"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
[Read the story.]
How much does Ms. Doe expect to earn for writing a book that nobody reads?
Based on her numbers, she’s spent five years writing her three published books, earning $240,000 for her work. $48,000 a year may not be easy street, but it’s not skid row, either. She may feel mistreated by her publishers, but she’s been paid nearly 50 grand a year for five years to do something she loves.
Oh, the misery! The cruelty! The crushed dreams!
– Ronald Moss
Oh God, how many of these whining articles do we have to suffer through? Boohoo, you got a $150,000 advance on your first book and it didn’t sell. Do you know how lucky you are? How many people with twice your talent will never be published at all?
And another thing, publishing has always always, always been a business whose only goal is that of any business: profit. Read “Lost Illusions” if you don’t believe me. As it was 180 years ago, so it is today. You just got your cherry busted. Welcome to the real world.
You are a victim of too much success too early. Learn to survive. Write another biography. Write journalism (not the self-pitying kind), write film scripts like Gore Vidal did when his career was flagging. Film work gave him enough “fuck you” money to write whatever the hell kind of novel he wanted. And that is when he wrote “Julian,” which was a huge success.
You’ve been dealt a winning hand. Now learn how to play the cards, and if you must cry in your pillow, have the good sense to do it in private.
– Frank Celia
As someone who works at a smallish publishing house — where our authors can’t even come close to the “pitiful” advances and earnings of Ms. Doe — I find it hard to have sympathy for her. It’s been claimed that as many as 160,000 books were published in the United States in 2003, with only perhaps a few dozen achieving the kind of major commercial success that so many authors expect.
There are way too many books published every year. Even if everyone read books all the time, only a small portion of those books would be wildly successful. It never ceases to amaze me that so many authors don’t seem to get these simple facts.
And I can probably think of, say, 159,000 or so other authors who would love to have the success of Ms. Doe.
– Greg Houle
Jane Austen Doe’s article is so dull, patronizing, self-indulgent and toothless. She seems to see herself as the sole victim with very little awareness that most mediums in American culture (and therefore, global culture) have taken the same route, whether it be film, music, television, theater, even museum exhibits. Shouldn’t she be addressing the larger problem — that this is the ultimate end in an ultra-capitalist society whose citizens have OD’d on consumerism? She also presupposes that the rest of us are somehow ignorant of the changes in publishing over the last 20 years — she’s not exactly pulling back a veil here.
At the moment, there are far greater tragedies in the world than a midlist author who seems to feel the game should conform to fit her, instead of just playing the game.
The article itself is meaningless under the moniker of Jane Austen Doe — maybe the problem for her is ultimately one of cowardice since, despite her sales situation, she doesn’t dare to give her name. I’m sure her publisher would’ve preferred that she did.
As for all her jealousy and envy, moaning and whining, it would seem to me she should pick up a copy of a great little book called “Bird by Bird,” by our own Anne Lamott. It might not help Jane Doe’s sales figures, but it will most certainly help her make peace with the life decisions she has made for herself.
– Sean O’Neil
Reading Ms. Doe’s “Confessions” reminds me why on occasion I struggle to publish some of my own thoughts. Her article betrays no love of her subjects, no passion to publish because of her desire to tell the public things it has never heard or ideas uniquely her own. Instead, she comes across as pursuing a career as a writer solely as an exercise in ego.
She actually laments the $260,000 she collected in advances over eight years, which works out to a respectable salary of $32,500 and change each year, not counting additional income from pieces not discussed in her article. For those of us who can only aspire to such a salary in actual employment, such carping resembles sour grapes. I should make more money! Who among us does not think as much?
Ms. Doe’s “Confessions” forces me to wonder, what is it she wants? She has published five books, and any number of small publishers would be willing to publish five more if money were not her object. But it’s clear that what she wants is cold, hard cash. If she laments that book publishing is all about money, she might do well to look in the mirror and ask herself what she really wants. For those of us who write after work and on weekend mornings out of love, Ms. Doe’s “Confessions” serves as a helpful reminder that the passion to publish, to talk to the public and to future generations, will remain long after the money is gone.
