The Future of the Novelist

This week, I’ll be at SXSWi in Austin, where I’m presenting a brief session on your publishing options at PubCamp (free!), and moderating a SXSWi panel,  The Self-Publishing Novelist.

I can’t envision a more exciting or opportune time to be at a national event, guiding a discussion on self-publishing. Why?

Take these 3 high-profile cases that have received broad media attention in the last 6 months:

Tension between traditional and indie communities is ever visible in my Twitter & Facebook conversation streams. Some are adamant that 99% of self-published work is total crap. Others are adamant that traditional publishing has become a total crap game that no longer serves a need.

Take a look at this message thread on my Facebook wall, after I made a post about Amanda Hocking. It goes on for three pages (even longer than what I’m showing here).

There are perhaps thousands of opinions and predictions about where all this is headed. (And I’ll be issuing my own prediction on April 1.)

The one thing I know for certain, at this moment, is what Amanda Hocking recently said on her blog, in response to all the sensationalized coverage about her story:

Some books and authors are bestsellers, but most aren’t. It may be easier to self-publish than it is to traditionally publish, but in all honesty, it’s harder to be a bestseller self-publishing than it is with a house.

This viewpoint is echoed by Lee Goldberg, over at JA Konrath’s blog, when he offered the following advice. (Keep in mind this is for an audience of storytellers, mostly genre novelists.)

If you’ve never been in print before, I believe you’d be a fool not to take a midlist paperback or a hardcover deal … even a terrible one … over self-publishing on the Kindle. Financially, you might make less (either in failure or modest success) … but the difference will be more than made up for in editing, marketing, wider readership, wider name recognition, and professional prestige (and that prestige does mean something, whether you want to admit it or not).

You can always go back to self-publishing … and when you do, you will be bring that wider readership, name recognition, and professional prestige with you. But a book deal doesn’t come along every day, and that’s still going to mean something for a long time yet … and I suspect it still will even if half the bookstores in America close tomorrow.

Of course, that’s assuming you have an agent or publisher interested in your work. What if you don’t? What if you just want to get your work out there?

You better be damn sure your book is up to professional standards.

And to build on that, you also better realize that publishing your book isn’t the hard part. Marketing it is the hardest part. (Thanks to Jason Pinter for reminding us of this on a recent Digital Book World webinar.)

John Sundman, one of the SXSWi panelists, is an author I’ve known for more than a decade. Or, that is to say, I’ve watched him struggle for a decade. He hand sells like a demon and tries to get attention any way he can. His efforts have caught the attention of Cory Doctorow, Slashdot, and cyberpunk celebrity Bruce Sterling.

One thing that’s fascinating about John’s journey is that Bruce Sterling posted about John’s time-consuming and weakly remunerated marketing efforts under this headline:

The Future of Printed Fiction

I read his post as either sarcastic-derogatory OR a sad prediction on the growing reality that the novelists who make a name for themselves are often the ones who actively self-promote and market (whether as part of a meaningful online “community”-“conversation” or not!).

Is this the future of fiction? First, I think printed fiction is probably something that becomes marketed mostly to one’s biggest or most devoted fans. Electronic editions become the mass-market (catch the new reader) editions.

Take for instance what Lincoln Michel says over at The Faster Times:

… We should understand that [Amanda Hocking’s] bulk sale model is closer to the bulk cheap paperback sale model (think Harlequin Romance novels in drug stores) than the traditional literary publishing model that people are comparing it to. For one thing, Hocking’s model is based on quickly written series of works. Hocking, at age 26, has 9 books for sale and has written 19. Hooking readers with ultra-cheap first books doesn’t work if you spend years on your next novel that has nothing to do with the first. Let’s just say it isn’t a model that is going to work for your Thomas Pynchons and Marilynne Robinsons of the world.

So, what model will work for the Pynchons and Robinsons of the world? If they need traditional publishers to support them in their careers, is that the role that New York publishers primarily serve? (That seems doubtful, since that’s not where the big bucks are. Publishing would have to revert to its roots as a gentlemanly occupation where profits amount to pennies.)

