Thursday, July 17, 2014


Writers have to make huge decisions about the future of their creations and without a solid analysis of their options they may end up with regrets.

This blog post is meant as a conversation starter. I hope to get writers asking themselves and the publishing industry some tough questions so they can better understand the industry and their place within it.

Technology is dramatically changing power structures in traditional publishing that have existed for centuries. This upheaval has resulted in a lot of uneasiness for publishers and authors.

As power structures shifts those in power seek to stay in power. This is not meant to vilify the publishing industry. No one enjoys losing their power. If you have a toddler or teenager you’re familiar with power struggles in your own home. Child seeks to gain power, while parent seeks to maintain theirs. This same struggle goes on in politics and in business. Let us never forget that while writing is an art, publishing is a business.

Michael Foucalt, prominent sociologist and author of The Archaeology of Knowledge, urges his readers to ask, how do we know what we know and where does the knowledge come from? To frame this for writers: how has our knowledge of the publishing industry been constructed and by whom? Do the people who disseminate the information stand to benefit from that information and in what ways?

After I completed my third manuscript, I set out on this publishing quest. I read countless blogs, websites, and books on the subject. This research led me to believe that the most profitable, legitimate, respectable way for me to be published would be to acquire a literary agent who would then land me a publishing contract with a big six publisher. From my reading, I also concluded that if I wrote a quality manuscript and presented it in a professional manner that I would have a strong chance of accomplishing my publishing goals.

Over years of research, sending out queries, and talking to other writers, I realized a couple problems with this approach. First, the people sharing the information, largely agents and editors, stand to benefit from thousands of writers sending their materials. Second, the information I received led me to believe that there’s a sort of literary Darwinism—that the best will simply rise to the top. This might be valid if there were equal access to the publishing industry for all writers, however, that is not the case. We know that advantages exist for previously published authors and for those who know advantageous industry insiders.

As a new writer, statistically, my chances of landing a literary agent are low. The following stat is highly anecdotal, gleaned from following agents on various social media sites. My research has shown that new writers have a 1 in 10,000 chance of being signed by a literary agent. And being signed by an agent does not guarantee a publishing contract.

Last fall at a conference I attended, I sat in a session with a well-known Canadian literary agent. She spoke of how subjective her process is and how there is no rubric for choosing best-sellers. She said that what intrigues her today, she may hate tomorrow. If someone messes up her latte that morning, her foul mood may result in rejections for everyone who queries her that day. I appreciated her candor.

My most recent personalized rejection came from an agent, who had requested a full; she wrote, “I am currently taking on new clients quite selectively, focusing exclusively on work that really stirs my passions.” She went on to say she didn't have the requisite enthusiasm for my work in this “tough market.”

This all moves the publishing venture beyond quality of story and quality of writing and into the realm of luck.

But, here’s the thing. Many authors still stand by the get-an-agent, get-an-editor method of publishing. And I’m not saying that’s not the way to go, but in an era where writers have so many choices, we’d do well to ask the necessary questions. Are we just towing a line and helping those in power to maintain that power? Is that power structure benefiting me as a content creator?

My writer friends pushed me to tackle a tough question. Why was I continually submitting to literary agents? You see, in Canada, very few writers have agents. It’s just not the way things are done by mid-list authors here and they do just fine without them. That’s when I started asking more questions.

What exactly can an agent do for me?
What can a big six publisher do for me?
Are they going to funnel marketing time and dollars to me?
Will they be driven to make my book the best it can be?
Will an agent with bigger money clients be willing to spend their time and resources on me?

That’s when I started looking at small publishers.

In October 2014, my first novel will be published by Rebelight Publishing Inc., a small Canadian publisher, and so far I’ve had a fantastic experience. Sure I can’t brag about getting chosen by amazing agent X or having my manuscript picked up by big six editor Y, but I have a fantastic editor who cares about my work, a dedicated marketing team, and a designer that asked me, “What’s your vision for the book cover.”

Publishing is changing and as authors we are in an excellent position to benefit from these changing publishing power structures—if we keep an open mind and ask the right questions.

Have you had to re-examine your approach to publishing? Have you questioned the system? What tough questions have you asked yourself or the industry?


Melinda Friesen writes short stories and novels for MG, YA, and NA. She lives in Winnipeg, MB Canada with her husband and four children. She blogs at and at Her first YA novel, The Enslavement of Rielle James, is due for release October 2014 from Rebelight Publishing Inc. 


Jodi Carmichael said...

Congratulations, Mindi. My first book was published by a small press and it was an awesome experience!

J Lenni Dorner said...

Excellent article. Well thought out and written.

The difference I have seen is that the big six (or big five, whatever number we're counting depending on the country) have TWO things that others do not.
1- They have a publicity list which reaches into the hundreds of thousands.
2- They get better ad rates.