– Jason Colavito
I’m 32 years old. For the last seven years, I’ve been a professional ghostwriter — I wrote more than 10 books for an “author” who has his own private aircraft and hasn’t actually written a word in more than a decade. I’ve been published in national magazines and metropolitan newspapers. I’m working on my first novel. My editors love me. And I just quit my job ghostwriting to pursue the dream. When all things should be going well, when the horizon should be bathed in hope, I have this strange and unsettled feeling, like instead of riding the road into the future, I’m standing on it with my eyes wide open, staring like a deer into the headlights of a process and industry that eats people like me for brunch. I think, “If I’m just good enough, just work hard enough, it’ll be OK. As long as I can survive, I will show my son it can be done, he will learn from my example.” Jane Austen, you freaked me out. I should have listened to your warning and skipped the article.
Cry me a river, Endangered Midlist Author without the guts to reveal your name. Boohoo. You only got $80,000 for a book it took you two whole years to write. Do you know that, according to the National Writers’ Union, the average writer in America makes $4,000 a year from their writing? And that’s when you figure Stephen King and Nora Roberts into the equation.
I, too, have struggled with supporting myself and my family since I became a full-time fiction writer at the dawn of time four years ago. My advances have gone up and down. Sales haven’t always matched publicity. Of course I’ve felt sorry for myself. But tough leather, sister. This is a business.
If you don’t like the way you’re being treated by your publisher, go to the back of the line. Or do something about it. I generate a lot of my own publicity. I tour incessantly, often to the detriment of my writing, not to mention my health. I do anything I can to make money.
Ten months after being named the “Hot Writer” of 2000 by Rolling Stone, I was writing promotional copy for Weight Watchers. I needed the money, they asked, I delivered. Last September, the day before leaving on tour for my first novel, I turned in a $750 essay about the joys of Passover to a magazine published by 1-800-FLOWERS. But I still don’t believe that I hacked for your sins.
If you think that you’re going to get a career boost by condescendingly telling readers to patronize readings by “non-bestselling authors,” you’re sadly deluded. Independent bookstores have been the linchpin of my career, and I love them, but I’m still glad to see my book at Borders. I support funding for the arts, but I have this silly idea that arts money should, at first, go toward music and art programs in public schools, or community theater, or not-for-profit societies for the preservation of noise jazz. Anything but midlist authors, for pity’s sake.
The publishing industry, if my figures are correct, churned out 300,000 books last year. Some excellent books were commercially ignored, and lots of dross sold well. But most books eventually find the audience that they more or less deserve, especially because one hit book can float any author’s backlist for a lifetime.
People who work at Wal-Mart or Wendy’s deserve a living wage. Authors deserve to take whatever they can get. Note to my publisher: I want a lot. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to encourage my politicians to enjoy and create culture.
– Neal Pollack
“What will we lose if writers like me stop writing? What are we losing now?”
– Stephan Zielinski
This article proves what all of us semi-successful authors have been thinking for years: that the industrial-entertainment complex has gutted and spat upon the rotting corpse of the publishing industry. Jane Austen Doe, a comforting thought for you: I had my first play published when I was 18 years old by Samuel French; 16 years later my first novel is ranked 879,278 on Amazon. I have given up the dream of working as a playwright (or novelist) full time. You cannot survive at that game unless you are Nicholas “Romance Me Hard” Sparks. Happily, I have found a job that combines everything I love about writing and the arts. I will write my books and plays in my spare time. And these works will be completely untainted because I will not be tailoring them for shit-wit editors or venal publishers. Revel in your work. Take joy in your writing. Quit fighting the bastards. They’ll be hoisted by their own petards.
– Noble Smith
Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch. The poor disgruntled midlist author who tells his/her story here doesn’t know how lucky he/she is to be published by the mainstream for substantial advances. I have four books out — one highly praised by the New York Times and one with three award nominations, winning one. I don’t get advances. I’d drool over $3,000 in upfront money. My offer to your midlist author — let’s change places. Midlist? My neck is craning up.
– G. Miki Hayden
I am an editor at a major New York publishing house (I work at one of the 15 imprints of the giant publishing conglomerate mentioned in the article). I have edited many authors like Jane Austen Doe. I have fallen in love with books and had my heart broken when they failed to earn out their advances or find the audience they deserved. I have sat through hours and hours of agonizing phone calls explaining why the books didn’t sell, why Barnes & Noble didn’t take more copies, why we aren’t picking up the author’s second book. As someone who has worked with many writers like Jane Austen Doe, I feel her pain. However, she is right to realize how lucky she is. Many talented writers will never get anywhere near the amount of advance money she does.
