As a professional biographer without a regular salary (I left academic life in 1992), I have not lost my job or my house. But I have suffered during the current economic crisis and seen my precarious income eroded on all fronts. Many publishers, magazines and book reviews have disappeared, and many bookstores have closed. For writers without substantial savings, it has become difficult to survive between books in these hard times.
Large trade publishers, pressed for time, no longer consider proposals unless they are filtered through an agent. No matter how much I’ve published or how solid my reputation, my personal submissions would go straight into their dustbins. Luckily, I have an experienced agent who can sell my proposals. But after bringing out books with more than one hundred publishers, I’m certain, when competition is more intense than ever and the corporate money men overrule editors and make the final decision, that it’s now much harder to get a contract. To attract a wider audience for serious books, I’ve published works for the general reader on art and film as well as literary biography. I’ve also brought out books on four Impressionist painters and lives of two subjects instead of one: Errol and Sean Flynn, Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe. But publishers don’t seem to want books about several different writers that are unified by a single theme. A friend has not been able to sell a lively and original proposal about homosexual writers—from Verlaine, Wilde and Gide to Bowles, Mishima and Bruce Chatwin—who were married to women and whose marriages affected their work.
It’s also more difficult to sell foreign rights. British biographers, who publish with trade publishers in England, usually resort to American university presses. But since Oxford and Cambridge university presses want world rights, there’s no equivalent outlet in England for American biographers. The once wide open market for translations has become considerably tighter, and shifted from Western Europe and Japan to Eastern Europe, China and Korea. China has a growing middle class, Japan has been in a long recession. I had a Japanese translator keen to do my life of Orwell, but he couldn’t get a publisher for that book.
In recent memory, when agents got 10% instead of 15%, authors got half their advance on signature and half on delivery. Publishers then began to pay in thirds (the last part coming on publication) and now pay in fourths, with the last part coming a year after publication. Since current books sometimes take eighteen months to appear—twice as long as the old gestation period—some authors have to wait two-and-a-half years after completing the book for the final payment. To make things even worse, many publishers delay these payments as long as possible and hold on to authors’ money for several more months after it’s contractually due. Authors and agents may loudly protest, but there’s not much they can do about it.
Three years ago I published with the University of Illinois Press a collection of my previously printed essays on Orwell. Though I got standard rates for royalties, I had no advance for this book. If I wrote a biography in a year, with an exiguous advance from a university press, I’d be working (without counting the considerable research and travel expenses incurred for this kind of book) for about a dollar an hour.
Publishers have recently fired many editors, who now seem to be outnumbered by agents. Those who remain, burdened by the work of fallen colleagues, are more fearful than ever about losing their own jobs and grope in the dark for the next successful trend or book. During the rapid turnover of book and magazine editors, when they suddenly slip down the memory hole (leaving no forwarding address), authors lose valuable ties and find it difficult to establish connections with new people who arrive with their own cadre. One editor told me he wanted an author who’d stay with his firm. As I emphasized my undying loyalty, he changed jobs—the best way to get a raise—the very next day. Women in publishing now outnumber men. A feminist editor in New York, whom I inherited when my own editor was sacked, said she wanted to publish only books by women. I briefly considered a sex change, then pressed on to her more responsive colleague. Cultured professionals like my best editors, Peter Davison and Aaron Asher, are rare today.
Frightened editors tend to follow an increasingly oppressive political correctness. I sent my literary memoir Privileged Moments (later published by Wisconsin) to Johns Hopkins University Press, and after a month of silence rang them to find out what was happening. The director said he hadn’t sent it out to a reader because I’d quite unacceptably called a woman “fat.” Since I’d discussed only one woman writer and had not called her fat, I asked for an explanation. The woman in question was V.S. Naipaul’s brother Shiva, whose obesity was a direct cause of his fatal heart attack when he was forty.
Jeffrey Meyers, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, has recently published Samuel Johnson: The Struggle (2008), The Genius and the Goddess: Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe (2009), George Orwell: Life and Art (2010)—his fifth work on Orwell—and John Huston: Courage and Art (2011). Thirty of his books have been translated into fourteen languages and seven alphabets, and published on six continents. In 2012 he gave the Seymour lectures on biography, sponsored by the National Library of Australia, in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney.