Finally, I’ve had Susie Bright in the flesh – over a table in the deli. “Had” as in sharing a pastrami sandwich (mine) and a chalah bread pudding (hers). While this was the first time I met her in person, I’ve known Susie Bright since the mid-1990s when she published a story of mine in the series she was editing for Penthouse. She has long been recognized as a generous colleague to writers – providing opportunities for marginalized writers to get onto the page and making sure we banked a dime or two in the process.
Well, that was then and now the possibilities for making a living as a writer are tanking faster than my short-term memory. I remember the shock in the writers’ community when so many of our bread-and-butter technical writing jobs were off-shored. I remember the hope we felt with the arrival of a digital world hungry for huge bytes of content. Now we recognize that the craving for quantity trumps any interest in quality. Most non-corporate websites pay zilch for content, although some are making good money out of ads, sales and subscriptions. As Susie pointed out, book reading is down and, “There’s no livelihood for writers online yet.”
Susie Bright was in Boston as part of her farewell tour. With the publication of the 2008 “The Best of the Best of American Erotica,” she ends her 15-year-stretch as editor of this incomparable series. On tour, she is going out with a bang by inviting the whole gang – anyone who ever published in any of the anthologies – to join her as she appears in their area. She dished tidbits about those writers, the creative process and even the impact of politics on the types of stories sent to her over the years. “Every time a Bush makes a war in Iraq,” she said, “I get an avalanche of stories about submissive men.”
The end of the series is a reflection of what’s happening in the book world. Susie’s un-missable take on the state of publishing is one of the best posts on her smashing, pioneering blog (since 2004). In it, she explains why she finished the American Erotica series.
In her standing-room only talk at Brookline Booksmith, one of the few remaining area independent bookstores, Susie talked about the profound changes in the industry. “When I look at my old book tour itineraries, more than 9 out of 10 of these bookstores are closed.” No longer do “mom and pop” bookstores and their local readers set the literary agenda: the intense conglomeration of publishing has left that decision in the hands of those few corporations who are ravenously gobbling up the small houses. Just as the Internet gobbles up copy.
Here’s a personal example. Recently I had a piece called “Dramatic Voices of Dissent: Celebrities Film Zinn’s ‘The People Speak’” published on Alternet.org. It’s about a wonderful TV project based on the original "Voices of a Peoples History of the United States” - by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove. I was paid nothing for the piece, which involved lengthy interviews and some research as well as attending two tapings. A friend wrote the day it was published to say he had seen the piece, but on a different progressive website. I checked it out. It had been lifted wholesale and reprinted. No email to ask my permission; no negotiation about compensation.
But it wasn’t just that website. I googled the name of my piece and there were several listings by that evening. The next day there were three pages of Google results and now, less than a week later, it turns up on more pages than I am willing to scroll through. Sometimes they just give the link (that’s nice), but too often they serve the whole enchilada. Sometimes my name appears, and sometimes it is attributed to the person who had appropriated and posted it! These are right-on portals and blogs – surely they’ve heard of intellectual property rights? Surely they’ve heard of the film writers’ strike for compensation for digital reproductions? Be happy, everyone says. You’re getting great exposure. My reply? Send the check to my home. I’m trying to be a writer, here.
What’s Susie Bright’s answer to the question: How are professional writers staying afloat?
“All our ‘old’ forms of supporting ourselves have shriveled. There's a minuscule spot, on the head of a pin, to make a decent living in books and freelance writing today, using traditional formulas. Far more prevalent are authors who write, write, write, for little or nothing, for the Internet and the publishers who embrace terms that make quality writing, editing, and mentoring— all but impossible. The McDonald-ization of book publishing has given us a bellyache that just won't quit… The art of writing is holed up in a corner right now.”
Is it getting any better, Susie?
“Amateurism, Plagiarism, and Bullshitting-Your-Way-Through-It-All has not peaked yet."
Susie Bright, though, isn’t giving up. She has been taming technology since uploading her website in 1997 and she’s exploring ways to make it work for her as a writer. She’s pampering herself too. Her divine low-cut, form-fitting dress that evening was something she had just whipped up at the Sewing Boot Camp she had attended before the tour and I found her talent and her curves a lovely compensation for all the bad news.