Have we reached the death of the author? (Publishing and Poverty)

I’m a fan of Melville house, a young, savvy publishing company founded in 2001 in Brooklyn, NYC. They have a lively twitter feed, they publish interesting books, and generally seem wise about what books and book publishing mean in this technological age.

But a recent article of theirs titled Publishing and Poverty by Zeljka Marosevic, their director of UK Marketing, reflects a flawed romanticism about writers: there was never a good time to be one.

The writing life has always been hard, especially for writers of fiction. Even Hemingway and Fitzgerald had a hard go of it at times. Dickens saw most of his profits lost to piracy and, like Twain, earned more from speaking engagements than his books themselves. Even when the novel was at the center of European or American entertainment, it was still the rare novelist that survived by their writing alone, and those that did achieved it at great risk and with consequences to their health, their families and their wealth. Many famous writers, from Mellville to Kafka, became famous after they died. They never experienced the full attention their works generated, a fate common for many artists (e.g. Van Gogh). Da Vinci is far more famous today than he was during the Renaissance. Being an artist has always been a hard road.

Marosevic mentions a story of British author Rupert Thompson:

Rupert Thomson, who is being forced to abandon the office he hires in exchange for converting his attic into a “garret” to save money. Due to falling advances and physical book sales, combined with publishing’s move to digital, Thomson feels fearful about his future as a writer: “I don’t buy anything. No clothes, no luxuries, nothing. I have no private income, no rich wife, no inheritance, no pension. I have nothing to look forward to. There’s no safety net at all.”

He had an office? What a luxury. What percentage of writers throughout history had them? And what is this talk of safety nets? If an adult wanted a safety net, why on earth would they choose to be a writer? Now mind you I’m all in favor of good writers who need support getting it if they can. I’m a member of the Author’s Guild and I support programs that support writers. However to choose to be an artist is to deliberately reject the security that comes with nearly any other profession. It’s to be expected that to structure a life around writing will be a challenge.

She comments on the recent London Author’s fair:

Their education seemed more to be about learning to market themselves than becoming better writers. Unless that’s what it means to be a good writer today. No vision seems satisfactory, and with the decline of the old and the dawn of the wobbly new, a writer’s place seems highly insecure.

Throughout history there have always been more authors looking for a break than publishers can afford to give. Even Mellvile House itself does not accept unsolicited fiction submissions. It should be no surprise that when writers convene, much of their conversation is about marketing: publishers demand writers market themselves to the publishers! That’s what agents, book proposals and synopses are for. The entire machine of the publishing industry depends on writers marketing to publishers. And until the technology of the last decade they’ve had the keys to the only gates (now we all have gates on our phones).

Publishers today, and probably always, desire writers who are excellent self-promoters. Walt Whitman went too far in writing fake reviews of his books in newspapers, but the spirit was always desirable. Authors are chosen in part for their platform, jargon for how famous they are. That fame is assumed to translate directly into marketing, and it’s common now for publishers to ask how many twitter followers or blog readers a would-be author has. This is not a shock, it’s logic. Publishing is a business. To choose  an author already known minimizes risks and publishers, more often then not, play it safe, especially when deciding between two equally good manuscripts.

Beyond my critique, I believe without question this is the best time ever in history to be a writer. It is still hard, but today we have more tools in our possession to publish, to collaborate, to market, than any writer in history ever had. And most of these tools are free! There is simply no one to blame. Can’t find a publisher? Publish yourself. It’s cheap. You can’t blame ‘the system’ anymore. Don’t know an editor? Hire one. Don’t have money for it? Save. If you are so passionate and talented you will find patience. Don’t have any followers or fans? Start a blog – a blog is free and instant publishing to the planet. If as a writer you can’t get excited about publishing anything you like to the entire planet for free I question your sanity. This is as good as it will ever get.

Most of what’s published is trash, it’s true, but this means if you are talented and dedicated your work will shine. It’s unlikely to shine brightly enough to be the way you make a living, but as I’m telling you there was never a time this was likely anyway. Do it because you want to do it, not because of some reward you expect from the species. Your talent might have been granted to you, but it must be proven, through hard work, to the rest of the planet.

