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Why Nothing You Want Is Still in Print…and Other Things.

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Robert wrote me a long e-mail about the state of publishing, and although I don’t want to reproduce the whole thing here, I do want to address some of the points, which happen to be points that keep coming up.

First, as to the old saw that there are only about 200 people who write full time for a living in the US, my guess is that present-day numbers are no larger, and may actually be smaller.  Outside of the movies, what you get paid for writing has actually gone done over the last fifty years, adjusted for inflation.  Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine was paying about five cents a word in the 1950s and it was still paying about five cents a word last time I checked, which was towards the end of the 1980s.  That’s a huge drop in real realized income from stories.

My first advance for a book was $5000.  A former student of mine sold her first novel last week and was offered…$5000.  And it’s been twenty five years.

As for royalties from older books–they come to checks in the double digits, at best.  Until Robert said so, I didn’t even know that Sweet Savage Death was still in print.  It’s been over a decade since I got a statement.

Second, as to the fact that books seem to go out of print faster than they used to–well, they do, and you can thank Ronald Reagan.  It was the Reagan reform of the tax code that changed the way in which publishers were allowed to “count” the unsold books in their warehouses.  Where it had always been the policy that such books were counted as having zero worth until they were sold, the system was changed so that the books had to be counted assets to the full amount the publisher would receive if they were in fact sold.

It used to be a publisher could hold onto hundreds of copies of a book and let them sell slowly over time.  Now, doing that brings a big tax bill, so books are hustled out of the warehouse as soon as possible.  Almost all books these days are remaindered within five years of publication, and as for holding onto copies in case an audience builds slowly–it is no longer financially feasible to do it. 

If you wanted to do a single thing most likely to help publishing in the US, and most likely to help writers, it would be to return publishers to the accounting rules they had before Reagan.

Third, as to proofreaders–well, first, distinguish between proofreaders and copyeditors and regular editors.

Proofreaders check spelling, punctuation and format–that’s it.  And even so, publishing employs fewer of them every year, and the ones it does employ tend to be freelance and temp. 

Copyeditors are the ones charged with making sure the continuity works and doing a last-minute fact check.  It’s actually the editor’s job, but once it gets past his desk, it’s the copyeditor who is supposed to catch the fact that the author has placed the Battle of Gettysburg in July, 1944. 

That said, copyeditors come in good, bad and worse and they can’t know everything.  The worse are the ones who have decided that mysteries are “just” mysteries, so if the author seems to be doing something “literary,” he can’t really be doing that, so we’ll reword the whole passage so that it’s “standard.”  Dealing with one of these people will give you a migraine for a week, and any errors of fact are likely to go uncaught while you argue with her over whether a dream sequence can be written in stream of consciousness when it’s “just a mystery” you’re writing.

But the worst of the worst are the ones who are convinced they know something when they don’t.  It’s Katharine Hepburn, with two As in the first name–and I haven’t gotten that into print yet.  Copyeditors always change it.  Or take the “chaise longue.”  LONGUE.  Not “lounge.”  I’ve almost given up using the term.  I hate the fights.

A legendary editor at Bantam Books once called their copyediting department and declared, “If you’d ever met a Cardinal Archbishop, you’d understand why we capitalize a Cardinal Archbishop.”  This over a manuscript in which the copyeditor had managed to lowercase the Pope.

But you get what you pay for, and publishers are not willing to pay for copyediting and proofreading services. The ‘departments’ usually consist of one person who farms out the work to freelancers, who are badly paid, get no benefits, and haven’t got a hope in hell of landing a full time job with a chance at promotion.

You’re not going to get first rate talent with a deal like that.

As for whether publishers are publishing enough of what people want to read–well, different people want to read different things. Robert likes “continued novels,” and they don’t do anything for me.  If publishers published more of them, Robert would buy more books, but I wouldn’t.

But the numbers problem is far more basic.  There are 300,000,000 people in the US.  That’s twice as many as were here the year I was born, when books sold in higher numbers than they do now.  With 300,000,000 people, it ought to be possible to find ten thousand readers for anything at all.  They’ve got to be out there.

I know that attitude Lymaree was talking about.  I’ve had students like that–you’re not going to get me to read a book, almost as if I’d suggested capital punishment.

And it can’t simply be that they didn’t like what their English teachers assigned in high school.  The offerings were just as restricted–even more so–in the Thirties, and yet more people became lifelong readers. 

Hell, my father wasn’t assigned any novels at all–he got Homer, some patriotic poetry, Shakespeare, and then he was dumped on his own to discover fiction for himself.

He did.

Written by janeh

April 21st, 2009 at 11:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Why Nothing You Want Is Still in Print…and Other Things.'

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  1. And how much time did your Dad spend on the internet? Or watching TV?

    I suspect a lot more people would read if they didn’t have those resources/time sinks.


    21 Apr 09 at 1:00 pm

  2. Silly me: I thought Homer and Shakespeare WERE fiction. And not introducing the kids to novels or short stories might very well work better than driving them through the present selections. (Remember HARVEY? “I never knew anyone by that name. I suppose that’s why I had such high expectations.”)

    My affection for continued novels is limited. I was merely suggesting things publishers might do to stop driving away customers–such as telling a complete story within the lifetime of the reader. The things I’d like them to do as a reader would be a different list.

    Actually, except for two serious works of military history, every book I want is readily available–either in print, POD, or quickly here in a good used copy. (In some cases the age of the paper is a problem.) I have a lot more trouble with movies and TV where some of what I’m after has never been released on DVD. Even there I’ve whittled it down to about three movies and maybe six program/seasons’s worth of TV. I tell my son about the wonders of buying a book with the Single Copy Order Plan in the 1960’s, or running ads in THE ANITQUARIAN BOOKMAN for used books in the 1970’s and I’m not sure he altogether believes me. For the reader, today is infinitely better.
    I too would like to think any good mystery should have 10,000 people willing to pay $30 each for a proper hardcover. Either there really aren’t, in which case I think the education system has to take some of the blame, or there really are, but they’re not hearing about the books. Any suggestions for that one?

    I stand corrected on copyeditor as opposed to proofreader.


    21 Apr 09 at 4:30 pm

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