Are books — and their readers — an endangered species?

20131219120434By Caitlin Kelly

This recent piece in The New York Times makes sadly clear why the notion of producing a book — a dream for many — is becoming more of a fool’s errand:

Overall book sales have been anemic in recent years, declining 6 percent in the first half of 2013 alone. But the profits of publishers have remained largely intact; in the same period only one of what were then still the “big six” trade houses reported a decline on its bottom line. This is partly because of the higher margins on e-books. But it has also been achieved by publishers cutting costs, especially for mid-list titles.

The “mid-list” in trade publishing parlance is a bit like the middle class in American politics: Anything below it is rarely mentioned in polite company. It comprises pretty much all new titles that are not potential blockbusters. But it’s the space where interesting things happen in the book world, where the obscure or the offbeat can spring to prominence, where new writers can make their mark.

Budgets have been trimmed in various ways: Author advances, except for the biggest names, have slumped sharply since the 2008 financial crash, declining by more than half, according to one recent survey. It’s hard to imagine that the quality of manuscripts from writers who have been forced either to eat less or write faster isn’t deteriorating. Meanwhile, spending on editing and promotion has also been pared away.

As the author of two well-reviewed non-fiction books, both of which required national reporting, and as someone who would like to write more, I care a lot about whether new books get published, how much authors like me — yes, midlisters — get paid and when, and who, if anyone, will actually read our books.

malled cover HIGH

Without a book-seller to recommend my books or a reviewer to rave (one hopes!) about them, how will you — oh, elusive readers — find or choose us?

I gave up reading my “reviews” at years ago as some ad hominem attacks were so nasty they left me shaking. I shudder to think how many potential readers I’ve lost thanks to the face-punches comments left there by people who take an unholy pleasure in savaging others.

Yes, be critical! Every ambitious writer needs to hear where we’ve failed to connect or persuade.

But don’t be vicious.

Professional reviewers know the difference between slicing with a scalpel and bludgeoning with a pick-axe. I’ve reviewed others’ books. I know the incredible trepidation with which any writer reads their reviews; one even wrote to me personally after I reviewed his book in The New York Times to take issue with my comments.

How do you decide which (if any!) books to read?

How many of you, as I still do, spend time in a favorite bookstore simply browsing covers and titles, old and new?

Do you briefly scan what’s on the front tables at your Barnes & Noble?

And did you know that the books there — some of them a decade old — arrive there not because B & N thinks they’re awesome but because publishers pay a fee to the bookstore for that placement?

With falling advances, writing is evermore dominated by people who don’t need it to earn a living: Tenured academics and celebrities spring to mind. For these groups, burnishing a résumé or marketing a brand is often as important as satisfying the reader.

This is a serious challenge for all but a tiny fraction of the truly fortunate — people whose combination of “platform” (i.e. millions of people eager to buy anything they write) and story attract a huge advance — like Allie Brosh, whose fantastic blog Hyperbole and a Half produced a book, published in October 2013, that is now a best-seller.

The rest of us will get an offer, after a few books, of anything from $15,000 to, (at best) $125 or $150,000, even that very rare, divided into four payments over two or three years; $12,000 or $8,000 or $5,000 a year is helpful, but no writer I know can live only on that income.

So we squeeze the important and reputation-building work of writing a book in between teaching others to write or bar-tending or cranking out copy on every other topic but that of our book, creating a competition between the work we hope will allow us to find new readers, terrific reviews, maybe an award or fellowship — and the work that puts gas in the car and food in the fridge.

We eke out excellence.




44 thoughts on “Are books — and their readers — an endangered species?

