The Shatzkin Files


What advice do you give a writer?


Because I am giving a keynote talk at the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York on September 18, I am thinking about “what do you tell a writer about digital change in publishing?”

The view of the media world that I proselytize, which is that it is “going vertical”, is hard to accept if you are “general” (i.e. horizontal) and it is hard to accept if you are small. Both general publishers and small publishers have always depended on aggregators to create a large enough offering to be commercially viable. General publishers need bookstores, primarily, and general book review media (pre-pub and to the consumer) as well. Small publishers have required wholesalers and distributors to organize a large enough product offering to be effective with bookstores and libraries. The intermediaries have always found it difficult to deal with offerings of a small number of titles.

The vertical vision says that aggregation is not just necessary at the “book” level, but also at the “subject” level. If the vision is accurate, publishers of just a handful of titles — even if they are in a niche — will find it prohibitively difficult and expensive to reach their audience.

One reason why life is getting so much more difficult for general trade publishers and small publishers is that the capital barriers to entry for publishing, particularly ebook-first publishing, have dropped to near zero. The aspiring book author 10 or 20 years ago needed somebody to print a run of books, hold them, and distribute them — mostly one-by-one — to points of distribution (called bookstores, libraries, and wholesalers) all over the country. That took capital and it took scale.

This isn’t true anymore. Anybody with a computer and an internet connection can be a publisher. You can publish a blog on a free platform. You can publish ebooks through Smashwords by sending them your Word file. You can publish a document for download through Scribd by sending them a PDF. You can make your property available as a printed book through a number of services — Author House being the largest — without any investment in inventory and only a modest set-up cost.

This ease of entry is part of what bedevils the established publishers. They’re still gatekeepers, but the gate isn’t attached to a fence or wall anymore so aspirants just walk around it. That doesn’t mean that getting published by a real publisher is of no value; it is still the only way to sell significant numbers of copies, and it will remain that for some time to come.

But most books, even those published by legitimate publishers, don’t sell large numbers of copies. And it is increasingly the case that the self-publishing of various kinds is the best way to get on the publishers’ radar screens and it has the additional benefit of beginning to build an audience and a response loop that are essential components of any successful writer’s platform.

In fact, when we discussed with a leading agent a panel we’re planning for our January Digital Book World conference called “Stalking the Wild Blogger: Scouting Blogs and Self-Published Content for Fresh Voices”, which is about agents and editors finding authors through blogs and self-published books, he said that is now something that “every agent does.” He explained: “it is now the standard way to find new clients.”

That means that blogs and self-published books using ebook and print-on-demand models are now part of the overall commercial structure of publishing. They are not something separate and inferior, as “vanity publishing” was in the past.

The best thing that can happen to a writer is still that an established agent takes on and sells their project to an established publisher for an advance large enough to constitute adequate financial compensation to the writer for her work. Most books published by mainstream publishers still do not earn out their advance and yield additional royalties, so getting paid upfront is still the best financial situation for the author, in the short run. (In the long run, failing to earn out advances and sell books will catch up with an author; it’s a trick getting harder and harder to repeat in a world where BookScan numbers tell each publisher how prior books have performed.)

So here’s a starter list of tips I’ll be offering writers on September 18, a list that would grow between now and then even withoutthe help I may get from readers of this blog.

1. Understand your vertical world on the web, and participate in it.

2. Blog. And build a following for your blog.

3. If you have finished book material, and it is not already in the hands of a capable agent managing the process of selling it to publishers, self-publish it in ebook form at least and promote it the best you can.

4. Join PublishersMarketplace for at least one month and use the deal database to find the agents that handle material like yours. Reach out to those agents and listen carefully to their feedback.

5. If you have a book with an ISBN, self-published or not, take advantage of your free web site at Filedby.com to promote yourself. (I am a proud co-Founder and shareholder of Filedby.)

6. Google yourself and find and fix your presence anywhere on the web where you can influence it, particularly bookish sites like GoodReads, Red Room, Shelfari, LibraryThing, and, of course, BN.com and Amazon.

7. When you talk to agents, try to discern how aware and conversant they are of ways an author can promote his or her own career. Can they coach you on using social networking and blog touring and your own posts to promote yourself? If they can’t, they might be a great 20th century agent and not right for you in 2009.

8. Link, link, link. When you write each blog post, link out to other sites. Have a blogroll of your favorite sites an encourage them to link back to you. Build your connections on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. And remember that the people you are linking with have their own agendas, which is not about helping you. Respect that.

I know a lot of readers of this blog specialize in helping writers; I don’t. I want the additional thoughts for writers that I’ve missed. You can post them here or send them to us at [email protected]

  Back to blog