The Point of this All

by Lou Aronica

My mentor in the publishing business was the great Ian Ballantine, the man who first brought paperback books to the United States and then founded Bantam Books and Ballantine Books. Some day, I’ll write at length about what it was like to be tutored by such a legendary presence in my chosen profession (I actually did write about it a bit in The Element, the book I coauthored with Sir Ken Robinson), but for now suffice it to say that I always found Ian’s stories about the early days of the paperback world captivating. I tried to imagine what it was like to find oneself in the middle of a paradigm shift in a centuries-old industry, to be there as the market unfolded and opportunity upon opportunity presented itself. By the time I got into the book business in 1979, there were no such frontiers. The field could still be incredibly exciting – I fell in love with it nearly instantly – but the shifts were subtler, the changes far less dramatic. As much as I adored Ian and appreciated his counsel, I always felt a bit envious for what he had. I’d been born too late.

As it turns out, this wasn’t the case at all. I simply needed to wait thirty years for new circumstances to present themselves.

For more than a decade now, I’ve been watching prospects for writers – especially novelists – erode. While it was never easy for a writer to become a bestseller, it was realistic for one who was dedicated and talented to have a long and satisfying career. I remember in the mid-eighties starting a writing seminar by saying that there was room for every well-written and inspired novel to be published. I saw evidence of this everywhere back then. I realized, of course, that some very good novels fell between the cracks for a variety of reasons, but this was overwhelmingly the exception. Now such a statement seems ludicrous. A publisher friend recently equated selling a novel to winning the lottery. He might have been understating it. Where major publishers once had deep and varied fiction lists, they now focus, by necessity, on a handful of potential blockbusters.

But then there’s that new frontier I’ve been waiting for. When people started talking about e-books again a few years ago, many of us looked upon this with skepticism. We’d all thrilled to the promise of e-books in the late nineties and early aughts, and that had been one of the more spectacular crash-and-burn outcomes in industry history. The public had spoken clearly back then. Why would it be any different this time?

Such skepticism seems incredibly narrow-minded at this point. Readers have not only accepted e-books; they have embraced them passionately. From what was essentially a standing start in late 2007, the e-book is now a format that is competitive with some of the largest formats in the industry. Based on the most recent sales figures from the Association of American Publishers, the format now has a larger market share than both children’s paperbacks and adult mass market paperbacks. In less than three years, it has gone from nothing to this level of market presence. What is more important is that it is growing dramatically while most other formats are treading water or even losing ground.

The emergence of e-books is a frontier as exciting as the paperback frontier once was. It changes things for readers because it makes books more affordable and more accessible (much as paperbacks once did). It changes things for writers because it presents them with opportunities to remove the barriers that were keeping them from their readers. It is again true that all well-written and inspired novels can be published.

Of course, there is publishing and then there is publishing. As alarming as it has been for me to see traditional publishers take fewer and fewer chances on new writers, it has been even more alarming for me to see self-publishing become so easy that anyone can foist their work on an unsuspecting public. That’s why I’ve decided to launch the Fiction Studio imprint with the help of my friends at National Book Network.

The Fiction Studio imprint will be the home for very good writers who have as yet to win the lottery. It is an invitation-only publishing program – I consider no submissions – for writers whose work I love who have decided to try a different path to publishing success. Fiction Studio will publish these books in both paperback and e-book formats (there will be the occasional hardcover as well), the writers will have a huge level of equity in their publications, and because of this, they will participate in their publications at their highest possible level.

I am putting a premium on professionalism with this imprint. The books will look great and they will have extremely high editorial values. While I learned a long time ago that readers don’t care about imprints (no one goes out looking for a Viking book, for instance), I want the Fiction Studio imprint to tell readers that they can rely on the quality of the work. Everyone associated with the program – from the editors to the copyeditors to the cover designers to the marketing and publicity people – has many years of experience at major publishing houses.

I’m very excited about this venture. The publishing industry is embarking on a new frontier and it is great to be a part of it. I’ll be happy to answer any questions you have about the Fiction Studio publishing program. You can e-mail me at lou@fictionstudiobooks.com.

Get an interview with Lou about Fiction Studio Books here.