Cheeseburger Gothic

The quiet catastrophe

Posted July 17 into Writing by John Birmingham

Wrote a piece for my brother's site about disruption and the publishing industry:

My first year as a working writer I made a hundred and thirty-five dollars and ate a lot of generic poverty noodles. My second, a bumper year, I broke two hundred. It was encouraging, but not enough to upgrade to those fancy Maggi noodles the big, prize-winning authors get. After a decade of freelancing, though, I’d made it. I could mostly pay my rent and buy any damn noodles I wanted, as long as I was happy to sleep under a pile of old hessian bags on a brown couch in a share house. I didn’t go into writing expecting to make money and it turned that my expectations were entirely realistic. Starving artist KPIs? Nailed ‘em.

And then I wrote a book about living on brown couches in share houses—He Died With A Felafel In His Hand—and all of that changed, at least for a while.

The nineties and noughties were a golden age in publishing. Books, newspapers, magazines, they all made the sort of money that paid for long lunches which turned into late dinners with open tables and murderous bar bills, settled with somebody-else’s corporate Amex in the first light of dawn the next day.

And then… it was over. Not for me, not straight away, but both industries in which I worked—publishing and media—were disrupted with extreme prejudice. The Great Recession starting in 2008 accelerated a structural collapse which had been underway since Mosaic rendered its first webpage nearly fifteen years earlier. The sorrows of media have all been well traversed; the closing of venerable mastheads, the hundreds of thousands of laid-off journalists, the indignities of clickbait, the desperate raising of paywalls, the erosion of standards, the triumph of advertising over editorial, the shit-eating grins of the surviving management cadre as they tried to pretend everything was still totally golden.

But publishing was ok, right? Bookshelves are still full. Stephen King and J.K. Rowling could still fund their own small war in the Middle East if they wanted. And after a decade of chaos and collapse, independent bookstores are even coming back. What’s up with that?

Did the book industry pivot?

Did big publishers get smart?

Can we for God’s sake please get back to the business of long, bacchanalian lunches again?

No, no and not just no, but hell no.

The rest is here.

9 Responses to ‘The quiet catastrophe’

jl mutters...

Posted July 17
I read this with great interest. My fingers itch with the thought of sending another book into the howling internet wasteland, to be judged by readers in random, isolated locations worldwide.

It's a bit like what many of our ancestors did when they stepped onto ships headed somewhere else. They didn't know what would happen when they got to their destination, but they did know it would be something new. And they would have to adapt or starve.

The frontier of our time is digital, and it looks like the big publishers have received a tomahawk to the face.

Quokka puts forth...

Posted July 21
yes it must have been shocking when they got here & 40% of the indigenous population promptly sickened & died with smallpox.
A friend told me that her child just learned in high school that the English insist it wasn't them that brought the smallpox - it was the French.
I thought better of Catholic ed up until that point but rinse lather repeat seems to be the order of the day.

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NBlob mutters...

Posted July 17
Show noodles. Mmmm.

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Jeats has opinions thus...

Posted July 18
More posts in CBG please John. This site has gone fairly dark recently.

NBlob reckons...

Posted July 20
Jeats Birmo has many demands on his time. If you need a fix subscribe to the Alien Side Boob. It elevates spittle flecked ranting to an art form that reminds me of Henry Moore the flowing forms, the mass with grace and the Fkn great big rocks.

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damian mutters...

Posted July 18
Very interesting. Indeed the last paragraphs suggests there isn't just hope, but real concrete hope for new writers too. You mentioned the other week that a certain organisation had burned you pretty badly, but didn't really go into the details. What you're saying here suggests that the right place to start for someone still silly enough to try non-genre fiction is still writers groups and local agents taking on such things. I guess I'm not clear where the leap into the self-publishing unknown would begin... Doesn't one need some external validation that the product is reasonable? Not in question for a successful juggerauthor, or course. But the starting question remains.

John Birmingham would have you know...

Posted July 18
Yeah, I dunno that I'd want to try self publishing literary fiction. It doesn't sell when trade published, unless they pour buckets of money into promotion. It probably wouldn't sell with indie either.

damian swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted July 22
Yes, it's one of those branch points where several subsequent steps are different depending on the path taken. It seems like local agents are still most interested in non-fiction and Australian literary fiction, while genre is supported better overseas (the location depending slightly on the genre). There doesn't seem to be a specialist entry point for Australian crime fiction, or sf or urban fantasy. I could just be looking in the wrong places of course. And obviously the making-up-my-mind-and-trying-something bit is probably the more important bit at this stage.

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Abe Frellman asserts...

Posted August 7
Having followed this slow moving train wreck over the last decade or so through picking up on what you have (or sometimes haven't) written here on CBG imagine my horror when my first born announced she wanted to do a writing degree with a view to going in to editing or publishing. Anyway after much debate and discussion I came around to the view that (i) it's her life (and HECS bill), but that aside (ii) while publishing might be cactus, all of those self-publishers are going to need editing skills. So I figure the delivery mechanism will change. Is there a market emerging for freelancing editors JB or are there any co-ops springing up? Any thoughts appreciated.

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