The Proposition: Writers Form HOUSES. Fiction writers organize themselves into Houses for writing, editing, and promoting one another’s texts.
Fiction writing is a game for kids who don’t play well with others. Instead of talking with other people they write dialog; instead of having adventures with their friends they imagine friends, imagine adventures. As they write, they imagine readers – people who, like themselves, can immerse themselves in imaginary worlds, characters, events. And once the writing is finished, the imaginary having been made manifest in words, there the text sits, unread, because writers don’t know any real readers like the ones they imagine. That’s why writers need sociable outgoing people like agents and publishers and publicists and retailers: to get their books out there into the real world, where actual readers live.
That’s my fantasy anyway. I don’t really know what other fiction writers are like, since the ones I know personally I can count on the fingers of two hand,s most being virtual friends and acquaintances I’ve never met face to face – which, based on my limited exposure to them and them to me, is probably just as well. Still, I can imagine an affable literary world, with agents and publishers hosting NYC launch parties where, over canapés and champagne, the solitary writers gather. They read each others’ works in progress and, when the books are ready to come out, they write back-slapping back-cover blurbs for each other. Whenever their paths cross on the promotional circuit they get together for drinks and dinner and more drinks, maybe enjoying a quick fling back at the hotel, later becoming fast friends who take family vacations together every summer.
I don’t know any agents so I don’t know how they allocate their time, but I can do the math. Based on their online profiles I estimate that a typical agent represents maybe thirty writers, each of whom has a new book moving along the publishing pipeline. At that rate each writer in the stable would be allotted less than two weeks of the agent’s attention annually. Factor in the staff meetings and the schmoozing and the attempts to lure new talent into the fold, and the agent’s time collapses to something more like one week per client per year. And that’s the average. I’m betting that the agent is always prepared to clear the calendar when a best-selling author wants a meeting or a word on the phone. Still, if other writers are anything like me, the lure of the fantasy overrides, for longer than anyone would care to admit, the humiliation of trying in vain to reach out from the slush pile and grab one minute’s attention from the agent’s – any agent’s – unpaid intern.
And for what? More math. As I understand the typical book deal, an author makes 10 to 15 percent of book revenues, while the agent gets 15 percent of the author’s cut. Even a prolific author would be hard pressed to put out more than one new book per year, whereas the writer’s agent might represent 30 new releases annually. I read somewhere that, on average, a published novelist earns about $11 thousand per book: not enough to make a living, as everyone agrees. Again, the average is skewed sharply toward the right end of the distribution by the one percent, the heavyweight celebrity authors who bring in six or seven figures for each new release. Meanwhile I read somewhere else that the typical agent makes around $50-60K per year: still not much, especially if you live in NYC, but you could scrape by, and it is five times as much as the average published author in your stable makes. Then there’s the rest of the book revenues, the other 85% of total book sales that the author never sees, divvied up between all of the middlemen. They don’t take much of a cut on a per-book basis, but they make it up in volume. Everybody in the book business is making a living – everyone, that is, except the writers.
Writers might well resent the disparity, opting to go the self-publishing route where they can take a much bigger slice of the pie. The problem, of course, is that the pie is much smaller. I’ve read that the average self-published fiction writer earns around $600 per book – 5 percent of what the traditionally published average author makes.
An important lesson to be learned here is that the publishing industry is an industry. It’s about the money. The writer might not get it, but the agent does. The agent’s job is to present to the publisher not the singular work of genius but a diversified portfolio of books that, in the aggregate, have a better than average chance of generating better than average sales. The agent’s judgment in assembling profitable portfolios is far more valuable to the publishing industry than any individual author of any individual book included in that portfolio is likely to be. The publisher gets it too, presenting to the booksellers an even broader diversified portfolio of offerings that collectively can be expected to turn a profit. The retailer gets it too.
