditional publishers in NZ is decreasing 
That's mostly negative news.
Here's the positive news

  • people haven't stopped reading
  • print on demand publication has halved the cost of self-publishing hard copy books and the difference in quality between house publishing books and the best self-published books is minimal
  • e-books are taking off, as the readers become far more user friendly
  • e-publishers (or e-distributors as some of them are now calling themselves, as the writer of an e-book is in fact now the publisher) are becoming more numerous and getting smarter
  • there are tools out there, such as blogging and social media that are great platforms to get you readers while you're writing your opus
It's asking much of the writer to be so much more than a writer, but to get your work out there, it's time and effort well spent. Jocelyn and I will be covering both blogging and self-publishing in the workshop 26th February in Auckland

All the changes now happening in the chain of writer to reader have already happened in the music business, which has changed beyond recognition in the last 15 years. It's the new world.

One thing that hasn't changed...
  • write a well conceived, controlled, character driven story with tension, stakes that matter, development, insight, pace and a satisfying conclusion - and there will be an audience. Work at that first, but keep a wise eye on the new methods of marketing, so your work can find that audience. 

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