103 Comments
Mar 9Liked by Brent Hartinger, Michael Jensen

Wait, I got into writing for the money, prestige, and boost to my confidence. Are you trying to tell me my expectations might be out of whack?

Expand full comment
author

Hehehehe

Expand full comment
author

I've been meaning to message you to ask how it's going...

Expand full comment

My non-dreams of fame and fortune are coming true.

Expand full comment
Mar 9Liked by Brent Hartinger

As a collection development librarian, I can see (in real time) the trends. And it’s bleak from my end. I’d piss off some progressives if I gave the inside scoop because it quite pushes against their rose-tinted narrative.

And the volume of graphic novels is… insane. Absolutely and utterly insane.

Expand full comment
Mar 9Liked by Brent Hartinger

Oh please do give the inside scoop! I’m progressive but don’t wear rose tinted glasses. Much prefer the raw truth. What else is there that’s worth living for?

Expand full comment
Mar 9Liked by Brent Hartinger

In short: books that are deemed “important” sit on the shelves. This is just the experience I’ve had in my library system: I’m sure other systems have a different stories. I was appalled when, a few months ago, the Levine Querido imprint attempted to spin their lack of sales as “librarian self-censorship” on social media. Not so. We don’t buy as many copies of that imprint because they don’t circulate. Just because they’re “important” doesn’t mean there’s an audience.

Expand full comment
author

Interesting. In general, I think New York publishing has a very insular perspective. There is more "diversity" now, but less ideological diversity. But I still think the bigger problem is that society is become more visual, and less text-oriented in general.

Expand full comment
Mar 10Liked by Brent Hartinger

Agreed. Add all these things together and you’ve got a perfect storm

I’m waiting for the first book to be written entirely in emojis. G-d, I sound like an old man yelling at clouds

Expand full comment
author

I know. I often think, "Oh, God, when did I become Archie Bunker." Or "The world changed, I didn't!" (which is what old farts always say)

I think many seemingly contradictory things are true in this crazy age in which we live...

Expand full comment

Nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with insisting on real, genuine human expression, and a healthy publishing industry to support it.

Expand full comment
Mar 24Liked by Brent Hartinger

Visual, for sure, and additionally (and somewhat surprisingly) audio-oriented. It's been years now, but it still shocks me how many people are able to consume podcasts and audiobooks but cannot find the time to read. And as Joe said, graphic novels' popularity seems to indicate that format is about the limit for many readers' attention.

(Full disclosure - I'm also a collection development librarian, friend of Joe's, and I'm serving on a best graphic novels selection list this year.)

Expand full comment
author

I am a text-learning, so I don't understand the fascination with audio either. Podcasts and audio books seem to take up so much time! But at least it's focused attention, unlike TikTok.

Expand full comment
Mar 27Liked by Brent Hartinger

I had a bit of an epiphany looking at the Fall 24 LQ catalog. I'm glad that LQ has brought more diversity and more titles from around the globe to our shores. So it's wonderful that these titles are *available*. But that doesn't necessarily compel me as a librarian to purchase them for our collection. The demand for many of them just isn't there. The problem to me is in the shaming. "We brought these titles to you, these authors deserve to be read, you *should* buy them and curate them into your collections." The truth is that there are way too many shelf-sitters as it is, so to take a chance on a niche title when there are limited funds and interest just doesn't make a lot of sense.

Related: many book people I've spoken with have succinctly put it this way: there are simply more books being (traditionally) published than there are readers for them.

Expand full comment
author

It's always driven me a bit crazy when authors try to sell their work as some kind of public service -- "Buy my book to keep gay kids from killing themselves!"

I agree we should all make an effort to diversify our interests, and I love recommending stories I love, but ultimately, these books serve a need (or not). A book is ultimately a product, not a life-changing gift to the world.

Expand full comment

Joe, I often speak in schools, and librarians have expressed their concern that kids are turning away from chapter books. It's all about the publishing "industry" (as they call themselves), their crony model, and profit. And it's morally wrong. When I point out to progressive people that I never sent my books to an agent or publisher, but published them myself because I was a busy history professor, knew how the system works, and couldn't be arsed with it, they assume my work is rubbish. I had an excellent run with my books, and still hear from new readers. It's a corrupt and foul system.

Expand full comment
author

I'm not fan of traditional publishing (which I think has MASSIVE blind spots and has become ridiculously insular), but I still think I put the bulk of the blame on the audience that (a) isn't reading and (b) doesn't want to pay for anything -- although some folks also have subscription fatigue, which I do totally understand. I think these changes are all driven by technology -- i.e. those damn phones.

