Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

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Bill Tozier

Interestingly, you can substitute the word "professor" for "writer", and "teaching" for "writing" throughout that piece. It's pretty close afterwards.

Something more general is at work here, culturally, than a specific trait of either writing or professing.


Why are American writers compensated so poorly...? Mostly because they allow themselves to be

Could you elaborate on a scenario in which they didn't allow themselves to be? If writers demanded more money, do you believe that they'd get paid more?

I don't mean to oversimplify, but I think the "supply and demand" explanation applies in the situation. There is a greater supply of people who want to write than there is a demand for good writing.


How uplifting.

Dan Green

Could writers get more money if they demanded more? Of course they could. If there was something like a real writer's union. If collectively writers decided to withhold their services unless more money was made available (even at places like book reviews)or unless publishers started using their resources more wisely on a wider range of books. If they decided to forego agents and high-powered editors, who only suck money out of the system. If writers who do succeed financially decided to use their own profits to help other writers or demanded of their publishers that they do so. Etc. Is any of this likely to happen? Probably not. As I said in the post, most writers just want to write, and all of these kinds of actions take away time to do that.

The hell with "supply and demand." It's just a slogan the vultures use to justify their continuing to feed.


Based on a quick web search, the wage gap between union and non-union workers seems to vary widely. In some industries, it's only a few percent; the highest I could find was a 50% increase. If a writers' union were able to achieve that, it'd turn a $5000 novel advance into $7500. That would be great, no doubt about it, but I think the majority of writers would still be unable to support themselves on their writing.

Kevin Holtsberry

I have to take exception with the characterization of supply and demand as "just a slogan the vultures use to justify their continuing to feed." I would say supply and demand is more a fact of life than a slogan. This is not to say that industries aren't run poorly or that citizens act in ways that don't reflect their stated values, but one needs to recognize the real hurdle supply and demand presents.

In the case of writing it is real and serious. I have written a number of "published articles" for free. Why? Because my desire to be published, to reach a wider audience than my blog, is greater than my desire to get paid. This is non-fiction work but the idea applies across the board. Writers desire is greater than the demand and so the renumeration is low.

Now it may be that the publishing industry is allocating its resources poorly and that this exacerbates the supply and demand situation to the point where writers lose their leverage or that they refuse to use popular writing to subsidize more artistic fare. But supply and demand must be factored into the equation at some point.



I really don't understand how a "real writer's union" will help anyone other than the sort of strictly professional gun-for-hire Scalzi's addressing. When you're collectively bargaining you have to be offering something someone wants. Generally, literary writers are not. Publishers are a craven bunch, but sudden bravery on their part isn't going to interest the average reader in, say, a novel influenced by the work of Machado de Assis.

Anyway, screenwriters have a "real union," and while they're well paid (though, believe me, they get screwed too) how much of that writing rises above the level of base hackwork? I also question your assertion that writers should "forego agents." Why? Don't you think publishers would be delighted if authors decided to forego agents? Don't you think Candida Donadio did good by William Gaddis AND Joseph Heller?

Back to that hypothetical novel written in de Assis' margins. Who'll publish that? Dalkey, maybe? Well, I'm guessing they'd advance a young novelist about fifteen hundred dollars, based on the same royalty scale (10/12.5/15% for HB, 7.5% for PB) used by the trades. Is that "exploitative"? Is it more exploitative than the five grand a trade house might give a first-time author? Or is a small press or a university press exempt from paying whatever the amount is that you have in mind because of their relative poverty? Does that mean if I own a small grocery store I'm not as bad as Meijer's or Safeway even if I pay a less-than-living wage?

Come to think of it, the only people who would really be hurt by that union you propose would be the Dalkeys of America. The big moneymaking authors wouldn't need to join and what does Bertelsmann or Holtzbrinck care whether its midlist authors are up in arms about their low advances? Think PATCO.

There are really two separate issues here. One is that America doesn't value even the most successful authors in the nation as much as it does the number four starter on a major league baseball team. All writers deal with that, whether they're making King's megabucks or thirty grand per book or the microscopic earnings of a poet. America cares about many things, but it does not care about literature. That's a fact. Issue number two, publishers have indeed exploited this fact to further marginalize worthy writing and to industrialize the manufacture of unbelievably worthless books. But if you really want to talk about vultures, check out the music industry at all levels. Check out the percentage taken by a gallery owner. How much do the dancers you know earn?

You can't embark upon any such career if you're expecting cash. There may be a lot of people considering literary careers--there always are, until they have to sit down and write, let alone spend years getting rejected--but I think that gradually potential bohemians have come to recognize this, which is why we live in a society now in which opening a fashionable restaurant or boutique is considered a sort of "artistic" act (as Gilbert Sorrentino describes the "counterculture": "bourgeois culture in $5,000 worth of old clothes and a complaisant lust for permission to buy just about anything.")

Dan Green

I'm not seriously advocating a writer's union--although it is something concrete that could be done if getting more money for writers is the issue. I agree that "You can't embark upon any such career if you're expecting cash." That's really the point of the post, as well as the posts I linked to. But there's an awful lot of talk that goes on supposedly about "books" and "writing" that is really just about cash.

Robert Nagle

Here's a point by Virginia Postrel on that same topic, regarding Susan Sontag:

I worked at a retail bookchain for a summer. I've always felt the solution has been requiring that authors of books actually write the books they are credited with writing. Doing that would eliminate all the celebrity authors with ghost written books. Of course, it would also drive major publishing houses out of business.

Seriously though, the problem is complex and one we all agonize over. A lot of it has to do with audience building. Major media likes to cover major media. If your book gets discussed on Oprah, life becomes swell. (although how does one nominate one's works to be discussed on Oprah?) It is really hard to build an audience if one is not backed by a major publisher. It is harder to build an audience for literary content than to write the content itself.

There are arts grants out there, but if the author/content creator cannot build an audience, then who's going to fund it?

Parallels with public funding of the arts in Europe apply here (and how it fosters an elitist type of art not viewed as relevant even by the person's own homeland).

My other concern is with copyright control. Until publishers have flexibility about establishing limited duration copyright, contracts between publishers and authors will not be in the best interest of the majority of authors in the long term.

Ebooks will change things a bit; if publishers can sell an ebook for under $3, they can be more flexible about copyright.

One thing we need to remember is that a sizable amount of books are remaindered or heavily discounted or "disappear" in the forms of review copies sent to publishers that are never read. Once you eliminate the cost of remaindering/discounting, you leave a better business model.

Right now, the best place to be in the book business is with They are profitting handsomely from second-hand sales. When books are sold-second, authors don't profit, publishers don't profit; the only ones who benefit are the people who arrange the transaction.

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