Oh, What a Tangled Web We Weave...

Quick recap: Last week I posted “Power…and Money,” which pointed out four things: (1) American authors’ income has declined 42% in the last decade; (2) the same cannot be said for others who work in the publishing industry; (3) without writers and illustrators, there wouldn’t be an industry at all; and (4) perhaps it is time we, as creators, took back our power.

That’s all the ground I tried to cover in that post. (A blog post—longer than a tweet, but shorter than a book—is a form with limits, which is one of the things I like about it.) 

A lot of people responded to the post on social media with their own thoughts, questions, personal experiences, and perspectives, which is great. I’m glad the conversation expanded. (Because I’m no longer on social media, I heard about these responses second hand, which is also fine.) 

The more people talked about the topic of power and money in children’s publishing, the more thoughts occurred to me, and I tried to capture some of what people were saying, some of what I was thinking, and some of the thoughts from various books I’ve been reading this summer about the attention economy and the fast-paced rise of surveillance capitalism. (I’ve included below a picture of just some of the titles that I’ve read on this subject in the last few months.)

Out of this nest of ideas, I created a web diagram in my notebook (see header above), and I was struck by both the richness of the topics that bubbled up and the intersectionality of various ideas and experiences that were offered in people’s responses. I did my best to gather all these points of intersection in a visual form and was surprised at what a connected—though disorganized—web they created. There’s chaos in that diagram, but also deep, deep ties.

That’s what I want to explore. The deep ties between the questions people asked following my post.

The most insistent question people seemed to ask was, “But HOW? How do we take back our power?” Lisa Robinson noted in the Comments section, “So what do we do?! Organize a union? Rise up?! Perhaps we need those with ‘more’ power than us to assert their power (ie. bestselling authors with clout (hello J.K. :).”

And looking at responses to the post on Twitter and Facebook, my friend Nancy Werlin pondered in an email: “But everybody is stumbling over the HOW do I reclaim some power and what if the answer is the same one it is throughout publishing careers, which is simply: It’s individual; there is no one way.”

Excellent questions. And ones that need some time and space to unpack and delve into. So, I’m going to take the Slow Media approach (or at least my take on that movement’s aims and methods) and continue the conversation over the summer here on my blog. Because truth does rely on the tempo, and it’s summer ( s-l-o-w  d-o-w-n ), and this is a blog, so…if we want to get somewhere worth going, we’re going to have to take the long way ‘round. 

I know everyone wants to jump to the how,  the twelve-step program to reclaiming your power as a writer. And it’s true, I do have a fair amount of personal experience with that and a lot to say on the subject. But I also understand that we’re all eager to believe in the 21st-century fantasy of quick answers to complex questions—and I believe that’s the trap that keeps us ensnared.  As I look (slowly) at the expanding web diagram of thoughts and ideas in the pages of my notebook, I realize that there are a lot of foundational ideas and misconceptions that we need to analyze before any of us can say, “Here’s my Step One to regaining my power.” But once that foundation is laid, we create the possibility of mapping out a true path to gaining power and agency in this very brutal industry, which I absolutely believe is possible, on both an individual and collective level.

So, that’s the first thing I want to say in this blog post. Over here, we’re going to take it slow. And the swirling Tilt-A-Whirl of social media can respond in any way it wants (like I said, I won’t know, because I got off that ride), but EVERYONE is welcome to take a side trip over here to the relatively slow world of blogs and comment sections to discuss this issue (if it engages you). I will always be interested to hear what you have to say, so please do leave a comment as we explore this topic together.

The second thing I want to say in this post is that we can’t dive into the agency part (the how, the twelve steps, the quick fix to taking back our lost power) until we kill the dragon: namely, that somehow this is all our fault. That we did something or didn’t do something; that if we were just better at marketing our work or if we could master social media or if we could get that review or that speaking gig or that person to blurb our next book; that we failed in some way; that we just aren’t good enough writers and that’s why our income is dropping (42% in a decade of increasing profits in the publishing industry across the Big Five). But the truth is in the lie, because (1) as a group, we used to be “good enough” to earn 42% more than we do now, and (2) this isn’t happening just to you. It’s happening to a whole lot of writers, more than you will ever know because no one wants to talk about it. The whole topic of falling income is smeared in shame and fear, and I want to look at that before we go further.

Here’s just one author’s experience

“Maybe the most embarrassing thing, thinking back on that time [of debut novel success], is wondering how many people I ignored who were in the position I find myself in now. How many really nice, talented writers tried to talk to me about how hard it was, and I did NOT want to hear it. I was afraid, as we all tend to be, that it might be contagious. I’m sure I thought to myself that they were just not trying hard enough, or—here’s the worst reality a writer can possibly imagine—they aren’t as good as they think they are. … If I were the only one going through this, I would know it was me. I would know that I really am one of those people who think they’re better than they are. But I know so many writers, many very good writers, who are struggling with this same situation.”

That was written in 2014. Have you noticed that things aren’t getting better on their own? 

So, let’s take this slow. Let’s compare notes. Let’s be honest with each other. Let’s try to be brave. Let’s help take care of each other. And let’s stop beating ourselves up for a situation that is way more complex and intertwined with forces beyond our control than it might at first appear. This business is hard enough. Let’s do the work, let’s do it together, and let’s get real with each other.

I hope I’ll see you here next week.


Five books with ideas that intersect with a whole lot of other stuff.

Five books with ideas that intersect with a whole lot of other stuff.