Expand full comment

None of us can pay for all we read, agreed, but extremely tired of readers who sign up for 50-100-150 newsletters and pay for none, while boasting that they're lawyers, hedgies, etc in their profiles. Unreal. BUT-- AN EDIT-- this is a systemic problem first and foremost: Corporate greed.

Expand full comment
Mar 9Liked by Brent Hartinger

I can second that Annette. My first novel, a YA mythic fantasy about the history and mythology of cacao, was originally contracted to be published by an indie publisher. When their main investor (who had given himself the job of approving manuscripts) rejected mine on the grounds that "it's not academic enough" I exercised the termination clause (which I had written into my contract, thank god) and published the book under my own imprint. This led me to becoming a publisher for other authors as well, and being accepted to working with Baker & Taylor, one of the large wholesalers. We no longer publish other authors because it's nearly impossible to make a decent living, for us or for them. The industry really is rotted to the core, despite the thousands of highly capable, intelligent, creative people working in it.

Expand full comment

Yes! I worked with B&T until it became too financially risky (over-ordering and then returning damaged books) , with schools distributors (who were wonderful) and with Amazon, who became dreadful, so we stopped. I only sell the books through my site now, and watch the prices for them rise online (they don't rise in my site!) as demand continues. I have so much to say about the publishing industry, but will spare you for now. 😂

Expand full comment
Mar 9Liked by Brent Hartinger

This is scary. Where will writers go? Can they make a living at doing what they love anymore or will they have to compromise or give up on their dreams altogether? There's no question the kind of writing you're talking about is at a crossroads.

Will anyone need agents down the road? How do agents feel about all of this? It must be hitting them in their wallets, too. And what about the companies looking to buy good stories? Is the market glutted? Can they have their pick and get them at such low prices it's practically unsustainable for writers now?

And where does this form of blogging fit in? Some writers are thriving while others are still hoping for the best. Another example of market glut? Then there's AI.

Are writers an endangered species?

Expand full comment
author

Exactly. These are all great, great questions. I know a lot of people are saying, "People will always love stories!" which is true. But this feels like toxic positivity to some degree. Writers need to be able to eat. (This also isn't the case of me not staying up to date on technology. There is definitely good money there. But is there money for traditionally published novels and traditionally made movies? I'm honestly not sure.)

Expand full comment
Mar 9Liked by Brent Hartinger

The outcome feels tragic. All those good works with nowhere to go.

Expand full comment
Mar 9Liked by Brent Hartinger

Ramona, the market is most certainly oversaturated, and has been for quite some time—generative AI only takes this to a frightening new level. It all started with desktop publishing — which is wonderful as it enables great writers who have not been able (or allowed) to break in, to publish their work, but at the same time it opens the floodgates to a tremendous amount of mediocre work. That's what has flooded the market. Many if not most of the stories published today are iterations on the same narratives.

Maybe we need this. Maybe we need this awful, vomit-inducing glut of regurgitated words to flood the world to finally start materially appreciating the truly gifted writers and creators among us, and not to begrudge them their talents.

Expand full comment
author

Yes, "gatekeepers" really are a double-edged sword. I understand the flaws and limitations. OTOH, there were advantages too. There really is that glut of crap.

I wish I knew the answer.

Expand full comment
Mar 9Liked by Brent Hartinger

I'm signing on to your last paragraph. I so want to believe it.

Expand full comment
Mar 10Liked by Brent Hartinger

If we believe it, we feel it. And if we feel it, let's act on it!

Expand full comment
Mar 9Liked by Brent Hartinger

My kids love graphic novels, and I've been really impressed with the storytelling in them. But they also read plenty of other young adult books, as do most of their friends. I read that article you linked to, and it said the decline is basically going back to pre-Covid levels of 2019, which kind of makes sense. My kids had a lot less time to just hang out and read once they were back in school.

I find "kids these days" perspectives disheartening and rarely perceptive enough. What I can say as a parent and aunt and someone who spends a ton of time volunteering in schools--and drawing from my 22 years working in textbook publishing--is that I think a lot of the problem is less the stuff kids go for online in their downtime than it is the online learning being forced on them in schools. Most of it is terribly developed and written, unmotivating, and often punitive. It drags on their attention and self-confidence while actually degrading learning. (Most of the teachers I talk with don't like these programs either but can't always articulate why.) Plus they're subjected to standardized testing constantly. When my kids come home and want to spend some time online, it is pretty much always playing something with rich story structure or a social aspect.

