By Katy Munger, 2016 Piedmont Laureate
This blog post is the final installment of an adaptation of a talk I gave on April 26th at the Cameron Village Library. Prior posts focused on the future of libraries and books. In this final post, I discuss how the world is changing for writers and why we need to change how we define success as well as what it is that we are aiming for when we write.
It’s not easy being a writer in a world where the way we communicate and absorb information changes, literally, by the day. Worse, for too many writers, this is today’s reality:
It is more difficult than ever to make a living writing books. With the rise of ebooks, more people than ever are publishing even as traditional publishers offer authors smaller advances and less support for books outside the mainstream. To make a living writing good books is even harder: you can’t make big money as an author without devoting significant amounts of your time marketing your work—yet time devoted to marketing is time away from perfecting, revising, or writing your books.
Big publishers follow a throw it against the wall and see what sticks spaghetti strategy. Authors come cheap. For a few thousand dollars, they can lock down a book, keep the competition from getting that author, throw some copies out there, and then wait and see if lightning strikes and someone manages to break out by the grace of the Internet gods or a lucky break.
Big publishers are way too fond of distracting authors in hopes we won’t notice how badly we are being treated. They do this by pitting us against one another (trust us, we’re not each other’s enemies) and by sending us off to market our own books using whatever the technique du jour may be. Maybe if we’re busy blogging or self-promoting on Facebook, we won’t notice our publisher didn’t buy a single ad or schedule a single interview for our newest book.
Even if you do get signed by a major publisher, it’s almost impossible to break in no matter how good your book is. Because good, new books rarely sell. What sells is another book by a name brand author, or a book by someone similar who can convince an existing big name to throw their endorsement behind them.
What do we do under these circumstances? We can start by naming it right and by claiming the power that we do have.
And what we have the power to do is control is the writing process itself, the stories we tell, what audiences we write for, and how we present our books to the public. To claim your power, start by rejecting the idea that writers are irrelevant today. As writers, we are the only people in our world who provide depth you can’t find anywhere else, depth needed to counteract the superficiality of the rest of the information we receive today. We are the only ones putting all the superficial instant messages coming at us in context and provide other people with perspective. We are the ones who connect humanity, for, absent personal contact, it is within the context of a tale that people cross demographic and geographic boundaries, to learn about one another while realizing the truth about humans: no matter where we come from, we are always more alike than we are different and we must remember to honor how we are alike if we hope to survive this world as a species.
So yes, you have great power to shape the world for the better. This is my advice to those of you seeking to claim that power:
Know why you write and who you are writing for. Is it to shine a light on how to survive a crisis? Is it to inspire people to live life more fully, or to make people laugh? Don’t type a single word until you know exactly why you are writing, who you are writing for, and how you want people to react to what you have written.
Tailor your outlet to why you write. Not everyone will have a goal that can be achieved or an audience that can be reached by having a book published by a mainstream publisher. Find your audience, learn how and where they read, then choose an outlet and a format that will bring you in touch with that audience—whether it is a full length book, self-publishing, a series of online novellas, a graphic novel, a podcast, a blog, or some other medium.
Don’t define your success by whether you get a contract from a brand name publisher. Define your success by whether you have reached the audience you were trying to reach.
Don’t play their game beyond the first three innings. If you do not get a big advance from a mainstream publisher, they have no incentive to market you. So if you do go the traditional route, and you don’t get a decent advance and marketing support by the time you reach your third book with them, find another publisher or find another way to reach your audience. Otherwise, you’re just spinning your wheels.
Only write a good book, with your truth in it, when you have something to say, no matter what your genre is. Find your voice and write your book with it: never imitate someone else… don’t write solely to try and create a bestseller because the chances are zero that you will… and above all, remember that the world does not need another bad book. If you can’t write a book with you in it, you are only contributing to information overload and that may well end up dooming us all.
Understand that the real value of being a writer lies in the process itself. You are privileged to sit down and write. Feel it, enjoy it, and make the process your destination. That’s where you will be spending 99.999% of your time. Don’t waste that time. Experience it and make it count.
Participate in author co-ops and other group efforts like book tours and online marketing campaigns. Channel the power of social media for all. These are your people. Support one another.
Support and honor small publishers. Help them publicize their books. Buy their books. Give them a chance to publish your book. They are our only hope for keeping quality in the book-selling business and preserving the diversity of our voices.
Protect your writing time. If you are an author, put your talent and your energy into writing. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. No one can be a great writer, agent, designer, and publicist all at the same time. If you have to publicize your own books, save up your money and hire someone else to do it. If you have to design your own book or eBook, and you’re not proficient at it, then hire someone else to do it for you. Your job is to write.
None of these ideas are magic bullets. None of these ideas are mine alone. But they are a start and we need to start the discussion now. In closing, I’d like to urge you to be part of the discussion. Talk about it today. Make it real. Be a writer citizen of the literary world. Be a writer willing to shape the writing experience rather than sitting and taking what the future brings.