The Writers Craft of Making a Livingby Madeleine Baran
Patricia Geary never meant to be a science fiction writer. But when her editor at Bantam Books got into a personal dispute with the head of the department, she suddenly became one.
After a strange night at the Bantam offices (the details of which are unclear, but began with alcohol and arguing and ended up with the department head locked in a closet), the department head decided to retaliate against Geary’s editor, Geary said. Since Geary had already signed a contract for her book, Strange Toys, the publisher could not simply drop it. Instead, the department head moved the book from the new fiction line to science fiction. Strange Toys, a novel about a girl who creates an imaginary world to deal with her family problems, was definitely not science fiction.
“There were no elves, no gnomes, nothing like that,” Geary told me, laughing, in a recent phone interview from her home in Redlands, California. But in a bizarre twist, the book won the prestigious 1987 Philip K. Dick Award for best original science fiction paperback. Geary was not only an accidental science fiction writer; she was a famous one. After the success of Strange Toys, publishers were only interested in more science fiction. Geary’s previous acclaim as a writer of literary fiction meant nothing. “My career was killed and I was suddenly a science fiction writer to boot,” Geary said.
Geary, now 52, soon gave up trying to get published. “I just said forget it. It was just too hard.”
Geary’s story, however odd, is less surprising that one might think. Given the increasing consolidation of major publishing houses—and the accompanying rise of aggressive and genre specific marketing—becoming a successful author is harder than ever. Veteran mid-list writers who used to be the backbone of major publishers are being rejected in favor of the newest money-making literary fad.
Although publishers now regularly shell out million dollar advances (Yale law professor Stephen Carter recently received $4 million from Knopf for his first two novels), the pressure to have a best-seller is more intense than ever. Young writers are quickly finding it impossible to get published if their first novel did not top the charts. The competition is fierce—this past year, a record was set when 15 debut novels sold more than 100,000 copies each—and there is little room for books that sell a healthy, but altogether unspectacular, number of copies.
Despite the existence of huge conglomerates, book publishing, with annual revenues of around $20 billion, is one of the least profitable industries. Publishers release thousands of books each year, hoping that the success of a few dozen will support the costs of the rest. Books that do not sell well in the first few weeks are taken off the shelves by the bookseller and returned to the publisher to make way for the next best-seller hopeful.
The focus on profit, combined with the rise of mega-stores like Barnes & Noble, has encouraged publishers to focus heavily on a few titles, and reject or ignore everything else. The result? The investment of time, support and editing necessary to cultivate and sustain new talent—the undiscovered Mailers, Kerouacs, and Hemingways of the young generation—has disappeared.
Meanwhile, although romantic notions of a solitary writer scribbling furiously in an unheated attic still persist throughout these changes, authors, like other workers, have to pay their bills.
On a recent afternoon, a small staff at the Author’s Guild offices near Madison Square Park were busy answering calls from some of these troubled writers. The organization, the nation’s oldest and largest professional society of published authors, exists specifically to assist authors with these financial and legal woes. For the guild, authors—like nurses, insurance salesman and Wal-Mart associates—are workers, and poorly paid workers, at that.
In an average month, the guild fields questions from authors about book contracts and copyright issues, lobbies Congress on issues like taxation and electronic rights, and files amicus briefs on behalf of authors (the guild submitted a brief on behalf of Al Franken in his recent lawsuit with Fox News). Membership, which costs $90 per year for most writers, is available to everyone with a book published by a major publisher.
Sitting in the guild’s conference room surrounded by book shelves, John Merchant, director of Web services, paged through a paperback copy of William F. Buckley, Jr.’s Blackford Oakes Reader. He explained that the guild recently helped get the book back in print through a print-on-demand Web site. Through the site, www.backinprint.com, customers can order a copy of an out-of-print book. The company then prints a new copy when the order comes in, eliminating the need for expensive warehouse space, and allowing forgotten works to remain available. The guild added this service in 1999, but even Merchant, who oversees it, is not optimistic. Most of these works, especially fiction, stay forgotten, he said. "If you had a best seller for a couple of weeks in the ’70s, you’re not going to have much luck.”
Even if good writers were also good marketers (a rare find in a literary history populated with writers like the often-destitute Dostoevsky and the reclusive Salinger), they would still face financial difficulties.
According to the guild, authors typically receive 10 to 15 percent of the cover price for hardcover books, eight percent for paperbacks, and six to eight percent for mass market paperbacks (such as those by Tom Clancy and Danielle Steel). Deep discounts given to booksellers can cut this rate by more than half. According to this formula, an author with a hardcover book selling for $24.95 will earn about three dollars for each book sold. However, without a good contract with the publisher, even getting three dollars per book is unlikely.
Anita Fore, director of legal services at the Author’s Guild, has a straightforward voice and a similarly blunt message. During a recent conversation, she expressed a sentiment many readers and writers might find jarring. “Writers are business professionals,” she said. “They really have an obligation to themselves and their career to know as much as they can about the business end of the profession.”
