How do authors get published?
To acquire some sort of answer to that all-important query, we have to dig into the question a little.
What do we mean when we say ‘published’? Traditionally, and in most of our imaginations still, that meant somehow obtaining enough attention from one of the big publishing conglomerates who would then take our much-loved manuscript off our hands and set about the business of getting it into the hands of readers. To our great relief, we imagine, the giant corporation would pay us a sizeable sum of money and we would step back, ready to receive hefty royalties for the rest of our lives - which we can spend, we think, while pondering upon and perhaps writing more and more books, repeating the process ad infinitum until our happy retirement.
That’s the conventional model, and certainly it’s what hovers in the back of many minds when the idea of ‘getting published’ is mentioned. The reality is a little different, especially in these days of self-publishing and cyberspace. There are the readers, out there in their millions, seeking reading material; and there are the writers, out there in their millions, seeking readers. Never before has the technology existed to potentially bring these two bodies of people closer together without any intervening medium except the hard computer networks which do the linking. ‘Getting published’ is no longer a process which, on the face of it, requires an intervening body: readers are within finger-click reach.
But the modern-day writer often seems clueless about how best to take advantage of this potential. ‘A-ha!’ many think, jumping to their keyboards. ‘All I have to do is promote by book gigantically using these amazing channels of communication! The more people I reach, the more readers I will get!’ It’s a powerful notion, and one which drives a huge amount of commercial marketing today, from the individual writer sitting in his or her bedroom spamming everything that moves, to the larger publishing body hammering away with ads.
We have to take a step back from that, though, to grasp what goes wrong and why so much time and energy is wasted on this model.
What are authors trying to do with stories, short or long?
Writers are aiming to achieve an exact understanding of their material in the minds of various recipients.
They want readers to take their fiction on board, become entangled with it emotionally, and to end up loving it enough to seek more. Every word of their writing, they hope, has been crafted to produce such an effect, consciously or unconsciously. The trick is that their customers, the readers, have to make a purchase before they really know what they’re getting. Hence the enormous focus on blurbs, covers, positioning in the marketplace and enormous volume of advertising, to try to almost hypnotise the general public into reaching for their wallets and purses.
Why don’t we create a model which works the other way round? Why not have books available which, like meals at a restaurant, the customer pays for after they have consumed them? Why not read a book and then pay the bill? Partly because the inherent nature of fiction is intangible. Unlike a meal, which we know serves a fundamentally physical - and obliquely an aesthetic - purpose, a story is all about airy aesthetics and emotions. Having finished a good book, how are we to judge exactly whether or not it is ‘worth the money’? Imagine completing some reasonably enjoyable saga online - would you then feel entirely comfortable digging out a wallet or purse to pay for the experience? What if the book wasn’t quite so enjoyable? Would you try and avoid the payment?
It would be like taking a ride at a funfair and paying for it afterwards: the things produced by fiction and fun are very difficult to quantify, even after the experience. So we get around that difficulty by asking customers to pay for the thing first - usually not a large amount of money - and the customers generally agree with that commercial model, being willing to take a risk on the contents with only a general kind of expectation of what they will receive.
But to get them to make that purchase in the first place? It’s not easy to ‘sell’ intangibles. Hence the fallback to volume advertising: hit enough screens often enough, goes the thinking, and some are bound to buy. The whole process avoids the difficult but necessary question of ‘How do you sell an entirely ephemeral experience?’
You’re a writer; you’ve poured your heart and soul into a book; you’re convinced that, as soon as it appears in the marketplace, it will be avidly consumed by an adoring public - or at least, you hope so. But that adoring public is swamped by two huge oceans: on the one hand, your particular adoring public is lost in the general sea of publics that blend together out in the world; and on the other hand, even if you manage to isolate them somehow, they are overwhelmed already by the massive amount of fiction that is in their faces all the time.
How do you find your particular ‘adoring public’? And how do you make sure that you attract their attention when you have dozens of other authors trying to do the same thing?
You need a science of aesthetics.
You need to understand what exactly is the appeal of a piece of fiction and why one story is ‘better’ than another at attracting attention.