Day and night
[ opinion - july 09 ]
For the past year and a half, I've been working on my first novel day and night; well, days mostly. Okay, a couple of hours a day. But that's not the point really. The point is when I started writing the book the publishing industry was doing really well, at least to my knowledge. Novelist friends had book deals and good ones at that. A couple of them were even offered six-figure advances. So I wasn't worried much. Write a good book and you'll be fine, I kept telling myself.
As words began to accumulate on my laptop, the country also plunged into the economic sewers - I was a sewer engineer once, so expect a lot of metaphors related to excretions. It was as if the two were directly proportional. I was well aware of the doom and gloom surrounding words but I ignored it, mainly because I didn't want to believe it. To give it more than a passing thought meant it was really true. Denial is one of my frequently visited headspaces.
I did pretty well for about a year, until one Thursday evening last fall, when a friend and I walked out of our weekly novel writing workshop and I verbalized the fear that had quietly taken root in my head.
'No one's going to want to take a chance on a first time novelist in this economy,' I said on our stroll to the subway.
'I know. I wish I'd finished my work a year or two ago,' she said.
We'd heard that things were bad in publishing. Each day, I read articles on firings of editors, the slashing of lists, struggling booksellers like Borders and Barnes & Nobles and the growing mountain of remainders around the country. The dreaded remainders - books that publishers can't sell anymore and are liquidated at lower prices, often branded with a stroke of a felt tip marker.
In fact, Publishers Weekly predicted 2009 to be the worst year in decades for publishing, one that could lead to fundamental changes in the industry.
'But aren't books recession-proof?' I asked. 'At least that's what they say. I don't know who they are, but I like their thinking.'
That night, after my friend and I parted, I started to think of previous recessions like the Great Depression and wondered how the printed word fared back in the day.
The start of the Great Depression, which was around 1929, coincided with the dip in American publishing. Book sales were down, publishers went bankrupt and profits were little, if any.
Intrigued, I started researching the topic and talking to industry professionals. A friend suggested I speak with George Braziller, founder of George Braziller, Inc, an independent publisher since 1955.
Braziller kindly agreed to meet me in his Manhattan office to tell me about his experience. He started his first job in publishing in 1936, smack in the middle of the slump. He remembers little bookstores that dealt with nothing but remainders: 'on 4th Avenue, [in New York City], you could go and see something called 'book row,' where there was just one bookstore after another carrying overstock or remainders.' Books that typically sold for three dollars were marked down to 25 or 30 cents a copy.
Publishers, desperate for a profit, tried different gimmicks in order to sell. They set up book exhibitions, ran newspaper ads and invented the book token - gift certificates to be used at bookstores in exchange for books. The industry suffered greatly.
Still, books like Gone with the Wind, The Good Earth, Rebecca and The Grapes of Wrath were all bestsellers.
'Theory says that entertainment does well during times of recession, especially more inexpensive kinds of entertainment,' Alex Glass, a literary agent with the Trident Media Group told me.
But, he added, recession does trickle down. So while people still need to get their entertainment, they're going to be buying less expensive books.
I know I do. I buy a lot of books, but I always wait till they're out on paperback. Not only do I find it bothersome to hold a heavy, bulky hardcover in my hand, but also for the money I'd spend on one hardcover, I can get two paperbacks. Kill two books with $25.00 - props for me, this one wasn't sewer related.
In fact, during the 1980's recession, Vintage Contemporaries decided to publish its first original book, Bright Lights, Big City, in quality paperback. The move inspired other houses to put out original novels in this once frowned-upon format. So, instead of producing a book first in hardcover and then in paperback, publishers might opt for trade paperback originals (TPO).
Okay, so my book may only get one life. I'm okay with that. It's better than no life at all. It might even reincarnate through Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader, devices that are finding new readers for publishers, Nat Sobel, a partner and literary agent with Sobel and Webber Associates, a literary agency in business for 35 years, explained to me.
