The days of literary agents and publishing houses may well be numbered.
I spent nearly three years writing my first novel, and another year editing it. One more passed as I researched the market and tried to find agents to look at a science fiction novel from an unpublished author. Finally, I sent proposals out and held my breath.
Months of silence went by. Most agents didn’t respond at all. I thought they would have shown a little more excitement toward a book about a motorcycle race on Mars, but six years after I finished the first draft only two people other than myself have read the full manuscript.
Agents and publishers have forever stood on the dividing line between ‘frustrated novelist’ and ‘published writer’. Even J.K. Rowling faced dozens of rejections before someone took a chance on her.
How many more J.K. Rowlings or Stephen Kings are out there, waiting for talent, craft, and outright luck to collide and introduce their work to the masses? How many Harry Potters lie gathering digital dust on some hard drive, never to be read?
We’re fast approaching an era where agents and publishers may no longer act as content gatekeepers. The necessary tools for getting a novel published without the intervention of either are already available – and those tools may prove every bit as revolutionary as the printing press was seven centuries ago.
In 2011, Amazon reported sales of electronic books surpassed printed book sales for the first time, a trend that’s likely to continue. Consumers are discovering printed books can’t compete with the sheer convenience of being able to carry around an entire library in a device no bigger than a book itself.
Some might say this points to the inevitable death of the book, but the real news is that e-books have the potential to overturn the balance of power in the publishing industry. E-books aren’t just more convenient for readers; it turns out they may be a far more convenient medium for authors too.
Until very recently, self-publishing a novel meant gathering and paying for physical materials. Only major publishing houses had the resources and industry pull necessary to get an author’s printed work into the hands of larger audiences. Electronic publishing has been an alternative for several years, but conversion tools were cumbersome, online markets only nascent at best, and too few potential readers had a Kindle, iPad, or other device necessary to read an author’s work.
However, all of those limitations have begun to fade. More than 55 million iPads have been sold since the device’s debut in 2010, along with millions of Kindles and other e-readers.
Amazon and Apple both offer services that allow anyone to upload content and make it available for sale to virtually the entire world, and these companies take a mere 30 percent cut of sales revenue, giving authors a much larger share than they’d get through a traditional publisher.
As for the last major obstacle, Apple recently introduced a free programme called iBooks Author that makes converting a text file into an iPad-readable document far simpler than any previous conversion tool. It is targeted at generating fully interactive electronic textbooks, but I’ve found that iBooks Author can also craft fictional works every bit as visually striking as those gigantic coffee table books sold in stores.
With flourishing sales of iPads and Kindles, freely-available tools to generate machine-readable content, and at least two major online bookstores that accept self-published content and offer it for near-global distribution, self-publishing is finally poised to be a viable alternative to the old model.
The barriers for entry on both the iBookstore and Kindle Store are extremely low, especially when compared against the mountains of patience, persistence, and luck needed to get published through traditional channels. If both authors and readers take full advantage of these services, future generations may well look upon literary agents and publishing houses as curiously inefficient and old-fashioned.