Monday, August 29, 2011

The End of the Book: Or, How Scared Should We Be?

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?
Morrison writes:

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.


  1. I love your closing comment. "There is no sense in fearing a future that sounds so much like the present."

    You're absolutely right. Every generation has its doomsayers telling us that one form of industry or another is coming to an end. Well, the gramophone never brought an end to live music. Television didn't stop people going to the cinema. MP3s didn't signal the end of the music industry.

    All the world is in a state of change, but the fact is, people want stories. And they will pay to have them. Writers will carry on.

  2. To be honest I don't think any one can predict what things are going to look like in the long term - yes the up and coming generation is used to free content but who knows what will happen in the next 20 years. Everything in relation to books and digital publishing is changing far too fast and realistically you can only compare ebooks to other forms of digital media to a point. Yes there are similarities but the user experience is very different (then again maybe I'm just reflecting my own bias in this case).

    I maintain if authors (and publishers and booksellers) are flexible and creative in their business models they can hammer out a way to make a living.

    Maybe patrons will come back as the main form of financing artists, maybe publishing houses will be service providers and authors their customers or maybe some brand new model I can't even consider will rear its head over the next few years.

    It's too hard to predict the long term but like you I'm pretty confident there will be one for authors.

  3. Cheers Paul - and yep, the sky has fallen before. TV was the end of movies. William Goldman wrote in 1980 about how quality filmmaking had been sidelined in favour of blockbusters and the only thing that could save the industry from mindless sequels was talent and passion.

    And now, 30-odd years later, Juno and Amelie were runaway hits.

    Zoe, totally agree that we can't see what's coming. We just don't know.

    Also, we definitely can't draw precise comparisons with other forms of digital media. Even the most casual readers are deeply connected to the medium. I have had people who read one book a year bawl me out for owning an ereader because 'you're killing real books!' Casual music lovers never had that attachment to vinyl. Casual film lovers never said 'I will give up VHS when they prise it from my cold, dead hands.'

    Books seem to hit an emotional note that no other art medium can achieve.

    Patrons would be ace. I'm hoping for a patron! :)

  4. First off the idea of Intellectual Property/Copyright is a relatively new thing - less than 200 years old (I think more recent but that is still well after Shakespeare). The evolution of copyright was intended to protect authors but became a tool for the publishers - that is why there are so many objections.
    A key issue here is the level of non-literacy. People don't read and many are incapable of reading more than a soundbyte. We are all vitims of this - I looked at your post and wondered was it too long to bother reading! ...of course there have been complaints about the decreasing quality of education since at least the 6th century so that is nothing new.
    Maybe we need to look back to go forward? Shakespeare made his living by looking to the then current equivalent of a TV tie in. And JK Rowling probably paid more than a passing attention to the movie rights in her last few books. That most terrible and successful authors Dan Brown described his lead character as looking like Harrison Ford.
    Commercial authors need to look at ways of making their work commerciall viable - and that means making it adaptable to commercial delivery.
    Of course I am writing all of this from the perspective of someone who writes best by hand and will probably never get into reading ebooks - no matter how many pages George RR Martin manages to put in his next book.

  5. I'm sooooooo tired of hearing that ebooks are killing off writers. Speaking for me and only me, ebooks have meant I'm able to actually make more money this year than I have in the past three put together (granted, it's still not a lot, but even so). Many writers with small presses don't get advances, so they depend on sales for anything. With ebooks, I get a higher percentage and there aren't any distribution issues or costs. That means that even if we sell the product for a much lower (MUCH lower!) price than the print, I still make as much off the ebook as I would off the print. All I can say is... thank god for e-books!

    Who knows what will happen in the future, but for now, I think it's not the end of books. Or authors.

  6. I have been thrilled by the changes wrought over the past few years, but then I never expected ever to make a living at my writing. I was always seeking an audience, not a secure monthly income. If I wanted that, I would have stayed at Costco (and I try not to think of what I'd be making there now if I'd stayed). Because of the internet, not to mention ebooks, I have a larger audience than I ever did, so I feel more motivated to write than I ever did.

    For me, money isn't really an issue. Not that I'm independently wealthy or anything, but because my expectations were never to be self-supporting as a writer. If it happens, that would be fantastic, but if not, I'm ok with that, too.

  7. Brendan, I think you're right - by looking back and looking forward, we will find a way to create an industry that works. The fact is that consumers won't be happy with committee-written ad-ridden digital pulp.

    Talli, I agree, ebooks seem to be helping small presses immensely, and it wasn't so long ago that the death of the small press was touted as the thing that would kill art in the world of books. Ebooks have given us a much bigger arena.

    Karen, I find myself almost automatically assuming I'll be among the 60% of writers with another income - when I was writing that post, I almost said 'The rest of us. . . ' when I was talking about writers with another income stream. That's how much I've been conditioned to expect that I won't live off writing alone! And yes, audience and income are two totally separate issues but we're still living in a world where one affects the other and that is something to be grateful for.

  8. I honestly don't know what is going to happen in the future. My publisher is an epublisher so I think I'm set up for the whole e generation pretty well.

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