Ask Margaret Atwood: Digital or print?

Should you pursue print publication, or focus your efforts online? Progressive literary icon Margaret Atwood shares more advice in outtakes from our September issue’s Q&A.
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Should you pursue print publication, or focus your efforts online? Progressive literary icon Margaret Atwood shares more advice in outtakes from our September issue’s Q&A.

by Kristen Grace

What do you suggest for writers looking for publication and trying to decide if they should go the traditional route, which you obviously started out with, or if they should just start looking for online publication?

Well, they can do that, and there are these amazing success stories and people have made a “batillion” dollars doing it, but that ignores the part of the iceberg that’s under water, does it not? The invisible part. All of those people that are out there having self-published but don’t know how to build themselves out from there. And there is a lot of advice about that. There is virtual book tour advice, and there are people that will do that for you who have made businesses out of helping or supplying services to those very people, just as there are freelance editors who will help you polish up your book, for instance. There are designers that will help you design your book. There are online things you download that take you step by step through how to do e-pub. There are all those tools out there, but what works? And it’s still the same gambling game that it always has been.

Namely, there are four kinds of books. There are only four. Good books that make money, good books that don’t make money, bad books that make money, and bad books that don’t make money. And of all of those, you don’t want to be the fourth. So I have no advice for bad books that don’t make money. I can’t help you there [laughs]. … The good books that do make money don’t need advice. It’s the good books that don’t make money that need advice.

And what would you advise for them?

Oh boy. Well, if it weren’t such a problem, you wouldn’t be asking me the question. There are a lot of mid-list books, there are also books where publishers have gambled quite a bit of money that haven’t paid off for them, and the reason for that is because publishing is what it always has been. It is not like the beer business. Every single item is unique. So the task of the writer—let’s suppose it’s a good book—is to find those ideal readers who are out there somewhere. So how do you get your book to the person who is going to enjoy it?

And you can write a book about that.

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