The Writing Boom

First, the grim statics of writing for publication, which I’m sure every author is aware of:

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This passage stood out:

1. The number of books being published every year has exploded. Bowker reports that over three million books were published in the U.S. in 2010. The number of new print titles issued by U.S. publishers has grown from 215,777 in 2002 to 316,480 in 2010. And in 2010 more than 2.7 million “non-traditional” titles were also published, including self-published books, reprints of public domain works, and other print-on-demand books. In addition, hundreds of thousands of English-language books are published each year outside the U.S.

In an era of instant messaging, selfies, and on-demand entertainment, it’s understandable how one could believe that the fiction market is dead – for both writers and readers – but it’s not, at least not for writers. In spite of our culture of instant gratification, more people than ever are taking to the tedious craft, the result being a writing boom – particularity in fiction, but also non-fiction – of the likes never before seen, which means that writers today have to fight tooth and nail to rise above the publishing quicksand of obscurity.

In spite of the complaints about traditional publishing, such as authors not earning much money on royalties or poor sales, publishing houses and agents are inundated with manuscripts – a tsunami – from aspiring writers, with no end in sight, which is surprising given that digital media has also become so pervasive. Who wants to write books, anyway, when there is Netflix and Facebook? Why are so many people writing despite the long odds and the pervasiveness of cheap digital entertainment as distractions? I pondered this for a little while, and finally found some reasons:

1. Baby boomers are retiring, which means they have a lot of free time for writing books.

2. Younger people, faced with a perpetually anemic labor market, also have a lot of spare time to write, with genres of choice being fantasy, youth fiction, and introspection and existentialism.

3. Due to mass education, related to number 2, there are a lot of people who are educated enough to write books with intelligible prose, versus a generation ago when the labor market was better and people weren’t as overeducated.

4. Writing is an inexpensive hobby for lean economic times, compared to, say, golf or art collecting.

5. Related to number 4, the barriers to entry in writing are low, but mastery or success is almost impossible unless you are either very lucky or talented. Self-publishing makes writing very inexpensive, with thousands of writers competing for scraps of attention and sales, and successful self-publishers few and far between.

6. Writing taps into a narcissistic, vainglorious desire to leave a mark, to defy mortality. If millennials are more narcissistic than earlier generations, it could partially explain the writing boom.

7. The rise of writing gurus, particularity online. They’re probably hundreds of writing blogs catering to legions of wannabee writers. It’s mostly a blind leading the blind situation of the gurus only being marginally better writers than their followers, only famous because of promotion and hype, not because they are great writers.

8. The rise of the debut celebrity. Despite the doom and gloom about publishing, six and even seven-figure contracts and film deals for debut authors are not at all uncommon, recent examples being Andy Weir and Pierce Brown. Unfortunately, this gold rush fuels the bottom line for gurus who sell overpriced writing services to novice writers who have dreams, however far-fetched, of being the next Weir or Brown. And although there are more big debuts, there are also many, many more authors, too.

9. Writing is ‘cool’ and transcendent, more than ever. In a news cycle dominated by misbehaving celebrities and various petty insubstantial matters, writing taps into a certain authenticity that many long for, as a way of transcending the chaos and minutia of everyday life to answer a higher calling. You’re not just putting words to paper, you’re changing the world, changing minds (or at least you hope so).