There was an interesting article, last week, in the Guardian all about whether writers can survive without publishers. Or, more specifically, the advances that they pay. If you want, you can read the article here, but I'll give you the short, sweet version in case you don't want to. Ewan Morrison, the author of the article, says, "Writing, as a profession, will cease to exist." There you have it. The summary of the article. Let me explain.
No one can deny that digital publishing is changing the industry. Morrison speculates that ebooks and e-publishing (Now, tell me, why is "e-publishing" hyphenated while "ebooks" is not. That seems unfair to me.) will bring about the end of paper books within the next 25 years. I'd have a hard time trying to argue that with him. Although I believe there will always be a demand for paper books, the expense required to produce them is going to become high enough that the average person will not be able to afford them, at least, new ones, and, for all practical purposes, bring about the demise of paper books as a "thing." Oh, well... it will save some trees, at least. I suppose, I will have to be happy with that. [However, there's a whole aspect of the ease with which censorship will be possible that I am completely uncomfortable with, but that is a topic for another time.]
This shift from the physical to the digital brings with it a price. The price of "free." There's a lot of controversy around this statement, but you can't really argue with it. Already, we're seeing the advent of the $0.99 ebook. Sure, for the most part, it's first timers just trying to get someone, anyone, to buy their book, but it causes a domino effect and the gradual de-valuing of the art form as a whole. People begin to expect that the value of a book is only $1, and, so, will not pay more than that. There's not a lot of room between $1 and free. Again, we're in a situation were the publisher (Amazon with the Kindle or B&N with the Nook) makes a ton of money selling millions of these $1 books but the individual authors making very little. Morrison goes into all of this in more depth, but, the end result, will be the degrading of quality in published materials and the loss of the "professional writer" from culture.
Of course, his premise is that the "professional writer" lives off the advances that the publisher pays for work that is not, yet, produced. Basically, author goes to publisher, "I want to write a book" and publisher responds, "Okay, here's some money. Go do that." While I don't disagree that this does fit the definition of a professional writer, this seems to be his only definition of a professional writer. I think that most people that make a living as a writer (writing is their profession and they make enough from it to be considered a "living wage") would not agree that this scenario holds true for them. However, Morrison seems to be saying that this is the only way that quality writing happens. It takes the publisher there to support the writer during the writing phase to enable works of quality to come into being. Therefore, if traditional publishers die, so, then, will professional writers and the quality works they produce.
Morrison is asking a valid question in all of this, "Can writers survive without publishers?" Or "Can the profession of writing survive without publishers?" His answer is "no," and he ends his article with a sort of call to arms for writers and publishers to band together and support each other and see the other through these, oh, so difficult times. Only together will writing prevail!
I'm not sure, exactly, which planet Morrison is living on, though. Or, maybe, I'm just not sure what floor he's living on. His supposition is incorrect on so many levels, I hardly know where to begin. Just to start off, though, the idea that a writer can only do his job if there is a publisher there to give him an advance is laughable. Yes, there are some writers that live that way. The elite writers. And the money is paid to them to lock them into a contract with the publisher so that they won't go somewhere else. It works more like an incentive. At some point, Morrison says that a writer can't live off of royalties alone (the advance is a requirement), but that makes me think he doesn't understand what an "advance" is. It's an advance against royalties. Technically, when living off of an advance, the writer is, indeed, living off of royalties. They're just royalties he hasn't earned, yet.
Here's the thing: no publisher gives someone who has never written a book an advance in the hopes that they will, in fact, write a book. The writer has to show, first, that he can, indeed, write said book. Yes, the writer has to in some way provide a living for himself during this time period, but, if the writer writes, and the book sells, the writer earns royalties and can concentrate on more writing. And here's where the advance comes in: if the publisher thinks, based on previous performance, "hey, this guy might actually make us some money," they will offer the writer an advance. This serves to allow the writer to focus more on the writing, but it, more importantly (for the publisher), keeps the writer from taking his book off to some other publisher to make the money for someone else. The writer sacrifices that amount of the royalties that come after the book is written making him dependent on the next advance. Do you see the problem here?
Just to make it clear, though, most books (and when I say most, I mean nearly all (more than 9 out of 10)) do not earn back their advance (or sell through their first print run) making it much more difficult to get a second advance. So, really, when Morrison talks about how the professional writer is dependent upon the publisher for advances in order to do his job, he is clearly only talking about the writing "elite."
Which brings us to our second problem: Morrison's supposition that only the writing "elite" can turn out quality material. I'm going to have to actually say that the exact opposite is true. At least, in most cases.
For example, William Gibson. I hate to pick on him, but I'm going to do it anyway. Neuromancer, his best and most significant work was his first novel. The novel he wrote when he was still struggling to become a professional writer. The novel that was written without the huge "elite" advance. Gibson, now being one of the writing elite, can command huge advances, because his name being on a book will cause a stir and create sales. However, Pattern Recognition, while interesting enough to keep me going, never reached a real climax and just, sort of, ended. I was left completely unsatisfied. For some reason, I picked up Spook Country anyway. I barely managed to make myself finish that one. And I haven't bothered with Zero History at all, even though I like the title. Clearly, the introduction of an advance has allowed Gibson to spend years working on individual books, but it has not increased the quality of his work. Based on the moanings I've heard, I would say the same is true for George R. R.
And there's David Eddings, whom I love. Well, used to love. The Belgariad is one of my favorite fantasy series ever. The only thing better is Tolkien. It was the series that made Eddings' career. Not his first work, but it may as well have been. Everything that came after, all the books that came with the big advances, are lesser works. To the extent that I had to quit reading him, because everything was the same, but not as good, as Belgariad.
I could go on... I mean, there's Watership Down, the first book by Richard Adams, and one of the greatest books ever written. Have you even heard of anything he wrote after that? There are more than a few. Anyway, I could go on (and on), but I'm sure you're getting the picture. The picture that it does not, in fact, take an advance from a publisher to enable a writer to create quality work or even create at all. Rowling did create Harry Potter in the midst of poverty and living on welfare.
Not to mention that Tolkien was never what one could consider a professional writer. He was a professor. Writing was just this thing he did after he went home from work.
Still... Morrison is not wrong about his assessment that people will come to expect their books for as close to free as possible. You can look at the music business and the movie industry for evidence of this. It takes low prices to have any chance of combating piracy, and even that doesn't really work. The only real solution to piracy is offering everything up for free. So how is a writer to live if people expect that the writer's work shouldn't have to be paid for?
That's the real dilemma we're facing. Not "can writers survive without publishers?" but "can writers survive in a world of valueless art?" There are answers to this, though. One of those will answers will have to include an awareness from people that artists (writers, musicians, whatever) deserve to be supported in their work. That they provide something of value and deserve not just recognition but the ability to sustain themselves by providing that value to people. Right now, we are still caught up in the super star mentality that has evolved through the world of the corporate machine, and we see these people as undeserving of our support because they already have the big bucks, but that attitude will change. I think. I hope.
I'm also certain that advertising will play some part in a writer's ability to provide himself a livelihood. Advertising is increasingly the way everything online supports itself. And everything points to a future where we are even more inundated by advertising than we are now. But there are other options, too, like the way some established authors are, basically, drawing their advance from the people. "Pay me to write my book." Once they have achieved whatever payment they're looking for, they release the book for free. And, I'm sure, other options will evolve as time goes on.
The one thing I am sure of is that story telling won't pass from existence, although I do wonder if it will change form, but that's a topic for another time...