Monday, September 22, 2008

The end of publishing, again...

...or, rather, the "publishing industry," which, broadly understood, is to publishing as Diebold is to democracy. This article in the latest issue of New York lays it all out for us once again, describing the way that commercial publishers have succumbed to the blockbuster model, wherein the whole farm is bet on some piece of crap or another which has to sell a million copies to have been worth it. The article is rather long, and contains lots of keening and hand-wringing from people who could have started taking a stand on principle ten years ago but didn't bother.

I dunno. This is an entertaining read, but it's sort of like attending the memorial service for a dead fashion-model girlfriend you stopped mourning years before, after which you went and happily married a normal woman. 99% of us fiction writers are resigned, at this point, to never getting to make a living off our work again, if we ever did before. The issue now is not the dying cries of the few who chose to remain on the Titanic, it's the beard-scratching all of us in the lifeboats have been doing. But New York is never going to run a piece on obscure publishers and their short-run literary releases.

I threw in the towel two years ago, when I started begging my then-agent to send my stuff to small publishers. It took a split with said agent to actually make this happen, and this time around I didn't even bother with the commercial houses. Why put oneself through the agony? I can't count the number of times an editor at some big house has reacted to my work with enthusiasm and optimism, only to be shot down by her betters. At those publishers, that's what it means to be an editor of literary fiction. From the New York piece:

Morale among many editorial staffers is dipping to all-time lows. Forget literary taste; everything is cost-benefit analysis. “What I’ve heard from editors is, ‘My judgment doesn’t count any longer,’ ” says Kent Carroll, who left his company, Carroll & Graf, after it was sold to a mini-conglomerate, and who now runs the boutique Europa Editions. “There used to be a reason to get into publishing,” says Carroll. “Whether they know it or not, they all want to be Maxwell Perkins. It’s a kind of secondary immortality. They didn’t flock to publishing because they want to publish Danielle Steel.”

My next novel will be published by a small, independent, non-New-York-based house next spring. And while they would like to generate bestsellers as much as the next guy, they have given me none of the withering pre-guilt I've gotten from almost every commercial house I've ever worked with. You novelists know what I'm talking about. The tone changes a few months before your book comes out--their confidence decays into hope, and then nervous ticcing, as they realize you're going to be another flop. In the weeks leading up to publication everybody seems to be on vacation, and a month afterward you can't even get the assistants on the phone.

It's hard to imagine that anything I will ever do in my life could support anyone's Manhattan apartment rent. Honestly, it was ridiculous to have ever thought this. But that was the roaring aughts for you. As for New York, can we please have a piece on happy, well-adjusted literary editors with reasonable expectations, and their plans for making a modest living doing what they love? Personally, I am tired of being asked to feel bad because Binky Urban is anxious.


rmellis said...

Ugh, man, you're giving me flashbacks!!

Pete said...

Couldn't agree more, JR. I'm not published yet, but I can't even imagine working with one of the big sausage factories.

(By the way, I had to google "Binky Urban" to find out that's the name of an actual person. When I first read it I thought you had coined a satirical fake name to represent the Manhattan litterati hoi polloi, in the same way that "John Q. Public" connotes "everyman.")

zachary-cole said...

Most of us readers only see the ass-kissing in the Acknowledgments page and the skimpy author info on the back flap, so this backstage stuff is fascinating.

I'm embarrassed to say it, but self-assurance was one of the reasons I purchased "Mailman". After reading the back flap, I told my girlfriend that, obviously, this Lennon guy makes it just from writing, he has a family and a home all thanks to putting pen to paper. I walked around the rest of that day thinking that my plan to write actually made sense.

Thanks for setting me straight ;)

jrlennon said...

I made a moderate amount of money from that advance, though less than I make in a year now, as a teacher. That was the end of the line for high advances, really. But I am not complaining. Back when it all went to hell, I was! But now I'm just glad to be part of a community--both online and here in town--that appreciates writing and writers, and to be writing and publishing regularly.

You can still make a living writing. You just can't make a living writing what you want. (unless what you want is what the market wants.)

Thanks so much for reading that novel.

zachary-cole said...

I don't know how much thanks I deserve for parting ways with twelve quarters for an old hardback. I gotta thank you for writing such an engaging read (and look who's ass-kissing now.)

I'm past the age where I believe every writer with books in print lives off of that work, and the reality of writing novels AND working full time is enough to give me pause.

Don't know why, but teaching inmates sounds more appealing than teaching grad students.

jrlennon said...

I have to admit I'm hugely intimidated by the prison teaching program. I'll do it one of these days, though...

E. said...

JRL said, "You can still make a living writing. You just can't make a living writing what you want. (unless what you want is what the market wants.)"

I used to be a journalist, writing what I had to write (the truth as I knew it). Editors and readers checked my efforts. Then I transitioned to advertising (earning vats of money, compared to journalism), which I considered at the time to be writing what I wanted to write (the truth as I wanted to present it). I hadn't counted on clients and account executives checking my efforts. Somewhere along the way I got it into my head that fiction was the way to go -- writing what I have to write (the truth as I understand it) in the way I have to write it. Danged if the market isn't checking me now.

Even painters have patrons, commissions. Art that pays is always beholden to someone other than the artist.

