On Publishing (Again)

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21 April 2012

A lot’s been happening in the publishing world, it seems — with the DOJ going after Apple and the corporate conglomerates over e-book price points and whatnot.  It occurs to me that I am really in denial — and out of touch — when I start to feel frustrated that no one ever speaks to how e-book pricing affects authors.  The author’s voice or stake in this is, apparently, so WAY off the radar.  The cost of a book once seemed to mean something for whether an author got paid; now it’s more a matter of whether corporate publishers can stay in business, keep from laying off half their employees, etc.

Case in point: this week’s “On the Media” program at NPR is called, “Publishing: Adapt or Die.”  I was pretty blue after listening to it.  It actually poked holes in my sense of purpose re: finishing my second novel. It wasn’t because of the money issue, but more the readership issue, the declaration that “no one reads literary fiction” anymore.

I started this blog in 2009, a year before my (first) book came out.  A lot happens in three years; publishing years are like dog years these days.  I was reminded of how much has changed when I co-moderated a panel at Columbia last week on “Current Landscapes in Publishing.”  One of the questions I asked was whether the panelists felt optimistic or troubled by what’s happening in their corner of the publishing world, and every one of them was optimistic, excited, energized, etc.  Five out of the six were writers themselves in addition to being editors; the publications/organizations with which they were involved ranged from mainstream/corporate to super-indie/startup, and a few in between.  None of them seemed concerned about the fact that they might never see monetary compensation for their own work.  They were all happy that content was booming, that literary culture (online) was thriving, that it’s “a reader’s market” now.

Two of the publications represented — The New Yorker and Electric Literature — do in fact compensate writers significantly for their work.  I wonder how sustainable each model is into the future. (The co-creators of EL do not get paid, which is the standard for editors of most new and online literary publications.)

I’m slow to this adjustment (but that’s not surprising, I’m generally slow about most things).  Hopefully I’ll get there.  Or maybe not.  Does anyone else think we should be mad — more mad, a little mad — that it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a living as a writer?  To me, there is actually a significant difference between no compensation and modest compensation: it’s the difference between having to devote full-time to non-writing work versus part-time.  It’s the difference between getting a book written and not getting a book written.  I’m not talking about six-figure advances, I’m talking about any advances at all.  I’m talking about piecing together bits of income to live a simple, low-overhead life.

Ugh.  I’m devolving here.  Ok, let me turn this around and give a shout-out to all those literary publications and institutions who are scraping up money for writers.  Thank you thank you thank you.

*

p.s. Of course my blind spot here in this rant is that the consumer has to be willing to pay for the content. One of our panelists was wise to say so.  I’ve been trying to be more mindful/faithful about myself as a literary consumer, about subscriptions, about paying for what I possibly can.  At the risk of sounding corny, every little bit counts!

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2 Responses to “On Publishing (Again)”


  1. I’m optimistic. All manner of people are excited about the Hunger Games, and were about Harry Potter, and even Twilight–dim as that particular bulb may be. Folks reading these books are going to read the next thing that author puts out. Not only that, they’re going to search for similar books, and they’re eventually going to expand. Some kid is going to get handed Battle Royale, some other is going to find Grossman’s The Magicians. Rowling herself is getting into lit-fiction, and as boring as that book sounds…the habit is being formed, and that’s the critical thing.

    Even with Twilight, this Fifty Shades of Grey malarkey? As embarrassing as it is for some, I guarantee you that in a week or a month someone will walk into a bookstore, say “do you have anything else like this?” and a clerk, wise on an opportunity, is going to say “not exactly, but have you tried ____?”


  2. When I think of how meaningful reading literary fiction has been in my life, I feel an author hoping to piece together bits of income to live a simple, low-overhead life is not asking for much. To see it dip beneath this just doesn’t seem right. Poetry has also come to mean quite a lot to me and it is clear that poets follow a challenging path as well. I believe the most powerful thing we can do is vote with our dollars to show what we value.


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