Six Core Issues Facing Writers Today

We are so excited that our guest today is consulting editor Alan Rinzler. Alan has edited and published Toni Morrison, Tom Robbins, Hunter S. Thompson, Jerzy Kosinski, Shirley MacLaine, Robert Ludlum, Clive Cussler, Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan and others while working as Assistant Managing Editor at  Simon & Schuster, Director of Trade Publishing at Bantam, west coast editor for the Grove Press, VP and Associate Publisher of Rolling Stone, where he was also President of Straight Arrow, and Executive Editor at Jossey-Bass/Wiley. Alan’s years of experience spans the gamut from commercial to literary, and he’s also edited a wide range of memoirs, histories, biographies, among others. We feel fortunate that Alan agreed to share his wisdom and expertise with WU today.

Check out his website and blog at to learn more. 

Six Core Issues Facing Writers Today

Being an author these days requires much more than working alone in solitude. But you knew that, right? Many authors are taking charge of their work and stepping out at conferences, trainings, pitch sessions, writer’s groups, readings, and especially online with web sites, blogs, and social networking, no longer stuck in the stereotype of the shy or invisible recluse.

Authors are also required to navigate radical, unprecedented changes in getting published. Prior structures, procedures and assumptions have fallen apart. The balance of power has shifted and it’s unclear exactly who’s in charge as the traditional gatekeepers have lost their supremacy.

What does all this mean for you? My view is that it’s the best time ever to be a writer. Best but not easiest. Here are some of the questions a writer faces.

State of the Business 

Will the book business survive hemorrhaging revenues, downsizing, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, merging haphazardly to reduce overhead, experimenting with one insane ebook program after another, reinventing itself desperately to convert from all print to all digital? Is this at long last the Death of the Traditional Book Publishing?

Have people stopped reading, stopped buying books? Are they getting their news and information for free online, so why spend the money. Is our culture suffering from a universal attention deficit disorder, too busy texting, YouTubing, friending on FaceBook, social networking. Is this the End of Intelligent Reading?

The only thing you can count on for sure is that people who think they know how it’s all going to fall out or what it’ll be like in two years don’t know what they’re talking about.

Have as yet unknown writers been left high and dry as agents won’t take on an author without a track record or platform. Are all publishers so risk aversive that they’re looking for only best-selling stars or celebrities getting contracts?

Reality check

There’s a lot of confusion and contradictory advice going around today among writers and book publishing professionals. The only thing you can count on for sure is that people who think they know how it’s all going to fall out or what it’ll be like in two years don’t know what they’re talking about.

Nevertheless, I’m happy to play pundit and offer my unabashed opinion about the major issues a writer needs to confront these days, along with my short prognosis of choices to consider. 

1. As a first timer with no platform, do I have any chance at all to get a deal with S&S, Knopf, Random/Penguin?

Yes! That’s the short answer. If you read Publishers’ Marketplace (get a subscription, it’s worth the $20/month for deep layers of industry information), you’ll see a category of “debut author” sales by agents to publishers. It happens. In some cases it’s a terrific piece of original writing, a brilliant novel, literary or genre, or it’s a non-fiction news breaking journalism, current event, expose. On other occasions it’s one of those overblown panic driven sales “at auction” where the price has been bid into the stratosphere and everyone involved is gasping for breath — losing, winning, suffering buyer’s remorse or sighs of relief since these big advances seldom earn out.

There is, in any case, a chance for the first timer but against high odds.

2. Do I really need an agent to get a deal with a traditional publisher? 

Afraid so. Unsolicited manuscripts won’t even reach the acquisition editors at the commercial publishing houses these days, and the slush pile is going straight into the recycling bin.

There are various ways to acquire an agent. You can get your foot in the door by meeting them at a writers conference and pitching your book well enough to pique their interest. Or you may know a writer who’s willing to give you an introduction. You can also write a clever, brief query letter and hope they’ll ask for your proposal or manuscript. It helps, of course, if you have a stunning proposal or manuscript, and have written and rewritten it with the guidance of a professional developmental editor.

Unsolicited manuscripts won’t even reach the acquisition editors at the commercial publishing houses these days, and the slush pile is going straight into the recycling bin.

