Novelists, Poets, Your Golden Age is Now…Ask William Blake

by Bill Henderson

William BlakeThis is a great time for novelists and fiction writers of every form.

But wait–isn’t publishing “dying?”

No, it’s not. What’s dying is an older model of publishing that served us well for 150 years or so. What we’re seeing is shift away from that model and towards a new one that promises either chaos or freedom, depending on your view.

But no matter how you see it, the journey is already well underway.

To get a better grasp of where we’re going and why, ask yourself: In any era, who holds the power of production and distribution? From the late 19th Century until now, that would be the major publishing company (HarperCollins, Penguin, and so on). Go back a bit and it’s the individual printer/entrepreneur who holds sway, meaning the “publisher” is simply the local printer, who prints everything–newspapers, pamphlets, and (why not?) books.

Today we’re moving toward a redesigned, streamlined version of that older model, with one big exception: the printer/entrepreneur’s dominant role has been replaced by a partnership between (cue trumpets!) the author and (cue more trumpets!) the internet. That’s right: using free or inexpensive internet tools, authors themselves can create, produce, promote, and distribute their own books. Moreover, unlike the ancients, contemporary authors can find, cultivate, and build their own fan base of readers, and do it cheaply, without ever leaving their desks.

Poet William Blake (1757–1827), being his own author, illustrator, engraver, and publisher, was a 19th century pre-echo of today’s independent author-epublisher. Admittedly, Blake was an odd duck, and certainly not “typical” of anything or anyone, but it’s worthwhile to take note: he possessed the tools to take every step of publication into his own hands. He had apprenticed for seven years as an engraver. He studied painting at the Royal Academy in London under Joshua Reynolds. And of course, he could write like an angel. What he lacked was a means of marketing, publicizing, and selling his work.

Today, authors who feel up to running their own show can do it themselves by using internet tools and services available to everyone at little or no cost. I’m using one of them right now: this blog.

It’s enormously freeing, but with freedom comes responsibility. To succeed in this new model, authors need to stop hating, fearing, or snubbing the internet. They also need to embrace the reality of marketing themselves, something many creative writers have traditionally been loath to do. There’s also a learning curve: they must first learn to use the tools, then take time to become comfortable “online.”

I know from experience, many will simply not do it––I doubt Blake would have done it, had the tools been available in his day. As they see it, it’s the fiction writer’s job to dream the fiction and pound it out. Someone else is supposed to do the rest.

However, anyone who has published a novel knows the truth: most novelists in any era have gotten only perfunctory support for their books. This trend has increased to the point where new authors are now told: “If you don’t already have a strong platform, we can’t help you.” (What’s a platform? That’s a subject for another post, but here’s a hint: if you Google “writer, platform,” any one of the top ten hits will tell you more than you ever wanted to know.)

Publishing as we know it may be going through a painful transition period, but looking at what Blake was up against––and having begun my own career in the manual typewriter era––I would say we’re on the cusp of a fabulous new era for publishing options for authors. It hasn’t jelled yet, but it’s going to be a time of plenty, a Golden Age, so my advice is get onboard now, because even though the shift has just begun, we’re already seeing a broader range of concentrated knowledge, and support for the self-motivated novelist than at any time in history––and much of it is only a click or two away.

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