It’s never been easy for a new novelist to find a home with a major publisher, but things have gotten incredibly worse over the last few years. One of the latest developments in New York-style publishing is that first-time novelists get book deals, but they don’t get physical books. They are “published” only on e-book format. If they sell enough copies online, then they can hope one day to be published in physical form.
This new trend is unsettling, because book buyers tend to be older, and they like physical books. I know that your grandparents have a Kindle, and I’m happy for them, but how many novels by first-time novelists are they likely to download? Publishers certainly aren’t lifting a finger to publicize these e-book first novels, any more than they did to publicize first novels published as physical books in years gone by.
It’s a deeply troubling development on a number of levels. First, the death of browsing in bookstores as book sales have shifted online means that it is less and less likely that a book buyer will stumble upon a first novel, give it a read, and develop a lifelong reading relationships with that author. It also means that first-time authors are going to find it harder and harder to create a buzz for themselves. Yes, of course you can do that on social media, and indeed, you must. But first-time novelists today no longer have the astonishing experience of walking into a bookstore and seeing their books on the shelves, or even in the front window.
That’s how things were way back in 1986, when I published my first novel, The Socratic Method, with Simon and Schuster. The book could be found in pretty much any bookstore wherever you went. I took a long drive from Boston to New York City, down the back roads, stopping in every town where I could find a local bookstore. Back then, there were plenty. In each, I stopped in and explained that I was a new author and that I wanted to sign my book. They were delighted to see me. Those bookstores, alas, are all gone, and so is the opportunity for first-time authors to develop relationships with book sellers. That’s all history.
Shortly after my first novel was published, I got a call from a bookstore owner in Manhattan who told me that although they specialized in murder mysteries, they liked my book so much that they were recommending it to all of their customers. How’s that for a 28-year-old writer? Sadly, that bookstore is gone, too.
The major publishers are paying microscopic advances, if they’re offering any advances at all, to the authors of first-time novels. I didn’t get much for my book—Simon and Schuster offered me $7,500.00, and when I sought to raise the amount, my then-editor, Bob Asahaina, just laughed at me over the phone and said, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” Today, a first-time novelist would be extraordinarily lucky to get an advance of $7,500.00 for the rights to publish his or her book as an e-book. The game has changed.
If a publisher is not willing to invest in the physical manufacture of a new novel, and unwilling to pay the freight to have it shipped to whatever bookstores around the country are still standing, how much of a commitment is that publisher really making? Especially when they are backing up a miniscule or non-existent advance with miniscule or non-existent marketing dollars. This begs the question of why it’s even beneficial to publish by a major publisher in the first place. Back in the day, the major publishers bought enough ads in book review sections of newspapers that their books were guaranteed a reading by the book review editors. Those editors would not review every single book that came in from a major publisher, nor would they give every book a favorable review. But a book from a major publisher would be read.
In my own experience, the New York Times, both daily and Sunday, published phenomenal reviews of my first novel. Christopher Lehman-Haupt, then the taste setter not just for New York Times readers but for book reviewers and regular readers across the country, published a review of The Socratic Method on Thanksgiving Day, 1986. That was another thrill, followed a few months later when Scott Turow, author of Presumed Innocentand many novels since, gave the book another glowing review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review.
More accolades came in the New Yorker, People magazine, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and other newspapers and magazines across the country. It was an experience that I suppose can only be compared to crack-cocaine, not that I’ve tried it. But in terms of a sense of head rush and addictive euphoria—it was an unmatchable thing. I am incredibly fortunate to have come of age as a writer when such events took place.
Today, Craigslist has killed the newspaper, by removing all classified ad revenue which once made newspapers profitable. As a result, book reviews and book review sections have all but disappeared from most newspapers, or have slimmed down to the point of unrecognizability. The major publishers no longer spend a lot of money on ad dollars, because they have come to the conclusion that ads don’t work. Of course, they sold books with ads for a long time, but the world has changed. As a result, a first-time novelist is bereft of many of the joys of publishing that older authors were fortunate enough to experience. Seeing your book on a bookshelf. Getting reviews in major newspapers and magazines. Book signings. (It’s tough to sign an e-book.) And the pure, outrageous joy of holding your own book.
Today, many new novelists recognize that the only way to gain traction as an author is to self-publish their novel, on Smashwords or Lulu or some other Internet site, perhaps selling it for as little as $1.99. In so doing, they can build a large enough following to attract the attention of a New York publisher, who will then want to pay a reasonable advance for the right to continue publishing them. But of course, a New York publisher is going to do no more marketing for a third-time novelist, no matter how successful, than for a first-time novelist. On top of that, you keep most of the money if you self–publish on a site like Smashwords or Lulu. If you publish with New York, you will run into their battery of sharp-penciled accountants who will make sure that you don’t see another dime after the advance.
So you’re probably asking the same question those novelists are: What do I need New York for? The sad answer is that novelists no longer need New York, because New York publishers have given up on them. It was never easy to sell fiction. But it’s immeasurably harder to sell something that is never published. Disseminating an e-book? Fantastic. It’s the wave of the future. In fact, it’s the wave of the present. But don’t tell me it’s the same thing as holding your own book, seeing it reviewed, visiting bookstores, doing signings, and all the other trappings of authordom.
Suddenly the past seems like a very long time ago.