Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Wrong Answer To The Right Question

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...


  1. I think there are only two people who are important in the story process - the writer and the reader. People who 'need' to write stories, will always write stories, regardless of how much they earn.

    But the real tragedy to come out of the publishing shake-up is the demise of bookshops...

  2. Really I hear it all the time that hardly anyone can live as a professional writer anymore. Most have a sideline career (usually teaching) or else have a spouse to help share the bills.

    Recently I was watching the movie "Limitless" where the Bradley Cooper character is a writer who's having a case of writer's block with the deadline looming. And I'm like, "Come on, no publisher gives a nobody a huge advance anymore!"

    I'm not going to say the traditional publisher is going to die just like the big record companies haven't died, but there's going to be a new business model.

  3. I agree with Amanda!

    Good post!

  4. Thoughtful post. It does annoy me when people assume that people who aren't paid for it can't write some damn good stuff. Where does that leave the thousands and thousands of us tapping away, as yet unpaid? We can't all be rubbish, surely?

  5. This was a great post, and you very accurately summarized! While I understand the literary community "banding together", that's sort of what has led to this predicament in the first place. A failure to acknowledge what is really happening.

    I think you hit the nail on the head, though, saying the real dilemma is "can writers survive in a world of valueless art?" I'm hopeful people will step up and support others.

  6. Some people are afraid of change and choose to remain invincibly ignorant. I feel sorry for them.

  7. Amanda: I agree with you, and I don't. Some people who "need" to do it just can't. There are too many other things they have to do, or they just don't know how to sit down and really do it. I don't think the desire (the "need") is enough to cause it to happen. There will always be people making stories, though.

    I don't think we're losing bookshops; I just think they're changing. Yes, we're losing them as we know them, but, then, we're losing books as we know them, too. Everything changes. Will I miss, do I already miss, walking into a book store and just browsing around? Yes. I spent my teenage years doing that, after all. But, then, I don't have time to ever do that anymore anyway what with kids and all. >sigh<

    Mr. Mutt: I don't know if that's really true or not. It's so hard to tell. I mean, when has anyone ever been able to live as a professional writer? There are always a few that do, but have those numbers really changed over time? Granted, the percentages have surely gone down, but have the actual numbers changed? And, if you look back at some of the people that we think of as great authors, many of them never really survived by -being- a writer. They had some other sort of income, because, during their own time, they never made it. Were never really appreciated. Or were to some extent, but still not to the point where they could live off of it. Those people have always been the great exceptions.

    Bonnie: Thank you! I'll give you the same response I gave Amanda, but you'll have to look back up to her's to read it. :P

    Sarah: Yeah, it's horrible. If a publisher doesn't have you that must mean you're no good. So Rowling was no good before her book got picked up even though it was the same book? Exactly.

    Barbara: Yeah, people like to stick their heads in the sand and pretend it's not happening or just cling to what they know to try to prevent change. It's... upsetting. The truth just is that traditional publishing can not survive. That's not to say that publishing won't survive, but it won't be traditional. As soon as they acknowledge that and start making some changes, the better off everyone will be.

    And, yeah, it would be really nice if people in general would acknowledge the right of the artist to make a living off of the entertainment they provide to others. It's kind of sad.

  8. Sarah McCabe: Ooh... two Sarahs! I'll have to watch that.

    And, yes, I agree entirely. As I was just saying to Barbara. heh

  9. Just a couple little thoughts:

    1. Until we have 24/7 internet access and electricity under all weather conditions, books will still have their uses.

    2. Would you pay $0.99 for a pile of crappy writing? What would you pay?

    What would you pay for something good?

  10. L.: I'm not saying books don't have their uses; I love books. I do agree, though, that they are going to become impractically expensive as the demand for them decreases and the cost of materials to make them go up.

    As for what I would pay, well, that's immaterial. I'm not talking about me; I'm talking about people in general. The prevailing thought on ebooks is that since it is transmitted digitally (i.e. there is nothing physical that is being purchased), it shouldn't cost anything. Or very much, at any rate.

  11. I really don't have anything else to add to this, Andrew, it's such a wonderful post. Well done. I will say this: In reading mass market paperback romances, my CP and I have come across well established authors who have, as of late, put out rather crappy excuses for stories/novels/books/take your pick. It's almost as if they didn't have anything ready for the publisher and so, since they're a big name, they just dug something out from under their bed, said, "Eh, this'll work," and sent it in.

  12. I think what is at issue here has little to do with publishing and everything to do with greed. Publishing companies want to maintain their billions of dollars in the bank and all their luxuries. How do they do this? They destroy the midlist. What is left is superstars and debut authors. Debut authors if they don't become superstars are kicked to the curb. They also get little to no advance. Superstars are catered to hand and foot. This will never change. George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman (guaranteed superstars) will always get a hefty advance for their drivel. Debut authors can get it to if they are of the likes of Casey Anthony and Bristol Palin.

    For the rest of us...the midlist goes the way of the middle class. The rise of the e-book gives us an opportunity to at least make a go of something on our own as the establishment only hates us. Paper is becoming an ever shrinking market. Will it go the way of the buggy whip? I have no idea. My impulse is to say no. There are too many traditionalists that like the aesthetic look of books on a shelf. But ebooks will be bought by true readers. Regular books will be bought by ppl that want to decorate their house.

  13. Alyssia: Well, I think once the pressure is off an author to get published, to prove him/herself, the tendency is to quit pushing to be better. After all, there is no more need.
    The other possibility is that you've outgrown the author. That happened with me and my favorite author when I was in high school. Suddenly, I couldn't figure out why his books were crap. It took me a while to realize that his books were, actually, just the same as they always had been, I had just outgrown him.

    Michael: I can't argue the point of greed. More specifically, corporate greed and the greed of the "entitled" that run the corporations (no pun intended).

    I also don't disagree about the aesthetics of books. What I fear, though, is that owning actual books will be like owning actual art for your walls. They will become a status symbol.

  14. Have you read Dean Wesley Smith's blog much? He's a full time writer who says that there are way more people making not just a living, but a comfortable one, writing full time, than you probably think.

    The guy posts like a machine gun, and I'm too tired to hunt through his stuff to find what I'm referring to, but he repeats it often enough. I encourage you, and anyone really, to spend several hours going over his posts for the past year or two. What he says rings true, at least for me.

    But your point is still valid. If I were to get a typical publishing contract for a debut author today, I wouldn't get an advance big enough to pay two months mortgage most likely, living off the advance just isn't possible.

  15. As much as it makes my heart stutter to think about it, storytelling has changed a lot over the centuries and will continue to do so, I'm sure.

  16. Rusty: Yeah, I know there are plenty of people out there making a living as a writer, but the ratio of those that do to those that want to is very small and, I think, growing smaller. I'll have to look him up, though, when I have the time.

    Shannon: Yeah, I'm gonna have a post coming up about that, but it's probably still weeks away.