To Publish Fiction, or Not to Publish Fiction?

Literary agent Susan Feldstein laments the lack of opportunities for new writers in a celebrity-obsessed industry

A couple of months back, I attended a reading event at a high-profile Northern Irish literary festival. The three talented writers of fiction featured each had very different writing styles and preoccupations, but they all had one thing in common: none of them have as yet had any of their fiction published.

I found myself reflecting on the fact that, in the not-too-distant past such a thing would have been regarded as an anomaly – festival programmers would simply not have contemplated building a literary event around unpublished authors. Today, however, not only is it acceptable, it is becoming the norm, at least for those festival organisers who are striving to offer the public a flavour of the best new writing talent.

At one point in the evening, and as a preface to his reading, one of the authors recounted the highs and lows thus far of his quest to get published. He is Dublin-based and has been writing for almost a decade now. Most authors have such stories – the equivalent of a poker player’s ‘bad beat’ tales, or a fisherman’s ‘the one-that-got-away’ lament.

The lowest point of this writer’s account was when he recalled the humiliating moment that his agent dumped him – just six weeks after signing him up! She delivered the news to him when he made an impromptu visit to her offices, bearing a small gift as a token of thanks for her faith in him.

Next up in his woeful litany was the time a bestselling author took him under her wing and introduced him to her publisher, who proceeded to heap praise upon his book, all the while suggesting that some fairly radical revisions to the plot would clinch the deal. Once he carried these revisions out, however, no offer to publish was forthcoming.

It was then suggested by industry contacts that, in order to ‘build his profile’, he should try to get some of his writing featured in the national press: that would surely get him noticed by publishers. He now writes a very successful column for a big Dublin paper. But still no book deal. And so his quest continues. In the interim, he has self-published the first of his novels and goes around the country trying to flog copies.

As a literary agent myself, this story resonates – in trying to secure publishing deals for many of our fiction authors at the Feldstein Agency, I have experienced similar roadblocks and setbacks. The heady days of publishers signing up unknown writers of fiction on the basis of three sample chapters, read hastily (and often in an alcoholic haze) in their hotel room at the Frankfurt Book Fair are well and truly over.

Now even established authors won’t get away with submitting anything less than a completed, polished draft, which will be subject to the scrutiny of the sales and marketing and finance teams before a modest offer might be made.

It is well known, of course, that some of the greatest literature ever written was not published until after the authors’ deaths – and that many of our most talented writers did not achieve any degree of acclaim, from the public or critics, in their lifetimes. But the situation today in terms of the difficulty of getting good fiction published is in a different league altogether. For the truth is that book publishing is in crisis.

As industry guru David Vinjamur, writing in Forbes magazine, recently observed, we are in the middle of ‘a profound and wrenching transformation of publishing that is shaking the industry to its roots’. Many factors have fed into the current situation, not least the rise of Amazon, massive discounting, e-books, self-publishing and social networking.

The sad reality is that most traditional publishers can no longer afford to invest in new writing: increasingly risk-averse, they put their limited resources into established authors who have an existing track record of strong sales. I would also add into the mix the explosion of celebrity culture – something that has strangled at birth the potential careers of many an aspiring and talented new writer of fiction.

In a ‘celebrity’-obsessed world, when it comes to their fictional output publishers almost always prefer to offer a deal to someone famous (to be divvied up with their long-suffering ghostwriter), rather than take a risk on new writers.

Katie Price, Geri Halliwell, Kerry Katona, Tulisa and Snooki from Jersey Shore: all of these and more have taken to 'writing fiction' for children and adults in recent years. Snooki’s first literary offering, a romantic novel, goes under the imaginative title of The Shore Thing.

Kerry Katona, meanwhile, hinted in a recent interview that she hasn’t ever actually read any of Tough Love, the first novel she ‘authored’. And then, of course, there’s the publishing flop of 2012: Pippa Middleton’s Celebrate – an inane, excruciatingly self-evident collection of ‘party tips’ from the sister of HRH Kate. Though not a fictional book, it may as well have been.

But while industry insiders like myself have been delighting in the recent reports about Middleton’s derisory sales figures and the rising popularity of a spoof Twitter account that ruthlessly parodies her pearls of celebratory wisdom, there’s no doubt that MIddleton herself is laughing all the way to the bank, where her non-returnable six-figure advance was safely deposited many months ago.

And the most galling thing is that the £400k in question could have been used to sign up any number of promising writers of debut fiction whose work the public might actually have enjoyed reading. Yet, while it has never been harder for a fiction author to find a publisher, conversely, it has never been easier to get your book published.

This contradiction makes sense when you make the distinction between the two different routes to publication: the traditional route, and the self-publishing route. Because the path to finding a print publisher is so difficult these days, it’s not surprising that self-publishing has become ever more popular.

Stories of self-publishing successes abound. Amanda Hocking, who writes paranormal romance fiction for young adults, very successfully self-published 17 novels before being signed for a $2m advance by St Martin’s Press NY.

Crime fiction author John Locke has been the first to sell over a million self-published digital books through Amazon. And it’s difficult to ignore the phenomenal success of EL James and her (very poorly written) Fifty Shades trilogy: the life of these books began online, as a series of extracts on her website.

Gone are the days of ‘vanity publishing’, when publishing your own work was seen as the sad product of the overblown ego of someone with more money than sense. A new era has arrived, where self-publishing is now regarded as a perfectly viable, respectable and potentially far more lucrative way to bring your fiction to the market.

The lingo used in the business is evolving to reflect this sea change: these are no longer self-obsessed, self-published writers, but ‘indie’ authors who are championing ‘indie publishing’. Seven self-published works of fiction from four authors made it to the New York Times e-book bestseller list in the months before Christmas 2012, while closer to home, indie authors are making waves too: Catherine Ryan Howard with Mousetrapped, and Hazel Gaynor with The Girl Who Came Home, for example.

The advent of the e-book – which can be produced for a fraction of the cost of a printed book – has made the whole business of getting your work to the market more democratic. It is more financially viable to self-publish these days, but the downsides to these new developments are also becoming clear.

An indie author must be all things to all people, overseeing the editing, design, production, marketing and sales of their products. This, of course, does not leave a great deal of time to do any actual writing! Those with entrepreneurial flair who enjoy self-promotion will flourish – anyone else, not so much.

Beyond this, in a more general way, the market is now being increasingly flooded with a glut of self-published books, and any kind of external quality control may be a thing of the past – whereas traditionally, publishers performed a key role separating the wheat from the chaff and focusing on bringing the reader the best possible version of an author’s work.

Forward-looking people in the publishing industry are, however, optimistic that these ‘teething troubles’ of publishing’s new incarnation will be sorted out sooner rather than later, and that authors and readers will be able to benefit from a new model of operating that will truly open up the market. I’m with them.

Anything that means that publishing will finally be more accessible for those who are creative in the best sense, for the literary risk-takers and those who can write but don’t know the right people, is good with me. Anything that brings us alternatives to the barren wasteland of celebrity trash culture and bandwagon publishing has got to be something positive.