Jetsam and Assorted Ephemera
Do you know the difference between flotsam and jetsam? Flotsam is wreckage - stuff lost at sea as a direct result of a disaster - whereas Jetsam is useful stuff thrown overboard to lighten the load. Flotsam is, at best, useful for keeping survivors briefly afloat, but for the most part it just gives you slivers; while jetsam is the sort of thing beachcombers spend their lives looking for.
Welcome to the Age of Jetsam - where we're all waiting to see what useful things are being jettisoned during the storm we are currently weathering. And what, after all is said and done, might be salvageable.
Even before the pandemic, I heard stories about the sad state of the publishing industry.
Now that retailers in general are in survival mode, with many restaurants, specialty stores, nightclubs, and other businesses surrendering to the economic chaos of the moment, I've started to hear the inevitable stories of authors not getting paid, bookstores and printers going belly up, and publishers on the verge of bankruptcy. Publishing has always been among the most precarious of businesses in terms of profitability, so it won't be a huge surprise if some big publishers and literary agencies go under. Who knows when, or even if, the bad news will come? But some things are inevitable - like major disruptions of publishing schedules, with new and lesser known writers taking the hardest hit. Scheduled launches will likely be delayed indefinitely or even cancelled. Many, many books will become part of the flood this coming fall and winter - with two or three times the usual number of new releases hitting the shelves at the same time. Best-selling writers should do better than most, although the reading audience will have such an embarrassment of riches, almost anything could get lost in it.
Long-term, I imagine that the COVID-fired recession will quite likely result in the demise and disappearance of one or more big publishing companies, and will probably lead to further consolidation of imprints as the weaker players get bought out by the stronger ones. The worst part for authors caught in the middle of this will be the uncertainty, with no one sure where they stand regarding rights to their own work; how long they will be trapped in limbo; or what it means for their future books.
Some people are fairly bullish about the indie e-book market, but I have seen little discussion about print books beyond the impending doom and gloom around the big publishers. What of the small publishers? Surely this will affect any distribution deals they may have, or the chances of getting new titles into bookstores. But hopefully small publishers can be nimble and adaptable enough to get around the barriers, sell hard copies as well as e-books on line, and find affordable and speedy shipping options.
If you have a comprehensive self-publishing plan, now is the time to put it into high gear.
Publishing Experiments that Worked
Non-traditional publishing routes have worked for lots of people over the years, sometimes even with Hugh Howie, Andy Weir, or E.L. James levels of success. I was mighty impressed by a couple strategies that helped launch some literary careers into the stratosphere. For instance...
Weird fiction writer, Jeff VanderMeer, never took the ordinary route, despite being a recognized and celebrated talent from early on in his writing career. While his gift was undeniable, his work never fit comfortably into established genre definitions. Weird fiction has always been around, but the venues for it are few and far between. It takes patience, open-mindedness and a certain brand of "readerly" intelligence to truly appreciate challenging and transgressive fiction - and commercial publishers know that the majority of their audience will not approach the work with the necessary perseverance. So Jeff, like many writers of weird fiction had to work from the small fiction trenches - from which few ever escape. Undaunted (or at least, not sufficiently daunted) he proceeded to demonstrate "the value of mule-like perseverance in the face of" indifference, incompetence and pretty much any other barrier that got in his way. Because of this trait, he was able to guide the evolution of his novella Dradin in Love, into the novel City of Saints and Madmen - in a spectacular edition that established him as a literary presence.
A few years back, VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy rose, one book at a time to the top of the New York Times bestseller list and the first book was adapted into the hit movie, Annihilation. Those books were no less strange and idiosyncratic than any that came before, but they enjoyed mass distribution and wide-spread popularity. How? There's no doubt that Vandermeer built up a following as editor/publisher at his Ministry of Whimsy Press and his magazine, Jabberwocky. He was also a prolific writer and dedicated networker. But it was all a result of that mule-like perseverance; believing in himself; building a following of true fans (many of whom were successful writers) and simply selling his vision to the world.
The markedly different path taken by Brandon Sanderson started quite conventionally, with him selling his first few books to Tor. Then his career started going a different direction, as he was hired to complete Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. The prolific young writer was looking to build an audience of his own - independent of the Jordan books conducted an interesting experiment in 2006-2008 by publishing his new novel, Warbreaker serially online as he wrote it - initially on his own website, but then making the entire book available for free on the storytelling platform, Wattpad, prior to the Tor books edition appearing in 2009.
Sanderson said in his introduction to the online version, "I wanted something I could give away for free which would show what I’m capable of writing and therefore (hopefully) encourage people to look into my other books. I figure that if people give my books a try, they’ll be hooked and read the other ones." "I believe that releasing at least one novel for free will bring my work to many readers who wouldn’t otherwise be familiar with my work. The potential gains far outweigh the potential losses."
The experiment succeeded wonderfully, winning him a legion of new fans.
Adapting the Lessons to One's Own Circumstances
Despite constantly wavering confidence, I still manage to look at my own just-completed manuscript (The Human Template) as a thing of beauty. I compare it to works of writers I love and believe that it stands proudly beside them as a work of imagination – rich in ideas and bold in execution. I look at the quality of the prose and remain confident that my book contains turns of phrase, passages, and scenes that are memorable; characters that are rich and three dimensional; conflicts and arcs that work on literal as well as allegorical/metaphorical levels.
Even if it’s not self-aggrandizing b.s. and all those things are true, it still doesn’t assure any sort of success or recognition. There are far too many other variables. Does it catch any sort of zeitgeist? Is it strong enough to stand out? Does it have a modern enough sensibilty to be relevant to an audience? Does it hang together as a story/series, draw readers in, and carry them toward a compulsive and engaging climax? A number of my readers to this point have assured me that it does.
Just as important are the marketplace considerations. I originally hoped to go the traditional route - selling it to a reputable imprint through an agent. Having just barely started down that path, I looked at the turmoil of the retail marketplace together with the dynamics of the publishing industry, and decided to take an alternate route of my own design. I'm no Brandon Sanderson or Jeff VanderMeer. I don't have a big existing fanbase or groundbreaking genius. But I do have a good book that an encouraging portion of the readers so far have genuinely loved - and most of the rest at least enjoyed. It is a prequel to the bigger book that I will be putting finishing touches on over the next few months. And I've decided that it's worth the gamble of making it available for free, to hopefully pique the public's interest in the second book - which will most likely not be free - but won't come with the high-price tag of traditionally published books. I have all kinds of marketing plans, including some that are pretty experimental.
While the book is being professionally edited over the next month or two, I will be launching my own website - through which The Human Template will be made available for free. I will then likely follow Sanderson's example of putting it on Wattpad before self-publishing as a POD/e-book.
I’m sure all of this has been done before by other writers…but I’ll be knitting in as many interesting new twists as I can come up with and maybe the timing will work in my favour. Maybe I’ll be in the right place at the right time and with the right inspiration. I'll be learning lessons from pioneers and trying to break some ground of my own. Rather than letting random market forces decide the fate of my book, (forces that have been quite unkind to many friends of mine) it's time to gamble that my own faith in the work can help me persevere through what could be a futile venture. It can't go much worse than many scenarios I have seen play out over the past few years - and it has the potential to do much better. If I can sell reach goal number one and make back my investment, then everything after that is gravy!
And if it just ends up as so much jetsam, floating anonymously around the internet - here's hoping it will please the hell out of whatever literary beachcombers happen to stumble upon it.
Get the scoop on my new novel, The Human Template at https://dalelsproule.com.