I’m not sure how many of my readers have noticed the massive realignment going on right now at the foundations of the industrial economy. Venture below the towering abstractions of notional wealth that fill business websites, all the way to the base, and you’ll find that the whole gargantuan structure rests on certain relationships between individuals and the economy. Most people in the industrial world participate in economic activities in two ways: selling their time and labor to businesses as employees, and buying goods and services from businesses as consumers. That’s the base from which the whole tottering mess rises.
What we’re seeing now is that a growing number of people have lost interest in continuing to fill those particular roles. Intractable labor shortages are becoming the norm in today’s industrial societies. Part of that is a function of the soaring number of people who are struggling with bad health just now—no, we don’t have to get into why that’s happening—but not all of it. At the same time, the consumer side of the equation is also collapsing, and stores are floundering as inventory builds up and sales slump. Quite a bit of that is a function of the wicked blend of inflation and recession that’s got the global economy in its grip, but again, that’s not all of it.
You can catch a whisper of what else is going on if you listen to the frequent rants heard from the managerial class these days about how young people just don’t want to work any more. Talk to the young people in question and you’ll find that quite a few of them are working very hard on projects of their own. What they’re not willing to do is waste their lives working in abusive and humiliating environments to make someone else rich, in exchange for rock-bottom wages, no prospect for advancement, and no benefits worth mentioning. That their reaction comes as a surprise to anyone is a good measure of just how detached our society’s comfortable classes have become from the reality their preferred policies have created.
The same thing is happening on the consumer side of the scale. One of the major unintended consequences of the Covid-19 shutdowns of 2020 and 2021 is that many people, given much more free time than they expected, decided to try things like baking their own bread and knitting their own hats. That led no small number of them to realize just how miserably shoddy, absurdly overpriced, and generally useless most consumer goods are these days. Decades of product debasement have come home to roost, and many former consumers have grasped the fact that if they provide goods and services for themselves, they get all the value of their own labor and can quite easily achieve the sort of quality that big corporate stores can’t even begin to match.
It’s no accident, in other words, that the labor shortage is happening at the same time as a boom in small business formation and a vertiginous drop in shipments of consumer trash across the Pacific to US ports. All those are taking place, at least in part, because the immense ziggurat of corporate profit has been built so high that the ordinary people on whose labor and purchases it all depends are no longer getting enough return on their labor, and enough quality in the products they buy, to make it worth their while to participate. Too many people have grasped that the system is rigged against them, and they are turning their backs on it and finding other ways to live their lives. As they do so, the system they abandoned is in trouble. If that process continues, there’s a real chance we may see the whole ramshackle mess start to come apart.
I want to explore this same process in more detail by a somewhat roundabout route. It so happens that my line of work is as subject to these same pressures as other productive jobs. Writers have seen steady erosion in income in recent decades, while the product oozing out of the orifices of the big publishers has suffered the same steady crapification as so many other products of the current system. With that in mind, I’m going to devote a few posts to talking about the industry I know best, as a microcosm of the economic system of the industiral world. As a successful full-time writer whose income ranks well above the average, I might be expected to have a positive bias about the industry as it now exists, but—well, dear reader, I’ll let you judge for yourself.
Imagine for a moment that you’re a budding author eager to make a career writing novels. If you pick up a copy of a glossy writing magazine or surf on over to one of the equally glossy websites that cater to authors, you’ll find what looks like authoritative advice from industry insiders offering you a range of appealing options. If you fancy landing a contract with one of the half dozen huge corporate publishers that dominate the industry, why, there are plenty of articles and books telling you how to put together a book proposal, try to interest an agent, and hit the big time. Meanwhile, a whole gallimaufry of literary small presses, highbrow journals, and prestigious contests encourage you to dream of becoming a creator of serious literature. If the odds in those two fields don’t appeal to you, there are plenty of resources teaching you how to self-publish your books and create your own niche. It all looks very promising, until you try it.
It’s only fair to note that there was a time when all three of those options were viable paths to success as a writer. Even today, it’s possible to succeed in each of these three ways, but let’s be frank—the odds aren’t much better than your odds of turning a job flipping burgers into your first million dollars. The reason’s the same, too: all three have been gamed from top to bottom to profit someone else at your expense.
This is why an Authors Guild survey just before the Covid shutdowns found that among full-time freelance authors who made any money at all from their writing—not all do—the median income was $20,857 a year. (The median, for those who aren’t statistics geeks, is the halfway point; half the writers surveyed made less than that figure, and half made more.) Those are sweatshop wages. There are reasons the pay is that low. Let’s talk about some of them.
We’ll start with the first option, the dream of hitting the big time by placing novels with one of the huge corporate combines that dominate the industry. Those firms aren’t run by people who care about books. They’re managed by MBAs whose sole interest is boosting quarterly profits and stock values, and who base decisions on sales figures, proprietary algorithms, and the latest fads in the industry. (For all their pose of cold analytic ruthlessness, MBAs are as fashion-conscious as a bunch of twelve-year-old girls clustered around the latest issue of Tiger Beat.) They tell the acquisitions staff what to get, the acquisitions staff tells the agents what they want to see, and the agents shovel their way through the 250 proposals that arrived that week to decide which ones to forward. If you happen to know the latest industry fads, you might be able to guess right; otherwise, it’s a crapshoot and the dice are loaded in the house’s favor.