The publishing industry is a real wreck. I have said this elsewhere, but it feels like it runs mostly on mystique. One bright spot: I've talked with editors at a couple of academic publishers, and there is a lot of talk about academic publishers taking some of the space that smaller publishers like Milkweed and Graywolf Press handle. That's kind of an interesting development, though I'm not sure how much fiction it would apply to. Still, for people like me who write nonfiction that's unlikely to sell in the tens of thousands, it's something to watch.

Expand full comment
author

That's an interesting comment about online education. Yeah, I've seen into the sausage-making house for ssome of those projects, and... oy! Not good. Not surprised they're as bad as you say.

I hear you on the "kids these days" complaint, but OTOH, I think a real shift IS happening -- from text-based learning and understanding, to a much much more visual-based form. But I think there are real problems in a mostly visual-based education (depth of knowledge and comprehension, for one thing). And while I think online community is good, I don't think it compares to *actual* community. Maybe it's confirmation bias, but I see such a difference between "America" and "outside of America." Even if the rest of the world is 10-15 years behind the US, communities and social skills so still seem stronger. There's less anxiety and depression too, especially among young people, for what seems like obvious reasons to me.

Publishing will have no choice but to reinvent itself. At the same time, I think much that existed in the past is gone for good and not coming back.

Expand full comment
Mar 10Liked by Brent Hartinger

I guess what I'm saying is that there are a lot of factors in the kids' experience of these things, and the effects on said kids, that are completely out of their control. There's the way that education is structured and delivered, which they have no choice in and which I think degrades learning (this is partly anecdotal but also partly back by research on shallow versus deep learning and how our brains work with both). And as I wrote about in my book on walking, there's also the infrastructure choices American society has made over the last 100 years that make social interaction much more difficult for kids. They *want* to hang out with their friends in person, but so many live isolated from said friends in suburbs, dependent on their parents to drive them, or in places where their access to community is blocked by highways. Spending time "with" friends online is often the only choice they're given. I can well believe social skills are stronger in communities that are built differently and have a different relationship with technologies.

With text-based versus visual-based, it probably depends on the quality of it, like so many other things. The only online learning program I've seen that was much good was a visual math program created for kids with dyslexia, so that a difficulty with reading doesn't impede math learning. In general, I don't think either method works as well as embodied, hands-on learning, but it's hard to find any school or curriculum that does that.

Yeah, I really don't know what publishing and storytelling will look like. It's hard to envision. I hope it's not *all* online.

Expand full comment
author

We live in interesting times, that's for sure.

Expand full comment

I'm in violent agreement with you, Brent. I've been a full-time writer for 10 years (it's my third career) and have tried all the ways to peice together a living. Crowdfunding, self-pub, trad pub with a Big 4, and small press. The small press revenue-share model works best for me right now, but as you point out, the whole system is changing.

I think it's true that there are less readers, but I'm finding the readers I have are more dedicated. When they find an author they like, they try to support them as best they can. I think Kevin Kelly put forth 1000 True Fans model--and it's still true.

Your point about trying the new pub methods (ie.g. Substack) is a good one. Your success here is inspiring.

Expand full comment
author

Thank you! I've been very surprised by our success here, honestly. In writing, I'm used to things not working out! LOL

I'd forgotten about the 1000 True Fans thing. Yes! That is still true, and maybe it always will be? But yeah, it's still a never ending hustle.

Expand full comment

I think being a writer has always been a hustle to some extent, but it does feel accelerated now. History is littered with examples of now-famous writers who had side gigs to make ends meet. Just heard an interview with Kate Cohen (WaPo columnist) and she admitted she still takes copywriting side gigs to make extra money.

There's another "new" trend I'm seeing in writing/publishing now. Writers who do a boutique book project, usually crowdfunded, with a very high-end, high-value edition of the work before it has a general release. Joanna Penn has done this and talked about it alot, as an example. (She did a niche memoir on pilgrimages.) It's a different revenue stream focused on True Fans.

Great talking to you, Brent. Really love your perspective on all this. Seems to have touched a nerve! - David

Expand full comment
Mar 10Liked by Brent Hartinger

I found Joanna Penn's recent discussion of this pretty illuminating. I'm planning to do something similar on kickstarter later this year (I did a KS last year that was eye-opening). I'm looking forward to the experience. Sometimes the hustle and the creativity can go hand in hand in pleasing ways (when it works!)

Expand full comment

I did as well, Joshua. I have a new project in the early stages of development and I'm also putting the idea of a high-value crowdfund on the roadmap. I did a Kickstarter years ago for our first two novels and found that limited editions sold really well. Crowdfunding is not easy, but it can be rewarding.