All along the pipeline – agent, publisher, distributor, retailer – people are making a living, either as workers or as investors. The only ones not making a living from books are the ones at either end of the pipeline: the people who write the books, the vast majority of whom earn little or nothing from their labors, and the readers who buy the books, thereby financing the livings made by all of the intermediaries.
Why haven’t the writers wised up, gnawing their way out of this trap and moving on to more lucrative pursuits? Again, I don’t know many writers, so I can’t generalize from experience. But maybe it’s possible to extrapolate. In American Amnesia (2016), authors Jacob Hacker and Paul Pearson, both political science professors, observe that people tend to underestimate personal risk:
It doesn’t help that we vastly exaggerate our competence: One study found that 88 percent of American drivers thought they were safer drivers than average, which we thought was pretty funny until we learned that 93 percent of professors think they are better-than-average teachers.
Which means I’m probably not alone in the conviction that I’m a better writer than most. When I finished my first novel I believed that virtually everyone would benefit personally from reading it, would in fact be enthralled by it. I fully expected that, once the book was published, a lot of readers would buy it, making me a lot of money. To be clear, I wasn’t in it for the money; rather, I regarded money as the natural consequence of a job well done. As reader you get what you pay for; as writer you get what you deserve. In short, I believed that the book industry was an efficient and effective apparatus for ascribing economic value to artistic and cultural value. I concede the romantic naïveté of this notion. Having in pursuit of other careers been repeatedly disillusioned by mismatches between excellence and money, I held out hope that the world of fiction would be different, purer, better.
Maybe it really is better. Maybe the fault is in me. I’m not as good a writer as I think I am; my novel isn’t as good as I think it is. Agents and publishers see a lot more manuscripts than I do: they are in a better position than I to separate the wheat from the chaff. I should do better, try harder; edit more ruthlessly, send out more inquiry letters. If still I don’t succeed, still don’t get a book deal, then I have to face the fact that I’m not really cut out for this line of work.
And how do I get better? I can emulate published novels, follow advice proffered by publishers and agents and editors and successful (i.e., published) authors. But then doesn’t my writing become indistinguishable from everyone else’s? Maybe I should work harder at becoming distinctive, find and hone my own idiosyncratic voice, pull myself up and away from the writerly masses, separate my books from the slush. But then won’t I find myself out of touch with generally accepted standards and tastes, out of orbit, out of reach, out of luck? Tacking between the rock and the hard place, I lose sight of the shore. Worse, I lose sight of the open seas, of the uncharted, of the tides and the waves, of the Deep.
I’m an old hand at unfurling the maritime metaphors, having crewed on a catamaran once – two hours of moderate breezes on calm seas off a benign Carolina coast. Did old blind Homer ever set sail, maybe before he got old and blind, or did he stay home listening to seafaring yarns spun by his neighbors over a few cups of wine? Oh but wait, that’s right: Homer, like Odysseus, was a legend, an archetype, the Teller of Tales. Sailing was a respectable profession once; now it’s a weekend recreation for grad students. Maybe being a teller of tales was once a respectable profession. More likely the professional teller of tales is a legend, a fiction, a story told to storytellers.
Certainly some writers embrace the entrepreneurial challenge of finding the right mix between meeting industry expectations and violating them – literary surfers hoping to catch the next epic wave just as it begins to take shape and taking it for a ride. It’s certain also that many published books, and some of the popular ones, really are excellent. By the same token, many published books, including popular ones, aren’t very good at all. And what about the unpublished ones, or the myriad self-published books that go unnoticed by practically everyone?
“What’s left to download may be plentiful and free, but it’s one big slush pile. Browsing is like falling into a sewer.”
That’s the nostril-pinching review of the industry voiced ten years from now by a retired literary agent in Shriver’s The Mandibles, a satirical novel published to some acclaim in 2016. Are we already going underwater in the economic and literary apocalypse, where the dire warnings signaled by the professional tastemakers and talent spotters and by the authors they promote are being drowned out by hordes of amateurs sluicing out dreck? Or do the industry pros realize that their long slow wave is finally petering out, soon to leave them high and dry along with the rest of the well-educated precariat whose jobs have been lost to robots and do-it-yourselfers?
