Welcome back, readers! I decided to make a rare post to promote a fiverr service, only to log in to my old email and discover that Yahoo had decided to stop forwarding my mail about 3 years ago, so I was receiving mail at the Rejecter account and it was just sitting there. Since I used the account so rarely, it passed my notice. For all of you who waited for responses, if your questions are still relevant, I will try to get to them.
I'm no longer working as a query reader. For years and years I was an assistant to various agencies based on availability and their needs, but that time has passed. I was busy going back to school and my job became increasingly computerized, which really cut down the available working hours. Way back in the day, I had to go into an actual office, open up the office, get the mail from the mail room, open the mail, read the mail, then scribble a reply or stuff the form reply in a return envelope, then send it out again. Sometimes there was fussing over there being no SASE or we would get those tickets from overseas submissions that acted as a coupon for American postage but we still had to go to the post office to mail the letter back. Gmail cut all that down to "look at query letter and hit reject." And then my boss stopped taking new fiction clients altogether because there wasn't enough money in it to justify his time, and that was that. Honestly, I was getting tired of reading mediocre thriller after mediocre thriller, as we seemed to have a glut of those for a while, so it all worked out for the best. And now I'm underemployed like all of my friends who also live in New York, and getting by on royalties from my books, most of which are self-published at this point.
But enough about me. What about publishing? Well, there's one big secret in publishing today and here it is: No one knows what's going on in publishing.
Sure, within their niche markets people might think they have a handle on it, but then again I see the signs of people shifting around, out of their traditional markets and into new ones, and old school authors don't do that unless they have to. The sci-fi/fantasy market is traditionally stable, but then again Chuck Tingle got nominated for a Hugo and I'm not totally convinced he isn't a sophisticated computer program. The category romance network, the bread-and-butter-but-you-tell-everyone-else-you're-gluten-free backbone of publishing, is being severely undercut by badly-edited fanfiction that's selling for 99c a pop. I got some contract offers to write novellas that I had to turn down because my desire to make a living (hey, work is work) was slightly overwhelmed by my inability to write anything that I knww will feature a naked guy on the cover. I called one series I was almost hired to write for "Werewolves Don't Know Much About Informed Consent."
On the other hand, some authors are making a bundle. To be clear, for my original three books that were published by a mainstream publisher, I make 3.5% of cover price for digital sales, and 70% for my self-published stuff, so I can afford to make the books cheap and still make the same money. That benefits the reader (who saves money) and the author (who makes the same or more), so it's hard to tell who's losing, but very few people are winning.
It is truly a period for massive creativity and an expansion of available content. I got a contract with Kindle Worlds to write a survivalist dystopia novella and, in doing market research, discovered an entire thriving sub-genre I didn't know about, where ex-military people explain in novel form why they would definitely survive the apocalypse and also be better than the other survivors. The quality of the content varies from author to author, but they sell to each other and their numbers look good.
Meanwhile, traditional publishing is behaving like you do when your fire alarm goes off in the apartment complex at 4 am, and you know the fire's not in your apartment, and you really don't feel like getting up because it's probably someone's burnt popcorn, so you wait fifteen minutes for the fire trucks to start showing up and decide maybe all those fire safety classes you sat through in grade school meant something, so you put on your winter coat over your pajamas and decide to see if the bagel store next door is open while this all gets sorted out. I know that's oddly specific, but I don't think traditional publishing houses are burning down (metaphorically). I just know there are some contained emergencies.
I've been to a bunch of conferences now on new media and new models for publishing, and everyone seems to have their own, and boy are they sure excited about it, at least until someone asks the inevitable follow-up question, "And how are the sales?" Because remember, publishing is a business. It employs people, who work for money that they need to purchase goods or services. A publishing house could employ an entire department of professional designers with the appropriate degrees to design all their books, and give them a low-to-medium salary and maybe health and dental, or each author could hit up people on Fiverr and spend $5 to maybe come up with a halfway decent cover in a few days. I pay out $50 a pop to a friend of mine who's a graphic designer to work on each cover, which is based on minimum wage for the hours he's working, plus the fact that we're friends, plus the fact that I do about 50% of the initial design work myself and he puts a professional polish on it. It's not a lot of money but it's what I can afford and I want my friend to get money for his work.
So while it's fun to be down on traditional publishers in their ivory towers, and watch self-published books take off on Amazon, there's a workforce that's under fire. Most of my friends who worked in publishing either no longer do, now have a second job, or have switched to a different field within publishing as their job transformed. You, the desperate author (because what author isn't desperate? Come on guys) may not see any of this, but it's distressing. And distressed people are less likely to take risks on new books.
No one knows what's going on in self-publishing, either. Maybe it's that Amazon either launches a new program that no one can see the metrics of yet or it's just changed up something complicated about how discounts work in an affiliate program about once a month, or the collapse of Amazon alternatives, but we're all winging it. People sell their eBooks on the sophisticated algorithm they developed to boost their Kindle sales, involving sacrificial roosters and only selling in the coinage of Cappodia on Fridays for all I know, and by the time you get around to reading it the information is moot. There was always a part of publishing that was magic, in that it didn't adhere to logic or reason, and that's carried right over to the self-publishing crowd. At least there'll always be some markers of stability.
Things That Have Not Changed in Publishing:
1. Hiring a publicist is about are useful as tossing your money into a dark pit in the woods, without the excitement of getting to visit a dark pit in the woods.
2. Too much erotica involves a really hot guy essentially raping a young, inexperienced woman but later she's cool with it, so it's okay. (And women write these things! So there's no excuse!)
3. There is not enough diversity in publishing, a problem I didn't really know existed previously, not because I'm white but because I never know what authors look like. Usually I can't even remember the author's name. But apparently I was wrong; it's a huge problem.
4. Book stores make me excited to be a writer, even if my books aren't always in them.
5. There are too many cookbooks.
If You Still Want an Agent
I've had an agent for years and she's been really handy in getting me contract work. She's actually not my original agent - she retired - but I was handed to someone else in the agency so I'm not completely free-floating, career-wise, even if she doesn't rep everything I write because she's not interested in certain categories. If you want to get traditionally published, you still need an agent (or a relative who works in publishing as a high-level editor who is also a cheap drunk). If you've been self-publishing and you're totally sick of doing all of your own publicity all the time because it's the worst, you could probably use an agent. If you've written a novel about the secrets of the universe as revealed to you by a dove sent by Jesus's brother and you need someone to talk you down before you embarrass yourself in public, you should at least be sending queries to agents so that after the first 40 rejections, you can take a hint.
Long story not short: I'm now offering a query letter review service on Fiverr. It's cheap, it's honest, and if you're going to be sending out to as many agents as possible and you're already investing the time and energy in that, it's worth your time. So check it out! (Please!)