Monday, January 7, 2013

(Traditional) Publication Rules of Writing


Thinking of a post I wrote recently titled Manuscript Length A Thing Of The Past prompted me to consider what I thought about the current state of publishing. Normally I go with the flow, write short blog posts of little consequence, but the times we find ourselves today as writers is exciting, a little scary and confusing.

I felt the need to sort my feelings with more structure than I typically apply to my blog. In doing so, I discovered that one post was too constraining but I also understood the need to begin somewhere, so what follows is a (long) overview of where my mind is at today concerning the state of writing. What I find wonderful as a writer is the ability to rewrite previously published work, to expand and grow opinions more organically than at any other time in history.

There are things I’ve left out due to space, half-formed thoughts that remain undeveloped and sections that I’m not even certain I agree with, but here they stand for others to read. To disagree with, to argue for and argue against, to dismiss or take to heart.

Here, then, is my first draft. A writer in progress begins with a word, hoping others will follow for the rest.

What Are The (Traditional)  Publication Rules Of Writing?

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
-W. Somerset Maugham

Rules. There are as many rules about rules as rules themselves, but unlike Maugham, I was able to sort out in my mind four rules as regards to writing publication. Remember as you read further, my rules are broad and in no way meant to be comprehensive. Other folks will come up with their own rules I suspect, and that in no way diminishes their rules or my own, I think. It just means that writing and publication isn’t definable to the tenth decimal point. Writing and publication must be viewed in terms of range and described with phrases such as ‘most likely’, ‘I believe’ or ‘In all likelihood’.  

Or so I believe.

Here, then, are four rules of (traditional) publication:

Length Of Genre Fiction

Here is a great site that breaks down the terms used for stories based on specific lengths, e.g, novelette, novella, short story and so forth.The labels are fairly standard anywhere you look, especially for the shorter works. For those writing novels, though, you run into variations depending on the genre in which you find yourself writing, so for example  if you write a hard sf novel, according you are looking at a word count of 90k to 110k. Some romance novels can weigh in at only 55k words, while fantasy can weigh in at twice that length at 120k+.

Go to your local bookstore or browse online at your favorite cyber-store and check out how well this holds true. Most genre novels are roughly the same length and most are tightly focused in a single genre, meaning there is very little crossover between genres. Fantasy novels are fat and romance thin, mysteries mid-length and so too with most sf. This is industry standard and because it is standard in what we read, it tends to be born out in what is written as well. Most writers I believe will naturally write to the industry because it is what they are used to reading and what you read is what you tend to write.

Number of Books In A series

How many books in a series? Well, to be a series, most will say that you need at least three and trilogies rule, being the most popular number for most series. We also see the double trilogy or even the triple series. These are often series that  are set in the same world but in different times, such as Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books. Fantasy series have recently become grander and hence far longer than ever before, so we have the projected seven book George RR Martin Game of Thrones  or Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series which will clock in at fourteen books, with a fifteenth if you include the prequel New Spring. (That’s five trilogies, though the structure of the books don’t bear out the strict trilogy format).

And then there is L. Ron Hubbard who wrote the ten book Mission Earth  series further muddling up things in the quest to answer how many books in a series.

Though there are odd series with any number of books, three continues to be standard in accordance with how The Lord of the Rings was divided into three books by the original publisher due to money concerns. In the land of series, the Trilogy continues to rule supreme.

Delivery And/Or Format

This rule is easy to define as delivery hasn’t changed since the earliest days of publishing. Writing was predominately available to the masses by the mid 1800’s and if you read, you read via the printed word, mostly in book form or by way of periodicals. Serialized novels, such as Charles Dickens wrote, had a brief life but over the 20th century, the stand-alone novel ruled. As with set lengths in the genre category, long stories were novelized and short stories were found their way to various magazines and the occasional anthology.

Once a work was published, that was the end. It was the rare author who was able to add to or alter a work once it found itself in published form. A delivered story was good and delivered and no question otherwise. A few exceptions have occurred, such Ender’s Game, which began life as a short story before author Orson Scott Card expanded it into a novel, then a series.  Stephen King also notably re-released his epic The Stand as an an even more epic uncut version that was unpublishable when King was slightly less influential.

For most authors, though, they do not have the same chance to re-write, re envision or otherwise re-release a work once published.

Publication Saturation

If you are so lucky to sign a book deal you will find yourself in a situation where the publisher decides the schedule of when you see print. You may be fortunate if you are a prolific short story writer to get your name in print multiple times a year (and with the pay structure, you would have to either be well known and command high per story payments, or productive to an extreme, to make a living just writing short stories). Otherwise, novelists under normal conditions are on a one book per year schedule even if two books are written.

Then there is the reality authors must also face, a shelf life for their work. Books appear for a time before disappearing and sometimes, oftentimes, the disappearing phase exists forever.

Saturation is controlled by the publishers, not the writer. The industry is designed to discourage prolific writers because the truth is, there are thousands of writers out there and publishers run a business that includes more than a single author. A publisher can’t cater to one author at the expense of others.

What Has Changed With E-Publishing

You're always you, and that don't change, and you're always changing, and there's nothing you can do about it.”

Length Of Genre Fiction

E-publishing gives writers freedom, but even in a free system there is a need for rule breakers willing to test boundaries because freedom with unquestioned boundaries becomes an oppressive environment if there is no mechanism for change. It is important that the spirit of a system is retained more so than the form in which that system takes. Freedom with finite borders designed to resist change will eventually break under an assault of the dissatisfied and be supplanted by a new system rather than an evolved system.  