Like Shriver’s agent, today’s fiction writers appear on the contemporary scene as emissaries from the future, spec workers racing each other to the bottom of the wage scale. There are crucial distinctives from other professions. For one, fiction writing faces no imminent danger of being automated. To my knowledge AIs cannot generate even the most formulaic pulp, and there’s no real incentive to design and build such a fiction-writing device since humans already do the work for next to nothing. Outsourcing poses no real threat either. Fictions went global long ago; readers’ access to world literature has stimulated rather than stunted demand for the home-grown stuff, while the most local of fiction writers can set up virtual shop anywhere in the world – or out of it.
Then there’s the persistent lure of the trade, even when the trade seems utterly indifferent to its practitioners. Wall Street brokers, made redundant by algorithms and e-traders and no-load index funds, stop being brokers and look for some other way to make a buck. Publishing houses and agencies and bookstores that can’t turn a profit go out of business, their employees moving on to firms surviving the shakeout or turning their hands to other tasks. But the writers just keep on coming. Writing group members, undergrad creative writing majors and MFA students, self-publishers – with no realistic prospects of recouping the time and money they’ve already spent, let alone making a career of it, they keep on coming. Are they delusional optimists, incurable romantics, compulsive gamblers? Trust funders, doctors’ wives and husbands, pensioners? Devoted hobbyists, part-timers, academics who get rewarded for publishing even if the publications don’t sell and aren’t read?
Again, I don’t know writers so their motives remain opaque to me. For that matter I remain opaque to myself. I don’t feel compelled to write – there have been long stretches in my life when I wrote nothing; I feel certain that I could easily never write another word again. Even when I’m in the middle of writing a novel and it’s going well, I still have the sense that I could just stop mid-paragraph and walk away from it forever. I can’t say that I enjoy writing all that much – for me the writing of fiction is a schizoid ordeal, requiring my prolonged immersion in a fugue state while continually observing and documenting what transpires during the immersion. The ego boost provided by admiring readers? So far my readership just about equals the total number of books I’ve written, which also just about equals the number of friends from whom I’ve become estranged because they didn’t like what I wrote or, worse and more frequently, couldn’t even be bothered to read it.
What draws me to fiction, both as writer and as reader, is the possibility of gaining entry into alternative worlds by means of active imagining. If each novel is a world, then all of the novels together comprise a galaxy, a universe, a multiverse. Presumably the components of the fiction industry – the agents and editors, the printers and publishers, the distributors and bookstores, the critics and reviewers – together operate as a travel agency, a functional intermediary between the imaginary alternative worlds and the readers who would mind-travel to them, easing passage to those alt-worlds they deem worth worth exploring. Builders and chroniclers of new worlds take heed: this is the sort of ecology you should construct, the sorts of features and inhabitants with which you should populate it, the sorts of adventures and intrigues you should stage there, if you want to draw traffic.
The other day an old blogging buddy who’s working on his first novel linked me to an article written by Elaine Blair and published in 2012 in the New York Review of Books. Why, asks Blair, do so many of the younger male American novelists write about men who are heterosexually maladept, self-aware losers?
Our American male novelists, I suspect, are worried about being unloved as writers—specifically by the female reader. This is the larger humiliation looming behind the many smaller fictional humiliations of their heroes, and we can see it in the way the characters’ rituals of self-loathing are tacitly performed for the benefit of an imagined female audience.
To support her suspicion Blair marshals as evidence excerpts from a few male novelists, not particularly young but well known and widely read, all of them represented by big-name literary agencies and published by prestige houses. Given their prestige and name recognition, it seems reasonable to suspect that the self-deprecating authorial tactics these writers deploy for wooing women readers – women comprising something like 80 percent of fiction readers in America – are in fact successful.