Expand full comment
author

Exactly. I actually appreciate the hustle until very recently. I learned so much! But there has to be a reasonable path through the maze, it can't all be dead ends.

I think Substack with its fairly high "paid subscription" feature is an example of the high-end, high value thing.

Expand full comment
Mar 9Liked by Brent Hartinger

Sometimes you just have to deal with it and move on and reinvent yourself on different terms. I got outplaced --twice--from traditional print publishing media sales over twenty years ago as that industry collapsed and reshaped itself to digital media. Took an unplanned temporary government gig to keep my insurance going--moved up THAT foodchain capitalizing on my negotiating skills, and twenty years later retired happier and wealthier than I ever would have imagined. Sometimes I think we don't see all our own possibilities and get too transfixed on what we think we are--vs what we can become?

Expand full comment
author

Oh you are DEAD in 2024 if you are not very very adaptable. Absolutely! There are opportunities everywhere. That said, the traditional media really do seem to be dying. And the question remains: Is it time to give up completely?

Expand full comment
Mar 9Liked by Brent Hartinger

I'm not one to say give up....you can always continue pursuing....but possibly add a new more stable income source to the side...and see which ultimately wins out? As a writer, you'll never STOP being one in your soul, and those who can craft words and ideas are increasingly fewer and farther between. I'd ask where those skills can have or add value, but where it's not necessarily the prime job by title...

Expand full comment
author

Smart words, yes.

Expand full comment
Mar 10Liked by Brent Hartinger

All that said, I do feel both very lucky and very blessed that my unplanned transition worked as well as it did--at least once i got midway down the new road. The first few years sure left me with a lot of doubt and uncertainty and more than a few sleepless nights that I can blow off now in retrospect, but they WERE very real and discomforting at the time.

Expand full comment

Yesterday, I told a young writer that I probably would not recommend graduates to become writerss.

It is bad even in Asia where there is a need for good English writers. But writing has given me the life I wanted and I am grateful for it, and I have never been attracted to traditional publishing methods. I think in Asia, at least South East Asia, leveraging new media is the way to go. Fiction is robust and doing well in China and South korea,for example, where a thriving economy revolves around web novels penned by “amateurs”. A lot of these novels end up being made into TV shows!

I just wish that people in Malaysia would be more open to publishing their works on substack or other platforms.. A lot of good fiction and non fiction only exist on print and it is only a few thousand copies and then the publisher gives up on them. They could live on forever as ebooks.

Expand full comment
author

yeah I hear you. And I agree that if one DOES choose writing, you need a very broad definition of "writing." And you need to be flexible and adaptable! Embrace those new media!

I wrote about that here: https://www.brenthartinger.com/p/ive-realized-something-big-about

Expand full comment

My agent said similar things. It’s disconcerting for sure. Why is middle grade not selling anymore? If even people in the industry don’t understand what’s happening in the industry…

Expand full comment
author

Well, I think it has to do with media screens. Less reading in general. (But I also think kidlit got very very insular in the last few years.)

Expand full comment

Brent, the work I see is full of confirmation bias, and much is really written for adults first, not kids.

Expand full comment
Mar 10Liked by Brent Hartinger

I’m lucky that my former job connected me with a few dozen writers. A few are continuing to publish their novels, plays and poetry. Several have now turned to writing for TV. It is such a rough row to hoe. Several became academicians, in programs that produce MORE writers (honestly, I sometimes think MFAs in creative writing are a pyramid scheme). The movies A Little White Lie and American Fiction skewer the literary industries, that’s for sure. In my experience, writers are not making choices—they are driven to write. And the luck of a good agent or the right person reading their work at the right time makes all the difference.

Expand full comment
author

Flexibility and reinvention is EVERYTHING these days. If you can't do that, I would say, "Don't even bother trying to make it as a writer in 2024."

Yeah, I used to teach in an MFA program, and even then, I had mixed feelings. But a number of writers did go on to great success!

Expand full comment
author

(In fairness, they probably would have found success even without the MFA program. But hopefully it helped!

Expand full comment
Mar 10Liked by Brent Hartinger

When it comes to adult genre fiction, writers are doing well in the small publisher/self publishing space. It might be worth checking how middle grade/new adult books are developing there.

Expand full comment
author

Yes, there are definitely still SOME signs of life...

Expand full comment
Mar 10Liked by Brent Hartinger

Bullshit!

Yes... oh yes. I had to hire an editor for my first novel. I sent out the query. A real life event with fictional LGBTQ characters. One well known agent responded saying, "I love it! Send me more." This went on 3 times till the entire novel was in their hands. Then came the denouement. The crux of the entire book, more than halfway through, was too violent for her. Gay LBT= okay. But the violence of gays and everyone else in the concentration camp? Too much. 

