There Are Three Types of People Who Can Afford to Write Books

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Several editors, agents, and authors told me that the money for serious fiction and nonfiction has eroded dramatically in recent years; advances on mid-list titles—books that are expected to sell modestly but whose quality gives them a strong chance of enduring—have declined by a quarter. These are the kinds of book that particularly benefit from the attention of editors and marketers, and that attract gifted people to publishing, despite the pitiful salaries. Without sufficient advances, many writers will not be able to undertake long, difficult, risky projects. Those who do so anyway will have to expend a lot of effort mastering the art of blowing their own horn. “Writing is being outsourced, because the only people who can afford to write books make money elsewhere—academics, rich people, celebrities,” Colin Robinson, a veteran publisher, said. “The real talent, the people who are writers because they happen to be really good at writing—they aren’t going to be able to afford to do it.”

Seven-figure bidding wars still break out over potential blockbusters, even though these battles often turn out to be follies. The quest for publishing profits in an economy of scarcity drives the money toward a few big books. So does the gradual disappearance of book reviewers and knowledgeable booksellers, whose enthusiasm might have rescued a book from drowning in obscurity. When consumers are overwhelmed with choices, some experts argue, they all tend to buy the same well-known thing.

-George Packer, in The New Yorker, on Amazon and the book business. Read more from Packer.

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Photo: chasblackman, Flickr

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  • Sarah Johnson

    This raises the question, how do we literary fiction writers get our books in front of a wider audience. Writers hope for a review in the NYTBR, or attention from Oprah or another celebrity book club, but those options are few and far between for writers of serious fiction. Social media helps, and word of mouth, but with publicity budgets dwindling and resources scant at best, what’s a writer to do?

  • scryberwitch

    It’s also compounded by the lack of paying gigs. The days of magazines publishing seralized novels, or even short stories, are pretty much gone. The digital world – along with many print magazines – usually don’t pay writers, which is a mind-boggling concept (not paying someone to create the actual product you are offering? My head hurts…)
    So between the stratification you outline here, and the drying up of smaller gigs, us non-elite writers are left in a very sad place, and society is the worse for it.