Is it kindness to discourage people from trying to become a writer now?

It is a tough time to become a writer, seems to me. It was always difficult–especially if you’re talking about being a full time writer. The few who clicked with it to the extent that they did really well create a kind of candleflame for the moths to fly into. “She did it, why can’t I?” Poof, the moth’s wings go up in flame. Of course, some will always break in and do well–it’s up to lots of factors, most of which you can’t control. It’s up to you, yes, but it also revolves around the needs of the marketplace, chance, timing, and imponderable factors. Lightning strikes–or lightning doesn’t.

Some of us slog along in the middle ground, with book after book, never really hugely breaking out (hey, it could happen!). We’re survivors, we find ways to make a living with our craft. We leave room, somewhere, for art, too. But we’re survivors with the hardbitten quality of itinerant lumberjacks, or freelance truckers. It’s not always pretty.

When I broke into writing fiction, science-fiction and fantasy was still flourishing. There were lots of genre markets. Paperbacks were cheap for people to buy–and the publishers were cheap in paying writers. But for a guy like me, incompetent at other kinds of employment, it was better than a real job. I was able to experiment, artistically, in those books, try new things, present wild ideas, and as long as the novel was entertaining and coherent, it found a home. The books bubbled to the surface of the vat of pulp and seethed a little and then melted away. But there were a lot of them. The 1960s and 70s seemed to break down frontiers. Unusual books–like Vonnegut’s novels, or Jerzy Kosinski’s or Anthony Burgess’s, or anthologies like Dangerous Visions became best sellers. Naked Lunch sold well; JG Ballard and Philip Dick began to get real respect. Publishers took more chances, and in that atmosphere, lines of progressive science-fiction were the norm–and so Terry Carr bought a novel by William Gibson called Neuromancer.

Gibson has a grand talent–but mediocre talents could find entre too. In those days it was possible to break in with perseverance, a little talent, and a copy of the annual Writer’s Market book under your arm. Eventually, someone at the publisher’s house read at least some of your manuscript, if you’d prepared it rightly. You knew where to get your shot.

But megachain bookstores came along, came along, and publishing tie-in books became more common, spurred by the big merchandizing gains post Star Wars. Huge blockbuster movies began to have as much more influence on book publishing than critics did. The numbers of books expanded and for a while that meant more markets but it also meant far, far more competition. And it meant a kind of bubble and bust scenario. The industry seems to be contracting now, in some ways, and expanding in others. E-books are proliferating and some people are making money from them (sometimes even self-published people). They’ll probably come to dominate publishing, though books as objects will never go away completely. The hugeness of the business (despite some recent contraction), the big-media orientation of it, the purchases of publishers by gigantic, diversifying multinationals, has meant that the preferences of acquiring editors has been increasingly formed by the company’s bean-counters, accountants, marketing execs, and stockholders. The bean counters see things short term and can’t understand why anyone would publish a book not particularly likely to be a best seller. The idea of building up a writer’s name by degrees is largely unknown to them. Publishing is trend driven, far more than before. It was always a business but now it’s a business that emphasizes books that mirror movies and TV–including ever more novelizations of moves and TV series, and tie-ins to media franchises, dramatizations of video games and comics, deals in which the writer gets paid on a work for hire basis, with little or no royalty.

Authors who write original genre novels now lean toward writing fiction that translates well into movies and television–and the novels are often sent, in manuscript, to film developers long before they reach print.

All this means that the marketplace for writers is in tumult, is changing much the way the marketplace for pop music composers is, with doubt about the very business structure of publishing, as it once stood. This is after all the age of near-instantaneous publishing; this is the age in which people are beginning to write thin truncated narratives to be read on smartphone screens, so-called cellphone novels. Nowadays writers may be more likely to break in with work for hire franchise books than with original novels. There are always exceptions–and in some ways the marketplace may include more points of entry, especially in terms of self-publishing ebooks, and new ebook publishers. But on the whole it’s a vast, churning confusion, with less time for copyediting and quality, and more demand for the latest vampire novel, the latest zombie hunter novel, the latest this, the latest that, and fewer editors
on the lookout for originality.

I wouldn’t persuade people against becoming a writer now. But I would tell them definitely keep your day job and be prepared to compromise your artistic dreams, for a good long while, when you break in–especially if you plan to break in to genre writing…

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