Tone Deaf Publishers Need Savvy Writers

Counting on the laziness of the author and their lack of enthusiasm for self-promotion isn’t the best business model. Just look around. Many of today’s self-published books are hard to [distinguish] from their counterpart coming out of a major NYC publishing house. As self-publishing matures and begins to mirror professional publishing, the lines between the two blur and the need for a traditional book publisher becomes less necessary.

–Bill Nienhuis, An Author’s Perspective on the Book Publishing Industry

I attended the first day of The New York Center for Independent Publishing’s New York Round Table Writers’ Conference last Friday, and even before I arrived I was struck by the lack of Twitter chatter leading up to the event and throughout the morning of the first day. It was notable not because Twitter is the new shiny, but because the book publishing industry has definitely embraced it and there are a ton of smart industry professionals, independent pundits, and published and aspiring writers using it to network, share information, and opine about the future of the industry.

I arrived after lunch, in time for Lee Woodruff’s keynote speech, and took a seat at the back of the massive Library of the General Society of the Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York (NYCIP’s parent organization) — a massive, old room lined with bookshelves that is almost literally weighed down by its history. I was immediately struck by the interesting dichotomy as Woodruff mentioned Twitter, marketing and the viability of self-publishing within the first 5 minutes, and later noted the craziness of her first book, ironically titled In An Instant, taking nine months to be published after she’d submitted the finished manuscript.

Following Woodruff’s engaging presentation, I attended the Fiction Editors: Champions of the Story panel, featuring “an inside look and advice from editors of major publishing houses,” and that’s when the wheels completely fell off the thing.

I tweeted some of my gut reactions on the spot:

# 14:21 #nycwc Fiction editors explaining job, seem like an endangered species. Why not become agents or indie pubs? Can’t be job security.
# 14:44 #nycwc Somewhat surprised by the NY-centric, status quo opinions about the publishing process being offered by these editors.
# 15:09 #nycwc Funny: low odds for getting trad. published are the norm, but successful self-pub is dismissed as being rare and magical.

The editors themselves, each representing a major publisher and primarily focused on literary and/or commercial fiction, were a smart, lively bunch who clearly loved the core of their job — reading, discovering and championing great books — noting that they often did most of that outside of the office, after hours and on weekends. Most of their workday, though, is apparently spent navigating the bureaucracy and red tape of corporate publishing, doing everything but reading and editing manuscripts in service to what all agreed was roughly a two-year process from acceptance to publication of a book.

Each of the editors only read agented manuscripts — one noting she’d received over 500 last year, of which she’d only bought eight — but had little advice to offer the writers in attendance on how to get an agent who is good enough to get their manuscript in front of them. They also had difficulty clearly explaining what the difference was between their own job and an agent’s beyond ensuring their publisher’s contract doesn’t screw them over, noting that agents tend to do a lot of editing themselves these days to get a manuscript in tip-top shape, but that writers shouldn’t pay them for that service nor pay a freelance editor to do the same.

In response to a question about lessons they’d learned from the failure of a book to sell as well as expected — something that was acknowledged several times as being the norm not the exception — one offered an example of an unnamed book that the stars had seemingly all aligned for: it was a great book the editor loved, that their publisher believed was going to be a hit, that got great reviews from all of the major mainstream outlets… and it flopped.

In the final bit of unacknowledged irony, one of them briefly noted that examples of successful self-publishing were rare and magical.

The panel I was participating on — The Technofile: Online Writing and Blogging, “Popular online literary website writers and bloggers come together to discuss the online writing outlet.” — followed theirs after a short break, and offered an interesting contrast as three of us were about as deeply embedded in digital publishing as you can get: Roy Sekoff of the Huffington Post, moderator; Pamela Skillings of; and Rebecca Fox of MediaBistro. I was billed as representing Spindle, which was nice, but I noted that my presence on the panel actually came about from having worked with Writer’s Digest for a year-and-half and being heavily involved in pushing their website forward and getting them to embrace their position of leadership by acknowledging the rise of self-publishing as a viable option and teaching writers how to do it the right way.

# 17:40 #nycwc Blogging panel was fun and lively. Sekoff kept things interesting; Fox and Skillings offered great insights. Lot of fun.
# 17:43 #nycwc Writers need to understand they’re marketing themselves, not their books; publishers won’t do it for them. Take a long-term view.
# 17:59 #nycwc Authors using Twitter article by @mariaschneider I referenced during blog panel:

Sekoff ran a great, lively panel and we all offered some practical and personal insights into the opportunities the shifts in the industry have opened up for writers who are savvy about marketing themselves and establishing that holy grail of publishers and writers alike: a platform.

