Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

God Bless Us, Every One

Just the other day I was wondering how books fared during the Great Depression, in terms of the kind of books being written and their sales. Our Florida correspondent, aka Michael Haskins, sends us Tom Engelhardt’s answer, which comes via the Los Angeles Times. Warning: if you’re a writer, this piece might well ruin your Christmas. To wit:
As for the third factor fostering the illusion of prosperity, it was well known in the business that, during the Depression, books, like movies, had done splendidly. They were an inexpensive distraction, consumable at home at a time when not much else pleasurable was going on. Ergo, books would be no less recession-proof in the next big downturn.
There was no reason to believe otherwise ... unless you happened to focus on just how many dazzling entertainment options had, in the interim, entered the American home at prices more than competitive with the book. After all, most Americans can now read endlessly on the Internet, play video games, download music, watch movies and even write their own novels without stepping outside. The $27.95 hardcover and the $15.95 paperback, meanwhile, are hardly inexpensive. Publishers nonetheless clung to this bit of Depression-era lore for dear life as economic bad times bore down. Wrongly, as it turned out …
  The book remains a techno-wonder that not even the Kindle has surpassed. But it’s a wonder in a very crowded entertainment universe and a world plunging into the worst of times. The chain bookstore, the bloated publishing house and the specific corporate way of publishing that goes with them are indeed in peril. This may no longer be their time. As for the time of the book, it does seem to be shortening as well.
  All of which is pretty gloomy, it has to be said. But here’s the thing: for writers like me, by which I mean someone who isn’t making enough money out of writing to justify doing it, nothing has changed. I’ll keep writing anyway, hoping someone will pick up my next book, and the next book after that. Besides, what else would I be doing with those three spare minutes a day?
  Meanwhile, publishers can’t afford not to support their big sellers, and they can also afford to take relatively cheap punts on the bottom-feeders, hoping that one or two of them will pay off. Which means that it’s probably the mid-listers who are going to get squeezed over the next couple of years. Or am I being excessively pessimistic?


Gerard Brennan said...

As much as I hate to admit it, I share your pessimism. I've pretty much written off 2009 as the year it won't happen for me (at any level). But in a way, I feel better for it. Like I'm under less pressure. Anybody asks me if I've sold Piranhas yet and I can blame it on the credit crunch/recession. In the meantime I'll just merrily blog away, write as much as I can and see what happens. And you know, there's still a little optimism there. 2010, 2011... who knows what's going to happen?


John McFetridge said...

Okay, I'm going to get all Pollyanna on your ass here, buds.

Those of us who are still reading books clearly can't stop. So much energy, technology, competition for our time, etc., etc., has been thrown at us these past hundred years and still we continue to read books.

Hell, Nintendo is bringing out books for the DS game system.

If books were going to stop being read it would have happened years ago - TV would have killed them, the movies would have, video games would've, the internet...

I doubt more than a tiny percentage of the population have ever been avid book readers and I doubt that percentage is likely to change much - one way or the other. But we're stubborn and we replace our lost commrades with just enough new recruits to keep us going.

Yes, 2009 will be a tough year to get started making money - the whole thing is in flux and we don't know how it's going to shake out - but it'll be a fine time to write. There's plenty of material.

And it's now possible to get that writing out there and meet people. I met you guys this year and that never would have happened thirty years ago when I started at this (don't use me as an example, not many people sell a short story in 1985 and then nothing till 2004 - but I will say if I had been able to get stuff in webzines and the like, I would have instead of just getting the constant stream of rejections from print publications I did get).

It's not all bad. It's hard. We're hard (well, okay, not really, but we can write hard).

adrian mckinty said...


I really think you're onto something. Its a big effort to buy and read a book, so why not just skip it esp when it costs a fortune. I got a a trade paperback of the new Paul Theroux yesterday. It cost 40 dollars here in Australia! 40 bucks for a trade pbk! If it hadnt been for a Christmas present I would never have spent that in a million years.

Gerard Brennan said...

Ade - 40 f*ckin dollars!!! That's like 18 quid, man. Jesus H Christ! Can you get them any cheaper by buying from the likes of the UK or US sites, or does the postage screw you over?

John - Yeah, I appreciate the fact that I'm cutting my teeth in writing with the aid of the internet. A lot of the great stuff that's happened for me only has because of the online writing communities I've stumbled upon. Which is why I plan on targeting a lot of the electronic crime and noir venues with a clatter of shorts this year. Look what happened to Stuart Neville. Lightning may not strike twice, but you can't bitch about not winning the lottery if you don't buy a ticket.

