Margaret Atwood on Writing and Publishing

In this article about her book Negotiating With the Dead, Margaret Atwood best describes how very difficult the publishing game can be.

Even if we avoid signing promissory notes, there are many pitfalls. There is, for instance, the publishing system, and its growing domination by the bottom-line bean-counters. “We don’t sell books,” one publisher said, “we sell solutions to marketing problems.” We’ve all heard the story about the writer whose first novel hasn’t done well, and who then presents a second one. “If only this were a first novel,” sighs the agent. “Then I might be able to sell it.” Moral: a publisher will gamble, but – increasingly – only once. Gone are the days – when were those days anyway? – when a Maxwell Perkins-like publisher2 might support a writer through two or three or four financial failures, waiting for the big breakthrough. Nowadays,

He who writes, and makes it pay,
Will live to write another day.

This isn’t news to someone like me, and it may seem incongruous considering how many absolutely terrible books get published. As my dear mentor Molly Burkhart told me once, getting published doesn’t provide all the answers, and it doesn’t put the demons to rest. It is a gate-keeping industry, understandably concerned with its profit margins but nearly always to the detriment of most authors. I’ve discussed before how the industry is anti-gay and subtly racist, and perhaps this is why self-publishing (especially through Amazon) has become the biggest threat to the industry as it stands. While I have my issues with Amazon, I also have them with the publishing industry, and the latter could stand to be revised a great deal.

Or perhaps, as I’ve lamented in this post, maybe its just the readers we have to blame. After all, aren’t they the ones who dictate to the market, and therefore the authors? Your thoughts?

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