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August 23, 2006

Books and Sales

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards -

I just had one of those conversations with one of those people. You know the type. An intelligent, friendly person. A pleasant vibe. And then, whammo, the moment comes -- the moment when you discover that, so far as books and book publishing are concerned, this otherwise sensible person is completely out of his mind.

Why is that so many down-to-earth people turn into delusional space cadets when the topic is books and book publishing? After all, they know from their own experience how the world works. Yet, magically, where book publishing is concerned, none of these how-the-world-works rules is supposed to apply. These people are OK with -- or at least not surprised by -- the way that politics, egos, money, ambition, and luck play important roles in life and business. Yet, magically, in book publishing, genius and worthiness always rise to the top.

You can inform these people that, in the U.S., no more than a couple of hundred writers of trade books make a living writing books. You can let them know that the book publishing business generates somewhere between 50,0000 and 200,000 new titles every year. Dents are not made.

(By the way, here's a fun mind experiment. Let's say you're a real new-books buff. You follow reviews, magazines, and bookstores. In a given year, you might be aware of a couple of hundred of new titles, right? If you're a real enthusiast, you might even read 50 or 100 new books. That means, in a busy publishing year, you're aware of 0.1% of the new books published that year. I take this as reason to be a little skeptical of anyone who makes pronouncements about such-and-such being the "best new book of the year.")

The particular delusion that possessed the specific otherwise-sensible person I talked to the other day had to do with sales. To be honest, I wasn't entirely sure what it was. I don't think I can nail it down once and for all. For a minute, it seemed as though this person felt that an author shouldn't have to "sell" his book in any sense. At another point, I had the impression that this person felt that sales play no role in the "literary" process. (Or was it that they should play no such role?) At yet another moment, this person seemed to hold the strong opinion that an author's role is (or should?) be done when he finishes typing.

It was hard to tell specifically what the dream was that this person was clinging to. The only thing that was really clear was that this person felt that "sales" (as in the act of selling) and book publishing should have nothing to do with each other, and that to the degree that "sales" enters into book publishing, that's too damn bad, and perhaps even worthy of grief and/or moral censure.

Look: The business of books and book publishing is a business. It's an unusual business in some ways. Most of its products are unique, for one thing. For another, the business is crawling with former English majors. All that said, book publishing is still a business, and sales and selling happen at many, many levels and steps along the way.

Think of how an idea or project wends its way to fruition through your own field. It isn't so different in book publishing. To illustrate, let's imagine an author ... a book ... Here are a few of the steps in the process of that book getting published at which "selling" takes place:

  • In one way or another, the author has to sell his project to an agent.

  • The agent has to sell the project to an editor at a publishing house.

  • The editor has to sell the project to his/her boss.

  • During the year or more that the book is in process at the editing house, the book's editor has to continue making the book seem important and/or exciting to his colleagues.

  • As publication approaches, the editor has to sell the book to the company's publicity department and sales force, at least if he wants them to push the book with any real oomph.

  • The sales force has to sell the book to retailers.

  • The publicity people have to sell the book to media outlets.

  • Retailers (aka bookstores) have to sell the book to the public.

  • Media-outlet types have to sell the idea of giving the book some coverage to their media bosses.

I'm no doubt overlooking additional steps. Input and enlightenment are, as always, appreciated.

What I'm describing isn't -- to my mind, anyway -- good or bad, it's simply some of what the process of publishing a book professionally involves. What perplexes me a little bit is this question: Why do these basic facts not just surprise but horrify so many people? It seems to have to do with books themselves. Something about books makes many people go a little gaga. Where movies are concerned -- well, most people would simply expect sex, egos, politics, and money to play big roles in the process. Gallery art? I don't imagine that a lot of people would have too much trouble with the idea that personalities, connections, fads, and charisma play some role in that process.

I do remember my own shock, a zillion years ago, when I first started witnessing the book-publishing process. Horreurs! My English teachers never told me about this! But I reacted very differently than many people do. I gave up the dreams and delusions, and did my best to learn what the book-publishing life is really like. Given how silly I can be in many ways, and given that I'm no smarter than anyone else, I find myself wondering if perhaps the reason why I was able to abandon the naivete and move on is that I was simply never as attached to the dream of books (wealth, fame, literature, whatever) as many people are.