  1. I can commiserate. Knowing too much about conventional trade publishing myself, it’s hard to fight my cynicism, the bitter cynicism any author deals with today, with respect to publishing, reaching one’s intended readership, forget about making any decent money on one’s work. Books will survive, I’m sure, but in what form and dismal climate, I can’t foretell. Bad situation, yes. One writes under these circumstances because one has to, and satisfaction can only be reasonably expected if one reaches a few discerning readers who “get” it and appreciate it. But for Literature, it’s actually always been that way because the “great” authors were almost always ignored, dismissed and so on until later generations caught up with what they were trying to do. Jane Austen, Melville, Poe etc. Most sold fewer than 5K copies during their lifetimes of any book they wrote.

    1. I agree.

      I love the intellectual challenge of producing a smart book of ideas. I love knowing smart people read it and value it.

      But I now see the actual production of a mid-list book, while intellectually deeply satisfying, as a costly sort of hobby. At least I know what I am in for…unless I win a deal like a few of my lucky friends have, a “pre-empt” advance — i.e. $$$$$$. I was very fortunate with Malled to have earned an additional $4k in my pocket from a CBS option and some very nice income speaking at several retail conferences. Plus, there were virtually no research/travel costs beyond hiring and paying a few assistants; with Blown Away, $5K was spent traveling the country to do firsthand reporting. It was an amazing adventure, though, and still one of my life’s best (so far.)

      1. Yes, well, I write short stories and novels and have been at it for 30 years, and simultaneously have been a NY trade publishing executive for a number of those years. I have no illusions, had my eyes ripped open long ago about how it works. Midlist books have never made their authors any decent return on the time invested in them, never paid anyone’s rent unless you have 20-30 out on the market. Sadly, this is not news, it’s only gotten harder for new writers to break in. Best wishes and congratulations on your insights. Great post.

      2. Thanks! That means a lot from an industry veteran.

        The people I know who make bank from their books tend to be HUGE best-sellers (obviously) or have such a tight, narrow niche (how to live with specific illness) that readers are forced into their market space by very few competing titles.

        MY last book proposal didn’t sell and I have another idea my agent is interested in. I have to admit, I find it harder to gin up a lot of enthusiasm for doing it again…esp. now with “advances” that pay the final installment a year AFTER publication. Hah!

      3. The truth is, and all trade publishers are acutely and painfully aware of this, that most books, say 95 pct of what they publish, do not earn out their “advances.” Advances are cash up front to authors in the expectation that their books will make at least that much in the marketplace, which is only a pie in the sky, educated guess, nevertheless a foundational assumption in the trade publishing business model. Until an advance is earned out (that is, repaid by the author’s book sales, for an advance was actually only a “loan” made in good faith by the publisher to the author), the author receives no royalty and the trade publisher does not make one red cent on the gamble it made on the author and book in question. It is a ridiculous, flawed concept to build a business on, but this is the way publishing has operated for at least 300 years. Only the rare, infrequent blockbuster bestseller that sells a million copies or more keeps this business alive. They hit it big every now and then.

  2. Since I have 2 books in the works (on spec), I refuse to be daunted. (The fact that I feel the need to write this here probably clearly means I’m daunted, but…!) I hang to hope even as the Barnes & Noble flagship store on 5th Ave has closed its doors. [sigh] Maybe if I can keep every chapter under 140 characters, and use lots of photos, I’ll nab the Millennial audience! #IDoMissTheGoodOldDays

  3. You know, the lack of editing is a really sad thing. I cannot tell you how many books I pick up and skim (yes, at Barnes & Noble tables), then put right back down because what they really need is a good edit. Without that critical, final step most books are not worth the purchase price. Reading them is like walking a pebble in your shoe or chronically creeping underpants — distracting to the point of annoyance. Everyone needs an editor, and we all suffer from the lack. Sadly, you are so right about this.

    1. Hmmm, that’s interesting. And sad. Not surprising to me, though.

      I was very fortunate to have had a strong, smart editor for Malled — and we STILL missed stuff that annoys the hell out of me in the final version, which is somehow inevitable…after the 100000th read of the same material you just lose perspective on it, no matter how attentive you try to be, whether to tone, language choices or even a bloody typo.

