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.
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 amazon.com 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.
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