Researching the state of the industry
The past couple of weeks, I have been tons of reading. In writer-speak, this is aka “research.”
Here’s what I’ve learned:
As a pure reader of fiction (never mind how long I wrote for fun or how long I freelanced), I chose books based on the appeal of their premise and their general buzz. Was it a huge hit with a fan base? That pretty much ensured I’d read it, regardless of who the author was or what sort of story it was. Was it lesser-known, but had a great cover and was in a genre I liked? I’d give it a chance.
In my pure reader life, I had faith that agents and publishers were the first and best gatekeepers of fiction (not all fiction is literature, but that’s okay). I was told (and believed) that if I was a good writer and worked hard at not only crafting an interesting novel, but also at securing an agent, then I, too, would eventually get my work past the gatekeepers and begin my career at growing a readership through well-written books with great premises, gorgeous covers, and ever-growing earned amounts of buzz.
I can’t count how many years I worked at that goal. I mean, I could, but it would depress you, so skip it. I never got an agent. My enthusiasm for writing waned. My enthusiasm for reading waned, as I noticed more and more garbage-quality books being churned out and selling well.
See, my attention was drawn away from the books I sought as a pure reader. As a wannabe author, I couldn’t help but begin to observe the business of publishing.
Should I start writing non-fiction, instead? I wondered. The closest I came to an agent (I turned down an offer of representation) was based on my book proposal for a non-fiction book about parenting a child with food allergies. I gave it a lot of thought.
I read a lot of non-fiction. Sometimes in my life as a pure reader, I read more non-fiction than actual fiction. It really just depended on what grabbed my interest at any point in time.
Ultimately I chose not to take that path because I had a dream of being a novelist. I gave up a lot of writing opportunities in order to chase my dream of being a novelist, and I don’t regret that.
Still, though, I am not where I want to be. I have achieved a pretty basic goal, earning a modest amount of money each year from publishing fiction. It’s enough that were I to apply to certain professional writing guilds, I would qualify as a professional. I have proof of the money. It’s not enough to pay for a vacation or pay off a credit card bill, but it’s a modest achievement.
Problem is, my goal was never to achieve one modest book advance per year. That’s piddly hobby novelist money and there’s no career in that. That’s why I went back to the drawing board, unable to write as I wanted to or get as much editing done as I’d like. A new source of books presented itself to me serendipitously, and I seized the opportunity to try and study. To get better. To learn from the alleged masters as hand-picked by our anointed gatekeepers.
Granted, the past few weeks, I have not revisited any of my previous favorite novels, but based on what I have read—all new books to me—I wholeheartedly conclude that the business of traditionally published fiction is in a state of crisis.
There are plenty of blogs that will tell you all you need to know about how the big publishing houses are bankrupting themselves, so I won’t waste my time with that. Google it.
No, my perspective today is based on three years of reading primarily independently published fiction, with a rare traditionally-published book thrown in along the way. (Note, I do not mean a book published by a micro press or small press. Those are still indie enough to not be marred by the dysfunction of NYC’s publishing titans.)
Over the past few years I have accidentally stumbled onto tons of indie books that are written with great passion, engaging voice, exciting narratives, and gangbuster first chapters that lead the reader on the trail of story…each chapter ending in an exciting cliffhanger that keeps you turning pages, racing toward the end of the book. What a thrill. But the voice of the pure reader in me expected nothing less. After all, remember, I chose only books with big fanbases in the past, or novels pre-qualified by being in the right genre.
Based on the random sampling of works I have picked up lately, NY has lost its passion, engagement, appreciation of the well-crafted narrative, pacing…all of it. The two best books I read over the past two weeks were huge best-sellers, and they fluffed out in the middle. Just ran themselves dry. They were, naturally, by authors who swing a lot of power, earned by their previous hit books. Millionaire authors can be intimidating to editors and publishers. Maybe their work doesn’t have to sing anymore, so much as hum the first few notes in key.
The rest of the pile was dreck. Badly packaged, mislabeled, no tension, boring…Ten years ago I would have asked myself, “How did these even get published?” I would have told myself, “You can do better than this!”
The sad thing is, that’s exactly what I did ten years ago…and I expected that with time, talent, and dedication, I would succeed.
It’s been an uphill climb, but I did learn to write fiction that readers enjoy. I do all the right stuff, from the opening line to the first chapter hook to the perfect pacing to…WELL, I didn’t start this blog entry to brag on myself, but if the reviews from strangers are to be believed, I have only improved as an author over the past three years. I do not suck.
And what was I reading, when I got the chance? INDEPENDENT FICTION. Writers who, by and large, could NOT GET PAST THE GATEKEEPERS.
The past few weeks, I thought I was sitting down to research books that worked, to get better as a writer. I felt I’d hit a wall and it was time to recharge my batteries with some works that had made it past the gatekeepers of old.
I learned something, alright.
Rock on, indie writers. You are a talented and amazing bunch and I thank you for spearheading the direction literature is moving today. Yes, literature.
And I meant what I said before: Maybe not all fiction is literature, and that’s okay. You know what I mean.
Write your books your way. The market will keep bearing out that your work is of merit, and if NY wants to keep producing garbage 80% of the time, don’t sweat it.
Do you, indie writers. You’re the ones doing it right, right now.
As for me, I will keep writing, keep reading, keep learning. Maybe someday I will earn that fandom and that buzz.