For the last couple of years, Robert J. Sawyer has been predicting that we are approaching the end of an era. For a brief period, beginning in the late 19th century, it was possible for a writer to expect to make a decent living from writing alone. According to Sawyer, this glorious time is coming to an end. And he may be right.
But wait you say — what about all those people who are making a fortune from self-publishing e-books? What about Stephen King and J.K. Rowling? What about Sawyer himself? He seems to be doing OK. True but they are the exceptions not the rule and there’s not as many of them as you think. Most of the big name authors in the stores today started their career at the peak of the publishing boom. As for Rowling — she could hardly have expected her success as she toiled as a waitress as her first novel received rejection after rejection.
People will continue to make lots of money from writing — but fewer will be able to enter the field with the realistic expectation they will become rich or even modestly middle-class from ‘doing what they love.’ The market increasingly rewards the outliers while the rest of us are left sucking the long tail. The data is pretty brutal: the average self-published author makes less than $10000 a year; advances for first-time or early career novelists from the big publishers are at an all-time low; writers who don’t sell are getting dumped more quickly than ever before.
I know — you’re thinking, another depressing blog about the trials and tribulations of writers and publishers. Enough already! Isn’t there any good news?
As a matter of fact, there is.
As I mentioned last week, the number of bookstores is once again on the rise as are the number of small niche publishers. Although book sales continue to be dominated by an ever smaller number of ‘big name’ authors, the range of alternatives — and venues for finding them — are increasing. Distribution does remain a problem but, I suspect, one that technology will soon solve. For now, it is getting easier for small presses to use traditional distribution channels — and with more indie bookstores there are more chances to reach a potential audience.
The leveling off of e-book sales is not necessarily a bad thing: though solid data is hard to find, I suspect that sales are levelling off as fewer bad books get published. Meanwhile, good books are starting to rise to the top as writers and publishers find more effective and less offensive ways to find their audiences. Fewer screaming tweets to ‘buy my book’ and more thoughtful book discussions and referrals. And more self-publishers are learning the value of editors and cover artists as well as effective pricing.
Maybe the best news of all — physical books aren’t going anywhere. If anything, they are making a comeback despite the driveling foolishness of anti-book advocate (and author), Kayne West. A new study suggests that young adults actually prefer print books to digital ones — in part because it allows them to escape the endless demands to ‘share’ everything.
The biggest challenge to traditional book publishing has been and continues to be Amazon but that may be changing. Jeff Bezos’ musings about Amazon Love shows no reluctance to whip the big publishers into line but suggests that crushing small ones is not ‘cool.’ Perhaps that will eventually lead to more effective ways to promote and sell smaller titles on his massive web-site. This is not a case of corporate philanthropy — Bezos didn’t get where he is by being insensitive to the direction markets and audiences are moving. There is plenty of money to be made by selling lots of units at low margins (a standard Amazon tactic to cripple competition) but there is also money to be made by selling to niche audiences at higher prices. It turns out that book buyers are relatively price insensitive when it comes to getting what they want. They don’t mind a bargain but will pay more if they perceive their options are limited. The question is: will Amazon, increasingly rigid due to its size, be flexible enough to capture there niche audiences or will niche bookstores or alternative web-shops get there first?
So, my prediction is that book-selling is in for a dramatic change over the next five or ten years as Amazon struggles to consolidate its hold on the market while smaller and more flexible competitors look for alternative marketing avenues. What is almost certain is that new bookstores will look very little like your grandfather’s bookstore. Look for more entertaining author events — not just readings but parties and ‘happenings’ (okay it will be a bit like the 60s) to draw in the crowds. And look for admission and service fees and bookstores that block cell phones so people can’t get free advice and then shop at Amazon. I suspect book-stores will specialize, too. All SF or all cooking books or all new age philosophy — I’ve seen each of these in the last few weeks.
But what will happen to writers, editors and publishers — will there be enough money to keep them engaged in the field? I’ve already predicted that fewer people will make a decent middle-class income from traditional funding sources — that is, sales. This is nothing new — many writers, over the years, have had to find alternative revenue streams. Dickens and Conan Doyle made a significant part of their income from public speaking; William Carlos Williams never gave up his medical practice. Teaching, speech writing, journalism (Hemingway and Thurber to name two), writing ad copy — all provided financial support to writers over the years. But finding the balance is a difficult thing: being a good writer requires more than an hour here or there; the fewer hours a month you spend writing fiction, the greater the number of months it takes to master your craft. Writing a novel takes 200 steady hours for the first draft and as many as three times that to get it to submittable shape. Writing one hour a day equals nearly two years of work.
Once you have some success as a writer, there are other sources of income that become available to you — grants, writing residencies and so on all provide a steady income and freedom to focus on writing. Though arts council budgets are under continuous attack by those who whine about the waste of taxpayer dollars and who are satisfied to read and consume the endless derivative crap shoveled out by mainstream media, they still exist and will ensure a steady trickle of new writers into the culture. Small comfort, of course, to genre writers who have a harder time getting such support.
Still, in the field of genre there has been a growth of good paying on-line markets, at least for short fiction. While no one can make a living writing short stories (unless you are Alice Munro), it can be enough to keep the dream alive. But do these markets have a future? They survive on three sources of revenue: advertising, reader payments (often for Best of collections) and donations. Advertising is proving iffy and sales are difficult when so much content is still free. Increasingly, it seems as if the latter avenue — donations — is becoming more important, with more and more financial appeals and crowd-sourcing campaigns to keep them afloat. Dozens of new fund-raising web-sites have sprung up including ones directed specifically at writers and small publishers. But is this source of funding itself sustainable? For now, it appears it is, though like all fund raising, there comes a point when donor fatigue will set in. In the meantime, they may do more than funnel money to creators — they may build a superior channel to let creators and their audiences connect. Now that would be a real revolution.
News of the Week
The Bundoran Press web-site is under revision — watch for a new sales even in the New Year. So safe a few Christmas shekels until then,.