Publishing Isn’t for Sissies: A Reality Check

We asked students last weekend to share every worst case scenario and fear they’d heard or thought about the way digital options seems to be consuming traditional publishing. What are the rumors? How bad do you think it’s going to get. What are you chances now of ever getting a book contract and seeing your stories in a reader’s hand?

My agent (Michelle Grajkowski) and I had been fielding industry questions and trying to get folks to open up for about an hour. It was the get to know you beginning of the conference. Folks were understandably guarded at first, talking with someone they thought might one day be an asset to their career (Michelle, not me, though I’m always good for an entertaining hour or two of conversation ;o). I’d tried to get them to ask digital publishing questions a few times, but no takers. Then Michelle helped me open the floor for comments. 

“What have you heard?” we asked. “What do you know? Don’t worry about how bad it sounds. No holds barred.”

Ah. We’d struck upon the thing to ask a room full of people who’re starting to accept you into your group. More, “Let’s get the the big ugly monster out of the closet.” Less, “Let us know what you’re afraid of.”

Michelle and I had talked about this approach on the drive over from the town we flew in on to the on where we’d be teaching all weekend. We were pretty sure what we’d hear.

And we weren’t disappointed:

  • Digital publishing is helping finish off the Mass Market segment of printed book sales.
  • Bricks and mortar stores are disappearing from the landscape.
  • Book store chains are closing, filing for bankruptcy or up for sale.
  • Racks/slots for books in the remaining discount stores are dwindling.
  • Online printed book sales are lagging behind digital sales.
  • Self publishing digitally may be the only way non-branded authors can make money publishing in the near future.
  • It’s becoming difficult to distinguish a “publisher” from a self published digital book, at least on sight.
  • Badly written and produced digital books are flooding the market.
  • 99 cent digital book prices devalue books in general and make it impossible for newer writers to make any money at all.
  • It takes so long to find a publisher traditionally, print advances are shrinking along with sales and royalties, publishers are struggling and going under, and an agent gets to take a bite out of whatever you do make–why not skip all the middle men and go it alone like everyone you see all over social media making a fortune self-publishing.
  • Publishers opening digital-only imprints aren’t offering authors advances, are offering little or no promotion that the author doesn’t have to take the lead in, and are making no promises of income from royalties. Therefore months/years of work could result in little or no profit for the author whatsoever.

The list goes on… Like I said, nothing new.

Except, the point we made later that night after everyone had pretty much agreed that we’d all heard the above list and more and didn’t know what to think about it, is that IT’S NOTHING NEW.

Michelle and I called this the Reality Check portion of the evening program. Here’s what we shared with the group, and believe it or not it made everyone a little more comfortable and contemplative and thinking a little more big picture about all the above stuff that, let’s be honest, makes all of us want to hind our heads in the sand until the dust settles…

When the mass market publishing model began to dominate the scene, we used as an example, it was seen by many as a threatening wave that would spell the end of the more valuable but pricey hard cover novel, and the independent book store that didn’t want to shelve endless cheaper-to-produce-and-stock paperbacks. And, well, it pretty much was.

Hardcover become the top echelon dream of writers for when they’d “made it,” independent book stores have become more and more scarce over the years, while the chains and discount stores lured customers away with cheaper books and legal addictive stimulants and the chance to buy your toilet paper in the same place as you do the next Nora Roberts.

Mass market prices for books have become the standard that the majority of the book buying public is willing to pay, to the point that most of us don’t pay full price for a hard cover unless we’re sure it’s something we want to keep forever. Me, I’ll admit it. I mostly wait until something’s remaindered or until it comes out in paperback.

The holy grail for as long as I’ve been thinking about publishing has been snagging that 6 figure+ hardcover book deal. THAT’s when you know you’re on your way, because only then is a publisher going to invest significant money into promoting and positioning your book to hit lists and sell, sell sell (because they’ve already invest so much in your advance, it had better sell, sell sell). Otherwise, you’re lucky if your mass market release gets touched by readers in one of the many stores it might or not be stocked in, for the week or two that most stores rack paperbacks now days, before they strip them because a new month of titles is flooding in.

And along with lower mass market cover prices and sell throughs over the years, have come dwindling advances for authors.

Which all sounds grim, I know. And yet here we all are, still writing and publishing and promoting and reading books, even if they almost never involve a hard cover book contract anymore.

Plus, doesn’t it sound eerily familiar? Like everything that’s happened with the rise of the mass market paperback model is some kind of a freaky mirror we could hold up to the journey many are saying the industry is about to take with digital publishing. Are we watching the same dynamic play itself out al over again?


Let’s not forget that along with the “unwanted” changes that mass market book dominance brought us, came some really good stuff, too:

  • Lower cover prices that made books were more accessible to every reader.
  • More opportunity for authors to be published who might not have been able to make it to the hard cover stage.
  • Expanded editorial and a thriving publishing industry that grew in speed and quality and flexibility from its former staid self.
  • A thriving book selling industry that feeds not just our desire to read but to write, creating outlets on every corner and in every grocery and discount and dime store.

Did the ”mass market rules” wave that crashed over publishing do it’s part in creating the very environment that is feeding the digital book revolution? 

In between has been a lot of hiccups: series books took their turn, cheaper than mass market paperbacks, driving prices and advances lower while flooding the reading market with even more titles each month; there was the rise and online networking of used book stores that deprived authors and publishers of income; I could go on and on. It’s all come and gone (or stayed) as the past paved the way to the journey we’re taking today. Industry players have been worried and wincing and bracing for disaster off and on at each turn.

