Reading About Writing

Reading About Writing

In the Spring 2019 issue of The Authors Guild Bulletin I read a few paragraphs that might interest you on the state of publishing today. In an article entitled Latest Author Income Survey Shows Business of Book Writing in Crisis.

“Literary writers experienced the biggest decline in earnings from book-related income (down 27% since 2013), followed by general nonfiction authors (down 8%), raising serious concerns about the future of literature.”

In another article entitled Writers on the Brink: The Current Economics of Authorship under the title What’s Driving the Decline? I read:

Self-publishing is clearly having a huge impact on author incomes, if for no other reason than that there are more books on the market today than ever before. In 1985, approximately 35,000 books were published in the United States. In 2007, the year the Kindle came onto the market, more than 300,000 titles were published. Bowker, the company that issues the ISBNs that allows publishers and indie authors to sell their books in the United States, reported that more than one million books secured an ISBN in 2017, and that’s just a partial count; not all self-published books have ISBNs.

And yet, despite the boom in the quantity of books published, industry data shows that the total number of book units sold in the U.S. has essentially remained flat over the past five years. Supply clearly exceeds demand, resulting in less revenue per author.

Richard Nash (Publisher and Digital Media Strategist) expanded on this most recent drop, pointing out that it has been going on for about 1,500 years. “The one time in human history when a writer was guaranteed to make a  living was before Gutenberg, when the mere fact of being literate was so remarkable and scarce that you were guaranteed a roof over your head and food simply because you could read and write, and in a certain sense, it’s been going downhill ever since.”

In the same Bulletin, in an article by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett entitled, “11 over 70: Writers Who Persevere” there are a couple quotes from Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963-65) on his career in publishing.

“Publishing has utterly changed,” says Paul Theroux, who published his first novel in 1967 at the age of 26, and his most recent Mother Land, in 2017. “I remember when it was hardly a business, more a series of friendships–lunches, letters, long phone calls. That ended in the mid-to-late 1980s, when marketers and trend-spotters took over, and small  publishers were absorbed by the corporate giants, the big money people and the bluffers. This was the end of any true risk-taking in publishing, oddly enough.

“After publishing four novels I applied for a Guggenheim and was turned down. I applied again a few years later and was turned down again. I was dismayed but I learned a valuable lesson: a writer does not really need a Genius Grant or a fellowship, or a position in a university, and indeed may for various reasons be impeded by such things. I have never gotten any free money. If you write well, and keep at it, and occasionally resort to reportage, you can make a living. Many writers fail for obvious reasons–because they write badly or are bereft of ideas. The one-book author often complains to large audiences of how hard it is to write a second book. Does it not occur to that person that he or she has nothing to say?”




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  • I disagree with Theroux about risk taking: it’s still alive and well in self-publication Have an idea? Follow it through while realizing that sharing will most probably not be a windfall. Whiners need not apply.

  • I do agree with Theroux that during Reagan’s Administration the publishing industry changed dramatically when large corporations began to buy out the communications media, including book publishers. Even some of the most esteemed companies were bought out and retooled. Vonnegut and other authors picketed in New York to protest such shenanigans.

    Fate can be strange. I left La Ceiba, Honduras just months before Theroux arrived for his research about Mosquito Coast. In the mid-1980s that he mentions, I traveled to New York City to hawk the Great American Peace Corps Novel. It did not go well and changed my idea of why I write. Years later, I wrote Americruise, a humorous travelogue about that pilgrimage.

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