I know I spend way too much time bemoaning the state of publishing — but hey, it’s my life, after all. And it worries me quite a bit. I’m quite literally trying to decide whether to go back to school and get into, say, nursing, or whether to keep writing. So far, I’m still writing (but that’s mostly because I’m squeamish and the sight of blood makes me feel faint).
So I’m finally reading last week’s edition of The Stranger, and I loved Paul Contant’s article on BEA, with the sadly apt subhead “Here’s a report from the funeral.”
Constant wrote that a larger number of journalists was the only sign of growth at BEA, and yet: “No one was asking editors why they didn’t think twice before tossing out seven-figure deals for books based on zany blogs that anyone with half a brain could read for free on the internet. No one seemed to notice that major presses like HarperCollins weren’t asking booksellers what they wanted to sell or what their readers wanted to read.”
And then, of course, there’s the Kindle, which for some reason still inspires wrath among writers (the article details Sherman Alexie’s outrage upon seeing someone reading from a Kindle on his flight). Am I missing something here? Authors need readers. Readers like Kindles. Hence, we need to welcome the Kindle.
Constant writes, “It’s easy to imagine that this collapse is a happy ending for publishing: Picture a world of small, good regional publishers like Two Dollar Radio, Seattle publisher Chin Music Press, and Akashic Books printing beautiful books with high literary merit and authors making good, honest blue-collar salaries (instead of grossly overinflated six-figure book deals). Frankly, that sounds like my dream industry.” Mine, too.
Yet Constant also makes the point that if no publisher can afford to publish John Grisham, readers won’t flock to literary novels but simply won’t read anymore. But surely there are other options for writers. Stephen King has already ventured into self-publishing with “The Plant,” his serial e-novel (it didn’t exactly turn out very well, but that was a long time ago). The point is: once you’re a rich, bestselling author, the stigma of self-publishing goes away and you can publish your own books and become even richer. (You’re probably thinking, A rich, famous, bestselling author won’t want to be bothered with details like editing and book design — but trust me, having worked in publishing, I can tell you that as a rule, these rich, famous, bestselling authors usually are more into the process than most other authors.) Right now in publishing, there’s less and less room (i.e., less and less money) for new and/or literary authors — and this is something I hope will change.
And as for those six- and seven-figure deals … I’m still trying to think of another industry that gives you that kind of money before you actually earn it. Yes, you’ve written the book, but you haven’t yet sold the book — and if you get a gigantic advance, your sales numbers will most likely not catch up to the amount of your advance, which puts you in that awful position of being a money loser for the publisher. But authors have come to expect the big advance, and this is part of the problem. I always tell aspiring writers that a small advance is a good thing: If your book sells well, you’ll publish your next one (and yes, then you’ll get more money). If you get a huge advance and your book doesn’t do well, then you’ll have a very hard time getting that next book deal. It’s cold but true.
It’s not that I’d turn down a huge advance — I’m not insane, after all — but I’d certainly be a little stressed about my book earning up to it. And it’s not that I want the publishing industry to disappear — with only one book under my belt and literally hundreds of new ideas, it’s quite the opposite: I want the industry to be sustainable. I want to see my next book in print, in independent bookstores, and on the Kindle — in short, I want it to reach as many readers as possible. Is that so wrong?