Writing Despair?

A recent Locus writers’ roundtable addressed the question of “the unpublished writer’s despair,” and from the discussion it appears that there is a lot of despair out there, most likely because there are a great number of writers who have not been successful, either in getting published or in self-publishing and not selling many books. And there are more than a few published authors who either have trouble getting published at present or in living on what they make from writing. And then there are the published writers deemed successful who still despair at times.

I found myself reacting to the discussion in a fashion that was most analogous to culture shock. It’s not as though I haven’t experienced a fair amount of rejection over the fifty years I’ve been writing or trying to write. As I’ve mentioned here and there, out of the more than one hundred short stories I wrote in my first years, something like six were ever published, and it took almost four years, after almost ten years of writing short stories, and rejections by a goodly number of publishers, after I finished my first novel before it finally found a publisher and was published.

It isn’t that I don’t feel and feel strongly about writing and what I write. Like many writers, I just don’t talk much about those feelings, except to my wife. Perhaps because I have a generally upbeat nature, despair doesn’t strike me often, and so far, not about writing matters. Now… anger… and absolute fury at some of the idiocy I’ve seen published, even though I fully understand that there is a large market for certain types of idiocy… those are another question.

In the whole business of getting published and continuing to get published, I try to be pragmatic. I know that when I write certain types of books, they’ll sell less well. It doesn’t mean I don’t write books that are difficult for some readers; I just space them out. But we as writers are in a profession, and that profession is intellectual entertainment. Some writers are more intellectual and less popularly entertaining, and some writers offer little more than spur-of-the-moment entertainment with minimal intellectual content. Add to that the fact that every reader has a somewhat different view of what is intellectual and what is entertaining, and it all makes writing a difficult profession for most who attempt it, and it’s scarcely surprising that most would-be writers fail to be successful.

What’s overlooked by too many writers, successful or unsuccessful, is that most who attempt a career in any field relying on a degree of popular appeal do in fact fail. Talented people fail. Even writers whom editors love for their style, technique, and stories have failed – miserably.

And I have failed in other occupations and endeavors, sometimes miserably. I was possibly the worst musician to ever lift a clarinet, and certainly one of the worst real estate salesmen in the state of Colorado, and was less than a rousing success in dealing with internal corporate politics. And, frankly, no one cared… or cares now. Nor did anyone really care for the ten years when I was fortunate to sell one short story a year… and I never expected that anyone would.

But no one is granted the “right” to be successful in anything, and success can vanish in a moment. I’ve seen it happen time and time again… and I live and write knowing that it could happen to me as it has to others [although I believe I work hard to avoid that]. All of which is why I find writerly “despair” a foreign country. I don’t find anger, discouragement, indignation, frustration, and consternation foreign… just despair. But maybe that’s because I’ve failed enough in other areas to know that it’s not the end of the world… and also because I’ve also seen how fickle popular taste can be, and how it often has little to do with the worth of what is criticized or rejected… and then, too, I’ve read enough unpublished manuscripts over the years to know that some unpublished writers should remain unpublished.

For understanding all that… and seeing the despair in other writers… I still find despair a foreign country…and one I hope never to inhabit.

A Reality Check?

After President Obama’s State of the Union, quite a number of Congressional Republicans were both perplexed and almost outraged. Why, the Republicans had won overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate. Why wasn’t the President seeking cooperation? Why wasn’t he acknowledging that the “people had spoken”? How could he not “listen” to them? One even declared that the President needed a “reality check.”

I have no inside track to the President. I’ve never met the man, and I think he’s made a number of mistakes, many of which weren’t necessary and got in the way of what he wanted to do. I also think he’s gone overboard in a number of areas. Technically, I’m a registered Republican and always have been, and even was staff director for a Republican Congressman and served in the Reagan Administration. More to the point, I’m not terribly happy with either party, and I suspect I’m far from the only one.

As for the President, why would he want to “cooperate” with Republicans? They have a radically different ideology than his, and one even more right-wing than the beliefs of the majority of Americans [just as the Congressional Democrats have an ideology far more left-wing than the majority of Americans], and they’ve rebuffed what few attempts he’s made in that direction. Republicans have been very clear on what they want – and that’s nothing for anyone but business. “No,” if you will, except for “yes” to big business and vested interests. They harp on the need for lower taxes, despite the fact that individual tax rates are the lowest they’ve been in more than sixty years and that the country needs massive infrastructure replacement and repair; they want less government interference, i.e., less regulation on business, especially on big business and the financial community that has already wrecked the economy once; and they’re demanding a repeal of health insurance just gained by millions of Americans… and that’s just for starters. Exactly why would a President want to “cooperate” with a Congress whose agenda is to dismantle what few things he has been able to do?

