Possibilities: The changing face of publishing in the 21st century

Writing in the 21st-century is bewildering, scary, amazing, and exhilarating all at the same time. Never have we had so many opportunities for sharing our stories, from e-publishers to the traditional NY route to self-publishing. Book trailers, audio books, and enhanced e-books offer new and exciting ways to engage potential readers and expand their experiences with our books.

But it’s terrifying in a sense to think that none of us really has any idea where all of this is going. We can quote statistics, such as the recent drop—make that an all-out nosedive—in mass-market paperback sales: 41.5% drop in sales in February. (See the Dear Author blog post here.) E-books, thanks to the number and affordability of e-book readers like the Nook, Kindle, and Sony E-reader, are becoming increasingly popular. And for romance authors, there’s more good news because romance novels are a fast-growing genre in e-book sales. (See the Romance Writers of America industry statistics.)

Despite all of the speculation, no one can predict the future (not even I, with my various tarot decks). Is the world of publishing changing? Without a doubt. But how is it changing? We can’t know, not fully, not for certain.

What is good is that people are buying books. At no time in our history can we claim, as a species, to have been so well read. Despite all of the many options in this world, from sporting events to concerts, from radio stations and television shows, from watching movies to walking in the park, people are still choosing to read books. That’s a good sign for those of us who feel called to a life in writing.

I’m not going to guess what the future holds or how the industry will change, but it has changed. And one of the great things about that change is how many more possibilities exist for authors.

We’ve never before had so many opportunities for self-promotion. From Twitter to Facebook, YouTube to Goodreads, writers have so many new avenues to reach out to potential readers. Readers have never had so many avenues to find and acquire books they like and share those books with friends and fellow book-lovers. Blogging and websites mean that readers can connect with authors whose work they might enjoy. We’re not just limited to what we find on the shelves in our local bookstore. Amazon, among many other venues, has leveled the playing field. To be sure, it’s a crowded playing field.

I’m reading Zoe Winters’ Smart Self-publishing: Becoming an Indie Writer, which offers a number of insights into writing and promotion. It’s useful regardless of whether you go the indie or traditional route, full of revelations and tips based on the author’s own experiences. From print on demand (POD) to audio books, Winters’ gives the aspiring writer a practical guide to understanding the field. She talks about the qualities that make a good indie writer. You have to be willing to take risks and to do your own promotion, for example. Now, if you’re a writer, you’re going to have to do both of those things regardless of your path. Even if you get a big contract with a big publishing house, you won’t be able to sit by and let your book sell itself—which is why I think this book is excellent reading for anyone.

I’m still not sure which path I will take, but I feel fortunate to have the options.

Self-publishing still has a stigma, and, to be honest, since part of my day job is reviewing books, I’ve seen plenty of reasons why. With no barriers, anyone can become a writer, and not everyone should. It’s not that I’m an elitist about art, but you have to be willing to be critiqued and edited, you have to be a damn-good self-editor, and you have to be willing to work hard to hone your craft and make plenty of mistakes and learn from them. These are not qualities everyone possesses. To be sure, many people have the interest and desire to write books. But modern life offers us plenty of choices, and writing isn’t an easy path. You basically work without getting paid for a few years (just a few, if you’re lucky) before you have the shot to become a published writer. It’s a long journey.

But the fact that there are successful indie writers out there is great news. There will always be self-published books out there that never should have been published. But there are plenty of good ones, too. The life of an indie writer certainly isn’t any easier than that of a published writer. It’s not an easy way out of revising, because if you don’t revise your story until it’s the best it can be, it simply won’t sell. Nor is it a way to avoid writing a query letter. (Seriously, if you can write a good novel, you can write a query letter. Going to all of the work of learning how to self-publish and doing it all yourself seems like a very complicated way of getting out of writing a letter.)

The number of avenues to publication is great news for all of us regardless of the path our writing journey will follow. Why? Because we have options. New doors are opening. We have new avenues for sharing our stories. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what we’re trying to do? We’re businesspeople; we can’t lie about that. Writing is too much work and sacrifice to do it for free. Indie music has earned itself a reputation as being hip and edgy. I hope in time that indie writing can hold the same allure for new writers.

I don’t have a side. When it comes to NY publishing or indie, I think which one is better for you depends on who you are and what your personal goals are. Whether you’re fully print or fully e-book or a combination (I would speculate that the combo is where we’re heading, but that’s neither here nor there…), that’s your choice. And I think choice is a good thing. It’s a good thing for writers and for readers.

It will be scary and interesting to take this roller coaster ride that the industry is currently undergoing. Ups and downs, twists and hairpin turns, and a few loops thrown in, and we’ll see where we end up. And, like any industry, the world of writing and publishing will continue evolving.

One thing, I hope, we can predict. That the core of what we do will remain the same: We write because we love our stories and our characters and hope our readers will love them too. We read because books help us learn and grow as individuals. And writing will always be about that: the connection between people, writers bringing stories into being, and readers finding a sense of meaning and enjoyment in those works. Whatever our path, that’s the driving force behind what we do. Everything else is just a route for reaching that destination.

4 thoughts on “Possibilities: The changing face of publishing in the 21st century

  1. I agree that we’re heading in the direction of combining e-pub, self-pub & traditional publishing. We diversify our stock portfolios, why do the same for book publishing?

    • I think that people own and consume so much stuff that, eventually, having some of your books as ebooks instead of hard copy makes life a bit easier to manage. True book-lovers will always own books, no doubt about it, but I think we’ll “diversify” our libraries, too. Nice analogy. =D

  2. I’m still hoping to get an agent and a bumper book deal with a mainstream publisher – that’s my dream. I’ve self-published before and it was hard work. I ended up practically giving up writing for a year so I could put all my time and energy into promoting the book I’d just published. And while I know promotion and marketing is essential for any author, at the end of the day I just want to write.
    Having said that, the face of self-publishing has changed so much since I did it and it is definitely something I would consider doing again should the need arise!

    • Samara,
      Yeah, writing by itself is hard work, let alone having to worry about marketing, too. Self-published writers have a hard road ahead of them, in part because they’re going it alone, and in part because of the stigma against self-published books.
      Having an agent and working with a traditional pub house probably make one’s writing journey easier. Either way, I’m glad writers these days have options!

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