In the first place, all the prestige and power seems to reside in half a dozen big-time firms which are based in London (or New York, if you're an American). And yet, if your ear is to the ground, you cannot but have heard various horror stories about how these guys pick you up (if you're exceptionally lucky), publish one or two books without making the slightest attempt to market them, and then dump you. What kind of a life is this, you ask yourself.
Good question. And fortunately or unfortunately it is not a question that you are likely to have answered by direct experience, because it is very unlikely (of the order of 4,000 to 1) that you will be offered a contract by a big-time firm.
What to do then?
Increasingly, young and ambitious writers are becoming aware of the smaller, independent publishing companies. There, it seems, you may be in with a chance.
This is certainly true. You have an improved chance, anyway. And if you are interested in the small indie firms, you should definitely read what the boss of one of them has to say. Johnny Temple's valuable article, An Argument for Writers Taking Charge, can be found (via booktrade.info), on AlterNet.
Just by way of a taster of some of the good stuff that is contained in Temple's article, here is what he has to say about typical sales figures:
These figures, please note, relate to the US market, which is at least four and maybe five times as big as that of the UK.
If you want to deflate the expansive ego of a fellow writer published by one of the big houses, just get access to BookScan, an industry marketing device that tracks actual sales via bookstores and other retail outlets. Nine times out of 10, the BookScan data will burst your friend's bubble, since agents and editors routinely shield writers from such numbers. This is understandable, because the numbers are too often depressing.
Although it is notoriously imprecise, BookScan does reveal the distressing reality that most books sell in very small quantities--even those that garner positive reviews in the New York Times and the New York Review of Books. National Book Award finalist Christine Schutt has been ridiculed for the fact that her book had sold scarcely 1,000 copies at the time of her nomination. But the fact is, other than blockbuster hits, few books sell more than a couple of thousand copies. When a writer tells you how many copies his book has sold, you can usually divide that number by two or three to get closer to reality--though this may be a reality of which the writer himself is unaware.
I must say I am faintly astonished by the constant stream of articles, flooding on to the internet, which are, on the one hand, critical of big-time publishing and its various practices, and, on the other, recommending that writers should think long and hard about alternatives. At one time it seemed to be just me.
If you want to read my 72-page views on the subject, you can get a free download of my essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile by clicking on this link.
Speaking of authors taking control, you should always bear in mind that some authors have gone in for marketing their own stuff (whoever publishes it) on a big-time basis. The greatest of these, in my view, is M.J. Rose, whose Buzz, Balls and Hype blog deals with these issues on a regular basis. Here, for instance, is what M.J. very wisely has to say about self-promotion:
My take on Buzz is: Self promoting works for some authors and it fails for others. Some authors are good at it and some should never bother. Of course we all got into this because we wanted to write not promote. So you have to figure out what kind of writer you are, what you can do, what you can't, what you will, and what you won't.I agree with that. In my own case, for instance, the one thing I absolutely will not do -- because I am no good at it, and because it takes up huge amounts of time -- is go round bookshops and try to persuade the managers to stock my stuff.
There is further discussion of the same issue on Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind.