Today I pose the above question. I’ve been at this whole ‘trying to get published’ lark for what feels like forever now, but certainly long enough to see some very definite changes. It used to be for traditional publishing all you needed your arsenal was:
1. A witty, clever and engaging query/cover letter,
2. A to-the-point and yet stylised-enough-to-show-your-style synopsis (normally specific to each agent as they all want different lengths)
3. The first three chapters of a finished novel written up neat and tidy in the usual format.
Oh and luck. Obviously. A lot of luck.
And frankly, all of that felt like a lot of work. I spent weeks composing each cover letter, reading all the advice out there, trying to hit all the tick boxes each different agent was looking for as well as trying to make my book sound as bestseller-ee as possible. And at the bottom the dreaded ‘about me’ paragraph. When I started the advice was short and simple so name, age and any relevant qualifications. I hate synopsis writing. Like most authors I consider it a punishment. So that took me longer to perfect than the book it was based on in the first place. And then, of course, the light task of finishing a novel, that’s always a time-consumer. Like I say, that felt like a lot of hoops at the time. But at the end of the day, that was generally enough. If the work was good it would speak for itself. That’s not to say it would be 50 rejection letters later that you finally got the hit you wanted but it got you there. You were turned down because of the book (and let me tell you, my early attempts were awful).
I used to be (and still in my own time am) an avid screenplay writer. I love the genre. I come from an acting background so it was a natural transition for me. I tell you this because there was a time when I was much younger and more foolish that I thought breaking into that market might be a laugh. Yeah…. I think I knew I was screwed when every application I did required a form that asked for all previous experiences, awards won, degrees (in English/screen-writing) held and previous publications. And I had to leave that pretty much blank. I still don’t see how no experience automatically means that my work is not worthy of their time but that is a whole other rant. But the point is, it used to be that screen-writing was the ‘don’t bother unless you know someone’ genre and books used to be ‘if its good it will break through… eventually.’
Nowadays, submitting a book is an ordeal. Or more of an ordeal. Now not just do you need your killer cover letter, dreaded synopsis and shining three chapters (plus a finished book), they also like you to have…
4. Other books and/or published work. I keep seeing advice now to say if you have a series, mention it. If you published a rubbish book back when you were sixteen that you thought was the best thing then but now you wish you could wipe from history, mention it. If you had poetry published in your school magazine, mention it.
5. A Blog. Apparently you can’t be a writer these days without a blog like this one. And the more followers the better. So no pressure.
6. Social Media Presence. Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest to name but a few and they want to see that you are active and followed as well. I have read time and again agents who say the first thing they do is Google a potential author and see what they are up to. Again, no pressure.
7. (And I’m reading between the lines here but) an Indie Published attempt.
8. Oh and even more luck.
I can see the logic. Why take an unknown with no experience in the market and no following when you could take Cassandra Clare – who cares that the book is only so-so and a bit of a rip-off of Harry Potter, she is a popular fan-fiction writer with an established following so she gets chosen over Jane Smith who while she might have written the best book since Lord Of The Rings, has nobody following her writing.
Today, it seems like having a good book isn’t even the beginning of it. Worse, actually, because the excellent books written by people with two jobs that frankly don’t have the time to run a blog and don’t want to write six others to just get them ‘presence’ are being lost to mediocre books written by people who know how to work this three-ring circus.
I am very lucky. I actually enjoy this. Call me a clown but as an overly-opinionated, naturally rant-prone person, I’m a perfect candidate for blogging. I always have something to say and God bless those of you that read it. A big thank you. You should see how excited I get each time a new member registers. And I am blessed with an amazing friend who specialises in social media management and so gives me all the insider advice on how to make that work. Plus I want to make writing my career. I am ready to invest the time and dedication because I know in the long-term I will get the payout.
Which brings me neatly back around to my initial question. Indie Publishing is the perfect test ground for agents/publishing houses. No risk for them. No money outlay. But they get all their market research laid out in front of them. And even if you don’t Indie Publish specifically, you are still expected to do a lot of the Indie Publishing background, like social media and whatnot. There was a time you went with traditional publishing precisely because you wanted someone else to handle that. Because you enjoyed writing a book not necessarily all of the circus that comes with it.
I just can’t help but think where does this stop. Are we heading to a future where a self-published novel is a pre-requisite for a traditional publishing application? Or where the quality of a book is ranked lower than how many twitter followers its author has? I love Indie Publishing. I love the doors it has opened and the opportunities it has gifted people like me. Just ask Hugh Howey how it worked out for him. It has given writers a chance to take control of their own destiny. But for me, traditional also has to stand alongside, almost as a safety-net – to catch the good books that the authors don’t know what to do with – but something has to give. Traditional publishing was never an easy path. It was never a ‘send out a couple of letters and with a bit of luck I’ll have a contract by the end of the week’ but at least, it used to feel like it was blind luck. Luck gives you a chance. Luck, for all its faults, is attainable.