The younger American novelists, they want to be liked, Blair reiterates, having by now evidently confirmed her suspicions. And their novels are, in fact, irresistible, among the best novels around, in my opinion—ingeniously funny, buoyant, true. The authors have exquisite control over point of view and tone. If they’re so good, presumably these novelists could write from points of view other than the male loser’s. But then again, maybe other sorts of novelistic male leads aren’t likable enough to be successful ladies’ men, are impotent in seducing the target audience. Maybe, despite their protestations, women readers really would rather befriend the Nice Guys they meet in novels, even if those losers can’t really capture their passion. If you want a sexy self-confident man, or a self-absorbed scoundrel for that matter, you’re more likely to find him at the movies or in a prestige TV series.
Maybe it’s not even the women readers who self-select loser fiction. Maybe the bottleneck is upstream, in the offices of the publishers and the agents. In 1936 John Maynard Keynes described the stock market as a beauty contest:
Professional investment may be likened to those newspaper competitions in which the competitors have to pick out the six prettiest faces from a hundred photographs, the prize being awarded to the competitor whose choice most nearly corresponds to the average preferences of the competitors as a whole; so that each competitor has to pick, not those faces which he himself finds prettiest, but those which he thinks likeliest to catch the fancy of the other competitors, all of whom are looking at the problem from the same point of view. It is not a case of choosing those which, to the best of one’s judgement, are really the prettiest, nor even those which average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be. And there are some, I believe, who practise the fourth, fifth and higher degrees.
The publishing industry is giving us the third degree and then some. Readers want books that appeal to them. Bookstore owners pick and promote books not that they themselves find the prettiest but the ones they predict will be deemed prettiest by the average reader; publishers pick and promote books they predict will appeal to the average bookstore owner; agents pick and promote books they predict will appeal to the average publisher. It’s a series of nested mind-reading exercises four levels deep, constructed simulations of simulations of simulations of readers. Writers, if they are as intentional in their impression management as Blair contends, are operating at fifth-degree simulation, crafting books that they predict will appeal to the average agent. Once I came across a thread on an online message board in which writers were role-playing agents, critiquing book proposals submitted by other writers. Writers trying to predict what will appeal not to real agents but to simulated ones – sixth degree losers.
Fiction writers are inveterate simulators. That’s what a short story or a novel is: a simulated reality. Fictional simulations vary in the degree to which they correspond to actually existing realities, and there is no reason to regard realistic fictions as intrinsically better or truer than unrealistic ones. Similarly, it seems unwarranted to dismiss the sixth-degree simulators as dissimulators. One could argue that, in attempting to survive and thrive in the fictional multiverse, the sixth-degree simulators are being more realistic than their purportedly more authentic first-degree counterparts who don’t go out of their way to be liked.
The agents, the publishers, the retailers – they don’t pick the winner in the beauty pageant. They don’t have to. Instead, they pick all of the contestants. There will always be winners; there will always be losers. The middlemen are there to ensure that the pageant wins. The pageant wins when the aggregate of all the contestants taken together – the portfolio – makes a profit for the middlemen who stage the show. Middlemen enhance the likelihood of running a successful pageant by selecting individual contestants who, based on their features and on the tastes of the audience, stand a fair chance of winning. Beauty counts, but so do charisma and a track record in other pageants and a compelling back story and the endorsements of other winners. It is possible that, in staging these competitions, the middlemen are creating environmental conditions that reward beauty, thus increasing the overall level of beauty across all contestants and across each new generation of contests. Another way to assure a successful pageant is for the middlemen actively to shape the tastes of the audience, tastes that are easier to satisfy than more discriminating, more adventurous standards, making the audience more likely to be attracted to all of the contestants paraded in front of them. Contestants don’t become progressively more beautiful; they become more similar to one another.