It should be noted that I have also launched the careers of “nobody” authors — no agent, no “platform,” no previous experience in publishing — who have gone on to become very successful, including an author whose third book was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller last year. Publishing, like any other kind of artistic pursuit, is a crapshoot. Some geniuses are recognized in their lifetimes. Some are not. Some people of minimal talent will be rewarded because they have a certain something that appeals to readers. But of the dozens of authors I’ve published in my career, only about five of them live entirely on the money they earn by publishing their books. Everyone else freelances, has a day job, or has a spouse with a day job.
It is also worth noting, for the record, that throughout the history of the written word, only a very lucky few have earned their living by publishing alone. Most have day jobs or other sources of income. Chaucer worked as a civil servant. Shakespeare sought out patrons to support his writing, and acted and managed an acting company. Jane Austen, the Brontës and many other women writers may have earned money from their books, but they were primarily supported by their families. Dickens made a handsome living, but he wrote serials for a penny a word and was perhaps the most commercially minded author to ever pick up a pen. Faulkner and Fitzgerald paid the bills — especially the ones from the liquor store — by writing for Hollywood. And then there are the legions of gifted published authors who have teaching posts, are writers in residence at universities, write for movies or magazines or ad agencies, and otherwise support themselves by their creativity, but not by the advances they earn from publishers.
The very talented always feel that they should be paid accordingly — big talent, big advance, big sales It would be nice if all writers could be Stephen King or Danielle Steel and could get rich by publishing. But that will never happen. Publishers don’t get rich by publishing. Most authors, even the talented ones who get contracts from publishers, won’t get rich by publishing. My advice to authors out there: Adjust your expectations accordingly.
And for God’s sake, quit calling up your ranking on Amazon, and don’t gnash your teeth over the Times Book Review. No matter what you do in life, someone else will be more successful than you, even if they don’t deserve to be. Fretting about it won’t push them down or lift you up.
– The Editor Who Still Loves You
When Doe writes that she was paid less than $40K for “three years’ work,” are we to assume that she doesn’t have another, concurrent form of employment? It can’t have escaped her notice that many (if not most) of the great novels of the past century were written by authors who maintained a second profession: doctors, lawyers, teachers. God forbid a talented but uncommercial writer should have to dirty her hands with something like college teaching!
Particularly irritating was the “true life” anecdote about the poor midlist writer whose work wasn’t recognized by a stranger on an airplane. I’m boggled. Is this story meant to pluck at our heartstrings? Raise our hackles? News flash, Doe: the fact that you and your self-obsessed friends are not as famous as you’d like to be is not a matter crying out for our concern. That’s not to say that serious readers shouldn’t be deeply concerned about the sorry state of independent bookselling in America. But readers value independent bookstores for the diversity of voices they allow — not because they help to celebrate a different group of superstar authors.
If declining paychecks keep Doe from writing, that’s her business. This article suggests to me that her voice is one I can do without.
– John Updike Doe
Try being a recording artist. You need $75,000 just to make the record, and then try to find a label in 2004 who’ll even begin to recoup that cost if you’re not high rotation lap-dancing on MTV.
The last five artists using the studio where I last worked all re-mortgaged their houses to make their records. The Titanic has plenty of deck chairs to rearrange — but the floor space to rearrange them on continues to shrink.
– David Knopfler
As Kay Kyser once said, this article was “a beautiful thought, beautifully expressed.” No modern snarkiness. Contained a therapeutic dose of self-pity but also a good amount of concern for other writers and writing in general. I wish Ms. Doe the best of fortune in writing more and fulfilling more of those dreams.
– Matthew Rouge
In Jane Austen Doe’s list of five things you can do to help midlist authors, I am amazed that she does not mention public libraries. I select all the adult books for a midsize public library system of 10 libraries and a bookmobile. And I buy midlist authors. Most if not all public libraries have a method by which customers can recommend titles for purchase. If you’ve read an author you like, ask your public library to consider buying that book. Or buy a copy and donate it — then other people can discover the authors you love. Many public libraries are having their book budgets cut, which makes it even harder to keep midlist authors afloat. Lobby for an increased book budget at your local library! I firmly believe that public libraries are any author’s best ally — don’t overlook us.
