Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Location: Books & Such Central Valley Office, CA
As we talk about the future of publishing, what about the writer? How many times have you heard that it’s a buyers market and there are a hundred capable writers for every publishing slot? If that were true, why would anyone keep trying? We often compare a writer’s publishing quest to that of trying to break into acting. It’s a fair comparison. If it were an even field, the odds would be stacked against you.
But here’s the truth: the field is not even.
Before we talk about that, however, let me address the issue of writer obsolescence. We see many more publishers developing ideas in house and finding writers to do the work. It’s not quite work for hire but it’s not publishing the book that grows out of a writer’s heart either. Several publishing houses buy projects from book packagers who put together the concept, often the design and use work-for-hire writers. Or what about the threat of computer story-generators or nonfiction books that are cobbled together from various blogs? Is this the wave of the future?
No! Those are simply efficient ways to develop product, but the books that change lives grow organically from the heart of the writer. My first career was as a sculptor and a doll designer in the toy industry. I did this for thirty years. At the height of collector doll popularity, Chinese manufacturers developed the technology to created three-dimensional sculpts of two-dimensional images. In other words, they could take a picture and generate a model from it. The fear among artists and sculptors was that we would become obsolete. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The technology worked just like they said it would but those dolls had a flatness– a sameness that never came anywhere close to the appeal of the artist-designed dolls. It made no sense but even the untrained eye could see the difference.
It’s the same with books. We lump them together and call them product when talking about the business side of publishing but a fine book is so much more. It’s all about soul and voice. And that brings us back to the myth of the even field. It is not an even field. The writer is not competing with one hundred capable writers for every slot. First of all, the word “slot” has a non-specific sense to it but I know of no non-specific slots in publishing. We generally hear something like, “I’m looking for the perfect contemporary Law-and-Order type suspense to fill a slot in our fall 2013 list.” Or, “I need a book on spiritual disciplines that does not mention either spiritual or discipline and is written by someone who speaks to women right where they are.” Are there one hundred writers for those slots? Of course not. Those are very specific.
And merely-capable writers need not apply. It’s like Hollywood. It’s not an even playing field. Auditions are held and the merely-capable actors never get a call back. Casting directors are looking for that star quality. It’s the same with publishing. Agents and acquisition editors have honed the ability to recognize brilliance.
So what is it that sets a writer apart– that is an indicator of success? I love the verse in the Bible that says, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11) What is it about a writer that hints at that hope– that future?
Skill— In fiction it is the skill of the storyteller. With nonfiction it is the ability to communicate the message that has grown out of the writer’s life.
Voice— When we say voice, we’re talking about that unique quality that sets a writer apart from the capable writer. It’s the very signature of the writer. His distinctiveness. No one wants another Hemingway or another Lucado. We already have those.
Commercial appeal– Okay that sounds crass but it’s true. The successful writer is going to be the one who writes the books the reader wants to read. If you long to please yourself or your elite peers with your writing, knock yourself out. Your joy will come from the applause of a very stratified few. But success as a writer– your very future– depends on connecting.
Ability to gather a tribe— In this social age it’s nearly impossible to be a hermit writer. The bestselling authors understand how to build and connect with their readers. In nonfiction, the author has to have a quantifiable, well-established platform. And the successful author cares more about his readers than his peers.
Don’t buy into the myth that writers are a dime a dozen. There is only one you. As long as people crave stories, as long as we need books, we are going to need writers. These days there are so many more ways to publish and so many more ways to connect to the readers. The future is bright.