The self-publisher cuts out some of the middlemen, making an appeal directly to the audience. But now, instead of being part of a portfolio that wins in the aggregate, the self-publisher has to win the pageant as an individual contestant. And without the widespread distribution and publicity apparatus that the intermediaries use to light up the stage and to pull in the crowds, the size of the win is diminished. Ultimately the pageant isn’t changed all that much with self-publishing. There are individual winners and losers, but the real winners are the aggregators, most notably the e-publishing platforms that host the pageants. The stakes are lower for each contest, but the aggregator makes it up in volume.
Why don’t the writers become their own aggregators? Join forces, edit and critique and format one another’s work, assemble portfolios of novels, publicize and endorse the entire array of offerings. They’ve got the talent and the motivation, and from an income standpoint they’ve got little to lose. Writers already work from home so there’s no need to lease office space. With a firm commitment to publishing e-books there would be no upfront costs of printing and binding and warehousing and transport, eliminating the need for investment capital to get up and running.
Suppose a dozen novelists, brought together by shared aesthetic or geography or happenstance, were to form a small publishing shop. Would their combined efforts garner each of them more success than they would attain as solo practitioners? Or would each writer, oozing self-confidence, regard his or her own book as the winner, deeming the other eleven partners as parasites siphoning off more than their share of the take? And would each writer devote as much effort and enthusiasm to promoting the other eleven’s books as to his or her own? Maybe it’s the mythos blocking the way, the cultural image of the artist as solitary visionary and demiurgic creator of worlds, that’s so hard to shake. Or maybe fiction writers are just too socially awkward to strike up the necessary conversations with each other. I wonder if creators who spring up in traditionally polytheistic cultures exhibit a stronger tendency to assemble themselves into pantheons.
Again I hear the lamentation of Shriver’s agent emeritus echoing down the corridors of time:
“What’s left to download may be plentiful and free, but it’s one big slush pile. Browsing is like falling into a sewer.”
While writers might disdain the crass commercialism and institutional hubris of the industry, and while some of us might regard Shriver’s futuristic novel as rather slushy in its own right (I made it to about page 90 before bogging down), the fact remains that the agents and publishers do impose an accepted standard of excellence on the enormous quantity of writings that come across their computer screens. I don’t know about other writers, but what I would most value from being represented by an agent isn’t the possibility of earning some money, or even of gaining access to readers – being allowed to strut the runway in the pageant. What I want is an imprimatur: the affirmation from a recognized emissary of the fictional multiverse that my writing is worthy. Novels that make it through the pipeline might in the aggregate be predictable, but they will honed to a professional sheen at every level: writerly craft, line editing, copy editing, formatting, packaging. Polished and groomed, each of these professional novels will have been judged beautiful enough to be entered into the pageant. Self-publishers, answerable to no one but themselves, can take risks to be sure, cultivating idiosyncratic standards of beauty rarely seen among contestants in the staged pageants. But the self-publishers can also put out books that are pretty ugly. It’s not that self-published books are necessarily of lower quality than books produced by the industry, although I’m guessing that on average the industry book probably is better than the average self-published book. It’s that the range of variability is so much wider across the self-published books. As a self-published writer I can have confidence that I’m putting good stuff out there, but maybe I’m deluding myself, overestimating my competence. It would be nice to have the external validation – in short, to be liked as a writer by someone known for having good taste and high standards. The online reviews accompanying self-published books aren’t a reliable source of validation, since most of those reviewers are probably friends of the author. Of course the same could be said of the blurbs on the back covers of published novels, but at least the blurbers have attained some level of credibility in their own right within the fictional multiverse, usually being published writers themselves.
Writers patting each other on the back: maybe that’s how tastes were shaped in the good old days of the professional storyteller. Writers might never have made much cash, but they did have cachet. When they agreed with each other they established standards and canons, while those who were not seated at the main table with the literary doyens organized themselves into avant-garde movements that challenged complacency. Writers weren’t trying to please their readers; they were trying to please one another. Readers were judged by writerly standards: if your tastes aligned with those promulgated by the writers, then you were a good reader. Not very democratic; not very capitalistic either. Writers were aristocrats who, like scholars, weren’t in it for the money because they already had plenty, through inheritance or marriage or patronage. Either that, or they were starving artists, aristocrats of the soul who would stomach no compromise in sating their hunger for excellence. Reading too was an aristocratic pastime indulged in by ladies and gentlemen of leisure or of decadence. The undistinguished and indistinguishable masses read – and wrote – what best suited them: trash, pulp, slush.
