December 1, 2020
I’ve always had faith that I could write, which I began doing seriously when I was in my early twenties. A couple of my books were published in the late 1980s and early 90s. But after that, I couldn’t get anyone interested. This was pre- or early-internet time, and we had not yet seen the founding or early struggles of a couple of important businesses: Amazon particularly, Facebook, Twitter, et.al. In those times, the road to publication lay through a series of bottlenecks that made publication very difficult indeed. Those would be the community of literary agents and then the publishers themselves. Both these groups had a kind of monopoly on who would get published and who wouldn’t.
For the majority of fiction writers in the United States, if not all writers, the bottlenecks became the bloodied fields of failure. There are thousands and thousands of writers with completed manuscripts, and a few hundred who get published every year. Those few are the ones selected by literary agents (most of whom are in New York City) for representation. Established publishers will not look at any projects that are not represented by an agent. So, if you write and wish to be published in that system, your chances of success are slim to none. (I read a statistic once that, on any given day, there are 120,000 manuscripts in the U.S. postal system, making their ways from the authors to some publishing person or another. Of those, few will indeed be published. The rest lose.)
It has been this way for many, many years.
For the first few years of my writing with serious intent, I put myself firmly in the middle of it all by following the rules. I wrote earnestly and often to agents. I followed their stringent rules to the letter, for submission to their agencies. I waited the de rigueur two to six months for a response, which was almost always “Thank you, but we find your fine work not quite right for us,” or some such. Those responses, of which there were hundreds…many hundreds…put me completely out of the running for establishment publishers, for years.
In the past twenty years or so, however, we’ve seen the advent and growth of viable publishing possibilities that circumvent this self-important and ruinous system. The possibilities came about with the advent of the internet and those companies I mentioned above, with some others. Prior to those events, if you were an author and self-published your books, you would be committing professional suicide, even if your books had real value. Agents and publishers, once they learned that you had self-published, would not look at your work at all, since self-publishing was viewed as an instance of authors accepting their own failure. Also, as a side-issue, the companies that did do self-publishing expected the author to carry the entire burden of producing and distributing the books. They charged the author handsomely for both those services. The reading public for such books was made up of the author’s family and a few friends. Otherwise the author was sunk.
But now, all this has changed. Books can be tastefully designed, produced, and sold using all the tools of online marketing that we now know so well. Also, because of Amazon (and Apple Books, BN.com, and other companies) the author has an open door to the world book-reading market, in printed and digital products. Also, the author will usually make a per-copy royalty that is twice or three times the amount he/she would receive from the established publishers. So, if you get $1.50 per copy sold as a royalty from Houghton Mifflin, you’ll receive a royalty of three or four dollars for each copy produced and sold outside the established publishing system. The established publishers used to carefully edit, market, and publicize their products. Budgets for those things have been uniformly slashed by all the established publishers, especially since most of them have been taken over by corporate conglomerates.
So…there is that expense that the author must shoulder himself/herself. The good news is that the author gets to control what’s happening there, in ways not even imagined just a few years ago.
With all this, the influence of the long-established publishing community, which is still gigantic and worldwide, has lessened. But the fact is that now, for the first time in publishing history, the means of production are in the hands of the author. One noted literary agent of my acquaintance said this to me two years ago: ”Terry, the great literature of the 21st century will have been self-published. Don’t even consider wasting your time with the New York crowd.” A very noted editor with years of experience in the New York trade, who worked with me on two of my novels, said this to me: “Having your book come out these days from a huge publishing house is like having played on the 1947 New York Yankees team. Who cares?”
Of course, Amazon is not perfect, as we all know. But that is another story.
(Terence Clarke’s new novel, The Moment Before, will come out in 2021. The translation to Spanish of his novel about perilous events in the life of Pablo Neruda, The Splendid City, is being published today, December 1, and is available everywhere worldwide. The title? La espléndida ciudad.)