Letters

Another round of responses -- rants, raves, confessions and praise -- spurred by "The Confessions of a Semi-successful Author."


Salon Staff
March 27, 2004 2:00AM (UTC)

[Read the original story. Read the first round of reader mail.]

Like one of your other letter writers, I'm an editor at the "giant publishing conglomerate" mentioned in the article. Jane Austen Doe styles herself as a sort of literary damsel in distress, forced (despite advances many authors would envy) to take odd jobs to make a living, beset on all sides by villainous publishing moguls and hapless editors who are powerless to save her from the cruel vagaries of the marketplace. It's all high opera, and it reaches a climax when she writes: "When a book 'fails to meet expectations,' many are candidates for blame. But ... the consequences are the same. Those with jobs keep them. Only the author's livelihood is threatened. Only the author is punished."

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Well, that would come as a surprise to the many good editors who are out of work because they championed authors whose books didn't sell, or simply because the corporation they worked for didn't make budget and ordered middle management to "reduce head count." At least one major publishing house runs yearly P&Ls on each editor who works there to assess their performance.

I love what I do, and I'm not asking for sympathy. But it is galling when writers like Jane Austen Doe don't seem to realize that editors exist except to love them or not. The main thing is that everyone has their struggles, and editors and writers have less cause to complain than many. If Doe were able to step outside herself and see that a little more clearly, my guess is that she'd be a better writer.

-- Name withheld

That Jane Doe is one evil, greedy wench, isn't she? She wants to be paid for her writing and see progress, pay-wise, as she works at her craft. How dare she suggest such a thing? After all, she's an artist -- meant to starve and suffer in a manner that suits our romantic notion of what a writer should be, do, and feel. Doesn't she know how many truly great writers have wondered where their next meal is coming from, and that she should do the same? We need her to do that. She should do it for us -- because this really is, in the end, about us. We would not have been so personally, so deeply offended, by her article if we weren't projecting our own wishes and needs and dreams onto her. She has what we want and she doesn't deserve it. We know how to be grateful, humble, hungry, worthy, and artist-like. Those advances she got belong to us, not her.

I don't think we've heaped nearly enough anger, jealousy, and insults on her for suggesting that publishers support their writers' books with proper promotion rather than sending them off to market where they must fend for themselves. Goodness, think what would happen if publishers actually stopped paying as little as possible for a book only to pretend that it doesn't exist when it comes time to sell it. What chaos if a book by a midlist author were to find an audience. Think of how dangerously close that would come to benefiting not just the author, but the publisher and the reading public.

What really angers me is her senseless suggestion that we ought to save the publishing industry from being so completely sales-oriented that it forgets it's people (not calculators) who write, edit, and buy books, and it's their love of and dedication to these activities that might actually result in profits. Is she crazy? Where do wild ideas like achieving balance in an industry that's leaning way too far in one direction come from? Clearly, this woman needs to be silenced. Or viciously attacked in Salon's letters column.

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Lighten up, people. Jane Doe is telling you something important and true. Maybe it's not news to you, but she's asking you to do more than know it; she's asking you to do something about it because, well, because nobody is. Wow, talk about pity parties. Quit moaning over the opportunities she's had and you haven't, and go out and buy a book by someone you've never heard of. Then another. And another.

-- Patricia Sierra

To be fair to Ms. Austen Doe, a lot of good artists are really petty and annoying people.

-- Rene Caron

As the author of over 250 published books for children, young adults, and adults, I want to say simply: Shut up, stop whining, and write. It's the writing that matters, not the payment. (And I have never gotten $150,000 for any book. Not even half of that. Not even close.)

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-- Jane Yolen

I was stunned by the vitriol your readers showered down on Jane Doe. Many readers were outraged that she was not more grateful for having earned a reasonably good living as a writer; they could not believe that she felt abused by the current star system in publishing. How dare she be unhappy, one writer asked, when there are Chinese prison poets who have to write on toilet paper with their own blood?

Such comments reveal a moral nihilism and self-loathing every bit as painful to see as the occasional narcissism of Jane Doe's piece. Look, the point of society is not to make us happy we're not Chinese prison poets. To formulate the question in that way is to encourage a race to the bottom, in which the majority of workers of all stripes learn to eat their gruel and be happy with it, while a few (of which Jane Doe was briefly a number) earn real dough. I still would like to think of America as a middle-class society -- not bourgeois so much as committed to a relatively broad diffusion of wealth across a hardworking population. Having diverse publishing outlets and diverse writing livelihoods is part of this vision: the mid-list is a part of the middle-class world. As for the Chinese poets, the current system does them little justice, so why flog Jane Doe for questioning it?

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So I say thank you, Jane Doe! Feel better about yourself -- work hard, write, avoid self-pity -- and the rest of you learn to love yourselves and others a little more. And while we're talking about supporting independent writers and media outlets, subscribe to Salon!

-- John Randolph

Jane Austen Doe seems to think that a) editors, agents, and publishers should be her friend and b) someone else will do her promotion and publicity.