As for the people speaking, well… the people spoke twice in electing and reelecting Obama, and the Congressional Republicans didn’t listen to the people then, but they’re expecting him to listen when they “won”? But did the Republicans even win in the larger sense? Oh, there’s no doubt they won the majority of the votes cast in all those districts and states, but given the fact that turn-out was just about the lowest on record, because it was an off-year election and because a significant number of Americans are disgusted with both parties, to characterize the GOP majority as a mandate of any sort is misleading at best. Obama actually won far more votes than the Republicans in 2008 and 2012, and the Republicans certainly didn’t consider that a mandate.

Reality check for the President? What about for the Republicans?

And what about some “cooperation” in the areas where they actually agree… and there are more than a few of those. That way, we could at least see some progress.

Why “Higher” Education Isn’t the “Solution”…

… or not nearly what those who endorse it claim. Far too many social theorists, educators, and politicians push more education, especially higher education, as a solution to the problem of too many people who are poor or economically disadvantaged. The President’s latest initiative of wanting to provide free community college education is certainly well-intentioned, but, even if enacted, which frankly appears doubtful, would at best only provide marginal improvement. From what I can tell, the push for more higher education is based on two undeniable facts. First, in general, people with more education make more money. Second, more and more of the highest-paid salaried jobs demand higher education as a prerequisite for entry and employment.

Unhappily, very few people seem to be looking at the other side of the equation – jobs. There are only so many high-level, high paying jobs in any society, and American business has been quite busy reducing the number of decent-paying mid-level jobs. If we as a society continue to produce more and more graduates of traditional higher education every year, what is the likely result? More competition for those jobs, more unemployed or underemployed graduates, and most likely an eventual reduction in pay.

In my wife’s field, which is classical voice and opera, the United States produces more graduate singers, especially sopranos, in a year than jobs for them are created in roughly more than five years… and does so every year. The result is that competition for those jobs is absolutely brutal, and that the pay, until a singer reaches the very top tier, which only a fraction of a percent do, ranges from abysmal to modest. The other day I was talking to the conductor of a fairly well-known Russian symphony, and he observed that the United States has, overall, the best training and education for singers of any nation… and that even some of the very best end up taking jobs in Europe because there are so few openings in the United States.

Despite or perhaps because of all the MFA programs that profess to teach writers, the same thing is true in the field of writing, except since the U.S. is effectively the largest single market for fiction, there are few alternatives.

Now, the lack of remuneration in the arts, except for a comparatively small percentage of success stories, has always been a fact of life, but it’s even more noticeable now.

What’s different is that we’re also beginning to see gluts in other fields. The number of moderate and high-paying jobs for lawyers has decreased even as law schools produce more graduates. There are more job seekers in health care than there are jobs, with the possible exception of doctors, and most of the openings for physicians are in small towns, inner cities, or rural areas. There is far higher unemployment, according to a recent article in The Atlantic, among scientists and engineers than is recognized, far higher than in professions such as physicians, dentists, and registered nurses, and surprisingly high unemployment exists for recent graduates even in fields with alleged serious “shortages” such as engineering (7.0 percent), computer science (7.8 percent) and information systems (11.7 percent).

Half the twenty-two year old college graduates over the past three years are working in jobs not requiring a degree. Only 27% of all U.S. jobs require a college degree, but now some 47% of the workforce has a college degree, and the number of jobs requiring such a degree is forecast to grow by less than one percent per year.

The problem isn’t just one of education, and, in fact, education may be making the problem even worse for those with only a high school diploma – or less – as over-educated graduates continue to push the less educated into less and less remunerative fields.

The Current Economics of E-Books

The mass market paperback book is rapidly becoming a threatened species. Now, I knew that the paperback market has largely collapsed, as least for science fiction and fantasy, but until I talked with my longtime editor last week and went over some numbers, I hadn’t realized just how bad it had gotten. I did know that my own paperback sales had dropped off, but the increase in ebook sales has largely compensated for the paperback decline in my own case…. but only because I have a large backlist, since the increase in ebook sales from more current titles has not compensated for the drop-off in mass market sales of those titles.

