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Running the traditional publishing gauntlet
Once more into the breach, dear friends - preparing to go big or go ... around
Years ago, I wrote seven novels that were published by traditional imprints. The books are pretty good IMHO, set in the Forgotten Realms, Shadowrun, and Earthdawn universes, but writing niche RPG fiction is rarely a way to make a living. (R.A. Salvatore aside.)
In the 1990s and early 2000s, selling to one of the big-five (or was it six back then?) was the only path to a fiction writing career, which is what I wanted. Times have changed a bit, and self-publishing is pretty easy now. It’s a valid option for a lot of authors, although because it’s so easy there are a ton of books flooding the market. Being noticed is harder than it ever has been, and that’s true even for books published by the major publishing houses.
This is so bad that independent publisher Berrett-Koehler has a list of The 10 Awful Truths about Book Publishing (it’s pretty depressing). And DongWon Song—a well-known and successful agent has an entire blog called Publishing is Hard. DongWon’s writings are pragmatic advice about how to survive in publishing. They’re more hopeful, but the underlying truth is that while being published is easier than ever, being widely read is harder. And this is especially true for new(er) authors like me, because 1) even though I’ve published seven novels, that was a long time ago and they were targeted to a niche audience; and 2) most of the books that are getting big pushes are from already established ‘big-name’ authors.
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Much like capitalism in general, whether someone succeeds is not directly related to how good their work is. Neither capitalism nor publishing are a meritocracy. It’s a given that a book is good—that’s the entry level for getting a publishing contract. But whether it does well and sells a lot of copies depends a great deal on other factors, like the cover art and design, the marketing plan, sales efforts, and ultimately whether booksellers like the whole package.
In fact, in their awesome and informative podcast—Publishing Rodeo—new authors Sunyi Dean and Scott Drakeford discuss why (even though they each had a debut novel published in the same year by the same publisher) one of them got the VIP treatment while the other was neglected.
I recently completed a novel manuscript set in my own science fictional world. It’s likely the best thing I’ve ever written, and I’m going to publish it myself or sell the rights to a publisher. My aim is different than it was a couple decades ago; I no longer care as much about the money and earning a living as I do about sharing my stories as widely—and with as many people—as possible.
There used to be just one path to publishing a book, and now there are several. Even so, after reviewing my options and what I want for this book and my career ahead, I think the best path for me is to seek an agent and submit the novel to the major houses in a quest for a substantial contract. It’s a long shot, but I figure Go Big or Go Home.
Wish me luck.
Have a question or comment? Let me know below.