Publishing Then and Now

A few weeks ago Barbara Vortman posted a comment on my blog. She said, “I remember when your first book was published. Can you tell us how marketing has changed since then and how you adapted? I have never been a self-promoter and I detest the job. My novel will languish forever on Amazon because I don’t have the time, energy, know-how or inclination to market it.”

Well, Barbara, I’m having the same problems you seem to be having. Marketing has definitely changed since my first books were published. I remember back in the 1980s, when I was writing for Harlequin Temptation. My first book had been published and I and another Harlequin writer were flown to a reader’s party. Harlequin’s PR person picked me up at the airport, the other writer and I had a TV interview set up for us, we were taken to dinner, spent the night in a hotel, and were treated like royalty.

All Harlequin writers back then, from time to time, were sent gifts. These were the same gifts the company sent to their book club members. Harlequin paid for the ads that went out to the media about the books being released. Sometimes radio and/or print interviews were set up for us, in person or via telephone.

Back then writers often complained that Harlequin treated us like horses in a stable. It was the Harlequin brand that was important, not the writer. So many writers wanted to write for them, if one writer asked for something more than a boilerplate contract, she could be replaced by another writer. There was even a time when Harlequin made writers use pseudonyms that Harlequin would own.

But then things began to change. By the late ‘80s early ‘90s some writers had gained so much popularity their requests for special clauses in their contracts couldn’t be ignored. Writers demanded control of their names. We were no longer an interchangeable group but individuals. Romance Writers of America had been formed and began looking at publishing practices. And, of course, the computer and the Internet began to change how writers wrote and communicated.

By the late ‘90s the Internet had become an integral part of a writer’s life. We talked to each other, shared ideas, contract terms, and earnings. The writer became the brand, and some writers saw the role e-books would take on in the future and were smart enough to get their rights back on outdated books. By then several publishing companies had either been gobbled up by the larger corporations or had gone out of business. Editors and staff were being cut back. Agents were now viewed as first readers and had become a requirement for submitting to most of the large publishing houses. Nationwide the distributors that once numbered in the hundreds were down to a handful. Paper costs had driven up the cost of books and forced publishers to cut back on the number of pages. In most families, both adults worked. Time was limited. Younger readers weren’t reading books. Games, TV, movies all vied for a person’s time. Independent bookstores went out of business.

In the early 2000s, once the cost of e-readers became accessible, e-books became a reality. Writers who had been dropped by publishers due to cutbacks (the bottom line has become the literary evaluator for those corporate publishers) and those writers frustrated by their inability to even break into the market, turned to self-publishing. Those who jumped in early have done great; now everyone is self-publishing. The gatekeeper is gone. Readers don’t always know how to evaluate a well written book from one that needed a lot of editing before being published.

Writers, whether traditionally published or self published, have learned if they wanted to rise to the top, they needed to publicize. As we’ve taken on that role, the publishing houses have smiled and stepped back. Best way to save money: let the writer do the promotion. No more reader parties. No more ads in national magazines except for those authors who they know are going to sell millions of copies.

And so here we are—2016—writers who only want to write are having to put on their marketing hats, having to become PR experts. It’s great and it’s terrible. Some writers can handle the dual parts of the business without any trouble. For others, including me, it’s a pain in the…aspirations.

How has publishing changed over the years? In some ways it’s exciting. Good books that might have been turned down by a publishing house because the marketing department didn’t see a large sales potential are being published. Topics that publishing houses don’t want to touch are being published. The writer has more control over cover, blurbs, editing; can earn a larger amount from each sale; and can control how the book is promoted. But those pluses can also be negatives. The writer is now responsible for the cover and may not have the finances to pay for a professional looking cover or the knowledge of what sells best. Editing can be expensive. Promotion can be expensive and time consuming.

In some ways it’s sad. Four corporations (or is it still five?) control most of the large publishing houses. Many smaller publishers have popped up, but many more, over the years, have disappeared.

Publishing will continue to change and I’ve learned I must, too. I’ve always had my books published by a traditional publisher. I am now working on a story that I’m pretty sure I will self-publish. I will try to learn new ways of promoting my work. What will stay the same is I will continue writing the best books I possibly can write.

What do I miss the most?

Maybe those gifts from Harlequin.

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18 Responses to Publishing Then and Now

  1. Very good summary of the changes over the decades. My first book came out in 1988 (nonfiction) and my first novel in 1993. I never got the treatment you did (since I didn’t write for Harlequin) but just the general regard for writers still existed. That’s long gone now.

  2. So much has changed that’s for sure! Thanks for sharing your insights, Maris.
    Good luck and God’s blessings

    • Maris Soule says:

      Thank you, Pamela. Sometimes is nice to look back at how things have changed, and even though many of the changes have been good one, I’m sorry to see large corporations now control so many publishing houses.

  3. Lucy Kubash says:

    When I was writing for the magazine, I feel the competition wasn’t quite as stiff as it now. There are so many many more writers submitting to WW. As you said, writers have more options now, but we trade that for having to do more of our own work. I really don’t like the promoting so much, because of the time it takes, but I’m learning!

    • Maris Soule says:

      Lucy, I didn’t comment on the short story market, but the changes there have not always been great for writers. Back in the early ’80s there were many magazines that published short stories and paid well. Now only a handful exist making competition stiff.

  4. Susan Dunn says:

    This is a great summary, Maris. Some bad, some good.

  5. Melissa Keir says:

    It would be nice to have the treats that were given out during the 1980’s. Those were the times but I remember having favorite authors up and disappear… I never heard from them again, why? Because they didn’t sell the story that the publishing house wanted. What a sad state for sure!

    • Maris Soule says:

      You’re right, Melissa. Several authors I knew and liked quit writing for Harlequin and other publishers because they didn’t want to be pigeon-holed into writing the same type of story with every book. Once a “type” of story sold well, that’s all the publisher wanted…until that type stopped selling well.

  6. Joe Novara says:

    At 75, I’ve decided that I don’t have a long and famous career ahead of me and will skip the flurry of self promoting being content to write as well as I can with the promise that offers of mindful living.

  7. I did get gifts from Harlequin though never the star treatment you did. But I remember one terrific party in New York. Your description of the changes in the publishing industry is right on target, honest and true.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Oh yes, Harlequin’s parties. Loved those parties. I haven’t attended a RWA Conference for years. Does Harlequin still put on a great party? What year in New York, Jacqueline? I wonder if we were both there.

  8. Barbara Vortman says:

    Thanks for responding to my question about how publishing/marketing etc. has changed. I guess it was never the “bed of roses” I’d imagined. Nice review of the good, bad, and ugly of authorship!

    • Maris Soule says:

      Barbara, thanks for asking the question in the first place. And you’re right, nothing is quite as good as we like to think it was…but I will say, I loved writing for Harlequin, Silhouette, and Bantam.

  9. Catherine Dilts says:

    Nice summary, Maris! I haven’t been in the business as long, but I recall in my pre-published days that every 5 years or so, there was a new gloom and doom prediction that publishing, reading, and/or books were going belly-up. Success (however you measure it) goes to the persistent and optimistic.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Catherine, you’re so right about persistence being the key. It’s the writer who doesn’t give up who outlasts the doom and gloom reports. I’ve always told new writers persistence is as important as talent in getting published. (And a little optimism doesn’t hurt.)