Ewan Morrison's arguments at the Edinburgh Book Festival have caused quite a lot of talk. You can find them here, but before reading them I recommend lining up a cup of good quality tea, a quantity of your favourite food treat (be it milk or dark) and arrange for someone to give you a hug afterwards. I didn't do any of these things and ended up trembling uselessly at a blueberry muffin.
There is some scary stuff in there, and Morrison makes some very interesting points that it's hard to disagree with.
Then I got thinking.
Morrison's main point is that, since ebooks are outselling print and the current generation of consumers are unused to paying for news, music, content, etc., we are ultimately moving towards a world where writers will be trying to sell a product to people who want it for free. And that internet-based providers, like Google and Amazon, will be concerned about making money from advertisers rather than from book sales. So how on Earth will writers get paid?
But let's leave the survival of the paper book alone, and ask the more important question: Will writers be able to make a living and continue writing in the digital era? And let's also leave alone the question: why should authors live by their work? Let's abandon the romantic myth that writers must survive in the garret, and look at the facts. Most notable writers in the history of books were paid a living wage: they include Dostoevksy, Dickens and Shakespeare. In the last 50 years the system of publishers' advances has supported writers such as Ian McEwan, Angela Carter, JM Coetzee, Joan Didion, Milan Kundera, Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie, Norman Mailer, Philp Roth, Anita Shreve, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark and John Fowles. Authors do not live on royalties alone.
A fair point. Lots of writers - lots of amazing writers, including some of all-time personal favourites, are on that list - have emerged from a system where writers lived off their advances until their royalty cheques came in. And now, even successful writers are advised not to quit their day jobs until their backlist supports their living expenses.
And advances are dropping. Or disappearing.
And of course, the garret is not romantic if you have kids, and need health insurance and a car and food and clothing. No quibbles here about writers needing cash.
But. . .
(and I promise I have a counter-argument that doesn't mention JA Konrath even once)
. . . only 40% of self-described 'professional authors' were earning their living solely from writing, according to figures published in 2005.
So these arguments only affect the 40% of professional authors who did not already depend on a second income stream.
Which sucks for them, of course. If we do end up in a world where writing for a living becomes harder and harder, those 40% will find it tough. But if they're smart enough and talented enough to be in the higher range of earners, I'm guessing they'll find a way to diversify in a changing market.
I agree with Mr. Morrison that writers should be able to live by their work.
But the reality is, right now, not that many writers can.
So there's no sense saying that the sky is falling when half of the people who live under the sky are already walking on it, and finding ways to cope.
Ebooks are selling. Yes, they're more vulnerable to piracy, but they are selling. People are paying actual money for them.
And storytellers have been making money since before we invented paper. We may not be able to see the future, but I'm confident that there will be one. There is no sense in fearing a future that sounds so much like the present.