I think the issue is that we equate payment with audience; the big houses seem to promise what we crave. And while it's possible to just not care whether I get paid for my fiction, it seems counterintuitive to the act of writing if I cease caring whether anyone reads my work.

Which leaves us with the discussion about the relationship of art to humanity, society, yada yada.

Ow, my head.

jrlennon said...

Well, one cannot shy away from that discussion. Artists feed off of society, and they give to it as well. For my part, art is what I live for, and I know there are lots of people like me, and there always will be. But the relationship of those people to the larger society is complex, and is always changing.

Writing, for me, is the product of my ongoing obsession with being human--with trying to ferret out all the information I can about that huge, impossible, irrational thing. It's personal, and though I deeply desire the approval and admiration of others, that isn't my motivation for doing it. It's a compulsion which I hope a few other people might emjoy watching me indulge. And it is hard to expect to be paid well for doing so.

Maybe my participation in this blog is a way of forcing myself to remember that yes, it's worth caring about this stuff, even if it's for no money. There are no ads on W6, no Amazon clickthroughs, not even a hit counter. It's like an experiment in purity, I guess. Rhian may see it differently...

Diana Holquist said...

As a writer of so-called "commercial" fiction, I'd just like to point out that things ain't so rosy on this side of the fence, either.

I love that I can make some extra cash writing fun books (beats the ad copy I write every morning). But most romance authors I know who make a true "living" at it are writing at least three books a year--and four is ideal. I'm considered extremely slow writing a book every nine months.

Just wanted to make sure the gloom and doom was spread evenly.

jrlennon said...

Writing four romances a year sounds more like a regular "job" job to me...that is a lot of freaking work. said...

I liked hearing your perspective. Thank you. There doesn't seem to be anything at all wrong with the model of publishing and writing you describe -- maybe it's best to just get it out there: it's very rare to be able to support yourself writing fiction. That doesn't invalidate the writing of fiction, it just means you have to work out a way to earn a living AND write.

rmellis said...

J & I got spoiled by not having real jobs for about 10 years. Honestly, though, I think J will agree that it's better to be employed AND have health insurance AND a fairly predictable income than the way it was before...

jrlennon said...

It's true, we were always waiting for the other shoe to drop. And between us we went through 5 temporary teaching jobs during those years. But as Dale Peck says in the article, "we had a nice run of it."

Of course, he had a nicer run than most people.

AC said...

I work for a huge, non-literary publishing corporation, so I'm pretty far removed from the scene you're talking about. But you might be interested to hear about the big shakeups in my company over the past couple of years: 1) We aren't called editors anymore. We're now "publishing specialists", whether we work with manuscripts or load big reams of paper in the bindery; 2)Most of the job I was hired to do 3 years ago is now done in China by contractors; and 3) We were ordered last year to stop copyreading. Upper management thinks it's a waste of time. Apparently, our customers don't mind typos and wouldn't recognize a run-on sentence anyway. So now all we care about is a steady stream of words on a page, heading out the door before deadline.

GFS3 said...

Thanks. I think I"ll open a vein with a razor.

This is also why they always bet on the same ponies -- 30-something Ivy educated elites with MFAs.

Its also why we get the same angst-ridden, over-written language that makes you want to slap people like Paul Auster.

jrlennon said...

Uh oh. Ivy League MFA elites again.

As a Penn grad whose parents went into debt to pay for his education, and who paid off his own student loans by spending summers as a bank teller, barista, and receptionist, and who made $6000/year in MFA school while eating beans and rice three times a week, I hereby request less knee-jerk class warfare.

rmellis said...

How about this, then, JR: EAT THE RICH!!!!

Jon said...

It doesn't have to do with class warfare. The Ivy League MFA insult springs from the uniformity of experience most American writers have after the age of 18 and the incredibly boring, unoriginal work they produce in such bulk there is no room for anything else on the shelves. The MFA is a weed.

gcm said...

I agree with gfs3 and Jon. Forgive the comparison to causes of the current financial meltdown, but I see the problem as one of regulation and institutional oversight.

Banking needs more.

Literature needs less.

k. said...

I don't really understand that. When I'm in the bookstore, I'm struck by the wide variety of experience now represented in contemporary literature. I think it has a lot to do with one's attitude and only really find what you're looking for. That is, if you walk into a bookstore already convinced that only certain types of books are being published, that's all you're going to see.

The Queen said...

Hear, hear. A read a pretty good, fairly random selection of American literature and in the last few weeks I've read about
1) comic book creators from the thirties
2) a couple of cowboys
3) some useless drifter types
4) a neurotic female script doctor
5) a guy who wanders around his town making up and remembering stories
6) a girl in the 60s being bussed into a more ethnically diverse school.
Currently I'm reading about Vietnam and some guy in the CIA.

These writers are different ages, male and female and (I would imagine) from different social classes. This range of topic and experience is there if you look beyond the aisle that's drawing your ire.

Btw, you Americans are so mired in your social class divisions. Why can't you be more like us brits and see beyond a person's place and look at the beuaty of their art ;)

The Queen said...

Sorry about the spelling and grammar errors.We fired the proof readers and I've had a few G and Ts.

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