Jason Boog (Guatemala 2000-2002) is the editor of MediaBistro Publishing, which includes GalleyCat and eBookNewser. The lively, eclectic, and widely read GalleyCat specifically focuses on the publishing industry, and offers job listings, insider industry happenings, the scoop on upcoming titles, and occasionally, great literary gossip. What better person to ask to get a sense of what’s going on in NY in the midst of this protracted recession?
Talking with . . .
. . . Jason Boog
An interview by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000-2002, Madagascar 2002-2003) author of the novels Whiteman and The Konkans. His new novel The Mule is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
JASON BOOG (Guatemala 2000-02) joined the Peace Corps after graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in literature. Following his tour, he studied magazine writing at NYU’s graduate journalism school, then stayed on in the city to begin his editing and writing career. In 2006, he won the Peace Corps Writers Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award for his essay, “The Rainy Season in Guatemala.” Before mediabistro.com, Jason was an investigative reporter at Judicial Reports and a publishing blogger for Know More Media. His work has appeared in Granta, Salon.com, and The Believer. You can follow his daily posts at GalleyCat, or follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn or write him at jasonboog [at] gmail [dot] com.
Tony D’Souza: Jason, it’s been really great to see you at GalleyCat the past of couple years, to follow everything you’ve been doing there for writers and publishing. To me it seems like you must inhabit the eye of the publishing world storm, privy to all the insider info…can you give us a little background about GalleyCat and how you landed there?
Jason Boog: Back in 2005, I was hired to blog about books and publishing for a website called The Publishing Spot. While working there, I interviewed you, John Coyne (the editor of Peace Corps Writers), and a number of other authors. I didn’t make much money–but it was a freelance project. I learned how to blog, build short interviews, create web videos, and met lots of people working in the publishing industry. In September 2008, an editorial spot opened up at GalleyCat and I applied. They knew my work, and hired me as a freelancer.
TD: I really admire how active you have been in the publishing world, really enjoyed the interviews you did while with the Publishing Spot. I know that you wrote for Judicial Reports, that your journalism covers a wide range of topics. Yet all the while you’ve been pursuing your literary dreams…before we get into discussing the publishing landscape, I’d love to hear about your experience ‘making it’ as a young writer, the things you’ve had to do to keep afloat.
JB: Sadly, Judicial Reports closed their doors at the end of 2008. I worked there for three years as a web editor and staff writer, composing long-form investigative pieces about judges in Manhattan. It was the perfect day-job for a writer: 9-5 work schedule, and my boss was comfortable with me writing freelance pieces on the side–for The Believer, The Publishing Spot, and Peace Corps Writers. In November 2005, I participated in National Novel Writing Month, putting together a 50,000-word draft of a novel. For the next two years I edited the manuscript in my free time. It was a slow process because I also juggled a few magazine articles and taught an undergraduate journalism class at NYU. I finished the novel last year, and I’m starting to pitch agents now. It hasn’t been easy. Ever since Judicial Reports closed, I’ve been working as a freelance writer. GalleyCat has been a lifesaver, a solid paycheck every month. The folks at MediaBistro have given me as much work as they can, really helping hold my freelance work together. It’s hard to make it as a freelancer without a steady gig you can depend on during the slow months.
TD: Let’s talk NY publishing. In the past two years, I’ve seen more editors, publicists, copy editors, magazine staff-from the top of the pecking order to the bottom-lose their jobs than I can keep count of. Magazines seem to be keeping much more of their sidebar work in house, opportunities and money for writers seems scarce. Is that a fair assessment? What have you seen?
JB: Things are very rough right now for writers. We see it at MediaBistro, keeping track of all the magazine closing and layoffs in media. It’s very sad and demoralizing to watch. Along with these restructurings, magazine budgets are shrinking. That means less freelance work too. At the same time, pay scales are changing. Writers used to get paid dollar a word for a story, but with the blogging economy, writers are earning less. The value is placed on more content and shorter stories.
TD: The Houghton Mifflin Harcourt merger did not go off without pain, for a time the new house even publicly announced that it would not be acquiring new literary titles…the shocking thing for writers at the time was the precedent; ‘A publishing house that doesn’t publish books?’ What are the houses doing today? Are they healthy? Which ones?
JB: Everybody is feeling the pinch right now. I think conglomerate publishers have felt the recession the most. Most houses are acquiring less books. HarperCollins and Random House have both endured extensive restructurings–those would probably be the two most dramatic examples. Oddly enough, some smaller houses were able to survive since they were used to functioning on lean budgets.
I wrote more eloquently about this for Salon.com after the first round of restructurings: http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2008/12/23/publishing/index.html
TD: How about advances? Were people getting advanced too much in the last days before the economic crisis? What do you see as far as the future of advances? Not too long ago a certain Peace Corps memoir brought a six figure advance and caused a stir among RPCV writers…was that a one-time fluke?