Pressure to sign contracts, unexpected delays, lack of payment, and insufficient marketing are just some of the problems authors routinely face, Fore said. “A book contract is just like a contract for buying a refrigerator. You have to be just as savvy. I think the general public would be pretty surprised that all the books you see in stores are the subject of contracts.”
However, even a good contract typically does not guarantee life-long publicity and marketing throughout the highs and lows of a typical author’s career. For that, many authors are turning to the internet. When the Author’s Guild added Web hosting in 2001, many members jumped at the chance to publicize their work. The Web sites, accessible through the Author’s Guild site, www.authorsguild.org, range from professional to bare bones.
One site lists the author’s employment history: “I have…worked in a natural food store, as a Corrections Officer, a massage therapist, and a construction supervisor, experiences which have all served to deepen my self-understanding and perspective on the human condition (a journey without end).” Another advertises one of the author’s romance novels: “Summer wanted a man with money. Ben wanted a woman who loved him—not his money. From small town Texas to wealthy River Oaks, follow their journey of the heart!” One even includes a monthly meditation: “On a lovely hillside we stop to take in the vista before us: a valley with meadow, wildflowers, bounded by a grove of trees, a blue sky with cotton ball clouds. It is serene here.” In between these eclectic offerings are a few more traditional sites, including those of Stephen King and Scott Turow. After reading through dozens of these sites, the cumulative tone is a mix of Sisyphean despair, hyper-energetic media blitz, and, not infrequently, weirdness.
The Web site of Cynthia Brian, a motivational speaker, writer and former acting coach, definitely belongs in the media blitz category. For Brian, publicity is everything. She constantly appears on television shows, travels on book tours, gives speeches, and updates her Web site. (A photo on her Web site shows Brian sporting a bright pink suit and medium-length blonde hair, in front of a bouquet of red and white flowers.) She recently gave a presentation, “PR Secrets of a Best-Selling Author,” to members of the Author’s Guild. The guild’s web hosting, she said in a bubbly voice during a recent phone interview, “made me feel like I’m a star.”
Brian, who grew up raising chickens to pay for college, became a writer “by accident” when she decided to publish her acting coach advice as The Business of Show Business. The book became a hit through word-of-mouth and is now in its thirteenth edition. Brian then immersed herself in the motivational genre, creating the television show Live Your Dreams, and writing the book Be the Star You Are.
One afternoon, Brian recalled, she was lounging in her hammock when her husband gave her a copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul. On the first page he wrote, “You could have written this book.” Brian took the inscription seriously. “I said to myself, ‘I will write Chicken Soup for the Gardener’s Soul and I will do it in five years.’”
Almost exactly five years later, her dream came true. “Isn’t that something?” she said. “My family teases me about it. They say, ‘From chicken poop to chicken coop to Chicken Soup.’”
For many other writers, however, attempts at self-marketing prove worthless against larger forces at work—corporate mergers, bad contracts and bureaucracy. P.M.H. Atwater, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Near Death Experiences, is all too familiar with these forces. In the late 1980s, a corporate raider took over her publisher, Dodd, Mead, & Co., and forced it into liquidation. The new management demanded that authors buy their rights back or risk having their books go out-of-print forever. Atwater’s first book, Coming Back to Life, had been out for just five months and she and her husband had taken out two major loans to promote it. They had to take out a third loan just to get the rights to the book back.
“It almost bankrupted us,” Atwater said in a recent phone interview, in a tone that could best be described as righteous exasperation. Eventually, the new management gave her around $500, “about enough to buy a computer table,” Atwater said. “I lost everything.”
Atwater’s problems did not end there. In 1999, Three Rivers Press, a small division of Harmony Books, was about to release her book Children of a New Millennium, about the near-death experiences of children. The book already had endorsements and publicity lined up when Random House took over both publishers. “Random House just gobbled them up like they were water,” said Atwater. Immediately, the atmosphere changed. Atwater said she saw an interoffice memo that preached a new philosophy: “From now on, we don’t call them books. We call them products.” And, according to Atwater, the memo said, “We no longer publish anything to do with near-death experiences.”
Random House demanded the book be made into “a splash piece for the new millennium,” Atwater told me, angrily. The focus of the book shifted from near-death experiences to the modern changes in the lives of children. “They just ripped the book apart.” Her agent told her she had two choices: either go along with the changes or return the $20,000 advance money. “[The advance] was all spent, so how could I return it? I was screaming. I was livid. I was enraged that any publisher could do this to an author.” Atwater eventually made the changes and Random Books published the work.
Despite all of this, Atwater continues to publish. She said her upcoming book will provide evidence that the inspiration for Albert Einstein’s e=mc2 came from his near-death experiences and those of his favorite professor. “It’ll be gangbusters,” she predicted. (When asked if Einstein saw the formula during a near-death experience, Atwater said, “Of course not! He just probably got the inspiration for it then. I’m not crazy!”) Atwater hopes the Author’s Guild—she has been a member for about 20 years—will help future writers avoid similar problems. “As the authors get screwed or mistreated, it’s the public that suffers the most,” she said.
Like any other field, poor working conditions may dissuade people from considering a career in writing. For the guild, the message is simple: money matters. Kay Murray knows this first-hand as the Author’s Guild general counsel. Sitting in her sunny office, surrounded by contracts to review, she explained, “If a person were going to make nothing, what are the odds that they would have done this instead of something else? How could they live? How could they feed their families?” By providing practical advice, the guild hopes both to improve the working conditions of current writers and attract more people to the field.
Although few would argue that writers do not deserve to be well-compensated for their efforts, many readers and writers continue to resist the idea of the writer, especially a fiction writer, as a worker. A writer, many believe, has to write, just like Leonardo Da Vinci had to paint or Auguste Rodin had to sculpt. Art, many argue, should not be sullied by concerns over wages or marketing.
“When I was young, things were different,” Kathrin Perutz, award-winning literary fiction writer and best-selling ghost writer, told me over coffee in her cozy apartment near Union Square. “You wrote and you did whatever you had to do to keep alive. You got married, bar-tended, engaged in crimes. I don’t think you thought in terms of getting money. You just wrote.”
Perutz, a tall attractive woman with short curly hair, uncurled herself from her chair, and walked over to her bookshelf. “I keep a copy of all my books here,” she said, gesturing towards a body of work which includes both award-winning literary fiction and ghost-writing (including a best-selling paperback about the rivalry of two sisters over control of a perfume empire).
Although all her books are mixed together on the shelves, Perutz mentally separates her ghost writing (“there were these lurid, horrible plots that I couldn’t stand”) from her literary fiction. The ghost writing, she said, “had absolutely nothing to do with art. It sounds so pretentious to say that, but it’s true.”
For Perutz, literary writing was its own reward. “It had nothing to do with money,” she said. “I don’t think it ever can somehow. It was a great joy to do it. It shaped the world for me. When you write something and it sings, it hits it, that’s a deep satisfaction.”
Perutz’s path to success—a stunning debut followed by a long career of less commercially recognized work—is quickly becoming extinct. Publishers are loath to invest money just for the sake of supporting good books. The mantra at most major publishing houses is brutally simple: Make money.
Oddly, at the same time money-hungry publishing houses only accept a small number of books, and only promote a miniscule percentage of them, more and more people consider themselves writers. From journal entries to blogs to Oprah-styled memoirs, everyone, it seems, has a story to tell. For some, this is a positive development. “I think there’s a book in everyone,” according to Brian, the self-help writer. Others are skeptical. “Nowadays, people tell me ‘I’m an author because I sit down and write a poem,’” said Perutz. “And I’m a doctor because I use a Band-Aid.”
While the Author’s Guild continues to fight for the rights of authors working within mainstream publishing, a parallel movement is picking up momentum. Independent publishers are springing up all across the country to publish the works of these newfound writers, aided by increasingly affordable printing and graphic design. Most of these publishers are unable to pay their writers much, if anything, but for many writers, getting published is the only goal. But, despite their popularity, many older writers are skeptical, arguing that small publishers cannot provide the constant support necessary to sustain a literary career.
Geary, the accidental science fiction writer, takes a positive few of small publishers—and with good reason. Almost fifteen years after she had withdrawn from the publishing world, she was approached by the small publisher Gorsky Press. Upon discovering that Geary had written six novels since then, the press quickly agreed to publish one. Geary was elated. “There’s no agent,” she said. “There’s no bullshit.” Geary decided not to accept any money. “I’m just delighted that someone wants to put out my book.” Gorsky Press is currently in the process of releasing all of Geary’s novels in one volume.
In the meantime, the Author’s Guild continues to assist writers working with mainstream publishers. The guild recently filed a lawsuit against five corporations operating electronic database services, accusing them of copyright infringement of thousands of freelance articles. The plaintiffs include titans like Reed Elsevier, publisher of the LexisNexis database, and the Thomson Corporation, publisher of the Westlaw database commonly used by lawyers and law students. The suit, filed on behalf of more than 15,000 freelance authors, seeks an end to the practice of publishing freelance articles electronically without the approval of the writer, as well as damages for past copyright infringement. The suit has just entered court-ordered mediation.
Although the guild periodically takes on massive lawsuits like this one, most of their work remains behind-the-scenes, helping authors navigate the difficult world of publishing. According to Kay Murray, the guild’s general counsel, “There’s always going to be the need for an organization to look out for the business interests of writers. There’s no lack of work.” Despite the steady stream of requests for help, the guild remains optimistic about the future of writing—and writers. “We do this so that people can have a library,” added Murray, smiling. She then glanced over at her computer and said, “Now I need to get back to work.”
MADELEINE BARAN is a writer based in Brooklyn.