|Photograph of spaghetti courtesy of sxc.hu
and Marcin Jochimczyk, Sosnowiec, Slaskie, Poland.
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?
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.
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 clker.com
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.