The film industry is dominated by the five major Hollywood studios, the music industry is dominated by three Major Labels and Penguin’s recent acquisition of Simon & Schuster narrowed the big publishing stakeholders down to four. The book market is now divided into two distinct sectors: ‘worthy’, ‘high-brow’ award-winning literary fiction, and popular, book club genre fiction. Amazon’s virtual book shop is bursting at the seams with millions of self-published titles, but the vast majority of these will only ever sell a handful of copies. It would be easy to blame the internet, but digital platforms like TikTok help to drum up sales of the physical format. Despite the behemoths of sound and screen, other creative industries are at least making some attempts to encourage and nurture new talent and alternative narratives. In Radio 6’s coverage of Record Store Day, DJs interviewed small independent shop owners who spoke about hosting gigs for unsigned local bands in their stores, as well as dedicating a section of shelf space to ‘bootleg’ recordings. The BFI Film Academy aims to offer training opportunities to young people from minority backgrounds and in television, there are several similar initiatives, such as the E4 Academy, 4Skills, 4Stories, BBC ‘Get In’, and the BBC Production Trainee scheme.
Television drama experienced a real slump in the 1990s with dominant American cable networks churning out formulaic, risk-free content. Back then, the phrase ‘made for TV’ was synonymous with cardboard sets and wooden acting. And then HBO took a chance on The Sopranos and the golden age of television dawned as niche gained prime-time status. So, why is publishing such a closed shop? Where are the opportunities for undiscovered writers? Earlier this year we were treated to yet another reality cooking contest, with the winning amateur chef securing a book deal with Penguin for their recipe book. Obviously, TV producers don’t like to stray too far from the formula, but would a novel writing contest really be such a giant leap of faith? The only platforms available to you as an unknown writer are your socials or the countless book bloggers and book review sites. All of these promise the same ‘Holy Grail’: we connect readers and writers. Good Reads was probably the first, but there are so many more: Watpad, LoveReading, Permafree, Read Share Repeat, Commaful, Smashwords, Booksie, Scribble Hub, Royal Road, Webnovel… there are two problems with this option:
a) If you do not already have an established following online, you will not suddenly ‘get discovered’ here.
b) Like Amazon, they rely on algorithms. If your book title, or the all-important tags you use to describe it, does not correlate with the most popular searches, you will fail to get any reads.
These sites are also designed to showcase those writers who have received the most five-star ratings by readers. This is all well and good, but you can’t get good ratings if no one knows you exist! Then there is the genre issue. Crime, thrillers, romance, and historical fiction are the staples and if your book does not fit neatly into a category, forget it.
If you look at the writers who have made a career out of self-publishing, they write genre fiction that has the potential for a series. Take E.L. James, the 50 Shades author. Of course, it is a good thing that erotic fiction (which is rather frowned on by traditional publishers) has found its home and its audience. But there are now so many variations on this theme and even subgenres like sex and shopping and bonk busters. We’ve reached saturation point.
Since we are very much in story territory, let’s consider the state of publishing as a classic David and Goliath narrative: the industry giants and all the Davids who have successfully self-published. A juxtaposition of Corporate Greed and Independent Creativity. It is those rare success stories like E.L. James that continue to give hope to the myriad of unpublished authors (this and tales of JK Rowling’s collection of rejection letters). Cash Carraway’s ‘Skint Estate’ enjoyed rave reviews from Guardian critics to celebrities, such as Kathy Burke. But only because of a chance encounter with a notable journalist. Who, with one social media post, completely changed Carraway’s fortunes, opening the door to Penguin. But many of the Davids are as much a part of the capitalist machine as Penguin or HarperCollins. Not satisfied with making a decent living as a writer, they use their sales as credentials to set themselves up as gurus.
There now seem to be as many ‘experts’ writing about how to write and how to make it in self-publishing and making money from desperate ‘failed’ writers than there are fiction writers. Head to YouTube and type in ‘how to self-publish and see for yourself.' One example is Mark Dawson, writer of the John Milton series. He has sold two million books and now makes a seven-figure income from writing. He also has a nice little sideline selling online courses in book marketing. In one of his introductions, he talks about the importance of a mailing list to ‘creative professionals’ and ‘utilizing the power of social media advertising’. This is not creative language, it is business jargon, pure and simple.
