I spend a lot of time trying to stay current on the business of publishing. It’s not a simple task—first because things are changing at an ever increasing pace, but second because so much of what is reported is inherently contradictory or gloom-and-doom prophesies. Yet the basic drive to be creative and to share one’s work is stronger than ever. Despite the nay-sayers reporting on the death of publishing, I remain optimistic, even while accepting the realities of choosing the artist’s life.
When I started writing my first (and safely trunked!) novel ten years ago, there was publishing and there was vanity press. If you paid to have your book produced, it was an admission of either failure, or an indication of the niche nature of your work. (I’m thinking church cookbook fundraiser, for example.)
There was common wisdom about writing and submitting short stories in order to get noticed in order to make your eventual query letter more appealing to an agent. Agents were akin to Heimdall at the bifrost and the entirety of publishing was a mysterious and impenetrable process.
In those days, there were a few authors who made huge advances, a bunch of authors whose earnings helped pay the rent, and a bunch of authors whose books sank like the proverbial stone. It often took several books before authors in category three were able to move into category two. But there was ‘upward’ mobility in the publishing world, just as there was upward mobility in the larger society. It didn’t include everyone, but it included enough folks and enough books that it felt like you had a chance at the brass ring if you could get an agent to champion your work.
So what has changed? A ton, in the publishing world, and I don’t need to review it here. Anyone reading this already knows about the enormous disruption of eBooks and Amazon, self-publishing options and consolidation among publishers.
Despite the easy availability of so much information, in many ways, it is far harder to make it in the world of traditional publishing today. Certainly that is true for the authors in category two I mentioned before. They are the ‘mid-listers’ and used to be the lifeblood of publishing. They wrote the steady selling genre books that were routinely published and sold modestly, but predictably. And all was well until the bookstores began to disappear. And what about the category three authors? If mid-listers are endangered, they are currently all but extinct. The large publishers are looking for the blockbuster titles and will cut their losses with anything else.
Which brings us to the world of the indie. This is where the new mid-listers are, to a great extent. And many of them are able to make a go of writing, thanks to the ability of creators to directly contact their audience, a rich back-list, and the tools to self-publish.
But here’s the thing: it’s still difficult to actually make a living solely through one’s art. That is the one constant through all the radical change. It was true in the time of Michelangelo (no, not the Ninja Turtle!), it was true for Shakespeare, it’s true now. Regardless of the method you choose to get your work in the hands of readers, it is unlikely that you will match the jackpot/star status of the very few at the top of publishing’s pyramid. (People talk about a “Stephen King-Load of money” because, well, Stephen King. The rest of us are mere mortals.)
My hobby is ceramics. I created the bowls in the image at the top of this post. If I were to make a business of my work, I would have to price the larger of the three nested bowls at something in the over $200 range, just to reflect the time, materials, and infrastructure it took to create. When someone can go to Crate and Barrel and buy something in similar size for $35, it’s a hard sell to be a professional potter.
Anyone who is a creator knows that it’s nearly impossible to price what you create to account for the time it took to make it and end up with a price that people are willing to pay. Ask a sculptor. Ask a painter. Ask a quilter. And yet, there are sculptors and painters and quilters (and writers) spending hours upon hours creating from their souls. Most of them will not make a fortune from their art. An extremely lucky few might.
But all of us—every single one of us who is passionate about creating—all of us will make a life.
And in the process, given the tools we writers now have at hand, we may have a better chance to make a living now than ever before.