Margaret Atwood on "The Publishing Pie"

If you have some laundry to fold, or shoes to shine, or possibly some pencils to sharpen… whatever busy work you need to do this weekend, set your laptop next to you and play this video. It’s totally worth it.

At the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference, amidst techies and marketing people and CEOs, Margaret Atwood does the unthinkable – or at least the unusual: She speaks on behalf of writers, asking the publishing industry, please don’t eliminate your primary source.

She said so many things I resonated with, but I think one of my favorites was:

“No author, no book.”

This is a 30 minute video – her talk is 20 minutes, then there’s Q&A. Watch it when you have a chance, then come back and tell us what you resonated with!

Have a good weekend!

© 2011 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Sandy Day on February 23, 2011 at 9:36 AM

    >Wonderful video. Thanks for posting.

    I heard Margaret Atwood speak at my sister's graduation from Guelph University back in the 80s. Of course, she was delightful then too. Lots of food for thought. I am grateful to be a writer, a retailer, a marketer, and a Facebooker by nature!

  2. annegreenwoodbrown on February 21, 2011 at 12:26 PM

    >Observations: Who knew Margaret Atwood with so hillarious?

    What struck a chord: Don't panic and run. "They'll think you're prey."

  3. Toby Neal on February 20, 2011 at 9:40 PM

    >Thanks so much for sharing this. How totally true and she's got such a great deadpan delivery!

  4. Tissue majakani on February 20, 2011 at 9:28 PM

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  5. Aya Knight on February 20, 2011 at 6:34 PM

    >Very interesting video. Thanks for posting! I am really enjoying your blog, great work. 🙂

    Aya Knight
    Author of- The Chronicles of Kale: A Dragon's Awakening

  6. Tana Adams on February 20, 2011 at 5:38 PM

    >Interesting and brilliant. I felt rather avant garde watching while eating my turkey and swiss sandwich.

    I like the feeling (as a writer) of being an essential protein in the food chain of publishing.

    I'm not sure if this is too OT, but I do see something interesting stirring on Amazon's ebook top 100 chart. More and more there are .99 cent through 2.99 ebooks that are infiltrating the ranks. It has crossed my mind that maybe these authors are purchasing their own ebooks over and over to boost their sales ranking (and they might be) although the kindle doesn't let you make more than one purchase per account. These books are dominating the Amazon charts while the big publishers books are getting the shaft.

    I don't think I can count on the Amazon ebook top 100 hundred chart to be an accurate description of great reads. I am now completely reliant on my gut, and Amazon reviewers. I tend to find the most honest reviews are somewhere in the middle not quite 5 stars or 1, even if the 5 and 1 stared reviews are representative of how those reviewers felt.

    It feels like publishing morphs a little every few months. It's hard to tell when the morphing will slow or even stop. I just hope that Amazon never tacks 'welcome to the .99 cents bookstore" onto its logo.

  7. --Deb on February 20, 2011 at 12:27 PM

    >Thank you so much for the link to that video–it was excellent and amusing. How often do you get to laugh with someone talking about the changing book industry? Loved the illustrations, too.

  8. arbraun on February 20, 2011 at 12:29 AM

    >I thought the paper book-stroking comment was humorous. I prefer paper but like my e-readers also, which puts some people up in arms. Though I prefer paperbacks and hardcovers, I'm not a paper book huffer.

  9. Nan Jones on February 19, 2011 at 2:55 PM

    >Thank you so much for sharing this. It was wonderful!

  10. Richard Albert on February 19, 2011 at 10:37 AM

    >The primary fear I have is that this brilliant conversation may fall on deafened ears. It’s so true that many authors (published and aspiring) try to live their life in duel worlds with a strong need to write and the hard pressed difficulty of finding a way to pay for that time; although, she did miss the option of winning the lottery as a way of paying this debt. 🙂

    An author’s struggle for a larger slice of the pie becomes even more important with the additional workload added by publishers – not because they are greedy, but because there are additional costs of time and money to publicize one’s own work. Certainly not all publishers are like this, but if the author has to handle all of their own marketing and they know nothing about how to market, the book may be doomed from the start. Why would a publisher want to make such a large capital investment and then not follow through on the most important part of the process? It’s in everyone’s best interest. This has been proven time and again with books that were certainly not brilliant prose yet had remarkable sales based, in part, because of brilliant marketing campaigns.

  11. Jackie on February 19, 2011 at 5:25 AM

    >A really interesting talk from one of my favourite writers. What she said came full circle. Her opener was 'publishing is making something public'. She closed with a question re self-publishing – 'How do you get anyone to read it?'Like many writers, I can't imagine a life devoid of writing. But if that writing is never made public, does it invalidate what we do?

  12. Judy on February 18, 2011 at 9:06 PM

    >Loved this. Perfect timing. Thank you so much for providing the link. I spent most of Friday cleaning the house, doing laundry, not writing, washing windows, and reflecting on many of these same issues. Ate toast and cottage cheese for lunch. Finally settled down with a glass of cheap wine and hung on every word of this inspiring and oddly encouraging talk. She's lovely!

