For all the talk about growing opportunities for creators online, it feels like modern creative outlets, like online video, are far more temporary in nature, while support for traditional arts is becoming even more finite, which limits the scope for getting things like literary works published.
We’ve seen this happen with the film industry – in the mid-nineties, there was a flood of arthouse films, which seemed to thrive alongside more mainstream faire. But as technology advanced, seeing improvements in digital downloads, home cinema systems, improved content access, etc. As this happened, audiences stopped heading to arthouse films at the same rate, and studios eventually stopped funding them as a result, which has since seen the focus shift almost entirely to blockbuster movies instead, with smaller films getting a thin lifeline from Netflix and other outlets, where success, and even broad scale awareness, is largely a crapshoot.
Now we’re in the midst of a similar shift in the literary world. With people now able to access a constant form of entertainment, and distraction, in their pocket at any time, getting people to actually commit to reading a book at all is a far bigger task than it has been previously.
People don’t need a book to read on the train home from work, or to take with them on a road trip, they don’t get through a few chapters before turning off the night light. Instead, they scroll, for hours on end, through an endless and constantly updating stream of snackable, short-form content, which quenches their desire for entertainment, education and escape, without them having to lock in for hundreds of pages.
As a result of this, the big publishing houses are getting more limited in what they publish, and while there are still some interesting titles being released, their potential for success is much lower, and the threshold for a literary career, as such, is far more limited. If you want to make it, you have to sell books, and if you don’t, you won’t be getting that next contract. Your literary career can go from celebration of publication to an abrupt and unceremonious end, very quickly, and just getting that basic awareness, getting people to even pick up our book in the first place, or just know that it exists, is a challenge.
So publishers are getting more limited. If it feels like a lot of the same thing is being published, again and again, that’s because it is, while it’s far easier for the publishing houses to get media coverage, and therefore boost awareness, for stories that touch on topical issues and themes. That’s always been the case to some degree, but now, it seems like a much bigger factor, with media interest, and social media promotion, often hinging on these additional elements.
In the end, this makes the pathway to publishing far more difficult. That’s not to say it can’t be done, there are still various examples of well-written books getting published, despite not having a topical hook or angle. But sales of literary fiction, in particular, are not strong in the AUS market, and peeling people away from their phones long enough to care about your work is a rising challenge.
So what do you do? Should you look to add more topical angles to your projects? Should you lean into what’s trending, or focus on a more specific style or genre in order to boost commercial appeal?
What’s more important – the quality of the writing itself, or the marketability of such?
I don’t know. I don’t think anybody has the answers. But it’s getting harder, and connecting with audiences, despite more avenues than ever for such, is no easy feat.