That was the closest I came to being published. Now I try with another novel. From an actual event with fictional characters. I can pretty much guess what the result will be.

So now I call my writing a 'hobby'.

Dane McFadhen

Expand full comment
author

Yes that's exactly the thing. Everyone and everything has become so so so selection (because of the insane competition), that if it's not perfect, there's almost no chance of development. SOME things will always be published, but the numbers are dropping...

Expand full comment
Mar 9·edited Mar 10Liked by Brent Hartinger

When I started self-publishing in late 2017, I desperately wanted to be published "for real." But I had no self confidence and figured I had no shot. (My god, if only I knew how much I'd have to master to succeed as an indie!) These days, I'd have to take a huge pay cut to go the traditional route, not to mention give up a ton of control. Of course, I'd still do it. I guess to be human is to crave status!

Anyways, great article. I have no ideas for how to remedy the issues with legacy media. But you definitely aren't stupid for hanging in there in my opinion. I totally would in your shoes!

Expand full comment
author

Thank you! There used to be some real advantages to the traditional route, but in the last ten years -- especially the last five -- those advantages have slipped away. You went indie at exactly the right time, IMHO> Congrats on the success!

Expand full comment
Mar 10Liked by Brent Hartinger

Thank you! I'm as surprised as anyone. 😅

Expand full comment
Mar 9·edited Mar 10Liked by Brent Hartinger

Hang in there, whatever you decide, and trust your gut. If money needs to be made, money needs to be made (which would mean no more free articles, I'm guessing). I still have no idea how anyone makes enough money via online efforts to cover living expenses. I only earn enough to cover my website's. But I'm also not a writer, nor trying to be. I just care about listening to/sharing life experiences because I think it helps us all, which, for me, is meaningful connection due to my desire for community. That desire to connect with and cheer like-minded others is why I enjoy cheering on your personal experiences. But I know nothing else here. I'm not in the business. I'm just here to say ... I hope you do what you feel is best for you. Even if some of us have monthly budgets that don't allow us to pay for everything we want to read, we totally understand.

Expand full comment
author

Thank you, I appreciate the support! And don't worry, I always manage to make things work, financially. (Even if I have to hustle my ass off! LOL)

I'm with you on the "connection' thing. That's what it's all about!

Expand full comment
Mar 9Liked by Brent Hartinger

May I ask who the agent is who said that on Threads? I’m trying to resist signing up for Threads still, but I can still look up their handle 😆

Expand full comment
author

You know, I couldn't out how to link to it! It took my ten minutes. And alas, now I've lost the name.

Expand full comment
Mar 9Liked by Brent Hartinger

Ah well. If it comes back to you, let me know. I want to know if it’s one of the agents I’m querying 🤪.

Expand full comment
Mar 9Liked by Brent Hartinger
author

Oh! I'll add it to the article. Thanks!

Expand full comment
author

Had you queried them?

Expand full comment
Mar 9Liked by Brent Hartinger

I had not, lol. In the replies, she’s clarifying that she’s talking more about middle grade and young adult genres, and I write more for adults. But still, her points stand.

Expand full comment

Great sleuthing Monica! This reply in that Thread struck me:

"I’m not sure if retail sales are like this but at the library level I’m seeing a ton of kids shy away from recently pubbed MG. Books are too long & vocabulary used is well outside their lexicon. We need to go back to editors remembering the target audience & providing stories that have accessible entry points for young readers."

To that I would say, the problem isn't simply reading level. The problem lies with our entire elementary education system. We don't fully believe in our kids and their ability to learn. If we did, they'd be at a much higher level across grades. I'm living proof of that... grew up in the Czech Republic, came to the US after my third grade, and ended up going straight to fifth bc I was so far ahead of the grade level, even not speaking English yet! It's shameful.

Expand full comment

My question is if Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book and tried to get it published now, Mach 2024, what would the industry's response be?

Expand full comment
author

Honestly, I think the first book is very very mediocre (probably more so before editing LOL). When I hear it was rejected by all those publishers, I think, "I'm not surprised."

(I think Rowling got better in subsequent books.)

But yeah, I think even a GOOD, polished version of that story would have a very very hard time in this climate.

Expand full comment

An insightful, absolutely terrifying piece. I'm addicted to the written word, so I can't stop, even if it's all worthless, I'm a goddamn junky. But still...

Expand full comment
author

Thank you. And...same. Same addiction, both reading and writing.

Expand full comment

Just a coupla book fiends!

Expand full comment