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Economy & Society, Fiction, Publishing, The Writer's Life

What’s the State of Writing Outside the States?

I was listening to an old Terry Gross (NPR’s “Fresh Air”) interview with the great Gore Vidal, who died last Tuesday. In it, Vidal referred to America as a “primitive” culture, one ruled by superstition and religious bias. It got me thinking (again) about the state of writerdom in the US. Who then, is our audience? Writers toil and bare their souls to produce works of truth and beauty, but who, honestly, cares?

Most adults read little. Women read romances and softcore porn. Men don’t read at all, unless you count comics, or books about how to be a better salesman, or how to cheat at the stock market, which I don’t. Kids read more, but it’s YA, which I couldn’t write if Tickle Me Elmo held a gun to my head. Literary fiction, my passion and my bane, is as popular these days as Obama at a Tea Party social.

Agents and publishers mumble in their sleep, “It’s great, but I can’t sell it.”

John-Paul Sartre, Paris, November, 1948 (AP Photo)

I fantasize about someday moving to England or Italy where the millions of literate residents will no doubt appreciate my talents. But wait? Is it any better there? I spent Friday afternoon Googling the possibilities. Here are some snippets:

From The Standard (UK): …the truth is that very few people earn much from writing. British publishers produce 200,000 titles a year. Of these, 190,000 sell fewer than 3,500 copies. A recent survey of writers’ incomes showed that the average income of all respondents was just £4,000 [$6,254]. For professional writers it was £12,300 [$19,232].

The Guardian’s (UK) Books Blog adds: What people really want… is to be broke. At least, that’s one likely interpretation of a new YouGov poll that shows more people in this country would rather be a writer than anything else. Now it’s possible they’ve all got their eyes on the JK Rowling squillions, but the financial reality is rather more depressing. Most book manuscripts end up unwanted and unread on publishers’ and agents’ slush piles, and the majority of those that do make it into print sell fewer than 1,000 copies. So while there are a small number of writers making a decent living, something like 80% of published authors earn less than £10,000 per year.

The Australian Society of Authors reports Australian authors average income is only $11,000 ($11,627 US).

The New Zealand Society of Authors (NZSA) recently surveyed 355 mid-career and established writers regarding income and discovered that “just 17% of New Zealand writers survive solely on their writing income.” The mean total of a writer’s income from all sources (but excluding full-time work) was $15,383 ($13,495 US). The minimum wage in New Zealand is $23,400.

But then, I found this, from a NY Times story by Elaine Sciolino, dated June 20, 2012:

The French, as usual, insist on being different. As independent bookstores crash and burn in the United States and Britain, the book market in France is doing just fine. France boasts 2,500 bookstores, and for every neighborhood bookstore that closes, another seems to open. From 2003 to 2011 book sales in France increased by 6.5 percent. E-books account for only 1.8 percent of the general consumer publishing market here, compared with 6.4 percent in the United States. The French have a centuries-old reverence for the printed page.

Sacré bleu! Or maybe I should say, au revoir! How long do you think it would take me to learn to write literary fiction in French?


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


22 thoughts on “What’s the State of Writing Outside the States?

  1. It doesn’t bother me that writers have more than one gig. Most artists do. Musicians and visual artists teach, do corporate work, play with multiple symphonies, or illustrate for multiple magazines/newspapers or publishers. It is the nature of being an artist. Some of our most revered artists and writers in the past worked for the man or were considered popular. Charles Dickens published many works as serials in newspapers before they were published as books. Shakespeare wrote plays that were popular with his illiterate audience. Da Vinci worked for the church and various patrons. This list goes on and on. The notion of creating art that pleases the artist is a modern idea. Maybe you should try writing a beautiful soft core porn novel and see where that takes you? I know you would kick E.L. James butt! I also read a lot of YA (side effect of having a teenager) and they could use a literary touch, too.

    Posted by jetepper | August 4, 2012, 1:33 PM
  2. If the writer doesn’t mind having more than one gig, I’d say. Most of the people in my writers’ groups would like to do nothing else, or so they say. And I must admit, during my month-long retreat to Canada, I did not for a second wish I was doing something else. I do teach, which is often fulfilling, but if all I had to do was write, I wouldn’t complain.

