When I was young, I borrowed most of the books I read from the local library. My public high school provided dog-eared copies of the classics in my college-prep literature classes. To further satisfy my growing reading appetite, I would ride my bicycle downtown to a local hardware store that kept a few ramshackle shelves of coverless remaindered paperbacks near the front door. For forty cents each (or three for a buck), I could pedal home with a combination of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and the not-quite-latest collection of greatest Mad magazine gags (stupid answers to stupid questions, anyone?).
To this day, I continue to haunt second-hand bookshops, yard sales, and the remainder bins at big-box stores in search of bargains. At the end of the semiannual book sale at our local library, I came home with two brown paper shopping bags full of wonderful finds, including the collected poems of Stanley Kunitz, Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered, Tab Hunter’s Confidential, and a couple of titles by Bill O’Reilly (stupid answers to stupid questions, anyone?). I am not exaggerating when I tell you that the bookcases in which those books now reside cost substantially more than the books themselves.
In each one of the instances noted above, my reading experience provided absolutely no compensation to the authors of the books themselves.
This is why I wince a little every time fellow lovers of literature rhapsodize about the beauty and allure of used bookshops. I cringe a bit when poets, novelists, and journalists extol the value and necessity of public libraries. I wince and cringe with the heart of a co-conspirator, for I, too, value and support these institutions. And yet by patronizing both of them, readers rob the arts to a greater extent than purchases made at the Amazons and Barnes & Nobles of the world. Access to free, remaindered, or used books may boost readership, but each one deprives writers of compensation for their work. Seen another way, they literally lower the value of the written word.
I learned at an early age that writers should expect little, if anything, in the way of recognition or remuneration for their efforts. Mostly one should expect rejection—either in the form of “thank you, but not for us” letters from potential publishers or “nice try, but not for me” comments from readers. Many literary writers still subscribe to the somewhat romantic “starving artist” archetype, envisioning themselves in tiny, unheated lofts subsisting entirely on grilled cheese sandwiches, flat soda, and watered-down tomato soup as they churn out page after page of unappreciated brilliance.
One might expect that things would have improved over the past few decades, but they haven’t, at least not in the publishing industry. In fact, the situation has become even more psychologically unhealthy. These days, many magazines and journals require hopeful writers to pay a “reading fee” for the opportunity to be considered for publication. In a number of instances, specious contests have replaced the normal submission process. The literary world has become more like a lottery in more ways than one. What was once called the “table of contents” in some books and journals might now be better referred to as a “list of winners.”
Editors and publishers will tell you that reading fees and contest are necessary evils in order to meet their financial demands. After all, there are bills to pay: editorial staff, office assistants, designers, printers, distributors, and so on. On top of that, one must pay for electricity, water, heat, telephone, and so on.
Now consider that for many literary journals, the person who provides the actual content, the writer, is often paid very little, if at all. Despite having potentially invested in college tuition, workshop or residency costs, and all those reading/entry fees, publication rarely means “hitting the jackpot.” A poem that took fifteen to twenty hours to write might net ten dollars. A historical piece that required months of research, writing, and revising might reward you with three or four copies of the obscure journal that accepted it.
With that in mind, you might wonder why anyone in his or her right mind would pursue a literary career in the first place. Perhaps this explains why so many writers place their full and earnest faith in the metaphorical value of writing. In this scenario, writers are akin to mystics who channel universal truths onto the page. This probably explains why some writers’ conferences can seem like cults to non-bookish outsiders—and why some attendees can come across as desperate martyrs. I’m reminded of a lighthearted quip a fellow writer once told me on sharing his latest piece: “I suffer for my art; now you can suffer, too.”
I worry that this kind of attitude—this self-indulgent elevation of “literature”—further devalues the entire creative enterprise. It fosters a disconnect between the writer on high and the lowly reader, which in turn leads to dwindling book sales and meager showings at readings. Many of us who remain committed to the written word nonetheless felt a twinge of recognition and understanding when someone posted on Facebook: “April is National Poetry Month, that time of year when we should all force ourselves to attend dozens of readings and pretend to be enjoying ourselves.”
So you see, in some ways I’m still a terrible supporter of the arts. I read the latest articles about the financial struggles in the publishing world and can’t escape the sinking feeling that, in some ways, we brought this on ourselves. For decades, writers have accepted disproportionate compensation for their work without much complaint. As readers, we became more and more accustomed to paying little—if anything—for the works we’ve consumed. And in a bizarre twist of hypocrisy, we voiced our strongest support for those institutions that hurt writers the most. With that in mind, the crumbling nature of the publishing world today shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Still, I hold onto a shred of optimism about the future. Here are a few final thoughts and suggestions, and I welcome others:
- Don’t be deluded—and I mean that literally, not figuratively. Stop buying into harmful myths like the “starving artist” I mentioned earlier. Demand that writers be paid for their work, and if it has to be a small amount, at least ensure that it’s not an insulting or demeaning amount. If a magazine or journal can come up with a business plan that covers the costs of printing and production, it should also account for the value of the content itself—the author’s compensation.
- Do what you can to help publishers meet these increased financial challenges by subscribing to those magazines and journals whose work you respect and admire. (I know, I know: Once again, it’s up to the writers to cough up more money in the hopes of supporting their own potential paychecks. Maybe you can get friends and family members to subscribe as well, or convince some rich benefactor to bequeath millions to the journal in question.)
- Support your local library not only by checking out books but by getting out your checkbook. That way they can purchase more books and journal subscriptions.
- Realize that free public readings aren’t really “free” and support both the presenter and the host bookstore by purchasing book(s).
- Enjoy your bargain book from the remainder bin, but support the writer with a full-price purchase of another title if you liked his or her work.
- Most of all, value what you do, whether you read or write. If literature does indeed have worth, then we should all be ready and willing to pay for it.