  4. ianprichard

    The imminent marginalization, if not outright disappearance of “good” books is all we hear about, so we get kind of inured to the idea. But sometimes the weight of it strikes me and it is SO surreal. Books are my life, and the writing of them has always seemed to me the height of dedication to knowledge, truth and beauty, and the epitome of a passion well-pursued. Imagining all that dropping out of our culture is almost too much to bear.

    Many of my contemporaries see movies and miniseries and documentaries as the “inevitable” next step in the evolution of storytelling. But I’m of a mind with Joan Didion, who wrote (in 1967), “As it happens I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of the language.” It doesn’t seem possible to develop the same kind of mastery of language by watching movies unfold and listening to miniseries’ characters talk, nor are those types of media, by and large, interested in conveying the same kinds of things as book-length reportage or novels. Which portends to my mind an ever-shrinking percentage of people who end up as the arbiters of our culture’s art, and even more importantly, its “truth” and “knowledge.” Which is scary scary scary.

    As regards payment for books – well, I haven’t completely given up hope (aka, the fantasy) of making a living writing fiction, but I’m certainly not expecting to anymore. Instead, time to write will always be part of my career decisions, which in today’s world means resigning myself to solidly middle-class pay. Like margaretjeanlangstaff said, this is how it’s often gone with writers of a certain ilk. This might not have seemed like such a big deal fifty, forty, even thirty years ago, when many American writers were happy to hold “regular” jobs and write, but if you have to have two middling salaries to make ends meet, which is becoming the reality here, then there goes writing.

    Thanks for another great (if somewhat depressing… – haha, not that it can be avoided) post.

    1. Sorry to be a bummer…:-)

      But it’s sparked some lively conversation here.

      I agree entirely about the need for smart writing as a model and a way of thinking about the world. Much is now being made of “longform” digital…which is fancy talk for a long article. Wooohoo! And pennies paid for it, to boot. I know that even in 5,000 or 7,000 words you’re not going to tell the full story of…whatever. A book allows for (requires) a narrative arc and broader perspective; an article, de facto, needs to be focused.

      The frustration of crappy pay is very simple — it then leaves the field open, as the links said, only to people with FT jobs — think-tank pundits, tenured academics and trustafarians. Hardly the diversity of thought and voice I want to hear from. I now make it a point to read an agent’s list of clients very carefully and if I see too many professors, it tells me they are not getting very good advances…becs profs’ just don’t need the cash. I pitched an idea recently to my agent who, kindly, said — not commercial enough. It is what it is…If I want to/can afford to produce a book for a $5,000 advance from a university press (which I can’t)…full steam ahead on some of my more esoteric/historically focused ideas. That, or some grant money.

      Very challenging to figure out how to find enough time for: income, life, relationships, culture, travel, sleep — and quality work!

      1. ianprichard

        That’s a great tip regarding agents – thanks!

        The other thing you mention – in the post, in your replies, on Broadside often – is quality, and you’re right, it really shows. It’s another strange thing about our day and age that there’s such a massive call for “content,” but very few readers seem to be demanding quality. So much content is just recycled or reposted (and often distorted) from other sites, or it’s just plain bad.

        I wonder if the content generation machine will ever simmer down into something more manageable and navigable again, or if it’s entropic and we’re doomed to more and more fluff and less and less real substance. I find that “longform” tag annoying, but I think it’s there, or in something along those lines, that a resistance to the freneticism starts.

      2. My first agent and I (who I really like, admire and remain friendly with) had a very specific sort of list…it took me a while to realize I wasn’t a very good fit in that respect.

        But “quality” as defined how and by whom? 🙂 I read a selection of magazines and a few newspapers and a lot of books, mostly non-fiction. I shouldn’t admit it here, but I don’t have time — in addition to all that — to read a lot of blogs or online content. I am interested, still, in some form of curation and can’t waste hours sifting through stuff to find the worthwhile percentage.

