The Attrition of Aspiring Writers

“Attrition is not a strategy. It is, in fact irrefutable proof of the absence of any strategy.”
– General D. R. Palmer

General Palmer’s words, in condemnation of US policy in Việt Nam, speak a universal truth that transcends that particular war, transcends warfare itself, and can be applied to any aspect of life.  Including publishing.

Someone familiar with military theory might object that attrition is a valid strategy when you cannot quickly defeat your enemy, but the fact that there is no possibility for strategy doesn’t change the fact that you have no real strategy.  Palmer’s observation stands: a policy of attrition proves that there’s no real strategy.

Attrition is also irrefutable proof of the lack of respect for those being attritted.  That would be soldiers in warfare.  In publishing?  Aspiring writers.

According to Phil Cooke, the number of books being thrown at the front line of the publishing war “has exploded” while “average book sales are shockingly small, and falling fast.”

Sources available around the web place the average book sales in the thousands.  Rarely, the tens of thousands. That means, if you are intelligent and literate and dedicated enough to write a novel-length book that merits publication, enjoy your high-school drop-out income!  The numbskull who screwed up your picture-coded order at Super Burger earns as much as you likely will.

And not only waves of books thrown at the market, but waves of aspiring writers, a never-ending tide of queries and proposals. The policy of attrition is clearly idiotic; what publishing needs is strategy.



Economic facts are what they are, not because some abstract and impersonal market “failed,” but because those with undue influence over the market are distorting the market’s virtues by manipulating supply.  The primary way they do this is by unrealistically encouraging the enthusiasm the aspiring writers, the sort of “broadcast boosting” I have talked about before: glamorizing the art of writing, pushing the consumerization of writers through how-to books and conferences, refusing to give up the absurd fiction that “everyone has a book in them.”

Should we really be encouraging people across the board — with no prior knowledge of their creative ability — to invest their life hopes and dreams in such an absurd long-shot? We’re not talking about passing fancies and casual interests when we talk about encouraging people to write fiction in hope of publication.  When an aspiring writer dedicates his or her time to putting together a fictional world, its inhabitants, their lives and relationships and tribulations, this is no casual affair.  It’s life-consuming.

“Roll the dice, aspiring writer!  Seven of them.  If all seven come up sixes, you’ve won your dream!  Otherwise, fill out a Super Burger application.”

Is that how you treat people whom you respect, whose happiness you care about, whose dreams you honor?

Of course not.



Now, some might object to my characterization. (This is strategy, by the way: acting in expectation of further iterations of an extended, dynamic, and competitive process.) Some might object, angrily, that to accuse publishing pros of treating writers like cannon fodder is insulting and inflammatory.

Well, I agree with the spirit of this objection.  I don’t think most folks in publishing think of aspiring writers as expendable pawns launched like … well like pawns in a reckless scramble for dollars.

But, that’s a rather generous allowance when the typical “you should write a book” enthusiasm contrasts with the stark reality of a typical author’s chance of success in the same pathetic ratio as a television marketing pitch: 29 seconds of glamor and 1 second of legal disclaimers.  Results may vary. Cases depicted are not typical. Offer not valid in California, Texas, Georgia, New York, or Illinois.

And, when I say “success” I am using the same measure any reasonable person would use in regard to any other profession: being able to do it as a living.  The reality is that even publication doesn’t represent real success when the average book sells somewhere between two and fifteen thousand copies, depending on which source you cite.

So, what we need is a recognition, however grudging, of the full economic consequences of broadcast boosting (it aggravates perverse dynamics that suppress quality) and its implications for the relationship between publishing leaders and aspiring writers.  It might feel positive and supportive to encourage writers across the board, but it’s also misleading.

And, that’s not saying that agents and publishers have to become the Debbie Downers of literature.  After all, what most aspiring authors seem to want is simply to be part of the culture of literature, and citizenship in this congregation is not only easy to grant but it actually nurtures a sustainable, reader-heavy business model for publishing.

Instead of carpet bombing the literary culture with incitements to write, we should promote a culture of reading, deep reading, comparison, and read-sharing.

Most importantly, publishing and lit agent guilds should promote standards that support the sustainability of the community as a whole. In addition to a ban on reading fees, how about limits on the number of clients (with the necessary increase in agent percentages)?

How about a code of ethics that forbids broadcast boosting?

How about no more pay-to-play writers conferences? Perhaps guilded agents should only visit conferences that are restricted to represented writers.

The possibilities for sincere reform are endless.


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