10 March 2009

The Admission Price for Authorship

In last week's The Week, Francis Wilkinson asked, "Is writing for the rich?" Which is to say, does writing pay so poorly in today's economy that the only people who can afford to go into the profession will be independently wealthy?

It’s not obvious how young writers without accommodating, well-to-do parents or a trust from gramps make it these days. Surely they can’t spend a year or two blogging without pay until an audience evolves to nurture them. They’ll starve. Meantime, freelance rates for non-fluff magazine writing have barely risen in the past 15 years. And the chances of getting a job at a quality newspaper or a serious magazine are fast approaching zero.

There are exceptions, I know. There always are. But on the whole, the writing game seems likely to become even more a province of the upper middle class and flat-out wealthy than it is already. The offspring of the affluent, branded college degrees in hand, can afford to give it a go.
I've already been contemplating that prospect in regard to what respected children's-book editor Stephen Roxburgh has been saying about his new editorial service, namelos. He told Cynthia Leitich Smith, "The namelos model shifts the initial financial burden to authors and illustrators. Many will deplore this. We lament it, but see it as inevitable."

If the "namelos model" takes hold in publishing, companies will stop paying for the vetting and editing of books, and instead expect new authors to arrive with their manuscripts already professionally shaped and polished for the market. And unless authors have experience or exceptional instincts about those things, they'll have to pay the right people to provide that guidance.

That's an even higher price than what Wilkinson foresees in the journalism world. A new book author would not only have to have enough money to support herself while writing, but also enough to pay an editor: "the initial financial burden," in Roxburgh's words. As Wilkinson suggests, a larger percentage of the people who could break through those barriers will be wealthy to start with.

We've seen a culture like that before. A hundred years ago, most book writers paid many of their costs of publication. Education was largely confined to the top ranks of society, so more writers (and readers) came from those tiers. There were fewer books published, and they reflected the dominant upper-class.


Anonymous said...

I think a spread of the Namelos model would accelerate the trend towards self-publishing, online publishing, etc, because it takes away a lot of the value of publishing via a publishing house for an author. Assuming more effective methods of marketing and distrubuting via non-traditional publishing houses evolve, which seems likely, then if the publishing houses also aren't editing, shaping, and shepherding books, what are they doing?

J. L. Bell said...

The root of "publishing" is the word "public," and that's the essence of what publishers do—they bring an author's work to the public.

That means paying for a book's production and printing (even if the publishing company pays others to do that work). That means publicizing the work. And that means distributing it to hundreds of retailers.

In the world of digital media, authors and readers can handle the production, printing, and distribution of books. But publicity is becoming an author's biggest challenge. There are more and more authors competing for about the same number of readers.

For most readers and nearly all reviewers, publishers are trusted gatekeepers, vetting work and making sure it meets certain standards. The fact that a large corporation expects a significant number of people will be interested in a book, and is willing to invest money in it, is a valuable sign of its likely appeal.

Anonymous said...

One of my professors at Yale had a saying about the financial viability of being a theater designer:

"You can make a killing, but you can't make a living."

Seems to apply to all sorts of arts professions these days.

The Namelos model sounds ghastly. Given the collapse of brick and mortar bookstores, digital publishing, and now this it's hard to see what service a big publishing house has to offer.

It's the young, beginning writers who often most need a firm hand, a strong voice, to tell them, "no, that doesn't quite work," who are gonna be told to find their own editors. If the writer hold the purse strings over editors, well, it kinda sets up a possible conflict and has the potential to remove some objectivity.

ah well...

J. L. Bell said...

Another apropos story I've heard is a college student telling a professor that he planned to be a writer, and the professor replying, "You'll starve."

"So I'll starve," answers the student. "I'll still be a writer."

"In that case," says the professor, "you will succeed."

Quite possibly a myth, but it reflects how writing has never meant riches for most people.

I think the namelos people are in the same boat, many of them having worked on the literary side of corporate publishing, written, and taught writing for a long time. They're trying to make a living, too, in an industry that may not value their work well.

Gail Gauthier said...

"...it reflects how writing has never meant riches for most people."

I was about to raise that point. Or that question. Isn't the belief that the average writer can make a living writing a recent development of the past quarter century or so? Wasn't the stereotype in the past that most writers had other jobs--teaching, journalism, publishing, selling insurance? It wasn't that they had independent wealth. They worked to support their writing.

Have we been unrealistic in expecting to make a living writing? I wonder if the handful of mega-bestselling authors have raised expectations.