I have another reader question for my every-other-week writing post, this one about how the publishing world has changed or is changing.
When you're talking about the major publishers, change happens very slowly. When I sold my first book in the early 90s, I submitted it by snail mail, and the letters from my editor were typed rather than printed on computers. I moved to one of the major publishers in the mid-90s, and the first letter I got from my editor there used all the fonts because she'd just got a computer and was having fun playing with it. Although I submitted on paper via snail mail, they did ask me to send a disc with the final version after revisions. Meanwhile, at my day job we had been using computers for years and had even started using e-mail and the Internet for just about everything.
It's not too terribly different today. I now send all my manuscripts by e-mail and do most of my communication with my editor and agent via e-mail, but my current editor likes to work on paper, so I get edits on paper (I have a box full of versions of the upcoming book). Communication is quicker and easier when not everything has to be sent in the mail, but a lot of the process is similar.
But the overall environment has really changed. Books used to go out of print pretty quickly because the only place to buy books was in bookstores, and there's only so much shelf space. Now, there are all the online retailers that can continue to stock paper books, and with e-books no book ever has to become unavailable. That's meant that contracts now need to be specific about the definition of "out of print" to include a certain number of copies of e-books sold so publishers can't hold on to rights forever because the book is available in electronic form. This has created some nice opportunities for authors, as having books readily available helps them continue to make sales. I'm still getting fan mail for a book that was first published ten years ago, and I continue to earn good royalties on it. I think in the pre-e-book era that book would be long out of print.
Another change that hasn't been so great for authors is the consolidation of publishers. There used to be a lot of publishers you could submit a book to, but now we're down to six (or is it five by now?). They may still have multiple imprints, but they vary on whether they consider a rejection by one at the house means a rejection by all imprints. This also means that they're very bottom-line driven, and computerized sales report systems mean they know exactly how well any book is doing. If it doesn't hit well right out of the gate, they move on to the next thing. It's getting to the point where all the big publishers want to deal with are the big stars and the newcomer potential stars. There's not a lot of room for midlist authors with steadily growing careers.
Fortunately, this is happening at the same time that self-publishing is taking off. This is no longer the vanity press of people publishing poems about their cats. A lot of very smart businesspeople are making a lot of money by publishing their own books. The ones who succeed really treat it like their own publishing company, hiring editors and designers and doing a lot of promotion. Authors are re-publishing their backlist that's gone out of print and publishing new material. Since so many books are rejected by the big publishers not because of quality but because they don't fit a niche or aren't something guaranteed to be an instant smash, this offers a way for those books to find an audience. It might not necessarily be a big enough audience to meet a major publisher's profit requirements, but it might be more than enough to earn a healthy living for an individual author who doesn't have the overhead expenses of a major publisher.
At the same time, publishers are starting to use the ranks of the self-published as a kind of slushpile. Instead of taking a risk on an untested new author, they can pick up someone who's already had some success. This can be a good opportunity for authors, but it also means authors have to shoulder the financial risk of initially getting their books out there rather than getting paid up-front the way they do when selling to a publisher from the start.
And there's the potential for more changes in store. With so many people reading on electronic devices, might we see more things like books with embedded soundtracks or video clips? Or "choose your own adventure" type stories that take advantage of the medium? Serials are currently fairly popular -- a novel published in small chunks. That's a return to the way authors like Charles Dickens wrote, so it's not a new idea, but it's happening in new ways. The new markets may change the form of stories or the way authors write.
I'm currently straddling the line between traditional and independent -- I have books from major publishers and books I'm publishing myself. It's rather liberating to know that even if a publisher doesn't want something, I can still publish it myself. One thing that's changed in the way I work is that this means I'm mostly writing complete novels instead of proposals. I think my proposals are a lot stronger when I've at least drafted the whole thing and polished the beginning with the end in mind, and if I know I'm going to be self-publishing it even if the publisher doesn't want it, there's no reason not to write the whole book and make the proposal as strong as possible. I've been able to continue a series that the US publisher didn't want and launch a new series that didn't fit a niche, even while selling a new book to a publisher. There are pluses and minuses to each side of the equation, so having a foot in each is nice.