Or perhaps the explanation is simpler and more personal. I'm the son of a salesman, after all; I have a lot of respect for the craft of sales. If something has been created, it's my view that this created thing doesn't really exist until potentially interested people know of its existence. So go sell that sucker! Make people aware of it! I feel no shyness, shame, or moral ickiness at all about doing a little publicity. Which may mean that I'm simply less convinced than many people are that "selling" and "sales" are bad things, let alone that their presence automatically sullies a field.

People will have their fantasies, I guess. One of which seems to be that becoming a published book-author will 1) change their lives for the better, and 2) be something like being accepted into a long-aspired-to club. You'll be loved and taken care of; your talents and efforts will be rewarded and appreciated; your work, if not your soul itself, will take their immortal place on the lit-history bookshelves.

But perhaps books and book-publishing depend on the dreams and delusions of the field's fans and aspirants ...

An editor at the publishing house Tor describes some other hard book-publishing realities. I wrote a posting here about what writing a book often, in reality, turns out to be like. Real-live professional author Steve Bodio shared some experiences and observations with us here.



posted by Michael at August 23, 2006


When you say "a couple of hundred"-- and I hear that in England, it's a couple of dozen-- are making a living, are you talking about just fiction, or non-fiction as well? Don't nonfiction books face better odds? Especially useful nonfiction?

I have a couple of (I hope useful) reference book ideas and I'm finding the prospect of writing the proposal much more frightening than that of doing the books themselves. I'm going over to a friends place Wednesday where she promises to stand over me with a whip, or equivalent threat, until I get one of them started. But now you add this Charybdis to her Scylla...

Posted by: Reg C├Žsar on August 23, 2006 2:36 AM

Fabulous write-up. What? Even on vacation your mind is a tumbler of ideas and reaction. Keep those synapses electric. was rather depressing to read, that even though I assumed the book industry worked that way, how tedious and mundane and nasty it truly is. When I buy a new book or even a used one, I always crack it open and stick my nose in. I want to smell the ideas, inhale the words. Now I'll be having second thoughts about what that smell really is.
Just more regular everyday corporate greed.
Say it ain't so, Michael!

Posted by: DarkoV on August 23, 2006 8:11 AM

Book publishing? A usefully applicable phrase appears in the so-called Good Book: "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity"
Would-be novelists authors should bear it in mind. I mean, is their achronologically structured story about love, pain, and a shattering secret that has remained hidden for ninety years and will unite a high-school teacher in modern day Chicago with a victim of the Armenian genocide in a sublime act of redemption really that interesting and profound? Chances are it isn't.

Posted by: stephenesque on August 23, 2006 9:08 AM

Creative? Wanna get noticed? More people have seen this than have read most best selling novels. Depressing? Maybe, but hey, we're a busy species.

Posted by: alanww on August 23, 2006 10:11 AM

I read a charming little book last year about the publishing business: So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance. The author celebrates the diversity of current publications and focuses on the best means of uniting each book with its ideal readers. He also talks about the point Michael B. mentions, that many more people seem to want to write books than to read them.

My favorite quote:

Those who aspire to the status of cultured individuals visit the bookstore with trepidation, overwhelmed by the immensity of all they have not read...In contrast, the truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or their desire for more.
I bet that many (most?) Blowhard readers fall into the latter catagory, at least spiritually if not literally.

Posted by: CyndiF on August 23, 2006 10:29 AM

"Just more regular everyday corporate greed."

From the tone I'm guessing you consider that a bad thing. Absent the opportunity for a profit, why, exactly, would anyone risk $10K+ (often $10K++)in printer bills alone to print a book and distribute it to book stores?

I mean, I'm sure ideological purity has some value to someone, but it doesn't usually do much to pay for groceries.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on August 23, 2006 10:35 AM

Attachment. I think the Buddha had a few things to say about how that usually goes for people...

