writer's radarYour Writer's Radar - Finding Markets and Adapting to Change

by Marg McAlister


Several writers have emailed me asking about markets for their writing - both fiction and non-fiction. And, as so often happens, serendipity took hand again, and I had six separate experiences recently that shed some light on this question.

What you need to know is that there are no easy answers to 'how can I market my work?'. Whether you are trying to sell a novel, a self-help book, or an article, you need to stay in tune with the marketplace and be ready to adapt to changes. This is not what most people want to hear. It's so much easier to follow a formula. ('Follow these ten easy steps and you'll get a 'yes' from that editor!') Unfortunately, there is no formula.

Let's take a look at those six experiences, so you can see how necessary it is to (a) have your writer's radar operating at all times and (b) make an effort to be in places where working editors and writers hang out - both online and offline. 

Serendipitous Event #1

I picked up a copy of Michael Connolly's latest book, THE SCARECROW. Regular readers of this tipsheet - and my blog - may remember that a few weeks ago I wrote about a popular author's previous titles being repackaged in an omnibus format under a completely different name, and how dated the technology seemed when viewed from today's standpoint. Fiction tends to reflect the time in which the author is living - technology, transport, dress, communications, social customs and so on.

Michael Connolly's book gives an interesting glimpse into the difficulties faced by today's journalists. The hero, Jack McEvoy, has just been made redundant, and has two weeks to train his replacement, Angela Cook. Jack knows that journalism is changing, and that Angela is more in tune with what was needed. To quote from the book:

"She was what they call a 'mojo' - a mobile journalist nimbly able to file from the field by any electronic means. She could file text and photos for the website and paper, or video and audio for television and radio partners. She was being paid about $500 a week less than me, and in today's newspaper economy that made her a greater value to the company."

Here are two more quotes from the book that reflect the changes in the world of print journalism. In the first one, Jack is listening to a recorded phone message from a reporter friend and thinking about his friend's background:

"He rose through the ranks and got all the way up to the post of city editor before the paper shuttered its doors a few months earlier. That was the end of a 150-year publishing run in Colarado and the biggest sign yet of the crashing newspaper economy. Jackson still hadn't found a job in the business he had dedicated his professional life to. 'I've gotta tell you the truth, man. There's nothing out there. I'm just about ready to start selling cars, but all the car dealers are in the toilet, too."

Final quote from THE SCARECROW (Jack goes to a press conference):

"I saw Angela in the second row. She had her laptop open and was typing. I assumed she was online and filing for the web edition even as the press conference was still under way. She was a 'mojo' tried-and-true."

Serendipitous Event #2

At a recent book launch I was talking to Canadian-born thriller writer and ex-model, Tara Moss. Tara commented that she used to be able to think of a topic, dash off 1000 words and then sell the piece pretty easily. "You can't do that any more," she said. "It has all changed." And that's coming from someone who is very marketable: she looks good; she has often been photographed for the social pages; her crime novels featuring model Makedde are very popular, and she has also appeared in a program on cable television. If someone like Tara finds it difficult to sell freelance articles, imagine what it is like for a new writer trying to break in.

Another freelance journalist, bouncing a baby on her hip, agreed: it is much, much harder now to sell articles to magazines and weekend supplements, because they are cutting down on content.

Serendipitous Event #3

I am a fan of the humorous podcasts created by radio personalities Wendy Harmer and Angela Catterns: IS IT JUST ME (you can subscribe to their podcasts on iTunes or download them from the website). In one of their recent podcasts, Wendy and Angela were discussing the fact that they don't buy newspapers any more. Instead, they log on to the website to find out the latest news. (At my place of work, the man who sits at a nearby desk spends the first 15 minutes at work every morning doing the same thing: accessing the news headlines and reading the main stories.)

Is this a sign of the times? Perhaps people just aren't bothering to subscribe to newspapers any more, because they can find out the latest developments as they happen.

Serendipitous Event #4

I caught the tail-end of an interview on ABC radio: a discussion about the decline of magazine sales. Evidently major magazines are all experiencing the same problem: a precipitous drop in sales. Fewer sales  means fewer advertisers and/or a drop in number of ads. This translates to fewer pages and therefore a reduction in both the number of articles needed, and the number of writers needed. It also means that magazines are casting about for cheaper content, and they are tending to go for syndicated content: columns and articles that they can buy into without great expense.