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I love writing. But writing is also my business. As a self-publisher of regional books since 1989 -- eight books, no advances, all expenses paid from my own pocket, obscenely profitable -- I know that you either have to keep yourself in the public eye or expect to have your manuscripts discovered in a shoebox after your death. I've chosen the former.

I don't have a publicist. I do mailings twice a year to libraries, bookstores, schools and other institutions, as well as individuals (garnered from my speaking engagements and book signings). I also do mailings to media in my state which invariably generate much free publicity. One of my series has over 200,000 copies in print and the first volume continues to sell well a dozen years later. Both indie and chain stores report brisk sales. I have no idea what my Amazon ratings are. I'm too busy to check.

Personally I think I'll keep on self-publishing. I'll never get my heart broken by uncaring editors or agents. I'll never keep hurling myself against the vast indifference of the traditional publishing world. I control scheduling, book design, publicity and content. And profits.

-- Chris Woodyard

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When I got my first book contract, in 1987, I heard the same sad story that Ms. Doe heard in the mid-'90s. I was told I had missed the glory days of writing, that all would slide downhill, that we new writers might as well count on failing. Luckily, I had read "Little Women" as a girl, and knew from Jo's experiences in the city that writers have always had a hard time getting started, and most of them never make it.

What it comes down to is that writing is, as it has always been, a hard way to make a living, and what works are some much-maligned old-fashioned virtues: hard work, prudence and determination. Inspiration and good luck may get a career started, but work carries it past the lean early years (and for what it's worth, my first 10 years were a lot leaner than Ms. Doe's) and into a solid, if still insecure, maturity. I've had high numbers and low, good sell-throughs and bad, great reviews and horrible ones.

I'm still here. And unlike Ms. Doe, I'm not "waiting." I'm working on the book after the book that comes out this fall and several other projects. Every full-time writer I know is doing the same.

-- Elizabeth Moon

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First, this article was complete crap. I get tired of hearing writers whine about how they're not successful, making money, etc. A number of other readers have chimed in on this, and I appreciated their comments, specifically Neal Pollack's. If you're writing for money, you must be crazy.

I've written a lot of freelance articles, and I think $200 was the most I ever made for one of them. That's fine with me because I have a good day job in advertising that provides me with a nice living. Like a lot of your readers, I write because I enjoy the work, I like the feeling of completing a project and seeing it published, and I feel a need to do it. Simple as that. I'm up at 5 most mornings working on my first novel, and my only hope for it is that I can get it published. I frankly don't care whether I ever make a penny off it. I'm much more interested in completing the book and seeing the fruits of my labor in print. Anything beyond that is bonus.

The only other thing I would add is that I've been employed full-time since I graduated from college, but I've still found time to write for magazines, an alternative weekly newspaper and my book. I would actually argue that the skills I've learned working a full-time job, i.e., discipline, a good work ethic, time management, etc., have made me a better writer because they make me focus and stay on task. I've also met so many unique people and had unusual experiences through work that are crucial to understanding the world. Maybe writers like Jane Austen Doe could benefit from a full-time job, too.

-- Branden Axtell

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As a mid-list author with tiny advances from a small press, I felt lucky to be in the smaller pond. I've read a lot of articles bemoaning the sad state of affairs in publishing, how authors aren't part of houses anymore. The good news is that the smaller presses still care and publish books they believe in. If money were the issue, there wouldn't be small presses to begin with. There would just be one long line at Viking or Knopf.

Like it or not, there's a hierarchy here and the ones on the bottom feel most entitled to complain. The ones on the "low list" crane their necks upward to the mid and shout "Be grateful!" The mid-listers shade their eyes looking further upward to the lofty regions of the top tier, feeling left out of the echelon that clearly includes the undeserving. The ones on the top are silent; they're not going to rock the boat. After all, it's a little boat and there's a great big ocean out there.

I'm not asking Jane Doe to shut up. I'm not even going to weigh in on whether or not she has the right to complain. I'm saying that if she made it to the top we wouldn't be hearing from her because she wouldn't feel she has the "right" to complain. We all have the right to feel disenfranchised. We all share the possibility of being included. And there are people still willing to stick their necks out to write, publish and read books they believe in regardless of where they stand on the industry pyramid.

-- Alison Moore

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The position Jane Doe finds herself in is one that would be envied by many talented writers. Jane Doe's complaints make her sound only interested in her career as a "writer." She gives us almost no indication (other than a few pretty much parenthetical sentences) that she has any real passion or love for the craft itself.

Writers have the ability to publish themselves, especially with today's technologies. A writer who wishes to self-publish has the advantage of being able to market their own work to their own liking, and even establish a small name in their community. Given the number of unknown authors out there published by big-name publishers, the only real difference between being an unknown corporate-published writer and an unknown self-published writer is that of money. I can't sympathize with a writer who writes purely for money.

-- Whit Frazier

I've published two books with a small publisher and one with a megapublisher. Every time I published a book, friends, relatives and co-workers asked, "When are you going on Oprah?" And were always surprised by my response: "Um ... never."