Posted by: communicatrix on August 23, 2006 10:58 AM

As one of the victims of the delusion you describe, I will say that my own investigations reveal a world far more complex. What you see applies to the back East publishing world, which as nearly as I can tell has been about destroyed by television, computers, narrowness and lack of readers. Publishing companies are falling about as hard and frequently as independent booksellers, and for similar reasons. This makes some of them pretty mean. They will rip off writers as much as they can and develop considerable contempt over how easy it is.

And others have taken refuge in the academic presses where Algerian insurgent philosophy has seriously skewed what is considered valuable. Universities are all about math and science these days and their presses (like their theatre and music) are down to chickenfeed, so that their employees are mostly "chicks," screwups and bitter old-timers trying to make it to retirement. The technical part is now so easy (if you understand computers) that there is no elegant design involved -- no fine paper and leather bindings.

Then there are the ground squirrels, hip-pocket presses that put out stuff around a theme. They're all over the West. No one makes a living with them. The writing varies radically. They might not be sold a hundred miles from home. But again the technology is a great equalizer, as is Google, Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

As for great writers who make a living that way, Ivan Doig said that it took five briskly selling books to provide a living -- that took him maybe ten or twenty years during which his wife supported them. Now he's made enough to build a new house, but the real truth is that for most artists there is a ten-year arc in which skills match subject matter and the books are worthy. The rest is lead-up and let-down. And Ivan has spent his entire life at a desk, ruining his eyes.

The good thing about the dream of writing a significant book is that it keeps your butt in the chair, no matter the outcome, which is ALWAYS a gamble. But now, like Walt Whitman, at least one can publish or perish without ANY publisher.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on August 23, 2006 11:19 AM

I came back to say a word more about academic publishing. Consider the predicament of the poor professor: his progress is totally dependent on whether he gets published. And he doesn't just have to get fished out of the slush pile, his manuscript is read by other "experts" in the field, who are protected with anonymity and chosen by the press which may know nothing of the field or depend upon a few pet experts they like. Often these "objective" readers are in direct competition with the writer of the material being proposed.

My entitling example is my D.Min. thesis (Doctor of Ministry) which had to pass a panel of three experts. It was on a theory of worship. One expert was still touting a theory from sociology, very popular fifty years ago. One expert was adamant that only HIS theory (that all worship patterns come from Anglican vespers) was worth consideration. The third expert had a specialty in poetics and was totally lost. I settled for a Master of Divinity, which is the standard professional degree anyway, and got the hell outa there.

Now I will write and publish this work myself. Maybe no one will read it, but how many D.Min. theseses have YOU read? Maybe I won't get tenure from it, or a job, but I don't need those things now.

However, I WOULD like to be a member of the Western Writers of America, which is supposed to accept membership only from those who have published with a publisher and I WOULD like to be a member of the Author's Guild (if only for the dental insurance) and that is also contingent on having had a book published by a "real" publisher. Publishing somehow became the measure of quality. I think we need a new measure -- BADLY.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on August 23, 2006 11:48 AM

Michael: I am a newbie and a wanna-be in the Writing World, but I have in fact two small books in print with an honest-to-goodness-publisher. Neither deal required an agent (unless that was me), but as you note above, both books required a LOT of selling. They still do.

Needless to say I am not among the lucky several hundred US authors living off their proceeds. My total income from book sales is less than $800 a year.

But why let that get me down? Publishing may be a business, but WRITING... That's a pleasure and an art; a craft, a journey, a discipline, maybe a responsibility. Or whatever. If sales drove the author, few would keep writing.

I have a sideline of business writing and web design, and I have a day job doing much the same. These bring in my steady income and enough to live on, plus the opportunity (rarely taken or uttered) to call myself a "working writer."

I'm in this thing for the long haul. I hope to get better at my craft, but I don't expect anyone but myself and maybe a few friends and family to notice that. I'd like to write a popular book someday and moreover, a good book. I suspect that my best chance of that, given middling talent and little free time, is just plugging away at it. I would encourage everyone in this boat (large boat!) to do the same. Enjoy the ride. :-)

Posted by: Matthew Mullenix on August 23, 2006 2:57 PM

Reg -- Great to hear about your idea for a reference book. Reference books are actually one of the genres that commercial book publishing does best these days. As for how many book-writers make a living at it ... Yeah, my 200 figure includes nonfiction writers, most of whom either support themselves (as profs, of consultants, or speakers, or whatever -- the books are just part of the ongoing thang ...) It doesn't include technical writers, whose field I know very little about. And it's a very unofficial figure -- just a guesstimate by a guy who runs a writers' organization. But it's fascinating. Probably 98% of the people who authored the new books published last year don't make a living at it. I can't imagine there are too many fields where so many of the people who supply the product don't earn a living at it.

