I was at a writer's conference last weekend and I noticed a few things.
Fifteen years ago, unpublished writers could either keep sending out queries to agents and editors until somebody gave them a break and published something, or until the writers died, or they paid vanity presses to publish their books. Young writers were warned and warned about vanity presses, the way little kids are warned not to take candy from strangers. Writers who go with vanity presses, we were told, lost all their money, ended up with a garage full of unsellable books, and were never heard from again. This was usually true, except some of the writers never got the books they paid for. I saw one contract's small print that stated the press wasn't obligated to ever put the manuscript in print.
Then again, we were also told that getting a legit book contract had worse odds than winning the state lottery (which I think was about 1 in 100,000). Easier to win a million in the lottery and buy a small publishing house for yourself.
These days writers are still querying agents. Most editors no longer accept non-agented mystery fiction submissions. Publishing houses have merged, so less of them exist. Writers are warned and warned about self-publishing--you spend your savings and never break even, you end up with a garage full of books, and you never have a chance at a real writing career because no one will take you seriously.
The more things change the more they stay the same. Except that self-published writers using a legitimate press can be reasonably assured of receiving books with which to fill their garages. I haven't heard the current odds of getting a novel published, but it's still worse than winning a lottery. My guess is that now that lottery is Powerball (1 in 5,138,133 last I heard).
Oh, and one more thing I heard this weekend. Less books are being sold than fifteen years ago. (Legal recorded sales, I mean. This does not include under-the-table deals done in the street outside authors' garages.) Even if you do get a contract, your book will likely be out of print fairly soon. No guarantee you'll ever sell another manuscript. An author used to be considered "established" after four published books. No more. You can become a has-been overnight.
At the conference last weekend, between regular rose-colored-glasses sessions on how to improve your writing and get it into publishable shape, all these extremely depressing topics were thrashed out in detail. You could feel the frustration.
Yet, out of the hundreds of writers at that conference, how many will actually throw in the towel? Surprisingly few. For most of us, despite the fact that we know our works probably won't be bestsellers--that they may not even pay for a month's worth of bills each year--that they may never even be published after the months and years we spend on them--despite all that, we're still writers.
Writing's a calling. An obsession. An addiction.
We can't stop.
And so, my fellow writers, keep writing. And keep playing the lottery. First one of us who wins a million buys the small press and publishes the rest of us.