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.

Here’s why.

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)

Also consider:

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.

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8 Responses to Is Writing a Dying Profession?

  1. Eva says:

    Great piece, Karen.
    Oh and btw, the last publisher I spoke with regarding a book she wished revised to suit the market she was targeting said the following:
    Most people read at an eight grade level so don’t make it hard for them. Too many characters scare readers off. They can’t keep track of people. –I wonder if they have too many people in their lives to keep track of too.–
    Oh and don’t change time periods back and forth, that’s confusing too. Keep to a conventional plot line. Oh and don’t bother with the fancy poetic writing, it’s beyond most readers.
    Oh and please do be creative.
    –Are we having fun yet?
    I’m not going to comment at length on your points because that would just be beating a dead horse. The publishing industry as it is may well kill itself via its own stupidity and inability to adapt. Well, at least the so called American Publishing Industry.
    Take Note: the best recent books I’ve read have not been published in the USA.
    Prime Example–The Shadow of the Wind—a lot of characters, beautifully written and translated, long, complex and fully of wonderful stories. Yeah, I paid for a hardcover copy to read again and again. I’d pay for downloadable copy of something as good. That book would NEVER get published with the current American dumb down the reading public mentality. IT’s too damn good to be American “made.”
    Gee, I think I’m ranting!

    • Eva! What you describe here tracks everything I’m hearing from other writers and frustrated readers. But remember, despite the typical publishing advice you recount in your post (dumb down to sell to consumers who can’t read beyond an 8th grade level), the publishing industry still likes to think of itself as a cultural gatekeeper keeping the barbarians away. That’s been the hardline against indies for at least 10 years: “our books are vetted, real writers don’t put their stuff out there until we approve it, we have standards, anyone can self-publish so self-published books are junk, if we say it isn’t good enough, it isn’t, if you think our books are substandard, you should see the stuff we reject, we’re dying for really good books, really we are.”

      Then they piss over real writers like you (I’ve seen your stuff) for – well, being complex, interesting, innovative, literary, and assuming an educated readership. That is, for not being accessible to the majority of the population that reads below an 8th grade level.

      Is there any other industry that decides to alienate its customer base in favor of chasing a bigger pool of people that don’t like or understand its product?

      I bought into the “cultural gatekeeper” propaganda longer than I should have. There comes a point where you say fuck ‘em and go it alone in the long tail. That point happened for me when I had to admit there is just as much junk coming out of traditional publishers as indies, and I had to accept that there is rapidly diminishing value in one day being vetted by a publishing industry gatekeeper. Because not only have the cultural gatekeepers fallen down on their job, they’ve let the barbarians pay for entrance through the gate.

      Yeah, I’m on a tear! Fuck the publishing industry, fuck the jackbags who insist on haranguing writers about “personal brands” and Klout scores and Facebook visitors, and basically fuck anyone that pretends to promote and protect literature but hasn’t the foggiest notion as to what it is. And especially fuck anyone who does understand what literature and its cultural role is, and still insists on defending traditional publishers as “cultural gatekeepers.” That’s a special kind of evil I don’t like thinking about.

  2. Thomas Smith says:

    Ah, the long tail. When I was partner at an indie label for music artists we used to call that “career-building.” But then, the music industry model has traditionally been that of book selling.

    I find myself amused by Morrison’s assumption that writers “should” be able to support themselves on their advances. Of course they should. Lots of things should happen but most of them don’t.

    Call me jaded. Having spent most of my life and all of my working life in the entertainment field, I’ve seen the changes. It’s particularly disheartening as an author in this particular neck of the woods to know that most people don’t read. This explains the 8th grade reading level. It also goes a long way to explain why the books that end up as New York Times Bestsellers get so popular. What we have is a culture of celebrity. Consumers will readily purchase a book by Danielle Steele or Sarah Palin, though I really doubt that anyone actually reads them. In order to compete on that level of playing field — I choose not to — writers have to view their works not as the be-all and end-all of their accomplishments but rather as a starting point. In simpler terms, a book’s publication is just an excuse to go off and do something more.

    No publisher can help with that. Locked into an antiquated formula just as the music business is locked into one of its own, they truly can’t see the forest for the trees. Even if someone is lucky enough (and I tend to think it’s not lucky at all) to be signed with a larger entity, it’s not the publisher’s career but the writer’s that should be the focus. Publishers are only interested in the big sellers that generate the quick bucks. Publishers are very interested in the Danielle Steele’s and Sarah Palin’s of the world but are not at all interested in helping any other authors hit those peaks.

    I tend to think that the flurry we see of self-publishing will thin out when and if would-be writers come to realize that as with any art form writing is a lifestyle. We do what we have to do to get noticed. We do what we have to do to survive. Not everyone is equipped to do so.

    • “Writing is a lifestyle.” Thank you for this, Tom. You nailed it.

      As to the music industry model traditionally being that of book selling, I’m glad you brought that up, as there is a weird sort of inversion going on now.

      I remember back in the late ‘90s / early aughts when publishing professionals would get on the Internet and warn writers aspiring for contracts with major publishing houses to never, ever self-publish. (Well, publishing a nonfiction work intended for a niche audience was semi-ok, but fiction writers better not do it). It was Cain’s mark, the sure sign that your work would not be taken seriously by anyone that mattered. It was a sign of professionalism to hide your work away and watch the 8th grade reading level books get signed until somebody approved your work. (I fell into this trap.)