  13. Amy Sorrells on February 18, 2011 at 3:28 PM

    >If published, I'd really like to try the mens skivvie department marketing approach. And I think more
    books need sketches. Seriously, though, a lovely presentation. It's a fascinating time to be an author. And to savor cheese sandwiches while they last.

  14. undeniablyjeff on February 18, 2011 at 3:17 PM

    >I can't tell you how proud I am of this woman, and proud to say I'm a student at Victoria University at U of T, just as she was. She's just a gem.

  15. Dave Cullen on February 18, 2011 at 2:28 PM

    >I'm listening in bits. Interesting so far.

  16. sally apokedak on February 18, 2011 at 2:25 PM

    >that was excellent. Thank you.

  17. john on February 18, 2011 at 2:18 PM

    >They ate all the pie, and all I want is a cheese sandwich.

  18. Joylene Butler on February 18, 2011 at 1:13 PM

    >This was great. Thanks, Rachelle. I'm a big Atwood fan and hearing her speak has answered more questions than I realized I had.

  19. B.E.T. on February 18, 2011 at 12:02 PM

    >Great video! A wonderful examination of the situation these days. A joy to watch, thanks for sharing.

  20. Mastering Investments on February 18, 2011 at 11:26 AM

    >Authors will thrive no matter what tool will be established in the world. If the newest tech is diamond and the old ones are gold, the diamond will have to be set in gold…and the whole package still remains with the author…good talk…

  21. Linda Jackson on February 18, 2011 at 10:52 AM

    >First of all, Ms. Atwood is brilliant and hilarious. I love this video. Totally informative. Now, what resonated with me: everything! I will have to watch the video twice and study it. But I think what resonated most with me is that authors must be ready and willing to change with the times, and everything that I did as a self-published author I must be ready and willing to continue doing as a traditionally published author.

    Thanks for sharing this, Rachelle.

  22. Rosslyn on February 18, 2011 at 10:30 AM

    >LOL! My favorite part, by far, is her homemade cartoons. She is giving me ideas for my speaking engagements in May, for better or worse.

  23. Wendy Paine Miller on February 18, 2011 at 9:06 AM

    >I took notes. I was in a nerd in school, what can I say?

    I loved how Atwood said “forgive me for not being as hopped up about it all” and that she explained one definition of publication as “a mode of transmission of stuff from one brain into another brain.”

    “Writers should go the way of rock bands” cracked me up!

    Loved this quote too: “What if I just want to write, am I doomed?”

    I also found it cool how she said an editor was a key person to provide encouragement, validation and guidance.

    Finally, I think I’m in the middle too. Time to go buy a Kindle.

    Have a great weekend!
    ~ Wendy

  24. S.P. Bowers on February 18, 2011 at 8:22 AM

    >Great talk. I linked over here from my blog because I thought it was worth sharing, especially the illustrations. Loved the discussion of the author as the primary source, and I loved her common sense.

    Personally, I want the best of both digital and print worlds. I hope that publishers, editors, authors, etc can all work together to make a profitable and tasty pie.

  25. Timothy Fish on February 18, 2011 at 7:42 AM

    >After watching that, I feel like I've been hit with a firehose, so I almost don't know what to talk about, but I think what she said about not eliminating the primary source is interesting. It seems like every time there are cost saving measures in the publishing industry it comes out of the author's pocket and whenever the publisher has this "great idea" of how to market something it is the author's responsibility to do it. Someone was talking the other day about authors being required to produce a trailer for their books. A high quality trailer can take more manhours to produce than it took to write a book. The fact is that authors don't have time to do all the stuff they are supposed to be doing to market their books and write books also. That is probably the main reason self-publishers struggle and yet publishers keep putting more and more of the work on the authors.

  26. Katy McKenna on February 18, 2011 at 6:11 AM

    >Loved this!! Got a huge kick out of Ms. Attwood's humor and self-deprecation. My kid wrote a book for O'Reilly ("Ajax on Rails") and I didn't understand a bit (techie joke!) of it. I can't imagine speaking to an audience at an O'Reilly conf. She made great points that seemed to resonate with the crowd. And yes, she should have had a larger print run than 200 of her homemade book that's now selling on ebay for the big bucks. That paper is worth more and more every day….hmmmm. Very cool. Thanks, Rachelle!

  27. Rosemary Gemmell on February 18, 2011 at 5:38 AM

    >Brilliant talk from Margaret Attwood – thanks for posting it Rachelle. I thought her summing up of the final question was perfect. She believes there is a place for both print and e-books. I completely agree with that.

    The other two points I loved were the one about the necessity for authors in the first place, and the fact that you can read a print book in candlelight if all the technology fails!

  28. Book Maven on February 18, 2011 at 5:19 AM

  29. Gay Groom on February 18, 2011 at 12:38 AM

    >Great lecture from Peggy Atwood! Seen her speak many times… always informative and entertaining.