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From Phyllida's Desk

Please Remember to Tip the Author

Recently, a friend who is persistent to the point of being called "dogged" achieved a long-term goal: she found a publisher for an anthology called "Best Bi Short Stories." This anthology has been in publishing limbo for so long that my contribution, the first chapter from Pride/Prejudice (released in January of 2010), was a work-in-progress when I submitted it.

The deal wasn't great. It's an erotica publisher, not mainstream or even regular LGBTQ; contributors would be paid the magnificent sum of $25; and the balance between print-on-demand and e-books isn't quite right. My friend, hoping for something better, had passed on this when the offer was at $50 apiece. Now six months later, she accepted the lesser offer as the best she could get.

Just as we were all sending congratulatory e-mails back and forth, and I was arranging with HarperCollins about reprinting rights, the deal fell through. Even at only $25 per contributor, the potential for profit on this kind of project is so slim that the publisher changed his mind.

Amid all the moans and lamentations, I have to say I wasn’t surprised. While I appreciate my friend's hard work and determination, the problem she faces is partly of her own making. Like many of us, she doesn't buy books.

This blog post is not meant to scold people. I'm just stating a fact. Every day I hear people complaining about print books disappearing, about e-books taking over, about independent bookstores closing, even chains like Borders, and worries that Barnes & Noble may be next. We like certain authors, hope their books do well, think they deserve to be a bestseller, but we expect other people to buy their books—not us.

Most of us simply don't have room for any more books in our overstuffed, cramped apartments. The library makes sense, for saving money, but also because when you're finished reading the book you can get it out of your house and take it back. Hell, they want you to give it back.

In my case, I plead bad eyes and the convenience of e-books. But I do buy the e-books, because I want to support fellow writers. And yeah, I buy them from Amazon.

I feel bad for the bookstores, but I don't think printed paper is going to go away any time soon. It's just too useful. E-books are great for reading straight through that mystery or romance you're never going to read again. But for keepers, for classics and works of astonishing genius that you're going to reread and savor, trying to find the remembered quotation or the evocative scene by thinking up the appropriate "search term" is an exercise in screaming frustration. And how many low-level e-books have I seen that don't have a linked table of contents or that turn out to be unsearchable PDFs? Too many.

No, the real problem is that the same people who lament the loss of the bookstore and the book itself can't or don't want to pay for them. I can't make a case for hardcovers, with the exception of some art books. They're expensive, and heavy and bulky to lug around. But paperbacks? People will spend $25 on a meal and consider it a bargain but balk at a $15 paperback. The meal is gone in half an hour while the book, now that everyone uses acid-free paper, will live, if not forever, probably longer than its readers.

A volunteer at my day job, a woman who has been very supportive of my writing, when told about another anthology that had just come out, in print only, with one of my stories in it, said, No, of course she wasn't going to buy it. But she would read the copy I brought in and then give it back to me. Which she did.

Now I make no claims for the literary value either of that particular story or for the anthology as a whole. My only point is that this attitude, coming from a retiree with a decent income, who travels and does volunteer work, and who is so technophobic that she doesn't even have e-mail, much less read e-books, is, to say the least, contradictory. She'll complain about disappearing bookstores and e-books taking over, but will not spend $15 to buy a print book from a friend who is a also a writer. And it's a direct and obvious line from this non-customer to the broken deal for the Best Bi stories.

And then, full circle. The woman trying to get the Best Bi stories published long ago "confessed," if that's the right word, to buying the "Amazon marketplace" books, the $1 and 1-cent books resold by individuals and discounters. As with all secondary sales, the authors get no royalties. For books that are out of print, this is a welcome and necessary service, but my friend was buying new books--and unapologetic. She didn't know about the royalties—and at any rate, these books are cheaper.

This is the reality. So, no, even at a meager $25 per contributor, there's just no chance of enough sales for Best Bi Short Stories to make it a viable project for a publisher that's not a charity.

The truth is, if people don't buy something, other people stop selling it. After the last independent bookstore closed in her home town of Nashville, the writer Ann Patchett opened her own, saying, "If you like this thing, it’s your responsibility to keep this thing alive.”

It reminds me of fur. PETA and other animal-rights groups have long pushed for a ban on fur. But as long as there are customers willing to pay big bucks for fur coats, other people will make them and sell them. If there's a market for something, it won't go away, whatever we think of the morality. (For the record, I'm against killing endangered species for their body parts, and perfectly fine with using animals that we have more than enough of, like rabbits).

Bookstores, if not books themselves, are in the opposite situation. It's hard to find anyone who's against books on moral grounds. Yes, there are people who want to ban particular titles. But almost nobody thinks of books in general as immoral or unethical products. Yet the market for them is dwindling, and no matter how we rant and rage they'll go away if we don't want them enough to pay for them.

Another friend of mine, resentful of the relationship between numbers of books sold and authors' income, advocated a utopian dream in which the "government" would pay artists and writers for their work in a sort of WPA system. How the lucky writers and artists would be selected was not clear, but the appeal was great. Freed from the tyranny of bestseller lists and agents and editors with their eyes focused on the bottom line, we could write what we wanted to—and earn a living.

Until then, I'm not holding my breath. Like wait staff and taxi drivers, most writers don’t earn a living wage. Rather than shame people with a tip jar, I suggest we think about what we like to read and how we want to support and encourage the people who write it to keep on creating it.

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