I've been joining in a very interesting online debate which was started by an aspiring writer who also helps run a small but relatively high profile publishing company. She asked the assembled members - beginner, seriously aspiring, published and bestselling - how the publishing industry ought to be run, as opposed to how it is. (Not much use to post a link, because it's in a private members-only forum on WriteWords)
Needless to say, the answers ranged over ground which any writer who's spent time in the pub with other writers will recognise: the time it takes for rejections/acceptances/publication/royalties to be paid; the reluctance of editors to take risks 'these days'; the rise of the agent; the rise of the editorial service; the rise of the supermarkets. I tossed in Danuta Keane's excellent piece about returns and pulping, but no one's picked up on it so far. (Just in case you thought this can't be an online discussion, there is of course one tiresome, ranting member who's funny enough to keep people reading, and just clever enough to get under others' skin and get them answering back, so the discussion derails temporarily. But luckily someone always gets it back to basics.)
And then I found myself thinking even further back to basics. I was an aspiring writer for too long to underestimate the agony of a good writer who's learnt their trade and is trying to get published. Then there are the good writers who find their publishers demanding ever-bigger sales, or offering ever-smaller promotion. And there's the often poor fit between the publisher's duty as a business to stay solvent and profitable, and the slippery, incalculable, non-rational business of writing. But nonetheless, I wrote:
"When societies get to the point where not everyone has to be involved in producing food and defending food-producing territory, there is spare food for shamans and artists. Money is only a way of making that food-sharing more flexible. What it comes down to is that all societies develop ways of paying their artists, and some leave the artist freer (and/or hungrier) than others. Do taxes fund grants, which is the modern equivalent of the King having court painters? Do rich patrons employ a poet for the Christmas season? Do people who hear storytelling toss coins in a hat as they pass, or buy tickets to readings on the South Bank? Or does someone pay the novelist to produce a book expecting to make that money back in sales, and then a bit more money to pay themselves?
"It varies how much societies recognise that art is a Good Thing, and that some art which not everyone understands is needed and must be paid for, if the art which everyone does understand is going to go on developing. Think Arts Council subsidies. And in a society larger than a single tribe, it's always going to be very hit and miss who's able or wants to pay for what art. Either that, or the Politburo decides what's a Good Thing and every other artist is sent down the salt mines. But fundamentally, society won't feed artists whose art they don't want and can't imagine ever wanting. And you could say, why should they? The society may well be wrong, in the case of a particular artists, but that's their right."
Looking at it again, it reads rather brutally. I don't do brutal, but it seems to me to explain a lot, even if the individual worry/bafflement/frustration/pain is something we should also acknowledge, in ourselves, and others.