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15 March 2012 @ 04:51 pm
On publishing and being a writer in the Right Now  
Maybe it's because I spent last weekend at the Tucson Festival of Books, soaking up a love of literature, reading, and writing, that when I came home to the usual publishing gloom-and-doom emails and blog links in my inbox (no one cares about quality anymore; all but a very few writers need to let go the quaint idea of getting paid, etc, etc, etc), I felt the need to say (again) something to this general notion that Right Now is the moment that publishing is falling apart.

Because Right Now has been the moment everything is falling apart the entire two decades I've been writing professionally. For more than 20 years I've been hearing about how Right Now is the worst time to publish, and if only I'd gotten in 5 or 10 or 15 years ago everything would have been Utterly Different and I would have had this perfect and shining career that's sadly out of reach now, because everyone knows it's impossible to sell a book anymore; or if you do sell the terms offered will be worse than they used to be and the numbers of copies you sell are lower; and besides all that, selling doesn't mean anything anymore because the books that do sell aren't quality books, not like in that golden age I'd only just--just!--missed.

It was only when that golden age everyone was talking about inched forward to encompass years I actually remembered being a working writer that I became more skeptical--and stopped mourning all I maybe hadn't lost after all.

From the perspective of my 90s-to-now career, publishing has always been on the verge of collapse, and the Good Days have always been just out of reach. Maybe right before the 90s there really was some amazing alternate publishing world in which merit was always, always rewarded and all the best books sold and nothing else did; I can't say for sure, having not been there. I'm skeptical, though, because if that were true ... why was A Wrinkle in Time ever rejected by any 60s publisher? Why are so many poorly written 80s problem novels on the shelves of my local used bookstore? Why were there subjects that authors were routinely told children and teens either couldn't be allowed to or wouldn't want to read about even though they desperately needed to read about these things? Why were there so many fewer places for non-Caucasian readers and writers to find themselves reflected at all? I have trouble, when I look back, seeing anything approaching an unambiguous golden age. I see some excellent books and some not-so-excellent books, much like now.

I also see writers who have done well and poorly through every part of the past two decades. Some of the years in the late 90s that we're now claiming were the Good Years (though we weren't saying that at the time, because in the 90s everyone knew that Good Years were the 80s) happened to be some of my own very worst writing years. I know other writers who struggled then, too--and I know writers who thrived, and writers who worked somewhere in between. I know all those things now, too. No writing era has ever been good for everyone. We all have our careers with their lumps and bumps and good times and awful times that make us want to give up, and all of those can happen at any time. I find this unpredictability as terrifying now as I did 20 years ago, but it isn't new.

The other thing one hears, about the just-out-of-reach golden age is that it was better for readers, because books were better and reading more mainstream. Yet when I was in high school, carrying a book--even a bestselling book--through the halls would much more quickly get you teased than today, with our midnight Harry Potter and Hunger Games parties. I have never seen teens embrace reading as openly as they do today. I see adults reading with enthusiasm too, either with those teens or on their own. As for quality--well, literary quality is a dangerous thing to discuss, because on one level, if a book makes readers turn pages, it has some measure of quality for some group of readers. But by whatever definition of quality one uses, I suspect there's never been an era when quality was all that mattered, but also that there's also never been an era when quality didn't play some role. It plays a role now, for certain: because if asked, most of us can all name gems of recently published books that would not have been published at all, had literary quality not counted for something. Like so many things, every last book doesn't have to be quality literature (again, however one defines it) for quality literature to still routinely be published.

Really, this all feels like the latest manifestation of the Kids These Days phenomenon. Kids These Days, along with the world they live in, have always been seen as worse than their parents and grandparents--I believe the earliest letter from a parent complaining of this dates back to Sumeria, actually--and the world we live in has always been seen as having fallen from some a better, grander time. (The fantasy version of this is that magic has always been waning, and the elves have always been departing into the west, never to return. Yet somehow magic and elves persist, regardless.)

There are challenges. There always have been challenges, and there always will be. Some of the specifics of the challenges will change year to year and decade to decade. Worthy books will be overlooked and unworthy books published, in all the formats in which books happen, and we'll mourn this even as we argue about which is which, even as we also keep embracing all the wonderful books which continue finding their way into our hands.

