Literary agents who used to make a good living from a range of authors now struggle to interest the market in new "content". Unless this new "content" is in effect risk-free, it is, says literary agent Deborah Rogers, doyenne of Rogers, Coleridge and White (RCW), "much, much harder to get books you love published. Even when a writer has a respectable track record, you still find sales and marketing throwing up their hands in horror".Another straw in the wind: I was talking to a lady novelist friend last week who mentioned that her agent - an independent with no particularly high profile - has received twelve thousand unsolicited manuscripts since the start of the year. Twelve thousand in not much more than a couple of months!
Rejections are now commonplace. Advances have been slashed, where possible. The process of submitting new books by unknowns has become, in the words of one , "a bloody nightmare".
McCrum, though, isn't all doom:
But this perfect storm may have a silver lining: the IT revolution. Just as one generation of writers faces the prospect of the garret, another kind of challenge confronts the new kids on the block: how to navigate the myriad, conflicting opportunities and temptations of online publishing.
It seems to me that traditional publishing provides three key things: production, distribution and marketing (editing is now for the birds). Production is available more or less for no upfront payment from sites such as Lulu.com. Distribution is now available online via Amazon etcetera for the modest cost of an ISBN number. Money invested by your publisher in a marketing plan would be nice but is becoming rare. In fact, as the 'risk-free' comment quoted above suggests, publishers are only likely to take you on if you have some form of ready-made profile or PR plan (hence the ubiquity of celebrity pulp).
So it may be that the biggest task for a budding author who wants to get their books sold (and for that matter to get a book deal if you want to go down the traditional route) is that of knitting your own publicity. I suspect nearly all authors will have a website in five year's time - an equivalent of the pop band's MySpace site (surprisingly few do now). And the obvious way to get people to visit will be to provide free online samples, constantly refreshed, just like the pop sites. Which makes me wonder: will blogs become a critical part of a writer's portfolio?