Genre fiction, non-fiction and any other sort of writing endeavor is far too stifled with rules of length. Print publication is a free system but one with stringent rules that writers who want change are pushing against, testing to see whether the boundaries accept change or are in need of breaking. The great opportunity presented by e-publishing is in the fact that it can be the mechanism of change that spurs a revolution in publishing, preserving the spirit of the industry while taking it to the next logical evolutionary step. Story is king and the only constraint should be the quality of the craft.

Number of Books In A series

A story unfolds. Readers become enthralled. A story continues, proceeding to the end. Readers are happy. A new story, linked, begins. Or does not continue. Readers are happy. Readers are sad. Life continues for those involved until such time as it ends.

That, Folks, is all I can on the matter. Five, three, ten? Write to completion and try your damnedest to keep your readers satisfied. (You should consider your satisfaction level in this matter as well and all should be well.)

Delivery And/ Or Format

Print on demand exists today. Self-published books are not the nasty step children they once were. There are options. The writer can opt for many paths, no longer reliant on cumbersome traditional publishing alone as a way to find readers for their work.

There is risk involved in bucking the established system and going the independent route of self publishing. Chief among the concerns a writer should take into account is quality erosion as a result of a writer who lacks the knowledge or experience to do the heavy lifting beyond writing. This includes formatting for e-books, e-book platforms, marketing, cover design and editing.

Writers who forget that self publishing is far more than just writing, place an unnecessary burden on their potential success. There is a learning curve but those unable or unwilling to learn still have more options than ever before. A great blog that has been dedicated to this subject is written by JA Konrath, who has written hundreds of posts about the subject of publishing in all the forms past, present and a few that might be headed our way.

Publication Saturation

Is too much, ever too much? Is there such a thing as over-exposure? Or are you one of those writers who need not worry about saturation because you write too slow to become overexposed?

Whichever way you fall on the saturation spectrum, if you decide to self-publish you get a measure of control over the process that has been to this point tightly controlled by publishers. If you can write a book a week, no matter the quality, why not put them in the hands of readers?

Quality is ultimately rewarded. Trends are critical, though, so if your book about clow porn is sitting in the publishing piepeline while someone else scores big with Bozo and His Amazing Balloon Balls, then how have you benefitted by long delays?

If you as a writer control your own book saturation decisions and are able to keep your e-books in perpetual print, then maybe you would reap the benefits of hitting a trend like clown porn instead of some other writer.

Why Is The Old Way Obsolete
“If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old”

Everything old must pass, make way for the new. This is true in publishing just as it is in life in general. Stubborn adherence to nostalgia can never hope to prevent progress. All it does is delay an inevitable shift to the next standard.
We evolve at our own pace, which is fine, but we all evolve eventually. If you wish to continue doing things the old way, that’s okay. Recognize the futility of your choice, however, if you wish to succeed in the coming years as you look around and discover that your personal pace of evolution has left you far behind and out of touch.

A Period Of Transition
“In the space between chaos and shape there was another chance.”

Dig in your heels, writer, resist, I dare you.

There are three choices a writer can pursue today:

1. Stick to the hide of the dying beast that is the traditional publishing scene
2. Join the change that e-books offer
3. Push the boundaries, break the rules, define the future of publishing

Any choice you make, this is a clear period of sharp divides and a time of transition when the foundation of publishing is going to be re-formed. Large publishers may still wrest control, take over the publishing world in the next incarnation, make minimal changes and retain the decision making on who, what and when for writers.

Or writers can embrace their freedom, take the spirit of publishing, which is providing content readers want to read, and retain control for themselves. Transitions provide opportunities for those who are willing to break the rules of the old ways.

What Is The Best Way To Proceed
“Our duty, as men and women, is to proceed as if limits to our ability did not exist. We are collaborators in creation.”

Writers must make a decision on how best to proceed, which path to take. It may still be possible to walk many, near parallel paths, but the time is coming when there will a dominant direction those in the publishing business will all travel together.

What should you do?

Minor Tweaks/ Nothing At All

Hedge your bets, make minor changes, dip your toes into the e-book world, either on your own or through a publisher. If your choice is to be timid, then you can expect to reap the rewards commensurate with your level of commitment. Change may sweep you forward despite your own effort or desire for that change.

What is certain is you will need to rely on luck more so than the more proactive writer who seeks to seize the opportunity the transition underway in the publishing world.

Radical Shifts

Jump in. The water may shallow, cold, filled with sharp rocks ready to impale you or it might be waiting to embrace you with warm, gentle waves that carry you to lands of riches. There is a place and time for bold action, for writers who see change as an opportunity instead of as a boogie man hiding on their bed who wants to eat them up with no mercy.

There is a prize that can be one and right now there is a race to see who gets that prize. Is it going to be writers, publishers, is it going to be you?


  1. The difference between a writer taking the traditional route v indie route is all about quick, quick, slow. Traditional starts slowly – finding your agent, getting a publisher, doing the rewrites etc can take several years but once your first book sales will outstrip any indie writer in the first few months because you have the backing of the publisher.

    The indie writer is the opposite – they can get the title out there quickly and then things slow down – download by download, social network to word of mouth, review and blog mentions slowly building as they establish a loyal readership who should be gagging for the next title.

    I love the idea of a new genre 'clow porn'. Could catch on.