DarkoV -- I actually don't find the conditions I describe depressing or evil. I kind of enjoy the commercial-publishing scene and game, honestly. I don't wish it were more genteel and idealistic, I wish it were more rough and tumble, and more exploitative or at least more opportunistic than it is. But I guess that makes me a rare book fan...

Stephenesque -- I think I've read the book youi're describing! Several times!

AlanWW -- That's a mighty big viewership for a little video clip, isn't it?

CyndiF -- Glad to hear it's a good book, I was curious about it. Sensible disucssions of book publishing are few and far between.

Doug -- I wish more book authors understood more clearly the kinds of financial risks that publishers are taking on when they publish them, don't you?

Communicatrix -- Attachment's a big one. But what to do about it?

P. Mary -- Dental insurance is important! There are real advantages to becoming a professionally-published writer. Some people take you more seriously, you might be able to sit on panels and gets appointments places,etc. And you can land dental insurance too.

Matt -- That's really well-put as well as a healthy attitude the rest of us can learn from. I'd actually like to see more people publish their thoughs and works and words. But I'd like to see more of them have a little more honest info about the experience, and a little more sensible attitude towards publishign than many of them do. There's a range of ways to publish: self-publishing, academic, commercial .. Blogging is a form of publishing -- I've had more fun and far more readers in the last few years than most book authors. So I'd love to see more people open up to what's possible publishingwise, and ask themselves which kind of publishing really makes the most sense for themselves and their project. Sounds like you've got all that in really good perspective.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 23, 2006 4:20 PM

There's no way to prove this, but my guess is that a narrower band of humanity sell well than write well. The combination of hard slog and likeability (or self-confidence) that go into making a first rate salesman is rather rare. That accounts for how well paid effective salesmen are.
So it doesn't surprise me at all that most who are willing to go through the hard - but private - slog of writing a book are intimidated by the prospect of having to go out and sell it (which means selling themselves).

Posted by: ricpic on August 23, 2006 7:39 PM

Actually, I think the average person would have delusions about a lot of things he or she has never experienced. For example, if I grabbed the first person off the street, chances are, he wouldn't know the first thing about publishing. He wouldn't know what it is like to work in a laboratory either. Or what life is like in Bora Bora. Even I don't really know what life is like in Bora Bora. I have this grand delusion that it's mostly sitting in the tropical sun and drinking pina coladas. It could be the island equivalent of cubical hell for all I know.

Posted by: sya on August 23, 2006 11:52 PM

Dr. Johnson was, as always, right, when he observed "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money".

Posted by: Brian on August 24, 2006 3:32 AM

Most people have grand delusions that other fields, other companies, other people must be better than what they're dealing with right now. At my current employer, the turnover isn't so high, so everyone here has been here a while. When we discuss how things work within the company they describe how it's just "the company's way". What they don't grok is how it's EVERY company's way. I was a consultant for 10 years prior to coming here, and worked at every major company in pretty much every industry in the area. I've seen how they all operate. Every company and industry is filled to the brim with stupid, irrational people. None is any different or better than any other.

As an aside, this is one of the primary reasons I don't believe in conspiracy theories. Having never been anywhere where more than 8-10% of the populace could hold it together, it never ceases to amaze me how people believe an organization as big as our government could find enough people to cover anything up, let alone anything as big as UFOs or even Bush plotting the 9/11 attacks himself. Heck, I don't even hold any malice towards Microsoft, as I know they're just another company. They're not evil, they're just stupid. Just like everyone else.

Posted by: Spoonman on August 24, 2006 8:34 AM

From the publishing side, it all makes sense. From authors I've heard that the money in writing is from teaching jobs and lecture fees, which means that people like Pynchon who don't want to lecture or teach are out of luck. He hasn't let it stop him, but despite his cult following I don't think he makes a living off writing yet.

