What was that about self-publishing? Yes, it’s true. Self-publishing is now considered a legitimate ‘incubator for the traditional side of the industry’. So said a blog on the site authonomy.com, a forum set up by HarperCollins where writers could post their own work and comment on others’ submissions. [HarperCollins seems to have taken down the forum, 2022].
I came across the blog when I was suggesting the site to a friend who is an accomplished but as yet unpublished fiction writer (another one of those who came close to a contract with a major publisher, but not quite over the line). The blog, ‘Self Publishing as a Stepping Stone’, was quite illuminating about the changing dynamics of the industry:
‘Increasingly agents and publishers are understanding that there is more to publishing than what comes in to their office through old-style submissions. Given that many publishers are now providing less support in terms of discoverability, expecting authors to pull their weight where their own marketing is concerned – in time and in investment – authors who are creatively and dynamically involved with their own PR are very appealing.’
The piece went on to say that agents too are encouraging authors to do their own PR, recognising that authors who have self-published are often more savvy about the commercial realities of publishing.
The idea of writers playing an important role in marketing their books is nothing new. Marele Day was commissioned by the Australia Council back in 1993 to cover just that topic in her book The Art of Self-Promotion – successful promotion by writers. However, decades down the track, what we are witnessing is a significant shift in who is responsible for the financial risk that every publishing venture entails. Writers are now expected to invest a great deal of time, and often money, to hone and polish their manuscripts as well as build a public profile.
Let’s face it, publishing is a form of gambling. Using the analogy of horse racing (about which I know very little), publishers and agents in the past were willing to take on a horse with potential, train it up, nurture it towards healthy odds and prepare it for the starting gate. Now publishers are increasingly wanting to go with the safe bet, picking up a well-trained horse as it enters the track with reasonable odds, ready to go.
As one publisher said at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival last year, an author is more attractive to a publisher if they have at least 100 followers to their blog. Keeping in mind that in the US you have to have an agent to get a traditional publishing deal (whereas that is not the case in Australia.), the Authonomy piece claims that ‘a few thousand sales will make you and your work a considerably more attractive prospect to an agent than if you just have your manuscript to hand.’ That sounds to me like wanting to wait until the race has started to see who is out front and looking good before making a decision.
In this day and age of a gazillion people wanting to publish a book maybe this is a logical development in the industry. I think an extension to this will be an increasing number of writers deciding that if they can sell a few thousand copies, perhaps they don’t need a big publisher to swoop down and pick them up, perhaps they are doing okay on their own. We are already seeing more writers willing to consider self-publishing, even those who have had deals with traditional publishers in the past.
Whether all this is good, bad, right or wrong is beside the point. It is what is happening in the publishing world and if you want to be a player, you need to be prepared for it.
But let’s not forget that it all comes back to having a good manuscript. So that first skill – ‘learn and hone the craft of writing’ – is still the primary one to develop.