Thoughts on Publishing: Pro Author Pitfalls

It’s still the dream of most authors to get an agent, have the agent sell their book to a big publisher, and have a bestselling book. The major publishers are still the only game in town when it comes to that dream. But you might want to think before you decide to play that game. There are potential pitfalls, and not just getting lots of rejections.

Trend Trouble: Right now in the SF/F genre "paranormal fantasy," usually featuring female leads, is the hot property. What if that’s not what you write? Unless your work shows promise of big sales, you are plain out of luck. You may find it hard to get an agent, much less get a contract with a big publisher.

This isn’t something new, either. Ten years ago fantasy with female leads would have been a tough sell. Twenty years ago any fantasy would have been the tough sell. Who knows; maybe in a few years paranormal fantasy will fade and steampunk will be the hot property?

This points to another problem with selling to the majors. What happens when the trend you’re a part of falls out of favor?

In the past the answer was "not much unless your sales dip below 10,000 copies." As long as you didn’t get below that number of copies sold you’d still have a contract. We’re in a much different enviornment now. The majors are owned by larger corporations with less of a tolerance for lower profits, much less losing money. What no one knows, until that shift in sub-genre hits, is how high that threshold number has risen. Which leads to...

The Sales Peak: The vast majority of genre novels being published today are parts of series. Since the phenomenon of the "novel series" took off about 30 years ago, it seems that every series hits a peak point. The peak is where interest in the series reaches its height. After that growth in sales is minimal, or sales start to shrink.

Again, in the past sales had to really plummet before an author was shown the door. Now the majors have those new owners. How many books past the peak will the publishers tolerate before cutting an author loose? Will they even wait past the peak? Where does that leave the author, who has invested years in their series, and might still have thousands of fans?

Deadline Drought: One other aspect of the series phenomenon is that bestselling series authors are now expected to come out with a new novel in their series about once a year. This sometimes results in the author producing a novel in the series that just isn’t as good as the ones before. The pressure of meeting the release deadline can lead to some sort of artistic compromise. As it happens, it can sometimes be at this point that the series hits the sales peak.

I’ve already mentioned how this might affect the author-publisher relationship. There’s also a creative dimension to this that authors often don’t consider. Can you stand being under pressure to write a new novel every year without fail for five, six, eight, ten years or more? Do you understand the sacrifices you might have to make to fufill your contract? Can you create on a deadline? Can you keep at it for years?

Everyone talks about getting the big book contract, the advance, and the ability to be a bestselling author. No one mentions any downsides, but they do exist. Consider them before looking for an agent or a major publisher. Several books in is no time to find out that you can't cope with them.


Thoughts on Publishing: Where We Stand

Right now the publishing industry is in flux. Ebooks are a growing share of the book market. Writers like J. A. Konrath are working to make self-publishing respectable. Some publishers are cutting paperbacks, some are dropping authors, yet the money is still rolling in. Here’s what I think the situation is right now.

Ebooks: the ebook is gaining momentum thanks to the Kindle. Ebooks are already over 5% of the market share; they could reach 10% in six months to a year. On the other hand, there’s still resistance to the concept, especially from older readers. Then there’s the iPad, an e-reader that actually lets you do more than read. Will the e-reader of the future be more like the Kindle or the iPad? The answer will have some bearing on the future of the ebook.

Self-publishing: Print-on-Demand (POD) and the ebook now make it possible for everyone to be a published author. Even better, they allow the author access to national and international markets thanks to Amazon and Lulu.com. But in spite of the best efforts of writers like Konrath, self-publishing still has a huge stigma attached to it. Unless you’re a known author, it’s still difficult to persuade readers you don’t know to buy your self-published novel.

The Major Publishers: you still have to go to them if you want to be a best-selling author. They have the money to dominate store shelves, and their authors have an advantage in obtaining reviews. However, the majors aren’t exactly racing to put out as many books as they used to. They aren’t pricing ebooks competitively. Will they continue to dominate the publishing industry? Everyone has an answer to that, and no one seems to agree.

The Small Press: they often get left out of these discussions on the future of publishing. POD and the ebook make their task of putting out product much cheaper and easier than it used to be. There are many niches that small presses can fill, especially with the majors giving up on marginal genres and sub-genres. But small presses also have the problem of getting their names out and, in the case of fiction, getting their authors reviewed.

Over the next several weeks I'm going to voice more detailed opinions about the publishing business.  I hope you'll leave some comments so we can pursue a dialog about this subject.  As a writer it's obviously very important; I hope it's the same for you.