Thursday, May 20, 2010


Published the following piece in FundsforWriters newsletter a week ago, and with the responses I received, I thought you might like to see it here.


In reading a recent article on teachers and tenure, my mind wandered to the situation all new authors experience. Publishers stick to their seasoned authors to make the lion's share of their profits, and new authors wind up unable to break into the system.

The tenure system was developed several decades ago to protect teachers from arbitrary, discriminatory dismissal. While people have evolved past those types of behaviors, the law still exists, making it difficult to remove tenured teachers who don't perform.

How often do we read well-known authors and shake our heads at how their work has eroded since their first or second exciting release? Many of us even feel we can write better than some of those names, and can't help but feel that this "tenure" status isn't fair. In essence, this "tenure" status holds us back.

Every literary journal originated to give an outlet for good writers. What's sad is that there are so many journals. All feel that they give voice to a select group of emerging authors. If we created a publishing company or journal every time a group of authors felt the need for exposure, we'd each have our own
literary review. Kind of ruins the level of quality.

Who am I to judge quality, you ask? Frankly, if we are flooded with publishing outlets, they lose meaning. Becoming published starts to mean nothing once everyone can do it. It's like publishing your work on a blog in hopes of being discovered. Anyone can create a blog. I know of few agents or publishers who surf the web for random blogs of quality.

Same goes for publishers. If we self-publish to avoid the rejection of traditional publishing, what have we accomplished? Unless we have a strong voice and marvelous platform, we spend  money to publish and still accomplish little. Yes, there is a small minority of writers who are savvy enough to build that platform, self-publish, and make a living. But the odds of you doing that are the same as getting traditionally published.

Back to the original comparison of tenure versus fresh talent.

Tenured authors climbed their way to the top. Name recognition means more than the quality of the writing. Fans are loyal. It's hard to shove those guys and gals aside and get your foot in the door. So what can you do?

1. Write hard and make a name for yourself. Polish your work, enter contests, publish in periodicals until a traditional publisher loves your effort. Just keep doing it, doing it well, and sticking to the task until your cream rises to the top.


2. Self-publish and sell a zillion books, garnering name recognition. Not a hundred books, not a thousand books, but more like five-figure sales.

Pick your route, warm up those writing and selling muscles, and keep working until you succeed. Eventually a publisher will part the tenured crowd, take your hand, and give you a chance. Then it's up to you to prove you are worth keeping.


Then I received this note from a reader, a former publisher's sales rep. Great follow-up.

Hello Hope,

Thanks for your recent Editor's Thoughts, "Tenure VS. Fresh Talent." Both these options definitely need to be discussed, again and again, by all emerging authors, although I do believe that there is a greater possibility for publication, fame and fortune if authors follow your advice in route No. 1. It can't be stressed enough, though, that all authors must write well in order to be published, and that there is no magic pill available to avoid the hard work.

However, as a former publishers' sales rep, I must point out that it's the "tenured," and successful, authors on any publishers' list who make it possible for the publisher to afford to take a chance on publishing that fresh "talent." There are no gate-keepers who are bent on keeping out emerging writers, but rather it's the publishers' bottom lines that dictate who, besides established authors, they will sign. In fact, every editor at the publishing houses I worked with were constantly looking for fresh talent they could "discover." Their problem was that very little quality writing was being submitted to them. So, as you say, making a name for yourself and attracting attention to your writing is very necessary.

Great advice!
Susan Toy
Alberta Books Canada


Sean McLachlan said...

You missed one type of author. In between the stars and the newbies are the midlisters. These are the unknown writers who come out with one or two books and year as well as a lot of magazine articles.

How can a writer be unknown and still make a living at this crazy game? Generally by writing nonfiction. There are midlist fiction authors, but the bottom has fallen out of that market to some extent.

Midlisters aren't tenured, though. If their quality slips, publishers will drop them. If they keep their quality constant, then publishers will often come to them with ideas. Most writers who actually make a living at writing are midlisters. We keep the bookstores full!

Karen Lange said...

Thanks Hope! Have a good weekend:)

darcie hossack said...

Having gone down route#1, I wouldn't consider any other. Publishing houses are looking for the next new authors to eventually take the place of those at the top. They provide careful editing, thoughtful cover art. They are not ominous gate-keepers, keeping out new talent. Rather, they are the sluice gates, making sure only those with real talent and potential pass through.

Self publishing can work (take "I Am Hutterite"). But too many writers who still need schooling and experience try to get around the fence before they're ready, and when someone tells them they aren't, they part with cash to prove they are. It's an expensive lesson.

Brenda Williams said...

There are also writers who are widely read either locally or regionally, but not nationally. They enjoy a good living as local or regional writers with an oftentimes impressive following, yet they are virtually unknown nationally. I think the bottom line is that there are many ways to be successful as a writer and we need to think beyond the traditional box of "bestselling authors" being the only symbols of successful writers.

Carol Lawrence And Stacy Toten said...

Hi Hope, I nominated your blog and website for the 101 best websites award. Good luck! I enjoy receiving your newsletters. Keep up the good work.
Best Wishes, Carol And

Carrie said...

I love reading your posts; this one especially. It seems to me that for any writers looking to publish her first book should take the traditional way rather than self publish. But, what if the traditional way doesn't pan out, should this same writer be penalized for taking the self pub route?

Thank you again, Hope, for another great post!

Hope Clark said...

Penalized? Actually, whether you self-pub or traditionally pub, all that matters is sales. Whichever route you choose, make sure you are dedicated to making the sales. The numbers command respect.

quietspirit said...

Thank you for your thoughts.