Are We Doomed: Is the apocalypse waiting around the corner for writers? by Donna Condon

October 13th, 2010

The title of my piece sums up the feelings of a large chunk of writers and publishers today: Are we doomed?

Within the book trade – both publishing and retail – the general feeling is that the grim reaper, with every mention of ‘economic downturn’ and every advancement in digital, gains more ground on the print book, which he stalks insistently and not so quietly. This coupled with an overwhelming sense of uncertainly means it’s a stressful time for all involved: booksellers, authors, agents, editors and publishers. The feeling is particularly prevalent for more niche areas of publishing, such as horror, and, within the more mainstream market, literary fiction.

The book industry has reached a point that is both exciting and terrifying. While there is a wealth of opportunity at the moment, it is, however, evident that said opportunity inevitably has its own consequences, which a lot of houses are feeling at the moment (such as Leisure Books). I don’t think it’s a secret that the book trade has been really struggling of late and that a lot of factors have elbowed it into its current position: the move from decentralised buying to centralised buying and the effect that’s now having; loss of the net book agreement without clear parameters in place to protect the industry from rampant discounting and, in essence, cannibalisation; the inevitable inability of the independents to compete on price, leading to the closure of many; Amazon; the recession and its inevitable effect across the industry; the collapse of Borders… I could go on.

Times are indeed tough. To summarise it briefly, the problem for an acquiring editor who has slots to fill and a minimal marketing budget to spend across the whole list in today’s climate is that it’s becoming increasingly impossible to acquire a host of debut novels from people who are unheard of and make them work in the current market. Therefore many publishers are now in a position where they are focusing much more. In other works, in the past where the editor might have acquired a few authors writing in the same area, they are beginning to be more selective, acquiring one with a really clear hook/usp (unique selling point) and putting their energy into making that author work. Subsequently there is a growing fear that new authors in these areas will find it more and more difficult to get published and I certainly see this being the case. However, I do think there are two things we should be dwelling on…

  • a –  focus is good, and although it does mean more money inevitably being invested in making already big authors even bigger, it does hopefully mean the quality of new fiction will increase as publishers strive to publish the best books they can in their specific areas
  • b – with the advancements in digital being what they are, it is in an author’s power to make themselves go from unknown to known, prior to having their novel acquired

We’re also at the cusp of one of the most exciting times publishing has seen in its history. Three years ago, e-readers were something spoken about casually as a fad that may happen and now there are more than twenty competing versions. Sales of e-books currently account for less than 1% of market share, and publishers are admittedly struggling to figure out pricing, digital rights issues and how to market digital content (without making the same mistakes the music industry has), but it’s expected that this will increase dramatically over the coming years. Want it or not: change is coming to get us.

But now for the good news: I for one think the genre writer wanting to get published is in a much stronger position, say, than an author of a stand-alone general fiction novel, as there are very few communities to support them in the way that the horror community supports its own. Publishers want new authors to already have a presence. Coupled with the fact that there are now so many online opportunities for writers to enter into the communities that surround their genre, means that this is the perfect time for authors to say, ‘Right, what can I do to make myself attractive?’ I think rather than throw in the towel (or laptop, as the case may be) authors need to stop thinking, ‘the end is here’ and start thinking, ‘Ok, things are changing. What can I do to move with the times and work these changes to my advantage?’ The premonition that publishing is dead is a foolish one. What is about to happen is that publishing as we know it is about to enter a new age and those who evolve, and accept and embrace change are more likely to survive than those who don’t. If this is true of the industry, then logic dictates that it’s true of the very people who keep the whole industry going: authors. So in answer to the question ‘are we doomed’ I think, authors, it’s time to don the boxing gloves.

About Donna Condon:

Donna Condon is a commissioning fiction editor on the Piatkus list at Little, Brown Book Group where she has worked for three years. Prior to that she worked at Piatkus Books (when it was still an independent) and Virgin Books. She commissions commercial fiction across a whole range of genres.

And don’t forget, next week we have some of the titles Donna’s worked on to give away as competition prizes.

Entry Filed under: Writing Chat

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jane Holland  |  October 25th, 2010 at 7:56 pm

    Fabulous post, Donna. It does feel a little apocalyptic at times, but I love the idea of a big shake-up meaning that more freedom is being acquired at the grass-roots of publishing, where smaller presses can spring up and begin to publish unusual or fringe books that might never have got as far as an editor’s desk ten or even five years ago, and hopefully make a success of them via canny online marketing.

    Ebooks indicate a levelling out of the field, perhaps. And the onus is now on the big players to keep up with the smaller players, those entrepreneurial types who’ll rush ahead while the corporate suits are wondering where the ball went.

    It’s still all to play for!


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    [...] I contributed an article to the wonderful Horror Reanimated blog late last year I was asked by a few readers whether I could also contribute something with a [...]

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