Facing the music
Posted by metaphorical on 26 March 2007
Last Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal took a careful look at last year’s steep decline in music sales.
In a dramatic acceleration of the seven-year sales decline that has battered the music industry, compact-disc sales for the first three months of this year plunged 20% from a year earlier, the latest sign of the seismic shift in the way consumers acquire music.
The sharp slide in sales of CDs, which still account for more than 85% of music sold, has far eclipsed the growth in sales of digital downloads, which were supposed to have been the industry’s salvation.
We may be approaching the day when musical acts are no longer able to make a living selling their music.
Jeff Rabhan, who manages artists and music producers including Jermaine Dupri, Kelis and Elliott Yamin, says CDs have become little more than advertisements for more-lucrative goods like concert tickets and T-shirts. “Sales are so down and so off that, as a manager, I look at a CD as part of the marketing of an artist, more than as an income stream,” says Mr. Rabhan. “It’s the vehicle that drives the tour, the merchandise, building the brand, and that’s it. There’s no money.”
Mr Rabhan, welcome to my world.
Consider, if you will, the economics of book-writing.
As in music, there are a handful of superstars—Stephen King, Tim LaHaye, JK Rowling, Nora Roberts, Scott Turow, and so on. As in music, there are those who write books for reasons completely divorced from remuneration, for example, academics who write for professional advancement and receive only a nominal advance or no advance at all for their manuscripts.
Most book authors, though do something else for a living. Let’s look at a couple of don’t.
Consider Susan Cheever (disclosure: my MFA thesis advisor). She just published a new book, a brilliant little tome called “American Bloomsbury,” about the cluster of literary and philosophical geniuses in and around Concord, Mass., around the time of the Civil War. Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, Alcott, and others – who all knew each other, loved one another, helped one another, and in some cases slept with one another.
She had a pretty good book tour, and the book is doing well for its kind. It’ll sell some copies each and every year for the rest of her life, but even when you add the good years a book is new, and the back-list sales, she’s only scraping by as a writer, and talent-wise she’s probably the equivalent of Mary Wells or Joni Mitchell. So she also teaches part-time, but not so much that it cuts too much into her writing time. She also write critical reviews, and had an eight-year run as a biweekly columnist for Newsday.
What’s allowed Cheever to live more comfortably is the royalties from her late father’s writings. In other words, for a major American contemporary author, with a well-known name made famous by the connection to her father, it takes one-and-a-half lifetimes of royalties to partially, not entirely, support a family of three (Cheever, her widowed mother, and her son).
Consider the author Percival Everett. (“Who?” “Exactly.”) Everett has written 20 books in 23 years, mostly novels but some short story collections, a children’s book, and a book of poetry as well. His stort stories have been selected for Best American Short Stories andPushcart Prize anthologies.
The books are, for the most part, not very well known. The one that made him the most money was probably his second novel, Walk Me to the Distance, which, Wikipedia says, “was later re-interpreted with an altered plot as an ABC TV movie entitled Follow Your Heart.”
I’d be surprised if any of his books sell more than a couple of thousand copies a year, and many sell fewer by far. Some of them probably still haven’t advanced past the point of meeting his advance. The sum total of his total royalties for 20 books is probably under $20,000. I don’t know what his advances are, but even if they are $40,000 each, which I doubt, he’s making less than $60,000 a year on average. That’s a major novelist at the top of his game with 20 years of backlist.
The average newspaper journalist, younger than Everett and having never published a book, probably makes at least that much.
So most book authors do something else for a living.
Marilynne Robinson wrote “Housekeeping,” which is on most lists of the 50 best novels of the 20th century (it’s certainly on mine). On the strength of that one book she got a full-time job at the University of Iowa writing program. It took her 25 years to write a second book. Partly that was writer’s block, but partly she was teaching full-time and yet wanted to make it good. It won a Pulitzer.
Fiction book authors frequently teach and non-fiction authors writing for a popular audience frequently work full-time for a newspaper or, as I do, a magazine.
Consider the economics of my getting a book published. On my own dime and time, I would have to write the entire book (if fiction or memoir). In the best case, I would only several chapters and a detailed book proposal (for a work of regular non-fiction). After a lengthy and frustrating process of shopping it around, if successful, I would then get an advance of (remember, best case) $40,000 (or 85% of that, after an agent’s commission). At this point I would need to do some concentrated reporting and writing. Again, in the best case, my employer would let me take a 6- or at least 4-month unpaid leave of absence—thereby letting me live off the advance. My book would get written, but I would have made, essentially no additional money from it that I couldn’t have made by just doing my (non-bookwriting) job.
Writing the book wouldn’t be a waste of time or effort. My book might be considered in the New York Review of Books (where it might be horribly misunderstood by someone who didn’t take enough time to read it, or had an axe to grind, as happened to my colleague of mine).
The book would make me an expert on the topic. I would get interviewed by television and radio reporters. I might get on the Leonard Lopate show or, dream of dreams, Fresh Air. I could be invited to write op-ed pieces in the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal.
Let’s recap then: We can look at a
CD book as part of the marketing of an artist a writer, more than as an income stream. It’s the vehicle that drives the tour, the merchandiseopens other doors, building the brand, and that’s it. There’s no money.