Convicted and condemned by the bean counters

Logo of the bean counters

I am sometimes asked if I would “do it again.” Commit to a career as a writer, a novelist in particular. Most recently last week, by a 19-year-old college student, daughter of a friend, who wants “to be a writer.”

My answer is always no, but with a caveat.

The caveat is that it has never seemed to me that a person chooses to be a writer. That one is a writer is an attribute discovered as some inherent fact of life, not a choice — I want to be a jet pilot, a fireman, a bean counter … . Being a jet pilot is what one does; being a writer is who one is.

So being a writer and choosing a career as a novelist (or poet) are not the same thing. I can do nothing about the first, I consciously choose (and prepare for) the second. It is that I would not do if I were a 19-year-old (or 15, or 20, or 25) person today.

I’ve written about this before on this blog. The business of publishing fiction has changed significantly in just the three decades since I was a brand new published author, seven novels and thirty years ago. If you are interested in what it used to be like, if you want to stroke the fires of literary nostalgia once more, there is a fine book on the subject (The Time of their Lives, Al Silverman.) I believe that I came into the world of book publishing as an author just as what Silverman calls “The Golden Age of great American publishers, their editors and authors” was winding down toward its end. I have lived to see the end of it.

We have come to the point that as a society what we know of culture, of literature, of film, and even that most fundamental element of all art — story-telling — is being determined (and fed to the society) by a small group of people (accountants by one name or another) who know and are proud to admit that they know nothing whatsoever about “the product” they count. Counting is the point. Because it is only by counting that profits are determined. When essentially every notable publishing imprint is owned by one or two gigantic global business conglomerates, to which books are just another of the hundreds of products in their “line,” bean counters rule, for it is they, with their counting machines, who add units sold and profits made or lost. Today in publishing, that is all that matters ultimately.

When there are almost no publishers or editors left who are capable of making literary judgements, when literature is determined by consulting spreadsheets, a nasty little circle appears (note the cartoon within the post linked to above): the publisher does not spend money or energy promoting a writer whose previous work did not put enough beans in the

Oops! Another author bites the dust

jar, by fait accompli condemning the next work to the same or even worse fate, because books have to be promoted (readers have to find them) if they are going to sell above the predetermined number of beans. When a publisher does not promote a book, it is already dead in the market.

I wrote extensively on this subject regarding the not so subtle effect of borrowing and lending books, a great way to help make sure an author you like will not get future works published.

Authors are now condemned to the self-fulfilling prophecy promoted by the prophets of accountancy. When the only thing that matters are the number of beans in the jar, when literary quality, fine story-telling, are irrelevant to publishing decisions, when marketing, sales, and promotion decisions are made entirely by the bean counters, then fine novels are going to remain in drawers or dancing pixels on a solitary screen.

Is this a publishing world I would want to be part of were I starting out today? That is why I always answer no to that typical question.

Would I write? Of course. How does a writer not write? But would I let myself be tied to the post and flayed raw by accountants of one sort or another because, due to their own decisions, over which I have no control, there were not enough beans in one of my jars?

What then?

I’ll offer at least one answer in a followup post.

another one bites the dust


7 replies »

  1. You have been more fortunate than most to experience the world of publishing in it’s hay day and because you have it is doubly sad for you to see the demise of the great publishing houses in favour of filling jars with beans. For the rest of us, we cannot miss what we have never had and so we sit at your knee while you regale us with stories of the glory days happy to hear of better times.