Tuesday 13 July 2010

The world's changed, move on

This month's issue of The Author was so full of fretting about how the publishing landscape has been demolished by the earthquakes of digital technology and recession that I couldn't be bothered to read it and used it instead to swat flies.

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.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. (Sorry - posted that comment before i was ready.)

    Hooray! You are so so so very right.

    I'm also a fan of diversification and I haven't done enough of it recently. I'm now spreading myself more widely and sensibly - I'm still doing the writing I love even if it doesn't sell hugely, but earning money in writing-related ways, whether public speaking or consultancy work or some more commercial writing. We are not owed a living and we shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that we are. I think we can do the art and be commercial, if not at the same time then at least in the same week.

  3. Thank you, Nicola. That was going to be my next post - how to make money doing writing-related things. You've pre-empted me :-)

  4. Obviously non-fiction has had it but I think fiction printed on paper will last for a while yet.

  5. Absolutely right.

    People often fail to apply their writing skills to other areas. Working for a magazine publisher I know that it's hard to come by people with specialist knowledge who can also turn in decent copy.

    Write what you know is a bit of a cliché but it can make you money whilst you wait for the novel to take off.

  6. Brilliant post - scary, true and STILL funny. Really made me laugh... Yes The Author is ridiculously negative and just the right size to swat with. Diversification is the name of the game, and actually that makes for a much happier existance in some respects; certainly more creative. Writing forever more would be unhealthy. Doing other stuff can be quite stimulating I find...

  7. Think we all have to suck it up a little Anne - certainly true in farming - and remember why we do it, it never was for the money....lucky really.

  8. Yep, I'm pretty much with you. Writing skills always needed and sometimes times are lean. It doesn't help that journalism is also in the doldrums but, hey, it will all pick up soon enough. No point moaning about it.

  9. This is a brilliant, sensible post and I am so glad to hear your thoughts on this topic. I have a day job as well as writing - it doesn't kill me, I enjoy it.

  10. I totally agree... but at the same time I reserve the right to feel slightly hard done by as a copywriter who has recently ditched the day job in favour of authorly pursuits. What timing, eh?

  11. Thank you, everyone. Feeling hard done by may be inevitable, but as Nicola says we are not owed a living by writing - whether we have been doing it for years or just started. Sadly.

  12. First-time reader, following links about the publishing industry. What is "The Author?" Is this a magazine in the U.K.? Which article(s) are you referencing? I know you didn't finish them, but I'm interested to know who's thinking what. :)

  13. Hi Lexy. The Author is the magazine for members of the Society of Authors in the UK. I think it is only sent to members and is not available in shops, but you may be able to get it in libraries. In the latest issue, there were quite a few articles on this general area. I don't have the issue to hand at the moment, but I'll try to find it and answer more fully.

  14. What a bit of fresh air. I think I'm moving to the U.K. It's actually the same pie, but divided up differently. If the whole pie is writing and the slices are magazines, advertising, publishing, television, film, non-fiction, internet, then the trick is to find out which sectors now make up the 80% that publishing used to occupy.