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Jason Boog: Writers Can Learn From The Great Depression

First Posted: 10/07/11 11:07 AM ET Updated: 12/06/11 05:12 AM ET

"There are plenty of people who will write for free."

Jason Boog has heard this argument before.

"'Writers are complaining? There are more pressing issues in the world today."

He's heard that one too.

"The publishing industry is scaling right back. Newspapers are disappearing. Stores are undercutting publishers' prices. Jobs are non-existent. New formats are slashing prices."

Boog is quoting arguments that were spoken not yesterday, or last year - but more than 80 years ago, during the Great Depression. This was a time when the publishing seemed to be about to collapse, yet writers believed in a new kind of industry, and helped to build it through organized dissent.

As he works on a new book exploring parallels between then and now, Boog is wondering if such moves could be possible today - and if writers could ever organize themselves in such a manner again.

He knows what he's talking about. As the editor of GalleyCat, probably the book industry's leading website for insider news and gossip, Jason has seen huge changes as they occurred across all aspects of publishing.

"[I started] looking at this subject three years ago. The stock market was in free fall and the publishing industry was going through a lot of trials and tribulations. I found that in 1933, when the stock market hit rock bottom, magazine publishing, newspaper publishing and book publishing all were cut in half. Everything was scaled back and tons of writers were left out in the cold.

"The book industry started to move towards paperbacks, a new development at that time, and people were very worried about prices. There was also a huge battle going on between publishers and department stores. Macy's were running books as loss leaders, to get people into the stores. We see that kind of thing happening with online book sales today."

"And so the writers took to the streets. They were marching, picketing. There were fist fights with the police. They actively engaged with the world and forced people to pay attention to the fact that it was almost impossible to make a living. I think we can learn from that.

While Boog admits that many aspects of today's crisis in publishing and writing are different from those of the 1930s, he still sees a possible route for how writers can force change.

"I think that maybe we haven't endured a long enough recession yet to see this now, but in 1934, publishers went on strike, and authors were on the picket line. There were fist fights with the police. They didn't stop, they kept pressing and they made front-page headlines in the New York Times for weeks on end.

"Writers were actively engaged with the world and they forced people to pay attention to the fact that it was almost impossible to make a living."

Recently, as Boog himself reported on GalleyCat, The Writers Guild East of America joined the Occupy Wall Street march on behalf of its members. Perhaps this is the start of what Boog is hoping will become a writers' movement? Does a Federal Writers Project even make sense today, in a world of bloggers and tweeters?

Boog doesn't pretend to know the answers, but he hopes his book will help bring some of the issues to light in a new way.

"I'd like to reach out to writers, to everybody that's out there that feels like they're alone, and give them something to think about. Also I think there's a general audience should be thinking about these issues. What do we do with white collar unemployment? How do we put people back to work, how do we value ourselves in a digital economy?"

As for the near future - it doesn't look good.

"I don't think things are going to get any easier for the next five to ten years. It's going to take a long time for standards of how much we pay for writing to become more unified, and for advertising to catch up with these new models. It's going to be a very long, hard slog for writers over the next few years."

Jason's book, Will Work For Food, will be published early next year by OR Books. He is currently blogging his research on a Tumblr site, posting information, ebook editions of texts from the period of the Great Depression, and Spotify playlists containing music of the era.


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Filed by Andrew Losowsky  |