A few thoughts about publishing these days.

A few thoughts about publishing these days.

I was chatting with a fellow writer yesterday morning about his first book, due out next Tuesday. I wished him well on his launch and asked how he was feeling about it.

He said he was reservedly hopeful: he didn’t have a big platform, so his expectations were modest.

And with that brief exchange, he tapped into the heart of what critics say is wrong with publishing these days: it’s all about the money. Publishing has become mercenary; platform conquers all.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.

The arguments of the cynics—those who say publishing as we knew it is over—are many, and valid. They claim Chief among them:

  1. Publishers are signing authors to write books they believe will sell, whether or not they’re any good. This often looks like celebrity memoirs, heavily padded nonfiction, and more recently, blogger-to-book deals.
  2. Authors are required to do more and more of their own marketing.
  3. Too many books are being published these days.
  4. The overall quality of books on the market has sharply declined.

These complaints have an element of truth to them. Book publishing is and will continue to be a business: publishers need to put out books that will sell. Authors are doing more of their own marketing. The number of titles being published in the U.S. has exploded in the last ten years. As for quality, let’s just say that with so many books being published, so quickly, it would be hard for the opposite to happen.

It’s true that too often, I’ll finish (or abandon) a book and wonder Why was this even published?

And yet. 

Great books continue to be published every year, based on little but the author’s talent, and the belief that readers want to read great books and will seek them out.

I’ve been in contact this year with a wide range of authors, editors, publicists, readers.

And while it’s true that numbers matter, the people I’ve crossed paths with would never be described as mercenary. They want to sell books (they want to keep their jobs) but publishing isn’t a business you enter for the money. Their chief concern is to put great work into the world.

Sometimes that great work comes from a big name novelist, or a seasoned blogger who already has an audience.

But there are agents, publishers, and booksellers who take genuine delight in finding the needle in the haystack—who glean satisfaction from uncovering good writing, and whose job it is to make that work the best it can be and get it on the shelves.

A story:

When I was in Raleigh, I shared an airport shuttle with a Virginia author about my dad’s age. His publisher had sent him down for the night; this was his first publicity event for his first book, due out from Viking this April.

He spent ten years researching a bit of local history that fascinated him. At some point, he realized it would make a great book, and began querying agents on the internet. He had no built-in audience, no platform; when I used the word in conversation he stared at me blankly.

But he found an agent, who sold his book to a big 5 publisher, and his labor of love is slated to be one of his houses big spring releases. (He didn’t tell me this; I’m reading between the lines of what he told me about his publisher’s publicity plans. Very few authors get that kind of treatment these days.)

Here’s what I love about that story: even in 2015, a guy wrote a great book and a publisher pounced on it, and is pouring resources—including cash—into getting it into the hands of readers. 

It’s  not a perfect industry; publishing is not a perfect world. But for these and other reasons, I remain, like my writer friend, reservedly hopeful about the state of publishing.

I choose to believe that the cream rises to the top. Good content will out.

And I believe as readers, we have a part to play.

  1. Book lovers—keep reading. Buy, borrow, whatever—just keep reading.
  2. Share your favorites with your friends, and not just on social media. Good books get shared. Tell your friends over coffee, tell your local librarian, put your favorites physically into the hands of your fellow readers.

Publishing has changed, yes—but that doesn’t mean this is a bad time to be a reader.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in comments. 

P.S. The biggest gift readers can give writers.

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39 comments

  1. Marie says:

    I’m sorry for the writers that they need to take on such a greater share of marketing. I know many do not have the personality for endlessly meeting new people in book-signing queues.

    It’s a win for us readers, though! There are few things I enjoy more than hearing authors read their own work and getting to tell them why their books spoke to me.

    And some authors are absolute dynamite onstage. Have you seen Kwame Alexander (author of “The Crossover”–required reading for every middle-schooler)? He’s currently touring middle schools in the U.S., and he gets the kids fired up like crazy to read, both fiction and poetry. It would be a shame if he were holed up in a cabin in Maine while his agent did the legwork for his books!

  2. Sarah Alves says:

    This is so inspiring to me! I often feel like because I don’t have a platform, I won’t be able to be a published author one day. Your insight definitely gives me hope, though! I’m just gonna keep reading things I love and writing things I love, and maybe one day that will turn into something 🙂

    I always appreciate your take on things – thank you for sharing!

  3. As a writer I found this post comforting. There is so much nonsense being published these days, and so much heavy-handed street bazaar marketing that, on bad days, it makes one want to throw in the towel. I hope there’s room for me when I’m ready to enter the fray, and that I can remain myself in the process.

