If you love books – a writer's plea

The dodo. Quite extinct, as books may well be, if reader’s don’t buy them.

We all know how terrible the economic situation is right now. We’re all suffering. The same is true of the publishing industry, which hasn’t had a good year in quite some time now. Publishing houses are laying off staff, and closing imprints, canceling book fairs, and publishing fewer books. And, as I’ve talked about in a previous post, they now seem to be focusing on perceived blockbusters, the sort of airport reads that turn a quick profit but do little for the canon of literature, desperate, probably, for a little revenue.

Okay, so times are tough, and they’re certainly tough for writers, who are at the bottom of the publishing food chain as is it. In a recent article in the Toronto Globe and Mail, James Adams states the following:

According to Statistics Canada, a Canadian scribe on average makes only between $18,000 and $22,000 annually from his or her writing – and this includes royalties from book sales as well as income from grants, giving readings and workshops, writing, say, reviews for magazines and newspapers, and earning a yearly stipend from the Public Lending Right Commission.

It is, in short, a hard life, fraught with long, lonely hours of work, occasional feasts and many famines (in 2005, an estimated 3,000 Canadian authors – 11 per cent of the total 27,500 who identified themselves either as self-employed or salaried writers – reported no earnings from their writing), not to mention the agony of public indifference.

I worked for three years on my last novel, and was paid an advance, which may well be all I all I’ll ever see from it. No royalties, since an author must pay back their advance before they see a penny of royalty, and since we get roughly a dollar or so a book, you can imagine how many books it takes to pay back even a modest advance. Most book never earn out an advance.

Still, those of us who are committed to the writer’s life, even if it means slim pickings, try to get by as best we can (thank God my Best Beloved is well employed!) and hope the people who enjoy our work will support us by, say, buying a book now and again.

Which is why it’s SO depressing when folks just don’t get it. Take the Very Important Institution which recently invited me to address their book group, who were reading some of my short stories. I was not offered an honorarium for my time, which is fine, it happens, although many of my friends simply can’t afford to take time away from their work to talk to folks for free, any more than a doctor can, or a mechanic, or an accountant. Still, I agree because I appreciate having readers, and I appreciate that they’re supporting me and the lovely people who publish me by buying my books and reading my work. After all, money’s tight for everyone and the outlay of $15.00 or so for a book may mean they’re not going to spend it on something else. Ta. Thanks very much.

Thus, you can imagine my surprise when I arrived to find the group had taken one copy of the book in question out of the library and photocopied the stories they were interested in to pass around to the group.


And then there’s the library that invited me to come and address a reading group who are going to read one of my novels. No honorarium. Fine. But today I was told they’re having trouble getting the books, because they ordered them from a number of different vendors. Huh? Oh, yes, the nice lady said, we’re ordering them second hand.


Neither my publisher nor I will ever see a dime from those sales, nor will my publisher even know that there’s interest for my work out here in the world. So, how, precisely, is that supporting literature, or writers, or the publishing industry? My publisher will only publish me again some day if I have a proven track record as a writer whose books SELL. Publishers are business people. Sure, they love literature, but they can’t keep producing books if no one buys them, or if one person does and then passes that book onto twenty of their friends.

Of course, most book groups are terrific, and yes, those who don’t buy the book are still in the minority, I’m happy to say. Not you, of course. Of course, not YOU! But for the rest of those folks out there — You know who you are. I’m begging you. I know times are hard. They’re hard for all of us. But a book is pretty good entertainment value. Most books take more than a couple of hours to read, and paperbacks don’t cost much more than a movie and popcorn.

So, if you appreciate books, support the writers you love by buying their work. You might even recommend a book to your friend, and suggest they buy their own copy.

There are few things more depressing for a writer than showing up at a book group and discovering no one has bothered to buy the book. Breaks your heart, it does.

I don’t know, maybe the truth is that people will stop buying books altogether, that publishers will fold and books will fade away in favor of movies and video-games. If the plain old fact is that people don’t love books enough to make sure publishers and book stores earn enough to stay in business, maybe that’s just Darwin’s law in practice. Perhaps writers will become nothing more than a historical cultural footnote. Dickens, Dostoevsky, Doctorow, dodo.

It’s up to you.

Leave a Comment