April 11, 2021

From the Office

by Alan Beatts

Hearing about John Varley's current health and associated financial difficulties (see the news section above or read about it here - https://www.gofundme.com/f/helpjohnvarley) this month and also hearing the very, very good news that Peter Beagle has finally and conclusively beaten his scumbag former manager in court . . . .  

It got me thinking.  Booksellers, as a group, have pretty poor retirement paths.  But, there are a few professions that have even worse ones.  A friend once outlined the usual retirement for a fencing coach; "Work 'til your knees give out and then live poor in a hovel for your remaining years.  If you're lucky."  That's pretty bad.  But, the retirement of a full-time mid-list author isn't much better.  

If you're reasonably successful, your books will stay in print and so you'll have constant royalties coming from your backlist. But, royalties are based on sales and, unless something happens that makes your books suddenly notable (i.e. a movie or a TV show, a topic you wrote about being in the news in a big way, someone famous talking about your work, and so on), the royalties drop over time as fewer and fewer people buy your work.  

Of course, if you're not lucky, then your books go out of print.  And you get nothing.  That does mean you can sell your out-of-print books again but, first, someone has to be interested in reprinting them and, second, the payment and royalties are usually not as good as they were the first time.

So, really, the only way to keep your income in-coming is to keep writing new books and selling them.

Meanwhile, if you live in the United States, your medical coverage is expensive and, probably, not very good (unless you're lucky enough to have a spouse with a "real" job that gives you benefits).  So, when the inevitable health problems come up, it's really expensive.  And, those same health problems often make it damn hard to write, which creates an even bigger financial pinch.

It's a pretty crappy situation, all around.  And it happens more often that most people realize.  I see it because I have a lot of friends who are writers and, though I'm just a baby bookseller (in booksellers' years, 22 is right around kindergarten age or, maybe, grade-school), I've been around long enough to be friends with writers who are getting old now.

So, think of a writer you adore, whose work changed your world, and who you figure must be doing great financially (because, after all, they're a brilliant writer -- that's why you love their work so much).  Now consider that at some point in the past, present, or future they might be in financial straights so harsh that they are having to decide what bills to forgo paying and wondering how they are going to buy groceries.

Awful, isn't it?

There isn't really a fix for it.  At least there isn't a simple one.  At Borderlands we try to help by spreading the word when an author is trying to raise money, like John is now and like Spider Robinson did when his partner was sick.  

You can help too.  That author I asked you to think of?  Are you on their mailing list?  Or do you follow them on Facebook?  If you don't, there's a chance you won't find out if they get in a jam.  So, here's what I'd like you to do.  First, pick three authors that you absolutely love (only living ones please, the dead ones are past all trouble).  Second, go sign up for their mailing list or blog or whatever damn thing they have -- almost everyone has some sort of "social media presence" now.

(You so know what's coming next.)

Third, if they get in a jam, help them out.  Send some cash.  Some good wishes too but, the cash is the important part.  It's a tiny, fractional payment for all the happiness and pleasure they've given you.

Until next time, stay safe, be kind, and I hope to see you around the shop sometime.

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