        Maybe that’s generational…?

  5. I love real books and can’t imagine having to give up them up – the smell, the feel, the anticipation, everything. I dislike e-readers. I am one of those people who can spend hours in a book store, despite the fact that I truly detest shopping – going to a book store; that’s not shopping! 😉 However, I fear that we readers may be an endangered species. After all, reading takes dedication, and as a species, we’re sometimes not very good at that.

    1. “I am one of those people who can spend hours in a book store” – yes, me too! 🙂 I love browsing in book stores.

      You’re right. Reading does take dedication. I usually read a lot but I have been in a bit of a reading slump recently which, I suspect, is mostly due to the fact that I have so much academic stuff to read. I feel guilty if I’m reading something simply for me when I could be reading Experimental Phonetics or something!

      However, thanks to the fantastic NPR Books Concierge ( I have been adding titles to my ‘to-read list’. I must carve out more time to sit and read non-academic books. I’m sure it will do me good.

      I bought a Kindle last year. Since then, I have used it maybe a handful a times. It simply isn’t as good as the real thing! The only time I use it is when going away because the portability is very good.

      1. Ooooh, experimental phonetics…my favorite!! 🙂 I did comparative linguistics one year….oy. 🙂

        I am the same away, oddly. If I’m not reading the 2-foot-high stack of newspapers and magazines, for work purposes, (to know what’s been written, when and by whom) I feel guilty. I’m reading a few books for pleasure at the moment, and actually really enjoying them, but there is only so much time and attention. I do find that even an hour reading for sheer pleasure feels like a lot.

        I hate having to keep plugging in all the tech stuff we own. The Kindle is always dead when I feel like reading. I also really dislike the percentage read rather than a page number…

      2. Yes – the Kindle my husband and I have lies gathering dust and as you say, is only used for travelling. I agree, that its portability is great.

        Thanks for the suggestion of NPR Books – I’ll take a look. 🙂

        I often have to carve out time for reading, too. The need to make a living gets in the way!

    2. I’m happiest when spending an hour or more at a bookstore. I dislike shopping as well, but the sheer joy of discovering a great new book is so cool.

      I suspect there are always going to be people ready to dedicate time to reading. But how many?

  6. I certainly hope they aren’t! I am enjoying a well worn paperback right now. I confess I only buy books for full price at Christmas (I love giving books!). But I go to the library all the time. I don’t care for the kindle either. Nothing better than the smell of the ink on the pages…

  7. mydeardiary9

    I love physical books too- the touch and feel, smell of books; nothing can replace that!
    This may be a little off the conversations here, but I went around bookstores recently to buy bookmarks to gift some of my reader friends, but to my amazement I couldn’t find a single one at the stores! There were a couple of the new fancy ones, but I was more after the traditional, long, slim and simple page markers we grew up putting in between pages, and there just weren’t any available! Could there be any relation with anything there with the extinction of bookmarks?

  8. dear caitlin, hope is more apt here than despair. being a literary scholar myself with a bookshelf full of autographed first-edition hard covers, i can absolutely understand the love of paper books. i was therefore amazed myself, how easy and quickly i migrated from real to digital ink, reading books (or are they still books?) on kindle or ipad. after reading the first full-length novel on my ipad (jonathan franzen’s “freedom”) feeling neither deprived of the “real thing” nor red-eyed and head-ached but happy to have read some good stuff (not as great as “the corrections” by far, but that’s not a question of paper or pixesl), it became clear to me: it’s the content that counts, the story. if that is good, i don’t care about the channel, and i will also (and do) pay appropriate amounts of money for what’s inside aka on stories, poems, songs, films, etc., regardless the shell. that was my personal learning curve the last couple of years, the times they are always a-changin, and it’s not always for the worse.