Lucy V Hay (author of the Intersection series) is another of these professionals. On her website, you will find various ‘How To Write’ guides alongside her novels. Her Twitter account Bang2write, with over 16K followers, is evidence that all you need to be successful is to build an online fanbase. It’s that easy! To be an underdog worthy of the name David, you need a slingshot, and that slingshot is knowing how to work the socials. Otherwise, you are just another underdog with no name. One such ‘nobody’ deserves a special mention here: Charles Boyle (of CB editions). A few weeks ago, he Tweeted that his latest book was acclaimed as “an astonishing achievement” by the TLS and a “masterpiece” no less by the Literary Review, but he finished his post with a self-deprecating comment about being ‘no good at this' having sold less than 100 copies. You may be ‘no good’ at marketing Charles, but as such a talented writer, that shouldn’t be your job.
If you find yourself struggling alone, you might try networking in a group. Facebook groups like The Write Life, Author Success Collective, Writers Helping Writers, Inner Circle, or Writing Bad generally fall into one of two categories:
a) An echo chamber of desperate voices pleading to be read.
b) A marketplace for aspiring editors to sell their services.
Upon reading the rules of many book groups you will find that self-promotion is not allowed. You can post yet another recommendation for Where the Crawdads Sing, The Midnight Library, The Lamplighters, or whatever best seller is currently trending, but God forbid you should suggest an unknown little novel that no one’s heard of.
Another avenue you might pursue is to work your niche. Check the submission requirements of the agents that will accept unsolicited manuscripts and increasingly they seem to be ‘keen to hear from unheard voices’, be these writers from ‘The North’, Black writers, or LGBTQ+ writers. Of course, there must be a proven audience. Would Dean Atta’s Black Flamingo have been published if Ru Paul hadn’t dragged his Queens into the mainstream? Would Penguin have given Paris Lees the time of day if she hadn’t already appeared on the front cover of Vogue? There is an underrepresentation of asexual characters and non-binary characters in fiction, but nobody in the industry is falling over themselves to discover these writers. Instead, they seek to hear from “female writers with a strong voice”. Why? Because women account for around 80% of fiction sales.
Last year Natasha Carthew posted a Tweet calling for working-class writers to participate in a ClassFest event (ClassFest was established to address the lack of working-class writers who are published). There was just one tiny caveat. You had to be traditionally published already and contact had to be made through your agent. The initiative has received generous funding from Arts Council England and the event was sponsored by Penguin and Hachette. I responded, asking politely why she was only seeking published authors and not opening the door to undiscovered talent. This seemed a perfectly reasonable question.
She blocked me, no dialogue, not even a rejection Tweet.
Perhaps social media just isn’t the right platform for writers who take their craft more seriously than their picture profile. There is always LinkedIn, which does have more of a businesslike aesthetic. Upload a writer’s resume and put in details of freelance writing you are interested in and you will soon receive plenty of job alerts. Except, these will not necessarily match your skills and experience. Let’s say you are looking for ghostwriting work to build up a portfolio of paid fiction pieces. More likely you will end up so overwhelmed with companies seeking technical bid writers, medical writers, SEO writers, or proposal writers, that should the perfect position arise, you won’t spot it.
One final avenue you might consider is higher education. What do Douglas Stewart, Hannah Lowe, and Susanna Clarke have in common (other than that they have won prominent book awards)? Stewart has an MA, Lowe has a Ph.D., and Clarke was Oxford-educated (she also had a novelist for a father). Check the bio of pretty much any celebrated author and they will have letters after their name. Often they teach creative writing at the university level as well. An MA will set you back anywhere between £4,000 and £10,500 (because universities are allowed to set their own fees, there are wild discrepancies from one institution to another). For most aspiring writers, this option will be impossible because even if they took out a student loan to cover the costs, they would not be able to go part-time to allow for the fifteen weekly recommended hours of study time.
So, our universities are hothouses where existing writers nurture future writers, who will in turn tutor and mentor the next batch, and so on and so on. Online platforms are hothouses for self-published marketing magicians. Publishing has no time or place for the rest of us.