“May you live in interesting times” is a curse in some circles but, like it or not, authors today are living in very interesting times. There has been some wild speculation about the death of publishing as we know it, the death of printed books, the death of literature, the death of agents, and the death of professional authors (of which mine has been greatly exaggerated). But the only thing that’s really changed is the way a story gets out of the author’s head and into the reader’s head... the writing, publishing and distribution process, in other words. Because stories are same now as they were thousands of years ago, when cavemen told tales around their campfires at night.
Training: Woman experiences being dragged off to a cave by her hair to get to know her future husband.
Getting the story down: She can’t write, so she just tells the story around the campfire, explaining to her children how they came into the world in terms of the moon and a stork… a myth.
Debut novel: The day others in her tribe listen to her tale.
Next book(s): If she’s a good storyteller, there will be demand for more.
Authoresses who thrived: We’ve no idea, since nobody could write their name.
Bestseller: cave paintings (mostly of men hunting bison).
Note: In more civilised parts of the world, they had cuneiform writing and could "print" on clay with cylinder seals.
Scroll Era (500BC – 500AD)
Training: Woman probably can’t write herself, so sings or makes up poems and tells stories.
Getting the story down: If she's lucky (and young and pretty), an admiring male scribe writes it down for her.
Debut novel: Handwritten on several scrolls stored in a box.
Next book(s): Ditto. If her books prove popular, more handwritten copies will be painstakingly made of each one.
Authoresses who thrived: Sappho, Scheherazade?
Bestseller: The Iliad.
Dark Era (500 - 1450)
Training: A girl might learn to read and write if she's lucky, though most schools at the time are run by monks for boys.
Getting the story down: by hand.
Debut novel: made into beautifully illuminated books by those monks, or possibly printed using a woodblock technique developed in a more civilised part of the world.
Next book(s): ditto.
Authoresses who thrived: Any ideas? (These were the dark ages, obviously.)
Bestseller: Kama Sutra in more civilised parts of the world. The Bible in Europe (blame those monks).
Print Era (1450 - 1900)
Training: Educated lady of independent means writes a novel beneath her embroidery.
Getting the story down: by hand.
Debut novel: She sends her book to a publisher (often a family friend) or publishes it herself. Paper copies are printed on the new printing presses to sell in physical bookstores.
Next book(s): If her book is popular, more might be printed. Very few authors can afford to publish, so she'll probably continue until she chooses to retire from writing or throws herself into a lake in despair.
Authoresses who thrived: Bronte sisters
Bestseller: Wuthering Heights.
NBA Era (1900 - 1997)
Training: Working woman of limited means writes a novel in her spare time and submits it to publishers’ and agents’ “slush piles”.
Getting the story down: Typewriter and (later) desktop computer.
Debut novel: Publisher draws up a legal contract with the author and prints paper copies to sell in several thriving bookshop chains, hundreds of dedicated independent stores, plus (later) a handful to sell online with the fledgling amazon. The Net Book Agreement ensures that discounting is illegal so all stores have an equal chance at survival and the author gets a fair royalty from sales.
Next book(s): If she continues to deliver good work, the same publisher (or the same editor) continues to publish her new books until she chooses to retire from writing.
Authoresses who thrived: Enid Blyton, Jacqueline Wilson.
Bestseller: The Famous Five.
EPOS Era (1997 - 2010)
Training: Young woman leaves school and goes to University to do a creative writing course and learn the ins and outs of the publishing business. Meets talent-spotting young agent, who gets her a 2-book publishing deal. If she doesn’t get a publishing deal, she’ll probably go on to teach creative writing, or find work as an editor.
Getting the story down: Computer.
Debut novel: Publisher draws up a legal contract with the agent, then prints paper copies to sell in the big bookshop chains, a handful of remaining independents, and online at amazon. Many copies are sold at discount following collapse of the NBA.
Next book(s): If authoress sells enough books (either by good word of mouth and/or large publisher's promotional budget) according to Nielsen's Bookscan figures* based on electronic point of sale, more books are commissioned until she chooses to retire from writing. If she’s not so lucky, her publisher drops her after the first 2 books, and her agent must find another publisher.
Authoresses who thrive: JK Rowling, Celebrities in other fields.
Bestseller: Harry Potter.
*Nielsen Bookscan does not cover all books sold, so some authoresses of this era have good reason to throw themselves into a lake in despair.
Ebook Era (2010 - ????)
Training: Teenagers, housewives, get-rich-quick entrepreneurs, creative writing graduates who didn’t make it out of the starting gates in the EPOS Era, and experienced authors dropped during the EPOS Era who have not yet thrown themselves into a lake in despair, publish worldwide via. amazon's kdp.
Getting the story down and publishing: Computer with an internet connection.
Debut novel: Sold online as an ebook original, mostly at amazon. No copies in physical bookshops (hardly any physical bookshops left anyway).
Next book(s): If she’s lucky, word-of-mouth spread by online social media sells her books worldwide in enormous quantities, and publishers come to her begging for the paperback rights to sell in the few remaining bookshops.
Authoresses who thrive: E L James
Bestseller: Fifty Shades of Grey.
Obviously there is some overlap where unusual opportunities exist - for example the first Harry Potter was published at the end of the NBA era, allowing the series to build momentum just in time to take off in the EPOS era, and quite a few American authors who could not get published at all in the EPOS era made their name at the start of the Ebook era by jumping straight in. I began my writing career at the start of the EPOS Era (Song Quest, 1999), and am entering the Ebook Era as one of the experienced authors who did not drown herself in despair (though I came quite close to drowning myself in the bath at one point), so your view of the publishing industry might be quite different from mine depending upon when and how you started, and how long you have been writing. And if you're a reader, then maybe you've noticed the falling prices of books and the fact you can't find your favourite author in the shops any more.
Originally published at The History Girls blogspot, but believed to be of interest to Electric Authors everywhere, so offered here as an emergency post to cover for maternity leave etc... hope you enjoy!
***Katherine Roberts is currently published by Templar for her new titles, and by a unicorn for her out of print ones. More details at www.katherineroberts.co.uk
Visit Katherine's astore to see all her books (EPOS Era and Ebook Era) available online at amazon.