Arts & Culture

Save a Writer–Buy a Book

"It’s a very ugly time in American publishing," my agent wrote to me. I had just received my semiannual statement from my publisher, which informed me that a total of 716 paperback copies of my first book, Company C were … Read More

By / November 26, 2008

"It’s a very ugly time in American publishing," my agent wrote to me. I had just received my semiannual statement from my publisher, which informed me that a total of 716 paperback copies of my first book, Company C were sold in the year after that edition came out. I never had high expectations, but only 716?

People in the book business are notoriously downbeat, but my poor agent sounded even more depressed than usual. No doubt he’s reeling from the news that a major trade publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has announced an indefinite moratorium on the acquisition of new manuscripts.

Taken together, my statement and this week’s book industry news indeed confirm my talent (inherited from a long line of ancestors) for having chosen to be in the worst business at the worst possible time. The two things that a writer needs most-readers and publishers-seem to be going the way of the woolly mammoth and the trilobite.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has stopped acquiring manuscripts because the company’s in big-time debt–even more than me. So I understand that. But why don’t I have more readers? I mean, I walk around Jerusalem and see lots of tourists and Birthrighters and students, and on my blog and a thousand others readers debate the Israel-Arab conflict, and hundreds of Jewish-American teenagers fantasize about being IDF heroes. And only 700 of these people have gone to the trouble of purchasing an inexpensive memoir about service in the Israeli army?

With so few readers and publishers, how am I ever going to complete and publish the novel I’ve been working on for the last two years?

Numbers aren’t the only problem when it comes to readers. Those of us who have literary ambitions also want high-quality readers. What Do Jewish-American Writers Need (and I Mean Really Need)? asks Sanford Pinsker over on Jbooks.com. They need great readers, he answers. Without readers willing to delve into books that challenge them, he writes, writers will not write and publishers will not publish. That is, lots of readers. More than 716 of them.

Writers have a soft need and a hard need. The soft need is for recognition and appreciation, which gives you the motivation to keep slaving away. The hard need is for money too feed ourselves and our families while we engage in the most inefficient process known to humankind, investing huge amounts of time in the most uncertain pursuit ever invented. Most of us will never sell enough books to make a profit; we’ll never be bestselling novelists like Jonathan Safran Foer, Chaim Potok, and Leon Uris. All we ask is to sell enough copies to give us the feeling that we’ve got a decent audience, and enough to maintain our publishers’ delusion that we still have enough potential to be worth another chance.

But Pinsker offers little encouragement. "As a conservative guess, I figure it will take another 500 years to produce a literary giant such as Saul Bellow, and it will take at least that long to create a readership that recognizes, and enjoys, novels with complexity and texture," he writes.

Five hundred years! That’s deep time. Much longer than the longest time I’ve ever waited, which is at the checkout line at the supermarket down the street from my apartment.

So it’s great that you read my blog, but buy my books, too. I promise you a good read-and you might just help save Jewish literature. And the publishing industry. And me.

Cross-posted at South Jerusalem.