[In its debut year, Neesha Meminger's first book, Shine, Coconut Moon, a contemporary young adult novel, made the Top 100 Books for Teens on the New York Public Library's Stuff for the Teen Age list, and the Smithsonian list of Notable Books. She also has two paranormal romance novels out under a pseudonym, and a third under contract. You really need to read Shine, because it is brilliant. --ed.]
If you're interested in changes in the publishing industry, you will want to read the following links on self-publishing and e-publishing. The Wall Street Journal recently published this article about plummeting author advances for even big-name, big-time, previously published authors. And if you don't know about her yet, you will soon, but Karen McQuestion (check out her FAQs, especially) self-published six of her novels after being with two agents, coming very close with editors several times, but never managing to get published using the traditional, gatekeeper route. Now, she has over half a dozen novels with Amazon Encore, a book optioned for film, and her sales have been in the tens of thousands. Here is an interview with her on J.A. Konrath's blog, and here is a funny, and very true (if sad), breakdown of how ebooks are changing the face of the publishing industry by Konrath, himself.
I've been wondering which route to take with my own writing lately and these links were very interesting to come across. My debut novel, Shine, Coconut Moon (McElderry, 2009) released to rave reviews, has received enthusiastic support from the teacher and librarian communities and is holding its own vis-a-vis sales, considering it was one of the quieter releases last year. But publishers have become increasingly risk-averse over the past few years. I sold Shine in 2007. My current project, a contemporary, realistic YA with elements of humour and romance is, according to editors, "too quiet," "too commercial," or it "won't stand out." The first and last translate to something many of us, particularly writers telling the stories of marginalized folks, have heard incessantly: "this won't sell," or "there is no market for this." It is something I'd heard over and over from both agents and editors about Shine.
The "too commercial" bit is trickier. It could mean, "we want work that is more literary" or "try trade paperback," or something along those lines. In any case, no one said the book, or the writing, wasn't good. In fact, most of the editors it was sent to expressed how much they enjoyed reading it, and how "on the fence" they'd been regarding acquisition. So, as *readers* they enjoyed it. This, to me, as a writer, is key. Editors aren't obligated to tell anyone they enjoyed a book - they could simply say "this didn't work for me," or, "thanks, but this is just not right for our list."
This tells me a couple of things: 1) in the minds of the editors who read the book, it was a fun read, but they were afraid it wouldn't sell enough for them to justify acquiring it; and 2) there's nothing wrong with the book. It did not get acquired because, based on the opinions of a handful of editors, it would not sell as well as they'd need it to. It was not a "hot" property. It was not the NEXT BIG THING. And everyone needs those sales. Hell, *I* would love sales numbers like those of Twilight and Harry Potter. But, alas, I don't write those kinds of stories.
For me, it makes no sense to sit around, waiting for an agent or editor to decide whether my book deserves a home. I have readers asking for my next book. I wake up to dozens of emails a day from teen and adult readers, librarians and teachers, asking when my next release is due. I have nothing to tell them. I have a perfectly good book sitting on my hard drive that in another economic time would easily have been acquired. But in these times, publishers have been afraid to take a risk on it. I just want to reach my readers. And this is, quite possibly, where our interests diverge. Of course we both want to make money. But for me, there's more to it than that. There are readers who will buy and cherish my book because it speaks to them, because they see themselves in it. And those readers will probably own well-read copies of Twilight and Harry Potter and all those other best-sellers, too. It doesn't have to be an either/or situation. But if "quieter" books like mine are consistently overlooked in favour of the bigger, flashier, trendier (pre-determined) "money-makers," it's readers' options that are reduced, not only those of writers.
So, I'm exploring. If the bottom line, for me as a writer, is not necessarily sales (though I'd love those, as well), but getting to my readers, increasing the diversity of tales out in the world--then what's stopping me from just going it on my own? Especially now, when there are so many more options? I may not make the rolling-in-cash type of sales that big publishers need to make, but I could make a nice, respectable amount just fine. And I, for one, am totally okay with that. I want to write. I've proven that I can. In another time, I would be given the opportunity to improve my craft with a mentor/editor, I would be nurtured as a budding author. I would write story after story for my editor and see the writing process complete its cycle - from story seed to an actual book in the hands of readers. This is a necessary part of the creative process for a writer. Without it, our craft suffers, our creativity withers. And to have that power in the hands of people who are necessarily concerned more with profit than writing is a travesty. This doesn't mean editors and publishers are bad. They're not. In my experience, most editors are as gut-wrenchingly caught up this mess as writers are. Most editors LOVE stories - all kinds of diverse and wonderful stories that they would love to support. But they have people to answer to, as well. It's just a part of our reality.
I'm looking at what's getting acquired, even at small, progressive presses, and weighing the pros and cons of the different avenues available to me. The titles I see getting picked up lately seem to be high concept, or written by authors with already-established platforms. That doesn't mean other authors aren't getting lucky and being picked up (so if you're submitting and waiting, hang in there! It does happen). But combine that with the dismal number of authors of colour who are getting offers, and the math leads me to believe I could be sitting and waiting for a very long time. Something I'm not sure I'm prepared to do.
Again, I am waiting to see how things pan out. There's no way the publishing industry, as it stands, would ever die. Nor would I want it to! I love the feeling of a real book, made from (mostly) organic materials in my hands. The experience of seeing Shine come to life was thrilling beyond measure. I wouldn't trade it for the world. And things are changing so rapidly that even within the "independent publishing" world, there will need to be some sort of regulation in terms of quality; with trusted, established review sources that readers can go to (and that independently published authors don't have to pay for!). But it's really, really nice to be living in an age where writers have options. Where technology is leveling the playing field. Where talented, dedicated and committed writers, who have been vetted out by agents and editors and have come THIS close, but for some reason or another just haven't been able to hit their stride, can see their work live and breathe, and take flight in the world.