As a writer who works as a designer in a New Zealand publishing firm, I can’t help but notice the disconnect between potential authors expectations and the business and art of publishing.
Until I worked in the publishing industry, I too was completely unaware of the pressures of contemporary bookselling. My idea of getting published came largely from 19th century novels, such as Little Women. I aspired to be like Jo March, who lovingly typed her novel, wrapped it in brown paper and a ribbon, and sent it out to a publisher, only to have it snaffled up eagerly. The book’s life was then edited out of it but she lived generously off its royalties while she wrote her next opus that would be something she could be truly proud of. It is surprising how many people still think like this. I’m sorry but I have to tell you that it is a fantasy.
However, it is not impossible to be a successful, thriving published author. You just have to know what you are up against and perhaps, change tack a bit. So here are some tips and truths to help the modern writer survive (and get noticed) in the modern publishing climate:
Publishers are not waiting for your story
Changing technology and readership has meant that many publishers and bookstores have closed, merged or downsized. This means that publishers are looking for books that they know will sell and a lot of the time, this means publishing books inhouse rather than waiting for an author (with lots of demands and no knowledge of the marketplace) to come along.
There are only a handful of publishers in New Zealand who do the actual publishing stuff, Penguin Random House being the notable big-gun. There are smaller publishing houses such as Awa Press, the University Presses and Beatnik. These guys are highly selective about the type of work they publish and will only publish one or two new authors a year.
Some publishers will accept unsolicited manuscripts (AKA manuscripts that have been sent by an author who has no agent), but this number is dwindling. The vast majority of publishers will put un–agented work into what is called a ‘slush pile’. This pile is checked (probably by an assistant) once a month and as far as I have heard, slush does not often get published. If submitting without an agent, authors must read submission guidelines carefully, present their work immaculately and do some research about the market that their book could fit within. Make a convincing argument when you submit your stuff.
On the other hand, you could consider looking for an agent further afield (Aus, UK, USA). You may have more luck in a larger market. Consider Nalini Singh, a Kiwi author who writes paranormal romances. She is a New York Times Bestseller and is published overseas but most New Zealanders don’t even know her name. Typical.
Publishers are not trying to kill your piece of art
Publishers are booklovers, just like you. They are not just in it for the money (if they were, they would have abandoned ship to become accountants long ago). Believe it or not, publishing is not the lucrative industry it was in the 80s and most presses are struggling to make a buck. Publishing is the business of passion; it walks the thin line between art and commerce. The sales from around 20% of books published, by most trade publishers, prop up the desultory sales of the other 80%. Yes, every publisher is looking for that next Harry Potter but in the midst of all of this financial pressure, they also choose to publish books that they feel are important, worthy and of the times.
Publishers also have experience to back up their skills. The editor of your book will have worked with countless other authors and manuscripts and they do know a thing or two about good writing, excellent content, story arcs, character development as well as what sells. It may just be that an experienced eye may have something relevant to say to improve your ‘baby’.
There is no point being snobbish about literary fiction
Literary fiction makes up a teensie percentage of books published and sold. Most NZ publishers focus on non-fiction but you are even more likely to get published if you are working on an educational text. The educational market is by far the largest part of the publishing sector in New Zealand.
Genre fiction is also a growing area (particularly teen series). So many good thrillers, romances and action books being published out there — less so in New Zealand. I recommend looking into publishing overseas or self publishing. These books are so popular because they are attached to thriving communities of authors and readers. There are even conventions and festivals that are held online where you can connect with fans and see your favourite authors speaking live.
Most writers have a day job
It is getting harder for authors to live off royalties, and advances are becoming a rare comodity. Royalties can range from 6% to 15% if you are a well-known author. This may be 25% if you are selling ebooks (but they do tend to sell for less).
Due to pressure from chain stores to discount books and pressure from ebooks to keep prices of books down, publishers have increasingly tight profit margins. There is not much to go round and unfortunately, the author is suffering. A few years ago I went to a talk by a publisher at Penguin who said that the only NZ author who lives off their writing is Lloyd Jones (Think Mr Pip).
I don’t have any answers for this one. Just ask yourself, are you prepared to have a day job or to live as a starving artist?
The writer cannot be an island
These days half the job of being a successful author is self promotion and creating a ‘following’ online. Many authors are investing time in creating Twitter accounts (Margaret Atwood is particularly popular), websites, blogs etc. It is becoming increasingly important to connect with your fans in a genuine way.
For authors who want to be published, you are much more likely to achieve this if you already have a faithful, strong social media following. This is a chance to show your interests (other than writing), connect with people and create a buzz about your work. If you can prove to a publisher that your 5,000 fans will all buy your book, well that may just convince them. 2000 is a small print run for a fiction book but this is probably the average in New Zealand.
Self publishing is a viable option
The stigma surrounding self publishing, or indie publishing, is fading as there are avenues for writers to produce beautifully made, well edited books without going through the traditional publishing route.