I just got back from the Northwest Institute for Literary Arts MFA residency on Whidbey Island, here in Washington State, where creative writing grad students got to hear from a few literary agents and publishers, who told us what’s going on in the publishing world.
Three quick observations:
1. Traditional agents and publishers continue to offer fewer services (editing, promotion, distribution) and smaller advances to authors. They don’t quite acknowledge how much trouble they are in, and the reforms they will need to make to remain profitable are not yet on the table.
2. Traditional agents and publishers are still concerned about an author’s platform (e.g. “How many Facebook friends do you have? How many Twitter followers? Are you on LinkedIn?”).
I’m a bit of a weirdo in that I don’t see platform as very important. It’s a better strategy, as always, to write a remarkable book, because it’s easier for readers to find you than ever before. If your book is remarkable, your platform will generate itself.
(For an idea of what I mean by remarkable, see Seth Godin’s talk on it. It’s for marketers, but it applies to everybody, including writers.)
3. A couple of interesting changes in the language. First, “agents and publishers” are now called “traditional agents and publishers” to distinguish them from the indie or electronic world of publishing.
Second, rather than acknowledge that “self-published” no longer deserves the lame vanity stigma that it acquired years ago, they’ve embraced the phrase “independent publishing” or “indie publishing” and even “indie author” (a phrase I enjoy to no end). The phrase “self-published” has slipped further, and is becoming obsolete among agents and publishers.
So if you’ve published your earlier work electronically and are pitching your latest novel to an agent:
BAD: “I self-published my first novel.”
GOOD: “I’m already an experienced indie author.”
No more cold stares from agents and publishers on this topic. They have seen the success of ebooks and have reached the stage of grudging respect. And that, at least, is great news.