So what you can write, if you want to play with the big dogs, is determined strictly by what a business model wants, and no, you don’t get to see the model. Still, let’s say you’re one of the lucky ones. Your proposal gets sent on by an agent, or you happen to be writing in one of the niche markets where the big boys deign to accept unagented manuscripts, and the publisher decides to buy your novel. You sign the contract, you get a five-figure advance, and a year or two later your book comes out. Home free, right? Not a chance. More often than not these days, the publisher will give your book one hardback print run and one paperback print run, and when those sell out, no matter how quickly your book was snapped up by readers or how many more people want to buy it, your book goes out of print. That seems stupid to me, too, but the MBAs have decided that they can make a fraction of a per cent better return on investment on average by doing that than by giving good books the chance to become unexpected bestsellers.
That policy is more damaging than it seems, because it keeps authors from building a backlist. As a writer, your backlist—the books you published earlier in your career that are still in print—has your back. The advance and initial royalties you get from each new title are nice, but it’s the backlist that pays your rent and buys your groceries via modest but steady sales on each book, and gives readers who like your latest book something else to buy. That’s what current practice among big corporate publishers keeps you from doing. Once your book goes out of print, it might as well never have existed, for all the good it does to your career.
Your contract may give you the theoretical right to reclaim rights to the book and take it to another publisher once it’s out of print; most do. Good luck trying to exercise that option. The contract you signed is very likely boobytrapped six ways from Sunday to keep you from doing so. If you sue, why, they can afford better lawyers than you can, and—well, let’s stay out of the ugly interface between the US legal system and corporate bribery, shall we?
Of course you can always write another book and place it with the same publisher, if you’re lucky. If the sales figures change or the algorithms change or fads in the industry change, your publisher may not be interested. That contract you signed is also probably boobytrapped to make it difficult for you to go to another firm, for that matter, and if you don’t know about the alternatives, you might think that you’re stuck choosing between a handful of huge corporate publishers that all rely on the same algorithms and fads. I’m sure you can recall, dear reader, certain writers who published wildly popular novels or series of novels, and then…vanished. Tolerably often that happens because their publisher turned down the next thing they wrote and one factor or another kept them from going elsewhere.
So that’s what you’re facing if you try to land a contract with one of the big corporate firms. The literary presses? They’re predatory in a different sense. Very few people read literary fiction these days, which is why the big corporate combines tolerate the literary scene; the market’s too small for them to bother with. It’s also riven by abstruse quarrels. To land a contract with one of the literary presses, you have to be aware of every last detail of current cultural fashion, and hit the right notes without fail. If you succeed and get a contract, your novel might be lucky enough to reap favorable reviews in highbrow periodicals and sell ten thousand copies, but it also might get negative reviews or no reviews at all and sell much less. You can very easily starve to death publishing one moderately succesful literary novel a year.
Okay, what about self-publishing or, as it’s euphemistically termed these days, independent writing? To begin with, the kind of “independent” publishing the glossy sources love to talk about isn’t actually independent. The vast majority of writers in this field are for all practical purposes content providers for a very few huge online retailers, which profit mightily by marketing your work on their terms. You can make a living at that gig, but it’s brutal; many writers have to turn out a novel every six to eight weeks to make ends meet. Writers in that scene are pressured to fit into very narrow niches—Sasquatch-themed paranormal gay erotica, say, or cozy Christian romantic mysteries with a country/western music tie-in. Don’t try to do anything original with those, either; that’s not your job. Your job is to make your life into a digital sweatshop and churn out cheap interchangeable parts for an entertainment machine until you drop. There are other ways to self-publish, mind you, but you won’t learn about them from the sources the industry wants you to read.
So those are the options being pushed on you by the glossy magazines and the glossy websites. They’re not the only games in town, not by a long shot, but you won’t learn that by listening to a bevy of corporate flacks whose job is to provide fresh meat for a carnivorous system. You can dodge the system’s jaws by knowing someone who will clue you in, or by being much more observant than most novice writers are, or by sheer dumb luck.
What did it for me was sheer dumb luck. It so happens that almost thirty years ago, at the dawn of my career, I started writing occult nonfiction at a time when that field had been abandoned by the big publishers. That was what led me to discover an option that nobody in the glossy magazines or glossy websites wants to talk about: small to midsized independent publishers. That’s not the only alternative out there, not by a long shot, but it’s the one that I know best, the one that’s become the basis of my career, and so I’ll use it as an example.
