Friday, June 06, 2008

Who pays the writer?

No one pays this writer, I might mention, but that ain't the point.

For some reason that's not worth going into here, I stumbled across this interesting article by Carol Guensberg from the American Journalism Review, about foundations finding more creative ways to fund journalism. As I become increasingly suspiciously of the news around issues like toxic chemicals, global warming, fossil fuels, Cuba and Venezuela, and more, I was intrigued by this development. As Guensberg reports,
Beleaguered journalists who once clung solely to the business model of paid advertising and circulation now recognize the urgency of developing new revenue sources for labor-intensive newsgathering. For some, foundations hold increasing promise as allies in meeting the public's information needs — beyond superficial headlines and celebrity sexploits — so long as there are safeguards for editorial independence.
This makes sense to me. Of course advertising dollars are going to at least give a certain direction to editorial choices. The idea of a good foundation supporting truly independent research and reporting is pretty exciting to me. ProPublica is one such organization, bankrolled comfortably by California philanthropists Herbert M. and Marion O. Sandler.

I know it's hard for small publishers to pay journalists enough money to support even a basic lifestyle long enough to write a book. This is something I've struggled to figure out as an editor coming up with the best advance I can for an author. It makes sense to find an arrangement where a foundation helps out, without dictating how the reporting should go or what the reporter can and cannot uncover. It's been done before, of course, but it should be done more.

Instead, we're often left, as readers, with whatever the corporate publishers have decided it is we want. I've become increasingly fascinated with this strange process: corporate publishers pick a title and decide it'll be a hit, so they throw tons of money at it. If it works, great, but if not, stop throwing and move on, and leave the author out to dry. It's a system wherein even books, which take so much work and so long, in the old-fashioned sense of actual time, are supposed to deliver immediately, or they miss their chance and are over. We want everyone to decide at once that this 300 page book is worth buying. Reviewers have to get it read and written about, commenters on Amazon have to digest and praise it, producers and editors have to decide the idea is original enough but not too different to alienate viewers/listeners/readers.

It sometimes seems like a big joke.

And then li'l Scotty McClellan's book hits and his publisher, PublicAffairs, actually uses Lightning Source print-on-demand for 7,000 immediate copies! I don't know why but this strikes me as amusing. I mean, what's to stop publishers from putting out fewer copies now and then waiting for the select titles to hit, and then pushing the POD button? Less risk for them, assuming the printing costs aren't too high. But that would mean authors would have less faith placed on them, and the ones that don't work as well will have fewer of their books in the world. It takes a certain amount of chance out of the equation, but it also allows us to avoid phenomenol failures, when massive numbers of a bomb sit around in bookstores across the land.

I guess I'd rather see independent publishers, which may have to be non-profit for this to work, get support so they don't have to risk as much by putting all their resources into advances. Instead, big publishers use their money but then often screw writers in the way they actually print up and distribute and publicize their titles. If Iraq isn't selling, Iraq don't get covered. I've seen this with veteran issues, a topic on which I've published, and it's maddening, but I feel helpless because I can't keep doing the books if no one's going to buy them.

As I make a career change (more to come on that), I think I may continue this non-profit/profit-in-publishing way of thinking to support writers doing good progressive work for the public interest. Watch this space!

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