A student I’ll call Clem Callow came to me after class the other day and said, “I always thought I wanted to be a writer, but now I’m having doubts. Newspapers and magazines are shutting down, book publishers cutting way back, and MFA programs are pumping out a gazillion people who have diplomas proving they are superb writers—yet they can’t get published. Do you think I should give up my dream and, like my father, become a radio repairman?”
Coincidentally, I had the previous day been speaking with Stephen King, and he’d told me: “With publishing the way it is, I’m getting out. My last book, The Man Who Loved Key’s Duma, sold only 37 copies. You can’t make a living like that. I’m getting into selling baseball memorabilia on Ebay. I’ve got an autograph of Van Lingle Mungo. There’s a poster of the Chicago Cubs lineup of 1773, the last year they won a series. I’ll do all right.”
As I pondered how to reply to Clem, I remembered the optimism of Monroe Munchausen, the man who invented the Kindle ©®™Notary Sojac, the somewhat amazing device sold by Amazon ©®™EPluribus Munich, which allows you to read books and newspapers and stuff on an electronic thing which looks a great deal like a paperback book and costs $360.00. “This will save publishing,” Munchausen maintained, “and we’ve seen sales soar. Last year they soared to six. Sensational.”
But how, I wanted to know, would the Kindle©®RCA Victor prove publishing’s salvation. Munchausen explained: “This thing can hold 1,500 books—1,500. You know how people are always dropping their cell phones into the toilet and losing all their contacts and fuzzy pictures of casual acquaintances? Well, now one slip, and whoosh! There you go! You’ve flushed away your entire library! Talk about convenience!”
Failing to see how technology would make nice for writers and readers, I remembered a number of my former students who’d chosen the small press alternative to the traditional entry-point(s) into the Literary Life. Two years back, Danny D’Lude had published his first novel, Concrete Christ and the Uproarious Mechanical Persistence, through the University of Air Conditioning Repair’s small press imprint, Sassquamous. D‘Lude’s fondest expectations had been far exceeded by sales numbering over three. “But it’s not about sales,” D’Lude explained, “but I can now get federal, state, private, and personal grants. That’s great, and unlike other welfare programs, you don’t even have to prove that you’re looking for a job. You get money based on once having published something and then saying it’s not impossible you may someday possibly publish something else, maybe.”
Of course, web-publications offer an attractive venue available to everyone. And let’s not forget blogs. Why, everyone is running to the web even as we speak to scrutinize, peruse, and read with minimal lip movement all sorts of blogs. I had my list of “Top 20 Must Read Blogs and Emags” on my Kindle(Add Superscript of Your Choice), which, unfortunately, fell into the toilet the other day.
Perhaps, I thought, still seeking the moment of insight that would provide Clem Callow necessary moral support without being untruthful, I should share with him the words of my friend J. June-Delgado, long-time editor of Hit and Miss House Book Publishing. “The death of publishing? Please,” J. chuckled as he swallowed his regular dose of Airicept, which seems to be helping, “there will always be books, and always be people writing ‘em. As long as they are books about teenage vampires. No acne, though. Just fangs. No braces, either. Acne and braces, no sir. Just the other day I was talking with Robert Hemingway, or maybe it was Vachel Linseed … I forget where I parked my Hudson. What was the question again? Could I have a cookie?”
And so Clem Callow, here it is. Publishing today is in the worst shape it’s ever been in. Worse than the early 1970s, when everyone was saying: Publishing today is in the worst shape it’s ever been in. Worse, even, than in 1888, when Mark Twain said, Publishing today is in the worst shape it’s ever been in. And far worse than in 1492, When Gutenberg invented moveable type and Louis Illimanteus, the Head Scribe at Moishe’s Monastery, declared, Publishing today is in the worst shape it’s ever been in.
Things are so bad, Clem, that you had best pursue a career as a freelance shepherd or resident philosopher for a suburban park district or personal trainer for a celebrity chef. And that’s the truth.
That’s what I have to say to Clem Callow and that’s what I’m telling you.
With the hope that that will take a few more from the ranks of my competition.