The End of Writing for a Living?

I found this doom and gloom article (or visit the mobile version here) at The Guardian website the other day. As an unpublished writer (by that I mean somebody who has never sold writing through mainstream means) I would like to offer my opinion on the article, the publishing industry and how I perceive access to books to change in the future.

Firstly the flaws with the article. There seems to be a general air of intellectual snobbery; the idea that books are not books unless they are in paper form and therefore only the paper form could be of good quality (like a wine drinker who cannot come to terms with screw tops). I disagree; this is like saying that books are not books unless they are hand copied by monks and what sacrilege to use such infernal devices as the printing press! Interestingly, he points to the printing press and Penguin Books as previous market shifts expected to destroy the publishing industry or book writing as an art, but then takes the side of the naysayers over ebooks. If I can draw a comparison, he is proverbially suggesting that steak houses will no longer be able to make a living because McDonalds is undercutting them.

He is forgetting one major thing: people will always be prepared to pay for quality. Sure, there will be a lot of free fiction out there but I can’t imagine novel writers giving away their multi-year projects for nothing (I know I wouldn’t; my short fiction is different as until now I’ve never thought it was good enough to earn money, there is very little market for short fiction anyway). The idea that writers make a living and a lot more from the art is a myth. The overwhelming majority do not. Only the big names and top sellers can begin to hope to make good money and too often, the publishers get to dictate what we read. He is so focused on market trends that when he points the finger at digital media for the loss in profits of the industries he highlights he ignores one thing: they have been so concerned with mass produced, inane and boring content. The internet has allowed the fringe, the unconventional, the risky and the bizarre a wider audience. This leads me to my next point.

The more I read about the publishing industry the more I am concerned that it has become too insular and self-serving just like the record labels. I read sci fi magazine SFX every month. Writer Dave Langford has a regular column and I remember in an edition about six months ago that he discussed some of the outrageous clauses that publishers attempt to put in contracts. The one that shocked me most was a clause that required the right of the publisher to create “derivative works”, the rights to which the writer would wave and make no claim on royalties. What this means is that the publishing house alone has the right to license the intellectual creation of the writer to produce spin offs, sequels, potential movie rights (and in this day and age, video games) and the author would get no say in the matter and, having surrendered the copyright, would not receive financial reward. A seasoned professional such as Langford had the knowledge and self-assuredness to treat such a contract with the contempt it deserved but a new writer may not have the negotiating experience and end up selling their creation short. While they have the right to go elsewhere, I cannot believe that they have the audacity to even try this.

The sales approach in the book shop chains to stack it high and sell only mainstream titles may work as a model for most businesses but when I go shopping for books I want an experience, the opportunity to take pleasure in the occasion and discover something new… (this is the only time I like to take my time when out shopping). I was saddened at the demise of Borders. I can (and sometimes did) spend up to 4 hours browsing my local store. The great thing about Borders was that it catered for the book lover. It wasn’t a specialist but you knew you could rely on it to have more obscure stuff. I can only imagine that it went bust because of a lack of special offers and deals. Only the mainstream books ever appeared in “3 for 2” and because they are big sellers they were being undercut by supermarkets and web retailers who bought in vast quantities. This and no discounts on the stuff a little out of the ordinary (where they could foster an environment of being a book specialist and buy in sufficient quantities to beat the supermarkets and web retailers at their own game) ultimately led to their ruin.

The book-selling approach of publishing houses is also part of the problem. Think about the biggest sellers of the last decade: Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code and Twilight. Anything that gets people reading is great but the problem I see for new writers is that with each new fad comes the inevitable saturation of clones and some of those clones are not up to the same standard as the bandwagon they are jumping on. “Sorry but your novel about Jesus being a spy for the Roman Empire is sooooooo 2004”. This makes me wonder to what extent publishers decide what we ought to be reading instead of publishing and promoting on quality and letting bookworms decide. And when you take that approach, yesterday’s big seller becomes tomorrow’s recycle bin fodder. True book lovers know where to look. I bought six books last weekend at Waterstone’s. All six were books I had sought for some time and I only bought them because the store had a blanket “3 for 2” offer. Only two of them were on the promotional table (Rivers of London and Catch-22) and in three other cases (The Difference Engine, Perdido Street Station and The Windup Girl), I bought the shop’s only copy.

Waterstone’s is getting better with regard to promoting the more unusual. They had a big promotion on Justin Cronin’s The Passage last year, a book that I never expected to have wide appeal despite that it has received critical acclaim. In this particular shop their popular science section leaves a lot to be desired and the traditional horror section reduced to three shelves in a corner swamped with teen horror fiction such as Twilight and True Blood.

The industry needs risk takers and people who can see long term. No, scrub that. The publishing industry needs avid readers on its staff. People who see beyond bottom line profit of the next quarter and see the sort of work that will still be selling copies when the copyright expires 75 years after the death of the author (Catch-22 was published 50 years ago and is still a big seller). How many copies do you think The Da Vinci Code sells ten years after its publication? How many will Twilight sell ten years from now?

I do not have such a bleak view of access to books but I do have a bleak view of the future for the insular and over-cautious publishing houses. I’m no free market capitalist but I do feel in this case that the market will right itself. It will become more egalitarian, reading habits will drive the market instead of the market dictating reading habits while occasionally adapting to an unexpected fad only to asserts domination again. Do I think the Kindle will kill the book industry? No, but it will force the industry to adapt to a changing world just as the printing press and Penguin Books did in the past.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some bitter and failed writer. I’m just getting started and I haven’t put much effort so far into getting my work into print or trying to earn money from it. The opinion I express above is based solely on how I feel as a reader. I’m not about to rush out and buy a Kindle but I’m not saying that I will never buy one either).

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