3. Why do I need a platform? 

A platform is something to stand on. It gives you visibility, so your head can be seen above the crowd of thousands of other writers competing for readers’ attention.  You may have one already, if you’re an expert in some field, high up a company ladder, affiliated with a University, or you’ve won a serious literary prize, and published a short story somewhere prestigious. If not, get started on this right away, the earlier the better.

Don’t wait. Put up a well-designed web site and start writing those blog posts, at least weekly. It can be about writing the book, posting chapters, asking for feedback which may even be valuable, and building your following. Likewise, you can network, comment on other people’s blog, tweet, make a home video for YouTube where you talk about your work and some interesting aspect of its content.  You can also reach out to local broadcast and print media, since doing well in one town can expand to other urban centers nearby.

It can be fun. But avoid this at your peril.

4. Do I have to self-market when I’d rather be writing? 

Think of self-marketing as an extension of your creative process. You want to deliver the message of the book, right? So who could be better than you at launching it into the world with authenticity and passion and in your own unique words?

All writers have to self-market these days. Even traditional publishers expect it and often write it into their contracts. The old methods of book marketing don’t work any more. 30 city tours with first class seats, limos, and big hotel suites are extremely rare. Hardly anyone can afford a space ad in the New York Times daily or Book Review, which is why it’s so thin.

5. How should I go about self-publishing, if that turns out to be my choice? 

I’m a great champion of self-publishing. A piece on the front page of the New York Times recently celebrated the legendary David Mamet’s decision to self-publish his new novel through a new operation sponsored by his agents at ICM. Barry Eisler turned down a $500,000 advance to self-publish his books and many other authors are going indie.

“Self-publishing now accounts for more than 235,000 books annually, according to Bowker, a book research firm,” The NYT reports. “Big houses like Penguin and Harlequin have opened their own self-publishing divisions because they see it as a profit center of the future.”

The mistake authors can make…is to think self-publishing is a cheap and easy road to success.. It’s still hard to write a good book that people want to read.

The mistake authors can make, though, is to think self-publishing is a cheap and easy road to success.. It’s still hard to write a good book that people want to read. Watch out for rapacious vendors who’ve sprung up offering to help you self-publish for absurd fees. The new profit center self-publishing offers for Penguin and others isn’t sales but the so-called “author services” they urge you to purchase.

Don’t. You needn’t pay a middle man to broker a jacket design for $5,000 when you can get it for much less. Similar sky-high prices for copyediting and superficial developmental editing can be avoided by finding your own editors. There are lots good ones around.  Speaking of which…

6. Should I hire a developmental editor? 

I’m biased of course, being one myself, but most of the successful writers I’ve known have worked with  developmental editor on the core issues of story, structure, characterization, and literary style and the earlier in your writing process the better. Make sure you’re not going off in a wrong direction and make the investment of time and money to get the best manuscript you can. This goes for whether you’re self publishing or going the traditional right. These days, agents and acquisition editors commercial houses usually insist on a manuscript that’s ready for production.

The drill is to find a developmental editor with a great track record of producing books you’ve heard of and enjoyed reading.

OK. Over and out. Keep writing!



  1. says

    It was very fortunate to find Alan here this morning! Impressive list of creds and great answers to some common questions we are all wondering about as the publishing world evolves.

    This article was a pleasure. Thanks.

  2. says

    Well said! What has surprised me most about being an author is how difficult it is to keep up with the ever-changing industry. It feels like a whirlwind every day when I turn on my computer and read prevalent writer/author-related articles. Here’s to keeping our minds young with constantly changing information and marketing efforts, eh?

  3. says

    Great advice. I chose the self-publsihing route as an unknown author. It’s a tough road. I’ve written two books and I’m building a platform, but it’s a slow process. My plan is to self-publis a couple more books and then seek an agent in a couple more years.

  4. says

    What fun! I hired Alan way back in 2008 to help me with my manuscript. I know, with absolute certainty, that my manuscript would not be out on submission now, were it not for his developmental editing.

    Needless to say, not all developmental editors will do such quality work. My two cents? Do your research before you hire someone, but DO hire someone.

    A great developmental editor will see things that neither you nor your writing partners see. It feels both terrible and humbling to have your baby critiqued, but a critiqued baby is far more likely (than a coddled baby) to survive and thrive once you send it out into the world.

