I've done my research, and the traditional publishing route looks less penetrable and less appetizing all the time. The major publishers prefer to publish known quantities, and the smaller houses have a similar bias. If you've published in popular magazines (including ezines), some of the smaller and genre-oriented publishing houses are more likely to give your work a serious look. My experience here is all with fantasy, SF, and horror, but what I've seen suggests the same is true across other genres as well. Getting a book published is very much about getting a foot in the door—getting someone above a slushpile reader to give the work a careful read. If you have short works in publication, the editors believe they know something about your abilities. Don't have short works in current circulation? Well, you can try the direct route, but very few writers get published that way. And most of the few who do, see only minimal support.
The next possibility often recommended is getting an agent. Of course, the process in getting an agent is pretty much the same as cold-contacting publishers. The agents have slush piles, too. I've spoken with several writers who've had luck with agents, and their stories all fit into a small number of categories:
- They were already published and needed help with extended book rights, international rights, sequels, and so forth
- A corollary to that first item, many were approached by the agents, not the other way 'round. (Quite a few long-standing professionals say this is the only way you should ever get an agent).
- The author contacted and got to know the agent before ever suggesting a business arrangement.
Method number 2 is the only method endorsed by successful online novelist Hugh Howey. It's also quite close to the advice Frederik Pohl used to give, forty years ago. Pohl always said authors should already have a novel before ever considering an agent. Pohl was a successful SF author, editor, and agent, so I tend to value his advice—even with the advent of the internet and the explosion of ebook and POD publishing.
It's hard to miss the evolution in publishing occurring all round us. Some days it seems everyone who can string together twenty or so pages of story or advice, and publish same as a Kindle ebook, has done so. No, it's really not that bad, but it is getting a bit outrageous. In some ways, it's bad. The noise-to-signal ratio is getting outrageously high. I'm truly thankful for Amazon's LookInside funtion. Without it, I might have been tempted to buy some of the crap that been published. You look at the description and think, "That sounds pretty good," but then the LookInside says otherwise. I think some of these people are asking friends to write their descriptions for them. Either that or their skill with a synopsis is far and away beyond their ability to carry a narrative or capture a dialogue.
So, it's easier? Is that all there is to it? No gatekeepers?
Well, it helps. At times I wish Amazon at least imposed some sort of editing standards on their Kindle publications, but the fact that anyone can publish, choose their own price structures, and have a completed book online for sales in under 24 hours seems remarkably democratic. It's also quite in keeping with the ideals of laissez-faire capitalism. You'll succeed if the market will bear it. Advertising helps, but most rely entirely on word-of-mouse. Good reviews help (though some authors tell me they help less than you'd think they should), and Amazon screens their reviewers pretty effectively. You can only review if you are an actual person who has actually made purchases from them. This, of course, doesn't stop people from getting endorsements from friends and family, but it does make it damned nigh impossible to flood the site with fake reviews.
I have to admit, the advice of other Kindle authors struck me as hard to refute. Consider the first-time published author with a book offered by one of the small genre houses. Ignoring, for the moment, the fact that a few of those have gone belly-up in the past decade, how much support does the publishing house really provide for a junior author? From what I've seen, they get front page promotional advantage from most houses on the house web page and they get a few paid ads with major genre magazines and ezines. As far as I can tell, however, those ads only stay up for a few months. The publishers will also likely schedule bookstore signings. This is usually contingent on the author getting to the stores. Most small houses can't afford to fly junior authors around the country. If the author is so lucky as to get a nomination for a major genre prize (Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, Tiptree, Dick, Campbell), the ads might go up again for a month or two before the awards are determined. Of course, winning the award means the ads will continue to get paid for another six months, and the author might then actually get financial support in making a tour, but what then?
I don't fault the publishing houses for ceasing to promote books after such a short time. Who can blame them? They have other new authors, and old authors, to promote. The problem, however, remains. Books don't die after a year and a half. Even after three or four decades, many novels maintain their relevance—regardless of genre. Not all, of course, but many do.
On the other hand, how many traditionally-published novels have managed the run of popularity of Hugh Howey's Silo Saga?
Well, I have a long way to go before I can compare my success with Howey's. I've sold a few dozen works in the US, UK, and Germany. So far, I have only three reviews up on Amazon, but they're all glowing reviews from strangers, which meant a lot to me.
Next time, I'll discuss the CreateSpace experience. It's been interesting.