Tl;dr, the book industry actually is profitable… but very little of that money goes to anyone actually working in it. Or, y’know. Authors, for that matter.
The features of gambling that make it pleasurable (and hence potentially dangerous) are the way rewards are structured. Those features are:
- Occasional small rewards
- Unpredictable, irregular rewards
- An illusion of control (I.e the chance element may be disguised or the gambler rationalises that they have more control than they actually have)
- Losses disguised as wins (a payoff that helps hide the fact that overall the gambler is losing)
- The real chance of a large payoff
How many of those features match aspects of writing fiction for money?
Camestros Felapton is too honest.
… yikes. Too soon, brah.
Knowing how the sausage is made can definitely turn you off of eating sausage, but when it comes to publishing, I’ve found that it’s generally not the process—despite how resistant to change it can be at times—it’s the people.
Not the Mallorys of the industry, either.
It’s the people who welcome the Mallorys with open arms, downplaying their faults, giving them the benefit of multiple doubts because […] “He fit the part.”
It’s the people who use comps to justify myriad copycats while responding to calls for more diverse books with, “There’s no market for that.”
It’s the people who respond to calls for more diverse staffs with, “There’s no room for tokenism at [our press].”
It’s the people who think diversity means segregated imprints, panel discussions and metadata.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez on sausage.
An industry professional in the New Yorker profile calls publishing “a business based on hope.” It’s performative by nature. A friend in the industry has deadpanned that “we’re all just LARP-ing,” roleplaying as publishing professionals based on some (nineteenth-century!) idea of what that should be. Very few people have chosen this path because of the money. The romance is the occasional genuine feeling of “they pay me to do this?” and the potential that you might be shaping a public conversation. That magical thinking also opens up ways for vulnerable people to be crushed by failing to perform the correct role. […]
For a woman of color, the hope that keeps you going is the hope that you’re helping create a book for a younger version of yourself, one who contented herself with work in which it never occurred to the authors that someone like her might have interiority or agency. For [white men], the romance is this fantasy of a bygone era, when gentlemen were gentlemen, and the idea of talking about inclusivity in literature was absurd. It’s not the romance of having the power to redress deep wounds that have made who you are who are as a reader and editor. It’s the romance of playing a game that you will always win.
Ruoxi Chen on publishing.
From a while back now, but still relevant: J.W. Alden on his experiences with Writers of the Future.
(For the benefit of those outside of the SFF author community: the WoF is a well-known annual emerging writer’s award/anthology. It’s also run by the Church of Scientology and, as such, has long been… controversial. Alden’s post is a pretty good explanation of why.)
Author Kaelan Rhywiol shares zir experiences with writing and rejection while marginalized. This is a long interview and much, ah, meatier than a lot of these tend to be, although I don’t necessarily agree with everything Rhywiol says. In particular, I think xie is a little too fatalistic when xie says things like, “someone who writes as much diversity into my work […] is likely never going to find representation.” Obviously this is Rhywiol’s personal experience which is incontestable in that sense, but I don’t think it’s objectively true, if only for the fact that I personally know people who are marginalized on multiple axes who have found mainstream representation/publication.1
I also kind of wince at the, “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with my writing skill” line. It’s said semi-offhand in the context of believing in one’s work which, yes, is a critical component for anyone looking for any sort of publication2 but, like… craft is an ever-evolving skillset. And believing in your work is not the same as thinking there’s “nothing wrong” with it; most authors I know, starting with myself, struggle to go back and read things they’ve written two or three or more years ago for exactly this reason. I suspect this isn’t quite how Rhywiol intended for this comment to be taken, but… yeah. All the same.
Those two things aside, Rhywiol’s overall points (e.g. about preserving mental health in the face of rejections) I think are important, and the whole interview is well worth a read.
In economic terms the issue is not only one of fair apportionment but also of clarity of who takes the risk. I can already hear publishers and trade magazine writers shouting ‘The publisher! The publisher takes the risk’. Yes, certainly the publisher is taking much of the financial risk, and many of the smaller publishers are making very modest profits indeed as a result. However, they are not taking all the risk. By firing out huge numbers of books, placing marketing behind a few and leaving the others to sink or swim, the culture of large-scale publishing is pushing a huge part of the risk back on to the authors, whose remuneration is already low. On the face of it writers, as a producer of goods, have a low production cost – they work largely alone, at home, with minimal tools. And this is the way that the publishing industry generally views authors now – they are cheap producers. And if one gives up because they can’t make ends meet, there will always be another easily and cheaply obtained. However, if you are the established author who has committed decades to building a career as a writer, your next book represents 18 months of work for something that the publisher then might or might not support. Unlike our fashion designers who can expect their income to go up with experience and as they build a name for themselves, our authors and illustrators often find the opposite. They watch as ‘the next big thing’ is promoted over them even though they never fail to create something of a very high quality. Not only that, but because of those contracts they have also found it impossible to have control over their own work, often being shunted into heavy discounting arrangements with little say in the matter. The desire for a high volume of ‘new’ by the larger publishing houses as a reaction to this billowing market is irrational exuberance – and it indicates that the anxiety about missing out on discovering the next JK Rowling overshadows any concern about a market in which prices are spiralling downwards, and margins are getting ever-slimmer. These publishers are themselves adding to their own risk in moving so far away from a model of publishing in which a few books are chosen and worked on by talented editors, who then commit to and invest in the authors, that risks for both parties: the publishers and the authors, are being stacked up like a wedding cake. Would we call that publishing? Or is it merely book-printing?
Kanilworth Books on publishing.
This is a long, dense excerpt from an even longer, denser post, but the whole thing is worth looking at, particularly for authors and/or anyone who enjoys reading…