When I started writing novels, I had no intention of conducting research on the book industry. Like many authors, I found myself turning to writing during an emotionally difficult period in my life. Unlike my rigorous and exacting research work, fiction writing gave me an amazing sense of freedom and creativity. I didn’t have to struggle with the complexities of analyzing data. I didn’t need any interview subjects or survey respondents. I didn’t have to spend hours pouring through archives and documenting sources. I could make it all up, say whatever I wanted. My first novel poured out of me in a cathartic rush. I read it over, decided it wasn’t bad, and thought as many new writers do, Wow, maybe I could make some money at this.
The perhaps little-known truth is that very few writers earn enough to support themselves with their writing. The big name authors are more like lottery winners beating pernicious odds. Most would-be authors, if they manage to get published at all, only make pennies an hour, and some even lose money on the endeavor by the time they pay for supplies, writing classes, books, editing, association dues, or contest entries. Yet the success stories bolster the lowest spirits and keep hope alive. They did it. My turn will come.
Feeling triumphant as I sent out my first manuscript, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I submitted my book to agents and editors, only to learn that, while I did indeed have potential as a fiction writer, my first work was filled with the classic mistakes of the newbie author—chapter endings that put people to sleep, head-hopping, clichés, a lack of tension and conflict, characters based on stereotype. Moreover, the agents told me, it would be hard to sell. Chastened, I set about learning both how to be a better writer and how to position myself in the fiction market.
As I pursued the path to publication, I seemed to have two selves, the novelist and the sociologist. The novelist struggled with craft, rejoiced over clever scenes and contest wins, shed more than a few tears over rejections, and suffered frequent crises of identity. The sociologist observed and questioned, coded and analyzed. I couldn’t help dissecting the meanings of words industry insiders carelessly tossed around, words like “hooks” and “branding” and “social promotion” and “commercial.” I asked a lot of questions, not just to help my own odds of publication, but also to understand how writers, editors, and agents viewed their respective roles in an industry undergoing rapid evolution with the rise of digital distribution and production of books. In short, I became what social scientists call a participant observer.
I watched other writers in my local writer’s chapter struggle with the issues of finding time to write and justifying their investments of time and money, of developing their craft, of surviving rejection, of having their work published only to grapple with a new set of issues—book publicity, and reviews, and sales numbers, and delivery or rejection of subsequent novels.
Putting one’s creative work out for critique and possible rejection requires a great deal of bravery. Setbacks in bringing a work to market are deeply emotional, personal experiences that many writers face in solitude or with the comfort of a few carefully chosen friends. At the same time, as a sociologist, I see them as common experiences that reflect the realities of the changing world of publishing and, more generally, of the artist to the marketplace.
There is nothing extraordinary about my own journey as a writer. The difference between me and most other writers, though, is that I study work and occupations for a living. Because of this expertise, I have a way of viewing my experience and those of my fellow writers, not as idiosyncratic personal choices, personalities, and quirks of fate, but in terms of career trajectories and markets.
Over the next several months, this blog will bring together more than four years of ongoing and in-depth engagement with and study of the publishing industry. Using my own experience and those of other writers I encountered, it details the personal, emotional, and economic tolls and rewards of the process in an intimate way. At the same time, it goes beyond the personal to give a much broader social view, an endeavor aided in no small way by extensive data from R. R. Bowker on the millions of books in print in North America over the past decade as well as Bowker’s and Nielsen’s surveys of more than a quarter million consumers regarding their book purchasing behavior. You will also find me blogging at Digital Book World on the results of their author survey.
I use these data to move beyond the perceptions of the struggling author or the highly popular success anecdotes and examine the trends in the book market, both as they shape experiences and as they in some cases differ from popular perception.