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!
25 April 2011
A nice piece by Linda Homes at NPR (thanks to Jane for passing along) about the anxiety many of us have these days re: “so much to read, so little time.” She makes the argument that the sadness we feel about “what we’re missing,” because there’s just too much good stuff out there, is also a beautiful thing; and that we should resist “culling,” which is her term for coping with the volume of choices by mentally eliminating entire categories of art from our “worthwhile” list.
Culling is easy; it implies a huge amount of control and mastery. Surrender, on the other hand, is a little sad. That’s the moment you realize you’re separated from so much. That’s your moment of understanding that you’ll miss most of the music and the dancing and the art and the books and the films that there have ever been and ever will be, and right now, there’s something being performed somewhere in the world that you’re not seeing that you would love.
It’s sad, but it’s also … great, really. Imagine if you’d seen everything good, or if you knew about everything good. Imagine if you really got to all the recordings and books and movies you’re “supposed to see.” Imagine you got through everybody’s list, until everything you hadn’t read didn’t really need reading. That would imply that all the cultural value the world has managed to produce since a glob of primordial ooze first picked up a violin is so tiny and insignificant that a single human being can gobble all of it in one lifetime. That would make us failures, I think.
If “well-read” means “not missing anything,” then nobody has a chance. If “well-read” means “making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully,” then yes, we can all be well-read. But what we’ve seen is always going to be a very small cup dipped out of a very big ocean, and turning your back on the ocean to stare into the cup can’t change that.
And here’s an interesting response in the comments from someone who disagrees, who thinks generalism is a waste of time:
Endeavor to contribute in your special way, and humanity grows. It’s a fools errand to personally know all knowledge. It’s a liars ruse if one claims to know all. Furthermore, if you knew and could do all, there would be scant appreciation for those that excel at only a few things. Would the great artists, architects and leaders be useful if all were as capable?
I have to admit that I have culling tendencies; though I’d like to think that I cull in a thoughtful way, as opposed to a dismissive one. In other words, in my experience, culling is not easy, it means developing priorities based on an aesthetic and/or personal value system that’s idiosyncratic by virtue of having formed over time. It also recognizes reality; I can’t know or do everything, so I’ll work on what I can. I trust the people who are gifted otherwise to cover those areas, while I cover mine. Be master of such as you have, is how Barry Hannah put it. Perhaps the compromise is that the culling process works best when it’s evolving and organic. Tomorrow I may evolve into, say, an Italian film enthusiast; but only if I’m open to it.
2 February 2010
In case it wasn’t clear watching the Grammys the other night: hip hop/rap is at the dead center of the music industry. It’s still so bizarre to me watching kids in street gear riff and spit and spar on a gigantic, pyrotechnic, Hollywood stage in front of super-rich people in gala-wear. (I know the kids are rich too, now; but still…)
Even more bizarre… but in a totally different way… NPRs Planet Money covered a story about a TV producer and an economist getting together to make economics accessible and engaging. The result: a pretty-good rap song about Keynes and that other guy. Shmilarious. And impressively educational. Ya gotta see this.
20 January 2010
And then, apropos of my last post, I read this article about a hip young liberal Manhattanite coming out of the Christian closet. Actually, I first heard it on NPR’s “Tell Me More,” which is even more interesting, i.e. that this topic got national radio play in addition to the piece at Salon.
I’m not sure how I feel about the author’s inclination toward the notion that it’s better just not to talk about religion:
Not long ago, I told a priest at my church that my friends equated religion with horrible things. I expected her to tell me I had some obligation to stop hiding my faith, but she said, pulling a scarf around her neck to hide her priest’s collar, “Those preachers on the subways make me cringe.” She said she prefers Saint Francis: “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”[...]
But faith and religion are hard to talk about; maybe they’re not necessary to talk about.
Well, thank God for fiction as a way to “talk.”
27 December 2009
I found this December 24 segment from NPR’s “Tell Me More” on micro-sculptor Willard Wigan rather moving. Wigan makes figurative sculptures the size of the eye of a needle.
…there’s an old saying: Just because you cannot see something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. So I wanted to show people how big nothing can become…
4 November 2009
I enjoyed Animal Dreams and Prodigal Summer, the two Barbara Kingsolver novels I’ve read. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is one that’s been recommended to me several times over, so it’s on my (mental) list. Lots of to-do about her new historical novel Lacuna; Maureen Corrigan of NPR thinks you shouldn’t believe the hype.
Interesting are Corrigan’s comments about Kingsolver as a cross-over writer, between genre — the blockbuster novels that are currently “caught in the cross-hairs” of the Amazon/Target/Wal-mart book price wars — and literary. Lacuna is the only literary novel among the books being sold en masse/deeply discounted by the big-box stores in the current kerfuffle. Will be interesting to see other reviews as they accumulate.
11 October 2009
A good radio host is hard to find. Brian Lehrer of WNYC is one of the gifted: not only smart and well-informed, but balances that firm yet empathetic quality that makes for a call-in host that doesn’t make you cringe, that can manage the most awkward or tense situations, that can move the conversation along without diminishing anyone’s perspective, no matter how “out there.”