  4. Bronwyn Lea says:

    This is encouraging. Among my writer friends, many of whose writing I think is fantastic, there is a deep level of sadness that their book proposals are being turned down by publishers… most often because “they don’t have enough platform”. Sarah Bessey once made the comment not to be too intimidated by the gatekeepers, because the right book at the right time will make its way into the world. But for those standing at the gate, frustration is common. Thanks for sharing this encouraging story 🙂

    • Anne says:

      I would love to talk with you about this more over coffee. (FFW ’16?)

      “The right book at the right time will make its way into the world.”

      I want to believe this. Most days, I do.

  5. I just spent the weekend at a blog conference where I was discouraged about that word platform, because I don’t have it. It makes you want to give up. This post was very encouraging to keep working at the craft whether the platform is there or not. I know I may not be the next breakout author, but if I give up because of platform, I will never know. 😊 So I will keep working to be a better writer. Thank you for writing!

    • Don’t let ANYONE discourage you about not having a big enough platform! I truly believe the publishing industry rewards those who put their work out there over and over again, not necessarily those who have the most Twitter followers. Publishing, much like writing itself, is all about showing up.

  6. I’m becoming wary of blogger-turned-author books. Too often, the words of a blogger I love just don’t translate well to book form. (Sure, blogging and authoring both involve writing, but I think publishers forget that these are two different mediums. It’s like assuming a portrait artist can create beautiful spray-paint murals.) Worse yet, too many of these books are turning out to be just a collection of blog posts cobbled together. Now I only buy these books if the blogger was an author FIRST or if she’s someone I especially love.

    Still, I know there are many publishers looking beyond the bottom line. I heard from plenty of them at the AWP conference earlier this year! It’s always worth it for authors to keep putting their work out there.

    • Joe Joe says:

      I am also wary of the blogger turned author. I hate to sound so negative. I know Some exist that are good but most often it seems like they just talk about their awesome selves and the content is not as top quality. However, I realize that in today’s business you have to start somewhere and some aspiring stars are found. I am encouraged to hear from this post that publishing books (which I hold dear) is not as lost and ugly as I had thought it was, and as Anne stated “the cream will rise to the top”.

  7. Jeannie says:

    This is great, and I especially appreciate the last part: keep reading and share books you like. I’ve started taking advantage of my library’s purchase-suggestion form, and have got the library to purchase books by Karen Swallow Prior, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Rachel Held Evans, and other authors I admire. (I’m only allowed to suggest 3 purchases a month so I have to hold myself back.)

  8. Jessica says:

    I’m currently listening to the Art of Memoir, so this post was especially relevant.

    I think that the concepts of platform and marketing are confusing for the uninitiated (but hopeful) among us because on the one hand we are told to write with abandon and then release our writing into the wide world. But on the other hand, it is “recommended” that we write for persons we know will read us.

    It’s kind of like being told to take your kid to college but only AFTER you’ve met everyone on the campus.

  9. Rayni Peavy says:

    I think self-publishing has gotten more popular, too. Especially with free and easy ways to do it like CreateSpace. That’s how I published my first book and I’m out doing speaking engagements. I have a number of friends who are traditionally published authors and they are all excited about self-publishing because they will own the rights, they have more freedom with content, title and deadlines….And since they are doing mostly all of their own marketing anyway, they say why not self-publish? Self-publishing is a great way to get your content out there quickly and “get on with” getting your book into people’s hands.

  10. Thank you for this, Anne. As an aspiring novelist, I am often discouraged by all the book deals I see happening with people who have a louder voice (if not necessarily a better one) than me. Being a platform building blogger and a fiction writer is a hard transcendence between two very different mediums. I tend to see blogging as a writing exercise, a way for me to develop a stronger voice and command of language, so when my novel is finally accepted the work will show merit. And hopefully, you’ll want to review it 🙂

    • Anne says:

      “I tend to see blogging as a writing exercise, a way for me to develop a stronger voice and command of language.”

      Yes. Wholeheartedly agree. (Good luck with your novel!)

  11. Dana says:

    This is the struggle I have as a writer. On the one hand, there are now so many ways to get published, but they all have downsides and many require lots of time and money.

    I want to spend my time fine tuning my fiction and finishing the final draft of my novel, so that my writing will speak for itself. But I feel so much pressure to build a platform…I started trying to put together a blog last year but big events of life intervened ( a possible move, which ended up not happening and serious illness in the family). I had a classroom related blog 5-6 years ago when I was teaching. It ended up with a good number of followers but it was a lot of work to keep up with so I ended it after a couple of years. So I know what is involved with starting one and keeping it going.I am reluctant in some ways to go there again, because of the time it will take from other things. Still without it will anything else matter?