Publishers can be great partners to writers. They can help craft the book and find it an audience. But all they’ve ever done throughout history is help. Only the writer gets their name of the cover and for that privilege comes the lion’s share of the work.  While publishers are allies, a prolific writer finishes a book a year while a publisher will publish dozens of them in the same period of time. The math is simple, in that the most committed publisher will never invest as much in a particular book as the author. All authors should be prepared for this since it has been true since the history of publishing. The author is always at the center of marketing and publicity even when a publisher is fully behind them. But today with Kickstarter, Facebook, twitter and blogs every single person you know can help contribute to, or spread word of, whatever you make and have as much or more influence than publishers had in the glory days (whenever you think those were) for finding an audience for what you make.

The web has rekindled the old complaints of giving work away for free, or competing with people who work for free. It’s hubris. Bakers, brewmasters and cheesemongers give free samples, why not writers? You end up doing work for free in any profession where supply outweighs demand. Actors, musicians, poets, painters and writers struggle because thousands of people want to do these things. If you don’t want to compete with people who will work for free, you must choose a kind of work that few people can do. Learn to fix cars or air conditioners and you’ll never work for free. But to chose to write, or paint, or sing, and then bemoan a golden era than never existed shows a lack of understanding of the profession of your passion. Many actors, musicians, painters and writers get paid very well for what they do, but they had to earn it. There are careers available, but you’ll have to scrap and hustle and then get lucky to get them.

I have the ambition to be a novelist. I want to write plays and stories too. But thus far in my writing career I’ve written business and philosophy books. Why? Because these markets are simpler and easier to market to. Magritte worked in advertising for years before becoming famous enough for his paintings to focus on his own work. Director David Fincher filmed TV commercials. Hemmingway wrote for newspapers. You don’t have to do much research to discover how many great talents hustled to develop the skills, the connections and the confidence to become who they became, without any security other than what they scraped together themselves.

I wish the best for writers, and publishers, everywhere, including Melville house. We’re all in this together. The world needs great works and people with the ideas, craft and dedication required to entertain, challenge and inspire us. But lets not kid ourselves about what writing is or how it has always been, and always will be, done. Good luck to you and I hope you’ll wish some to me in return.

[You can read my advice on writing by starting here: How to write a book, the short, honest truth.]

7 Responses to “Have we reached the death of the author? (Publishing and Poverty)”

  1. Phil Simon

    Really great analysis with colorful examples, Scott. I learned a great deal reading this post.

    Do it because you want to do it, not because of some reward you expect from the species. Your talent might have been granted to you, but it must be proven, through hard work, to the rest of the planet.

    Absolutely. The way that I look at it, writing is a hard way to make an easy living.

  2. Michael Zimmer

    As a member of the oldest and largest writers club in American, a published writer on Smashwords, a 50 year veteran in the business world, and various other dubious endeavors, I say that not only is the writer dead, but so is the industry of writing. In today’s world of instant communication, try getting an article published in a magazine, a book reviewed, a story to an editor, a publishers attention, an editors help, etc, etc.
    Publishing is the most backward, arcane, and self service industry left on the planet. It will fall.

    1. Scott

      There are thousands of writers today who make a good living from their writing alone. Many of them are self-published. I don’t know how you can say we’re dead.

      I can certainly see an argument for the quality of writing declining or the amount of reading people do dropping, but even those arguments are hard to defend as the data is at best mixed on these fronts.

      As my post suggests in the large I see it all as mostly a wash. Some things are worse, some are better, but if on average more power is in the hands of writers themselves I can’t help but believe it’s an important kind of progress.

  3. Lois

    As authors we have to consider marketing as part of the whole deal, if money is something we want to get from our work. Whether you get someone else to do it, or you do it yourself, somehow or other salesmanship is part of the deal. In some cases, you have to create a market that does not obviously exist. I’m writing for money (part of my job description at a software company), and also writing primarily for interest and fringe benefits, but I know it’s up to me (or possibly someone to whom I delegate the task) to establish why people or companies should pay for my writing.

  4. Gloria Buono-Daly

    Another interesting Berkun article “Have We Reached the Death of the Author? (Publishing and Poverty).” Writers write because they love to share what they think. For great writers, it’s never really about the $$$.

  5. e

    Good stuff. It’s like an encouraging punch in the jaw. I’ve always been a fan of truth and silver linings.



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