Reprinted (ironically) without permission

In New York the other night, I ran into my daughter’s favorite author, Mary Pope Osborne, whose “Magic Tree House” books I’ve read to the child at night, and a moment later, Scott Turow, who writes legal thrillers that keep people awake all night, and David Remnick, the biographer of President Barack Obama. Bang bang bang, one heavyweight after another. Erica Jong, Jeffrey Toobin, Judy Blume. It was a rooftop party in Tribeca that I got invited to via a well-connected pal, wall-to-wall authors and agents and editors and elegant young women in little black dresses, standing, white wine in hand, looking out across the Hudson at the lights of Hoboken and Jersey City, eating shrimp and scallops and spanikopita on toothpicks, all talking at once the way New Yorkers do.

I grew up on the windswept plains with my nose in a book, so I am awestruck in the presence of book people, even though I have written a couple books myself. These are anti-elitist times, when mobs are calling for the downfall of pointy-head intellectuals who dare tell decent people what to think, but I admire the elite. I’m not one of them — I’m a deadline writer, my car has 150,000 miles on it — but I’m sorry about their downfall. And this book party in Tribeca feels like a Historic Moment, like a 1982 convention of typewriter salesmen or the hunting party of Kaiser Wilhelm II with his coterie of plumed barons in the fall of 1913 before the Great War sent their world spinning off the precipice.

Call me a pessimist, call me Ishmael, but I think that book publishing is about to slide into the sea. We live in a literate time, and our children are writing up a storm, often combining letters and numerals (U R 2 1derful), blogging like crazy, reading for hours off their little screens, surfing around from Henry James to Jesse James to the epistle of James to pajamas to Obama to Alabama to Alanon to non-sequiturs, sequins, penguins, penal institutions, and it’s all free, and you read freely, you’re not committed to anything the way you are when you shell out $30 for a book, you’re like a hummingbird in an endless meadow of flowers.

And if you want to write, you just write and publish yourself. No need to ask permission, just open a website. And if you want to write a book, you just write it, send it to or BookSurge at Amazon or PubIt or ExLibris and you’ve got yourself an e-book. No problem. And that is the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.

Back in the day, we became writers through the laying on of hands. Some teacher who we worshipped touched our shoulder, and this benediction saw us through a hundred defeats. And then an editor smiled on us and wrote us a check, and our babies got shoes. But in the New Era, writers will be self-anointed. No passing of the torch. Just sit down and write the book. And The New York Times, the great brand name of publishing, whose imprimatur you covet for your book (“brilliantly lyrical, edgy, suffused with light” — NY Times) will vanish (Poof!). And editors will vanish.

The upside of self-publishing is that you can write whatever you wish, utter freedom, and that also is the downside. You can write whatever you wish, and everyone in the world can exercise their right to read the first three sentences and delete the rest.

Self-publishing will destroy the aura of martyrdom that writers have enjoyed for centuries. Tortured geniuses, rejected by publishers, etc., etc. If you publish yourself, this doesn’t work anymore, alas.

Children, I am an author who used to type a book manuscript on a manual typewriter. Yes, I did. And mailed it to a New York publisher in a big manila envelope with actual postage stamps on it. And kept a carbon copy for myself. I waited for a month or so and then got an acceptance letter in the mail. It was typed on paper. They offered to pay me a large sum of money. I read it over and over and ran up and down the rows of corn whooping. It was beautiful, the Old Era. I’m sorry you missed it.

Garrison Keillor’s column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun.

When everyone’s a writer, no one is
In a world where everything’s free on the web, what will happen to publishing
Garrison Keillor
Baltimore Sun May 25, 2010

Category: Books

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

16 Responses to “When everyone’s a writer, no one is”

  1. TheInterest says:

    Is this an example of the transaction cost going down? He describes about typing, carbon copy (the old way), etc., etc. as the costly process to writing. What about the flip-side that says someone with great ideas and experiences can now do this much cheaper and now using the free market can establish themselves as an expert? Eventually people will not get market share, they’ll tire of only having 14 readers, and instead just become commenters on someone else’s blog. A blog that people read but yet a blog that no one bothers to read the comments. Including this comment.