I don’t know many authors who are willing to do what John does, but, on the other hand, what John does can also be done in various forms online, and this is exactly what Hocking did:

This is literally years of work you’re seeing. And hours and hours of work each day. The amount
of time and energy I put into marketing is exhausting. I am continuously overwhelmed by the amount of work I have to do that isn’t writing a book. I hardly have time to write anymore, which sucks and terrifies me.

I also have this tremendous sense of urgency, like if I don’t get everything out now and do everything now, while the iron is hot, everything I’ve worked for will just fall away. For the first time, I truly understand why workaholics are workaholics. You can’t stop working, because if you do, it unravels all the work you’ve already done. You have to keep going, or you’ll die.

Is this the future of the novelist (regardless of format)? These are the issues and dilemmas we’ll be discussing on the SXSWi panel. Hope to see you there.

Bonus: Margaret Atwood discussed this issue at TOC 2011. Go watch the video!

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13 thoughts on “The Future of the Novelist

  1. Johanna van Zanten

    Hi Jane,
    Thanks so much for this article, very helpful. Thanks for directing attention to Margaret Atwood’s video, I just enjoyed that so much.
    I could spend days on blogs, it tends to be addictive.
    Keep up the good work if you can afford the time!

  2. Mary Tod

    As your post points out, the self-publishing versus publishing house debate has merits on both sides but in either case, marketing is the critical skill and emphasis authors need to develop. I built a diagram recently exploring progression of an author’s career mapped against support needs and named five stages for an author: (1) Craft, (2) Discoverability, (3) Building Brand, (4) Sustaining Brand, and (5) Managing Success. In each stage beyond stage one, marketing comes out as an area where authors need support. Where there’s a need, someone will emerge to satisfy that need. Will it be agents who satisfy that need or publishing houses or other enterprising souls? Just a thought.

    If anyone wants to have a look, the diagram is on my blog at…rs-career-path/ . I think a similar diagram can be built showing where authors spend their time which could also bring some insights. Hmm, perhaps a future blog post 🙂

  3. Samantha Hunter

    Although I must object to Lincoln Michael’s characterization of Harlequin Romance novels, regardless of where they are sold (aren’t best sellers also sold in drug stores?).

    Harlequin authors are professional, hard-working writers who work their butts off writing well-developed books that are held to competitive publishing standards, not quickly dashed-off works comparable to amateur self-pub. We also don’t make millions.


  4. Samantha Hunter

    Thanks for a great blog. I enjoyed Lee’s and Bob’s comments, and I think they are right on the money. I posted last week on my blog appealing to published friends who are reluctant to self-pub. I think once you are established, self-publishing can provide a number of opportunities for growth and exposure as well as creative freedom, but I would never choose it solely over traditional publishing. What I have learned and accomplished in traditional publishing has been gold, and I plan to continue to do that for a long, long time, hopefully. These days, however, I think the more areas you can publish in, the better. (I keep getting images of the game Twister… it may be uncomfortable, but have as many limbs on as many colors as you can…)

    I also tend to think that the rules of the game don’t necessarily change as much as we think they might: in trad publishing and in self-publishing, if you are new (and maybe even if you aren’t) you have to have a really great book, and you have to be extremely hard-working, to make a sale, let alone to break out.

    There are always the quick successes, hot tickets, and so forth, but it’s not about flash in the pan, or rush to sell, it’s about building a career over the long haul. And that takes time, no matter what.


  5. Steven M Moore

    Jane, you’ve provided another fascinating and informative post.
    One thing both POD and Kindle publishing suffer from is "standing out from the crowd." Digital publishing has made it easy to get your fiction work "out the door" but getting readers to read your book is far from easy. Call it marketing or developing a fan base or whatever, my own books and many other books, which I don’t believe are crap, may never have a chance because most authors are not marketing experts and can’t afford the professionals. People still gravitate to the authors they know.
    I try to focus on lesser known authors in my reviewing and have just recently placed books from two of them on my website’s webpage "Steve’s Bookshelf" because they’re as good as anything you will find out there, if you’re into mystery and suspense. I don’t know how much good any of this does.
    For now I’ll hedge my bets and put out pBook and eBook versions and continue to look for readers the agents say I’ll never find. That doesn’t stop me from writing–I’m hooked.

