The Landscape of Publishing by D.A. Adams (GUEST POST)

The landscape of publishing changes daily. Some of these changes are for the better; others not so much. No one can predict with any level of certainty what it will look like next year, next month, next week, or even tomorrow for that matter. One of the positive changes from my perspective is the shift away from a centralized hub in New York.

When I was starting out, the general rule of thumb was that a serious writer had to go there, at least for a little while, to build connections within the industry, to be known by the right people. Sure, it was possible to work in other regions and become known, but for the most part, we were taught that time in New York was part of the deal. In 1992, the notion of reaching a broad audience as a writer without connections in the city of cities was preposterous. Today, not only is that notion becoming obsolete, it seems ridiculous it was ever true. I’m not a bestseller by any estimation, but without setting foot in New York City, I’ve sold books in 49 states and at least seven nations. The internet has transformed the game.

Another positive shift, which comingles with the first, is the rise of small presses. Before the 1960’s, dozens of publishing houses flourished, providing authors with a myriad of options for producing their works. Then, the era of consolidation began as conglomerates bought up publisher after publisher. Today, there are six major publishers left standing. While they may have divisions and imprints, the bulk of publishing is controlled by these six companies: Random House, Penguin Putnam, HarperCollins, Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings,Time Warner, and Simon & Schuster.

For authors, this means fewer outlets for publication and an industry dominated by mega-book-deals. These houses are more likely to publish a memoir from a drug-addled, washed-up celebrity than a serious novelist because that celebrity already comes with a platform and is much more easily marketed than an unknown storyteller. As a result, the fiction market has struggled with mediocre quality for at least 20 years, maybe more. That’s not to say there aren’t good writers at the big houses. There are, but the richness of diversity that marked earlier eras of American fiction has nearly dried up and become a homogenous landscape of the same authors telling the same story over and over.

Today, the pendulum is moving the other way. While the big six still dominate overall sales, small presses are finding gems once lost in the slush piles and getting them to market. By adapting to changing technologies and utilizing more efficient distribution models, small presses have established a foothold within the industry. When I was in graduate school in the late 90’s, the words small press meant one of two things: university press or vanity press, and both were considered career suicide. There were serious stigmas attached to each. Today, those stigmas are dissolving as more and more readers discover that often the works produced by small presses are superior to that of the big six. Don’t get me wrong; vanity presses are still the scourge of the industry. However, small press no longer equates to vanity press. I predict that over the next decade, as the tidal wave of self-publishing recedes, a hundred or so small presses will remain, those that have established a solid reputation for quality over quantity and those that best create platforms within the new media for reaching their audiences.

Which brings me to what I consider the worst change in publishing over the last decade, the biggest hurdle to overcome, and the thing that frustrates me more than anything: how to get our works in front of our audiences. When I was a kid, books were sold pretty much everywhere. Drug stores had racks of paperbacks near the counter. General stores had a small section of popular works. There were book stores scattered around town owned by people who loved reading. Today, if a drug store has a book section, it’s located in the middle of the store, which may not seem like a big deal, but the shift is important.

Items around the edges and near the register are there for impulse purchases. Items in the middle are for intentional shoppers, the people who purposefully go there looking for that specific product. The structure of the system has nearly eliminated impulse purchases from publishing. I can’t tell you how many authors I discovered by accident as a kid while browsing the rack near the register waiting for the adult to pay. I can’t tell you how many authors were suggested to me by the local bookstore owner who knew my likes and dislikes. Most of the reading I did as a child and teenager had some element of impulse purchase connected to it. Those days are gone. In the remaining chain booksellers, premium space is bought by the big six to promote whatever mega-book-deal they’re pushing that month, and in my experience, the employees rarely know the customers beyond a cursory level.

About the only places left to create impulse purchases are at
festivals, conventions, and book fairs, and these require time and money on part of the author. Though often the best method for finding new readers, attendance at these events can strain our budgets. While the internet has leveled the field and provided a long reach to even someone like me living and working in rural East Tennessee, it doesn’t often lend itself to impulse purchases. For one, because of the ease of self-publishing, everybody with access to a computer seems to have a new book out now. The market is super-saturated, so readers are bombarded by a plethora of unknown names all vying for their purchase.

If you don’t believe me, go to Facebook or Google+ and create a new group for readers. Sit back and watch as dozens of authors pour in to promote. Within a week, you’ll have at least twice as many writers as readers actively posting in that group. Amazon makes recommendations of our works, but it takes years to become regularly recognized by its algorithm, unless you get lucky and suddenly “go viral.” Right now, the single biggest conundrum we all face in this new reality is how to get our works noticed, how to make a dent in people’s consciousness over the noise and confusion of big media advertising.

Despite these obstacles, today is great time to be a writer. With any great obstacle comes tremendous opportunity. Since the landscape is unknown, we have the potential to forge it into anything we want, if we are creative and innovative enough to find solutions to these hurdles. To me, the most important thing an author can do for their career during this transition is focus on the quality of their skills. Since more people are publishing, your work has to be that much better to stand out. Since so many are rushing to market, the works that have a chance to be remembered and followed are the ones that make the best impression.

For writers who want to ride the long tail, the key to sustainability will be substance over marketing, memorable works over flashy gimmicks. For the last 20 years, the opposite was true, but the pendulum is shifting back, and we are entering a new literary era. The way we can reclaim the market from the big six is to produce better books, utilize technology more efficiently, and out-hustle them on the learning curve. It’s definitely a great time to be a writer.



About the Author

D. A. Adams is a novelist, a farmer, a professor of English, and in my estimation, a true gentleman. His breakout fantasy series, The Brotherhood of Dwarves, transcends genre and illuminates the human soul in all its flashes of glory and innumerable failings.

He is active on the Con circuit and has contributed writing to literary as well as fine art publications, and maintains his active blog, "The Ramblings of D. A. Adams". He lives and works in East Tennessee, and is the proud father of two boys, Collin and Finn.

His ability as a storyteller breathes life into every character, and his craftsmanship as a writer makes these stories about relationships; human or otherwise.



About the Book

Between Dark and Light:
The stakes are higher than ever in the fourth installment of the popular dwarven saga!
The Great Empire has surrounded the Kiredurks and are preparing to conquer the kingdom, but unknown to them, Kwarck, the mysterious hermit of the plains, has his own plan in action. To the east, he has summoned an elven army and charged Crushaw with leading them into battle. To the south, Roskin will gather an army from the fractured Ghaldeon lands. But to the west, an ancient and powerful evil stirs.
The Great War is about to errupt, if Roskin can overcome the Dark One...


  1. Nice outlook on the industry, Mr. Adams! I enjoyed the read!

  2. I hadn't thought about outlets for impulse buys. Interesting post.


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