A student, friend and talented writer, Marrie Stone, emailed me yesterday morning, concerned with something she heard talked about on a publishing panel she recently attended.
She said, “Basically, the message was that even if you write an amazing book, it's no longer enough. People are no longer buying or reading much literary fiction (or fiction in general). And when they do, they do so because there's a big name behind it or something compelling about the writer: the writer has a TV show or has otherwise marketed herself to a fair thee well. Of course, they said, there are exceptions. But unless a publisher thinks it will be a blockbuster book, they don't have the resources for the little guys anymore. There seem to be plenty of examples to the contrary, so I don't know how much weight to give it all. But it wasn't a feel-good panel. In fact, it so clouded my view of the weekend, that what usually is an inspiring and high energy event that makes me want to run home to my computer, really left me numb and depressed and caused me to leave the weekend early. I know these are the ups and downs of this business and it takes perseverance (which is certainly fine), but I was interested in your take on this and how much credibility to give the agents and publishers. If it is like they say, unless you're one in two million, you're wasting your time.”
I asked an agent I know about this, and she said: “Tell your student not to give it another moment's thought. It does help to have a platform, and that's not going to go away, but writing an amazing book still does get you somewhere. There aren't that many amazing books around.”
I also ran Marrie’s quandary by my editor at Harcourt, Andrea Schulz, who said, “During my entire early years in publishing, everyone said, ‘No one gets to be an editor. Go into sales and marketing.’ And they weren't wrong. But it’s what I wanted to do and I stuck with it until I did it. There are more novels written every year than there are people buying and reading them--all of us who've ever stepped into a bookstore know that's just a fact--but if you know the worst and still have the drive to bring your stories to readers then you've got the passion that will help make you stand out. No, publishers can't make your book a success without your help, you do have to be involved in marketing, but think of that as an opportunity--you can get to know your readers. Talk to clerks in bookstores. Ask them about themselves: Are they writers? What's the last best thing they read? Be interested in them. Remember their names. Write them notes. Be as passionate about reading other people's novels as you are about selling your own, then write to them to tell them how much you loved their work. It all pays off. I try not to think of the publishing industry as dire. All of us are still looking for the truly great book."
So, the publishing industry may seem as if it's in dire straits, but publishers are still buying books. The bar may be a bit higher than it used to be, but maybe that's a good thing. There are a ton of bad books that get published and you gotta wonder about that, but great books do find their way into the right hands. And it's like Andrea says, you've got to be passionate and driven to get your writing out there.