Monday, November 24, 2008

Hard times for writers, too

A bit of a bombshell exploded in the publishing world today: the venerable house of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has stopped acquiring new manuscripts for an undetermined period. Presumably it will go ahead and publish the new books it already has in its pipeline -- it produces 400 fresh titles a year -- but that'll be all for a while.

For the last few months the publishing industry has been fretting about constantly declining book sales, and, like other retailers, bookstores are expecting a very, very poor holiday harvest this year. It stands to reason that publishers would be forced to cut back the numbers of manuscripts they accept, offer much lower advances against royalties, and print far fewer copies, hoping to sell through a modest first printing rather than having to accept large numbers of returns to be dumped on the remainder market -- or pulped.

"It seems tougher and tougher to make sales," said a literary agent I know. "We've definitely noticed a change since the fall. First, MacAdams/Cage stopped acquiring and now HMH is putting a freeze on their acquisitions as well. That being said, HMH is such a well-established house that we are hopeful that they will bounce back. It seems to us that in these hard economic times, people would want to curl up with a good book."

The cutbacks may be the harbinger of a long, long drought for "midlist" writers, those whose books sell in middling numbers. If other publishers follow suit, writers are going to have to find other jobs, if there are other jobs to find -- or try to live on what remains of their pensions and 401Ks.

It's not going to be easy to win new book contracts with publishers on the basis of a couple of chapters and an outline. More and more authors will have to submit entire manuscripts in order to get their projects considered, and it'll be a brave and dedicated (and maybe foolhardy) writer who'll go to this length. And God help him if his offering is a "niche" book -- most publishers, increasingly ruled by the blockbuster mentality, are likely to take only new works they think will bring large piles of revenue.

This contretemps has been a long time in the making; it's not just collateral damage from the financial crisis. For years more and more new titles have been chasing fewer and fewer readers. Increasingly the printed book, like the printed newspaper, appears to be an obsolete business model whose audience is simultaneously aging and shrinking.

When this mess is over, the publishing world will have changed immensely. Text will still be delivered, but the chief means of delivery is likely to be much less costly than the printed and bound book sold in stores. I'll go out on a not very shaky limb and predict that in five to ten years the majority of books will be sold in electronic form and read on Kindles and their kith. (Right now only about 1 per cent of books appear first in e-book form, but the number tripled this year.)

I'll also predict that there will be far, far fewer authors who can make a living at full-time writing. Already most of us, at least the lucky ones, have day jobs.

How are we going to make it? Maybe we will need a new Federal Writers' Project, the Depression scheme that employed large numbers of starving authors in the 1930s.

Brother, can you spare a dime?


  1. Does this mean we may never see another Steve Martinez book? Oh God I hope not.

  2. As a (former) librarian and generally a book person, this is really a catagory 5 event. I don't WANT to read everything online or on a reader. Get writing so Steve Martinez can be seen in print.

  3. It may be longer than any of us expected before the fourth Steve Martinez novel appears, but I promise you I'll try.

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