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Novel Writing

I’ve been involved with a number of discussions on the publishing industry and what it means for writers lately. They’ve been tough fights with writers and people from the industry getting quite emotional. I’d like to do my best to discuss the problem without getting carried away.

To me, the problem is simple – the publication of fiction is a mass entertainment industry. As such, it relies on advertising (or hype) even more than the quality of the product. In this field, the primary means of production are writers. As the publishers have become more and more squeezed, they have put more and more responsibility on the writers to take all the risk. That means that the primary means of production is not developed or reinvested in.

In this way, they are not that different than any industry in the US. The main difference in the case of fiction writing is that the primary means of production is still heavily labor intensive.

One of the discussions I was involved in was on a literary agent’s blog. This guy was well meaning and very straightforward, and gave potential novel writers his take honestly. It’s hard to get angry at him for that. But what he said was that if you publish your own novel through the self-publishing route, AND you develop a following by selling it on your own to about a thousand people AND you have another novel in the can, he would take you on because you have proven that you can do what it takes to succeed. What was baffling is that he had no idea, let alone concern, about what this takes.

The time it takes to write a novel is probably 1000 hours, including conception, layout, writing, and editing. The writing is the smallest part of it all, by far. If you can write one in less, adjust the figures accordingly. The time it takes to promote it, especially if you are learning from scratch, is similar. This agent is telling writers that at the end of a commitment of about 3000 hours or so you’ve proven yourself to be a writer – assuming there is some minimum quality in your work. That’s a year and a half at full time, which if you apply an average billable rate according to what you can get otherwise works out to $100k-$200k, depending. That’s the very real opportunity cost for becoming a novelist, and you can do the math for your own situation.

I don’t know any writers who can afford that kind of commitment. The only way you can do this is to either starve yourself to “make it”, or come from a rich family. I’d recommend starting off rich, since the best way to be published is to either have friends in the industry or be able to pay people to pretend to be your friends. Then, you might get in a bit easier.

Publishers and agents have every reason to be concerned about the system as it stands. There are a lot of clear, honest voices that readers could relate to intimately which go unpublished in a system that requires so much fealty. That’s money left on the table. People with kids or some other personal life are not going to be able to invest the kind of time it takes to “make it”. The demand that someone learn how to promote in addition to learning how to write almost certainly means that some of the very best writers are excluded.

The industry needs to know that in the end this is like any other product. It’s the customer that matters. What do customers want? This is not all that well known, and probably never can be particularly refined in an entertainment industry. So if you do not know what customers want, you have to be able to try out ideas in a kind of Minor League where identification and development of talent is done with low overhead. You have to invest in the writers, knowing that not every investment will pay off, because they are your primary means of production.

What is done now is the exact opposite of that. As a result, good writers are going with self-publishing more and more. I strongly advise writers to not bother with the publishers and their games, write for yourself, and publish yourself if you want to write a novel. More and more, this is what is happening. As this takes hold, the big publishers will gradually become irrelevant. That’s what they get for deliberately putting all the risk on the primary means of production and starving it out, rather than investing in it.

Can you see why these discussions get a bit heated at times?

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