Historically speaking, for most authors, more than half, if not more than eighty percent, of paperback sales of a title occur in the year or so after the initial paperback release. Because the decline in mass market paperback sales has been so precipitous, more and more authors sold by major publishers, especially midlist authors, are discovering that their only print publication is either in hardcover or trade paperback, after which the titles are only available in ebook format.

At the same time, it appears that self-publishing in ebook format is becoming increasingly competitive and that, as a result, for many authors who’ve chosen this route their ebook revenues are also dwindling. Then add to this the fact that Amazon is still pressing, if less obviously, for the top price for ebooks to be $9.99, and the fact that author revenues for ebooks are calculated as a percentage of the net revenues based on the sales price and not the list price. In addition, Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program in a very convoluted way [involving an opaque pooling system] that I’m not about to try to explain in a blog will reduce the revenues of participating authors considerably. Then add in the impact of the shift/increase in VAT tax rates for EU countries, and the likely decrease in revenues from that, one way or another.

While industry-wide publishing statistics indicate that ebooks only comprise around a quarter of total book sales, I have serious doubts about the applicability of those statistics to fiction publishing and especially to F&SF sales, since Nielsen statistics indicate that for the last quarter of 2014, 65% of all ebook sales were adult fiction of some sort.

The bottom line is pretty simple from what I can see. On average, the very top authors will continue to sell about as many units as they recently have, but will make somewhat less money. Best-selling authors below the top hundred [that’s an estimate] will see noticeable declines in revenues per title released… and authors below that level will likely see even greater decreases in income unless they increase their output and/or marketing efforts. This is, of course, a prediction of a general pattern, and there will always be some authors who will prove the exception… but I doubt there will be many.

Extremism in Pursuit of…

Everywhere I look, today, large numbers of people are taking things to extremes, and declaring they’re exercising their Constitutional rights. Some are; and quite a few are carrying the exercise of those “rights” to extremes. Even when the extremes are legal, and many aren’t, is this always a good idea? Even when one can make a case for such excess, is it good when so many “rights” are being pushed to the limits… and beyond?

The first amendment grants and protects the “right of the people to peaceably assemble,” as it should, but all too many assemblies these days are anything but peaceable. The first amendment also prohibits abridging the freedom of the press, and with each year the media pushes out more obnoxious, vulgar, intolerant, and generally inflammatory content, with less and less factual substance. It’s become more and more about “stirring people up,” as a fictional politician in the movie Primary Colors once declared.

And somehow, the Religious Right seems to believe that: (1) allowing women to decide whether they want to be pregnant or not violates religious rights of the Religious Right; (2) private corporations are individuals that can impose their beliefs on their employees; (3) while insisting that every zygote be carried to full term and born, they also insist that government should provide no aid or support for all those unwanted children once they are born. And they honestly feel that these beliefs are not in the slightest extreme.

Then there’s the second amendment. Now that there’s no doubt that any gun-lover in the United States can own and shoot semi-automatic weapons with fifty bullet magazines, what’s next? Private armored personnel carriers [after all, the police now have them] or your own suitcase A-Bomb?

How about a little self-restraint? Not that our media will allow that, because restraint doesn’t sell. As a matter of fact, at least one media outlet has suggested just such restraint – and has been roundly criticized in some quarters for betraying “freedom of the press.”

Charlie Hebdo carried freedom of the press to extremes; the gunmen who brutally assassinated twelve people at the newspaper carried their beliefs to extremes. Is this the world we wish to create, where extremes battle extremes, and the one with the most firepower wins?

And, please, forget about declaring that extreme use of words and cartoons isn’t the same as extreme use of bullets. No, it’s not, but what the extreme users of words and symbols so easily forget or ignore is that such extreme use of words shapes social and political structures, and that shaping influences those with bullets, just as the words and “teachings” of extremist Islamists influenced the killers of those at Charlie Hebdo. Being one step removed from causing violence doesn’t remove all the blood from your hands. Like it or not, people are swayed by words and symbols, and the extreme use of either all too often results in disaster. Just look at what Hitler accomplished, and it all began with words… just words.

What’s the reason for all this extremism? Is it because we’re all so busy trying to be heard and to make our points that the din we’ve created drowns out all our efforts… or is it because we’re so preoccupied with what we’re doing that we’re not listening… or is it because we’re so convinced of our own “truth” that we disregard the “truths” of others?

Whatever it is, the result is the multiplication of extremism in all forms, and that is the road to hell, superbly paved with our good intentions based on the assumption that we know best, and that only we have the truth on our side in exerting our “freedoms” and beliefs to their extremes.