Cynthia’s Column March 2009
These are strange times unlike any other in most of our lives. We read and hear things that seem shocking. Friends that we always thought of as well off, have plunged into economic uncertainty. Businesses we have taken for granted are suddenly gone. Even weather systems seem to be going crazy. Will we look back on this time as GDII? Great Depression numero dos? Or the Fall of the American Empire? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, in the writing and publishing landscape, we have had our own Black Wednesday. On December 3, in New York City, many of our largest publishing houses, including Simon and Shuster, Random House, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, laid off dozens of employees, fired top level executives, put freezes on raises and halts on new purchases. It is a massive blow to the publishing industry.
What does it mean for us writers? Some of us are out here writing our fingers to the bone trying to get that novel or book proposal ready to sell to a market that is crumbling before we can even get to the front door to bang on it. Some of us have sold books, and expect to sell more to our editors and publishing houses, but now our editors are gone and our contracts are being cancelled or may be soon.
I am hearing from writers that at least one of the largest and oldest American publishing houses is rejecting books at the copy editing stage. Which means the book has already been accepted and approved by the editor, it has been through the editing process and is now being proofed and finalized. The publisher, at this stage, is telling authors that their books are not accepted, the writers have not fulfilled their contracts and the publisher is canceling the book contracts and demanding to be paid back half the advance.
Let’s translate this into lay terms. A company hired an employee to do a job, paid them to do it. The employee did the work, often for two or three years. Delivered the work. It was accepted. Then the company says, we changed our mind. The work isn’t good enough. Give us the money back. In no other industry is a worker treated like this. In any other business, a person could be fired, but no one would say give me back half your salary for the past two years. Never. Even if the work was done badly, or not done at all. But when the work is done well and faithfully?
This is not only shocking and wrong, (and crazy!) it is not legal. Eventually, hopefully, courts will stop this. In the meantime, writers are hurt and ashamed and speaking in whispers over lunches about these things.
This isn’t personal. It does not mean you are not a good writer. It does not mean your work is lacking in any way. This is a disgusting attempt of a corporation trying to bail itself out by robbing artists. Unfortunately many writers are introverts. Some may be insecure. Have low self esteem. Do not slink away in shame. Get angry. Get a lawyer. Defend your rights.
Also know that this is not the end of writing or books or reading. It is a massive shake-up only in form. It is equivalent to silent movies going to talkies. In 1927 after The Jazz Singer, the first talking picture was a smash hit, studios shut down and fired everyone. But they came back fast with a whole new way to do the business of making movies. This kind of thing has hit many industries. During the industrial revolutions literally millions of jobs over a decade were replaced by machines. And those people went on to find other jobs.
Publishing is regrouping. What’s going to happen? I can think of three possible developments.
1. Publishers may change from hard covers to mostly trade paperbacks.
2. The practice of huge first printings and warehouses of tens of thousands of unsold hardbacks that eventually get shredded may evolve into faster systems of print-on-demand.
3. Kindle-style reading devices may come down from $360 to $99 and electronic books will come down from $10 to a couple of dollars. And since they won’t be producing the physical books, the writer’s share should be a lot more. Imagine our kids’ generation with tiny, lightweight backpacks of cheap electronic textbooks.
In the meantime, what do writers do?
As we have learned from childhood fairy tales and adventure novels, when the bombs are exploding and bullets flying, all you have to do is hold fast and wait it out. Let me get bold and italicized here for a moment.
URGENT MESSAGE TO ALL WRITERS!
When things get so bad that it seems almost immoral not to put down your pen and get a second job in the fast food industry, please take these words to heart. In times like these when the storm is raging all around us, it is time for writers to keep our heads down, hole up, hide out, hunker down and keep writing.
The world will always need writers. Seriously, it is one of the few jobs on the planet that will never disappear. From time to time even mid-wives get replaced by doctors. Writers may not have a regular paycheck, but in troubled times we have a kind of job security. Writing may change form, but writers never go out of style.
The world needs writers, whether we deserve them or not, whether we can afford them or not, whether we even read them or not. Writers must not fling themselves into the fray and sacrifice themselves as cannon fodder. They must not allow themselves to get too depressed, stressed out or suicidal.
When things get scary and bleak and depressing, writers need to preserve themselves, nurture themselves, and keep their spirits alive, because if we lose our writers, all is lost. We are the keepers of the flame. We have the magic within us, without which the world is one big strip mall. We are literally our culture. We hold the pens with which history and art are written.
There was once a time when things got so bad that the writers stopped writing. There were plagues and pestilence. Things were turned upside down. There was no justice. The church was torturing and murdering people meaninglessly. No one knows the extent of all that happened during that time, because the writers stopped writing. Maybe they were afraid of being killed for what they wrote. Or maybe they were too busy scrabbling for potatoes in the dirt and dying of disease, but they stopped writing and left a huge section of the history books blank. They gave a name to this time – the time of no history, no literature, no hope – it’s called The Dark Ages.
The torch has always been in the hands of the writers. It is our task and our obligation and also our privilege to keep the flame burning. To keep writing our truths, our stories, our songs, our poems, our documented record of the world.
Writing is more than a record, or art or entertainment, though when times are as hard as this, readers cling with both hands to books in which they can escape and be transported to another world. Writing keeps the dreams of a society alive even when people face nightmarish crises.
Writing keeps hope alive, even when the wolves are howling at the door.
Writing is the proof that we’re still here. We’re still expressing our hearts and minds no matter what happens.
We are writers. For better, for worse. For richer, for poorer. In sickness and in health. As long as we live.
If things get bad where you live, it is not time to give up writing. It is time to keep your head down, let the bullets whiz past and stay alive, physically and spiritually. Be strong. Be well. Keep your hearts beating and the ink flowing. Hole up, hide out, hunker down and write. Do it for all of us. For our children’s children.
Only if writers let their candles go out will the world be truly plunged into darkness.