Getting published is every aspiring author’s dream, the focus of enormous energy, hopes and fears. So if that dream comes true, then you can feel as though all your struggles are now over, right?
Getting published is only the start, and in retrospect, it can seem a good deal simpler than what follows: staying published! Maintaining a sustainable, money-earning career as a professional author has never been an easy task, at any time. But in a modern publishing industry, in the middle of rapid and turbulent transformation over the last five to seven years, it has become even more challenging. Building a writer’s profile slowly, over time, simply isn’t an option anymore for most publishers, as the mid-list is squeezed and rapid staff turnovers in many companies make it that much harder to maintain an ongoing relationship with authors.
It is a sign of these challenging times that many established authors and illustrators are reporting difficulties with placing new work and experiencing lower incomes, as print sales fall and e books do not fully take up the slack. Newer authors are also finding it hard, with first books expected to make much more of an impact than in the past, and for all more time is being consumed by promotion through social media and public appearances. And yet new opportunities are also springing up, especially in digital publishing and self-publishing, but also with small presses.
So how, in this world of rapid change, can an author not only stay published, but thrive? Is it harder to stay published now than in the recent past? What successful strategies have authors evolved to cope with change? What pitfalls have they tried to avoid? And what advice would they give newly-published authors who might be having trouble following up publication of their first book or two?
These questions were at the centre of the interviews I conducted with over forty established authors, publishers and agents, mainly in my home country of Australia (including my fellow WU contributor Juliet Marillier), but also in the US (Tamora Pierce), UK (including Anthony Horowitz), and New Zealand recently.
As an author with a long career myself, with bumps and hurdles as well as successes along the way, I’ve personally experienced the problems and opportunities we can encounter in maintaining our careers; but I also wanted to draw on a much wider range of other people’s experiences. And a wide range was exactly what I got, with the answers being as diverse as they were honest, thoughtful and practical.
Nearly everyone agreed that it has indeed become harder to stay published over the last few years, as a direct result of change in the publishing and bookselling landscape. The impact on authors varied, from a significant, even serious challenge, to a more minor effect. And the reaction of people to these conditions had many common features. For example, the top issue cited by authors, agents and publishers alike was the necessity for authors to maintain both flexibility and integrity if they want to stay published. You have to be flexible to survive in this business for as one author put it ‘getting stuck in one mindset is the number one pitfall—like it or not, everything’s evolving’. But your integrity as an author is also important, and to put that at risk by running after market trends that don’t feel natural to you was cited as a major danger. As another author put it, ‘trend-chasing is the way to dusty death.’
Some other common pitfalls cited included:
- giving up too easily, taking rejections personally
- getting ‘on your high horse’ and not maintaining good relations with industry professionals
- expecting too much of social media
- not being willing to learn new skills
In terms of advice to struggling newly-published authors, these were just some of the things people suggested:
[pullquote]This information and much more will be published in a book by Sophie Maason, launching May 23rd by Keesing Press, entitled The Adaptable Author: Coping with Change in the Digital Age. It will be published both in print and e-book format. Learn more about the book HERE.[/pullquote]
- Don’t be afraid to change publishers, or to go from a big publisher to a smaller press.
- If your books haven’t quite ‘hit the spot,’ try and find out why—have a frank discussion with the commissioning editor for instance.
- Get a great agent!
- Accept there are no safety nets for writers, and take a risk anyway.
- Keep fresh–write outside your comfort zone.
- Go to regional book fairs and libraries outside big cities to widen your readership.
Looking at the successful strategies used by authors who have maintained long careers, it’s interesting to note that quite a few cited were not just about craft, and included such things as:
- thinking strategically about what parts of the book market are working, and which aren’t
- being involved in the industry through literary associations and organizations
- joining online communities such as Goodreads to maximize contact with readers, without marketing too hard; and showing you’re a reader too, reviewing books, engaging in conversations about books
- value-adding by selling short works initially to magazines and periodicals, and then submitting to book publishers
- starting blogs/sites on things you’re interested/involved in, but which are unconnected to writing and books, to gain you a readership outside literary circles and give you a break from worrying about your books
- re-inventing yourself by using a pseudonym
Finally, a word on self-publishing, which many authors mentioned, even if they hadn’t done it themselves. Those who had were happy to talk about the pros and cons. Pros cited included more control and freedom to innovate, an opportunity both to relaunch old titles, and unusual new ones, and a higher royalty rate than in traditional publishing. Cons revolved around having to do everything yourself, which was costly in terms of both time and money. But the real bugbear cited was discoverability, even for well-established authors with good ‘brand’ recognition. The result was that income earned from self-publishing was small.
Over to you—do you think it’s more difficult to sustain a career as a professional author in the digital age? And if you’re an author yourself, what strategies have you successfully used to stay published?