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The economy is weak and people don’t have a lot of money.  There are a lot of writers around, but they are finding a hostile market where it is hard to get paid a decent wage.  Some of them have started writing in a more experimental if hard way in part to get noticed.  Eventually, a new technology will create new markets for their work and a “Golden Age” of writing in a new style will be born.

Sound unlikely?  It happened once before, in the Great Depression.  The new technology was the paperback, and the writers that came out of this difficult time include Faulkner, Buck, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck.

There is no doubt that there is an excess of writers in the world, at least in the fiction market.  Advances have become increasingly rare for those that manage to get the attention of a publisher.  These writers have come out of the woodwork from all classes and professions, many looking for the cache of the title “author” as much as anything.  Self-publishing and the ability to economically make a small run of individual paperbacks has made their dreams possible.

This new generation of writers is challenging a canon built up in Universities that offer an MFA to anyone who wants to take the professional route to writing.  What the new arrivals offer is a different approach, one that is more akin to the folk art of story telling and often based on very real experience.  When the two meet, the result is often that they talk past each other.  Theory isn’t communicating with the personal art all that well.

The result is something that I call “Waiting for Steinbeck”.  In cultural terms, the systems that we have come to depend on are imploding from cronyism, incompetence, and irrelevance.  In technological terms, the internet promises to deliver writers a new way to reach their audiences once we figure out how to cheaply deliver text while still allowing the author a financial incentive.  In writing terms, we have to have a system for identifying and developing talent much like a minor league farm system.

The paperback was key to this during in the Depression, the last time the systems of our lives fell apart.  Steinbeck was first published in hardback, but his immense popularity came from early paperback editions.  Pearl Buck also was an early adopter of the paperback form.  Mass audiences made books written for the masses possible, and a new style of writing took hold.  The internet could do this for us again, at least once the key questions are answered.

The time is right, the pool of talent is wide, and the way the written word is delivered is changing.  Something will come of this, and it may even be a new Golden Age.  The question is how it happens and who takes advantage of it first.  I hope to be there, and I look forward to chatting with anyone who has a few ideas.

15 thoughts on “Paperback

  1. Interesting thought!
    It’d be nice to see a golden age for writers – but I personally doubt if technology is going to herald that. Perhaps shorter books, fewer pages, or maybe stories serialized in newspapers? Just thoughts. But tell me, why do you say a golden period will be born?

  2. We could have a new golden age, and I’m (as always) remarkably hopeful for a cynic.

    We have a lot of new creative forces coming to bear, and if that’s combined with a reduction in price (books are about 70% printing and distribution) we might have more readers. That’s the key to it all – finding more readers through new, more socially relevant writing and cost reductions.

    Besides, the medium will be cheaper than other forms of entertainment, which is always a good thing in a Depression.

  3. I, for one, can’t stand ebooks. I can’t curl up with a laptop and get into a story. If you can get past that hurdle, you may have something here. I know that I’ve heard of a lot of writers on the net that I never would have before.

  4. Technology will change the way some read but not all.The advent of e-books, books on-line and books down loadable to pda’s and phones one day will make literature more availible.
    I also see pay to read sites for those who choose to create only on-line works of literature. I also see alot of self publication of literature due tho the internet.
    Those with vision and talent will open new markets and create interactive novels where readers can guide the outcome of the novel. Create interactive woks that link the reader to additional information or past works for context. It is going to be interesting to watch it roll out.

  5. Janine: I have an idea. If anyone out there knows how to work with pdf formats, I’d love to hear from them.

    Brian: I think we have a chance to change a lot of things. Paperbacks are about $7 at the cheapest, but I think we can make something that can be sold for about $3 or less. I have a wild idea … 🙂

  6. I can’t stand e-books either, but I wonder at the lack of market for real books anymore. I’m thinking about starting a local community of readers, a sort of book club of people who might be willing to figure out, as readers, what it is we really want and then start communicating that to publishers.

  7. You know, I should confess something here. I included Fitzgerald as a beneficiary of the development of the paperback. Actually, his career was made by publishing short stories in magazines before the Depression hit. I didn’t mind doing this because the same technology is involved, which is to say binding with a paper spine and glue – and the particular technology that I have in mind will do for both in the new internet age.

    I feel better for having confessed this. Whew!

  8. Very interesting. Talent is plentiful, imagination is unlimited, writers are getting trained like crazy. And the old model is broken. The traditional publishing model grinds the creativity out of us. Plus we’re in at least a recession. What to do? I think about that a lot. My first book was published in paperback. It won awards but couldn’t get reviews. The second, a novel, isn’t officially out yet, but is getting excellent reviews wherever it’s submitted (so far). That speaks for casebound debuts. For me, reading is an aesthetic experience as well as inhaling a story. I like the look and feel of fine books. I don’t have a Kindle or Kibble or whatever it is, hate e books, and really don’t like paperbacks much. Economics tell us those alternatives and others should be explored. What I have learned is more important than anything is sales, and the most important part of that is the author reaching out and touching the audience. Works best in person. What will sustain the literary world in the next ten years? Us reaching out to connect with each other in profound ways, not based on the number of “friend” we have on some stupid site but based on touching each others’ souls.

  9. Erik, I’ve come late to this party, but I’d be interested in keeping the conversation going.

    I’ve been blogging a novel called Servicing the Pole at my website, <a href=http://www.laurishaw.com, for the past two months. I am not looking to monetize my site, so I suppose that in this regard I’m no competition for traditional publishers. I use the Creative Commons license, which means that in theory I can republish my work where and when I want to. I generate some interest in my writing, and that’s good enough for me.

    I certainly have wondered, though, what happens when more new talent figures out that we all have this option. Once a larger number of talented writers are using the internet effectively to disseminate content en masse, what will that do to the (already fragile) business model in publishing right now?

    I’d be happy to mull over this, plus other questions about the future of publishing, with you. Email me if you like.


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