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Are Fiction Writers a Vanishing Breed?



Maybe every elder gets to this point in life–a passage when you begin to sense your destiny as artifact.

When I say that I am heading toward artifaction, I speak humorously, of course. However, I have a recent experience with self-publishing to share as an illustration of the way in which the prospect can loom.

I should begin with some basics. The traditional publishing of fiction, like my novel The Inheritance, is typically facilitated by an agent. On the basis of conviction that the novel has great promise, the agent may negotiate a contract that includes marketing support. The competition for attention among writers is huge. Even with a good book in hand it is very difficult to acquire an agent these days unless you have proven appeal as a writer, are famous in some way, or have a large following somewhere of individuals who are likely to buy your book.

The failure to find an agent was once a dead-end. However, in recent years and due to all the advances in technology, the self-publishing industry has emerged to give frustrated writers hope. For a fairly nominal sum, say about $1,000, authors can get a polished book into production as an ebook or a “print-on-demand” book or both. Belief in the possibility of a side road to success has flourished, and so have self-publishing companies.

To give you an idea of how quickly this moved, Bowker, the foremost bibliographic resource on publishing, didn’t release statistics on self-publishing until 2011. At that point, they documented “explosive growth.” However, beyond that point, things began to settle and “normalize.” That latter word may be a euphemism. Although growth rates are reportedly healthy, I wonder if they will continue to be so as writers get in touch with reality.

There are two parts of that reality that I have registered since my book came out in 2012. I had four books to my credit before I wrote The Inheritance, but they were all nonfiction and of modest scope. Since I was unable to find an agent, I decided to self-publish. The creative process, including designing a cover, was the fun part, but then the prospect of drudgery raised its homely head.

For one thing, even in traditional publishing, writers are now expected to take more and more responsibility for marketing their books, even though traditional publishers provide things like book tours and advertising. The publisher will send out fleets of press releases, but the writer is now expected also to Twitter actively and work Facebook and every friend and contact to promote sales. Writers are typically rather retiring because alone time is crucial to creativity. In the new reality, it is like you have to have one kind of personality to write a book and then another to ensure its success.

A few statistics will help provide perspective on the challenge. Consider first that there are more than seven million books currently in print and available for purchase. In 2008, traditional presses came out with 289,729 new titles according to Bowker. In 2013, that figure had risen to an estimated 304,912, a drop of 2% over the previous year. In 2008, self-publishers came out with a total of 85,468 print and ebooks. By 2013, that figure had risen to 458,564. Lordy. How in the world does an author, no matter how good, get anyone to notice him or her in a field of 763,476 new titles?

From the Bowker figures , I deduced that there were 73,370 novels that I was competing with for attention in 2013. Of course, you wouldn’t write fiction unless you had imagination, so in the absence of the statistics above that I have only recently discovered, anything may seem possible. Every now and then there is indeed an extraordinary self-publishing success story like the erotic romance Fifty Shades of Grey  by British author E.L. James. Launched by a huge online fan club, it became a trilogy that has now sold over 100 million copies worldwide.

Well, my book has so far not been identified as a phenomenon or discovered by Hollywood, and I have to confess that I have been a flop as self-promoter. I have trouble asking anyone to pass the salt, much less buy my book, and my technique for getting attention has been to give it away. I have had many compliments, including from people who are very literate and should know, and I take silence as the result of being too busy to read. One friend wrote something to the effect that the story was a wonderful “bedtime confection.” That’s a compliment, right?

To get an objective perspective, I did eventually pay for an independent review, after which I understood the meaning of the word “skanky.” I’m sure the critic was a scullery maid I abused in a previous life, and now we’re even.

Oh, well, it was an interesting  journey. After receiving yet another list of marketing recommendations from my publisher, including the suggestion that I set up a table and sell books in my grocery store, I asked them to put me in the “inactive” file. That’s when I started thinking about becoming an artifact.

As I go kind of cosmic on this experience, I have concluded that self-publishing  has limited potential as a business model because it over-promises, or maybe over-implies, even with the costly additional marketing support in which I invested. And then a few weeks ago, an unrelated experience added a new dimension to that perception.

This experience was in a theater with young people, teenagers to be exact. I had gone in as a writer planning to blog on a play they were performing. I emerged, however, as a writer wondering if I and all my kind were facing obsolescence. That will be the subject of my next post, however, and I hope you will join me for the reading in a few days.









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