I read a lot of articles and blog posts about how it is so much harder to make a living writing now than it was a few decades ago.
Most point the finger at “big, bad traditional publishers” who no longer pay big advances or take chances on emerging writers. Or they blame Amazon or brick-and-mortar bookstores or used bookstores, blah, blah, blah.
A lot has changed in publishing since I was a starry-eyed teenager reading Lawrence Block’s fiction column in Writer’s Digest and typing out poorly written stories on a manual Smith-Corona typewriter.
Among the technological changes are the internet, Amazon, print-on-demand, and ebooks. These changes led to changes in the way readers find, buy, and experience books. It also forced authors, publishers, distributors and bookstores to change the way they do business.
The Big Change Rarely Talked About: Astronomical Competition
By far the biggest change is the number of new books published. While it’s hard to get an exact figure, estimates range from 1,000 to 5,000 new books are published EACH DAY! That’s insane!
And that’s just the new books. It’s not as if the old books are going away. So the marketplace grows increasingly crowded at an astronomical rate. The number of readers is not growing, at least not at such a rate.
And books are only one form of entertainment. Authors are competing with video games, social media, movies, television, web series, etc. And those marketplaces are growing increasingly crowded too.
Readers only have so much time and so much money.
The Other Ugly Truth: Bad Writing Makes Readers Leery
Part of the big push for self-publishing was that wannabe-authors chafed at traditional publishing’s gatekeepers. It was tough to get a publishing deal without an agent, and it was tough to get an agent. Even back in my teen years, agents only accepted about 1% of the submissions they received.
Self-publishing allows ANYONE to publish a book. And so a lot of people who haven’t taken the time to learn the craft of writing have published TONS of poorly written stories. Why bother with writing classes, critique groups, and beta readers when you can just throw shit on Amazon and see what sticks. And people are certainly entitled to do just that. But not without consequences.
With the overwhelming influx of poorly written, poorly edited, poorly formatted stories, self-publishing got a well-deserved bad reputation. Yes, there are some jewels in the shit pile. But a lot of readers don’t want to sort through a lot of shit to find them.
Traditional publishers haven’t helped this situation when they opt to publish mediocre books from big name authors and celebrities, banking on the big names to sell books, even when the writing won’t.
And so readers become leery of trying books by unfamiliar authors. And why should they when they could spend the evening watching Jessica Jones or playing Assasin’s Creed or hanging out on Twitter?
Changing What We Can, Accepting What We Can’t
We can’t change the fact that the number of published books continues to grow at insane rates. We can’t control how much or how little time other authors put into learning their craft before publishing their work. We have very little control over how many people buy from Amazon vs. local indie bookstores vs. used bookstores.
We can complain and rage and shake our fists at traditional publishers’ contracts or Amazon’s review policies or big name authors phoning it in, but it won’t change much.
But those of us who are authors can make a commitment to consistently improve our writing skills so that our work has a better chance of impressing readers and being talked about. This includes taking classes, joining critique groups, and hiring freelance editors.
We can choose to write more! I know this seems antithetical to my point about an over-crowded marketplace getting more crowded daily, but by writing more (well-written) books, you increase your visibility, build a backlist (encouraging fans to read previous and subsequent work), AND you improve your writing skills.
We can spread the word about well-written books we read so that good authors get the publicity they deserve. Don’t settle for just Amazon reviews. Post it on your blog, on Facebook, Twitter, or whatever social media you prefer. Get the word out.
We can make a deliberate choice to read more debut authors, especially more books by women authors, LGBT authors, and authors of color.
We can accept that each publishing option has advantages and disadvantages, and we can be adult about it and take responsibility for our choices without acting like whiny babies.
If you self-publish, don’t whine about having to deal with the stigma of self-publishing. You made your choice. If you go the traditional route, don’t complain about the deals you sign. No one forced you to sign it.
Do what you can to change the publishing world and forget about the rest. Now go read a book!