For fiction writers in search of a publishing outlet, these are the best of times. For fiction writers in search of readers, this is the worst of times. For fiction writers in search of monetary rewards it is, for most, a disaster.
The challenges for genre fiction writers, those who fashion their stories within the confines of categories such as mysteries, romance, fantasy, zombies, vampires, erotic, and all the subgenres within them, are enormous. If such writers are unbranded and unknown, the odds of finding readership traction in an arena where thousands enter the fray daily are daunting.
For the mainstream serious fiction writer who does not fit into any genre category and might be categorized by the vague classification of literary, popular or commercial, none of which are wholly accurate, the odds are directly proportional to the author’s level of branding success and discoverability.
There are winners, of course. After all, someone wins the lottery. As for so-called branded writers, they are subject to the shifting sands of memory, durability and the vicissitudes of trends, an enigma within an enigma.
The fact is that, despite the odds, the urge to write in general, to tell, to create stories, to have one’s say, to inform, to be known, to be noticed is a drive that ranks far up on the scale of human aspirations. Note the second half of the Facebook name. Now that the magic of electronics has opened the floodgates, there is no closing them ever again.
As one who introduced the first electronic reader at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show in 2007, along with my friend Nick Taylor, the former head of the Author’s Guild, I have been inundated with questions from fellow mainstream novelists on how to find readers, be discovered, sustain a career, earn money and sell to the movies and television. The revolution in publishing is happening so fast and going in so many directions that it is nearly impossible to pin down a plan of action, especially for the dedicated writer of mainstream fiction like yours truly.
Aside from the mysterious and extraordinarily metric “word of mouth,” no one has yet come up with an all-encompassing answer. For the mainstream novelists one size does not fit all and finding one’s target readership is the ultimate challenge. Think fly-fishing where the angler must “match the hatch,” meaning come up with a replica of the insect that is currently on the live menu for the hungry trout.
Discoverability and branding are now the operative words for all writers. The Internet is filled with people who think they have the answer to how to achieve these ever-elusive goals. Some tout social networking, book clubs, book signings; interaction on all levels. Thousands of writer groups have emerged with all members searching for answers. Thousands of profit-making ventures have emerged with surefire answers to both discoverability and branding.
None are surefire. Talk of so-called quality, length and attention span, are subjects of debate with no clear answers. An entire industry has grown up around electronic publishing. But for the author of mainstream fiction, monetization for most practitioners is still an illusion.
Everything is in flux. We are poised with one foot in the old world and one foot in the new. Bookstores are shrinking. Book reviewers have morphed into book “bloggers.” The old ways of manuscript buying have changed. Self-publishing is exploding. Advances by traditional publishers are less and fewer. What worked yesterday no longer works today. Indeed, what worked five hours ago is no longer viable.
As always, there are spectacular successes, but, for the vast majority of authors, little traction, little income, little branding, little discoverability. Such obvious facts will deter nobody who wants to be a writer. Within a few years, there will be millions upon millions of books available on the Net. Most authors will face smaller and smaller circles of fans, which may or may not satisfy their aspirations.
Entrepreneurial Internet publishers will continue to enter the field and enlist numerous authors with back lists and some historic successes. For these entrepreneurs, their income will depend on numbers. The more authors they can sign up the better. Enlist thousands of authors who sell fifty books and you have real money rolling in. In the self-publishing realm the same formula applies. For an author, the operative slogan is “Better than Nothing.” Actually, as it now stands, the free e-book phenomenon is soaring as authors give away their books to hopefully gain reader traction.
I have watched this new book culture evolve and have tried most ploys of discoverability and branding, and have advised countless others of my experiences. I came to the field of electronic publishing at its inception, a decade before e-book readers were available, modestly branded, and have embarked on a long term plan designed to keep my authorial name before the public, which is now the number one task of every author who must meet the challenges imposed by this new world.
Everything I’ve done in my career is purely experimental. With my 33rd book, The Serpent’s Bite, a novel about a dysfunctional family, I am embarking on a new experiment that will attempt to meld the old with the new, the print world with the digital world.
As I have from the beginning, I will share my experiences with any writer who asks. We are, after all, part of the vast battalion of storytellers who are compelled by unknown and powerful forces to produce works of the imagination and share them with others.
For us, this is real life and we’ll keep at it until the last dog dies.