And metaphors are free, so why not go nuts with them?


John McFetridge said...

Adrian, have a look at the Sony e-reader. It's still too expensive, but there's a lot of potential. The e-ink screen is nothing like a computer screen, it really reads like a book.

If I had an e-reader now, I could go here and pick up Dead I Well May Be for six bucks (The Bloomsday Dead is still almost sixteen bucks, but wirth it).

Declan Burke said...

I don't know, folks. It probably won't be quite as bad as we expect it to be, but it'll be nowhere as good as we hope. Business as usual, then ...

Cheers, Dec

adrian mckinty said...


More like twenty friggin quid. Ridiculous.


Hmmmm, very very interesting. I will look into that. But here's my big question. Dare you take it into the bath?

John McFetridge said...

Yeah, business as usual, Dec, business as usual.

Adrian, this is Canada, we take quick showers and get our parkas and mukluks and togues back on as fast as we can...

Anonymous said...

Oh sigh. I worry about stuff like this regularly.
Anyway, doom and gloom be damned, have a lovely Christmas Declan, and indeed everyone.


seanag said...

I agree with Tom Englehardt's comment, and in fact was trying to say much the same thing here on the previous post. His blog is fantastic by the way, though tends to be mainly political, not literary. It was the first blog I followed in any sort of regular way.

But I actually find John McFetridge's points both true and heartening. It's funny, but despite the fact that the book biz in a bricks and mortar store gets harder and harder to square, people do still just buy tons and tons of books. I mean, we forget because we always want the numbers to go up, but I have to say that when I was a kid, I came from a book reading family, but it certainly wasn't a huge book buying family. We did own plenty, probably more than a lot of our neighbors, but a lot of these had been passed down, and a lot were gifts. Our main book source by far was the library. We weren't unusual in that, and yet writers did manage to get their books published all the same.

I don't doubt that the shift to ebooks is going to grow, but though that may be bad news for storefront businesses, it's not necessarily bad news for authors. I think it may actually help short story writers, who have had a problematic existence since the big general interest magazines have slowly been phasing them out. And they may also help people read authors from other countries more easily. It will give people like Adrian readier access, for instance in a country where price on print books is prohibitive.

This is a bit namedropping, but I was actually at a party with the author Jonathan Franzen this weekend. After writing memoir and essays for awhile, he's hard at work on another novel. He's already sold it, so he's not in the same position that some of you are here. But he didn't seem too disturbed by the prospect of Kindle, which he doesn't think is yet the tool for people who actually like to read novels. His estimate is that there are about 500,000 people in the U.S. who like to read good books that have something to say. That may sound like an appallingly small number for a population our size, but he said, "You know, I think that's enough for me." I don't think he had any idea that he was personally going to get anything like 500,000 readers. But he meant that that's still a big enough group to make the endeavor worthwhile.

I know, I'm joining the Pollyanna bandwagon here too. I think that's okay once in awhile. Especially in this season. Happy holidays everyone, and do keep writing.

adrian mckinty said...


Jonathan F indeed! You know what I'd say to him: I bought The Corrections for the lesbian erotica but I stayed for the jokes. Then he'd say "actually I have to go over here now."

Personally I'd be over the moon with 5000 copies sold.

seanag said...

You know the odd thing is that after I posted that I went downtown for my usual "I'm not cooking so what is there in the way of prepared food?" quest, and as I was walking past Long's, there was a little beep-beep and there he was in his car just being friendly. He doesn't live here most of the year, just occasionally. I'm saying this mostly because after the whole Oprah kefuffle, he got sort of a bad rap, when actually he is a very nice guy. We're just friendly through mutual friends, but before I ever met him, I defended him as his sole representative about declining the Oprah appearance at one particularly heated Thanksgiving meal, so I feel I have somewhat earned the friendship.

Also, I think he's a fantastic writer. And actually, he went through, and I think actually still goes through, his share of writerly angst about the future of novels. Once upon a time, he wrote a great rant about the writing life for the Atlantic which I think is collected in his essay collection How to Be Alone. That was the first I ever heard of him.

adrian mckinty said...


I only know him through The Corrections. The stuff on the cruise ship - friggin hilarious. The cooking stuff was good too, and yes the erotica wasnt bad either. I'll check out those essays.