I remember one episode about overprotective parenting, with guest Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry, who’d drawn heated criticism for letting her nine year-old son find his own way home on the subway (and writing about it). The tenor of the conversation was generally light and wry, until a call came in from a man whose sister had been abducted when they were children and never found. The tension was almost unbearable, but BL handled it with his characteristic gentle directness. You almost wanted to call in and extend to him an invitation to all your family holiday dinners.
But I want to recommend to you another NPR radio host, Michel Martin. In New York, her program Tell Me More airs on the AM channel 820 (you have to forego Soundcheck on the FM channel to catch it, and I hereby suggest you do). It’s one of the only (the only?) NPR programs hosted by a woman of color (she is African American), and the perspective on the day’s news is generally given from alternative vantage points, with the majority of guests and commentators being people of color as well. Martin I think holds together the mainstream and the alternative in an admirable, more-difficult-than-it-looks balance.
I particularly enjoy “The Barber Shop,” where a diverse group of male journalists, black and Latino, gab about the day’s events, with Martin as elegant and assertive-when-necessary moderator. The other day, in a conversation about the swine flu, it was actually a pleasure to hear MM lose it a little–a rare occurrence–as she waxed passionate about all the media focus on swine flu, when, as she put it, “kids are dying every day in the inner cities.”
Check out Tell Me More — stream, podcast, etc.
13 August 2009
A happy accident brought me to a wonderful and timely article in Glimmer Train about the novelist’s research process, and the relationship between research and imagination. Here’s how it happened…
Then, in the Glimmer Train newsletter, I saw that there was an article written by George Rabasa. I thought, Oh, I’ve been meaning to read his book, I should check out his article. So I saved the email for about two weeks in my inbox.
Then, of course, I came to discover my mistake. But was glad to discover Rabasa, and his wisdom on researching for fiction. I especially liked his Ten Exhortations for the Literary Researcher:
- Go where no writer has gone before.
- Don’t feel you have to use everything you’ve learned.
- You don’t even have to use anything you’ve learned.
- Keep in mind that someone out there reading your book knows more about your subject than you do.
- Don’t worry too much about that person.
- Don’t confuse facts with details. Facts are stones. Details are wings. The astute researcher sniffs out the telling detail like a pig rooting after truffles.
- Hang on to notes, clippings, book titles, photos, souvenirs, post cards, road maps, hotel receipts, (good for taxes, if you ever make any money).
- Whenever you don’t know something when you’re writing, make it up. You’ll be surprised how true it is when you check later.
- Don’t forget to check later.
- Research does not make the story. The story makes the story.
Click here for the full Rabasa article.
(Click here for the Scialabba piece on NPR.)
It’s all good.
17 April 2009
NPR has reported on the phenomenon of gimongous book deals. Celebrity comedians Tina Fey and Kathy Griffin, and writers Sara Gruen (Water for Elephants) and Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler’s Wife) have reportedly landed hefty advances ($2-6 million) of late. Click here for the full story.
Money. I’ve decided to add this as a post category, in defiance of the notion that one shouldn’t speak of such things. In recognition of the fact that most writers and artists spend more time and energy struggling with the lack of it than they would care to admit. And to acknowledge that, yes, literature is bought and sold in the marketplace, evaluated numerically by corporate executives.
I’m not sure who originally came up with the “advance” system. Writers are paid up front, and they keep the money regardless of the book’s sales. This is good for writers who receive smaller advances — I think a writer should at the least be paid a living wage for his time value in creating the work. (I am likely in the minority on this — what a crusty, old-fashioned idea — and the majority of literary writers don’t receive anywhere near their time-value — in advance, or ever.) On the downside, authors whose books don’t sell well often get their desserts on the second or third book, i.e. it’s like reincarnation: if you don’t deliver sales the first time around, you pay for it in the next go around — with a decreased advance, or no contract at all.
But back to the mega-advances… in this economy, folks seem to be questioning the business-sense of the seven-figure advance. HarperStudio, an imprint of HarperCollins, is experimenting with a new structure: they publish two books per month, with no advances above $100,000, and instead of the traditional royalties arrangement (usually 10-15%), they will split any profits 50-50 with the author.
Not until recently, as my livelihood depends increasingly on my writing life, have I worried too much about all this. I’ve never had to consider my “worth” in dollars in quite this way. And I should say that, unfortunately, it’s often not even the literature which is evaluated numerically, but the author. Is the author appealing, charismatic, sellable; does the author have a sensational story to tell.
Wednesday was tax day, the men in suits may be knocking soon. The summer is looking bleak for teaching work. These worries simmer daily, most people these days can relate I’m sure . But it wasn’t until I received an email from a longtime friend that I realized how much these money-for-art issues have been troubling me. She wrote, with such plain sincerity: “I’m so sorry about your financial struggles. I wish we were wealthy so we could give you a stipend or something.” And she meant it.
You deserve to be paid for your work is what I heard. And it became painfully clear to me in that moment just how much I needed to hear it.
26 March 2009
Click here for a story from NPR’s “All Things Considered” about Digital Rights Management (DRM) issues in the e-book industry.
The question is whether DRM protects authors and publishers, or if it limits potential audiences. In the music industry, some argue, laxness about DRM is what crippled record companies and kept artists from making money. Others argue that the more widely and easily available an artist’s work, the more likely the word will spread and sales will increase.
Everything topsy turvy, the commerce of books in flux.