More Bad News for Writers

I ran across this in the New Yorker from George Packer:

“Without sufficient advances, many writers will not be able to undertake long, difficult, risky projects. Those who do so anyway will have to expend a lot of effort mastering the art of blowing their own horn. ‘Writing is being outsourced, because the only people who can afford to write books make money elsewhere—academics, rich people, celebrities,’ Colin Robinson, a veteran publisher, said. ‘The real talent, the people who are writers because they happen to be really good at writing—they aren’t going to be able to afford to do it.’”

Though it’s buried in a much longer piece, it’s a telling and sad indictment of the publishing industry. He continues by explaining how all the money is driven toward “a few big titles” while advances for mid-list titles, “books that are expected to sell modestly but whose quality gives them a strong chance of enduring,” have declined. “Without sufficient advances, many writers will not be able to undertake long, difficult, risky projects.”

As Packer notes, this trend points to “what the literary agent called ‘the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer.’ A few brand names at the top, a mass of unwashed titles down below, the middle hollowed out: the book business in the age of Amazon mirrors the widening inequality of the broader economy.”

I would add that it’s not just the big publishing houses squeezing out the little guy: paying jobs for writers have been disappearing faster than land-line phones. Gone are the days of magazines publishing serialized novels, or even short stories. Even those ink-stained, wretched reporter jobs are being downsized. Their replacements – websites, literary journals and niche magazines – mostly don’t pay writers. Editors now expect us to provide content for free, with the glory of having our names in print or on a contributor’s list our only reward.

This is the situation I struggle with, along with all the other writers who don’t happen to be “academics, rich people [or] celebrities.” My landlord won’t take bylines. Neither will the grocery store, or the gas pump, or the electric company. They insist on being paid with actual legal tender. So why is it that writers don’t get to insist on the same kind of payment?

At least for the websites and periodicals, I blame rookie writers. Don’t get me wrong, I have penned a story or two for free – mostly as desperate attempts to get into genres or publications that would later pay – but my overall policy is to charge money for what I write. It’s really not so radical. But when I’m competing against hundreds of other writers who don’t have such an onerous policy, I’m at a distinct disadvantage. So I have to work a “real job” to earn that legal tender everyone’s so attached to, which leaves me with considerably less time to actually write. If I do manage to carve out enough time to finish a manuscript (which I have), I’m now expected to build my own “platform” – which entails yet more unpaid work blogging and tweeting and posting to Facebook and whatever other new social network has sprung up in the last hour. Which means less time to actually write.

Many authors say, “To hell with that!” and self-publish. I’m not saying anything against it, but if you want to sell enough copies to quit your day job – or even just cut back to part-time – you’re going to have to do all that marketing yourself. Again: less time to actually write.

So, indeed, this new publishing world does seem to mirror the economy at large, where the wealthy, who don’t need to work “real jobs” and can spend hours marketing (or hire someone else to do it), easily garner plum publishing deals and paying writing gigs based on their immense “platform.” Us working-class schmucks get to fight over the crumbs.

However, I don’t want to leave you discouraged. Remember that throughout  history, revolutions are usually born from the pens of writers.


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