How to succeed as a writer in the current market

I have two rules. They may not hold true for all. They probably won’t work if you’re a totally useless writer. They don’t really make sense if you’re a literary superstar or a bestseller. But they work for the rest of us, I think. The rules are:

  1. Diversify.
  2. Repeat rule number 1.

Hastily rushing to qualify this, by ‘diversify’ I’m referring to your approach to publishing, not necessarily writing. (Although if you’re a decent, and fast, writer and you have a love for more than one genre then diversifying your writing isn’t a bad thing either.)

Not so long ago, an author’s approach to publishing was relatively simple. Sticking to fiction-writing here, the author might write short fiction and/or long fiction. Short stories would generally be written on spec and sent as unsolicited submissions to magazine and anthology editors; when a writer became more established, they might receive invitations to write for a particular publication. At novel length, new authors would write a complete novel on spec, and then approach agents and/or publishers with a sample and outline; again, more established writers earned short-cuts whereby they might be commissioned to write a novel up front on the basis of a book proposal.

Those approaches still hold true today, and I’d recommend that any aspiring writer should pursue them.

But now there are alternatives. As well as various opportunities among the many independent small publishers, it’s dead easy to do it all yourself. Self-publishing has been around for years, but now it’s so much more straightforward. With the advent of print-on-demand and e-publishing it’s possible to sidestep the conventional route altogether.

Why submit your work to a publisher, knowing they probably won’t read more than the opening few paragraphs at best? Even if they agree to publish your novel, you’ll wait at least a year before it sees print. (There are plenty of reasons, of course, but that’s for another post.) Through the infinity plus ebook imprint I run I’ve had books available for purchase worldwide within 24 hours of the final edit. That’s fast.

Publishing is going through a massive upheaval at the moment. Lots of stories are appearing in the press predicting the death of publishing, with the industry’s bubble bursting as readers abandon the £9.99 trade paperback for the 79p ebook.

I read these scare stories with a pinch of salt; I prefer to observe the way the industry is going, rather than tell everyone where it’s heading. I don’t know. None of us do.

So where does that leave writers? Authors like me, for instance? I have 20+ books to my name, and nearly 100 short stories, not to mention non-fiction for publications ranging from The Guardian through to photocopied fanzines. I’m a fairly typical mid-list writer, I think.

alt.human by Keith Brooke (Solaris, 2012)What I do is diversify.

I think I’d be a fool not to want to have my novels put out by a commercial publisher, and I’m delighted that my next novel, alt.human, is due from Solaris this summer.

But equally, I think I’d be a fool to leave it at that. What, for instance, of those nearly 100 short stories? Big commercial publishers rarely put out story collections, but as I said earlier it’s easy to do it yourself. So when I set up infinity plus ebooks in 2010 I tested the water with five volumes of collected short stories. Those collections pick up a trickle of sales and those stories now earn me a small income and, more importantly, showcase my work to new readers.

I don’t want to swamp infinity plus with my own work, though, so for back-list novels like the Expatria series I’ve self-published separately.

And what about those stories that don’t fit the requirements of conventional publishing? My The Unlikely World of Faraway Frankie is an adult fantasy story about a teenager, but not long enough for a conventional adult publisher. The excellent Newcon Press stepped in and produced a beautiful edition.

So: rule number one – diversity. I have books out from big commercial publishers, others from smaller independents, I run an e-publishing imprint, and I’ve self-published some work completely independently. Each hits slightly different audiences in slightly different ways: I’ve no idea which models will be strongest in a year’s time, but I think I’m improving my chances of continuing to find an audience by keeping involved in them all.

But this isn’t just a business strategy, it’s a creative one too.

Commercial publishers have specialist staff working on covers, editing, marketing, distribution and so on. They bring things to a book that I couldn’t on my own.

Working with smaller independents, you lose that specialism, but make up for it by working with someone with a real passion both for your field and your own work: they only publish books they love, after all. The production on Frankie, and the commitment Newcon-owner Ian Whates brings to promoting it, has been a revelation.

And running my own imprint and self-publishing separately, I lose that external input (although I still find ways to involve other people and bring fresh perspectives in at key stages) but I gain control and flexibility – and I hope I offer my authors the kind of commitment that Ian and others do to theirs.

Working to such different models stretches me as an author, and expands my understanding of what works and doesn’t. I’m a far better writer for it, I think.

So, the two rules for how to succeed:

  1. Diversify.
  2. Repeat rule number 1.
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About Keith Brooke and infinity plus

Keith Brooke is a writer of science fiction, fantasy and other strange stuff, and editor and reviewer of same. He is also the publisher at infinity plus, an independent imprint publishing books by leading genre fiction authors. View all posts by Keith Brooke and infinity plus

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