But it's even trickier than finding ways to produce a less pricey book. As I talked to more people, I realized that our world is vastly different than that of the 1930s, 1980s or even the 90s.
Whereas entertainment of those eras for the typical American consisted of radio, film, books, newspapers, magazines and later television, the average Joe of 2009 has his pick of Netflix, televisions outfitted with hundreds of channels, video games, portable music players and the Internet, among others.
My book will be fighting with many other formats for a slice of the entertainment pie.
I also wonder if we need to redefine or at least expand our definition of this thing we call a book. I mean, let's face it, words on paper seem so archaic, especially to the younger generation - those like my nephews who've grown up thinking the Internet was born out of the Big Bang. I guess their teachers haven't told them about Al Gore.
Writers can now post their novels and poems on websites, their own or others'. Some even incorporate voice and multimedia, essentially breathing new life into text.
Consider also, cell phone novels, a Japanese invention - they invent everything it seems, no? Readers download small parts of a novel, around 1,000 words, and read them as text messages on their cell phones or hand-held devices.
This is all great. After all, words are getting around faster and cheaper than ever. Isn't that what all of us writers want? Well, yes. And while I'd be content with this idealistic view if I was still down in the sewers, making a pretty good living - yes, there's money in manholes - I can't afford not to get paid as a full-time writer.
But even I have to come to terms with the fact that things are changing, for me the reader and me the writer. I'm caught in a world of in-betweens, one that I find historically interesting, but personally frightening.
As a reader, my life hasn't changed much. Although I browse articles and short pieces online, I still prefer my novels on paper. What can I say? I'm old fashioned.
As a writer though, my head's littered with question marks. Do I still have a chance at publishing my first novel the traditional way, on paper, in this economy? Can I negotiate a higher advance? What kinds of books are in demand? How do I get an agent's attention?
'I think across the board, publishers are going to be taking fewer chances,' Glass told me when I unloaded these concerns onto him. 'But I still think that a first novelist can provide a publisher with that shot at gold that they're looking for.'
'A first book that's exciting, that has an author that has a certain kind of pedigree, that has a subject matter that gets people excited - that can really catch on and provide a publisher and a readership with the next big franchise or the next big first novel that takes everything by storm.'
Writers who may suffer the most in this economy are those on their second or third books, whose previous books didn't perform as well as their publishers had thought. Instead of a publisher giving that author more time to catch on and to continue nurturing them, publishers are more likely to cut bait when they don't see that the book's working.
So being a first-time author with no track record is actually a good thing.
Whether a first-time novelist can negotiate with a publisher for a higher advance is really dependent on several factors that don't have much to do with the economy. The advance relies on whether a publisher is eager about the idea and the author, and whether more than one publisher is interested.
Can you still land a really big advance in this recession? I asked.
'Absolutely,' Glass told me with an air of optimism. Publishers are still going to get excited about books that they were going to get excited about before.
As far as the types of novels that might sell well, Sobel told me that historical fiction did well during difficult times, like the Depression, as a form of escapist literature. But popularity of a novel or writing style is cyclical. A hot item one day may be forgotten the next.
So writing for a certain market is probably not the best idea. At least that's what I keep telling myself since my book is not of that sub-genre.
At the end of the day, a great idea, an engaging story and wonderful writing will always get the right people's attention, Glass continued. 'I don't think that writers should be doing anything differently than they did before.'
'There are still empty places on publishers' lists for a year down the line, two years down the line, and they have to buy books to put in those slots and whether advances are going to go down a little bit, yeah they probably are.'
I still don't know if my book will be published or not, if spending hundreds of more hours is wise. But I realized that I left my wisdom in the sewers long ago. No matter the advance, the state of economy, the format of the publication, or the audience, there's only one thing I'm sure of and Braziller says it best. 'They can't stop a writer from wanting to write, they'll go on writing no matter what.'