Thursday, 11 February 2016

Brave New World - A Matter of Numbers

I’m continuing to explore the impact that changes in the publishing world are having on the various stakeholders – authors, readers and marketers. My guest this week is Vicki Delany.

A prolific and varied author of crime fiction and sitting president of Crime Writers of Canada, Vicki is well-positioned to offer an insightful perspective. She writes the Year Round Christmas mysteries and, under the pen name of Eva Gates, the Lighthouse Library series, both from Penguin Random House. She is also the author of the Constable Molly Smith series, the Klondike Gold Rush mysteries, and standalone novels of suspense. Her Rapid Reads novella, Juba Good, is currently shortlisted for a Golden Oak award from the Ontario Library association. Vicki’s most recent book is Unreasonable Doubt, the 8th in the Constable Molly Smith series.

A former computer programmer and systems analyst, Vicki lives and writes in bucolic Prince Edward County, Ontario.

In your dual role as an author and president of CWC, what changes have you seen in recent years?

I’ve seen a lot of unhappy authors! This has always been a very difficult business and I doubt there ever was much of a golden period for writers. But as difficult as it was, at least it used to pay better. All reports out of the UK, US and Canada, say that writer’s incomes are down by 50% over the last twenty years, and that’s tough.

I believe the biggest impact on writers’ incomes is the plethora of free books out there. I’d like to ask readers to think before they load up on free books. What’s the value of that book to them? If it’s nothing, okay go ahead. But if you want good writers to continue to write good books then you have to realize that they have to be paid. And that’s what worries me most about the new world of publishing. That we’ve forgotten the value of a book. Will we get to the day when there are a handful of bestsellers making money and everything else is free? And worth exactly what you pay for it: $0.00. 

I won’t be writing, if that’s the case. And neither will a lot of reader favourites.

How have your roles been affected by the changes?

As a writer, I’ve been very lucky. I’m still with the publisher I joined ten years ago, and I have moved between others for other books. I am published now by Penguin Random House, and although they have recently consolidated I’m still hanging in there with my Year Round Christmas Mystery series.
As the president of the CWC, we continue to represent and promote our authors and crime writing in Canada, and our membership is strong and growing. The state of getting Canadian crime writing published is a story for another day.

What is the impact of these changes on authors? On readers? On the book industry overall?

I’m just glad I am not starting out today. In fact, if I was, I’d probably give up. It’s much more difficult to get a first novel published by a major press than it used to be. No one wants to take a chance on an unknown, and a lot of publishers are cutting back the number of books they’re releasing. Plus, there seem to be a lot more people wanting to write a book, so competition for those few first novel slots is intense. On the other hand, I get the feeling there are a lot of new small publishers and mid-sized publishers, and that might be a good thing. As long as their eye is on quality and they know about production and distribution and promoting and are not just in it to make a quick buck off a desperate author. 

What about self-publishing some will say? I’ll mention up front that I would never advise anyone to self-publish their first book. Yes, I just said above that it’s more difficult to get a traditional publisher, but it’s worth the effort. You need that ‘gate keeper’, you need people, professional people, not your mom or best friend, to tell you what’s wrong with your book and how to make it better. Maybe you need someone to tell you it’s not worth publishing, try again. 

I think it’s too early to tell the impact on readers. There seem to be lots of new voices, self-published or published by one of the new small presses, but is that a business model that can sustain good, serious writers over the long term? When larger houses cut back or “consolidate” their output, the readers’ favourites are let go. Writers probably need the support of their readers now more than ever before. If you love a book or an author, let the world know.

What challenges and opportunities do these changes present to the various stakeholders?

It’s harder to get a book published by a traditional publishing house, if that’s what you want. If what you want is to write something and have it “out there” and maybe have a couple of people read it, then self-publishing can be the way to go. But don’t fool yourself that it’s going to lead to a big publishing contract. 

Selling books is a numbers game. If you want a publisher to take you on with anything other than a first, unpublished manuscript, the very first thing they do is look at your numbers. They don’t care if you were with a small, but excellent literary press, or self-published. If you didn’t sell a certain number of copies, they have no interest. Sometimes, the quality of the book doesn’t even matter.

Some established authors are doing well self-publishing their new books or out-of-print ones; they’re what are being called hybrids. These people have a following of loyal readers, they have a network of fellow-authors, they have a track record with respected reviewers, and they know how to play the game. And in many cases, they also still have traditional publishers for other books so they cross-promote. Many hybrids are doing very well in this new world. 

One other group is getting rich off this. And that’s the people out to scam desperate writers. Fake contests, phony agents, “vanity presses” that promise the world and charge thousands of dollars. I got an email just the other day, saying that for a special rate of $99 they’d promote my free book on Amazon. Hum, so I can pay to get nothing in return.

How are you positioning yourself to meet the challenges or take advantage of the opportunities?

I’m doing nothing at all different. Then again, I’ve said that I’ve been lucky and I have. I still publish three or four books a year, all from traditional publishers ranging from mid-sized to one of the big five.

Do you have any additional thoughts you'd like to share?

I’d advise everyone out there who is thinking of writing a book or who has written a book and wants to have it published to learn all they can about the business and the options out there. Networking is key. Networking is how I got my contact with Penguin Random House. I knew someone whose agent was looking for someone…. Be very aware of the scammers I mentioned above.

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