For many new writers then, it’s a shock to discover that becoming published is not that easy. But if the process of novel writing has tested your creativity and endurance, the battle to get it published through ‘traditional’ means – being accepted by an agent or publisher - is an even tougher challenge for your staying power and self-belief.
Whilst it’s never been easy to become published, in recent years, with increasing numbers of writers joining the market and a global financial crisis, it’s become even harder.
It’s well documented that large author advances that most writers dream about, are dwindling, except for the rare few we hear about in the media. Nowadays, publishers are less willing to take risks on new authors or projects that might not hit sales targets and make a profit. Or even worse, that may not be mainstream enough to be accepted by supermarket buyers who wield power over the industry.
The hard facts today are this: if you’re not sellable in the supermarkets, which are where a high percentage of readers buy books, you’re in danger of never hitting the bestseller list, of being profitable enough as a writer for a publishing company.
Even if you’re an established ‘mid-list’ author – that is your books enjoy good sales but you’re not a bestseller, and perhaps haven’t won any top awards – in today’s market you’re at risk of being let go by your agent and publisher.
Last year, in women writers’ magazine Mslexia, author Louise Doughty wrote the article: ‘Mid-List Crisis’, which she says, “charts the quiet catastrophe in the literary world as hundreds of respected authors are axed by publishers in pursuit of stellar sales.”
For the established writer, generous author advances have declined too. “Twenty is the new 70, one agent remarked laconically to a friend of mine, describing the 50k pay cut an established author must expect in return for the great good luck of being published at all,” Doughty writes.
Today, the publishing world seems less focused on the business of books. Less concerned about printing high quality stories that readers want to read. Sadly, it has become more about sales figures and profit. Unless you’re a ‘celebrity’ with a high public profile, there’s a chance your novel, no matter how well written, will never achieve publication.
It’s perhaps not surprising then that increasing numbers of writers’ are embracing the digital age to share and publish their writing in more creative ways. A recent Reuters article ‘Next star authors could be found online’ looked at the latest developments in the publishing world and how writers are embracing them.
One new environment is Movellas, an online writing community for teens where they can read, write and share their work. “We want to be the Number One community in the world for identifying new talent,” Per Larsen CEO of the Danish company told journalist Tarmo Virki.
Larsen admits that the publishing industry is evolving, and that there are fears about the freedom writers have in finding alternative avenues for publication which avoids the industry ‘gatekeepers’: agents and publishers.
“Publishers don’t want the same to happen to them that happened to the music industry,” Larsen says. “They know the publishing business model has been broken.”
In the past few years other websites have appeared, promoting alternative routes to publication. Once such site is Unbound, a crowdfunding site that helps to fund new writing projects, although at this stage it is only available for known authors or personalities.
Authors create a pitch for their book and if readers want to support the project they can make investments, ranging from £10 up to £1,000, that enables them varied access to the author’s creative process and marketing of the completed book.
If you’re an unknown writer then Jottify, a partner of Unbound, is a welcome site that encourages up and coming writers, enabling them to post their work and receive and offer feedback. And Jottify goes one step further, offering authors the opportunity to sell their novel or script, publishing it through iPad or Kindle formats in the website's own store.
An article in the Guardian last November, ‘Has China found the future of publishing?’ documented the rise in self-publishing for Chinese writers through websites that attract “more than 40% of all China’s internet users every month.”
In China readers are accessing fiction through genre based ‘free-to-read web serials’, as a new generation of Chinese writers post instalments of their novels free of charge.
Once they have an established readership, they’re then offered ‘VIP’ status and readers pay to continue reading. Whilst their instalment payments are low, the quantity of downloads make a respectable pay check, with the article quoting one author who makes the equivalent of £100,000 a year.
Freemium publishing, as it’s known, is “produced by young writers and aimed at young readers,” says Eric Abrahamsen, a Beijing-based literary translator and publishing consultant.
“It’s pure entertainment, written, downloaded, read and deleted all at top speed.”
Whilst the digital format is a sign of the twenty-first Century, serialisation in fiction became popular in the Victorian era. With many top authors of the time, including Dickens, Thackeray, and George Eliot producing novels in instalments for their waiting and impatient readers.
Following the success in China, it’s hoped that this style of publishing will be a hit in the US. But Eric Abrahamsen is uncertain whether a successful translation from East to West will be possible without changes.
“I’d say the potential for the Chinese model to work abroad is there, but there would have to be further developments, both in the penetration of e-reader technology, and also in large numbers of writers happy to write for micropayments.”
With e-readers at the forefront of the digital revolution, it’s estimated that in the UK, 13.5 % of adults (6.5 million) own an e-reader, and as a result e-book sales are constantly rising. Amazon has become a key seller of e-books, with their simple, accessible approach for writers to publish their work.
