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Friday, April 01, 2011

The House of Words (no. 9) Zephyrus side note to 8:1

Photograph of spaghetti courtesy of
and Marcin Jochimczyk, Sosnowiec, Slaskie, Poland.
zephyr said...

i wonder:

how many writers were successful enough to not need a job in the era when editors could focus on art and publishing houses were individual, home owned entities? Perhaps more novelists, poets, essayists were published but how well did all those books sell? How many were remaindered?

Are there fewer successful writers--writers who did not need to supplement their income from advances-- now that publishing has changed so much?

i wonder.

It seems to me there have only been a few in each generation in each of the arts who get to do what they want and not need another source of income (perhaps in the form of a spouse who brings in the cash). Clearly publishing has become a very icky business and fewer writers get published...but does it mean fewer get to do what they want for an income?

It is clearly harder to get published, but is it harder to succeed, financially, with one's art?

i don't know. But i think it would be interesting to see those statistics.

Dear zephyr,

Perhaps you could breeze about and find the answers! What a lot of questions, and the answers not always all that clear.

Historically, citizens of this country haven't been that good at finding great writers or presenting them with a living wage through book purchases, either because of international pillaging of texts and copyright problems or lack of promotion. The states tended to be more concerned with survival early on. In fact, the U. S. didn't have much interest in a full-time writer until Charles Brockden Brown, and he didn't make it as a writer for long. Cooper, Twain, Helen Hunt Jackson, and William Dean Howells in the nineteenth-century were certainly more successful (and Melville started out with a good seller, though descended into obscurity later), but plenty of others were rewarded less--and books like Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple were the bestsellers of their century. I have read Charlotte Temple, and I know whereof he spoke when Hawthorne complained of the "damn'd mob of scribbling women." (Actually it wasn't that bad. I have encountered worse. And Hawthorne didn't think all writing women belonged in the mob.)

I think most literary historians agree that the modernist era saw supportive houses rise. Editors had famously large roles in the lives of writers, even if the authors were a bit feckless--like Thomas Wolfe, say. The late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century saw plenty of magazines that paid writers, a help to Fitzgerald and Hemingway and many others. And as time went on, even less popular writers like I. B. Singer could count on some income from a publisher who might be a tad stingy but who took pride in his stable of writers. Anecdotes of the pre-war publishing world are full of stories of writers who camp out at their publshing houses or at magazine offices and are bailed out of fixes. Editors didn't depart, as they often do now, at a hat-drop.

All these things are in the realm of fairly common knowledge. We can tell suggestive anecdotes, and I bet you could check the most recent edition of that big fat reference book, The Literary History of the United States, and find a decent overview.

The issue today is not that fewer writers are not being published--we are publishing more writers than ever. And self-publishing has added to the spate. The number of books published per year has burgeoned in recent years. But I believe that fewer books are being properly edited, marketed, and distributed.

This erosion means that fewer writers are being sustained financially. That tendency is impossible to deny simply because of the great influx of the self-published, but I also think it true of national publishing trends because of what I read but also because of what I see happening in the writing community. I have a good number of friends who have been flattened by publishing events--the implosions of HarperCollins or MacAdam Cage, the lack of loyalty by a house to writers whose editors depart, and so on.

Now that writing is also MFA business, we produce more writers capable of a certain level of achievement. Here I remember Flannery O'Connor, who approved the squashing of young writers:  "Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher."  The more desirable programs are capable of funneling students into the publishing world and establishing contacts and sometimes contracts for them. The route from the pages of a dreamy young writer to finished book has changed for many.

You ask about "doing what you want" for an income. A mid-list writer who wants to break out and be self-supporting is going to work hard and do a lot of ancillary business. For example, writer Jeff Vandermeer went independent a few years ago, and with his wife he regularly cranks out the anthologies. As he is in what could be called literary speculative fiction, he crosses boundaries and has a foot in several worlds. That's helpful. Recently he published Booklife, a rather unusual how-to manual for writers, speculative, literary, and otherwise. Jeff is attached to various summer writing programs, and he has an outgoing nature and the energy to go on tour repeatedly. He is willing to try new ways of getting the word out; he collaborates with bands, filmmakers, and artists. He throws out all sorts of spiderlines and in the process makes a larger web for himself. The end result is that he can catch a greater number of flies and be more visible. But it's not easy, hiw way, not for the timid or those unwilling to work with others.