    1. Thanks for weighing in — always glad to have a new voice here!

      My concern is not, per se, with the format in which we read and enjoy books, but the economics of producing and selling them, for the writer’s profit, not just the publisher’s P & L statement. If writers can’t afford to write (well, slowly, deeply), readers will lose out. Some people have grants/fellowships/tenure or well-paid “day jobs” that don’t exhaust them.

      But what a poor way to “fund” the creation of culture.

      1. “Some people have grants/fellowships/tenure or well-paid “day jobs” that don’t exhaust them.” Sounds familiar…;) but the well-paidness is a great advantage in terms of being able to write without having to make a living from it. on the other hand: you lack time to write as much as you would like to…catch 22.

        but i absolutely agree with you in respect of the unwillingness of “today’s youth” (gee, sounding like me own grandparents), spoilt by the internet of (cheap) things to pay for good stuff. everything piece of content needs to come for free (napster,, you name it), but they’re willing to pay 400 bucks for a pair of shoes. crazy new world, but brave? not so sure.

      2. It’s complicated, for sure.

        One thing driving me to complete frustration — for decades — is how completely ineffective “freelancers” are at organizing effectively to set minimum rates for skilled work. Not beginners, necessarily. But following the union-driven example of the skilled trades like carpentry and electrical work or plumbing — or creatives like the SAG or Writers’ Guild — where you do NOT hire anyone without paying an agreed upon minimum.

        My industry has now devolved into a bunch of 40 yr old + veterans (all of them having lost well-paid staff jobs in journalism) kow-towing to 25 yr olds who assign us stories paying 1/10th of what we easily earned from print in the 1970s.


        I hate to say it aloud, but am very ready to retire….and start a 2nd or 3rd endeavor for pleasure.

  9. A great deal of the discussion here can be divided into two piles. The first is the stack that relates to whether people like print books or ebooks. The other is whether the content has quality control any more.

    I would say that the format isn’t the important part.

    All readers love books, I think. We like the sensation of the soft edge of a well-loved book as we turn it for the umpteenth time. There’s something about the smell of fresh ink and crisp pages from our new books that comforts us. The thing is, we’ve trained ourselves to enjoy the object, because the contents are so rewarding. If we’d grown up with ereaders, we would get a bit of satisfaction with each swipe and a Pavlovian response to the tone that tells us our download is complete and we can run away to Narnia now. (If anyone ever finds that wardrobe, please let me know.)

    So, it isn’t necessarily the format that’s the big problem in today’s publishing world. It’s the quality control. Digitization is SO fast that it makes our heads swim. There’s a great deal of pressure to epublish those mid-range books now Now NOW. Or yesterday. Yesterday would definitely be better. Add to that the fact that millennials are so used to living at breakneck digital speed and saying things like, “<3U2" and, "IDK" and you've got issues. Our writing styles are going to need to change to keep up with that, and quality becomes even more important. If we're going to expect younger readers to work their way through a book, it HAS to be worth the effort.

    How do we do that? I don't know, but it's going to take future industry leaders like Amazon and the old regime publishing houses working together to get that. The problem is, they're not going to do that until the writers and readers demand it. But we writers are too busy frantically reaching for whatever scraps we can find falling off the table to stop and try to do it. I know that's because we have bills we need to pay NOW, but we're going to get to the point that the scraps don't pay the bills (some of us are already there) and we're going to HAVE to demand better from the industry.

    We make the content. Without content, publishing dies, and that gives us a great deal of power. Who's going to read the New York Times if it has nothing worthwhile in it? Who's going to read a publisher's books if they can get something of equal quality for 99 cents or as a free download?

    The thing is, reporters have been addressing this for years with varying degrees of success. We are trained to write paragraphs with no more than three to four sentences in it. To use consistent language in our reporting. To check our spelling and respect the issue that we are reporting on. Other writers are going to have to integrate similar things into their writing to make it work. I'm not saying we should dumb it down, but I do say we need to build our stories in ways that are digestible to our audiences. Writing isn't just about the story. It's about nurturing our readers and creating content that betters their lives. Content that will train them to love books and the written word. Words that will make them drool like Pavlov's dog. OR, at least make them eager to turn the page…whether that's with a thumb on paper or a swipe across a screen.

