Reflections on Getting Published in a Changed World
Copyright 2001 by Patricia Anderson
In the wake of September 11th, 2001, the business of getting published, like so much else, calls for a more thoughtful than ever approach—both to the realities of today's book trade and to the act of writing itself. In this time of unanticipated duress, here are a few reflections on writing and publishing, now and in the immediate future.
Reports from the Frankfurt Book Fair, held this past October, indicate that the event was unusually poorly attended and lackluster. Undoubtedly, the low attendance was in part the result of many people's anxiety about flying. But the absence of the usual buzz also reflected what may be a more lasting situation. Today's global economic downturns and uncertainties inevitably have affected the publishing industry and will likely continue to have an impact on publishers' profit margins and the acquisitions decisions they make.
Among other implications, in a business that has long been recessionary, there could be fewer books published in the near future. The emphasis on what does get published might also shift to a tighter focus on particular kinds of saleable work and greater than ever emphasis on established, high-earning authors.
Does this mean that new authors should give up virtually all hope of getting published? Not at all. But it could well mean that it will take you longer to achieve your goal. And though this might sound discouraging, it has a positive spin. As one New York agent emphasizes, taking extra time to write, revise, and submit your manuscript can work to your advantage—not only with first books, but perhaps even more with subsequent books.Slow and Steady . . .
The number-one piece of advice from the prominent New York literary agent Donald Maass is this: Take your time. This applies to approaching agents and publishers and, above all, to the writing and revising of your manuscript.
Work on and then rework your writing. Take a course. Get a mentor. Go slowly. Let your voice and style mature.
Maass observed that he has seen many first-time novelists get off to a promising start and achieve modest, encouraging success. But in many cases, they manage to do so without fully honing their craft. Their next novel—and maybe the next—fails to live up to the promise of the first. Sales dwindle along with print runs and publisher enthusiasm. Then the publisher doesn't pick up their contract option, and authors in this scenario are back where they started—or maybe even worse off. For now they are not only without a publisher, but they are also encumbered with a weak sales track record and perhaps a sheaf of poor (and therefore useless) reviews.
This is the point where many authors decide that they won't be quitting their day jobs after all, and some even give up writing altogether. As Maass stresses, giving yourself the time to mature as a writer in the beginning can save you considerable disappointment in the end.Deep Thoughts—or Escapist Entertainment
While you are taking the time to develop your style, you may also want to give some thought to the content of your writing. The big question is: Will September 11th change the kind of subject matter that gets published? To some degree, this seems likely, but the extent and duration of such change is, for now, anybody's guess.
At the same time, there has been a recent surge of interest in books that explore the deepest reaches of human nature and culture. Themes such as healing, faith, and spirituality continue to do well in nonfiction. The trend is less precisely marked in fiction, but in the wake of September 11th, it may be that published fiction will increasingly demonstrate new ways of reflecting and addressing people's widespread search for deeper meaning in their lives.
There may also be a countervailing demand for ever more escapist entertainment—such as occurred in the movie industry during the Depression years. In times of trouble, people want, and need, some respite from anxiety.
Based on sales for 2001, there is little doubt that the giants of fictional genre writing—Mary Higgins Clark, John Grisham, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, Danielle Steele, and a few others—will continue to dominate sales in the coming year. This does not mean that a newcomer cannot break into any of the genres that these authors represent. But it does mean that all those who aspire to the status of best-selling authors had better remember who the competition is. And the best way to compete is to develop your craft to the highest professional standard, which, of course, means taking your time . . .Watch the Market—Don't Follow It
What if you happen to be writing something that falls between spiritually profound and escapist? Should you change?
Certainly not. To diverge from your own chosen work because of recent trends is merely to follow the market—an exercise that is by definition futile. The odds are that when you deliberately pursue a market trend, it will have ended by the time you offer your own contribution.
In the months after September 11th, some things in the publishing business undoubtedly changed. But the basic principle of literary success will continue to hold: Write from the heart and do it well. For, as ever, true excellence will out.