Note: I originally wrote this in April – just before my website was taken down. I hope you will enjoy it now as much as you would have then.
During one of the panels at Minicon 47, there was a snippet of conversation that really intrigued me. This was one of the many panels devoted to some aspect of writing (I don’t remember which one) so the panel was made up of writers. In this case all of them were published, some recently and some with long careers and bookcases worth of books to their credit. When a comment was made (again, I can’t remember who said it) that writers are always complaining that “it used to be easier”. Well as you can imagine, they all went into their best nursing home resident shticks and laughed about it. Then, one of them – Jane Yolen – stopped and said: “You know they might be right.” Discussion ensued. Here is, with heavy additions from my own look to the past, what they discussed.
Back in the day – way back in the beginning of sci fi, there weren’t all that many writers. Even in general there weren’t that many as a function of the population. Exact numbers are hard to find, but anecdotally writers weren’t looked up to all that much, so it’s easy to guess that only those truly driven would pursue the hobby/career. Back then there were a lot of pulp magazines, many of them directly connected to major publishing houses. So a writer with some skill could sell a few stories to the magazines and by extension get a contract for a novel or two. In addition to that, the magazines often ran serialized novels that might later be published as a single volume. Not a bad deal. And the publishers were always looking for new talent, so they would spend the time to help new writers get the skills they needed to really make it. It wasn’t a perfect system and there were probably many who were left out, but it was a sweet deal if you could get in.
As time passed, more and more people had time and the inclination to write, but the magazines started having funding issues. The reading public wanted more novels. As the magazines closed or separated from the publishing houses they failed as a gateway into publication. That meant the tried and true method of starting with short stories and working your way up to novels wasn’t as effective any more. The publishing houses set up “slush piles” where unsolicited manuscripts from unknown authors would sit until some lowly assistant was given the punish… er task to read through them all and decide which were good enough to merit an editor’s eye. Agents came into the picture here to help authors get past the slush pile. Now the way to get published was to get picked up by an agent. Having a couple of publication credits in the magazines still helped on that front. When you did manage to get the contract though, well look out world. The publisher would market your book and send you out on interviews and signing tours. They’d get you and your book out there.
Time marches on and television starts to pick up as the leisure diversion of choice for a greater portion of the population. Book sales begin to fall while production costs rise. The publishing houses no longer have enough low level assistants to go through the slush piles and they build up, sometimes a manuscript could languish for as long as a year before being rejected. At least we still have the agents – who have now set up slush piles of their own to deal with the increasing demand for their services. Remember not all writers are ready to become authors when they send out their first manuscript. Agents have become even more necessary and harder to get. Now the contract, and it’s advance, came with some additional work on the author’s part. Not all authors got the star treatment with publicity, some of them – particularly the new and unknown ones, had to set up and (gasp) pay for their promotional tours on their own.
Advance the calendar some more and we find the Internet. Another way for people to spend their free time that is not reading. The magazines have faded as the short story lost popularity. Worse than that, the readers want longer (more expensive to produce) novels, but they don’t want to pay more for them. The publishing houses have even fewer low level assistants to get through the slush piles and the agents are completely overwhelmed. Production costs have continued to rise and the public is cutting back on their book buying habits. Competition has reduced the number of major houses significantly so new authors turn to small houses. Small houses are not stable, and can fold before your manuscript becomes a book. Then the scam artists have caught the whiff of desperation and set up the Vanity Presses (they look like publishing houses except the money flows in the wrong direction). Vanity Press lets you pay to have your book published, and you have to pay to have it edited, and you have to pay to have it distributed and you still have to do all of your own promotion. Like I said that scam artists came up with that giving a bad name to the printing houses who tell you up front that they are just a press and you will have to do the rest on your own – also known as Self Publishing (a discussion for another post).
Then we get to today. The economy, Internet and TV have stolen most of the population’s free time and book buying power. Production costs for physical books is still on the rise, but now we have this new option of e-books which only about half the population can read at the moment – that’s getting better all the time. E-readers have their own problems, but cheap books is a good counterweight. However, the traditional publishers are still mired under massive slush piles (now up to 4 years for a response). Many agents took a hit when the market crashed and are no longer in the business. Those that are still around don’t have time for new clients. Even when you do get a contract, your advance isn’t the great pay day that it used to be and you will definitely have to do your own promotion. You will also have to fill out forms to tell your publisher where and how your book should be marketed. That’s OK, now we have all these wonderful new self publishing options on line. You just have to figure out how to use the social media networks to get people to notice your book among the other fifteen million published this month. A new writer trying to make in today’s market probably spends more time building up their fan base than writing – oh and they probably have a day job too.
So yeah, it’s getting harder. You know what? I don’t care. I’m going for it anyway.