The message I get is just that the market does not support writing. Writing requires support from family money, wives with money, government money, church money, culture society money, rich sponsors, or a day job, and the authors often have to put up with poverty anyway. No wonder they're pissed off all the time.

A lot of writers and artists are successful only after their deaths. Van Gogh and Musorgsky (opera composer) never earned enough to live on from their art, but by now hundreds of people have made their livings off each of them, and Van Gogh's paintings are worth over a billion dollars all told (a single one has sold for $50 million plus, though of course museums do have ways of inflating prices). So it's a time lag factor -- and ironically, copyright can run out before sales pick up.

To me, this is an example of something that the market can't do -- support the few artists who will last. Other things that the market can't do include motivate people to raise children (children are always big money-losers) and motivate soldiers to die and kill. We have a sort of fiction of a market system with the volunteer army, but a lot of present-day soldiers are still motivated by non-market considerations -- patriotism, macho, etc. -- and a lot of people go into the service gambling that they'll never have to fight, which leads to difficulties when the fighting actually happens.

Posted by: John Emerson on August 24, 2006 9:31 AM

Theoretically internet self-publishing can cut out the middleman. The author promotes his own book and sells it much more cheaply than a dead-tree publisher could, while still making more than the royalty would be. The buyer reads it online or prints it off himself.

I haven't seen big successes, though. On the internet it's hard to escape the "why buy the cow if the milk is free?" problem, and internet publicity isn't easier than other publicity. I've seen some dead-tree books promoted successfully on the internet, though.

Posted by: John Emerson on August 24, 2006 9:36 AM

Ricpic -- That seems like a plausible theory, as well as a helpful one. It helps explain why so many people have such a lot of messy feelings where "sales" and "selling" are concerned. They don't like it, it makes them uncomfortable, so (to one extent or another) they resent it and denounce it. Hmmm. Very interesting ...

SYA -- It's a good point that delusions abound. What piques me about the topic here is the peculiar kind of delusions that book-publishing seems to evoke in people.

Brian -- We're all blockheads out here in blog-ville, that's for sure!

Spoonman -- I like your 8-10% rule! The miracle sometimes seems to be that people are able to get together and accomplish anything large-scale at all.

John -- Most (as in 99 out of 100 published) writers make their real money from other activities, some of which may or may not be related to their writing projects. It's possible in some cases to translate being a published writer into money-making other activities -- teaching, working for arty nonprofits, speaking, coaching, etc. but many writers of course just have plain ol' job-jobs. I think internet self-publishing is a much bigger deal than you seem to, but that may be because I see blogging and web-place-making as publishing, and I'd argue that it's a mistake to get too hung up about the "book" thing. A book (in my view) is just a container for a certain kind of content, and it's of a very particular (and weird) size.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 24, 2006 12:12 PM

If your ambition is to write literary fiction, you better get yourself an MFA. Without one (and the connections you make along the way) your masterpiece has a Chinaman's chance. Regarding delusions -- I read an interview with a young published writer (who got his MFA at Iowa and who now teaches in a creative writing program), who stated that he truly believed that all good work will make it into print. Sure it will -- since the literary world is run solely on the basis of quality, unlike the corporate world or the world of politics.

Posted by: Paul on August 24, 2006 1:59 PM

You are so right. Writing is easy compared to selling, but no writer past the diary stage can skip the selling. My father was in advertising, which gave me some background to become a tireless self-promoter.

Yesterday, I deposited my first royalty check. So far, in five years as an author, I've earned the equivalent of five weeks' pay in my old job. (I've made some money freelancing magazine stories and writing for a foundation, but that's tough too.) I used to advise aspiring freelance writers: Marry someone with a steady job and health insurance. Very belatedly, I've taken my own excellent advice. Yesterday, I used my new health-insurance card twice. Great feeling.

My new husband writes engineering textbooks and makes real money doing it, but globalization is taking a lot of the profits out of technical textbooks. Basically, you sell a $10 Indian edition and find it's resold online for $30, undercutting your $110 American edition. If you don't do a cheap Indian edition, your book will be pirated. John thinks the answer is to sell his book for less in the U.S. and Europe and more in India and China, so the gap isn't so great. If he can't get his publisher to do something like this, he'll stop writing books and stick to engineering.