Aside from a new format (ebooks) and a new way for sharing recommendations (online) with the friends who've always shaped my reading more than reviewers, I'm not seeing the level of change, let alone collapse, that everyone seems determined to convince us we're in the midst of. What I see the ongoing and shifting and unpredictable challenges that have always gone with being a writer. That's all.

But I worry about new writers, hearing for the first time that the Good Days are just out of reach, believing they've missed all the best years and all the best chances. It's a little easier to give up, after all, when every turn you hear, "Well, what can you expect, with publishing the way it is today?"

So I want to say: Just keep working. Just keep telling your stories. I spent last weekend surrounded by 100,000 people who still care about stories, crave them, love them. Not nearly as much has changed as we think.

And if we really are doomed to always live in a just-fallen world, stories are the very thing we're going to need.

Just like always.
Elizabeth McCoyarchangelbeth on March 16th, 2012 12:25 am (UTC)
*thinks* You know... I do kinda wish I'd gone and made a recent jump... some time ago, when the pond was smaller and perhaps there would've been more chance of a fast agglomeration of numbers to boost the poor wee books.

But then I wouldn't have known about this other awesome artist (though I might well've gotten the awesome artist who was now too busy), and wouldn't have gotten the awesome covers, and wouldn't have had the niftykeen Title-Making App whose name I'm blanking on...

So, all in all, I can't be unhappy with when I decided to lose patience and take the path I took. And though it's only slightly less-traveled, it's being rather fun! Now, if only I can sell enough to equal what I paid for art! O:D

(And as a reader, I've still got more good stuff to read than I have the brainspace for, augh!)
Janni Lee Simner: bookshelfjanni on March 16th, 2012 06:15 pm (UTC)
I'm a bit bemused that there's already the notion that the best days for self-e-publishing were in the past, given how short a timeline we're talking. I think this only supports the notion that the best days will always be seen as just out of reach. :-)
Elizabeth McCoyarchangelbeth on March 16th, 2012 06:25 pm (UTC)
Well, arguably people who got in on the ground floor of the flood may have had a better chance to be "discovered" by large amounts of people. Lower thresholds and all that.

There's also a certain amount of "I coulda been makin' money all those months instead of NOT." O;D On the other hand, the editing I was doing has apparently had the effect of forcibly grabbing at least a few readers' eyeballs and dragging them across the page, so there's that. And it did also result in me having a couple of other works ready to go as soon as these have paid off enough of their cover-art for me to go in the hole again for more awesome art.

(We'll see if I can sustain the current sales rate. If so... Well, I wouldn't mind an extra hundred-or-so bucks a month! (And in the meantime, the best way to game the discovery system for self-pubbing is to Write More, in order to have more chances for people to trip over one's stuff and want All The Rest! O:D ...I should be writing right now, not braindead. Curse you, Daylight Savings Time, and your continuing effects on my sleep patterns!)

...I also hope that whoever brought all those "Also Boughts" of erotic paranormal romance books will not be horribly disappointed by the lack of hot bedroom scenes. O_o )
Malkin Greymalkingrey on March 16th, 2012 02:41 am (UTC)
Complaining that Right Now can't measure up to The Way Things Used to Be is one of the things that writers do. And have always been doing, if the Old English Deor is any indication:

I wish to say this about myself:
That for a time I was the Heodenings' poet,
dear to my lord - my name was "Deor".
For many years I had a profitable position,
a loyal lord until now that Heorrenda,
the man skilled in song, has received the estate
which the warriors' guardian had given to me.

(I've read criticism of the poem that claims the genre of Deor "is hard to determine." To which I can only respond, "Not if you're a freelance writer, it isn't.")
jennifer_j_sjennifer_j_s on March 16th, 2012 02:46 pm (UTC)
Now we need a translation of the ancient Summerian text that janni referenced. Thanks for sharing Deor.

What irks me is when I hear people ranting about how impossible it is to get published, how long it takes, and that self-publishing is the way to go, without even trying to get published. And then, because they do know where the real money is, claiming that having a self-published book is going to impress the socks off a children's book editor. I, for one, sincerely doubt it.

