A drop in the ocean

Several people have been bewildered by my enjoyment of this article about the Frankfurt Book Fair. Don’t you get depressed by how it’s not about the authors? they ask. How it’s about books as product? How there are so many, many, many books?


Books are products.

That’s not all they are, but it’s a pretty bloody important aspect, especially for those of us who are trying to make a living writing (or editing or selling) them.

Publishing is an industry. Part of what it’s about—and has always been about—is making money. For most of its history most of that money has been made by people other than writers.1 That’s still the case. Sure, some writers do just fine. As it happens—at this moment in time—I’m one of them. I don’t make a tonne of money, but I’m finally making more than I did as a research fellow.2

But the fact that my career’s toddling along okay (right now) is not why I read articles about “books as product” without blanching. That’s not why it doesn’t bother me to walk into a hall big enough for a city of dinosaurs that’s entirely full of books. I love books! I’m thrilled there are so many of them. And that there are so many people busily bringing them into existence.

Long before I sold so much as a haiku I was fascinated by the industry. By how it operates from the booksellers to the sales reps to the publicists to the editors and agents and writers right through to the execs at the top of the multi-media conglomerates that own most of the big publishing companies in the world. I’m fascinated by the economics of small presses and medium-sized presses too. I want to know everything there is to know. One of the coolest parts of going with Scott on his book tour was meeting so many sales reps and booksellers and media escorts and gossiping about the industry and learning new stuff I hadn’t known.3

I subscribe to Publishers Weekly and Publishers Lunch. I read a tonne of different publishing and bookish blogs by agents and editors and booksellers and librarians. Most of the conversations I have with fellow writers and with agents and editors and sales reps and other publishing types quickly turns into gossip about the industry. Who’s making the big deals? Which house is going after what kinds of books and why? Are the Twilight books the new Harry Potter?

I’m not saying I think publishing today is all roses. It’s not. But it never was. I spent more than a year of my life reading through the letters of Judith Merril and other science fiction writers of the 40s and 50s. Their struggles to make a living are very familiar.

Like Carole Cadwalladr I’m depressed by how few foreign-language titles are translated into English. By the books I think are hideously bad that do incredibly well4. But I remind myself that it was ever thus. The Pilgrim’s Progress is possibly the most boring book ever written. Twas a bestseller in its day. Crappy books have done well in the past; they’ll do well in the future. But there are always wonderful books flying off the shelves too.

There are more books being published than ever before. There are more readers than ever before. I think that’s fabulous.

I’d be depressed if we could no longer fill the halls of the Frankfurt Book Fair. If people weren’t excited about the latest books or by Doris Lessing winning the Nobel or by the latest crazy book deal.

I guess I’m a publishing geek.

  1. Most editors and publicists and sales reps and booksellers don’t make much either. Seriously if you go into any aspect of the publishing industry trying to make your fortune you’re delusional. []
  2. Barely. And only as of this year. It could change. []
  3. For instance I had no idea media escorts even existed. []
  4. that dreadful YA I mentioned recently better flop! []


  1. Malcolm on #

    Well said, both the pragmatic first bit and the more personal second half.
    I completely agree: I need books as a product to be successful so that the books I like continue to get published (and therefore, written) along with all the ones I don’t particularly care for. Plus, it’s a nice area where we (the outside reader) can watch the process in action and appreciate the quality and effort that goes into producing that thing that might take only a night or two to read.

  2. Lisa on #

    I’m a publishing geek too! But although I look what the big boys are doing, it’s indie publishing that fascinates me… how you can work on the fringes of ‘Publishing – the industry’ and still make a success out of it, that’s what I love.

  3. Tim Walker on #

    In general I resist the urge to indulge my publishing geekery, but only because I’m juggling enough other things that, so far, I’m not getting my *own* books written. But I like your take on everything here.

    One more thing I would add: it’s far, far, *far* better for authors to embrace the business and understand the long odds against their own financial success than to embrace the fantasy that all of these big, bad facts of publishing don’t apply to them. It doesn’t work to say “mean ol’ reality!” and stomp off in a huff. (well, I mean, yeah, you can *do* that . . . but what does it get you?)

  4. Laura Lutz on #

    Yeah, I’m a publishing geek too but I can’t afford to actually work in the publishing industry. It speaks volumes that I can make more in the public sector as a librarian than I can in the private sector in publishing. That’s just fishy… (no, not a pun on Scott’s groovy pic)

  5. dragonfly on #

    this has nothing to do with anything, except that i’m dealing with major jetlag and i remembered your post about jetlag being all in the mind (yeah, right). worse is that my baby is dealing with it too…it must be so difficult for such a little guy! from the eastern time zone to germany…

    p.s. this is orangedragonfly. but i have a new blog and a new email address, so i decided to shorten my name…..

  6. Kadie-Wa on #

    Well said! i agree, publishing is an industry. and it’s hard to get into sometimes…

    I have a question. Being an author, do you ever get writer’s block…because some people say it’s real and others say it’s not. just wonderin!