JB: Advances are shifty. Recently, the only people getting impressive advances were celebrities: Sarah Palin, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman, and other people in the public eye all initiated bidding wars between publishing houses. These people are sure-bets, they will most likely sell books and during a recession, publishing houses will pay a premium for that.
TD: In the past years, new hardcover literary titles did well to sell a couple thousand copies. There was that year not too long ago when none of the five finalists for the National Book Award in Fiction had sold more than a few hundred copies…Is that model of publishing still viable, or is something taking its place? From my own experience, when I saw that my second novel cost over thirty dollars after taxes new in hardcover in 2008, I couldn’t justify spending that kind of money on my own book. What sorts of changes to book publishing and marketing is the recession bringing on?
JB: The most dramatic change has come with the Amazon Kindle. Most new digital books on Amazon are priced at $9.99. That’s a reasonable, perhaps even dangerous, price. Many publishing types are worried that this new model could wreck the industry, selling books at a loss. I think it’s directly related to the recession, however. People still want to read, but they are looking for less expensive options. That will have a massive effect on the industry in coming years.
TD: Let’s talk about the people who lost their jobs…I can tell stories of folks who have been out of work for over a year, of plenty who are no longer in publishing at all. What have you seen in NY? Have people landed on their feet?
JB: Some of them have landed on their feet. Every few weeks I report on an editor cut from layoffs at one house moving to a new house. A few people have started their own digital book initiatives as well. Overall though, I think there is a much larger segment of the job market–full of flustered writers, publishing types, and other creative people trying to figure out what to do next. I’m lucky to have steady freelance work, but I’m still just a freelancer. I know scores of other writers in the same boat. It’s hard to land a solid, 9-5 job in the publishing and media right now.
TD: People ask me all the time, ‘Tell me how to get my book published at a NY house.’ In the past, I’d tell them to put the work first and the rest would come. But the recession has made me wonder about that advice. Is it still plausible that a very good literary novel without an easily identifiable market will get picked up by a major house? What’s the publishing trend right now?
JB: Things are so scattered right now, I would have a hard time giving advice. I know agents are still reading manuscripts, but it is harder to sell a book. I would advise people to keep writing, and when they are finished, try and locate an agent the traditional way. If you don’t have success, you might have to wait a few years or try some new digital outlets instead. The publishing market will correct itself, but it will take years to fix itself, I think.
TD: Do you have a sense of how writers and editors are feeling out there at the moment? Is anyone hopeful about the future of the ‘great book’? Has the writing life as we know it gone the way of the dodo? Did it go that way a long time ago and we just didn’t know it? Are we still a contributing part of the greater culture?
JB: The people working in publishing are just as creative and driven as they ever were. You don’t meet anybody in this business who doesn’t believe in books and reading and the next great book. The resources have diminished, but the people in publishing are working very, very hard to bring reading into the 21st Century. We are still very much a part of the greater culture, and I meet excellent, smart, and innovative people every day on GalleyCat.
TD: How about some insider anecdotes? Have you seen any ‘sure-hits’ flop while at GalleyCat? How about dark horse books that have turned into commercial successes? How about bloodsport? Seen any reviewers tear any writers apart recently?
JB: I have two stories of unexpected success. I wrote about “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”, and the story got picked up by Gawker and a number of other outlets. The book became a bestseller:
Secondly, I wrote about a Twitter short short story writer named Arjun Basu. His readership has grown by leaps and bounds, and a Canadian filmmaker has adapted one of his stories into a short film: http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/trends/the_first_twitter_lit_adaptation_130155.asp
Both these books are examples of smart, innovative people, the kind of writers who can bring reading into the 21st Century.
TD: What should writers do to survive and thrive in this publishing downturn?
JB: Keep writing! Build yourself a blog or website where you can collect your work. Then, try and find your community. Join writers’ clubs, book clubs, or anything else where you can enjoy and share work with other readers and writers. This recession will last for awhile, and the most important thing is this: Don’t give up. Most people write because they love it. Just because you can’t score a major book deal right now, that doesn’t change the fact that you love writing.
TD: What does the near future hold for you?
JB: I’m still freelancing and teaching journalism at NYU. I will continue writing long form essays and publish my novel eventually. GalleyCat has been a really enjoyable experience, and I’ll keep writing there–it’s such an amazing opportunity to report on this evolving publishing industry.
TD: Last but not least, you left Guatemala roughly the same time that I left Ivory Coast. Somehow seven years have gone by already. How does Guatemala continue to influence you?
JB: Guatemala is still in my thoughts every day. Someday soon I hope to get a short-term fellowship and go back to Guatemala to work with my friend at http://www.longwayhomeinc.org. I want to set up a small citizen journalism website there–letting the teenagers in his program share local news with Guatemalan immigrants in the United States. I’d like to be able to share some of this new media knowledge I have with the communities I used to share.
TD: Thanks a lot, and get back to work!