Twenty years ago this month, having recently graduated from college, I started working at my dream job: Assistant to the President of Curtis Brown Ltd.
Amid the post-9/11 recession I felt reluctant to move to NYC, so I focused my job search on San Francisco and somehow lucked into one of the few prime entry level publishing jobs on the west coast at the time.
I was shocked at how old fashioned the industry was. Manuscripts were still sent around in paper or a mailed Zip disk, even with easy availability of email. (Curtis Brown was long famous for sending its manuscripts to editors in bright orange boxes). Editors often manually edited manuscripts with pens and post-its. I had a typewriter in my office to create labels and amend contracts. One of my first acts as an assistant was to replace the old handwritten follow-up system with an electronic one.
Query letters were usually mailed the old fashioned way. E-books were more hypothetical than reality. People thought I was insane to start a blog in 2007 when I thought I was pretty far behind the curve.
Prior to the pandemic, the publishing industry was gradually catching up technologically to the year 2000, but now, finally, with working from home as the kick in the pants it needed, the industry seems like it is actually coming around on modern communications and electronic record-keeping at least.
In the last twenty years, some things have changed, but a ton hasn’t. The essential process of going from manuscript to query letter to agent to publication is broadly the same, only with more emails now. The major players (The Big X publishers, Amazon, Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Barnes & Noble) haven’t changed that much.
Here are some things that really have transformed.
The self-publishing revolution
No matter how loudly self-publishing/”indie” evangelists have been shouting to the mountaintops in the past twenty years, I still think the self-publishing revolution is undersold. It’s a truly revolutionary shift in the writing, reading, and publishing ecosystem.
In 2002, self-publishing existed, but it was mainly the purview of scammy vanity presses that bilked unsuspecting authors and the occasional by-the-bootstraps successful author who more or less went bookstore to bookstore hawking a trunk full of books.
Improved print on demand technology, Amazon, and online bookselling completely changed the game. Now there are more opportunities for authors to reach their audience directly than ever before. Tons of authors are making real money self-publishing and building devoted fan bases. (Unfortunately, the scammy vanity presses have only gotten more sophisticated.)
Prior to the 2000s, countless manuscripts ended up in the bottom of drawers, never to be seen again. Now everyone has a shot in print if they want it. That’s huge, and it’s a fantastic development for authors, even if the ecosystem is not perfect.
There still hasn’t been a mega-bestseller to go wholly independent, but Brandon Sanderson’s recent Kickstarter points the way. It’s only a matter of time.
The rise of e-books
There were things I got right about e-books and things I got wrong.
What I got right: In 2007, when Amazon debuted the Kindle, but well before the iPad was introduced, I predicted that e-books would only take off when there was a “larger iPhone-of-the-future.” When many people already had a device conducive to reading e-books, the cost benefits of e-books would inevitably wear down consumers and e-books would eventually follow the path of mp3s over CDs, even if that shift also took longer than people appreciated.
What I missed: Major publishers colluding to keep e-book prices artificially high to support bookstores and their print distribution infrastructure, and intense consumer sentiment for non-screen entertainment options.
The pandemic was another nudge in e-books’ direction, but because Amazon is so tight-fisted with data, it’s difficult to assess just how widespread e-book reading has become.
E-books have grabbed a significant foothold, but print is more than holding on.
When I started in publishing, Barnes & Noble was a big scary behemoth (remember You’ve Got Mail?) and smaller independent bookstores and Waldenbooks were getting gobbled up, but Borders still existed and Amazon hadn’t yet cemented its dominance. Publisher-sponsored book clubs, once a major player, were on the wane.
Now? Borders is gone, Barnes & Noble is now the struggling underdog, and online bookselling is bigger than ever.
On the publishing side, there was the Big Six (Random House, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Time Warner Book Group–now Hachette, and Holtzbrinck–now MacMillan), but also a very robust second tier, particularly for mid-list books.
Perseus Book Group, Avalon Publishing, Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt Brace, and Harlequin have all been swallowed by the now-Big Five (possibly to become the Mega One and Big Four if Penguin Random House is allowed to buy Simon & Schuster) or Amazon. Only a few major players, such as Scholastic, W.W. Norton, Kensington, and Chronicle are holding on outside of the gravitational pull of the Big Five.
Particularly given the value of backlists and the difficulty publishers have breaking out new titles, expect this trend to continue no matter what happens with Penguin Random House’s proposed acquisition of Simon & Schuster.
Diversity, but for real this time?