  7. isabella on #

    Hmm… that’s some pretty good reasoning.

    but yeah, publishing is just a industry and despite wanting to think otherwise, a lot of people are just in it for the money rather than the love of literature.

  8. Justine on #

    Isabella: a lot of people are just in it for the money rather than the love of literature.

    Hmmm. I was kind of arguing the opposite. I don’t know a single writer or editor or sales rep or bookseller who started out in this industry to make scads of money.

    What I was trying to say was that books are products as well as being the objects of my (and many others’) love. And that that isn’t a contradiction in terms.

  9. cassie on #

    As Holly has said to me on more than one occasion when i have bemoaned that the marketing and/or publicity department is doing something that seems to me to be very weird regarding book selling:

    “it’s a widget.”

    “Are the Twilight books the new Harry Potter?”

    i dunno. A hundred and fifty thousand books sold in a day is pretty amazing, but it isn’t eight million books in a day.

  10. Kadie-Wa on #

    can you love the writing but still like the money that you get out of it?

  11. Corey on #

    I worry though that the education system may be cutting tomorrow’s top authors at the seedling phase. Today it’s all about hot and profitable careers: such preparation and orientation is going back way into elementary/primary school whereas before it waited patiently for you to get to the cusp of the college age. Writing as a course of career has been reduced to a hobby in many childrens’ eyes, with some instructors going so far as to say it’s counter-productive to invest any degree of time into considering it. I fear we could arrive in a world when writing becomes elitist and sect-like, like scribes of ancient egypt.

    Personally I think some of the best work comes from writing as a past-time (no offense to you careerists!), but in our blazingly-quick society, it might become a hobby that’s just too involved to break your career stride to dabble in…

  12. Justine on #

    Cassie: It’s a widget.

    Holly is wise.

    Kadie-wa: can you love the writing but still like the money that you get out of it?

    Sure. Money is helpful for food and shelter and paying bills and all that. I don’t write books for free!

    All I’m saying is going into writing with the aim of making lots of money is crazy. Most writers I know don’t do it full time and make less than ten thousand dollars a year (from their writing).

    Corey: I worry though that the education system may be cutting tomorrow’s top authors at the seedling phase.

    I so wouldn’t worry about that. Every school visit we do there are kids desperate to become writers. From sixth grade through to twelfth.

    It’s definitely more sensible to think of writing as something you do in your spare time. Very few people ever make a living at it. They don’t now and they didn’t in the past. Same for actors, painters, musicians, dancers and any other kind of creative type you care to name.

    The full-time writers I do know all had other careers previously. I’ve never met anyone who has only worked as a writer of fiction.

    The urge to create is not going to disappear no matter what kids are taught in school.

  13. Gabrielle on #

    Nooooo, you’re not a publishing geek. You’re a publishing NERDFIGHTER!!

    (Please give me my caps on nerdfighter, blog overlord)

  14. isabella on #

    Hmmm. I was kind of arguing the opposite. I don’t know a single writer or editor or sales rep or bookseller who started out in this industry to make scads of money.

    What I was trying to say was that books are products as well as being the objects of my (and many others’) love. And that that isn’t a contradiction in terms.

    Oops, i was just reading over what I’d typed, and I guess multi-tasking isn’t exactly the best way to go when trying to think. I meant to say that a lot of people just want to get into the industry to make money, a concept possibly helped along by JK Rowling’s amazing rise to fame. But like, yeah, a lot of the people already in it are real and genuine (sorry if I’ve accidentally insulted anyone 🙂

    I’ve met quite a few people who’ve claimed that they want to publish a book so that they can get a lot of money, and have that as their main motivation. there are actually quite a few young writers in forums that say that as well, which sort of takes away from the love of literature.

    On the other hand, could big chain bookstores not be considered the same way? not that they’re necessarily bad or anything, but big stores such as Barnes and noble, chapters, online bookstores, etc. are causing a lot of smaller, privately-owned bookstores to go out of business. While we’re on the subject, there was this news article about how big bookstores were severely discounting the 7th harry potter book before it’s release (i.e. preorder) but smaller bookstores were opting to not even stock the book because it couldn’t keep up with the falling demands, and apparently it would’ve been cheaper for the small book stores to just go and buy the book from a supermarket to sell, rather than straight from the publisher.

    it’s like how in stories, sometimes there’s cozy little bookstores where all the people there actually know and love the books they sell and have a connection with their job, whereas that’s sometimes more rare. although it goes both ways, i guess, because there are also a lot of really devoted people in the industry.

    So, yeah. that sort of just came out wrong.

  15. isabella on #

    oh, and today i noticed the link on the left side to Jaclyn moriarty’s blog–thanks! i didn’t know that she had a blog… brings back nostalgic feelings of reading the year of the secret assignments a few years back, and more recently the murder of bindy mackenzie. but i guess it makes sense, what with australia being the connecting link and all. 🙂

  16. Kadie-Wa on #

    at our school, there are three of us that can write and want to do it for a living. i think it’s because our school has such a strict way of writing. we do it the teachers’ way, or loose lots of points on our papers.

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