    Thanks, Alan!

  5. says

    Great post–love the YouTube idea.

    Challenges: *social media is a gaping, lightless maw diabolically inspired to kill writing and reading time.

    *Difficulty figuring out how to DO social media–How to make stuff happen on my beautifully designed new website–looking to find an unpaid intern (here in Philly, a really viable option–they can be great)

    *Finding time to pursue above

    *Writing Avoidance Syndrome (coming out as the hot new mental disorder in the next DSM. )

    *Having a family–sheesh! What do they WANT?

    *Need to sleep. I mean, really?

  6. says

    Gee, this was really insightful, Alan. Thanks! I think a big issue for those of us s-p in fiction especially is getting visibility to readers. I know lots of authors that are good writers with good books that have done the networking drill (blogs, Twitter, Bookclubs, book trailers, freebies, etc.) and still struggle to get sales. My books are buried on Amazon and B&N. While I know there’s no one formula that is magical, one thing we do need is professional book reviewers to say yes they’ll review s-p authors. So many reviewers now are refusing to even consider s-p books. Reviews are an important aspect for sales and exposure. Alan, do you have any suggestions about getting good reviewers for s-p authors?

    • says

      Dear Paula — What about book bloggers sites? There are lists available of the largest. Some specialize in categories like women’s fiction, mysteries, memoirs, or YA vampires (which worked so well for Amanda Hocking); others are more general fiction and nonfiction. Aside from that it’s tough. You can approach some reviewers or authors who’ll review the book, if you know them, have a mutual friend, or can write a persuasive cover letter. You can campaign with other self-published authors by writing to the editors at the TBR and elsewhere. PW does some reviewing, as you know, but it seems to be mostly powder puffs, from what I can tell. Never fear, however. Such serious review attention will happen, inevitably. It’s only a matter of time. Good luck to us all, Alan.

      • says

        Thanks, Alan, for the suggestions. I am still looking at book bloggers. A good number are closed to new submissions due to overload so that is an ongoing search. TBR does not review self-published authors. I guess the stigma against s-p writers hasn’t abated much. Not sure about PW; I’ll look into that. Of course, I will keep all the fires burning! Your blog is really great. Looking forward to being a follower.

        • says

          Have you looked at Author EMS? They have a searchable data base that you can plug in “reviews self-published” as a variable. It saves a ton of time. The data base is sizable, too. It cost $10 to access it for a month.

  7. says


    Great to see you here, and with a solid snapshot of the industry and authors’ options.

    The book publishing industry isn’t going away. Far from tearing it down, the advent of e-books has been positive for the Big Six. (Soon to be five.)

    The self-publishing movement has given authors the means to go it alone for a reasonable cost, albeit with a high investment of time and a low rate of success. Compare the roughly 6000 novels every year from print publishers to the 235,000 self-published titles. Can 235,000 e-books possibly all succeed? No, except perhaps at market saturation. Not all of the 6000 succeed!)

    There is no such thing as “traditional” publishing. There is publishing, period. You can do it yourself, pay for assistance or push your craft to a high level and be paid instead of paying. What makes novels successful in all cases is the same thing: great storytelling.

    Which brings me back to you and the elite corps of high-level developmental editors. Rarely do I see global story and character feedback coming from in-house editors. That art has gone indie. Authors need to know that, and to know you and your colleagues.

    I wonder what is the #1 shortcoming you see in manuscripts from serious, break-in level novelists? Or are the story challenges unique to each writer?

    Always a pleasure to hear your sane and positive voice, Alan. Thanks for being here today.

    • says

      Donald. Thanks for the kind words and great question. It’s difficult to pick the #1 shortcoming since you’re right about each author having their own issues. I see disorganized stories of excessive complexity… intrusive narrative voices that come between the reader and the story by inserting ongoing commentary, explanation, and interpretation…a failure to research and do the homework necessary to come up with something truly original and not reinvent the wheel… two-dimensional stereotype characterization…dialogue that all sounds like the same person…memoirs with hidden agendas like anger, revenge, extremist political points of view…enough said.