In the 2000s there was an incredibly pernicious belief that books by and for people of color “didn’t sell.” Editors would openly say they couldn’t take on another diverse book because “we already have one of those.” The industry was overwhelmingly populated by white upper/upper-middle-class suburban Ivy League graduates, with a few exceptions. This infected everything from acquisition to marketing to covers to editorial decisions.
Publishers have now had tremendous success marketing more diverse books, particularly in young adult, which has seen some massive blockbusters. And in the wake of the 2020 social justice protests, publishers seem to have made strides with new hiring practices to diversify the workforce.
We’ll see if it continues.
Twenty years as an author
And if you’ll indulge me closing on a personal note, my last twenty years as an author has gone through some pretty turbulent ups and downs. Anyone who worries about their own feast and famine writing life: take note!
When I first started in publishing, I had some major imposter syndrome as a writer and prided myself on being one of the few people who worked in publishing who didn’t have a secret manuscript in the drawer.
Then I did have a secret manuscript in the drawer. I finished a science fiction novel for adults and eventually attracted an agent who wanted to work with me on a revision, but I just didn’t feel like I had it in me to pull off the changes. Meanwhile, I had this idea for a novel about a kid trapped on a planet full of substitute teachers…
I felt like I was crazy every single minute I spent writing Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow. Why would this one work when everything I’d written to that point had misfired? But I finished it and sent it around to my agent friends. Every single one of them rejected me.
But then! I found an agent! And a few months after that I had a publisher, Dial Books at Penguin! And THEN… it was released just as my personal life completely imploded. I could barely enjoy that I was living my dream.
After writing a whole trilogy while going through an incredibly difficult time in my life, I was completely burned out on fiction. I decided to turn my writing advice into book form, How to Write a Novel, and self-published it so I could experience that side of the business. (It has now sold 20,000 copies and counting!)
And after that… I felt like writing and publishing had passed me by a bit. I was no longer the young upstart blogging agent. I was stepping in hornets’ nests, in part because I wasn’t as plugged in as I used to be, partly because I was just getting older. I didn’t have anything I wanted to write. I felt ready to throw myself into my career and eventually landed at the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates.
After I was laid off at Bridgewater, I had to decide what to do next, and books exerted their gravitational pull. I took on a few consulting jobs while I worked on building up a business helping authors with writing, editing, and navigating the publishing process. Eventually I dropped my corporate clients and now work with authors full time.
And I wrote a new novel. I like to tell authors that nothing is lost. That first novel that I put in the drawer? I completely reimagined it as a young adult novel. It’s an extremely challenging idea to pull off and it took me longer than I wanted, but I finally put the finishing touches on the revisions… in February of 2020. Just in time for the pandemic.
That novel is still winding its way through the process, and I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen with it, whether it will find a traditional publisher, or if I’ll end up self-publishing it. I’m not even sure what I want to happen with it. It’s in total limbo.
When I first started writing, I deeply cared about whether I would be published. I truly felt like I would die if I didn’t have a book deal by the time I turned thirty. I accomplished the goal, but at a great (and needless) personal cost.
Now? I feel much more peace around writing. Things will play out how they play out. I’ll figure it out when it’s time to figure it out.
And, coming full circle, I’m now writing a new middle grade novel that is reminding me what it felt like to write Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow, only this time I’m not second guessing myself every step of the way. I’m having a blast with it and want to finish it as fast as I can.
The next 20 years
I sometimes wonder what my life would look like if I were starting in publishing now. I certainly wouldn’t be able to afford rooms in nice apartments in Russian Hill and Carroll Gardens like I did in the early 2000s on my $23,000 entry level assistant’s publishing salary. As uncertain as the future of traditional publishing looked in 2002, it seems only more so now.
But there are no golden eras. Publishing people sometimes feel nostalgic for the boozy lunches and carefree spending of the 2000s, but in the 2000s they were nostalgic for the earlier supposed boom times of the 60s and 70s. In publishing, it perennially feels like the golden era always finished 20 years before you arrived.
I’m still optimistic for the future of books because what’s good for authors and readers is good for the ecosystem as a whole. More choice is a wonderful thing, even if it can feel like a cacophony at times, and even if it’s tough to stand out in an increasingly crowded room.
At 42, I’ve stepped off the traditional career treadmill and am making my way on my own, both financially and creatively. I’m back in my home state and feel ready to start exploring new paths. I’m working on a novel I’m really excited about that feels more me than anything I’ve written before.
I’m eager to see what comes next.
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