Monday, March 19, 2012

The Exciting Future for Writers

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

Neville HallTonight I’m speaking with the creative writing students at my alma mater, Presbyterian College in SC. It’s a great liberal arts school with a strong English department.

I’ll be giving a reading (a short one, since I have little faith in my ability to be entertaining) and then talking a little about the writing business before taking questions.

And I’m planning on spreading the exciting news about being a 21st century writer—that it’s the best time ever to be a writer.

I’m never sure if that message is getting out to writers, unless they’re plugged into the online writing community. The talk of bankrupt book chains, struggling independent bookstores, and decreasing advances from traditional publishers might be eclipsing that message.

Ultimately, writers have got a new gateway—directly from us to our reader.

Why this is exciting:

We have choices. We can choose to follow the traditional publishing route of finding an agent and then a publisher. Or we can hone our work, get our manuscript professionally edited, formatted, and designed and self-publish our books. Or we can do both (I’m taking the hybrid approach, myself.)

We can develop a niche readership. Let’s say that you are completely engulfed in working on projects that feature your favorite things—horror and marine biology. Before, if your idea wasn’t commercial enough to get the strong sales needed for a slot on the bookstore shelves, then there was no hope for you. You could either publish the book yourself (with a great deal of expense and poor distribution) or else you could just share the story among your friends and family.

Now you can self-publish it…but for very little expense, compared to the old days. And your distribution is online—it has the potential of reaching millions, worldwide. In that group of millions is your niche reader…the ones who are also obsessed with horror and marine biology. The challenge for you is to get the word out to these readers, in an un-obnoxious way, that your book exists.

We can explore different genres. In the pre-ebook days, if you’d made a good name for yourself in one genre, it was pretty difficult to make the leap to another one. Some agents only represent one type of book. So, if you were a fantasy writer who wanted to write thrillers, your agent might not represent thrillers. You’d have to find another agent….by again going through the query process. And then you’d have to basically start from scratch to find a publisher.

Now, if you can write it, you can publish it. (It still might be wise to use a pen name if your name is particularly associated with a particular genre…that way you’re not confusing your readers. You can still always give them the chance to read your other books by telling them you’re writing another genre under a pseudonym.)

We can explore formats. Do we feel like experimenting with short stories or poetry? Previously, if we wanted to reach readers with those formats…well, it was going to be a long-shot. We’d be trying to get inclusion in anthologies, or literary magazines or publishers who put out chapbooks. There was a strong possibility that the stories or poetry would never find an audience, never get reviewed, never inspire, never receive feedback.

Now we can sell short stories or serials or poetry, ourselves. We can price them as a collection or price them as singles. We can even sell them at a low price as a loss leader to gain visibility for our other, full-priced work. We can experiment.

We can have complete creative control. Now, admittedly, this is a scary area sometimes. And I’m one who previously just wanted to write the stories and promote them and not have to think about formatting or covers or design.

Now, though, we can expand our thinking into other channels. We can envision what we’d like our cover to look like and the kinds of readers that we’d like to appeal to with them. We can set a tone. And, importantly, we can outsource these tasks to experts and have them complete our vision of our book. If that vision proves not to connect with the readers…well, we can change it. That’s amazing, in itself.

We can put our books in readers’ hands faster—keeping series continuity and making our connection with readers stronger. Traditional publishing takes a while. When I hand in a manuscript, it’s a full 12 months before that book gets to the reader. Now, after I write a book and edit it, I send it to professional editors and cover designers and then to my reader. It takes about 1-2 months after I turn over my manuscript.

What do you look forward to most as a writer these days? How are you enjoying our new freedom? Does it still seem scary, or is it becoming exhilarating?