      • Cecile Somers says

        Bonsoir Mr Rinzler,

        … “intrusive narrative voices that come between the reader and the story by inserting ongoing commentary, explanation, and interpretation” …

        Junot Diaz has them in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Jennifer Egan has one in The Keep. Both won Pulitzers, both write highly entertaining and intelligent books that delight and surprise, precisely because they tried different things and don’t follow the formulaic stuff that demands the inciting incident take place before the end of page 5.

        I agree with Messrs Maass & McKee that the most important thing will always be “a good story well told,” but with the publishing industry adrift & some of its floes melting, I think now is the time to be daring and inventive, and not to be afraid at all.

  8. says

    Great article and great comments– all enlightening. I still feel like a sponge soaking in all the information I can for a time when I feel ready (or if I feel ready) to make a leap from freelance work to writing an actual…gulp…book. In the meantime, I’ll keep watching and reading carefully and preparing myself the best I can.

  9. says

    Hi! Thanks for the balanced post. It’s nice to hear a calm, thought out perspective regarding publishing and the industry! the industry! (couldn’t resist.)

    You said to seek a developmental editor early, and I am wondering what kind of early. In the planning/outlining stages, after the first draft, after subsequent drafts, when you think it’s as good as you can make it without help? What would you recommend? Thanks!

    • says

      Lara. The earlier the better, even if it’s only at the germ of an idea stage. I started with Tom Robbins on Jitterbug Perfume, with nothing on paper doing research about the the goat god Pan, and the powers of scent. It took months to reach the point of actually writing. Other authors I work with consult me prior to writing an outline. Then they send me a few chapters at a time for feedback, since it’s important to get the thematic focus, pacing, characterization, dialogue and structure right before getting too far along. It usually goes faster after revising the first few chapters and I see the completed draft for a once-over when it’s ready. Did anyone say it was easy? Writing a good book takes a long time in my experience, but that extra effort is well worth it.

      • says

        Thanks for answering my question! I appreciate the idea of having some guidance at the outlining stages. It would take a lot of the guesswork (for new authors) away.

      • says

        Thank you, Mr. Rinzler. This reply was indeed enlightening to someone working on her first novel. I had envisioned completing a first draft, enlisting a couple of initial readers I trusted, finessing said draft until I was happy with it, then beginning the submission process, at which point, if I was fortunate enough to land a contract with a traditional publisher (my preference right now), the “real” editorial process would begin. I’ll think quite differently about the process now.

  10. Bob Greene says

    Words of wisdom from the streets of experience. So many pundits of wisdom tout their expertise without the credentials. Not the case with Alan. When my outline is more concise, and the first chapters are ready to be put through the microscope, I will definitely contact him for enlightenment. Thanks for the post.

  11. says

    Alan, thank you for the clear-eyed publishing perspective. Do you think developmental editors and line editors are a different species, and that there shouldn’t be a mix and match of the disciplines? Curious on your view, because I’ve done some of both, and simultaneously too. [Quickly looks for nearest exit]

    I suspect that the measured, probing reflection on a narrative’s arc is a kind of meditation that doesn’t accommodate swift shifts into grammatical tweezerings, but I’ve done it; however, I wonder if one editor should be ushered out, and the next ushered in. With no touching.

    • says

      Dear Tom

      I always do line editing as needed in my developmental editing. I don’t think of these functions as separate at all. In my view, line-editing is not grammatical but stylish, consistent with the voice and dialogue, viscerally connected to the emotional glue and fabric of the writing. That’s how I do it, in any case. And I also enjoy doing it!


      • says

        I do developmental editing as well. I’ve been asked to do line editing many times, but in every case larger developmental edits have been needed. Line editing at that stage would only tweak material that might get tossed anyway. I agree that the two can’t really be separated.

  12. says

    Thanks Alan. I learned more from, and with, my development editor than from all my years of writing, reading and studying before that time. Most writing is inspired by the passion of storytelling, but it is made possible by craft. There is no substitute for knowing what works and why.

  13. says

    Love Alan’s response to the question, “Do I have to self-market?”

    It’s becoming increasingly evident to me that as he says, there’s no better promoter of a book than its author. I’m having a book published in January and I’m already setting up speaking engagements, writing blog posts like this one and arranging bookstore events.

    Not as fun or engaging as sitting at the keyboard running with the muse but just as important.