This is all you need to know about the much-vaunted demise of publishing:
- Publishers are scared of the recession and are cutting their lists, chucking all the money at a few titles they are prepared to take a punt on. Doom and gloom follows if said titles bomb.
- Publishers don't know what to do about digital because no-one knows what the outcome of change will be. There is a lot of speculation and pontificating - believe who you choose. It is unlikely, though, that the outcome will be driven by the market - it's more likely to be determined by the actions of publishers in the grip of panic It is likely that customers will want to carry on buying a fair number of dead-tree books for a long time, but they may not have the chance (see point above).
- The option of self-publishing (digital or paper) is heralded by some as the way forward for authors, ditching agents, editors, buyers, and others whose role is to filter out the crap. Self-publishing faces two hurdles: perfecting the product without the agents, editors, etc, and marketing - how to get people to be aware of your totally wonderful work of breathtaking genius, because they won't buy it if they've never heard of it.
This, in a nutshell, is what is happening on the surface. For authors, it all means uncertainty, reduced advances/fees/royalties, cancelled contracts, fewer commissions - less money and fewer books in print.
Authors and publishers alike are struggling to see how to make the industry pay, but they are not working together - authors look at ways of cutting out agents and publishers, publishers look at ways of reducing their commitment to the writers that make their key product. It's not a recipe for success. And all the time the public wants to pay less or nothing for the product.
I'm with Glyn Moody in believing digital books should be very cheap or free, and the money should come from nice paper editions - but we won't go into that just now. The real point is: the years in which we, as writers, could make a decent (or at least sustainable) living just from writing books has gone for all but a tiny minority. There's no point fussing about how unfair it is. The world has moved on. Live with it. Find another way to make money, at least while the industry sorts itself out and settles down, and make only some of your money from writing the books you want to write. It's not a new situation - Chaucer had a day job, T.S.Eliot had a day job, Tolkien had a day job. No, it's not nice. But neither is whingeing nice. It gets you nowhere. Change happens - it happened to the people who made a living from slide rules, and from stabling the horses that pulled stagecoaches, and to the people who trained gladiators...
So - The Author and the authors - stop complaining and do something; it's getting boring. I'm not just being unsympathetic - I make my living from writing, too. I know there are writers who feel they don't have other marketable skills - but of course they have writing skills which they could apply in other areas. I know it's unfair. I know it's hard. But complaining in the face of something that is not going to go away is not a good use of your time and energy. It will not change just because you don't like it. The genie will not get back in the bottle.
It might take years before society realises it has a cultural diet of crap, but in the span of cultural history, that's just a brief snack on junk food. Shame that we are the cordon bleu chefs during this foray into cultural McDonald's, but so be it. We can try to wait it out. We can starve in a garret dying of antibiotic-resistant TB, or do a Philip Larkin and embrace some other toad to fund our literary endeavours.
And, of course, Stroppy Author should stop grumbling about the state of publishing. Yes, shut up, Stroppy Author. At least stop complaining about things that won't change. There, that will have saved a few electrons that would have been spent on comments.