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A Time to Eat: On Making a Living as a Writer

A pleasant simple habitual and tyrannical and authorised and educated and resumed and articulate separation. This is not tardy.

A pleasant simple habitual and tyrannical and authorized and educated and resumed and articulate separation. This is not tardy.

Slate had a review of a new book called Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living with has some great observations and information about writers such as Cheryl Strayed and the nuts and bolts of how much they earn from publishing their books.

I spent my twenties in writing programs. A small press published my first book in 1999, and have published eight books with a ninth coming out later this year. I spent my thirties teaching creative writing in a continuing education context (University of Washington Extension, Richard Hugo House, The Writing Center in Bethesda) or as a volunteer, and then spoke at the Associated Writing Program (AWP) on panels over a couple of years (2012-2015).

I learned that the writing industry (when it comes to prose) is predicated on – like acting – the starry-eyed concept that you too can MAKE IT as a writer. This means if you have the skills, you will pay the bills with publishing books. Conversely if you do not have the skills, you will not pay the bills.) Sitting at the book fair table at AWP  I could overhear the gaggle of graduate students strolling past the small press table where I sat talking about agents, book advances, about getting out of school and really getting down to writing once they got a book contract. Some of these students had paid a lot of money for the training to be a novelist. Many programs cost more than 50,000 a year. They were looking at coming out of a two year program in debt more than 100K. They were going to be need a pretty generous advance on their first novel.

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Greek Urns Don’t Float in the North Pacific Gyre

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Proposed Land Use Action at Hugo House 9.2015

I just finished Dark Reflections by Samuel R. Delany, a novel about a black gay lyric poet coming of age just before Stonewall named Arnold Hawley. I saw a reading with Delany, and he read from the book and said he wrote it because he wanted some way to concretely explain the choice that young writers were making when they dedicated themselves to writing. To explain what decades of neglect, poverty, and earnest focus (and it’s corresponding blindness) is like to a young person is nearly impossible. In the book some of the affecting moments include Hawley — who is not just a great poet, but a sensitive and picky reader and someone that any writer would recognize I think as the writer they aspire to be — include a dinner scene in which Hawley has been dragged from his book crammed studio apartment to drink wine and listen to much younger editors argue and talk about things they only half know about. Hawley has no way to provide much to the conversation not because he doesn’t know about the subject, but because he knows too much. Anything he added would sound like a correction, or worse a history lesson. They reference strands of thought that Hawley had  deeply read in, participated in, had anticipated before they even developed, as they had happened. Hawley buys donuts in another scene for the warehouse workers who are putting stickers on the hundred books in the print run of his his bestselling title. He has just won a major, although obscure poetry prize, obscure even by the obscure standards of the poetry world. It the only notable prize he will win his lifetime. It results in a modest amount of poetry-world fame and then afterward an even more bitter sort of obscurity since he briefly seemed to be about to rise from oblivion.
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The Seattle Times on The Strong Man and Publication Studio

The Strong Man / Seattle TimesMatthew Stadler and I will talk about the Publication Studio this Friday at Third Place Books in Ravenna. Last week, Mary Ann Gwinn, The Seattle Times books editor, talked to us for her book column Lit Life. While talking to her I began to realize how odd my actual publication experience is … and yet everyone writer I know has similar stories of long weights, sudden exposure, just as sudden plummets into obscurity, and encounters with both visionary publishers (or at least publishers willing to squander real money on publishing books), calculating business people, and lunatics. Mary Ann Gwinn wrote after asking how I had published my books:

Briggs still writes books. But this time around he’s trying something different — for his new novel, The Strong Man,” set during the first Gulf War, he’s being published by a Portland-based publisher called Publication Studio with a very stripped-down business model.

You can read the entire profile here.

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Amazon in Twitter Storm

#amazonfail at Twendz

#amazonfail at Twendz

It is weird that is has only been about 24 hours since writer Mark Probst posted a report of Amazon’s odd, arbitrary (and therefore most likely human rather than computerized decision [okay here is the human/machine factor and a good explanation via Technology, Books and Other Neat Stuff]) to disable sales ranks, and therefore remove from searches GLBT work from its catalog. “Glitch” or no, this whole thing touches on several ways in which new media has positive and negative effects on the production of culture. On one hand, it is easier for anyone to produce unmediated content. Just visit Lulu and upload your manifesto or that novel that you have spent years writing. At the same time, new media has absorbed and consolidated huge swaths of the media landscape include retail (bookstores and record stores) and newspapers.

Bruce Garrett said it very nicely at 5:14 PM on The Stranger Slog yesterday, a mere seven hours after the story officially broke.

Nice how one really big bookseller can just suddenly decide to change the whole landscape for gay people isn’t it. I just have to note here that the Lambda Rising in Baltimore closed last year, due to declining sales. They’re not the only small booksellers who have had to close by any means, and I can appreciate how a place like Amazon was good for all the gay folk who didn’t have a local gay bookstore to go to, but I can’t blame the folks who were raising the alarm about the decline of the independent book sellers for having a round of “I Told You So’s right about now.

