Thursday, 16 June 2011

Why the fuss?

All we writers dream of a big publishing deal with those publishing conglomerates, all that's left of the publishers I remember. I've always wanted a penguin or an oak tree on my book, but it's so complicated now. No more bringing on a new writer, if that first book fails to make enough sales then the second book often isn't published and the writer is struck off the publisher's list! It's grim.

In my last year at university I wrote a book, one of those YA horse books. It went to Collins who published the horse books I liked. It was provisionally accepted and I had to line up with an editor and work with her to make it perfect. However I was off on the great O.E. (Overseas Experience) so didn't follow through but smiled to myself and thought 'Well, I'm a writer, I've cracked it.'

Today Collins has been eaten up by one of those money making concerns and getting a book near them or any publisher is almost impossible. We have to approach publishers through agents.

Find an agent? Those agents I have approached, and who kindly replied, tell me that they receive anything from 6,000 to 8,000 queries a year. And only take on one or two writers.


It seems to me that agents are like film critics. They are jaded. They have read so much that only the most outrageous or the obviously (in their eyes) commercial stuff is acceptable.

But the technological revolution has hit the world of publishing and I believe it has done so with enough impact to make a real and beneficial difference to writers’ lives. You wouldn't think that to hear so many writers screaming about e-publishing.

There was a huge panic when Penguin published their paperbacks. Publishers screamed ‘It’s the end of the book.’ What actually happened was that books became affordable to people who had not read very much and couldn’t afford to. People who wouldn’t be seen dead reading a whopping great hardback book, with its taint of school, and lack of cool, happily shoved a small, lightweight paperback in their pockets and read. There was a golden age of reading and a paradise of markets for writers.

I happen to think it’s happened again.

The new technologies have brought us new forms of writers’ markets, to whit, MP3 and MP4 audio and audio-visual downloads, and e-publishing.

The new readers are that large group of people, tech-educated, and mobile, who do occasionally read, but are ‘too busy to read much’. They travel and are heavily into gadgets. Flying is boring, carrying several paperbacks is a pain with weight-limited hand luggage. An ebook reader is lighter than a paperback, holds up to three thousand five hundred books and it’s a with-it gadget. So are i-pods and their clones. Everyone under forty seems to be permanently plugged into these gizmos only the size of an after eight mint. Even mobile phones can download stories. What is more, downloading an ebook is affordable. No more $40 books, ebooks and stories are usually in the $1 to $8 range, many are free.

Amazon ebook sales are soaring, outselling standard books. The 'Big' publishers, like Penguin, are dipping their toes in, but with rotten royalties. Most of the established Independent Small Press book publishers already offer ebook forms of their authors’ works at the same time as producing a paperback copy. The e-publishers were there first and are now extending into print as well.

I've been encouraging my students and writer friends to test the market and sell reprint rights of those old published stories tucked away at the back of the drawer, to MP3 markets which accept reprints. It's amazing how many markets there are, they pay and they sell. There are a lot of people buying stories to listen to as they drive, or jog, or wait in queues, and many of these people don't set foot in a library. It's a whole new market.

As for e-publishers why are so many writers so reluctant to see their work published this way? Romance, SF and Fantasy writers aren't, and several tell me their incomes have shot up since they leapt on board with ebook versions of their work.

Never mind the decent royalties, between 40% and 80%, and the excellent sales work done by e-publishers with you to help you promote your book. No, it’s their attitude to writers. Anyone who has tangled with the web of agents and publishers these days will understand. These Small Presses claim to value their writers, and they seem to. Writers I know are satisfied. These Small Press/Indie e-publishers generally have editors who know their job, who are polite and pleasant to work with, have clear and simple contracts, pay on time and can even allow writer collaboration on the artwork.

When the 'Big Boy' multinational publishers appear to only want a celebrity author, a story they are sure they can sell, (and don’t they get it wrong?) and a money making writer with their first book, the flexibility of e-publishers, those Small Presses and Indies, is a gift for us writers. It’s a step back to the old days of nurturing the writer’s talent and skills, where both the editor and author had the same goal, publishing the best writing the author could achieve.

There’s another good reason for going to an ebook publisher, staying in print. And I mean print, for most epublishers offer a POD as well as an electronic form of a book. Twenty years from now your grandchildren can go to the epublisher and ask for a copy of your books. Try that with the multinational publishers. It certainly helps a writer’s income if all their books are available at the flick of the computer button. Readers like it too.

We haven’t really got into ebooks in New Zealand yet, but I encourage my students and writer friends to think seriously about using an epublisher. At the moment they are accessible, often not requiring submission via an agent. They don’t mind where their authors live, they respond quickly by email. They are open to unusual, not easy to label works as well as the classic genre novel and they’ll sell all around the world.

And if I have to hear another writer whine that e-publishers are second best I shall personally sit them down and make them actually read the websites and writers' guidelines. They are not second best, the writer's novel has to be submitted in the usual way. It may be rejected. It will be edited and polished and carefully marketed. What e-publishing is giving writers is another form of market and an increase in their earnings.

Why all the fuss? Why not cheer instead.

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