I Agree and Disagree with Richard Russo

March 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

Upon his return to Tucson, AZ to participate in the 4th annual Tucson Festival of Books March 10-11, 2012, Richard Russo recalled spending many hours in room 350 the Modern Languages building where his first TFB presentation was held and where he recalled only a small audience turned out to hear Richard Yates read one of his brilliant short stories. (Russo would later write the introduction to Yates’ collected stories.)

Russo spent 13 years getting a B.A., M.A. & Ph.D. at the University of Arizona before moving on to teach and then to begin writing fiction. His observations Saturday March 10 on writing and his particular focus were insightful, but the most interesting and controversial comments he made that morning were about what’s going on in the publishing industry.

Russo stated that while he is enthusiastic about the quality and quantity of young writers that he has been exposed to while judging writing contests, he is terrified for their future given the drastic changes taking place in the publishing industry.

He also voiced strong concern about the danger of Amazon’s monopolozing the industry — comments that I agree with. (See Changing Hands bookstore boycotts Amazon titles)

I see the situation for young, or, as I’d rather put it, new writers as being quite the opposite of Russo’s. The old, now dead, publishing model would have been far worse for the coming generation than present circumstances because it would have quenched the flame of the majority, allowing only a small few to gain the portals of literary prominence. Instead, today’s world of book publishing is fostering two viable alternatives for new writers — the growth of small, independent publishing houses and self-publishing, but more importantly, it is dramatically expanding the universe of readers.

Let me explain. What e-book technology is doing is both disrupting the old system AND vastly expanding the audience, which is why it’s a great time to be a writer. In the past, to read Richard Russo, one would either have to shell out $30 for a hardcover copy — the equivalent of a week’s pay in some countries, a month’s pay in others — or pay $15 for the paperback when the publisher decided they’d milked the hardcover buyers sufficiently. That production/pricing system limited the audience of potential readers to a few thousand located in the US and other developed English-speaking countries.

The new system makes books available world-wide at prices that millions more can afford. Thus, new writers can find their audience without requiring the expenditure of tens of thousands by publishing house marketing departments, without requiring them to negotiate the review mill dominated by the NY Times, Washington Post and a few other newspapers, and without publishers having to print thousands of copies and shipping them out to bookstores near and far (which of course adds considerably to the price).

The new system also reduces the time from when a book is done to when it can be read from YEARS to DAYS.

The remaining question is whether writers can “make a living” under the new model. Some people are doubtful and decry the changes, but I am optimistic. On my side of the argument is the fact that authors who self-publish today make a higher royalty on their sales of both print and e-book editions than under the old system. I’ll admit authors today have to do more on their own by way of marketing their books and building up a following, but that’s true even for authors published by the traditional publishers.

Keep in mind that changes in the publishing industry have just begun. It’s likely the traditional publishers will adapt and survive; it’s likely that Amazon will not get away with trying to monopolize control; it’s likely that small publishers will find ways to promote their authors and it’s likely that more and more writers will self-publish and will obtain returns commensurate with the quality of their work.

Stay tuned.

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