Posted by: Joanne Jacobs on August 24, 2006 2:59 PM

I'm not down on web-based self-publishing at all, but I don't know how well it's worked so far in terms of either a.) earning authors a bit more money, or b.) getting a large audience for longer pieces of writing. My stuff tends to be in the 1000-2000 word range, which makes it short for print writing but long for web writing.

I've pretty much put all my chips on internet self-publication, but my audience is small and the material rewards none. (Obviously, it could just be me).

For me it's a great alternative to writing stuff and sticking it in a drawer for someone to find (or not) after you die. A surprising amount of stuff we read now is in that category.

Posted by: John Emerson on August 24, 2006 4:03 PM

Once again Kierkegaardian either/or thinking misleads people who could better think in terms of the Bibfeltian both/and! (Bibfelt is a mythical theologian who has achieved an impressive body of work, including a published feschrift. Think about THAT!)

More seriously, I don't see epublishing or print-on-demand as an exclusive and excluding category that rules out paper. What I'm seeing in the market (which admittedly I only monitor through online automatically publishing newsletters) is that someone writes a book, a small press publishes it, and then a big press hears the rumble and buys it out. This is especially true when all the editing, permissions, layouts, etc. are pretty good and all the book needs is (maybe) a new cover to announce the new publisher, who is risking very little. (Be sure your contract addresses this. Re-packaging.)

Long before "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" or "I'm OK, You're OK" became formal books, they circulated in backpacks as xeroxed manuscripts. "Here, you've got to READ this! It CHANGED MY LIFE!" and a friend breathlessly pressed it into your hands. Finally someone got smart and made a lot of money off them each.

Now we send URL's of deeply loved stories or articles around but the printouts get ragged and lost or pages separated -- it would really be a pleasure to have a nice bound version. And someone is missing a bet not to provide that service. Others have NOT missed the bet.

I'd be curious how many of the business box stores are asked to bind manuscripts into books -- they do it all the time for business reports. iPhoto will make a bound album of your vacation photos -- why not really SERIOUS photos with essays.

I suspect will work the best for people who have a defined audience (like animal control people or Blackfeet) who really want information. This is my operating principle right now.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on August 24, 2006 6:37 PM

Talking about publishing without acknowledging the role of sales and selling is like talking about horseracing without acknowledging the role of betting.

Posted by: grandcosmo on August 24, 2006 8:32 PM

John Emerson,

Actually, Van Gogh's work is worth many billions. Same with many other dead artists. But I would caution that there are probably a lot more painters making a living at selling their work and reproductions of their work than writers. Illustrators, animators, fine artists, designers, etc. I think visual culture has always been important, and now even more so. For one thing, you can invest a lot less tiime in reading a painting than a book. Also, for paintings the original work is a handmade object and can hold its value over time. In other words, if its a good painting its primary value is as a store of monetary value. Books aren't like that.

I think self-publishing has a chance on the internet if its done right. Michael made statement above that seems appropriate, when he talks about blogs. The one great thing about them is that they come in regular installments/postings. You'll recognize that a lot of popular fiction in the past travelled this route. It may do so again. The key is to get advertisers to a site, so you can make money, because no one wants to pay for content. It would also help weed out the intellectual pets and poseurs of the elite, as no one wants to read their crap anyway, even in small chunks.

Posted by: btm on August 24, 2006 9:12 PM

This would be a good time to mention another Tor editor's famous post, Slushkiller.

Most people, I think, have no idea about just how bad many unsolicited manuscripts are.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on August 25, 2006 6:59 AM

The one great thing about them [blogs] is that they come in regular installments/postings.

Score one against my blog, because mine doesn't. I've been on the scene for 4+ years, and I have a pretty good idea what works on the internet by now, but unfortunately it isn't what I do. I'm really a magazine writer without a magazine.

I'm long-run very optimistic about e-publishing, but at the personal, nuts-and-bolts, this-lifetime level, there's a lot of stuff still to be worked out.