– Terri Works
I work at a major publishing house, and I am outraged by your article — not because it blew the lid off my company’s practices, which I witness every day, but because you seem to place the blame for your situation squarely on the publishers. Our company is entirely beholden to mega-chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders. In fact, we consider canceling publication of a title if it isn’t picked up by one or both of those retailers. It’s commonplace for us to redesign book covers at the whim of a national-chain buyer. If they suggest they might buy a certain type of book, we rush it into press.
The kind of corporate consolidation you refer to is taking place in every industry, and the problem extends far beyond midlist authors and independent bookstores. The problem is capitalism. When decisions are dictated by the market, it’s no wonder that most bestsellers are trash. I have yet to meet a person who feels good about publishing mass-market smut, but it allows us to finance books we feel passionate about, books that should be in the marketplace based on their literary merit alone. Books like yours.
– Name withheld
There’s so much wrong with Jane Austen Doe’s assessment of the publishing industry that it’s hard to know where to start. Let’s start with the obvious: Here’s a woman who deems her one modestly profitable and critically successful book a failure because it didn’t give her the wealth she very clearly feels entitled to. That’s the level of narcissism we’re dealing with here.
So why should I care about Doe’s problems? Because, according to Doe, having midlist authors around is good for the soul. Really? Last time I checked there were plenty of books around, and plenty of midlist authors too for that matter. Maybe they’re not all asking for six-figure advances, and maybe they actually have to work an odd job or two to make ends meet, but they’re out there. So I think my soul may just survive, with or without Doe’s help. But preferably without, since I can’t help but notice that in this scenario the health of my soul seems directly proportional to the size of her checking balance.
– Roger Turnau
I am a regional book publisher. Jane Austen Doe’s articles are informative and interesting. I have two comments. 1) The reality is that in any business, sales are important. The entire business is run by sales numbers. If there are no sales, there is no way to sustain publishing or any other business. Just like any publisher, I accept or reject manuscripts based on their potential sales. Often I am wrong in my guess about a manuscript’s sales potential, but I haven’t found a better way than tossing the coin and seeing where it falls. In the end, publishing is a gamble and one hopes to bet on winners. 2) Contrary to Jane Austen Doe’s assertions, I, as a publisher, do not find independent bookstores friendly. They are locked into large book distributors’ computer systems and are not flexible at all. I no longer market my books to independent bookstores — except to those in my neighborhood — and I find better acceptance of my titles and authors at big chain stores such as Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million.
As you know, the book publishing industry is going through major changes. If Jane Austen Doe has the courage to take the risk, she can be her own publisher! However, my observation is: It is easy to publish a book and a lot harder to sell it!
– Rao Aluri
OK, before I make out my check to Jane Austen Doe to support her flagging career let me first say: Omigod, how dare you?
There are imprisoned Chinese poets writing poems with their own blood on toilet paper and thousands of others short of that who rise at 5 in the morning to slave at their craft before they have to get behind the wheel of a forklift or school bus and you’re for a moment complaining about a $150,000 advance?
Have you no perspective whatever on the privilege you’ve been awarded? I read your story. I understand that you were attempting to elucidate the conditions of 21st century publishing, but no amount of rhetoric about harsh media conglomerates or the kindly editors-of-old can distract the reader from the shrillness of your whining.
Complaining that you can’t make it as a novelist is like complaining that you can’t make it as a movie star. It’s a rarefied, fickle profession, and any degree of success should be relished. Suffer something honestly and then stand yourself up and write a book from absolute necessity — otherwise your bitching will have no truck with me.
– Sam White
I want to thank Jane Austen Doe for spreading the word about the way publishing has changed over the years. It is no secret to most aspiring writers. If the trend toward blockbuster publishing (and targeted promotion) continues, it will not only squeeze the present Jane Does out of publishing but also prevent new ones from attempting publication.
This trend of treating art as big business is affecting all mass-produced art forms, not just book publishing, and we all need to fight this in every way possible — not for Jane’s sake but for our own. If we can’t encourage new writers to find their voice, who is going to write for us in the future?
– Tapati McDaniels
I work for a big publishing company. Those of us in the rank and file here and at other publishing companies could tell similar stories to Jane Doe’s, had we the eloquence, only from the other side of the coin.