    I hope readers realize I was being deliberately hyperbolic in my assessment of women’s and men’s reading habits. However, your suggestion of softcore porn sounds interesting…

    Posted by jpon | August 4, 2012, 2:17 PM
  3. I co-wrote a memoir with the only Irish woman to win a world boxing title. Boxing was illegal for women in Ireland when she was boxing, so she moved to the States. Our publisher is Glasnevin in Ireland. We’ll be traveling to Ireland and then London to promote the book in early Sept. Think it will be interesting to see what book events will be like across the pond. When we return, we’ll promote more in the States. (Best part is my youngest son lives in London, and I’ll have a chance to visit.) No soft-core porn needed. It’s a helluva of a story. A struggle women can understand and toe-to-toe boxing scenes for the men (and women) who enjoy the sport. My Call to the Ring: A Memoir of A Girl Who Yearns to Box will be available on Amazon by Aug. 16. :-)

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | August 4, 2012, 3:08 PM
    • Was somewhat kidding about what women and men read, of course. But your book sounds very interesting. Do let us know how the readings and events go, and how they compare to those in the states.

      For those of you who would like more info about Darrylyn’s book, here’s a link: http://darrelynsaloom.com/

      Posted by jpon | August 4, 2012, 3:20 PM
  4. Sometimes when I read literary fiction, I wonder who the writers are writing for. It often seems that writers are writing for other writers. For example, how often is the protagonist a frustrated writer? (of course now I’m trying to think of examples …. mind blank)

    Gore Vidal wrote in so many genres. I suppose that was unusual then, but I think it’s even more unusual today. Or maybe people today would like to write in more than one genre and can’t find a way to publish??

    Plus you have to be so public now. You can’t just write books. You have to do a million interviews and readings, have so many Facebook friends your site shuts down, write a witty blog regularly, and be on Twitter all day long following and promoting other writers as well as your own agenda. I wonder how the great writers of Vidal’s heyday would fare in this market? Imagine Carver or Cheever or Yates with Twitter. Insanity.

    Gosh, I’m sounding so cynical. Yet I’m hopeful. I really am!

    Posted by Teri | August 4, 2012, 3:35 PM
    • I’m hopeful too, but you’re right about all this time we spend building our own platforms. I’d rather just write–but then I wouldn’t have made so many great online friends!

      Vidal was a very public writer. He was one of the fist to realize what TV could do for his career. In the interview he talks about how some of his work was banned and attacked by critics. TV gave him the chance to rebut those views, and he did so fairly successfully, I’d say.

      Posted by jpon | August 4, 2012, 10:09 PM
  5. No time like the present, Joe! :-]

    Whether or not I succeed in any measure of the effort, I try to write more “literary oriented” works, even if they’re SF or paranormally related. I seem to be met by the same reactions. But, I’ve always wondered where do the reading trends and topics come from (public or publishing), so I asked a senior editor, and he told me it comes from both the reading public and the editors themselves…in that editors will see what’s buying–but also throw in some of their own likes and such. This got me curious because at so many conferences, I constantly hear from publishing professionals “I’d like to see more of….” So, to me, if this is the case, then it IS a case of “taste” (and not just of the reading PUBLIC), and just because certain books are being sold doesn’t necessaily mean those are the ONLY TYPES of books that CAN BE sold. Opinion. Likes and dislikes. “Of course,” hyperbole notwithstanding, you write something that caters to the more “core aspects” of a gender, they will [most likely] sell. IMESHO. But, as of late, I also have to wonder, were publishing to put more muscle (creativity, mechanics, etc.) into areas not selling, rather than those that are…how would the state of publishing really change? I think that “state of mind” is the key (as I feel it is to everything we do), and the French, in this case, have it right. They make an effort to make reading a priority. Hold it in reverence. Promote it.

    But, with all the bean counters out there running things, I guess it’s hard to get past all the gas.

    Posted by fpdorchak | August 4, 2012, 3:41 PM
    • I think this is one of the reasons the independent publishing business is booming. There are literally thousands of new publishers out there who refuse to settle for the Big Six’s idea of what makes good literature. The best aspect of the digital age is that people like us can have a voice. It may just be a squeak right now, but as the Internet evolves, I suspect it will become a roar.

      And for all their posturing and attitude, the French do have some things right–one of which is the recognition that some things don’t necessarily need to change for the sake of change. There’s nothing like losing oneself with a good, hold-in-your-hands book. No ads, no popups, no email. Just you, the author and your thoughts. I guess some people are uncomfortable with that.

      Posted by jpon | August 4, 2012, 10:15 PM
      • The indominable book. Not only can you get lost in it, but you can drop it in water, drive a Humvee over it, or kick it around the block and STILL pick it up and continue reading it. :-] You’re right, there’s just nothing better!

        Posted by fpdorchak | August 4, 2012, 11:51 PM
  6. Short term, writers should be out there strutting their stuff, but long term, writers should endorse literacy through social and political activism. Unless people are interested in reading, the state of writing will be a sorry one indeed.