Now I'm not saying that a writer NEEDS to be a best-seller to be a success. Let each of us judge what goal must be met to be successful. But, for those who desire to sell enough copies to be on the New York Times top 100 or top 10, it certainly helps to have multitudes of readers know your book exists.
I do get emails from a few smaller presses alerting me each month that there's a new book. I've never gotten one from the big houses. BUT I'm told that they do email them, and also print little catalogs. I've also heard that they make deals with large bookstores (Barnes& Nobel, for example) where if the store buys X copies of these new unheard of authors, they get a discount on buying XXXXX copies of super-well-known-author's latest book. I can't confirm this, it's just something I heard from someone in the buying industry. It seems that there could, potentially, be an advantage to having a book in a store when someone goes shopping. Of course, there are thousands of books in the store, so it's still a bit of a crap shoot. That's where that email list or catalog comes in, because now there's a chance someone will bother to look for the book.

That's also where ads can come in. There's a GREAT deal of debate as to if ads work when it comes to selling books. People say they absolutely do not help to get the word out or provoke interest. I have yet to see a copy of Entertainment Weekly in the last year where one of the BIGS didn't have an ad for a book. Those ads are expensive, often costing as much as an average new family car. However, there are ad discounts. One week might be $20,000, but buying the same amount of space for the entire year could cut that price almost in half. Outside of the authors who have benefited financially from Hollywood's take on their work in some blockbuster money-making films, who could afford that? Half price, but for the whole year, that's still $520,000 just on one ad. If the book is priced at $8, it needs to sell 65,000 copies just to break even. (This is why the BIGS don't have the ad for the same book each week. In fact, many of the ads show at least two works by an author. Now each book, to break even, only has to bring in $5000, at $8 a pop, that's 625 copies. Far more reasonable.)

Combine the ad the same week as an email or catalog snail mail campaign, and now there are perhaps half a million people who have heard of the book. To get 625 sales means that 1 in 800 have to buy it.

If someone gives you 800 people, all of whom are literate and read some sort of printed material at least once a week, can you sell your book to at least one of them?

And that's the question the BIGS, and the agents who hold the doors to them, seem to be asking. Will this book appeal enough to 1 in every 800 book buyers that it will be get the $8?

J Lenni Dorner said...

(Slight math flaw if you consider that the $8 is actually broken down. The author gets a cut. The book binder gets a cut. Printer, shipping people, etc...)

Anyway, that's where my thoughts are.

On the other hand, IF the magic list were available to indie authors or smaller houses, then everything would change.

My main point being that, if McDonald's comes out with a new burger, you'll hear about it. If Bob's little hamburger stand, that one that's only around once a year at that festival two towns over, you know, that one your cousin mentioned that time... if he gets a new burger, will you know? Bob. Tom? Maybe it was Tom. One of those names. (Bit of humor there to illustrate my point.) Oh sure, the people who LOVE his burgers will line up that day, and they'll know about it. He'll probably text them.
So... how many texts can an author and/or a smaller press send? How many fliers around town? How many radio ads? How will people find out about the new book or burger?

If an author knows the answer, if an author knows they can make 65,000 sales without much outside help, then there's no need whatsoever for an agent or the BIGS.

The trouble is, outside of the authors who have been with the BIGS, how many of us lowly writers can claim this? (Do we need to include celebrities?) Alright, how many of non-already-famous writers can claim to have 65,000 people who are willing to spend $8 today on our book?

Because if someone does, it'll be noticed. And it will change the publishing industry forever- and probably for the better. I honestly hope it happens. I think the world would be thankful in the long run.

Sorry for the uber long reply. I guess I've thought about this topic a great deal over the past two decades.

J Lenni Dorner said...

make 65,000 sales *in a week * without much outside help

Again, sorry for the length of my reply.

A writer who writes too much? Please, hold the shock. ;)

Melinda Friesen said...

Thanks for your thoughts. I can tell it's something you are passionate about.:) We all dream of being the ones publishers spend mega-bucks promoting, but most of us will be squarely mid-list authors and mid-list authors do not get ads in Entertainment Weekly. We will end up doing a majority of our own book promotion. It's just a reality of this era. Also, consumer behaviour has changed. Most marketing folks will tell you--ads don't work. Canada's new anti-spam laws have complicated things when using email to promote books. Writers need to learn to adapt and to use all these changes to their advantage without losing our zest for our craft. Write on! :)

Melinda Friesen said...

Thanks Jodi!

J Lenni Dorner said...

This is all also true, without a doubt.
My point was closer to the idea that Penguin, for example, would only put a book they printed on their ad space. The odds of being the author in that are still crazy-low, of course. But the odds of getting that space without being signed to the BIGS? Zero. So, to me, 1 in 50 million is still better odds than zero.
It's the lotto debate. Buying a ticket is a waste of money, because if you put $1 aside every week, you'd have $54 at the end of the year for sure. If you spent it on a lotto ticket, you'll probably have $0, but there's a minuscule chance you'll have millions.

Though I may have also left off my other side of the coin. Because, honestly, I think indie and small presses are better. Authors seem happier. They do well. And the two points that I mentioned? Those are the ONLY advantages I CAN think of that the BIGS have to offer.

So my tone might have come off as being in favor of the BIGS. But really, what I was trying to convey was that these are the only upsides I can think of which would make them preferable for me, personally. The odds of being someone who gets to take advantage of either of those two even IF signed with them? Still the same a lottery.