The current trend toward commercialism (or shall we say, seeking greater profits in a tight market) is hardening the lead-book strategy--more focus on lead books, less on the list as a whole. So I hear and read, anyway. That means a large publishing house is looking for a reasonably well-written commercial prospect. I might not call the whole enterprise "icky" as you do, for I have had many good experiences in New York, but I do feel sorry that finances thrust some of our historically fine houses toward the commercial. Of course, we Americans don't own them any more so it is difficult to pull away from the demand to increase profits.

In addition, the window of opportunity for a book to gain an audience keeps shrinking. The common wisdom used to be three months. You had to get your reviews well within that narrow window because bookstores would be returning stock after three months, and because the world moves on quickly. Changes in tax law so that publishers were taxed on stock-on-hand meant that U. S. publishers had an incentive to remainder quickly and keep books moving out of the warehouse to stores and then into remainder bins. The law of unforeseen consequences kicked in, as it usually does when the government (bunch of lawyers! let's have some farmers and shopkeepers!) is involved, and backlist books no longer were kept on hand as they had been previously.

Of course, the digital age is changing all this--easy to keep backlist in stock if it's just digital. But if one yields digital rights, other things become problematic. What about that house that wants to reprint my novel but wants to accompany a printing with digital downloads? But my digital rights are lodged elsewhere... Etc. (A good many people are avoiding the whole issue by going publisher-free, and we'll look at that later, as well as the small press world.)

The idea of the publisher's current list (minus the lead books, of course) as a mound of spaghetti that is flung at a wall to see what will stick is an idea I have seen over and over and over again. And I have heard editors say or write the same. It seems to be the metaphor that clicks and fits for a lot of people.

Here, let's try it!

I love home scientific experiments.

Okay, back from the kitchen with an extra-large colander of still-warm pasta: I drag out one of our three colorful, powerful home catapults (traditional Cooperstown 6th grade project, associated with Medieval Day.) The cats are interested. The brainy calico, Theodora, is wary. The incredibly sweet, rabbit-dumb, and now-shaved-for-spring (and to get rid of dreadlocks that culminated in her resemblance to a felt hat on peg legs) Blue Persian looks at me lovingly and rubs up against the catapult.

Ready? Bate your breath, people!

I launch the spaghetti at the wall.

Courtesy Brandy at

It's publishing all over again.

What happens is that the bulk of the pasta immediately tumbles to the floor. Some clings for a while, waving feebly. A strand hangs from the wall, half attached.

Hope that helped. Kitchen science at your service, zephyr. I am perfectly willing to be wrong about any of the above (except the pasta--that the cats and I saw with our own eyes, right?) and guarantee nothing. No statistics here, but I'd be happy if somebody dug up the numbers and shared them.

Meanwhile, I'm going to fetch Susquehanna the dog. She wags her tail for spaghetti.

Good cheer,


  1. Interesting home experiment. My cats would be licking the walls.

  2. Thanks, Robbi. Happy April Fool's.

  3. Love this, Marly!

    The only portion i know a smidgen about is garden publishing. The opportunities to write for magazines has obviously vaporized, since there are fewer mags and competition stiffer (like you point out, more garden writers, too).

    There are far fewer garden books being published, which is a good thing in my opinion. Too much of it had little value, and publishers and editors just didn't get it: you can't produce a garden book that can be useful/helpful to every American. The country is too big and too varied.

    i do think it is icky that editors spend most of their days in business meetings rather than editing and working with authors (again, this is the report from garden and cookbook world). Editors leave because they don't get to work with authors, they way they hoped and dreamed they would.

    It does seem that, for those who can and are willing to do the hard work of marketing one's own work more control is in the individual's hands than before...given the Internet and the ability to weave one's own web.

    The whole issue of supportive editing...yes, sadly gone, except for the fortunate few, it seems.

    Definitely a new world out there, and i have no idea how to find answer to my question...but i suspect the number of individuals who support themselves with their own writing hasn't changed much (in the book publishing world--magazines, forget it).

    i do know that the Internet has made it easier for a fortunate few to make the leap to the top, where publishers and editors nurture and support and market well. The two i am most familiar with are stay at home mothers.

    i think your spaghetti experiment applies to that venue as well: who will be found, let alone embraced by the readership and get noticed and catapulted to the top o' the heap? Who has the best sticking power?? It does seem random. And that it takes something more than talent. The writer's personality has to be embraceable--definitely a new twist on the old model. And it does still seem to require a big dose of luck, not just getting onto everyone's blogroll.