After offering our individual takes on a variety of topics and looking into our crystal balls to speculate on where things were going — a unanimous vision of increased disintermediation and the power of writers to control their own careers — we took questions and what was most notable was that the majority in attendance were not terribly marketing savvy and something as simple as setting up a blog struck many of them as being a significant challenge. A few didn’t see the value of it at all, missing the forest for the trees, seemingly still believing that a writer’s only job is to write.

Earlier, Woodruff had been asked how writers without PR experience and media connections — as she’d acknowledged having had and worked to her full advantage — can promote themselves, and she noted that social networking had leveled the playing field online and that writers have to get comfortable using it and marketing themselves.

With the continuing deterioration of traditional distribution channels; the shifting of editing and marketing responsibilities to agents and writers; and the availability of numerous resources to empower a writer to reach their audience directly and profitably, Niehuis’ aforementioned point is worth reframing: “Counting on the laziness of major publishing houses and their lack of enthusiasm for marketing isn’t the best business model for writers, aspiring nor established.”

Publishers need writers to stay in business, but the reverse isn’t necessarily true.

Here’s a handful of key resources for any writer looking to take full control of their careers:

  • There Are No Rules: Savvy advice and information on the business of publishing from Writer’s Digest Publisher & Editorial Director, Jane Friedman
  • Editor Unleashed: More savvy advice and information on the business of publishing and craft of writing from former Writer’s Digest editor, Maria Schneider
  • Get Known Before the Book Deal: Writer Mama Christina Katz offers tips and advice for success in the world of publishing.
  • Publetariat: An online community and news hub built specifically for indie authors and small, independent imprints.
  • GalleyCat: MediaBistro’s publishing industry blog is a daily must-read for all writers.
  • The Reality of a Times Bestseller: NY Times Bestseller Lynn Viehl offers the numbers behind her best-selling book, Twilight Fall.
  • The Fine Print of Self Publishing: The Contracts & Services of 45 Self-Publishing Companies Analyzed Ranked & Exposed
  • Starting a blog takes 5-10 minutes, and WordPress is my preferred platform.

NOTE: This isn’t about traditional publishing vs. self-publishing; that’s a very individual decision that can’t be generalized as each offers advantages and disadvantages that will be perceived differently according to context. No matter which route a writer chooses, though, the ultimate responsibility for their success or failure will fall to them, and to think otherwise increases the odds of failure.

Photo by Eugenio Mazzone on Unsplash

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5 thoughts on “Tone Deaf Publishers Need Savvy Writers

  1. Hi Guy, I've decided to stop lurking and actually leave you a comment. Thank you for this post. This author “laziness” is something I've been continually discussing, though I think of it as two other (if not related) things: reticence and entitlement. Either that, or they really are clueless and have yet to learn that marketing savvy is very necessary not only to sell books, but as you say, to control our own careers.

    Now, as for blogging as a career/promotion tool: I am a firm believer in this! Though I do see how easily dismissed it is/can be, perhaps among the reticent and/or entitled. It feels like authors tend to perpetuate the belief/myth that other entities are supposed to be doing these things for us.

  2. Hey, Barbara! Thanks for stepping out of the shadows. 🙂

    I agree that reticence and entitlement are two very common traits amongst writers when it comes to marketing, but there's a suprising number who are simply clueless. Ignorant in the most literal sense of the word, and totally understandable. I'd say at least half of the attendees at our panel fell into that group, and it was a nice reality check since I sometimes make the mistake of using myself as the benchmark.

  3. Hi Guy,
    I had the pleasure of attending your panel at NYCIP. May I add I was as surprised as you at how many in the audience did not have a blog and were not well versed in social media.
    It made me realize how much more I know than I think and reinforced the idea that to be successful in this industry it is not enough to just be a good writer. You need to be a salesperson and a marketer as well.
    Thank you for your insights.

  4. Joanne, thanks for dropping by! Glad you enjoyed the panel and got some reinforcement from it. When it comes to writing successfully, the meek will only inherit the rejections. Good luck with your efforts.

  5. Joanne, thanks for dropping by! Glad you enjoyed the panel and got some reinforcement from it. When it comes to writing successfully, the meek will only inherit the rejections. Good luck with your efforts.

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