May 04 2009

Writers are dispensable; readers are not

If you’re looking to get a novel published, I think that understanding the Boston Globe’s difficulties will help you.

The Globe… is on track to lose $85 million this year.  Advertising revenue at the paper and its Web site declined more than 30 percent in the first quarter of the year…

Rooney said: “The [Globe’s owner] has really handled this about as badly as you could.   The Boston Globe is the newspaper of record here. It would be like The Washington Post disappearing. That’s what the Globe is to this community. They still break news. They’re the only ones who really have the resources.”

Rooney is convinced that the Globe and its writers are indispensable to their community and bosses.  That’s totally wrong.  Writers are very easy to replace.  There are no magical “resources” that can make a writer irreplaceable.  That applies to novelists and comic book writers as much as journalists.

Publishers can easily dispense of you. They don’t care about your “resources” and they can find someone with better credentials, too.  But they cannot dispense with your audience. Your relationship with publishers is dictated by your audience.  If you have readers, publishers will pay accordingly to have you on board.  If you have no readers, you have no leverage and have to beg publishers to take you.  “Well, this could get readers if only you would publish me.”  That’s not a very compelling case.

Many young authors convince themselves that the only thing standing between them and getting published is quality.  Quality certainly matters, but let’s be real here.  Tom Clancy’s novels receive advances that are thousands of times larger than average.   Is it really because Tom Clancy writes that much better than everybody else?  Please.  (If you fear that your writing is really that much worse than TC’s, please read The Cardinal of the Kremlin to get up your self-esteem).  Tom Clancy is only paid so much because his books sell freakishly well.   He is published and paid at least as much for his audience as the quality of his writing.  In contrast, the Boston Globe is facing the prospect of extinction because it is hemorrhaging readers.  If you lose your audience (or never had one), you can and will be thrown away.

Quality is a tricky thing.  For one, it’s controversial.  Very, very few manuscripts are so wildly awesome that they are accepted everywhere they are submitted.  So many people are involved– publisher’s assistants and editors and acquisitions staffers at publisher– that there’s a ton of room for personal tastes and preferences.  If you hope to sell a manuscript purely on quality rather than your audience,  you are leaving yourself at the mercy of their tastes.

Unlike quality, audiences are easy to measure and undeniable.  They are incontrovertible evidence that your work is generally good enough to read.  They strongly suggest that your style is effective.  Having an audience can make the difference between “this doesn’t work for me” and “this doesn’t work for me, but the sales potential is too big to ignore.”  It will be much easier for them to visualize your success if you are already succeeding.

My recommendation for you is that you build an audience before you start looking for publishers.  Blogging is an easy and extremely cheap way for a young author to establish that he’s good enough to publish.  For example, I’ve spent $100 and two years blogging and I’ve had 150,000 readers.  A blogger can find an audience even if he doesn’t have sterling writing credentials.  (If you would like some advice on starting a blog, please see here and the rest of our blogging category).

Alternately, write for a magazine or a newspaper or a journal.  They’re also a good place to start because they care less about the size of your audience than most novel publishers do.

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