I had just settled in to work on this month's theme, to scribble a few lighthearted thoughts on how vacuuming helps me grapple with stumbling blocks in my writing, when I got a phone call. It was my nonfiction editor from Marshall Cavendish and she had bad news. The conglomerate that owns Marshall Cavendish decided to put MC's library imprint, Benchmark, up for sale. Everything had been frozen. What this meant for me was that four books I had spent much of this year writing for my Careers with Animals middle/high school series (and the two more I was to write this fall) are now in limbo. Worse, the six books I had anticipated helping to launch next month (Backyard Safari series II and a book on Horse Care) would not be released. That’s ten books. A year and a half of my life's work. Worse still, my editor and most of the incredibly talented people I’ve had the pleasure to work with over the past five years will soon be losing their jobs.
As a nonfiction writer in the children’s library market, I have felt the ground shifting under me for some time. When I first started writing library books about twelve years ago, this segment of the publishing world was a smoothly operating machine. Publishers laid out their schedules two years in advance. I was offered reasonable advances with fair royalties from a variety of publishers. Deadlines were spaced well apart, allowing me to do in-depth research and quality writing. I was booked out six months to a year ahead of time. But slowly, things began to erode. First, it was the schedule; deadlines came faster and faster until I had to start turning down jobs that would not allow me adequate time to do the kind of research and writing I insist upon for a book bearing my name. Then it was the royalties. Gradually, they trickled away, replaced by work-for-hire salaries that have decreased year by year. Last summer, a publisher I had worked for in the past (and that paid an acceptable fee) asked me to write 12 books (about 4,000 words each) in five weeks – that’s a book every three days. It was an impossible task, even if the work-for-hire fee had been reasonable (it wasn’t). I never expected to get rich writing children’s library books, but now, I am fighting to hold on to an industry that is losing its grip. Soon, for my own safety, I am going to have to let go. And that breaks my heart.
It is, sadly, a sign of the times. In virtually every state, budgets for libraries are being slashed at the local, state, and federal level. Today's news told of the most recent victim: the Jacksonville, Florida library, which faces an 11% budget cut. The cuts would close the library on Sundays, reduce hours during the week, eliminate 71 full-time jobs, and chop the materials budget in half. It translates to 5,000 fewer copies of books for children and teens. No money to purchase books means, of course, no money to pay me to write new ones.
I wish I had an answer for what is happening. I wish I could tell you that writing to our politicians, voting for levies, and volunteering at our local libraries would help us change course. A lot of us have done those things already, and the cuts keep coming. Still, I’m not ready to give up. As long as I write, whatever I write, I will do what I can to support libraries and the wonderful librarians who motivated me to read and write as a child, and who continue to inspire me.
There was a bright spot in my stormy week. I learned that a large county library system in my state selected one of my fiction books, Secrets of a Lab Rat: No Girls Allowed (Dogs Okay) for their 2012-13 Global Reading Challenge for fourth and fifth graders. I was invited to be their guest author and give a short talk to the finalists next spring. I can’t wait to share with the kids how I practically lived at the library when I was their age! And how fiction and nonfiction books opened up a whole new world to me. I want to be able to tell the next generation of writers that there is a place for them in creating nonfiction. I hope there is. I pray there will be. But I’m not sure. Right now, I’m not sure of anything.