Friday, January 23, 2009

Could It Be . . . Good News?

By John Gilstrap

Perhaps the future is not as bleak as we fear it to be.

According to the January 19, 2009, edition of Publishers Weekly, the National Endowment for the Arts reported last week that the population of fiction readers in the United States has increased by 16.6 million since 2002, “creating the largest audience in the history of the NEA survey.” No one knows why, exactly, but there’s general agreement that this is a good thing.

I have to tell you that the news doesn’t surprise me. For years—even during the days of the booming economy—I’ve listened to publishers and frightened authors complaining that no one ever reads anymore; yet when I walk into a B&N or Borders anywhere in the country, the aisles are fairly packed with people, and I have to wait in line before I can check out. Who are these people if not readers?

More recently, we’ve heard about the “collapse” of the publishing industry, with the concomitant panic response of layoffs and such, but then we hear of net sales declines of less than one percent. I understand that negative growth is never good in business, but a gnat’s whisker from break even—on the heels of five years of record growth—is hardly a “collapse.”

Years ago, when I was a junior officer in the fire service, a veteran captain gave me one of the great antidotes to panic: a good old fashioned deep breath. When you roll up on a working fire in the middle of the night, where people may or may not be trapped, and there’s a fleet of additional fire trucks on their way, and you have to make a thousand relatively irreversible decisions in just a few seconds, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. The captain’s specific advice was to sit in the cab of the fire truck for five seconds, and allow myself a couple of cleansing breaths before I say anything to anyone. It always worked.

I think the CEOs of the major publishing houses need to take a breath. I think authors need to take a breath, too. There seems to be this snowballing of doom that is augmented by rumors of more doom. This despite the fact that bookstores are still crowded, and more people than ever are reading. More books than ever are being published. Writers make the Times List for the first time every year. The Internet is an unexplored new frontier.

There are a lot of positive things happening. Sure, there are negatives, too, but I choose not to concentrate on those.

For the time being, I get to write books and get paid for it. No, really. Think about it. I get to write books and get paid for it! The publishers and their distribution networks will find their balance, and good times will return; but even when they do, I'm still going to have to work just as hard as I do now. In fact, no matter how good the business becomes in the future, this business of living one’s dream will never be easy.

As writers, we face far greater challenge than any of the suits in the publishing houses: We have to stay relevant.

I think of that great line from Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” Nowhere is the statement truer than in the entertainment business--our business. The reading public is building everyday. They're building new tastes in new media. They're seeking new inspiration, and they're facing new fears. They're telling us all as clearly as they know how what they're looking for.

But will we come? Will we be the ones to satisfy their needs, or will that honor fall to others who spend less time looking behind, and more time thinking like entrepreneurs? They’re the customers, after all. We are merely the supply chain.


  1. Thanks for this post, John. I've been in a why-do-I-bother-to-keep-writing mood this week and this was just what I needed to read. Back to the manuscript!

  2. Inspiring words and a great positive outlook, John. I've yet to walk into my local B&N or Borders and see bare shelves and empty aisles.

    I recently finished 11 months of reviewing 221 novels for a national literary award. A number were from debut authors. That's just for the original paperback category. There were many other categories with an equal number of submissions. Books are getting published. Advances are getting paid. And readers are reading. I can certainly think of many other industries that are much less attractive than publishing right now.

  3. Hear, hear! Finally someone has an outlook that depends on some evidence, instead of the usually woe is me woe is me the sky is falling we hear everywhere.

    Taking a deep breath is good advice across the board. Instead of panicking, everyone should (in the words of Deadwood's Al Swearingen) calm the f*%@ down.

  4. Bravo, John! And speaking of Bravos, in my endless habit of reading nuts and bolts how-to books on writing I'm currently reading Writing the Thriller by T. Macdonald Skillman. And who do I find wrote a great chapter on Issue-driven Psychological Suspense--John Gilstrap! Great advice in that chapter, and it was so exciting to find my fellow Killer in Skillman's book!

  5. Hear hear, John! Very well said. I had a similar reaction to the sales report. I had already suspected there was a Chicken Little element to the publishing panic(the doom and gloom seems to feed on itself, doesn't it?)

    That being said, this has without question been a tough time for the indies. More and more closing down each year, which is tragic.

  6. Outstanding attitude. You get an A+ for optimism John.

    It is good to hear such from someone already in the game as I sit here in the warm up cage getting ready to step to the plate. I can't stop writing and telling stories, and so intend to make a living at it. So I am working hard and waiting for the publishing faeries sprinkle me with their dust.

    Keep plugging along and it will come if you work hard enough. Stay the course, focused on the goal and ignore all the bodies on the battlefield. According to my USMC DI's, they were "the ones who hesitated at the moment of decision."

    It goes with my personal motto, borrowed from my mates in the SAS...

    Who Dares, Wins

  7. Thanks for the optimism; it's in short order these days. But I believe there will always be a market for new (well told) stories, even if the format is changing.

  8. Old doom and gloom here. Thanks, John, I needed that. It's all changing, but stories aren't going anywhere. The publishing business is going to change, and they have always been whining about how bad the business is. Well, since I've been paying attention anyway. It's been all about rate of growth so long everybody thinks that is how it has to be measured. Anything can only grow so much before it don't no more.