Edited at 2012-03-16 02:48 pm (UTC)
Janni Lee Simner: bookshelfjanni on March 16th, 2012 06:14 pm (UTC)
lnhammer is the one who found out about said Sumerian text, some years ago; maybe he remembers where. It's a father writing to his son, saying roughly, "No, I won't send you money, kids these days only care about pleasure and fashion and don't work hard like we did in my day." :-)
jennifer_j_sjennifer_j_s on March 16th, 2012 11:03 pm (UTC)
Haha, teenagers!
Janni Lee Simner: bookshelfjanni on March 16th, 2012 06:01 pm (UTC)
That is most excellent. This is indeed something we've been doing forever.

The hard thing is, the first few years of one's professional life one doesn't realize that yet, and really does feel like all the good stuff has been lost!
(Anonymous) on March 16th, 2012 06:52 am (UTC)
Respectfully slightly disagree
I'm not sure the only choices are "Paradise Lost" or "Things Never Really Change." It's possible some things are better now, some things are worse, but on the whole things really ARE worse for writers who are trying to make a living at their craft. This seems indisputably true in the music industry -- that piracy, for example, has made it extremely difficult for a musician to make a living selling recorded music. It also seems indisputably true that we're in a period of massive creative decline in the mainstream movie industry, what with the sequel, superhero, and romcom ruts (even as we're surely in something of a TV renaissance due to the rise of cable and premium cable).

As for your reference to lousy earlier YA, I haven't met anyone in the industry who doesn't acknowledge that the genre has improved GREATLY through the 90s and 00s -- to the point where it's surely one of publishing's brightest financial and creative spots.

I'm optimistic about some things, but having made my living as a writer (of novels, screenplays, and plays), this really does seem like a more truly terrible time to be a playwright, a difficult time to be a feature screenwriter, and an increasingly difficult time to be a novelist. I don't think that's just author-bitching or nostalgia. But who knows? Maybe it is.
Janni Lee Simner: bookshelfjanni on March 16th, 2012 06:11 pm (UTC)
Re: Respectfully slightly disagree
Agreed on no absolutes, and that we don't need a golden age to face challenges today. But I'm really still not convinced that on balance, for writers as a whole, this is a worse time to be working. For individual careers, yes, because all our careers have their good and bad and in-between years. The years which some people look at and say "I could make a living back then" are also years others look at and say, "I couldn't make a living then." (Not knowing which it will be year to year is one of the things that makes being a writer so nervewracking!)

Genres, too: where the bright and creative spots are shift. Right now YA is one of them. A decade ago it was chick-lit, two decades ago horror, three decades ago epic fantasy ... there have always been bright spots and troubled spots too, as far as I can tell, and how one's writing focus intersects with these influences how the field looks, as well. (I can't speak to screenwriting/plays specifically, knowing a lot less about them.)

From my perspective the author bitching/nostalgia/whatever was done with just as much conviction 10 years ago, or 15, or 20, at least as far as I can remember, and people were saying much the same things: that no, really, right now it truly is harder than ever before, and the other times weren't really as hard. I'm just not seeing anything to convince me this time everyone's right, where the last half dozen times they said this they were wrong.

Which doesn't mean hard times aren't hard, on so many levels, whenever they happen.

Edited at 2012-03-16 06:12 pm (UTC)
Miriam3rdragon on March 17th, 2012 07:53 am (UTC)
Re: Respectfully slightly disagree
I should say that I know very little about the economics of being a playwright, either now or in the past. But I do know that when we read Paloma Pedrero's "El color de agosto" in my spanish class, it was prefaced with this introduction (translation mine):

Words for you

Talk about theater, they tell me. Take the oportunity to tell them your impressions and experiences. Educate the reader. Okay, fine. I'm thrilled. I know that there are few of you, a minute quantity. My editors tell me: "People don't buy theater, nor do they read it." Since you are reading this, you are an exceptional being, nearly unique, marvelous. Congradulations! I love you. For the trouble is that no one reads theater, and neither do people watch it.
. . .
They say that it is the fault of television, the strike, the moral crisis, the return to conservatism, the price of the entry, the heavy political culture, the lack of talent... Everyone casts the blame on someone else. I do not know with whom the fault lies, but I assure you, dear reader, extraordinary person, that the fault is not with theater . . .

Now, I'll admit that I don't know when that introduction was written. But the play first came out in 1987, and my guess would be that this introduction was not written too terribly much later.

That isn't to say that playwriting isn't in worse straits now than it was 20 years ago. But it does suggest to me that people have thought it's in trouble for a while now.
Janni Lee Simner: bookshelfjanni on March 20th, 2012 08:56 pm (UTC)
Re: Respectfully slightly disagree
Heh. One wonders if there could be a collection of historical letters and essays about our fallen age. :-)
Miriam3rdragon on March 21st, 2012 11:47 am (UTC)
Re: Respectfully slightly disagree
I'm sure there could be. The trouble would be how to go about finding all of them.
(Deleted comment)
edulembaedulemba on March 17th, 2012 01:39 pm (UTC)
Thanks Janni - I needed that. :)
Janni Lee Simner: bookshelfjanni on March 20th, 2012 08:59 pm (UTC)
I find it a useful thing to remember every so often, too!
Janni Lee Simner: bookshelfjanni on March 20th, 2012 08:59 pm (UTC)
And cynleitichsmith have been writing through many of the same years, so were probably hearing the same predictions.

And yeah, things definitely aren't perfect now--but they always weren't perfect, if in different ways, and people were always saying it had recently become impossible to make a living. At least to the edge of my own memory--and then there are all those letters being quoted, above. :-)
(Anonymous) on March 18th, 2012 03:56 am (UTC)
You nailed it, Janni!
Thank you, Janni, for a level-headed, longer-term perspective. I've done my share of whining, but reading your piece, I had to admit to myself, "She's right!"

Now let's see how long I can go without whining...
Janni Lee Simner: bookshelfjanni on March 20th, 2012 09:00 pm (UTC)
Re: You nailed it, Janni!
Oh, whining goes with the territory. Helps us survive a little, even, when applied in moderation. :-)
Danny Adamsmadwriter on March 19th, 2012 11:47 pm (UTC)
The Western Roman Empire in the 5th century A.D. ... Now there was a serious death of the publishing industry. Today's just doesn't compare.

The way I see it, I love print books, but are more people are reading because there are more e-books out there, then more power to it.
Janni Lee Simner: bookshelfjanni on March 20th, 2012 09:01 pm (UTC)
The Western Roman Empire in the 5th century A.D. ... Now there was a serious death of the publishing industry. Today's just doesn't compare.

Heh. :-)

My books are still being read mostly in print formats, but I'm happy to have them read in all the formats they're available in, especially as ebooks become available from a wider and wider range of sellers, including many local independent bookstores.

Edited at 2012-03-20 09:02 pm (UTC)
Karen RhodesKaren Rhodes on March 30th, 2012 02:02 pm (UTC)
Golden age?
What people seem to forget is that most writers make a modest income, that it is only a few who get the really big bucks. Nonfiction writers like me tend not to make a lot of money, especially those of us in the realm of academic writing. But it isn't the money that is the point in academic writing -- it's the dissemination and exchange of information, the dialogue, the debates which shape and advance our discipline that matter.

The other thing people forget is Sturgeon's Law. For those who are not into science fiction, Theodore Sturgeon was a science fiction writer who was quoted as saying that "95% of science fiction is crud. But then, 95% of everything is crud." There is a bunch of schlock that gets published, just as there is a bunch of schlock in music, movies, television, and the other arts. It is a winnowning process over time that leaves us, decades after a particular age or movement, with the golden 5%, after the schlock is left behind in the dustbin of history, where it belongs. But seeing only the golden 5% and not the schlock that, for a while, nearly inundated it, we look wistfully back and think, "Those were the days."

I agree with you. These are the days. I see my seven-year-old grandson loving books so much, he sleeps with a book clasped in his arms. I see the youngsters I go to college with (I'm a 64-year-old undergraduate about to graduate, who will begin graduate studies this fall) reading. Yes, I see them texting and on their computers. But I also see them nose-down in books, whether textbooks or leisure reading, totally absorbed.

The new venues are not totally developed yet, and there are growing pains. But to my view, the important thing is that there are new things happening, that the written word is becoming more accessible to more and more people. It doesn't matter whether the words are conveyed on a paper page or the pixels of a computer screen. It is the word itself that is important, and new ways of getting the message across are coming to the fore.

If one is concerned only with the money, it is indeed a time of ulcers and nervous tics. And sure, I'd like to be paid more for the books I have written and will write. But the reality is that most writers have to have another source of income to make ends meet. Therefore, let's face reality and take the longer view and think about the other values involved.

This could very well be a golden age, for very different and cogent reasons.

Have faith.