Meet the new boss …

October 3, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

There is a story about Mordecai Richler that goes something like this: when he was young, Richler was asked what he wanted to do with his life, and replied that he wanted to be a novelist. His bewildered interlocutor reportedly responded by saying, “Yes, but how are you going to make money?”

It’s a good thing Richler didn’t start writing in the digital age. According to a Wall Street Journal article by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, reprinted in yesterday’s Globe and Mail, the advent of e-books is making it harder for untested writers to earn even a modest income from their writing:

It has always been tough for literary fiction writers to get their work published by the top publishing houses. But the digital revolution that is disrupting the economic model of the book industry is having an outsize impact on the careers of literary writers.

Priced much lower than hardcovers, many e-books generate less income for publishers. As a result, the publishers who nurtured generations of America’s top literary-fiction writers are approving fewer book deals and signing fewer new writers. Most of those getting published are receiving smaller advances.

In one sense, this is not news. It has always been necessary for novelists who don’t exist in the top tier alongside figures like Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, and J.K. Rowling to augment their incomes by taking other work. This is not a recent phenomenon: Chekhov was a doctor. Wallace Stevens was a lawyer for an insurance company. Anthony Trollope worked for the Royal Mail. And so on.

What is dispiriting, however, is the notion that the e-book format, currently the only publishing format that is experiencing growth rather than flatlining or declining, seems to privilege established writers over new voices, and populist genres over literary writing. Trachtenberg admits that Jonathan Franzen’s book Freedom has done well in electronic format, selling “well over 35,000” copies in its first two weeks of publication. Franzen is a literary writer, but one with definite populist instincts. Twice anointed by Oprah Winfrey, reigning queen of American popular culture (her endorsements of Leo Tolstoy and William Faulkner notwithstanding), Franzen has written about his own ambivalence toward the literary and popular divide (which he refers to as Status writing and Contract writing, respectively) in his essay on William Gaddis, entitled “Mr. Difficult.”

Regardless, Franzen is not in a position to need sales, digital or otherwise. His popularity and reputation are already well established. It is newer authors without proven track records who will suffer from digital books cutting into publishers’ bottom lines. Trachtenberg acknowledges this discontinuity when he writes:

The e-book is good news for some. Big-name authors and novels that are considered commercial are increasingly in demand as e-book readers gravitate toward bestsellers with big plots. Unlike traditional bookstores, where a browsing customer might discover an unknown book set out on a table, e-bookstores generally aren’t set up to allow readers to discover unknown authors, agents say. Brand-name authors with big marketing budgets behind them are having the greatest success thus far in the digital marketplace.

In other words, e-books encourage readers to seek out familiar names and traditional approaches, and discourage exploration and experimentation. They are another step along the pernicious road to the kind of blockbuster mentality that has infected Hollywood for years. Which is undoubtedly good for Jonathan Franzen. It’s not so good for literature in general.