  4. zephyr,

    I have a good many garden books. I find that I don’t mind reading about other zones or ways of gardening but that I do mind reading when a garden book flops over into book lite. A garden writer like Gertrude Jekyll would smack such a writer with her umbrella, I feel certain. Or at least she looks as though she would do so in her pictures!

    Embraceable: shades of Ira and George and Frank... How to be an "embraceable you" when human beings are notoriously bad at seeing how they look in the eyes of others (self-protection, no doubt!)

    Yes, you can achieve by climbing up the net. My neighbor’s daughter has a cooking blog that became popular and is spawning a cookbook.

    But I’m not sure it’s always lovely, enticing personalities that attract us. I can think of some curmudgeonly types who appeal to an audience.

    Is it an “embraceable” personality or simply one that comes through sharply? That is, one that conveys the sense of a living being?

  5. I dont anything about it but I do know that the authors who come and give talks here at our library always sell 40-60 books most of the time.

    I could say that this is Podunk, Alabama but there are a lot of brainiacks that live in Huntsville so maybe its not an average figure.

    The author of this book came and gave an amazing talk and he sold I would say at least 60 books becuas eI was helping him open boxes and each book went for 25 bucks. Thats more than I make in a two week paycheck. I asked him if he had a day job job and he said no, that he was doing that full time now.

  6. Susanna,

    That's good for library sales. I remember being warned before I went to a certain public library that a lot of older people turned out for the food--not that I object to older people (hope to be an old lady some day, barring mishaps!) or to food, but the implication was that they came expressly for the food... And I have found some other libraries that way. You seem to have a nice, active library from what I've seen of your own projects there.

    Fiction or nonfiction? (I know it wasn't poetry!)

    One thing that I think would be helpful for writers is a list of places that are good for readings--where people are coming because they want to hear somebody speak and maybe even take home a book to read.

    Maybe there is one, but I don't know it.

  7. It was a non fiction work about his great great grandparents who were slaves. A fine work. We promoted it by saying saying it was better than Roots and more historical. Here is the link

    We dont have food at our author talks.

    The next one we have is going to AWESOME! We wanted to do a controversial book to bring in the young professional demographic so we chose "Wicked City" for our community wide read. We are calling his author talk "A Wicked night with Ace" and gurl...let me tell you this man is USDA Prime! He is GORGEOUS! These librarians are falling all over themselves to be on the take Ace to a nice dinner group and I have been invited to come and be sociable.

    Here is a taste of how our library promotes writers and boy we really bring in the people.

  8. Lots of curmudgeons have been embraced by a large part of the buying public, in many different platforms. From my perspective, bloggers who succeeded in being their honest clever selves--or adept at creating a persona--are the ones who have been embraced by the public, then a publisher, then the buying public. but there are lots of honest, clever or curmudgeonly bloggers with large followings who don't make the next leap. My use of the term has nothing to do with "niceness" or "huggableness" a la the Gershwins.

    Yes, undoubtedly there are wonderful garden writers that are great reads. Eleanor Perenyi is my favorite. And she could wield an umbrella judiciously, no doubt. And, i wish Diane Ackerman would write more essays. Must search the New Yorker to see what i've missed from her.

  9. Oh dear. Diane has been too busy with life and a new book on a tough experience to be writing about her garden.

  10. Susanna,

    That looks grand--I love to see a library doing a good job! Thanks for sending the link and telling me what you all do. Very interesting.


    Have you read Jamaica Kincaid? Not the novels, the garden books?

    Yes, it is a curious, and it takes us back to the whole issue of luck, doesn't it? Or elements that can't be quite fathomed.

    * * *

    This was hasty, but I must go pick up the little runner-hurdler. Only he has me beat by four inches, so I guess he's not so little any more.

    By! More anon.

  11. yes, i have enjoyed reading Jamaica.

    Running! Hurdling! And, i assume, starving afterward.

  12. zephyr,

    He is off eating steak at the Tunnycliff Inn with Mike. He is incredibly skinny (a good sprawler in wrestling and well able to hurdle) and can eat anything he will, though he doesn't eat as much as I like. Me, I am the only one starving, I hope to good effect! And that's a fib: I had red lentil curry.

    Come back at midnight, if you're awake! I'm putting up something special.

  13. Publishing. Book sales. Earned recognition.
    All I can say is that the whole thing feels like a tightly bound ball of string. When things get too tightly bound (very soon, I would imagine) the string will break and unravel nicely again.
    Poetry is particularly difficult. The future of poetry is in oratory.
    Quite right too! Sounds out into the air.

    Until then, a lean time...

  14. Oratory! You have gilded the oratory, Paul--thanks!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.