So you want to be a writer?

High on the list of dream jobs for literary and intellectual types is that of being a successful writer. But in a Digital Age when buying and reading books seems to be giving way to watching videos online and expectations that everything can be downloaded for free, what is the future of book authorship as a vocation or an avocation?

Folks, the ground is shifting in some major ways. Here are some of my observations and impressions. Beware — long post ahead!

Writing a book is just the beginning

Writing a book is hard work, but building a readership can be just as challenging. I have seen the future of the latter through the work of two dear friends, Jenna Blum and Hilda Demuth-Lutze.

Jenna Blum works her way onto the NYT bestseller list

Jenna (website here) is the author of two novels published by major commercial houses, Those Who Save Us (Mariner, 2005) and The Stormchasers (Dutton, 2010). She has managed to turn her passion into her job.

Those Who Save Us, a gripping human interest story set in WWII Germany, spent dozens of weeks on the New York Times bestseller list for trade paperback fiction. But it was not an instant success. Jenna harnessed the novel’s natural appeal and did countless book club and store appearances, corresponded religiously with her readers, and maintained a strong presence on the Internet.

She is doing the same outreach and marketing for her new book, The Stormchasers, a terrific story of a sister and long-lost twin brother with bipolar disorder, set in America’s Tornado Alley. In fact, she has spent much of the late spring and summer on the road. While traveling to and fro, she spends hours replying to e-mails from her readers.

Some might think that Jenna had it made once she signed her book contracts. Not so. Her success shows us that most authors must become marketers if they want to sell books.

Hilda Demuth-Lutze’s Kingdom

I recently wrote about Hilda, an Indiana-based high school English teacher and novelist,  in a post about pursuing one’s passions at midlife (link here). Hilda’s second novel for young readers, Kingdom of the Birds (Kirk House Publishers, 2010), features a village boy in 14th century Germany who is summoned away for a year of service at Wartburg Castle and interweaves encounters with Martin Luther and the history of Reformation Germany.

Hilda has created a neat little blog for her book. She posts about the historical background that informed her story, her planning of the book launch, and how her connection with Lutheran-affiliated Valparaiso University (our undergraduate alma mater) contributed to her book.  Perhaps because I’ve known her for years, I see how the blog has a personal, organic connectivity to it, that of an author who is very comfortable with the story she’s told and how the path of her own life led her to write it.

Hilda, too, recognizes the importance of promoting her work. Recently, she wrote about selling copies of her book along with other goods at the local farmers’ market:

Some people seem awed by the fact that an ordinary woman selling soap is also an author.   Others, I suspect, wonder whether I am a “real” author, whatever that means.  But I’m as real as they come.  Like many other writers published by small presses, I am the one most responsible for publicizing my books.  My publishers can only do so much—I need to be actively involved in marketing my wares in a variety of venues.

Communities of writers in search of support and savvy

The image of a solitary Hemingway at a Left Bank cafe with pen in hand is a powerfully seductive one for budding writers. The writing life still allows for such coffee house moments, though today it includes vying with a half dozen others for electrical outlets to power laptops!

That said, in conversations I’ve had over the years with book authors, I’ve learned that many were inspired and prodded through their connection with a writing community, be it an MFA program, a continuing education workshop, or a self-organized writers’ group — face-to-face or online.

An excellent example here in Boston is Grub Street, Inc., a non-profit school for writers. Grub offers workshops, seminars, and support services for novice and experienced authors alike.

It is instructive that Grub’s offerings include numerous courses on publishing and promotion. For the fall session, the Grub website listed 11 workshops and seminars on topics such as guerrilla book promotion, developing an online presence, and publishing options.

Meeting Paige at the Harvard Book Store

When I recently visited the Harvard Book Store of Cambridge, Mass., one of the great independent bookstores, it looked like they had replaced a section of books with a small steam engine. The heavy machinery turned out to be one “Paige M. Gutenborg,” the nickname of the store’s new books-on-demand printing press. “Paige” gives readers access to books from Google and public domain databases, as well as self-published works offered through the bookstore’s printing services.  The store even provides online manuscript preparation advice and submission directions for writers (link here).

The significance hit me quickly: Here’s an independent bookstore, for decades intertwined with the literary culture of brainy Cambridge, now enabling authors to self-publish their work. Whoa…

Amazon, Kindle, and e-publishing

In a July NPR news segment by Wendy Kaufman about Amazon’s reported sales of its Kindle e-reader and e-books, listeners heard that during the spring and early summer, Amazon “sold 143 e-books for every 100 hardcover books, a gap that is widening quickly.”  In addition, sales of the Kindle tripled after Amazon cut its price sharply in order to compete with other e-readers.

Amazon is now offering a variety of platforms for self-publishing, including Kindle downloads. It is premature to say whether these are viable paths for writers to publish and showcase their work to the public, but the raw opportunities are opening up.

Seth Godin goes the self-publishing route

Seth Godin, author of a series of bestselling books on organizations, careers, and work, recently sent shockwaves through the publishing world when he announced that from now on, he will be self-publishing his work. In a blog post (link here) he explained:

All a long way of saying that as the methods for spreading ideas and engaging with people keep changing, I can’t think of a good reason to be on the defensive. It’s been years since I woke up in the morning saying, “I need to write a book, I wonder what it should be about.” Instead, my mission is to figure out who the audience is, and take them where they want and need to go, in whatever format works, even if it’s not a traditionally published book.

Agents as gatekeepers

Of course, the Old World has not disappeared. Agents continue to serve as gatekeepers to the world of commercial book publication. I hear from aspiring novelists that many an agent constantly scouts for the next breakout bestseller, has something of a fetish for precocious young talent, and avoids stories too quirky or complex. The offbeat book that doesn’t fit into a “hot” category, especially if written by a new (and slightly more mature) face in the crowd, faces a big challenge in securing a book contract.

Changes

In sum, it may be the best of times and the worst of times to be a budding author. (And that sentence alone explains why I leave the writing of fiction to others.) Here’s the upshot:

As we deliberate over the future of the book, traditional publishing avenues are likely to remain as guarded as ever, especially for authors whose work does not promise wide commercial appeal. I wouldn’t bank on that changing dramatically.

On the other hand, we may be at the beginning of a huge transformation, one in which the negative attitudes toward self-publishing and other alternative routes to publication are dissolving, perhaps rapidly — even if the traditional book deal remains a sought-after prize. And perhaps some entrepreneurial types will establish more small presses that take advantage of new technologies to publish non-mainstream writings in affordable and accessible venues.

Especially within this emerging realm, self-marketing and the marketplace of public opinion — such as reader reviews posted to online sites — will exert greater influence on what is bought and read. Authors of niche books will see opportunities open up, but they’ll have to identify their readership base and appeal to it directly.

There is a lot of good work out there that hasn’t hit the printed (or digital) page because traditional publishers aren’t biting. For the sake of readers everywhere, and in the interests of a literate society, I hope the nontraditional publishing options will create more opportunities for deserving writers to share their work profitably with the world. As a reader whose tastes run from the conventional to the offbeat, I’m excited about these possibilities.

5 responses

  1. “It may be the best of times and the worst of times to be a budding author. (And that sentence alone explains why I leave the writing of fiction to others.)” Ha! Another beautifully written post. I agree with you, both as a writer and as a reader. This brave new world portends exciting new opportunities for everyone – except traditional publishers. Thanks for the inspiration.

  2. Pingback: If A Book Gets Published In A Forest (a.k.a. how the heck to make people pay attention to your book) « The Writer's Life

  3. Pingback: The death of Borders: Complicated grieving | Second Thoughts

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