That all sounds kind of great to me. Even if it is a fantasized past, something like a neo-aristocracy could take shape in the not-too-distant future. When all of the jobs go away, outsourced to robots and offworld drones, only those who have already amassed wealth will be able to afford to buy books and will have time to read them. There won’t be enough wealthy readers to support writers by buying their books one at a time. Only those possessed of independent means or with ready access to it via patronage will write fictions. Highbrow culture will be restored in the midst of the late-capitalist plutocracy.
There is an imagined alternate future where the slush becomes the primordial soup in which new breeds of fiction will evolve. The rich, devoted to trendy dining and luxurious world touring and biogenetic self-enhancement, won’t bother to read fiction, or to write it either. Writers, who already don’t make enough money from book sales to live on, finally give up that fantasy. Everybody else, out of work and out of prospects, might have time on their hands but no money in their pockets. What they read they get for free from libraries and online piracy hacks. The industry collapses; the agents and publishers and bookstores all close up shop. But in this postcapitalistic world the writers are still writing, the readers are still reading. Will standards of excellence fall into the sewer when the middlemen aren’t there to enforce them? Or will different standards rise up from the slush, standards not predicated on running a profitable beauty pageant, not geared toward simulating and stimulating the tastes of the paying customers?
In Keynes’s capitalistic beauty pageant it’s the professional investors – the stock analysts and floor traders and stockbrokers – who simulate the marketplace’s tastes in stocks and bonds. But the simulators can themselves be simulated. Algorithms and self-learning AIs, capable of building more accurate simulations and running them much faster than the human professionals, now account for the majority of trading on the big exchanges. Meanwhile the ranks of the Wall Street pros have thinned considerably, having been rendered redundant by the robots who, instead of commanding seven-figure compensation packages, do a better job for free. If stock-picking can be automated, why not novel-picking? Online retailers, their search engines rapidly working through the enormous dataset on purchasing patterns at their disposal, can already steer you to individually customized recommendations for what you might want to read next. Why not go even further upstream, using data about manuscripts and their writers to build simulations that predict which books are most likely to be best sellers in various market niches? It’s already being done with pop music and television; surely it can be done with novels.
And in fact it already is being done. Here comes The Bestseller Code, a 2016 release cowritten by Jodie Archer, a former acquisitions specialist at a major publishing house, and Matthew Jockers, an English professor who specializes in digital humanities. Applying the latest AI and machine learning technologies to data extracted from thousands of novels, the authors built a “bestseller-ometer,” a complex algorithm capable of predicting with high reliability the statistical likelihood that a novel will go on to become a bestseller. Soon the professional literary talent spotters will be joining the ranks of the unemployed stock market professionals, the lawyers and accountants and underwriters, the middle managers and clerical workers and technicians, the retail workers and factory workers and farmers and miners, all of them outperformed by robots doing the work at a fraction of the cost.
Once everyone is rendered economically superfluous and the publishing industry goes under for lack of revenue, the AIs that select fictional beauty pageant contestants will find themselves out of work too. What sort of chaos will emerge from the wreckage? Will the fictional multiverse devolve into the entropic decay of the slush pile, or will it self-organize into fractal complexity? Without the middlemen and the money to bridge the gap, will writers and readers diverge from one another, the writers patting one another on the back while the readers search in vain for something they like as much as the books published in the good old days when the industry was a vital force? Or, without the middlemen the money keeping them apart, will writers and readers join forces, launching joint forays into as-yet unexplored sectors of the fictional multiverse?