For crime thriller novelist Stephen Edger, publishing via Amazon Kindle was the perfect solution. Having received ‘encouraging rejections’ from traditional publishers, Stephen considered the prospect of self-publishing.
A costly option, the new author decided that publishing in an e-format made sense as it was free, and Amazon gave detailed advice on the how to do so successfully. And Stephen says, “I knew that Kindles were becoming more popular and thought an inexpensive ebook would be a good means of reaching readers.”
To date, the Southampton based crime writer who uses social media to promote his novels, has had 2600 downloads between the two books. With approximately 4 downloads a day, he’s gradually building a loyal readership. “I’ve had several people that I’ve never met tell me how keen they are to read the follow up to Integration,” Stephen told Ask the Experts.
For him, the benefits of self-publishing include “writing to his own timescale” and the creative freedom to “take the story where I want it to go.” The author’s third crime thriller Redemption will be released later this year. Whilst he continues working in the Finance industry full time, he’s plotting his fourth novel.
“I may never achieve the level of sales to be able to give up my day job but I don’t write for money; I write to share my stories.”
It is his belief that the future of publishing remains online: “The creation of MP3s has not killed the use of CDs and I believe that e-books won’t replace books altogether though I do think the e-book world will continue to grow.”
“E-books are not going away, authors are beginning to realise that.”
Over a decade ago, Sally Ormond submitted her novel Mackerel Skies to publishers and agents. Whilst she received interest from a major publishing house, in the end they decided against publishing her novel because it wasn’t ‘commercial enough.’
Back then, self-publishing was an expensive option. It was also before the digital age had begun chiselling away at the deeply etched ‘vanity-publishing’ stigma. That shame, thankfully, has faded as more authors feel empowered to publish their work and without it costing them a fortune.
After reading a recent article about self-publishing through Amazon Kindle, Sally decided it was finally time to publish her novel, which she did. But when friends who didn’t own a Kindle wanted to read Mackerel Skies, the Suffolk based copywriter and novelist, encouraged by her web designer, decided to publish her novel through Lulu.com.
Sally now encourages other authors to self-publish: “It’s unlikely to make you the next JK Rowling, but it’s a great way to see your book as you’ve always imagined it.”
Like many writers, she wanted the full experience of writing and publishing a novel. “It would be a real shame to leave the manuscript festering on a shelf or taking up space on your hard drive,” Sally told Ask the Experts. “Holding a copy of ‘Mackerel Skies’ made my journey complete.”
For many people the rise of Kindles and other E-readers brought with it the concern that we would lose the essence of books. A point Sally agrees on. “To me, reading was about the touch and feel of a book as much as it is about the characters and story line.”
However, the convenience of a Kindle or E-reader for both writers and readers is an unavoidable truth. “The major benefit,” Sally admits is that “they open up the world of publishing to everyone.”
Although the author doubts that self-publishing will overthrow the traditional approach to publishing, she predicts that it may help the next generation of JK Rowling’s find a publisher because “it’s easier to browse the net to find talent than wade through piles of query letters and submissions.”
However, Sally believes that the digital age encourages creative freedom for writers. “For many years the publishing world has dominated who gets published. Now, technology and the internet has given everyone a voice and the ability to publish their own work.”
Other self-published authors, like Kerry Wilkinson are carving out careers as authors and competing with top authors. Wilkinson’s self-published detective novel Locked In became the bestselling ebook author on Amazon during the final three months of 2011.
“This time last year, I hadn’t even started writing Locked In and now I have a No 1 bestselling book in the Kindle Store, outselling many authors that I have grown up reading,” Wilkinson told The Guardian.
Unlike many self-published authors, Wilkinson had not tried the traditional route first because it had not been his intention to become an author, but to “write something I thought I would like.”
For his first novel Wilkinson only charged 98p to download and kept 35%. His later books have cost £1.88 and £2.79 of which he keeps 70%.
Wilkinson is not the only self-published author to top the Amazon charts. Author Katie Stephens came fifth in the same charts with her debut novel last year. While in the States, self-published authors Amanda Hocking and John Locke have sold more than 1 million book downloads on the Kindle – and have both signed with traditional publishers.
If the traditional approach to publishing has lost its way, focusing on sales targets, celebrities and marketing campaigns, then the future of publishing must be about creative freedom and writers being encouraged to write exceptional books that readers want to read.
Whatever your aim for becoming self-published, whether that’s being discovered by the traditional publishers who initially turned you down, developing a financially successful career as an independent writer, or simply see your hard work in print, it doesn’t matter.
What’s important is that the digital revolution is creating a professional and high quality approach to self-publishing, which is at last releasing the final negative connotations of ‘vanity’ publishing. While a new wave of writer is being given the opportunity to write, to enthral and entertain, focusing on the story not on their publishers sales targets.
For writers, this new future of publishing offers empowerment, to be in control of their destiny, to allow them to decide whether they are to become a published author or not.