Another Word: Publishing—Jump In, the Water's Fine
This year marks my twentieth year in the book industry. Exactly half of my life.
In 1996, I graduated from USC with a degree in Chemistry. I immediately went out and got a second job at a bookstore. (I was already assistant and promotional manager at the local movie theater.) I haven’t left the publishing industry since. From bookseller to Book Buyer, from editor to author—when it comes to the creation and distribution of stories, there are very few jobs I haven’t done.
Everything I know I got from jumping in the deep end and learning from experience. I had zero formal education on the subject to guide me, but I wanted to be part of it all so much that I was fearless. Every time a new opportunity presented itself, I jumped.
Well, almost every opportunity.
In the past two decades, I have watched the publishing industry shift, adapt, and evolve. At times with incredible ease . . . but mostly not. Some readers have embraced this change. Some have fought it tooth and nail every step of the way. On the other side of the sales counter, corporations have had a similar struggle. A few times, publishers, printers, and wholesalers have pioneered new technology, sales, and delivery methods. But in so many ways they still desperately cling to a dying business model, and the world is changing faster than they can keep up.
Some of these advances we could see coming a mile away. I never told my parents, but right after college, during my first foray to Dragon Con, I was offered an editorial position at the biggest of the Big Six publishing houses (back when there were still six), and I turned it down.
Now you’re wondering just how crazy I am. This was the perfect opportunity! What book-loving geek in her right mind turns down a job like that? It’s true. I did want the gig. Second to being a published author, it was pretty much my dream job. The trouble was, I didn’t want to live in New York City. A girl fresh out of her teens doesn’t know much about herself, but I knew—deep down in my soul—that I was not a Big City Girl. I would have been miserable. I also knew, with the advent of this new-fangled contraption we were calling “the Internet,” that telecommuting an editorial position like that wouldn’t be far down the line. I was willing to wait for that.
Telecommuting took longer than I thought it would to catch on—heck, most of the publishers still prefer folks to work at their offices in the city—but other aspects began to branch out. Agents didn’t need to live in New York anymore. Copyeditors and sales reps certainly didn’t. Heck, even publishers began to be more comfortable in offices beyond the reach of a subway line.
But by that time I was already a published author, and my career path was on a different—and to me, a far more desirable—trajectory.
I had made goals when I was in college. I wanted to be doing whatever I was meant to be doing for the rest of my life by the time I turned twenty-five, and I wanted to be published by thirty. At the end of my twenty fourth year, I secured a coveted Book Buyer position and a year later, I bought a house. By the time thirty rolled around, I had books out with both Tor and Candlewick, and a novelette in Realms of Fantasy. Everything was on track.
Except, it was 2006. The economy was about to tank and technology was about to explode. Between the two, my dream career path slipped into a sideways dimension and became something I never would have imagined.
Even as late as 2009, big corporations weren’t sure what to do with the Internet and the insane “social media” nonsense. Meetings were still being held to discuss publishers putting their catalogs online, and how the industry would ultimately spell the word “ebook.” (I kid you not, I was at the meeting where this monumental decision was made.)
I got the impression that these corporations were terrified of the Internet. They saw it as some as-yet-undiscovered Wild West that would cease to exist if they just ignored it long enough. I was asked—as part of my goals—to investigate various social media and report back as to how our company might use it to our benefit. My reports and suggestions were summarily dismissed, unread, with a wave of the hand. That social media. Such a frivolous waste of time and certainly no use to business or marketing.
Happily, none of that data was a waste to me.
It did not surprise me that such a corporate behemoth would be so incredibly slow to adapt to technology . . . a funny thing, when a little publishing division called LSI was suddenly blowing up with all these “print-on-demand” book orders.
What surprised me—and what surprises me still—is what’s happening with traditional publishing and self-publishing, both from the publisher and author perspective. If you had told me on the day AlphaOops came out that a decade later I would be self-publishing in a big way, I would have looked at you like you’d just called me a dirty name. I would not see it as I do today: through the eyes of an author building her fan base in the way she wants, molding her career to suit her needs and not at the whim of a committee reviewing P&L statements and filling catalogs from a windowless room in New York. It would never have occurred to me that I could make writing both a “day job” that paid me month to month, and still retain that lofty goal of being paid five-digit advances and having books printed in China by the thousands.
In publishing, as in life, the only thing that is constant is change. For every success there may be a dozen setbacks. What’s amazing about the world we live in today is how many opportunities there are for authors to take those setbacks into our own hands and turn them back around. Self-publishing is a grand idea: will you publish in ebook only or print? For the cost of an ISBN and a setup fee, you can make a hardcover available to your dedicated fans. For the ebook, will you be available across all platforms, or hitch your wagon to a subscription service? Why choose? Try them out and see what works. Need some startup capital? Try a Kickstarter. Need some help launching a new part (or all) of your career? Try Patreon. Enjoy performing? Try YouTube, or Vimeo, or Facebook Live. Enjoy making memes? Try . . . anything, anywhere.
So the next time you experience a setback in this industry and worry about what’s going to happen, don’t. You cannot answer the “Where do you see yourself in five years?” question. No one can. Look back at the technological advances made in the last five years. Can you even imagine what the next five years will bring? Exactly.
I have faith that whatever happens in our not-too-distant future, it will be amazing. We know history, and we know how it repeats. All of that knowledge we’ve amassed—and are still amassing—none of it will be wasted. Things go dormant for a while (remember newsletters?) and come back with a vengeance. And beneath it all, content remains king.
We are the content creators. This is what we do. We’ve got this.
Imagining six impossible things before breakfast has become harder and harder, because so much is possible right now. The opportunities are there. We need only to be fearless. Join me in the deep end! I’ve been here so long, I’ve grown fins. And I can assure you, the water’s fine.
Alethea Kontis is a princess, author, fairy godmother, and geek. Her bestselling Books of Arilland fairytale series won two Gelett Burgess Children's Book Awards (Enchanted and Tales of Arilland), and was twice nominated for the Andre Norton Award. Alethea also penned the AlphaOops picture books, The Wonderland Alphabet, Diary of a Mad Scientist Garden Gnome, Beauty & Dynamite, The Dark-Hunter Companion (w/Sherrilyn Kenyon), and a myriad of poems, essays, and short stories. Princess Alethea lives and writes on the Space Coast of Florida with her teddy bear, Charlie.