Most of us came to work in publishing because we loved books and the written word but realized our own writing talents were too meager to be authors ourselves. We wanted to be part of it somehow, however. We knew we wouldn’t make much money in this field, but that wasn’t important.
The joke’s on us, though, because it has become a corporate world like any other, except that we still make salaries we can barely live on. The executives are doing very well, but most of us still are scraping by, all the while being treated like corporate wankers by increasingly mistrustful authors.
I do shop at indie bookstores and go to readings and do what small things I can to promote original and intelligent writing. But I can’t just say no to the big boys crunching the numbers as Jane Doe suggests. I would get fired for that, and you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to get a low-paying job in publishing.
– Name withheld
I’m sure you’ve received lots of critical e-mail from authors who want to comment on Jane Austen Doe’s midlist writer article. I’m not an author; I’m a reader, so you’ll hear a different perspective from me.
I don’t buy books to support midlist authors. I buy books I want to read. I attend readings by authors that interest me. And I need no one to tell me to read, enjoy culture or think.
Honestly, your writer suggested I could help midlist authors by “thinking.” Do you want to know what my second thought was upon reading that? (My first: “How condescending.”) I thought I wouldn’t be reading your magazine again anytime soon.
– Harry Connolly
I guess you could call me a lowlist writer, because I never suffered from the delusion that I’d be able to support myself with my book sales. In all honesty, reading Ms. Doe’s article did not succeed in eliciting pity from me. She actually got an advance? She had an agent who believed in her at one time? Talk about a jackpot. Shallow and unimaginative as bestsellers must seem to her, midlist writer fare seems equally calculated to me, albeit in a suburban, middlebrow, eggshell-striding yuppie sense. Sadly, that only makes their dilemma in the publishing industry that much more frightening. If even milquetoast Oprah book-club authors are having that much trouble, then there’s obviously no chance for an old-school literary degenerate like me.
Having said that, though, allow me to invite you to check out my latest book here.
– T.G. Fleming
It’s pretty hard to sympathize with someone who enters a profession synonymous with frustration and poverty and then complains about the lousy pay. Yes, with the exception of the very talented and very lucky, being an artist is a terrible, terrible life. That’s because if all writers/painters/musicians were lavishly indulged by benevolent patrons who cared only for the art, dammit, and not the bottom line, everyone would join the creative class and there’d be no one left to feed the chickens.
– Danyl Mclauchlan
I am another midlist writer, though unlike this author, I write trash. Mass-market bestsellers, or to be specific, historical romance novels, bodice rippers, soft porn for the ladies, whatever. I’ve written 10 of them to date, though I finally had to quit. (I started having fantasies of killing off my heroines — in really dreadful ways.) In any case, the commercial midlist writer is no better off. I sold high midlist — 150,000 copies, sell-through rate of 80-plus percent — and the most I ever earned was about $40,000.
The point? Writing for money is naive; there has to be another motivation.
– Jennifer Horsman
Boy, do I have an immense amount of sympathy for your anonymous, underloved, highly published writer. What the fuck does she want besides being able to publish books? A star on the Walk of Fame? Writers write. Writing does not equal making money. People who want to make money should go into investment banking. People like me want to publish books that loyal readers, if only a handful, buy and bring torn copies of for autographs to underpopulated readings. And if people like me ever, ever got the opportunity to do that, we wouldn’t complain about having not made any money off it. We wouldn’t complain about going out of print. We would go gaga every time we thought of the first 150 grand we got, and the look in that man’s eyes when he said he loved our book. We would not bitch and moan, at least not as much as this woman has in her interminable pity party.
Yes, publishing is a dirty business, and also one that has gone sadly south as corporations eliminate the possibility of taking a chance on unknown writers, but business has always been business. The author casually mentions the joy that came from writing various books. Since when is joy, like, so not as important as, like, “Good Morning America”? Maybe her daughter needs some Payless sneakers. God knows someone needs a value rearrangement.
– Julia Green
What “emerging” writers (writers who dream of an editor actually speaking to them) often find ourselves believing is that all the rejection will one day pay off after that first “big” publication. But no, it seems I can expect to be periodically gutted by the rejection knife until, well, infinity. Now what the hell am I supposed to do? Oh, I know, I think I’ll go throw up.
– Mary Meyer
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)