Why Don't More Writers Buy Books?


A new submission model—wherein writers must buy a book if they want their work to be considered for publication—is shaking up the literary world.

The publishing industry faces an odd set of supply-demand imbalances. Supply of printed books outstrips demand, which is why remainder tables get piled sky-high, publisher layoffs abound, and author advances have wilted. Supply of writers also outstrips demand for their services, which is why the statistics about getting an agent for your book are so dismal.

But wait. There is a glitch in this economic equation. If so many writers are desperate to be published, those same “so many” should also be reading books, right?—doing to unto others, and all that. Theoretically—or common-sensically—each writer is also a reader, and thus there should as healthy a demand for reading material as there are writers who want to be published. Even more, you have to read in order to write. So it should be a big traffic circle—writers to readers, readers to writers, of supply and demand. Right?

Clearly not. Literary magazines, which traditionally are great places for new writers to break in, receive enormous numbers of submissions—thousands more than they can accept. Yet these same magazines sell barely enough copies to survive. This can only be so if people do not buy the publications into which they seek entry (although some of them may be reading them at the library).

What we have is a glut of people who want to be writers, who do not buy the consumer products of the industry they are seeking to join. This is not exactly the same as everyone wanting free content online, though it is analogous to, say, thousands of wannabe newspaper reporters never shelling out 50 cents for the local paper, or graduates of magazine feature writing courses refusing to pay for magazines.

The above scenario is what I imagine has been frustrating the editors of Tin House, one of the best literary magazines in the country. Last week, they announced a stunning new requirement for anyone wishing to submit writing for possible publication: All must buy a book first. From a “real-life” bookstore. And submit a receipt: ?

"In the spirit of discovering new talent as well as supporting established authors and the bookstores who support them, Tin House Books will accept unsolicited manuscripts…as long as each submission is accompanied by a receipt for a book from a bookstore. ... Writers who cannot afford to buy a book or cannot get to an actual bookstore are encouraged to explain why in haiku or one sentence (100 words or fewer). Tin House Books and Tin House magazine will consider the purchase of e-books as a substitute only if the writer explains why he or she cannot go to his or her neighborhood bookstore, why he or she prefers digital reads, what device, and why.?? Writers are invited to videotape, film, paint, photograph, animate, twitter, or memorialize in any way (that is logical and/or decipherable) the process of stepping into a bookstore and buying a book to send along for our possible amusement and/or use on our Web site.”


While this new requirement may seem draconian and cruel to the poor, struggling writer, many literary magazines and presses have submission fees ($25, say, to read your work). Tin House is not asking writers to fund itself, but to fund the distribution centers that sell it, and, more indirectly, the writers and publishers who supply content.

In response to Tin House’s requirement, Dzanc Books launched a more philanthropic and open version of the readers’ fee. For the month of July, if you buy a (literary fiction) book from an independent bookstore, Dzanc will donate a book to a school or library. Dzanc is reaching out to readers and writers alike—one need not submit anything to the press in order for them to donate. You just have to buy a book.

These new promotions seek to redress the rising disjunction between the supply of writers and the diminishing demand for writing. We could leap to two quick conclusions: First, that writers are not reading enough, and second, that libraries (and/or book lending and online full-text publication) are doing a bang-up job. Let us hope the answer lies in number two. But in case it is number one, why not ask wannabes to help sustain the business they hope one day to join?

Photo (cc) by Flickr user Margolove

Julian Meehan

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