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 www.vastimaginations.com and at www.melindafriesen.com. Her first YA novel, The Enslavement of Rielle James, is due for release October 2014 from Rebelight Publishing Inc. www.rebelight.com