There are thousands of small to midsized independent publishers in the United States alone, and many more abroad. They have their own trade organization and their own conventions, and they have access to the same distributors as the big boys. (There are long and bitter quarrels between the big corporate publishers and the distributors, and the latter have been building relationships with the smaller presses in retaliation.) Independent publishers range from one-person shops working out of the owner’s garage to companies with a hundred employees and their own warehouses and sales force. I’ve never encountered an independent publisher that requires book submissions to go through agents. Most of them are looking for new manuscripts right now, and they choose what they publish the way that used to be standard: manuscripts come in, the staff sorts through them, the boss picks the best of the lot, and the presses start turning.
Crucially, too, every small to midsized publisher I’ve ever worked with has a backlist-centered business strategy. A backlist is just as valuable to a small publisher as it is to an author; if you’re in the publishing business and you’ve got a hundred backlist titles bringing in a modest but steady income year after year, you’re in clover. That pays your office rent and your staff salaries, and gives you the flexibility to take risks on new authors and unusual books. So it’s a win-win for author and publisher alike—and again, it’s the way publishing used to be done.
Is the world of small to midsized independent publishers Utopia? Of course not. You can be ripped off by a small publisher just as readily as by a large one, though your chances of getting a fair judgment in court are a lot better with the small press. You also have to get used to small advances, or none at all—smaller publishers can’t afford the five- or six-figure advances the big boys hand out—but you make more money in the long run from a thriving backlist your publisher is eager to help you promote.
By and large, you’ll have a much easier time prospering with the independent presses than with the officially approved options. I’ll cite my own experience here; I’ve had books of mine published by three of the biggest publishing firms on the planet, and I’ve also done self-publishing, but I’ve built my career with small to midsized presses, I’ve prospered mightily doing so, and I have no great interest in pursuing anything else.
One caution, though: if you go with independent publishers you’ll be excluded from quite a bit of official writerdom. The same spirit that keeps the glossy magazines and glossy publishers from mentioning the existence of small to midsized independent publishers also shows up in plenty of other contexts. I’ve had people insist that this or that book of mine was self-published because it wasn’t issued by one of the big corporate firms, and I’ve also had people talk right over any comment about independent publishers so they could keep on insisting that the big boys and self-publishing are the only games in town. It’s quite entertaining to watch people police their own thoughts so they don’t diverge from the corporate party line.
It gets even more fun to watch when you turn to writers’ organizations. As most of my readers know, I’ve published quite a bit of science fiction and fantasy, both novels and short stories, but I’m not eligible to join SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), the trade association for writers in those fields. Why? As far as SFWA is concerned, you don’t count as a real SF/fantasy author unless you’ve published with one of a strictly defined range of acceptable venues. The magazines where my short pieces appeared don’t count, the small publisher that brought out most of my fiction doesn’t count, and the midsized publisher that’s bringing out my fiction now doesn’t count either. Hundreds of other SF and fantasy authors with dozens of other small to midsized publishers are in the same boat. SFWA claims that it’s revising its list of acceptable venues right now, but I’ll be very surprised if they change anything that matters. It’s a cozy little cartel. If you’re outside it, get used to standing where the cold winds blow, but that’s always the place where new possibilities take wing.
Let’s take a step back from the microcosm of writing for a moment and apply these same lessons to the economy as a whole. By and large, the advice you get from pundits, professors, and other sock puppets of the status quo is meant to keep the system running at your expense. Following that advice is not in your best interest. Going to college in the United States today, for example, is for most people a ticket to lifelong poverty: most college graduates never recover financially from the impact of the predatory loans pushed on them by the academic industry. Going to work for some big corporation or another is no better: it costs less up front but it chews people up and spits them out even more mercilessly. The other gimmicks being pushed at you by the shills of the status quo are the same sort of thing, a trap as merciless as a big publisher’s contract.
So the first requirement faced by those who hope to create better futures for themselves is to turn a beady and suspicious eye toward anybody’s advice. (Yes, of course that includes mine.) Remember that we live in a society in decline, where the classes currently in power are trying to maintain their wealth and privilege at everyone else’s expense, and lying themselves blue in the face to try to get you to ignore your own interests for their benefit is all in a day’s work. Assume they’re lying to you, and look for the options that they don’t want you to notice.
Second, keep an eye on how many other people your work is expected to support. One of the reasons that small businesses are blossoming just now is that profit margins are faltering; in many contexts, a small business can make enough of a profit to cover its overhead, where a huge business can’t support its gargantuan administrative and financial superstructure. (Look at the accelerating pace of layoffs in the big tech corporations if you want additional evidence of this.) If you can work for yourself and have all the product of your own labor at your disposal, great. If not, the smaller the number of people your labor supports, the better.
And if the discussion of writing above has you panting for a career as a writer, publishing with small to midsized independent publishers, or pursuing one of the other officially nonexistent options? We’ll talk about that in the second installment of this sequence, two weeks from now. The theme of that post will be the ways that you’ve been taught not to think and feel and imagine, and we’ll explore that by discussing how your schoolteachers went out of their way to convince you that you can’t write. Stay tuned!