  2. cewing says:

    Yes, that’s the problem – too many choices, too much riff-raff who can express themselves to others. I, too, long for the days when communication was a privilege and editors and book companies decided who had permission to speak.

    I can’t believe I used to listen to Keillor on the radio. He’s a crusty old fart wrapped up in “‘Minnesota Nice.”

  3. Pete from CA says:

    “I admire the elite”

    That about sums it up. You may not be one of them, but your inferiority complex has been kept in check by being able to brush up to them. Look at that shameless namedropping right off the start…

    Had you been alive at the end of the 18th century, I bet you would have warned the French that they will miss Louis XVI and his court.

    I say: viva la (Internet) revolution!!!

  4. Avl Dao says:

    I agree with most of Keillor’s points. And we have examples in the arts here in Asheville where everyone is an artist, most produce junk, and earn minimal money at it.
    Keillor is not putting up barriers to the self-publishing juggernaut, just as I am not stopping the self-annointted-artist movement. No harm, no foul; the unwashed masses are and remain free to self-publish and to create their own art. As Keillor remains free to note it’s mostly now junk.

  5. TacomaHighlands says:

    I am just about to agree with this post then…wait. Last night took our son to see Shrek 3. Afterward we headed over to the Barnes & Noble. I wanted to pick up Chip & Dan Heath’s fabulous book Switch:How to Change things when things are Hard and the first Stieg Larsson book because the hold list at the county library is way too long. I happened upon Larsson’s books in the large print section. Bought all 3 volumes of ‘em. Heck, large print…why not! Maybe I won’t have to read ‘em with my 1.75 readers. #1 son (12) loves the Percy Jackson series that we got for #2 son (9) for his birthday earlier in the month. So we bought vol. #4 and #5. #5 only out in hardback. Just about when I think I’ve stopped buying books for good, then BAM…I go and break my personal rule.

  6. sounds like the quakings of a suddenly freed House Slave..

    “Timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the tempestuous sea of liberty.”
    –Thomas Jefferson

    or, if those elucidating Editors, and those fabulous ‘Fashion-Makers’, are, actually, so good, a little competition would, only, make it more apparent.

    and, “Our Betters”, We should f****** wonder, you know, for a Change..

  7. donna says:

    Oh, and, “get off my better than average lawn!”

  8. constantnormal says:

    The 15th century monks were doubtless similarly incensed when Gutenberg took away their lock on production of the printed word. But then literacy soared to heights previously unachieved, and somehow everything worked out OK.

  9. constantnormal says:

    @Avi Dao 11:18 am

    “… As Keillor remains free to note it’s mostly now junk.”

    … excepting blog comments, of course :)

  10. ashpelham2 says:

    I wonder about this effect in other areas. Thanks to the ability to shop prices from the comfort of your own home, on so many products and services, margins on everything except luxury goods have become hard to come by. Companies like Wal Mart decided long ago to give up on high margins in favor of volume and bulk. Thus, the dawn of the big box super store. In the literary world, we have one very large big box store, with more and more offerings showing up each day. Most of it is junk, but some of it is ok, and some of it is an absolute necessity.

    Our society is losing that middle ground, where margins and talent and value find a place to suit most of the people without prohibitively high prices or elitism.

  11. jhunt says:

    It seems to me that we’ve forgotten a little bit about the distribution of returns from college. What too many of you have forgotten is that writing could ALWAYS be described by “18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.” Simply change the numbers a little bit, but the main jist of it ‘X number of writers, most with a pathetically small readership, and equally pathetic earnings.’ This has been true since Gutenberg, perhaps before. With the democratization of the printing presses, ANYONE can be published (when compared with the previous era). This consistently results in a torrent of crappy pamphlets, leaflets, treatises, essays, novellas, novels, textbooks, blog posts, wiki-articles.