Not to mention that publishers have never put much money into promoting any but their top tier authors. The rest of us have always had to do most of the work ourselves, funding it ourselves, until we hit a sell-through level that kicks us up a notch in the pecking order. And as chain stores dwindle, independent book stores are enjoying a recent surge in sales, as savvy readers look for book sellers that hand sell their favorites and know the market the way a digital shopping cart can’t.

And, reality check, only a hand full of digital-only published authors are making any signifiant money at it. The rest are still trying to figure the model out, just like the non-branded mass market author is fighting to find a niche in print publishing.

What we’re reeling from now is no different from what’s sent everyone spiraling in the past, or the anxiety and confusion that I have no doubt will come down the road. It’s all about the same thing in the end.

It’s about CHANGE that very few of us feel we can control.

Publishing keeps changing. The business of it, that is. How much or little respect/money/buy-in writers have into the process. How many choices and price points readers have to select from. How quickly a book can be written and produced and moved to the market place, and into how many different genres can a publisher successfully print fiction and non-fiction and everything in between.

What doesn’t change is what the writer has always controlled: the quality of the book and the reading experience itself. How much effort and craft and care we put into each story, so what does get out there has the best chance possible of reaching and transporting and delighting and compelling its audience to want to read more.

Yes, in our world there’s always going to be a quicker and cheaper way to throw something against the wall of publishing, to see if it sticks long enough for the world to notice. But we, the writers, want something marvelous up there for everyone to see and enjoy. We want the book stores to stay open, and if they can’t we want the digital outlets to make their model work, and we want publishers to figure this whole thing out and to give a crap whether or not authors are making any money at this at all anymore so we’ll keep writing.

But in the end, the reality is that more often than not it’s the top books and the top writers that will get the most attention (digital or printed) and the best contracts. These craftsmen that wait longer and work harder and fight ruthlessly for every word and sentence and chapter and story. They don’t rush, and they don’t panic, and they don’t follow the latest trend impatiently because they deserve their success NOW, instead of later when they and their books are ready to shine. These are the warriors that will make sure our industry survives this and future changes. They’re our champions, not the flashier “get rich and successful now” promises of whatever trend is cresting the current wave.

And I want to be one of them–even while I delve into a hybrid version of digital publishing and try to figure out my place in this latest change threatening to dominate the “old” way. Whatever comes, I want to write a better scene today than yesterday, a better character, a better book for my readers.

So did that room of authors Michelle and I spoke with last weekend. We left our meet and greet feeling energized and excited and encouraged to spend the entire next day learning how to make our work and our stories better. We were a group with a mission–to embrace change and conquer our fear and write better than we ever have before, because there’s always an opportunity waiting for a solidly written book by an enthusiastic author willing to pound the pavement, or the Internet, or whatever needs to be done to get the word out.

The reality is, digitally published or in print, it’s all about the book. And we hold in our own hands the power to make that book the best it can be, every time we turn on our computers or open our notebooks, or start marking up a printout of our latest work-in-progress. That won’t change,  no matter how much time passes.

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6 Responses to “Publishing Isn’t for Sissies: A Reality Check”

  1. Thank you for this. I agree entirely with everything you say. I write because I love it. I want improve. A six figure deal would be wonderful but, at te end of the day, if only a hand ful of readers appreciate my work and bless me with positive reviews, I am happy.


  2. Hi Anna. Really in-depth and interesting article. Thanks for posting.

    On the other side of the coin – can you see that the rise in Indie Publishing can give aspiring authors a great opportunity to get their work out there? They might not have been considered ‘commercial’ by publishers, but through the internet could find an enthusiastic audience for their idea’s and stories. Also, through this medium writers are getting a significantly better percentage of the eBooks cover price.

    The modern world is fast, furious, and demands instant access – I don’t see why how we access books should be any different – it’s a change that we should embrace in my opinion.

    I posted an article on our blog yesterday entitled ‘The eBook Revolution – what emerging technology means for writing and reading literature’ – maybe worth a look at: http://

    All the best


    • Anna says:

      I absolutely see that, Adam. I communciate daily with indie authors who are fighting hard to get their work out there, and these are exciting times for us all. The fact that the middle man is less needed and there are fewer people between the writer and the reader is a great thing. As long as we still write the best stories we can and don’t rush things, just because we now have the means to more easily get a book to market before it’s ready.

      And the panic at the change–THAT’S what we need to let go of the most. This is just another step forward. One that, as you say, is going to open many doors for those looking for a less-traditional publishing path. All is not lost. We’re just changing. Again.

      PIFS started when my mass market release last fall was swept into the digital publishing wave, and I’m learning more every day about the different aspects of this change–and sharing as much as I can out here. I’ll be spotlighting indie, flex, traditional, and all aspects of publshing along the way.

      Thanks for joining in the conversation!

  3. ooops, messed up the link to the blog post: it should have been:

  4. Regan Black says:

    Hear, hear! Thanks for the reality check!

    However the publishing industry ebbs and flows, writers need to remember it’s about delivering the best quality book to readers. That takes time, determination, and heart, but it’s worth it!

  5. Bob Mayer says:

    I think it’s just as hard to succeed on either side– indie or traditional. The good writers, the ones who promote, whatever format they choose. They will succeed.

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