Unfortunately, this means that magazines are becoming clones of each other: most are full of blurred paparazzi shots and stories about celebrities. Sales decline even further because people are sick of reading 'the same boring rubbish' as one phone-in reader commented.

Serendipitous Event #5

A subscriber sent me a link to an article by Jane Sullivan in The Age, commenting on declining sales for Australian fiction. The opening line says "Fewer people are reading and less of it is being published." She says that readers are staying loyal to a few big names, like Tim Winton, and that popular novels are selling well, as are some genre novels. But overall, mid-list titles languish, while lesser-known authors have a tough time becoming known to readers. Ironically, according to Sullivan, even while the small market for Australian literary fiction is shrinking, more and more people are trying their hand at writing: joining creative-writing classes at all levels. She says "a huge bottleneck of manuscripts is forming in the offices of harassed literary agents and those few publishers who will still look at unsolicited material." Not all publishers agree that publishers are cutting back... Random House editor Jane Palfreyman is quoted as saying that "the novels we've been saying 'no' to haven't been hitting the mark."

The article concludes by pointing out that publishing is a cyclical business, and that "sooner or later homegrown literary fiction will be in demand again." Note, however, that this article is discussing LITERARY fiction - if you write thrillers or other genre-based novels, you may well not encounter these problems. Anyway: this discussion of writers' markets helped to round out the picture for me. Which leads me to...

Serendipitous Event #6

After spending a week with both aspiring and published novelists at the June Writers' Retreat Workshop in Kentucky, and discussing the state of publishing with agents and editors, WRW Director Jason Sitzes had this to say in his recent column for Writing4Success:

"Cricket Freeman, agent with August Literary Agency based out of New York City, spent four days with us discussing among other topics the status of publishing in this difficult economy. Cricket assured our mix of fiction and nonfiction writers that now is as good an opportunity as ever to find a home with a publisher.  Publishers, especially with the advent of ebooks, are taking risks, she says. They are looking for original angles on familiar themes, looking at new authors as a source of much needed revenue, and producing more books than ever. And as always, they are looking for good writing."

So what are you to make of all this? What do these separate experiences tell you about markets for writers in both fiction and non-fiction?

1. Have your writer's radar operating! Notice that three of the things I list that gave me information about how the markets are changing did NOT come from my writers' network. I got information from a contemporary work of fiction; from a recent podcast, and from a radio interview. The other three DID come from my writers' network: information gained at a book launch; information from the director who talked to an agent at a recent writer's retreat, and a tip on an article about the difficulties faced by authors trying to sell literary fiction. (Note, though, that the last one - the article - is something that I could have stumbled across without hearing about it from my network.)

Go to writers' events and functions (an example: back to the book launch - not only did I  hear about what is happening NOW in magazine/newspaper markets, I also had the opportunity to talk to an agent, several editors, a number of published authors, and journalists with contacts in different media.) Subscribe to writers' newsletters and online groups. Yes, these may take some of your time... but it's worth it to know what's happening. Just exercise moderation, so you keep a balance between writing time and networking/marketing time.

2. Be open to change and think about how you can turn obstacles into opportunities. For example, if freelance writers (and experienced journalists) are finding that readers are turning more and more to online articles, how can you tap into this? How can you change the way you market your work? How will you submit your writing?

3. Spend some time becoming internet-savvy. The electronic age is here to stay. If you don't have a website or blog, get started. Your online presence can help you to sell books/articles/online services. Also investigate social networking services and sites. These are sure to change (note how the popularity of MySpace declined and gave way to FaceBook, and then how Twitter came along and took the internet world by storm) but if you make it part of your everyday marketing and promotion to know what's new, you won't miss out. Figure out how social networking works and what it has to offer you - and get started.

© copyright Marg McAlister 

Some trivia for you: Serendipity may be defined as "a talent for making fortunate discoveries by accident". The word serendipity is derived from a fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip. As the Princes travelled, they were always finding out things they were not actually searching for - sometimes by accident; sometimes by putting signs together to work something out. One example: one of the Princes worked out that a mule blind in the right eye had travelled the same road lately. How did he work this out? Because the grass was eaten only on the left side of the road.

Now remember that for your next trivia night....


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