    BUT, the flip side is that most of that 18 million NEVER MAKE ANY money. The majority of writers have and always will be broke (if that is their sole form of employment). Instead you have J.K. Rowling, Stephen King and Tom Clancy splitting up the pot for themselves. The same is true of blog posts; there are likely a few bloggers who earn a decent living from blogging. But the vasty majority do not. Ask BR; he’s said time and again that he gets no income out of the site and that ads are simply a way of cutting operating expenses.

    The point Keillor is trying to make is that because of the advent of ‘free publishing’ via blogging and other services, authors have very little excuse to not realize their goal of being read. But, as before, the battle is not to ‘be published;’ it is to be distributed. The Internet might seem to help with that, but given the sheer number of blogs out there, it likely ends up a net negative.

    Like the T-shirt says:

    Blogging: never has so much been said by so many and read by so few.

  12. ashpelham2 says:

    same can be said for any career that is talent based. There are a lot of talented people who never get noticed, and lots of non-talented people in just the right place at the right time.

  13. dsawy says:

    constantnormal nails it. History repeats itself, and we’ve been here before. The Gutenberg press was a HUGE revolution in literacy when it burst onto the scene. It toppled the established order of cloistered literates controlling the production and distribution of written materials.

    Today is no different than then – information wants to be free. The ‘net and low to non-existant publishing barriers make information the way it wants to be – more free.

    Now, we can have plenty of arguments about “what is too much information?” Oh, we have have that debate for a LONG time to come. There’s a whole host of things I’m being told today that are solidly in the category of “I really didn’t need to see/hear/know that…” but I suspect we’ll work our way through this period of change and find a way to adapt to the “new normal.”

    Since Barry is a math guy, I’ll toss this in: I believe the new revolution in publishing (ie, what we’re going through now) did not start with the ‘net or blogs. It started with Professor Don Knuth setting out to use computers to remove the barriers to typesetting mathematical papers – and it snowballed from there. There was a time recently (in the 70′s to early 80′s) when there was a huge delay (2+ years) between submission of a mathematical paper until when it was published – because the typesetting for the mathematical symbols was taking so long. After TeX, well, things got a lot easier very quickly. TeX suddenly found use outside of mathematical/academic circles for creating documents, and the electronic publishing revolution was quickly underway.

  14. impermanence says:

    The problem is that anything worth saying was said thousands of years ago.

  15. [...] be sure, there was a fair amount of blog traffic on Keillor’s jeremiad about the book industry, at the [...]

  16. Mike S says:

    This is not true. I have recently become a paid writer and I can attest that the average quality of writing out there is far below the what you’ll get paid to do.

    I know, I know, Barry will disagree. But my reaction is that the paid writers I know:

    1. Write much more volume
    2. Write much more clearly
    3. Are more diligent
    4. Have more intelligent things to say in their writing

    I pay money for what people write all the time. I will continue to do so.

    I also disagree on the most profound level that anything worth saying was said thousands of years ago. What we are experiencing in our lifetimes is the best and most detailed human experiment in history. What was said thousands of years ago may have been philosophically interesting, but in terms of practical discussion about how to improve human well-being, new and important things are being said and written today that far exceed what was said by anyone before.

    I don’t know how people lived or live without the internet. I am vastly richer than Louis the XVI because of the internet, and what is being said on the internet isn’t just important, it is world changing. Yes, there is a low signal to noise ratio. Yes, most of the internet is a way to get through your suxual hangups through repeated exposure to wild fantasy. But the good stuff, the practical stuff, the new stuff, is of insanely high value.

    Can anyone doubt that Steve Randy Waldman is a national treasure? And that what he is saying has never been said before?

    And how about the Modern Monetary Theory? This is totally new and important! New idea! New idea!