That expression became something of a family joke, as I came around, by easy steps, from being a teller of tall tales, an intermittent scribbler, an unrepentant essayist, a fairly dedicated blogger … to being – as my daughter put it - a real arthur. Yes, a “real arthur” in that I have a number of books, ranging free in the wilderness of the book-reading public. Not that I am in any danger of buying the castle next-door to J.K. Rowlings’, and my royalty checks and payments for consignments and direct sales dribble in but slowly. Slowly, but steadily, which is gratifying. Readers are buying my books, as they find out about them in various ways; through internet searches, through word of mouth, and the odd book club meeting, casual conversation and interviews on blogs and internet radio stations. It has been my peculiar good fortune to have come about to being “a real arthur” just when the established order of things literary was being shaken to the foundations, and not wasted very much time fighting – or trying to smuggle my books past the toothless old dragons of the literary-industrial complex, defending the crumbling castle of Things That Once Were.
Time was – or so the older “real arthurs” tell me – there was an excellent chance that if you were a fairly adept storyteller, with a pleasing voice, a discriminating way with vivid description, and could construct a setting and create characters which the general public would want to pay some trifling amount to read about – you would eventually find a literary agent to talk you up to any number of established publishers, or that someone given the onerous duty of sifting through the slush-pile would fall upon your MS with tears of happy joy. It might take a bit and a couple of tries – but it would happen. The publishing world was small enough, and the body of ambitious scribblers convinced that they had the “next great novel!” within them was small enough that the good stuff would be sifted out from the dross in fairly brisk order; if not at one publisher, then another. And there you go – you would have the benefit of an editor, a printer, a team of publicists to get the word out about your book, ready acceptance at all the established sources for reviewers. The only alternative to that was (*shudder*) the cold hell of a so-called vanity press, the last resort of a scribbler with more money than actual talent. This is what I was assured time and time again, and what I trustfully assumed to be the case when I was a teenager, scribbling embarrassingly derivative fan-fiction in spiral-ring notebooks.
But the world changes and we move on. Sometime around 1997 I remember going to a writer’s club meeting, where there was a presentation by a local printer, outlining what was possible for a writer who was tired of standing outside the castle of the publishing establishment trying to lob their MS over the battlemented wall. What set this little presentation apart was his statement that some authors who had published and printed their books through his business were marketing them to local outlets – and that a good few had gone into second and third printings, due to high demand. He named some titles, which I had recognized because I had seen them, here and there. It did seem like a lot of additional work, taking boxes of copies around to bookstores and souvineer shops, and sweet-talking the owners thereof into putting them among the stock. And a print run of a couple of thousand copies was well-outside my budget at the time. Still, I tucked that tidbit away for consideration at a later time; I hadn’t written a book, anyway, only some freelance articles and short stories.
Even then, it was becoming harder to get the attention of the major publishing houses; and as I began moving closer and closer to be serious about my own writing, the word around the book-blogs was that you had to have an agent. More and more of the big publishing houses not interested in unsolicited manuscripts, and generally preferred to deal only with well-established big names. The chore of actually searching through the slush-pile for the big literary thing was something that had been outsourced to agents.
And then, the agencies were swamped, with the flood-tide of manuscripts, to which I contributed my own bits, only to be sadly informed by a couple of them who did take the time to read them, that although I was a very good writer (or at least fairly competent) my first novel just wasn’t what they termed “marketable to a traditional publisher." I went back to consulting the handful of professional writers that I knew, and to the various knowledgeable book-blogs; ah, the received wisdom was that publishing a novel, and especially a novel by a new and unknown writer was very much a gamble for a publishing house. Before going through all the trouble, and the considerable expense of publishing such a book – major publishers wanted to put their chips on a sure thing, or something very close to a sure thing. Sometimes publishers would ask for marketing plan, including a website and blog, as well as a manuscript. More and more, mainstream publishing looked like Hollywood: ten humongous ten-million-dollar block-buster sure-thing movies a year, rather than a hundred one-million dollar not-quite-sure-thing-maybe-a-little-adventurous movies a year.
Around the time that I was really getting serious about getting published – Print On Demand technology had changed the whole publishing paradigm once again: unlike the old vanity press, which required an outlay of at least a couple of thousand dollars, it was now possible to get in print for considerably less. Of course there were, to put it kindly, quality issues, now that everyone out there who wanted to publish could do so. POD-published books had a horrible reputation – and in most cases, richly-deserved. I also heard frequently that having done a POD book was the kiss of death, in trying for an agent, or a mainstream publishing deal. Submission guidelines for quite a few agencies specified that manuscripts must not have been published.
But the reluctance of traditional publishing to even consider more than just a tiny portion of new authors out there drove more and more first-time authors, and writers with considerable experience with the written and published word to consider POD publishing. Many now go with the various POD services, and the truly dedicated hire an editor themselves, and set up as the boutique publisher of their own book. If the filtering mechanism provided by literary agents, and publishing houses can no longer cope with the quantities of books out there, then publishing through POD at least allows writers to circumvent that bottle-neck, and have readers themselves to be that ultimate filter. Very likely, my own books will be published by the boutique press which I currently work for, once we set up printing services through Lightening Source – the print service used by many POD and traditional publishers. I will have an editor, and the services of a design studio for the cover and interior formatting – why do I need to go through the whole submission process again, now that I have an established fan base through the books that I have out there to date?
There have certainly been some widely-reported success stories over the last decade or so, of books like The Shack or The Christmas Box and The Lace Reader which sold initially and widely as POD books - and suddenly became visible to a traditional publisher. With those books, it seems as if the acquisitions editor at a traditional house came out of a torpid state, exclaiming “OMG, that book has sold a bomb of copies already, we’d better hop onto the gravy-train and sign that author to a deal!” (Note – in 2006, a NY Times article estimated that the average POD book sells 150-175 copies, other experts quoted less than a hundred, possibly as low as 50.) In the last six months or so, I have encountered hints and portents that traditional publishing houses may be reconsidering POD books; yes, even to the point of patrolling Amazon.com, searching out those of excellent quality and consistent, yet unspectacular record of sales.
At least one IAG author that I know of, Dianne Salerni has a contract with a small, but substantial traditional publisher, on the basis of her first book and an option on her second. Harper-Collins UK set up a website called Authonomy which allowed authors to put up all or part of a published or unpublished MS and allow other people to read and recommend. I have read some terrific historical novels at Authonomy, and am considerably mystified that some of the best have not been published with much acclaim months ago. Another book-blog & website, the Publetariat has recently set up a searchable database of books offered by POD authors, to include hard stats on sales and royalties. It appears to be the hope of the Publetariat that making offering this, along with a synopsis and sample chapters, would make it easier for agents and publishers to locate promising books with a proven record. I don’t imagine that the business of writing books – and it is a business, never mind how much one enjoys the writing aspects of it – will ever go back to the old way, of lobbing manuscripts over the castle walls, in the hope that they will magically fall into the hands of a kindly editor. Seriously, though – I think I’m having more fun this way.