Hard Times for Authors: We’re Publishing Fewer Books And Selling The Books We Do Publish For Less

by | Sep 28, 2010

I once had dreams of making it as a literary writer. Those notions were, of course, about as far fetched as my earlier dreams of playing professional baseball. But we’re not here to discuss my childhood dreams. Thanks to fresh data from The Wall Street Journal we’re going to examine just how hard it is for writers–even writers of exceptional merit–to make a living.

“In terms of making a living as a writer, you better have another source of income,” says Nan Talese, whose Nan A. Talese/Doubleday imprint publishes Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood and John Pipkin. One reason for Talese’s pessimism is the hard facts of a shrinking market for books. Consumer books peaked in 2008 at 1.63 billion units and are expected to decline to 1.47 billion this year and to 1.43 billion by 2012.

With all the entertainment options and various time pressures like work and raising a family, who has time for a book today? Online game developers are getting rich; meanwhile, our nation’s scribes are applying not just for grants, but for food stamps.

Yet, where there is disorder there is also opportunity. “Writers come up from nowhere, from the ground up, and nobody is looking for them or asking for them, but there they are,” says E.L. Doctorow. Who’s going to produce and market their work, and help them make a living? No one knows. But writers, like weeds, will keep coming. That we do know.

One answer can be found in independent publishers like Turtle Point Press who are signing some promising literary-fiction writers, so it’s not as if good books aren’t being written and published today. But independents offer, on average, $1,000 to $5,000 for advances, a fraction of the $50,000 to $100,000 advances that established publishers typically paid in the past for debut literary fiction.

What about eBooks? eBooks are selling like hot cakes, right? According to the Journal, eBooks are far from a game changer for emerging writers, although they do provide a nice bit of change for best selling authors.

Let me ask, what is your relationship to the printed book? Do books take up a lot of shelf space in your home? Are they packed away in boxes in the garage? Have you sold them all back to the used bookstore? Do you carry all the reading material you’ll ever need in one electronic device?

Personally, we have more books in our little cottage than we know what to do with. But I’m not reading new books at the pace I once did. The atomization on content is to blame. Like music fans who now buy just the single instead of the entire album, I click through the web harvesting bits and pieces from my favorite sources. I don’t have to subscribe to a magazine or newspaper, or buy a book. For the most part, I just click and read.

Interestingly, all this online clicking and reading repositions the book as special event in my life. To set time aside for a printed book is to say, I’m here now concentrating on this long form narrative. Email and iThis and iThat be damned.