In preparation for a panel on fiction writing/blogging/the death of the publishing industry/the death of newspaper book reviews that I’m participating in this Saturday, I’m trying to gather as many different perspectives on the current state of the publishing industry as I can. It’s not my bailiwick, but Twitter has been great at pointing me in a few interesting directions (@sarahw, @RonHogan, and @R_Nash being just three of many especially helpful people there worth following). Everybody agrees that the current situation is destructive, but it’s interesting to see the optimism of younger writers with little to lose set against the handwringing of the old guard that’s losing plenty.
In an interview with the Urban Elitist, Tao Lin discusses how he’s successfully financed his forthcoming novel by selling six $2,000 shares in it. Lin is somewhat infamous for his hustling for attention; I haven’t read a word of his fiction, so I have no clue if it’s worth that kind of investment. But going the Tao Lin route, however attention grabbing, still means lots of mac and cheese, at least for a while:
I have had part-time jobs almost continuously since college (I am 25), I think, except for maybe one year when I shoplifted batteries and Moleskine journals to sell on eBay. I stopped working at my last part-time job last August when I sold 60% of the royalties to my next novel, RICHARD YATES (Melville House, 2010), for $12,000. Since then my money (other than the $12,000) has come from selling pre-orders and lifetime subscriptions to books that a press I started called Muumuu House is publishing; Christmas and Chinese New Year’s money from my parents and brother; and selling drawings, drafts of things, and various “piles of shit” from my room on eBay.
Still, he’s hopeful: “I feel that within 2-4 years I will have steady cash flow from royalties from my books, foreign sales of my books, foreign royalties from my books, and other writing-related things,” he writes. Keeping authors going until steady cash flow arrives is also much on the mind of agent Amanda “Binky” Urban, who works with a host of A-list fiction writers. In an interview with Haaretz, Urban—who was in Israel as one of her clients, Haruki Murakami, picked up the Jerusalem Prize—argues that agents like herself, along with major houses, played critical roles in bringing Cormac McCarthy and Richard Ford to wider audiences. Her biggest fear in the midst of the reshaping of the publishing industry is that younger fiction writers no longer get the time to find a foothold:
“So fewer books will be published, and those whom we call midlist writers will no longer get published. The major writers will keep publishing, debut books will always be published, and the ones in the middle will have a problem…. The question is really how you keep authors alive until they break through and garner a large readership. That’s what I stay awake at night and worry about.”
It’s a legitimate concern, especially if a writer doesn’t have the temperament to perform all the duties that a publishing house traditionally has—it’s certainly hard to see the reclusive Cormac McCarthy starting out by going the Tao Lin route. The risk, perhaps, is that the fiction writers who survive this transformation are the ones who do the best job at self-promotion. Even McCarthy now has to give in a little, as he did by appearing on Oprah. Urban explains:
“I told him that before he says no, an Oprah Book Club pick means sales of between 750,000 and 1.2 million copies.” There was a long pause, and McCarthy replied that he knows he owes a lot of people, and maybe he should consider it. She asked him whom he owed, and he replied that he owed her and his publisher (Knopf). “I said, well don’t do that for us, and he said no, I think I should.”