A Tale of Two Cities famously begins: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Today, that’s true of publishing.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s the worst, unrelentingly: that’s largely what has been reported in the mainstream media. The Big Six, already a small group of powerful publishers who control most of what hits the bookstore shelves in this country, has become, through mergers, only the Big Five. And for these publishers, you can’t even appeal directly to them to get your book published — you need a literary agent, and competition for agents is so fierce that people spend months, even years, working toward securing one. Speaking of bookstores, there’s only one major bookstore chain left in the whole country, and thousands of books a year vie for shelf space, meaning that even if you get a book placed there, if it doesn’t quickly become a bestseller, it won’t stay long.
Today’s book world is a tough world with lots of rules, official and unofficial (never call an agent on the phone!) It may seem hopeless.
But! Today is also the best of times. Why?
- If you want to get your book directly into the hands of readers, you can. Don’t want to publish the traditional way? You don’t have to. You can turn a manuscript into a published e-book with a few clicks, at practically no cost. It puts a tremendous amount of power at the writer’s fingertips. All it takes to become a published author is the will, and a smudge of technical know-how. There are gatekeepers, yes, but if you don’t want to deal with them? Just walk through the giant hole in the fence.
- The good old days weren’t necessarily that good. You’ll hear arguments that “back in the day,” publishers were more willing to invest in the careers of their writers, publishing four or more books from the same author even in the face of low or modest sales figures. And it’s true that far too many authors aren’t offered the same courtesy now. But the authors getting those deals “back in the day” were few and far between; and they were overwhelmingly white men with the right connections in publishing, living in large cities on the Eastern Seaboard. The query process may feel onerous and challenging, but it’s open to anyone. Stephenie Meyer lives in Arizona, and she seems to be doing all right.
- More diverse stories are beginning to be told. Publishing has always been overwhelmingly white, and there’s a long way yet to go, but movements like #weneeddiversebooks are gaining a huge amount of ground. Why does this make a difference? Books are an important way for readers to learn about the world. For kids and adults alike, we become more empathetic and understanding if we have the chance to experience the world from someone else’s perspective — and that’s what reading does for us. More inclusive books, more understanding world. We need that now more than ever.
So whether these days are good days or bad days for writers seeking publication, and whether we live in the best or worst of times, here’s the key: we don’t get to choose what times we live in. We’re in the here and the now. Whatever challenges or advantages today’s publishing world offers beyond the past, we’ll need to address the bad and make the most of the good. And the internet — which is an incredible tool for both good and bad — makes it easy to connect with other writers, which may just be the best news of all.