The most successful blogs seem to make their $$ on merch -- coffee cups, Tshirts, etc. There's something about concreteness -- unique time-and-place, unique physical objects that you can hold in your hand. Concerts make money by trapping you in a place and selling you overpriced food, for example. But it's sort of the essence of literature to be diffused without regard for time and place. For most purposes a printed book is superior to a handwritten manuscript, and a computer printout almost as good as a printed book, but and actual physical Van Gogh has a lot of texture etc. that a glossy print doesn't convey.

Posted by: John Emerson on August 25, 2006 7:05 AM

I wonder if the "rarefied writer" illusion isn't fostered by the actual experience of reading. In most cases, reading is about as private an experience as you can have - just you and the book (computer, whatever), silently shutting out everyone else around you. If the written material is engaging enough, it actually prompts a semi-mystical experience by transporting the reader from the immediate physical environment to one that's being created in the thin air of his or her head. Surely these words were "inspired", and have thus magically found their way into the world at large and my hands, specifically.

I also think this is an image the publishing world works hard at fostering. I'm thinking of Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, and the incredible transformation that occurred in his author photo when it went from hardcover to trade paperback. In HC, CF barely made an appearance, what with his bedraggled mop of hair hiding most of what looked like a slightly-pouchy-from-a-hangover face. The profile said CF had a horse farm in the mountains of North Carolina. The TP profile didn't change, but boy-howdy, we sure got a new picture! The hair had been carefully coifed to reveal a grey-bearded gent with rugged good looks - a horse-whispering heart-throb, whose isolation remained intact.

I suspect the isolation factor works well for publishers, both from a sales perspective as well as from a submissions perspective. How much larger would the slush-pile be if people realized just how unrarefied and attainable the author's life really is?

Posted by: Whisky Prajer on August 25, 2006 12:33 PM

While some people no doubt want to become a published author in order to get rich or get laid, I suspect a bigger, if not entirely conscious motive is that by being published one hopes to attain immortality. After all, in every community you can see libraries, established and maintained at public expense, where the work of otherwise dead people is preserved and available for appreciation. You might be the greatest salesman or surgeon in the world, but your odds of being forgotten 5 minutes after your death are far higher than someone who managed to get their works placed on the shelves of thousands of libraries.

Even in a contemporary materialistic culture such as our own money isn't fact, I doubt if it, at root, is close to being the main thing.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 25, 2006 5:19 PM

Friedrich, your comment sounds true to me, though I began not with making myself immortal but making my ex-husband (what a dopey term!) immortal -- at first at his request, then as my obsession, though I had to wait for him to die for me to write honestly about him. (I'm 67, he would be 92 if he were alive.) He wanted the things that would make him immortal (mostly his flaws) to be eliminated. I don't much care about immortality myself. I think it's overrated.

I wonder if some readers rather prefer their authors to be dead so they can feel confident that they are dealing something that won't change or bite them. With the internet, the biting part becomes quite real, since authors Google for critics!

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on August 26, 2006 11:07 AM

Re: people who have utterly unrealistic expectations of the book industry or feel it should be less sales driven:

The reality is that every job requires sales (either selling oneself or selling one's product). Unfortunately, a large number of people aren't good at that. Isn't it suprising that these people dream of a milieu where their weakness doesn't condemn them to failure? That they have hopes that there might be some industry in which quality means something?

Maybe it might be more sensible for them to write themselves off completely, but it's human nature to believe that somewhere there is a world in which one can be rewarded for what one actually is or does, rather than how capable one is at persuading others.

Life makes mockery of people who can't sell in both the professional and personal arena. Is it any wonder that those who are not salesman by their very nature attack back at this perceived unfairness by berating it as crass and unworthy?

Michael, I'm not certain what the point is trying to crush the precious dreams that people build for themselves. Most will never complete that novel, and so their beliefs can remain untarnished by reality. The vast majority of the remaining that complete their novel wll have it rejected. A disappointment, but not the end of the world, and not the end of the dream of a sales-less world. For the trickle that started with that dream and somehow get published, they will learn soon enough.

Why step on those fantasies any earlier than necessary? They may denigrate your forte, but surely you have all of reality to reassure you of the correctness of your position.

Posted by: Tom West on August 30, 2006 8:03 AM

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