    Thanks for the encouragement and the realities. Writers need them both!

  12. Amy says:

    Yes, you’re right that good writing will out and those crappy books that shouldn’t have been published will be left on the remainder tables, while the Anne of Green Gables and the Tales of Two Cities and the Essays of E.B. White (my current book crush) will continue to be published, with any luck, generation after generation. Don’t discount the role that bloggers and other influencers play in this process! Thank you for encouraging us to read!

  13. Julie says:

    I hope you’ll highlight this book when it debuts- even if you don’t link back to this article. I’m from Virginia and love hisotical books. I don’t have any insights to add regarding publishing, sorry!

  14. I think it’s important to note with “platform” that it’s not some unchangeable thing you have or don’t. It is something you can build, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable for publishers to want writers to find ways to connect with their readers. If you have a topic you care passionately about, then you want to have a conversation with other people about that topic. Plus, while getting media attention for one’s book is great, it doesn’t necessarily sell as many books as you might think. People who are invested in you and your journey will buy your book — and that’s platform.

  15. Holly says:

    I agree about blogger books- I have yet to be blown away by one with the exception of Jillian Lauren’s latest memoir about adoption. The other ones I have read have been a little too boring for the memoir genre for me- I feel like they play it too safe with not sharing their emotions and being raw. But what’s frustrating is that they have all come highly recommended by other bloggers- so if you are a blogger and one of your friend bloggers writes a book do you have to give it a good review?

    • Anne says:

      “But what’s frustrating is that they have all come highly recommended by other bloggers- so if you are a blogger and one of your friend bloggers writes a book do you have to give it a good review?”

      I’ve experienced this frustration too.

  16. I have been disappointed in some books churned out by bloggers (including one that catapulted to the NYT best sellers list that was sorely lacking), but I have also been pleasantly surprised (The Nesting Place comes to mind – was much better than I expected!) I do think the good books will keep being passed around and the poor ones will quickly slip to the clearance aisle at the second-hand bookstore.

  17. I was in Chicago earlier this week talking at a school and library, so I missed this. Interesting stuff here. For me, being a mid-list children’s author first published three years ago, my perspective might be a little different. This is all I’ve ever known. I didn’t get to be a part of the “good old days”, and that’s okay.

    Publishing has always been a business and will forever be. It’s tricky when art becomes commodity because there is risk involved for the publisher. 85-90% of books don’t earn out (make back their advance). That’s why I’m grateful for the sure-thing big-deal authors who bring publishing houses strong sales. Because of those sales, publishers have been willing to take a risk on me.

    I will also say that those of us who write fiction have it easier in the platform department than those who write non-fiction. Non-fiction requires a level of expertise and authority that kind of awes and scares me, honestly, and a following of people who already see you as someone who is in a position of authority before you even begin thinking about writing. While mid-list fiction folks are encouraged to have a web presence and definitely shoulder a large part of marketing nowadays, it just isn’t the same.

    The true magic formula for a book’s success is word of mouth and in-house support, which ideally grows and builds as those within your publishing house have access to the story and then spreads beyond into the real world. Neither of these things can be mustered up. Everyone, authors and publishers alike, have to produce what they most believe in and just keep hoping, hoping, hoping.

    • “That’s why I’m grateful for the sure-thing big-deal authors who bring publishing houses strong sales. Because of those sales, publishers have been willing to take a risk on me….The true magic formula for a book’s success is word of mouth and in-house support, which ideally grows and builds as those within your publishing house have access to the story and then spreads beyond into the real world.”

      well said. 🙂

  18. One more thing 🙂 — I have to believe and will keep on believing editors take books to acquisition meetings because they connect with the book in some way, not just because they think it will make money. The amount of time and devotion editors put into a book, I can’t imagine doing that with something I didn’t love and believe in. Editors are the backbone of publishing and are worth their weight in gold.

  19. I agree that publishing houses always want to find that next gifted author and see them break out, and certainly top-quality writing is never common enough to be ignored. But at a recent conference where I worked with writers as editor, I heard multiple times the same reality (at least for Christian houses; I assume it’s true across the board): publishers want to take risks on great writers with no platform or way to help sell the book, but they can only take so many risks and stay in business.
    The majority of their acquisitions have to be projects which appear capable of earning back their investment at the very least, and this happens to authors who have a following.

    Don’t have to use the term platform and personally I think the number of followers on Twitter is becoming meaningless–at least as far as projecting how many books an author can sell–but if you can’t sell your books as a writer, you have less chance of getting published by the big houses. Not zero chance, but less, because they must slot less risk, less projects they’ll have to invest more muscle in promoting, or how do the bills (and editors?) get paid?

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