"You know, you come from nothing, you're going back to nothing. What have you lost?" Nothing!"--Life of Brian.
The economy is in free-fall. And what does this mean for writers?
According to PRLOG.ORG:" Net sales of books in April fell 3.5 percent to $472.7 million, based on data from 79 publishers as reported to the Association of American Publishers." This is from 2007. A more recent release directly from the AAP website cited that books sold in October alone of this year decreased by 20.1 percent at $644.5 million and were down by 3.4 percent for the year.
These sorts of statistics have shaken the publishing houses large and small. According to the New York Times: Random House is undergoing a major reorganization. In October of last year Doubleday laid off ten percent of its staff.
According to an article in Salon: "Just before Thanksgiving, the publisher [ Houghton Mifflin Harcourt](actually two venerable houses, Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt, which were bought and merged by an Irish company over the past two years) had announced an unprecedented buying freeze on new manuscripts. On Dec. 3, they laid off what former executive editor Ann Patty described as "a lot" of employees. Layoffs were also announced at Simon & Schuster, Thomas Nelson, and Macmillan.
Magazines? With advertising dropping ten percent and with the internet drawing away from the printed word, seems look grim. Media Life recently had an ominous article on what 2009 holds for the industry.
Meredith, publisher of thirteen magazines such as "Ladies Home Journal" and "Better Homes and Gardens", has perhaps given us a preview, reporting a 44 percent drop in net income for the quarter ending Sept. 30 from the same period a year earlier. It dismissed seven percent of its workforce and began downsizing.
Depressed yet? What does this mean to people seeking publishing? Do we stand a chance?
I think the answer is "Yes." Well, sort of.
With so many of the big houses having so much to lose as they invest in marketing larger titles and committing to broader distribution, I think small presses have an edge in some ways. The returns for some of these companies may not be as large, but neither are the risks. And small presses are able to work with writers that the big houses necessarily pass on.
With so much advertising revenue moving to the web, so too have the magazines. People will argue that no one wants to sit at a computer and read. Yet look at the sales of Amazon's Kindle. Ebooks have exploded. Electronic books mean virtually no investment in maintaining an inventory and distribution is as simple as clicking a download from a server.
A "must read" article from The Independent suggests that instead of despairing, aspiring writers should seek these times of economic darkness as an opportunity. Author Boyd Tonkin wrote:
"Where could the silver lining lurk? Might the flight of big – or even middling – money from literary publishing prompt a quest for bolder choices and wider horizons from authors who know that their finely-finessed debut now stands no chance of reaching the Richard-and-Judy sofa or the Waterstone's front table? If slimmer cheques and smaller expectations force some novelists to give up altogether, surely they might inspire others to thumb their noses at a deep-frozen marketplace and go – as it were – for broke."
I think Tonkin is correct, at least in his view that for those who have imagination and creativity, there are rewarding avenues to follow to literary success. People should be exploring every avenue possible. For me, I'm continuing my current path of seeking publishing through small press and online magazines. Maybe I'll try something with podcasting and perhaps try to market something of my own through the net.
Sit back and fret...and fail. This is the time to step up and be bold. This is when we writers need to change our paradigm and start seeking new avenues to finding our way into print, electronic or otherwise. Or into other medium altogether.
Let me close with a story I remember from a reading of Covey's "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People"
Two battleships were at sea on maneuvers in heavy weather. The captain of the lead battleship was on watch as night fell. They were traveling through patchy fog that made visibility poor. Then, the lookout on the wing of the bridge reported, “Light, bearing on the starboard bow.”
“Is it steady or moving astern?” the captain called out.
“Steady, Captain,” came the answer, confirming that they were on a dangerous collision course with the other ship.
The captain called to the signalman, “Signal that ship, tell them we are on a collision course, advise you change course 20 degrees.”
“I’m a seaman second class,” came the reply, “You had better change course 20 degrees.”
The captain was furious. He spat out, “Send this message: I’m a battleship. Change course 20 degrees.”
Back came the flashing light, “I’m a lighthouse.”
The battleship changed course.