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Seattle Literary Magazines in Print and on the Web

This was published recently in Proximity Magazine. You can access the Proximity version here. I also posted an expanded version at Issuu.

Seattle Literary Magazines in Print and on the Web (at issue)

Seattle Literary Magazines in Print and on the Web (at issuu)

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About the Amazon Kindle and Dedicated Book Readers

The Future of Books is digital, this seems pretty clear now. The details have yet to be worked out. From Slashdot: “With a seven-page cover story on The Future of Reading, Newsweek confirms all those rumors of Amazon’s imminent introduction of an affordable ebook. Kindle, which is named to evoke the crackling ignition of knowledge, has the dimensions of a paperback, weighs 10.3 oz., and uses E Ink technology on a 6-inch screen powered by a battery that gets up to 30 hours from a 2-hour charge.”

I think dedicated ebook readers are a dead-end, but I also think ebooks are the clearly the future of books.

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Everyone I Know Orders Books From the Library

Libraries nationwide are grappling with a massive increase in the number of patron’s requests of media (including books, of course) held in their collections. An An article in the Seattle Times recently had several interesting facts:

  • The number of holds have tripled between 1998 and 2006.
    The Seattle Public Library is having a popularity problem. Thanks to its “Libraries for All” building expansion program and an unprecedented increase in use of the library’s online catalog, the number of holds — reservations — placed on books and other library materials has tripled, from about 1.01 million in 1998, when voters approved “Libraries for All,” to 3.35 million in 2006.
  • Users are using the catalog to find and place holds on books.
    Libraries nationwide, including the King County system, are grappling with the fact that a computer-savvy society has learned to tap into library collections online.

What is weird about this is that there has been a huge amount of hand-wringing lately about the decline of media as a result of the spread of digital media such as video games, YouTube, and the ease of producing over consuming media for digital media such as web communities, YouTube, did I mention YouTube? Studies throw about such sobering statics as twenty-five percent of adults have not read a book, any kind of book, in the last year.

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Reading Not At Risk: Reading is a Rare, and Valuable Skill

Reading at Risk NEABeginning as of, well, now, more people are writers than readers. Some 80% of Americans report they would like to write a novel someday, and according to the NEA report Reading at Risk less than 50% of American have read any kind of book within the last year. When you consider the ubiquity of written communication what with e-mail and texting and even blogging, more people are producing text than reading text.

This is often a reason to sound the alarm. People want to be published, They want to be read, but they don’t want to read. They don’t care about books! I’m not being alarmist. I’m being a realist. Nine out of ten books sell fewer than a hundred copies. So what if more people write novels than read novels? At least they are still thinking about novels. 30% of Americans know what a novel looks like well enough to want to have written one even if they haven’t opened one in who knows how many years.

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Anthony Doerr at Elliott Bay reading from Four Seasons in Rome

Anthony Doerr at Elliott Bay Book Company
I saw Anthony Doerr at the Elliott Bay Book Company last week. He is from Idaho and he has written a book about the year he spent his Rome his wife and just born twin sons courtesy of the Rome Prize. The book is a well written travelogue that shows the mundane life of a writer in a foreign city trying to write while he is also trying to be a dad and a husband. In short, the book is essentially a printed blog. He writes: “A good journal entry should be a love letter to the world.” As a winner of prestigious prizes (including the Rome Prize) and “One of American’s Best Novelists Under 35” Doerr delivered a reading that I can only describe as writer’s porn — not sex — but the graphic and glossy reproduction of the nitty gritty aspects of a writer’s life. He writes about his writing of short stories. He writes about his reading of Pliny the Elder. I’m sure for Mr. Doerr his writing life is not easy. After all he actually moved to Rome courtesy of the prize in order to write. If his at-home writing life was straight forward I’m sure he could only regard this as a disruption. In turn, Mr. Doerr seemed eager to get the most what is generally the most painful portion of the reading — the Elliott Bay Question and Answer section. Unlike just about any other writer I’ve seen read in the bookstore basement, Mr. Doerr wanted to talk about writing. He wanted to talk about writing a lot. I had to shuffle out the basement, because while I enjoyed Mr Doerr’s writer’s porn, I didn’t want to talk about it afterwards.

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Theodore Roethke, No Northwest

Theodore Roethke is not a Northwest Poet I just read a biography of Theodore Roethke — and toward the beginning of his career there is a bit about how much of an operator Robert Lowell (Roethke’s rival, Robert Frost (previous generation) and Roethke were — they were always writing letters, sending postcards, and working at dazzling influential critics. Roethke had Louis Brogan who pretty much paved the way for him. I’m not that cynical about it — I mean if Roethke or Frost or Lowell weren’t writing very good poetry it wouldn’t have gotten them far I suppose. But on the other hand I can’t help but think they were also all creatures of this system. Anyway it is a very interesting biography by Allan Seager (a famous Michigan novelist and teacher who has faded into obscurity) called The Glass House.

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