The Deep End



“A passionate homage to forgotten writers who speak to our own times.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Beautifully told stories of literary triumph in the worst of times.” — Douglas Rushkoff

“A book I read with wonder and sadness, and a great deal of hope." — John Freeman

“A timely and important act of recovery.” — Caleb Crain

“Vital, immersive reading with important context. It might even help us see a way forward."
— David A. Taylor

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About the Book

It’s tough being an author these days, and it’s getting harder. A recent Authors Guild survey showed that the median income for all published authors in 2017, based solely on book-related activities, was just over $3,000, down more than 20% from eight years previously. Roughly 25% of authors earned nothing at all. Price cutting by retailers, notably Amazon, has forced publishers to pay their writers less. A stagnant economy, with only the rich seeing significant income increases, has hit writers along with everyone else.

But, as Jason Boog shows in a rich mix of history and politics, this is not the first period when writers have struggled to scratch a living. Between accounts of contemporary layoffs and shrinking paychecks for authors and publishing professionals are stories from the 1930s when writers, hard hit by the Great Depression, fought to create unions and New Deal projects like the Federal Writers Project that helped to put wordsmiths back to work.

By revisiting these stories, Boog points the way to how writers today can stand with other progressive forces fighting for economic justice and, in doing so, help save a vital cultural profession under existential threat.

232 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-935928-91-1 • E-book 978-1-68219-217-7

About the Author

jason boog author photo

Photo © Caitlin Shamberg

Jason Boog is the West Coast correspondent for Publishers Weekly and was previously publishing editor at Mediabistro, leading the GalleyCat and AppNewser blogs. He is the author of Born Reading: Bringing Up Bookworms in a Digital Age. His journalism has appeared in The Believer, Salon, The Awl, NPR Books, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

Read an Excerpt

When the stock market crashed in 2008, the offices closed at the legal publication where I worked. I lost my benefits, my office space, and my security, all in a single meeting. I holed up in the New York University Library for a couple of weeks as a freelance writer, scribbling reports and watching my health insurance expire. I was a single speck in a national catastrophe for writers.

According to the Department of Labor, the printing and traditional publishing sector shed well over 201,000 jobs since the recession began in 2007. This was part of a much larger set of losses as digital technology disrupted traditional publishing. Between 1998 and 2013, the book publishing industry lost 21,000 jobs, periodical publishing cut 56,000 jobs and the newspaper industry shed a staggering 217,000 jobs.

After my old job folded, I camped out on the seventh floor of the library, tucked away among the American Literature shelves. I started looking for clues on how writers survived the Great Depression. In the stacks, I found You Can’t Sleep Here, a novel written in 1932 by a 20-year-old Hungarian immigrant named Edward Newhouse. His book tells the story of a young newspaper reporter fired during the early days of the Great Depression who sleeps in a tent city along the East River and who showers in a bathroom at the New York City Library.

The reporter paces up and down the side of Central Park at sunrise, hoping to get the first look at the want ads before thousands of other unemployed people. “I had to walk till 55th Street before one of the newsstand men would let me look into the want ads.” A quiet desperation permeated every line of Newhouse’s story. I couldn’t stop reading.

United States unemployment peaked at 25 percent while Newhouse was writing his novel. Economic catastrophe led to the unprecedented closing of hundreds of magazines and newspapers. Library budgets were slashed. Chicago and Philadelphia both reported that their book buying budgets had been completely cut for 1933. The New York City Public Library saw its budget cut from $256,000 to $120,000 in the same year.

I came across a photograph of a line outside a Depression-era employment agency. The men were wearing suits leftover from better times, waiting in an endless chain. They were resigned souls shuffling towards a wall covered with job posters that had already been filled. A New York Times columnist poked fun at the plight of struggling authors in a 1931 column called “Our Lazy Writers”:

employment agency photo

“Our younger writers, possibly due to the greater rewards of success, make a great how-de-do about turning out a fairly long novel once every two years; and for this they must have European trips, winters in California and Florida, summers in Vermont and Maine, city penthouses and what not … Can it be that American authors waste too much time attending literary teas?”

In You Can’t Sleep Here, the novel’s young hero struggles to make a living as a writer. “The story sounded funny but the situation wasn’t,” Newhouse wrote, as his hero finishes yet another story he can’t publish. One character chides the young journalist: “Anybody who really wants to work can find a job,” and you can feel Newhouse’s fury radiating through the pages.

“Anybody who really wants to work can find a job.” The old lie is still alive. Internet job boards have created the illusion of boundless opportunity during our Great Recession, but I soon came to realize, like everybody else, that automatic email programs did most of the responding.

We officially emerged from our nationwide recession in 2009, but the situation facing contemporary writers has not changed. The newspaper and magazine jobs that disappeared were never replaced. The bookstore chain Borders closed for good in 2011, erasing nearly 10,700 bookselling jobs. The American Library Association noted that 55 percent of urban libraries, 36 percent of suburban libraries, and 26 percent of rural libraries cut their budgets in 2011. In the same survey, librarians said that job search services were most in demand at the library, but that 56 percent of the libraries didn’t have enough resources to meet the demand.

Wherever I looked, I discovered that Newhouse had been there before me, describing what he called “the crisis generation:”

“I was the crisis generation who had never been absorbed into the industry or the professions. Depression. Periodic dip. Economic cycle. Normal course of events. Aftermath of speculation. Act of God. We had all the old problems … but we also had something new, the passing of economic insecurity. We college and high school and public-school graduates were certain of our economic future. The pile of lumber and the cement under the billboards was [our] immediate future. The public comfort station down the block and leftover buns at the automat and hourly supervision by twirling bats were our certainties.”

The Crisis Generation. That phrase guided me through the next few years. I paid $50 to get a copy of Newhouse’s out-of-print novel so I could show it to everybody I knew. Like some misguided missionary, I’d show it to people and say, “See? See? He’s talking about us!” His book felt like a bomb with a busted timer that had stalled back in the 1930s and had been stuck on a dusty shelf for eighty years, losing none of its dangerous potency. I wanted to fix the timer and blow something up all over again.

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