Hard times for writers

(Photo by Daniel Leininger)

Today’s column had its origins this afternoon when a Woodstock storeowner sighed. The problem? He’d laboriously written a book on a worthy socially oriented topic, but found it impossible to get a publisher to look at it, or a literary agent to let him in the door.

Nobody in the book business would have been surprised. As a publishing “insider” (with eight books in 20 editions put out by major publishers, which have solely provided my retirement savings), I’ve watched the business change radically over the past 20 years.

In the early ‘90s it was possible – if you were a good writer and had some luck – to get published. No longer. “Houses” are under the budget ax. Fewer people read books, as more use the Internet. Rare indeed is the editor who’s the least interested in a first-time author.

If you have a household name, thanks to either an accomplishment (e.g. Albert Pujols) or a criminal case (Amanda Knox), that’s a different story. But an unknown would-be author, off the street? It’s more likely that you’d win the Pick 6 at Saratoga.

In the last two years, five friends and acquaintances told me that they’d just written a book. I said nothing, not wanting to throw cold water. Yet, predictably, none found an interested agent or publishing house. Two then self-published – which means that they spent thousands and lost it all, except for a couple of hundred dollars in sales from their friends. Such folks are often spurred by the rare lotterylike self-publishing success. But in general, if you’re thinking of someday writing your memoirs, the truth is: No one will publish them.

It costs something like a quarter-million dollars for a major “house” to go through the three stages of editing a book, creating the artwork and jacket design, publishing and distributing it and advertising. They’ve learned in the past decade that 99 percent of their books languish. They simply don’t sell enough to recoup costs. They’re in the business to make money, and they’ve learned that first-time authors will not do that for them. They won’t even look at your manuscript.

So how did I get in? Sheer good fortune or grace. As a monthly columnist for a large national magazine (Discover), I had three publishers approach me in 1993 to write a book for them. Armed with these written offers and an insider connection, I was welcomed by a top literary agency, who took it from there.

That was before the Web. Had it been today, 20 years later, no such offers would likely have been made. All this is a great pity. The wonderful variety of new works that we used to see have been largely replaced by fewer offerings churned out by big-name authors, and tell-all schlock by ghostwriters handling sports figures and other celebrities. Meanwhile, how many books did you read last year? Aren’t you spending your time in front of the monitor? Well, multiply that by 300 million and you’ll understand what’s happening.

I know that this isn’t astronomy stuff. But I inwardly sigh when I meet enthusiastic people who are clearly devoting heroic effort into what will likely be a disheartening exercise in futility.

With all that, book-writing is not pointless. If you have a compelling story to tell, do it. The mere creative act confers pleasure and satisfaction for many – even for the majority who cannot write on a professional level. Moreover, you may be leaving your descendents an account of your life’s adventures that they will treasure and pass down.

And who knows? You will find first-time authors in bookstores. My own publishing house (Little Brown) just gave a hefty advance to an unknown beginner. And small (or specialty) “houses” are always more willing to go out on a limb, though their “advances” are minuscule.

Your odds won’t be good. But even today, they’re not zero.

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