Friday, March 07, 2014

The Writing Life: Changing Times

       The obsessive-compulsive TV detective, Adrian Monk, put it quite well: “I don’t mind change. I just don’t like to be around when it happens.” As I get older, I find myself identifying more and more with that point of view.

Of course, over the last half-century there have been a number of changes that were good: Betamax tapes have given way to DVDs, stick shifts on cars have been replaced by automatic transmissions, prepackaged dinners (some not even requiring refrigeration) have made life easier for busy cooks. But change, to me, was epitomized by the appearance of Bob Dylan in an auto commercial during the Super Bowl. Dylan’s anti-establishment signature refrain was, “The times, they are a-changin’,” and this commercial epitomized that change.

The times are also changing in the world of publishing. When I began writing less than a decade ago, a writer could submit a manuscript “over the transom,” sending it directly to an editor with a stamped, self-addressed envelope for a reply. At that time, self-publishing a book was tantamount to saying, “No one will publish this, so I will,” and the name usually applied to the process was “vanity publishing.”

Now most manuscripts are submitted electronically to a publisher through an agent, and the SASE is a thing of the past, but in many other respects the publishing process has changed very little. Editors and publication boards still choose only a small minority of submitted manuscripts. Up to a year may elapse between acceptance of a book and its appearance in print.

The drastic difference in the process is that self-publication has become a legitimate option for some writers. (This has been covered in several posts, both here and elsewhere, and I won’t delve into that subject again). Because of this change, there are more books from which to choose, and the reading public must be more discerning than ever. One knowledgeable individual, Seth Godin, estimates that over fifteen million books were published last year in the US.  

Given that number, how does a reader choose? According to my own survey, readers are primarily influenced by their prior experience with the author and the recommendations of family, friends, and bookstore employees—in other words, word of mouth advertising.

Years ago I was told that word of mouth was the best advertising medium for an author, and it appears—despite so many other changes in our society—that remains true today. As a respected member of the publishing community put it: “The problem for authors and publishers is the same as it ever was -- last year, five years ago, twenty years ago. Discoverability, word of mouth, publicity, these have always been the challenges. I've never known it to be any different.”

So, what do you think? Has the explosion of new books made it harder for you to find one you like? Do you find yourself purchasing books that you stop reading part-way through? Is some sort of gateway for self-published work an answer? I'd like to hear.

Winner of Candace Calvert's new book, Life Support, is Kelly. She's been notified by email. Thanks to everyone who left a comment.

No comments: