Sunday, December 14, 2008

Publishing and writing: the outlook for 2009

Two items arrived on my desk today ... and they're scary, very scary. They reflect two sides of the same coin, and the writing on this particular wall is, uh, not pretty.

The first item is this, and I'm so gobsmacked, I'm going to quote the post in entirety (it's short and bittersweet), as well as linking:

in an essay that will appear in this Sunday’s issue of the New York Times Book Review, Paul Greenberg proposes how the US government could eliminate “overcapacity” in the writing industry. Quoting Ann Beattie ( who “mourned the situation of the modern writer, living in a world where people are more interested in ‘being a writer’ than in writing itself. ‘There are too many of us, and M.F.A. programs graduate more every year, causing publishers to suffer snow-blindness, which has resulted in everyone getting lost’…”), Bowker (”about 275,000 new titles and editions are published in the United States each year”), and the National Endowment for the Arts, (”approximately 185,000 people in the United States … support themselves primarily as writers of books, plays, poetry, speeches and other literary matter”), Greenberg suggests eliminating half of the titles published each year. “Assuming it takes about two years to write your average book, we would offer book writers two years of salary at the writers’ average annual income of $38,000 a year. Add it all up and you get a paltry $10.5 billion to dramatically reduce the book overcapacity.”
Of course, he admits, that wouldn’t be enough for some writers, but even $400,000 times 92,500 — half of the 185,000 Americans the N.E.A. identifies as “authors and writers” — would be a bailout cost of $37 billion. As Greeberg points out, “That’s about half of what the government paid for the first installment of the A.I.G. rescue. Should you still find that number too big to swallow, let me ask point blank: Whom would you rather bail out, a writer or an insurance executive?”


That's ... disturbing. You're looking at 50% retrenchment in the industry. They'll keep the "top" 50% (the bestsellers and on down; duh), but anyone who's marginalized is already out the door due to the over-capacity market, with or without bailout money.

If it were any other industry ... radiology, crash repairs, kindergarten teaching, house painting, research and development into nuclear rocket engines ... there would be hell to pay. 50% retrenchment?! The screams that went up would rupture your eardrums.

But it's writers. This whole industry is fuzzy, soft-edge, indeterminate, and (!) almost every one of us counts as self-employed. Only contract writers have bosses. Everyone else is a freelance. And you know how the Senate will react to a proposed bailout of about 90,000 self-employed freelancers in a luxury goods industry?! Ye gods.

The message is this, boiled down to its brass tacks: "Would half of you writers be good enough to go away for the foreseeable future?" In other words, stop being an artist, get the money from somewhere to retrain as [something] and go work in a factory, a shop, an office ... except that jobs are not so easy to find in a recession. Woah.

The second item arriving on my desk was an email forwarded on through a writers' network to which I belong. Again, I'll quote it in entirety, because it's poignant, sad, and scary:

From: Dragon Moon Press
Sent: Wednesday, 10 December 2008 1:52:12 AM
To: [private!]
I received this email today. CNC has, from the very beginning, been a great supporter of Dragon Moon. If there is anything you can do, please do! In this tough economic market, we are all struggling to survive and even a word of encouragement helps. Thank you so much! Gwen (From Mystery writer Jennifer Stanley):

Hello! I am a mystery author living in Richmond and have been writing other authors in hopes of soliciting help for a beloved Richmond independent book store. I'm sure you know Lelia Taylor, the kind-hearted proprietor. Hundreds of authors love her store as she has hand-sold many of our titles. I had a signing there recently recently and she began to cry and said that she may have to close the store. I was very upset on her behalf!

She asked if I could think of an event that might bring folks into the store and help her pay the rent. I am planning to host a benefit for the store on Jan 31st and was wondering if you could attend. The Event: Saturday, January 31st from 1-4. Come for books, sugar-laden treats, and door prizes.

Who’s Involved: In short, over one hundred authors from across the country contributed to the dozen fabulous raffle prizes to be given away on the 31st. This event will be the culmination of a month-long contest in which customers will earn a raffle ticket for every $25 they spend during the month of January. (This includes phone customers). Weekly prizes will also be given away. These prizes will include signed books from authors in the field of mystery, fantasy, horror, nonfiction, and children’s fiction.

The authors attending the January 31st event at the bookstore as of this date are Katherine Neville, Donna Andrews, Ellen Crosby, Maria Lima, Ellen Byerrum, Andy Straka, Joseph Guion, John Gilstrap, Austin S. Camacho, Maggie Stiefvater, and J.B Stanley. We are also getting contributions from big names in our field, including a vampire basket from Charlaine Harris, a character donation from Margaret Maron, gold and sapphire earrings from Denise Swanson, a Carolyn Hart prize, a culinary basket including goodies from Joanne Fluke, a Tiffany necklace and much, much more.

If you can't attend, would you consider mailing me a signed book or another prize donation? And if you know any other authors in your genre who might get involved, would you pass them this message? Thanks so much!

In the last few days I've been talking about The Big Crunch which is going to hit every part of the book industry, from writing to publishing to bookselling. I've been seeing idiotic prices in the Christmas sales -- a way for desperate book-people to wring a few dollars out of the holiday season and earn a kind of stay of execution, albeit temporary. It'll work for the big chain stores ... apparently it doesn't work so well for the indie booksellers.

You know, I can't even think of an indie bookstore in this neck of the woods. There isn't one this side of downtown, and if I tell you the truth, I ain't been downtown since February, and on that occasion it was to see an exhibition, not hunt all over a square mile for an indie bookstore. They seem to have gone the way of magic shops and handicraft boutiques.

So, 2009 is going to be rough, and as a writer Keegan is going to play this by ear. Gay book have always been marginalized, where a bestseller is anything tickling 8-10,000! In the mainstream, the fair-selling novelists (who will be in the top 50% who are retained) expect to sell ten times that number and much more.

Now, POD publishing is even more marginalized -- further out on the indie limb even than the small publishers, who often depend on indie bookstores because they can't get into the chain stores. (The chain stores would be happy to carry small publishers' titles ... at an 80% or 90% discount off the list price. Meaning, about US$0.75c will go back to the publisher, off the sale of a US$7.50 paperback ... and since the book cost at least $1 to print and another $1 to ship, it's entirely possible to sell books and lose money. In fact, the more books an indie publisher sold through a chain store, the faster they'd go broke!)

At this point, the whole industry is melting down, and I rather think POD is too expensive to be a viable alternative. If the reader can't afford store prices, how can s/he afford $22.50 for a copy of the new POD book?!

I'd love to say that ebooks were the solution, but with the hardware still over A$500 and the price of a short-read ebook still up around A$10, I'm not so sure. Companies like Sony, Palm and so forth will have to "come to the party" and get real about pricing. They can ride to the rescue like the original knights in shining armor here ... but only if they cut into their profits to offer discounts, get the retail price way down -- just as booksellers demand of publishers.

Where does all this leave the humble writer in 2009?!

Well, put it like this: if you have a day job, don't give it up. And if you don't have one, get one!

Here's the parting shot from that NYT article which was linked to from the Juno Books post above. Read it and whimper:

The economy slips deeper and deeper into its trench, and yet the workspace for writers seems to get more crowded by the day as refugees from other professions take cover behind what they hope will be the respectability of the writing life. The other day, as I looked down on the field of cubicles from the “resting area” on the balcony, I felt an urge to read aloud from a Graham Greene story I had disregarded in my 20s: “Are you prepared for the years of effort, ‘the long defeat of doing nothing well’? As the years pass writing will not become any easier, the daily effort will grow harder to endure, those ‘powers of observation’ will become enfeebled; you will be judged, when you reach your 40s, by performance and not by promise.”

I'll look for some cheerful, upbeat blog-fodder tomorrow.

Ciao for now,

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