    P.S. I love your writing. It's one of the things that makes you pretty, to reference your post from earlier today. 🙂

    1. “The thing is, reporters have been addressing this for years with varying degrees of success. We are trained to write paragraphs with no more than three to four sentences in it. To use consistent language in our reporting. To check our spelling and respect the issue that we are reporting on. Other writers are going to have to integrate similar things into their writing to make it work. I’m not saying we should dumb it down, but I do say we need to build our stories in ways that are digestible to our audiences.”

      Noooooooo!!!!! With all due respect, I could not disagree more on this point. It may completely limit my audience (which is fine with me) and my income (it’s hard to get it much worse) but I can barely stomach how dumb I have to make some of my work already. One appeal of writing for the NYT is knowing the audience is damn smart and writing to/at their level. I assume my readers there range from savvy high schoolers to elders in their 80s and beyond. I don’t dare dumb it down for anyone and I loathe it when writers do it…

      “Writing isn’t just about the story. It’s about nurturing our readers and creating content that betters their lives. Content that will train them to love books and the written word. Words that will make them drool like Pavlov’s dog. OR, at least make them eager to turn the page…whether that’s with a thumb on paper or a swipe across a screen.”

      Yes….and how? The interesting thing about books is that there are infinite varieties of readers dying to read the next…horror/vampire/sci-fi/YA/military history/celebrity tell-all..I think it’s a pile ‘o niches. My ideal reader is really not someone likely to buy anything I write in the millions or 10s of thousands. I would love that, of course. But I’ll never get that sort of promotion and do not have that kind of branding. I was thrilled, really, when my first book was bought by all the Ivy law schools and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (swoon) and the Canadian gov’t brought me to Ottawa to address senior officials studying the issue. Holy hell. That was huge for me.

      The letters I received from readers of Malled saying “you nailed it” — same thing.

      P.S. I love your writing. It’s one of the things that makes you pretty, to reference your post from earlier today. 🙂

      Blushes. Um, thank you! I’m really thankful a few people enjoy it. 🙂

      1. I wasn’t saying to dumb the writing down. I specifically said that we shouldn’t dumb it down, but that we need to find a writing style which the audience will find interesting.

        Also, those people who read the NYT aren’t the majority. And the NYT is already doing these things with their stories.

        Most people aren’t Ivy Leaguers. Most people don’t even make over $50K a year. The majority of the audiences that will make you money, and this matters because writers are paid in volume and most one-percenters aren’t going to buy thousands of copies of one book, so we HAVE to create products that they’ll enjoy. Products that are well written, but don’t necessarily have paragraphs that are three pages long (I’ve always hated that).

        We can still use strong vocabulary and include stunning storytelling. We just need to think about how we structure that into sentences, paragraphs, and chapters.

        For example, one trend I’ve seen work well personally is to change point of view regularly. Some writers are doing this through writing shorter chapters. Others are doing this by showing a particular scene in the same chapter from two different points of view. The material isn’t dumbed down. It’s just written in a style that regularly renews the author’s grip on the reader’s attention. We’ve always had to do that, yes. But the art of it is becoming even more vital as we compete with other visual media for attention.

        I think that’s especially important for authors writing for young adults. Young Adult readers are either going to learn to love reading then, or that phase of their life is where we’re going to lose them. These YA readers will mature and get longer attention spans if the YA authors get it done right. It’s awfully difficult to get an older adult to start enjoying reading when they’ve never had a book that was the literary equivalent of banana cream pie (my favorite).

    1. There’s a lot of reasons for that — one of which is knowing it can come around and bite us back. More importantly, professional writers who write book reviews are VERY well aware how much hard work it takes to write and publish a book, even if it ultimately is not very good. Amateurs seem to trash us for amusement.

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