    Posted by Nadia Ibrashi | August 4, 2012, 3:48 PM
    • If writers approach the short term with the long term in mind–and I think most do–then we’ll be okay. But one thing I think writers should do more of is put electronic media in its place. When people start talking about a sitcom or a YouTube video, I don’t just excuse myself from the conversation, I let them know that those things aren’t really worth my time. Writers need to have more of an attitude.

      Trust me, people do respect that. If we can change the paradigm, we can change the reading habits.

      Posted by jpon | August 4, 2012, 10:20 PM
      • “Writers need to have more of an attitude.”

        Yes we do. But we’re not allowed to have an attitude anymore, we’re too busy trying to be ‘liked’ on facebook.

        Posted by Averil Dean | August 5, 2012, 2:27 PM
      • And what a wonderful world it will be when we’re all so nice to each other. Bluck!

        Posted by jpon | August 6, 2012, 7:53 PM
  7. In America, the arts: theater, visual, written, have always been viewed as hobbies. The product of these hobbies has been viewed as entertainment. Culture as culture has rarely had a place in this country.
    Here in southeast Michigan is a ballot measure asking for a tax to keep the Detroit Institute of Art open. There is a very good chance it will fail. The tax amounts to about a penny a day. But, “I ain’t payin’ fer no buncha pitchers,” may prevail.

    Posted by jonzech | August 4, 2012, 4:20 PM
    • To me it’s an education issue. We no longer value education as a potential equalizer among the classes. Education teaches us to appreciate art. Instead we value the loud, the flaunting of ignorance. Vidal seems to have a point.

      Posted by jpon | August 4, 2012, 10:23 PM
  8. Interesting take on the decline of reading by Ursula K. Le Guin at http://www.harpers.org/archive/2008/02/0081907 – A few years old, but I just found it. Thought some of y’all might be interested.

    Posted by arichaley | August 4, 2012, 7:56 PM
    • I love this form LeGuin’s article: “non-readers do less well in the job market and are less useful citizens in general.” Why not just say it: Non-readers are essentially useless (unless, perhaps, you need your sewer line cleaned out).

      But this paragraph really says it: “To look at schoolbooks from 1890 or 1910 can be scary; the level of literacy and general cultural knowledge expected of a ten-year-old is rather awesome. Such texts, and lists of the novels kids were expected to read in high school up to the 1960s, lead one to believe that Americans really wanted and expected their children not only to be able to read but to do it, and not to fall asleep doing it.”

      So much has changed. We like to think that as a culture and a country we continue to advance. But in comparison to the standards and expectations of the early 20th century (the educated classes at least) we have become a nation of idiots–so many spend their lives in open-mouthed hypnosis in front of one screen or another. And I don’t exactly exclude myself from that statement either. I wish I’d been made to play an instrument, but when I was a kid it was already optional. I wish I’d been made to learn a foreign language or two, but by the time I went to college it was no longer a requirement, even for a humanities degree. People wonder why we’re slipping as a nation. I believe the continual lowering of standards is the reason.

      Posted by jpon | August 4, 2012, 10:38 PM
      • I agree, Jo. when I was in primary grades, about ten years old, I attended a French school; students had to memorize entire acts by Moliere ( the equivalent would be to memorize Shakespeare). We drew maps of the world, learned Arabic ( of course) and English. The math I took served me easily when I came to the States and jumped from the 8th grade to the 10th grade. Some of our kids graduate high school with a rudimentary knowledge of English. However, some schools, such as the Troy School System have PhD’s teaching languages to the kids, and advanced math and science. Unfortunately, the vast majority of schools are not up to par with the rest of the world. Luckily, our universities are top notch, but by that time, it is too late for many students.

        Posted by nadiaibrashi | August 5, 2012, 12:34 AM
      • Yes, Nadia, our best universities are still among the finest in the world. But I’ve read (and experienced) university standards at another level, mostly the publicly funded schools (such as the one I received my BA from). Remedial courses are very common, as the colleges become responsible for bringing poorly educated high school grads up to speed for college level courses.

        I was fortunate to attend public high school in New York during a decade when education was still considered important. I remember that when I first started college in California, I was enrolled in a mandatory math class. My high school math was so far beyond what the rest of the students could handle, the poor instructor thought I was some kind of math genius. I had to explain my level of math was normal for where I grew up.

        But ultimately, all that remedial effort in turn holds students back from what they might normally have learned in college. We’ve really got to recommit to early education–to get kids on the right track, so schools don’t have to play “catch up.”

        Posted by jpon | August 6, 2012, 8:02 PM
  9. Hi, Joe. I agree. Early education is crucial . Also, your math teacher was probably right. You’re some kind of a genius, but don’t let it get to your head.

    Posted by nadiaibrashi | August 7, 2012, 1:11 AM

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