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5 Industry Trends Requiring Every Writer’s Attention

photo by @Doug88888

We’re so glad that former WU contributor Jane Friedman agreed to visit today as a guest, to give us some updates on the state of the ever-changing publishing industry. 

Most writers are aware that the publishing industry is undergoing a range of transformations, new beginnings, failures, and consolidations. But there’s so much change it can be difficult to weed out and understand the most relevant and important changes—especially when hundreds of opinions seem to surround the smallest change.

Based on industry conversations I’ve had in the last six months, as well as reports I’ve read by people I trust, here are five trends that writers should keep a close eye on.

1. Publishing Contracts

When I started working in trade publishing (1998), it was very rare that the company’s boilerplate contract would change. Obviously it was negotiated in minute detail by every agent that came into contact with it—so contracts differed from author to author—but the process always played out by a certain set of expectations or guidelines.

By the time I left trade publishing (2010), the contracts were being tweaked every 6 months to reflect a changing business environment and new opportunities in digital and multimedia publishing. I’m starting to wonder if there will ever be a “typical” contract again, given the increasing number of variables. Consider:

Unfortunately, most publishing contracts are closely guarded and not available for public review. So what is an author to do? Here’s my advice.

2. The Evolving Role of Agents

To further complicate matters, your relationship with your agent may be the first contractual obligation you need to consider or reconsider.

Traditionally, an agent takes 15% commission on every book she sells. But what happens when you self-publish some of the titles that your agent couldn’t sell? Or what if your agent sells your work to an imprint that pays no advance and even charges you (the author) upfront fees—a scenario that was briefly on the table when Random House rolled out new contracts for their digital-only imprints [3]? Or what if you get the rights back to older titles that your agent sold, and you want to self-publish them on your own?

It’s a hornet’s nest of complications, but some of the best practices I’ve seen work off some variation of the following:

Most agents are not interested in selling your work unless an advance is involved (70-80% of books never earn out their advance). However, agents often assist existing clients on all kinds of deals if there’s a longstanding relationship in play. A good agent will be transparent and upfront about how all deals are handled, and will be closely following the evolution of best practices in the industry.

3. The Value and Distraction of Author Platform Building

As far as trends go, the idea of building a platform has been around for at least five or six years now, if not longer. Unfortunately, as time has passed, I’m not sure the discussions surrounding platform—or the common wisdom that gets spread—is any better than it was in 2007, and social media as both marketing tool and creative tool has greatly complicated matters.

The questions that often get asked include:

I’ll make a bold statement right here that I don’t think I’ve made before.

[pullquote]If you’re a totally new, unpublished writer who is focused on fiction, memoir, poetry, or any type of narrative-driven work, forget you ever heard the word platform. [/pullquote]

If you’re a totally new, unpublished writer who is focused on fiction, memoir, poetry, or any type of narrative-driven work, forget you ever heard the word platform. I think it’s causing more damage than good. It’s causing writers to do things that they dislike (even hate), and that are unnatural for them at an early stage of their careers. They’re confused, for good reason, and platform building grows into a raging distraction from the work at hand—the writing.

Therefore, build your platform by writing and publishing in outlets that are a good fit for you, lead to professional growth, and build your network. The other pieces will start to fall into place. It might take longer, but who cares if you’re feeling productive and enjoying yourself? Go be a writer and take a chance on the writing. Writing and publishing good work always supports the growth of your platform—and I’m willing to bet more valuable platform building will get done that way, especially for narrative-driven writers.

Exception to the rule: Nonfiction/non-narrative authors and entrepreneurial authors who are self-publishing. Sorry, but you should probably focus on platform as much as the writing.

If you want more of my take on platform, read my definition here. [4]

4. Transmedia & Authorship

Let’s start by defining transmedia; I’ll lean on Guy Gonzalez here. He wrote the following in 2010: [5]

[Transmedia] focuses on the storyworld [6] first, distribution channels second, with the latter determined via a collaborative process [7] that puts the author’s creative vision at the center. Most so-called transmedia projects are really just cross-media marketing initiatives and/or brand extensions, driven by licensing deals and a parceling out of rights in a manner that often includes loss of creative control by the author. Star Wars is the go-to example of a transmedia property, and while it has definitely evolved into a legitimate one, it didn’t start out that way.

My two cents: Unless you’re already a high-profile commercial author, don’t worry yourself about transmedia. Yes, you will set yourself up better if you’re thinking of expansive storyworlds to begin with (think: Game of Thrones), but unless you already have friends and colleagues involved in media—e.g., app development, audio/video production—you’re probably not going to be shopping around your transmedia project any time soon.

However, when it comes to platform building (which I just told you to forget!), it does help to think beyond blogging, tweeting, and all the text-based forms of communication, and consider the whole world of opportunities available to you, to produce fun, interesting content that complements your published work. Think John Green’s YouTube videos [8] or Seth Harwood’s podcasts [9] or Tweet Speak Poetry [10].

Which brings me to No. 5.

5. Emerging Tools for DIY E-Books and Multimedia Publications

It’s an explosion. That’s how I’d describe the market for easy-to-use (and often free) tools to produce digital books, magazines, and other tablet-based media. Because these are emerging tools, I can’t point to a specific author project that uses them, but this is good news. You can be among the first. Here are a few to begin exploring:

What other publishing trends are you wondering about? Ask your question in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer.

About Jane Friedman [16]

Jane Friedman [17] has more than 20 years in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship. She's the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet [18], the essential industry newsletter for authors. You can find out more about her consulting services and online classes at her website, JaneFriedman.com [17].