The Business of Writing: Looking to the Past

Today I’m going to talk about an age where, as never before, writers were able to make a living from their art on a reasonable scale - not just a few outliers, but in significant numbers, able to earn enough from their writing to do it on a full-time basis - which naturally meant that their production was far greater than if they were working a job as well, with concomitant effects on the quality of their work. (For everything improves with practice, even storytelling.) I’m not talking about today - though I could be. I’m talking about the period from about the 1910s to the 1940s, with the Golden Age around the middle of that time, before the onset of the Great Depression. The era of the pulp authors.

Putting my business hat on for a moment - just for a moment, I swear - one of the jobs of any self-employed person is to study his industry, to look at what is happening and try to work out what will happen in the future. A lot of people have said that the current climate is unique, that it has never happened before - but that is patent nonsense. I can think of two periods immediately, both of which are well worth studying for anyone working as a writer at the moment. Today I’m choosing to focus on the one that is the most obvious parallel, but I will briefly discuss the other…

Which is the boom in self-publishing computer games in the 1980s. A time when creating a game really was one person sitting in his bedroom with a stack of textbooks and a computer, doing the programming, graphics, sounds, the works. (Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders is an excellent history of this period from a British perspective; Hackers covers the American point-of-view, as does Masters of Doom, all of which are excellent reads.) This period lasted through the decade, petering out as bigger competitors and more sophisticated computers meant that development became impossible for a single person or small team - but watch this space, as I think already this notion is making a comeback, and as the tools get better, I think this is something worth looking at.

The main focus of this post, though, goes back a lot further than that, to a more direct parallel. Strange as it may seem today, there was a time when there were hundreds, thousands of magazines devoted to the publication of fiction alone - short stories, novellas, even full novels. I’m tempted to say that this only survives - and just barely - in the science-fiction and fantasy genre, and even then it has really moved to the fringes, with subscriptions in four or five figures. Back in these days, six figures was the norm, even for a less successful magazine, and far from being a ‘broad church’, some of these seem amazingly specific. Submarine Stories, anyone? Far Eastern Adventure Stories? Stories about air-war, romance in the old west, any one of a hundred genres, and while they were notable flops, many of these lasted for years.

There was, of course, a hierarchy of writers. Some of the best-known could command five cents a word, while others would manage on a single cent, but this was the 1920s - and the ten bucks you might get for a thousand-word short was worth a hell of a lot more than it is today. (To whit - 138 dollars, give or take. Not bad for a morning’s work. We can discuss how the rates of payments in magazines haven’t changed since before the Great Depression later.) This was the age of the million words a year writers, where that was almost commonplace - and certainly fifty thousand words a month was extremely common. Which meant - in modern money - almost seven thousand dollars a month, assuming it all sold, for even the most rookie author.

Now, there were still far more failures than successes, and examples of publishers failing to pay writers on time - or at all - were legion. Nevertheless there was an enormous market for fiction, and the demand meant that there were far more ways into the trade than there have ever been. Erle Stanley Gardner worked his apprenticeship before coming up with Perry Mason, as did Raymond Chandler, Robert E. Howard, dozens of names still known and regarded today. Yes, Sturgeon’s Law applied as it always does, but still, a great age.

It came to an end. Of course it did. The Great Depression sucked the life out of the American economy, and that was the first blow - a lot of the pulp publishers were on shoe-string budgets, and toppled easily, and suddenly people needed the ten or twenty cents they’d spent on their favorite magazine for something else, even if it was still available. Publishers began to supplement with reprints that cost them nothing, especially from authors that had made it big since then. The best of the authors survived, escaping to Hollywood or to the ‘slicks’ such as the Saturday Evening Post.

While there was a brief resurgence, the ubiquity of paperback books after the Second World War meant that tastes changed, and suddenly people were able to get their fiction fix at far cheaper prices than before - and the market transformed into something closer to the form it held at the end of the last century. Short paperbacks at first - including, naturally, quite a lot of pulp reprints - then growing longer as time went on. It’s interesting to speculate what some of the great writers of today would have done had this market lasted longer; could A Song of Ice and Fire be a hundred-part serial in Weird Tales or Adventure? (I’d love to see Robert E. Howard’s version of that sort of saga, a hundred-part Hyborian epic would have been thrilling to read.)

Now, of course, things have changed again. The dynamic publishers of the 1950s are clogged up with their overheads, tied to an old system of distribution that - like the pulp magazines of old - no longer works so well, and has been bested by a more efficient rival. We’re entering - have well and truly entered, I feel - the age of the independent or small-press, and given that the set-ups permit the writer to publish himself, with no need for most of the traditional publishing infrastructure, the temptation is there to consider that maybe, at last, things are approaching their ultimate form.

Don’t you believe it for a second. We’re in a time of transformation, and it’s probably safe to assume that things will stay as they are for the present, but something will change it. The Harold Lambs, Norvell Pages and Hoffman Prices of the 1920s would never have thought that their world would change so dramatically or so quickly - nor, I assume, did the Big 5 publishing houses foresee what effect self-publishing would have on their market, and will continue to have in times to come.

(Yes, I do think there is a role for larger publishing houses, certainly in the non-fiction market - but I have a very strong suspicion that the ‘Big 5’ of 2030 will be totally different names and groups than the ‘Big 5’ of 2015 - and that at least half of them will be companies that currently don’t exist. Discussing what I would do if I was running a company like Hachette is far too long-winded for this post, but cutting out as many of their overheads as possible would be a good start, and acknowledging that the most important part of the process is the author would be another.)

Why study the history of your field? Well, you can play with thoughts about where it might go, what might happen next, and thoughts for the future all you want - and I will be talking about that in more detail soon, maybe even tomorrow - but the most important lesson to learn is the inevitability of change. What exists today will not exist tomorrow. If it’s advice you want, it is simply this: Write! Build your backlist, start new series, write new stories, and most important, keep control of the rights to them. Don’t yield them, at least not for any length of time. One thing that is constant is that having completed works is valuable. Say everything changes tomorrow - I still have the novels I have written. I still own the rights. I can still use them. That...that is important.

And for the record, as of yesterday, that includes ‘Traitor’s Duty’, which I finally finished in draft form. Now the editing can begin.

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