The hard problem of politics, religion, advertising and literature

Cory Doctorow


Vintage Benson Barrett ad, “How to MAKE MONEY WRITING..short paragraphs! promising “No tedious study. Learn how to write to sell, right away.”

Publishing is doing great

Publishing is doing great. Despite panic at the start of the lockdown, book sales were actually up during lockdown, as people turned to books to pass the time, joining online bookclubs and finding ways to support their local indie booksellers.

But authorship? Not so great.

Every part of the publishing supply chain has undergone radical concentration over the past 40 years, starting with consolidation of mass-market distribution in the 1980s. “Mass market” books are produced for sale in non-bookseller channels —pharmacies, grocery stores, news-stands, etc (books produced for sale in bookstores are called “trade books” because they’re sold through the bookselling trade).

The mass market

The rise of mass-market paperbacks represented an explosion of opportunities for authorship. Mass-market outlets were serviced by hyper-local distributors, hundreds of them across the USA. These small firms used unionized Teamsters to actually stuff the spinner-racks in dozens of non-bookstore retailers.

Being unionized, these book distributors had long-term job security and earned performance bonuses if the books they placed sold (unsold books were “stripped” of their covers which were returned for credit, with the rest of the book being pulped or snuck home by unscrupulous grocery store clerks, which meant that picking the wrong book didn’t just squander a potential sale — it actually cost money).

The combination of long-term experience and cash incentives turned many of these truck-drivers into shrewd predictors of what would sell and where. That’s how the science fiction fans of the sixties and seventies came to discover avant-garde, wildly transgressive “New Wave” sf novels in the spinner racks of their suburban drugstores.

The mass-market was far from perfect, but it was pluralistic: it spread out decision-making about which books were available to whom across a huge pool of people from a wide variety of backgrounds, beyond the bookstore chains and independent bookstores. When I was a baby writer, local science fiction conventions featured long-established pros passing on…