Is Writing a Dying Profession?
Ewan Morrison thinks so. In a piece in The Guardian called “Are books dead, and can authors survive?” Morrison predicts that ebooks will kill paper books within 25 years. He provides numbers: Barnes & Noble now sells three times more digital books than physical books. Amazon sells 242 ebooks for every 100 hardbacks. Also, baby boomers (like me) tend to buy physical books, and when we go, they go.
He argues that the ascendency of ebooks and epublishing will destroy writing as a profession:
The digital revolution will not emancipate writers or open up a new era of creativity, it will mean that writers offer up their work for next to nothing or for free. Writing, as a profession, will cease to exist.
And we should care why?
I don’t mean to sound glib here, but I’m not convinced that writing, well fiction writing anyway, which is where Morrison takes all of his examples from of professional writers who were “paid a living wage” to create important literary works, needs to be a profession in order to be a viable art form. In fact, writing has never been a profession for the vast majority of writers, including many who ended up canonized, but not on Morrison’s list. But to his argument.
Morrison begins by asking us to “leave alone the question: why should authors live by their work?” I didn’t know it was a “should” – I didn’t even know it was a question. Some do, some aspire to, some do for short periods and then don’t, some few do reliably . . . is there a “should” in there? Who’s asking? Dickens lived off his work, as Morrison notes. Keats didn’t. Contemporary literary poets as a rule don’t. Herman Melville didn’t. Neither did Henry David Thoreau. Emily Bronte made some money but didn’t get wealthy off Wuthering Heights. One can play that parlor game all night. But it seems to me that in a piece lamenting the imminent passing of writing as a profession, that the question of whether writing needs to be a profession, whether authors “should” live by their work, ought to be at the threshold.
But if you take Morrison’s suggestion and leave aside the question of whether authors “should” make a living by their work, his argument makes some salient observations about the state of publishing today, and how that is likely to affect writing as a profession in the near future. So while I found myself questioning his starting assumption, I also found myself agreeing with many of his points.
Morrison observes that right now, publishers are drastically cutting author advances, focusing on short term profit, and dropping midlist writers. Without an advance, or with greatly reduced advances, authors who live by their work need to make their money from future sales, an iffy prospect even for bestselling authors. So authors are increasingly leaving publishers and opting to publish themselves.
At the same time, Internet booksellers like Amazon have learned that they can profit from selling one or two copies of millions of obscure books (known as “long tail” selling). Traditional publishers typically profit by selling millions of copies of a few best sellers. Amazon’s long tail has forced traditional publishers to cut prices and to largely restrict themselves to putting out sure bet, no risk kinds of books. If you have to discount your product to compete with Amazon, and traditional bookstores are drying up, and you depend on short term profits from a hit, what can you do? Take a chance on something experimental and risky? This is a huge reason so many truly uninspiring books get published today. If it doesn’t sell to the lowest common denominator, it doesn’t sell.
Morrison observes that “every industry that has become digital has seen a dramatic, and in many cases terminal, decrease in earnings for those who create ‘content’.” He has a point. This has happened to home videos, music, computer games, newspapers, photography, and is starting to happen to books. Add piracy into the mix, and economic forces will shutter the price of books to zero, because consumers won’t pay for content. When that happens, writing will “become something produced and consumed for free.” Any money to be made will be in using the free content to draw attention to advertising.
Morrison says there’s no “simple solution” but proposes that authors forgo publishing themselves in the long tail:
Authors must respect and demand the work of good editors and support the publishing industry, precisely by resisting the temptation to “go it alone” in the long tail. In return, publishing houses must take the risk on the long term; supporting writers over years and books, it is only then that books of the standard we have seen in the last half-century can continue to come into being.
Yes. Right. First, mainstream publishers have been so thoroughly colonized by their corporate owners they aren’t going to take a risk supporting any new writer for years in the faith that book #5 or #6 will be a classic. Editors may want to, but shareholders aren’t burdened by visions of long-term value. Second, authors now have zero incentive to forgo self-publishing in the long tail or otherwise, and this is partly (maybe mostly) because of the corporate culture that has infected traditional publishing.
Morrison may very well be correct about the death of writing as a profession, but he’s wrong to say that the only way high quality books can “come into being” is through the support of advances doled out by traditional publishers. He’s also wrong when he begins his article by saying that “most notable writers in the history of books were paid a living wage” and that the system of publisher advances is necessary to facilitate great work.
Here’s the reality. With very few exceptions, most publisher advances do not, by any stretch, constitute anything resembling a living wage, particularly if you divide up the advance by the hours the writer probably put into writing the novel. Most of the time, for most writers, it works out to maybe minimum wage, maybe less. People are obviously not writing their first (yet unsold) book while living off a publisher’s advance, and rarely are they living off the advances offered for second or third books. So unless you make the bizarre claim that early books are never masterpieces worthy of support, I don’t understand why the death of publisher advances will destroy the production of quality writing.
The issue isn’t publisher advances being the only means for someone to survive while having time to write a masterpiece. The basic issue is writing time, which I take up here. The funny thing is, writers, artists, musicians and other creative types have been finding ways to get that time without publisher advances for centuries. I’m not naively suggesting that writers need to be members of a leisured class or have a wealthy patron as was done in the past. I am suggesting that, if writing is important to you – there are ways to organize your life, to become ruthlessly spartan with your time, to get those 2 or 3 hours a day (or whatever it is you require) to just write. My link has some suggestions (which won’t work for everyone, but may be helpful for some). Other writers develop methods that work for them. I mean, writers are a creative bunch. I manage to run a busy law practice and still carve out writing time without depending on a publisher’s advance to buy that time. When I was getting publisher advances, I certainly didn’t live off them (nor did I expect to).
Oh, and since Morrison’s point is that great writers need that kind of support (unlike the rest of us, because ultimately their work will matter more) here’s a list from Publisher’s Weekly of notable writers who managed to support themselves with paying jobs while writing. Here’s a short list of canonized writers who kept their day jobs throughout their lives while maintaining a writing schedule:
Geoffrey Chaucer (civil servant)
Sir Walter Scott (Clerk to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, Deputy-Sheriff of Selkirkshire
Anthony Trollope (wrote mornings before going to work at the post office)
Herman Melville (customs inspector)
William Carlos Williams (physician)
Wallace Stevens (insurance executive)
Philip Larkin (librarian)
John Grisham (wrote his first two novels before going to his law practice or court in the morning)
Joseph Heller (wrote evenings)
And you know, just about everybody else, with the exceptions Morrison lists in his piece.
So there’s that. In fact, most writers already do that. And I would argue it’s having that day job, that contact with the real world every day, that brings a sense of authenticity and life to writing. You can’t be a writer without solitary time. You also can’t be a writer without carefully observing and drawing from the day to day messiness of humanity.
According to Morrison, since traditional publishers find it increasingly difficult to turn a profit under their current business model, writers are supposed to avoid the long tail (forgo self-publishing) to help out the publishers. In exchange for what? What are publishers providing writers that is so damn valuable that we’re supposed to put our work in the closet to help them out in tough times?
An advance that doesn’t and isn’t meant to support writing time? The almost nonexistent promotion? Space in rapidly disappearing physical bookstores that are more interested in selling baked goods and children’s toys than actual books and that can’t compete with online sales? Nostalgia for what publishing with a traditional publisher meant 20 or 30 years ago?
The only thing publishers maybe sort of offered until the last several years was the promise that a particular book had been vetted by gatekeepers and so probably had higher quality than the mass of stuff out there. But publishers have lost even that high ground, because they have to chase the safe mass market to even hope to make a profit against the long tail. And that means investing in celebrity books and formula over literary novels. So they are not only increasingly losing authors, they’re losing real readers, the kind who used to be fans of a particular imprint but who now, when they bother to visit one of the few remaining physical bookstores, see that the quality of mainstream published books is not necessarily better overall than indies.
At least the coffee is reliable.
What do authors need publishers for anymore? Today, anybody with access to a computer can download books directly to the reader, take payment directly, and promote their work as they feel appropriate. More people read my blog lately than buy the average literary novel, and I do very little promotion. I’m not unique in that regard.
Writers aren’t going to save the publishing industry by refraining from self-publishing. Only publishers can save the publishing industry – by actually publishing stuff worth reading again, and by being willing to downsize economically and to focus on the fraction of the population who actually cares about books. Because discerning readers are browsing the long tail to find a reading experience that fits their needs, and they’re doing so because traditional publishers have largely abandoned them for a broader, less discerning, higher profit audience.
You get what you market to.
So if market forces result in the death of writing as a profession, so be it. Writers aren’t going anywhere.