Impressions from the Santa Barbara Writer's Conference - 2016

Last week I attended an intense five-day writers conference in Santa Barbra. The Hyatt is a beautiful old hotel on the beach. The Hyatt staff are wonderful, attentive people.  The staff at the conference were also a wonderful group of writers. I enjoyed my time under their ‘Gentle tutelage’ and learned many things. The single thing that made the most impression on me however, was an “agent’s panel” made up of 4 agents and an editor that will remain unnamed. The overwhelming impression that I had from these folks is that  Self Publishing, both On Demand Publishing Paper and the various electronic formats, are eating their collective lunch.

What does that mean to writers?  It means that the traditional publishing world is trying to stay in business. They are struggling to adapt.  Like any industry faced  with a literal sea change some of them are succeeding some times, the rest are  going down, to finish the metaphor, while the rats desert the ship in droves.  On one hand they are overwhelmed by the implications of electronic publishing. The idea of Digital Rights Management (DRM) to restrict access to a book to the person that bought it excites them to no end.  The idea that On Demand Printing means a great reduction in returns, and remaindered books also excites their bottom line focused little hearts.  

Our excitement over self publishing, our collective confidence that we can do this better, and faster than the publishing houses drives them crazy. A publisher can take months to complete a project. Their fossilized processes are slow to respond to changes in the market. It can take months for an agent, who’s only contribution is often just a list of editors that they can contact, to find that editor.  The editor, once they have accepted your work can take months to turn around edits, design covers, and decide how big your minuscule advance will be. Through the whole process the people involved can change, the house may disappear, your champions, the agent and the editor, may lose interest or move on. All of these are real world problems given of examples of the hard road you have chosen with traditional houses. The problems just get worse because the process of going from final draft to end product will take months. The publicity, that should be their venue, book tours, signings, adds in other media, and other advertising for your work have all fallen away. Unless your book is picked up by Hollywood, or your name is on the same popularity shelf with King or Childs, they expect you to do it for them; without being a self publisher while your work on your next book that they wont buy.

At the conference I heard people say over and over again, "You need three to six books to build an audience.”  Thats fine for self publishing, but for traditional publishing it just does not work. First, you don’t have time to write that many books and then wait years to see them in print.  Second it’s a chicken-egg question. If the traditional agent wont touch your work until you have an audience, how do you build an audience?  Answer, self publish. Some agents say, “Im smart enough to google you and if I find you are self published, I don’t want to see any of your work." — Working fiction agent.  It is a classic Catch 22, you have to build an audience to get an agent but you can’t publish to build an audience. 

In the traditional model, once a book is sent off to the printer and thousands of copies were made, even more time slipped by because the system moves in cycles. The publisher has a catalog of books that they sell to the bookstores.  If your book is finished too late for the current catalog, then you have to wait for the next.  Some publishers put their catalog on line but they still cling to two, three, or four cycles per year.  The online tool is not used the way it should be. The impression is that the processes in the industry processes and timelines are set in stone.  

The bottom line is that traditional publishing is suffering a crisis of change.  Until they stop fighting the changes, and embrace all it means to be able to use electronic media, they are doomed to fail.  Until they develop ways to support people like us instead of erecting filters and roadblocks they will find themselves publishing nonfiction that has been rolled over by history, and fiction that is outpaced by the current culture.  They may find prosperity in the field of memoir.  Perhaps they can keep each other alive in the good old days.