Maybe Salon readers are different, but most people I encounter don't understand why I need another source of income if I'm getting my books published. I think Ms. Doe did a lot of people a favor by explaining that getting published is not the same thing as gaining fame and fortune.

-- Carleen Brice

Jane's essay has been deconstructed so amply elsewhere that there's little profit in my adding to the pile. One thing missing in these comments, however, is the acknowledgment of the emerging role of literary weblogs as possible harbingers of both the Next Literary Thing and the Unsung Author.

In addition to my site, The Elegant Variation, there are numerous excellent book blogs -- Maud Newton, Beatrice, Return of the Reluctant, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, The Literary Saloon, Moorishgirl, Bookslut, Golden Rules Jones and The Reading Experience, to name only a few of the very best (links provided on my site) -- where, in addition to the latest daily literary news and reviews, lesser-known authors are noted and championed. I've received e-mails from publicity departments of a number of major houses, and perhaps these sites over time will begin to have an influence that the B&N's, Borders, Amazons and other bulk buyers begin to notice. Many of these sites link book titles that they recommend directly to purchasing points, including independents like Powell's.

It seems best not to cry about the inevitable corporate consolidation of things (Hollywood went through it in the '80s), but rather to figure out inventive ways to spread the word and engage readers.

-- Mark Sarvas

Ms. Doe missed some important points about the industry:

1. Publishers don't invest as much in books they deem "midlist," so even books that don't earn out their authors' advances can be profitable to the publisher (and to the author, since she doesn't ever have to repay the unearned portion). It's the large print runs with advances that don't come close to earning out, like Ms. Doe's first, that keep publishers struggling to stay in the black.

2. All bookstores and distributors require all publishers to accept returns of unsold copies for a full refund. This lays the risk of overestimating a given title's sales potential solely on the publisher, even where large bookstore orders drive large print runs. Any publisher that agreed to invest as much as Doe's first publisher did in her subsequent works would be failing its shareholders.

3. Readers who want to support midlist authors should buy new, not used, copies and donate their used copies to people who can't afford books instead of selling them online. Alibris, the used and rare bookseller that is going public this year, has revealed that it earns some $30 million in commissions alone on used and rare book sales. Imagine how much Amazon, which markets used copies aggressively, cuts into publishers' sales.

-- Kay Murray

It's intriguing that so many of the infuriated respondents to Jane Austen Doe called her a "whiner," and then followed up the accusation with rants about their own situations as struggling writers. It seems to me that if Doe had penned a straightforward journalistic exploration of the more discouraging aspects of authordom, that is to say, if she hadn't written a personal essay, these same letter-writers would have been nodding in somber recognition, and writing to express their thanks to Doe for letting the rest of the world know what a difficult time writers -- midlist and otherwise -- often have of it.

Why is it that when individuals dare speak critically of their vocation, those in the same boat, who no doubt sit at home making similar complaints most of the time, respond with such over-the-top vitriol? "How dare you?" one such person writes. "There are imprisoned Chinese poets writing poems with their own blood on toilet paper ..." Why, yes, I suppose there are. And I assume if ever one of those Chinese poets grows so bold as to complain about the lumps in his gruel, all his fellow inmates will pile on and kick the crap out the whiny asshole until he admits how good he's got it.

-- Lynn Coady

Jane Austen Doe's choice of pseudonym pretty much encompasses what is so wrong with her entire outlook. She chooses the name of a writer who was, first and foremost, a consummately commercially successful businesswoman. And then she launches into a long whine about how mistreated she's been, clearly showing how bad a businesswoman she is.

I mean, this is a woman who got an advance on her first book of more than $100,000. Forget midlist. Many bestsellers top out at $100k per book.

In excitement about this book, her publisher promoted her hugely. She got the Big Push most of us dream about, publicity, radio spots, tours, TV.

And guess what? She still sold all of 10,000 copies.

Now, after that kind of publicity, I have only one conclusion: The general population believes that she sucks. And I don't have much sympathy.

The true lament of the midlist author is not that "the machine" forces her out after such a spectacular flop or that the public are all idiots who only buy trash, and only if people had some taste, they would love me!

Jane Austen Doe needs to find a real job (one that will get her the income she so clearly believes she deserves) and either get a hobby other than writing or accept that she will always be a niche writer-on-the-side with a small press that suits her. That's all a reasonable author can hope for.

-- Lydia Joyce

As a writer, a reader and an ex-pat from the publishing industry, I could find no purchase whatsoever in the self-indulgent words of Ms. Doe. The letters submitted before mine mirror many of the thoughts I had on reading her whine.

But among all the exhortations against large publishing companies and bookstores and suggestions for readers to patronize independent bookstores, I spotted an interesting omission. It seems that Ms. Doe has never considered the many small publishing houses that do business and produce quality books against the weight of the conglomerated publishers.

It seems that for Ms. Doe, independent bookstores are suitable for her readers but independent publishers are not good enough for her needs.

-- Margaret O'Gorman


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