On his blog, talking about his new book, Kay offered some sage remarks about the position fiction authors are in a bit in the Internet age:
I disagree with him on only a few bits. First off, authors have always had to be the marketing machines, long before the Internet. Fiction authors always had to do about 80% of the marketing and publicity efforts on their books, and for about 80% of all fiction authors or so, they do it all on their own dime with no or little financing from publishers. (Why? Because even the big publishers couldn’t afford a lot of advertising on lots of titles and the return on the cost of such marketing was not very good, since fiction sells primarily by word of mouth, so publishers concentrate on the upper tiers of sellers where advertising will be most effective. They leave it to the authors to glad-hand fans and build up an audience.) This was very difficult for a lot of authors who couldn’t afford to try and travel and do book signings or do a lot on the convention circuit, try ads, etc. And getting interest from the media for a fiction author, except maybe in your own hometown, was next to impossible. The pay-off was that the publishers could pump thousands of books through the wholesalers, so even a mid-list author who couldn’t afford to do a lot of publicity was out in lots of different stores and might be able to build up a following, especially in a field like SFF, where fans made an effort to talk to each other and find out about new voices and releases.
But the wholesalers shrank to a handful in the 1990’s due to changes in retail and demands and lack of interest from non-bookstore vendors, (this was not the fault of the Internet,) and 50% of the mass market paperback market disappeared pretty quick. This put more pressure on authors to somehow publicize themselves and the Internet offered them lots of new opportunities to do so — they could do interviews with bloggers and websites, write articles and blogs, chat with fans across the country or even the world. As publishing got more international, the Net allowed cash-poor authors to do an enormous amount of publicity to a very large crowd of people.
But as Kay is talking about, that also meant a lot more pressure on authors to make that effort on the Net. Publishers do want authors out blogging and talking, even though most of them would rather be writing. Publishers like it when authors essentially become online journalists with mailing lists and an additional readership, not only to market those authors but because it’s become a way for authors to further help other authors in a vast flag-waving community. But since publishers still don’t fund these efforts, nor teach authors how to do any of them, it can be difficult for authors dealing with the perils and pecularities of the Internet.
An author who has been able to navigate such things already is then a bit more attractive, in the same way that a fiction author who is a professional journalist with media contacts is a bit more attractive. But the other thing to point out re Kay’s conversation with a British agent friend, is that this agent is not speaking for his profession as a unit. He is an agent utilizing a particular strategy — one which some agents have used before the Internet existed — and which some agents will also use now, but a strategy which many other agents don’t find useful. For one thing, picking only authors who already have an on-line presence may actually mean a bad buzz backlash against the author by those who don’t like the author’s views or non-fiction writings.
And I also disagree with this British agent further regarding photographs of authors. Fiction readers really don’t care at all what the authors look like. (And in SFF, frankly, the odder you look, the more fans will probably find you appealing.) Granted, there seems to be developing a small cult of fantasy fans who are refusing to start any series written by an author over the age of 45, but everyone is allowed a few quirks of taste and it’s hardly the majority. It’s still words and characters that count with fiction fans over the author looking like Snookie on The Jersey Shore. Especially as Snookie can get on any talk show she wants, while chances for fiction authors to appear on t.v. are few and far between, even the good-looking ones.