  6. Fiona Leonard

    I agree with Cathy, now there are options, and that’s a huge bonus for any writer. There were no guarantees under the old model, and writers were still required to do a lot of their own marketing. One way of the other you still need to put in the effort to be found.

    One advantage of the new era of publishing is what it means for foreign authors ie. anyone outside the US. E-publishing offers a way to overcome the tyranny of distance in terms of printing, shipping etc and gives not just unknown authors a voice, but whole countries.

    In Ghana, where I live, the literacy rate is below 60%. I would love to see what sort of an impact being able to read local authors would have on those figures. (There’s actually a big push to use kindles too to increase literacy in Ghana).

  7. Cathy Keaton

    I think the rise in successful self-publishing simply gives writers MORE options for publishing. There’s no reason to pit one against the other. It’s not all or nothing, it’s whichever you want, or both.

  8. John Sundman


    Thanks, and I look forward to our panel on Saturday.

    I think it might be worth pointing out a few facts about my own experience that round out the picture.

    1) I spend a lot more time doing Amanda Hocking style Internet/community marketing than I do on my gonzo in-person forays.

    2) I did have an agent who worked very hard with me for a long time to try to sell my first novel. He was willing to keep working with me chasing that deal, but I decided my efforts would be better spent self-publishing. That was in 1999. I’ve written and published two novellas since then. I have three books out; most of my income over the last 10+ years has come from my day jobs, not from novel-writing.

    3) I have since sold the rights to that first novel to a "traditional" publisher –Underland Press. The new version will be coming out this year.

    4) Over the last few months I’ve been selling about 60 ebooks for every paper copy I’ve sold.

    5) My books are available for free under Creative Commons license. They’ve been downloaded tens of thousands of times. That’s right: I sell ebooks, but you can find them for free if you look around.

    6) Anybody who wants to follow my tweets about self publishing can find them @jsundmanus.

  9. Judy Croome

    Self or Independent Publishing places the responsibility on the author, with most of the rewards (or losses) the author’s own as well. Traditional publishing places the responsibility for a book’s success on the publisher.

    I suggest the future has a place for both and the authors who choose one path over the other will do so because the pros outweigh the cons for them.

    Hard work has never frightened me and I *love* the creative freedom that self-publishing offers me. Will I be the next Amanda Hocking? Highly unlikely. Over the long term, will I settle into a comfortable mid-list position? Hopefully. But, like all predictions, I could be wrong, as no-one can really predict how and why some authors (traditional or self published) become runaway best sellers while others fade into obscurity. It’s one of the unexplained mysteries of life.

    Will Jane’s prediction on April 1 provide the answers. I hope so, although the date of those predictions (April 1st? Hello?) makes me wonder… 🙂
    Judy Croome (South Africa)

  10. Jill Kemerer

    I’m so glad you’re continuing this discussion. I first heard about these astonishing self-published authors from Nathan Bransford’s blog, and I appreciate learning more here. Looking forward to April 1’s post. I admire Ms. Hocking’s openness and honesty about the amount of work she puts into selling her books.

    The pool of unpublished writers grows more crowded by the second. I think many will see these successes and try to emulate them. It’s already difficult for self-published authors to stand out; it might become near impossible.

  11. Bob Mayer

    I agree– authors without backlist, without traditional publishing experience, are going to have as hard a time succeeding in self-publishing as they do getting an agent and becoming traditionally published. 99.5% of what agents see is unpublishable and 99.5% of what is getting self-published is essentially unreadable.

    Having said, that, with over 45 traditionally published books behind me, I’m self-publishing my Civil War trilogy: Duty; Honor; Country on 12 April mainly because no traditional publisher could get it out by then. I’ve been working on the books for 3 years and if my agent marketed it now, I might get a spring 2013 pub date.
    But I’m also self-publishing it on a base over 20 backlist self-pubbed books I’ve been promoting for over a year now, and with sales well into four figures closing on five per month via Kindle, PubIt, LSI and other platforms. But I also had to study people like Konrath, JA Sellers and others who’ve succeeded to see how they did it. My business plan right now is very different than it was a year ago.


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