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ASK THE EDITOR Do Writers Still Need New York?

By Susan Malone

August, 1999


Publishing is in flux—an understatement if ever one existed. This industry is in the midst of some of the greatest changes since Gutenberg sent us into the modern era. And the majority of these changes revolve around whether or not publishing will even exist as we know it in the very near future.

The digital age has arrived, and with it advances in technology that are already revolutionizing this business. What if returns become a memory? Initial press runs a thing of the past? What if nothing ever goes out of print? What in God’s name does this mean to the writer?

Plenty. And much of it is good.

The publishing world has actually been a rather small one, centered in New York, and with recent acquisitions and mergers of major houses that world has become more and more narrow. "The fiction market is shrinking," said virtually ever editor and agent with whom we met in New York in May. Shrinking from what? I kept asking. To hear them tell it, fiction is a dead beast.

Ah, but here’s where this world is changing.

Small publishers and regional houses have blossomed of late. And with the advent of one-off printing (the ability to print books one at a time, on demand, at a nominal cost), this will go nuts in the very near future. The average shelf-life of a novel coming out of New York is six weeks. Doesn’t that make you gulp. But this will change as well. In the digital age, nothing ever goes out of print.

So what does that mean to a writer? Again, plenty. At the Harriet Austin Writer’s Conference held in Georgia in July, agents, editors, and publishers were all abuzz with possibilities. First off, many, many more opportunities to publish will open up. With more houses going into business, more quality work will be needed—both fiction and non. With no returns, publishers will be more willing to take a chance on new authors. And with the proliferation of Internet business, the world of book marketing has just jumped into the future.

Does this mean writers no longer even need the huge conglomerates? We’ll explore this in upcoming months in more depth. But Ginnie Bivona, Acquisitions Editor at Republic of Texas Press, made no bones about it. "Writers no longer need New York," Bivona said flatly. "Book stores will all be buying the same product—books—whether they’re from Simon & Schuster or a regional press. The difference is now in the way those books are printed and distributed."

And the digital age has leveled that playing field.

In one very real sense, the smaller houses have a huge leg up. And that plus is in the area of marketing and promotion. Many of the smaller and regional houses are targeting their resources to more and more promotion of their books, which any mid-list author will tell you is virtually nonexistent with the major houses. Unless you’re Tom Clancy to begin with, the marketing dollars do NOT go into your book. And, as any author anywhere will tell you, promotion is EVERYTHING in this business.

In the future the house that sells the most books will probably not have a traditional name. But it will be the house that knows how to target the audience for its authors, bringing the very real consequence of more and better books being published. And where we go from there is anybody’s guess.

Susan M. Malone is a Contributing Editor to Authorlink.com. Sheis the author of the novel, By the Book, two co-authored works of nonfiction, numerous short stories, and the recent Five Keys for Understanding Men: A Woman's Guide, written with a psychiatrist. The latest work will be released in late August, 99. Her works focus on the inner workings of the feminine psyche.