      Occasionally, someone would object that indie bands routinely “self-published” (that is, released their own CDs). In fact, thanks to recording technology becoming more accessible to more people in the ‘90s, it was pretty much expected that any band wanting to be taken seriously would self-release. So why were writers discouraged from doing so? The only response I remember was that it was somehow less of a time or money investment buying an indie CD than an indie book, and so it was a Bad Thing to inflict indie books on readers.

      The economic model for the major labels was to invest in bands whose self-released CDs got attention through the band’s self-promotion efforts. This often resulted in signing bands who were better at self-promotion than consistently writing great music, and well, add Napster and all that followed to an increasingly disenchanted audience and look where the music industry is today. Tom – you know more about this than I do right now – but aren’t there like four labels left who largely exist off their back catalog? The labels are no longer regarded by anybody as the keepers of quality. Even younger people constantly tell me they prefer ‘70s music to what’s being released today.

      OK – it’s 2013, and publishing technology (epublishing) is widely available. It can’t be stopped. So the publishers who eschewed self-publishing ten years ago have now embraced the music industry model of the ‘90s that served the labels so well – invest in self-published writers based solely on the writer’s self-promotion ability. That’s why Barnes & Noble is full of books based on popular blogs and Eva (above) needs to look to foreign presses for a quality read.

  3. Thomas Smith says:

    From what I recall there are actually only three major labels so it’s worse than you thought.

    Music labels work off the same pattern that book sellers do. There is always that one gigantic hit that will keep them afloat for another year. Actually, the marketing model only allows three months for a music release to either hit or disappear and that’s very much what happens also in both publishing and the DVD world. Knowing that, which is something I’d really think would be obvious to just about everybody in the world, it’s hard to see why anybody would want to be affiliated with a major label, publisher or film company.

    You know, it took No Doubt’s first release something like 2 years to break through to the public consciousness. If my hands weren’t beginning to hurt, I could probably find quite a few authors with the same tale. The years between first release and overnight success would be filled with continuous marketing efforts, no matter how small they might have seemed at the time.

    Today’s climate tells people that the world is just like American Idol. All it takes is that one lucky break. This is true. Sometimes it is just one hit that makes a career but these are the exceptions. Naturally enough, no one wants to be the exception to the rule rather than the rule itself. We can all dream and really should but we have to be realistic.

    When we first got into writing “Which One Am I?” I was very insistent in defining my target market before I ever laid down a word. I can’t hit a goalpost unless I know where it is. I know better than most fledgling authors that the public at large isn’t the public that will purchase “Which One Am I?” Neither would I want them to. I’ve looked at the New York Times Bestseller list and read as much of it as I can stomach. There was simply no way I could let myself sink to the level of a Stephen King or Bill O’Reilly. The only person I want to compete with is me.

    Cultural gatekeepers? It is to laugh. No one could possibly have read any of these books by celebrities. It isn’t quality publishers sell, it’s fame.

  4. Skimming as usual, Karen, but I heartily concur with your remarks about writing as a vocation vs. writing as a profession. There’s been so much nasty brow-beating going on about selling. I can understand, given the money at stake. But where’s the art or the truth or the idea of being a writer because it matters in all of this? I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I was equally certain, from a young age, that I didn’t want to be a marketer. So there’s got to get a difference in there somewhere. And a price, of course. There’s always a price for everything. If nothing else, I hope I’m learning to see the real choices more clearly as I get older and keep hoping to get wiser.

    • Welcome, Lynda! Delighted!

      You pretty much sum it up. As you say, writing is a vocation – we all write out of an ongoing love affair with the language, and (for fiction writers like us) out of that numinous kick in the ass our characters provide. As Thomas Smith said above, it’s a lifestyle. Those of us in that lifestyle should be natural allies.

      It takes an external, foreign interest that has nothing to do with us or who we are to not only define fiction writing as a “business,” a “profession” – but to judge our worth as writers on those terms. Maybe even to judge our worth as people, since we are writers. And since we all want validation, the bean counters have learned to disguise validation as Eris’s golden apple, reserved for the best self-promoter of us all. “You’re not a real writer unless a corporate-colonized publisher says you are. Now fight.”

      There’s nothing wrong with promoting one’s work to whatever extent it feels appropriate, but this business of judging the writer solely on her ability to sell herself as opposed to her ability to create a good story, and then pretending that self-marketing is a proxy for writing talent, is destructive to readers who can’t find good books, publishers who can’t afford to take a chance on good books, bookstores that can’t actually function as bookstores anymore, the culture, and of course writers. Except writers will write anyway. That’s what we do.

      Lynda, it’s lovely to see you here.

  5. A. Barrett says:

    The writing on the wall turned to graffiti many years ago.

    In the 1980s and early 1990s, I earned 20 to 35 cents per word for regular and feature articles. Life was good. Then the Internet built up a good head of steam and Youtube became the go-to place for entertainment and how-to information. Faced with increasing competition for readers and advertising funds, magazine editors started asking if I could write for free.

    I switched to book writing and again, life was good. Then eBook readers and pirate sites for scanned books became popular and my royalties plummeted from five figures to three. That’s when I knew it was over.

    I still write. I love it and I am told I am good at it, but I no longer submit to paying venues because they are as scarce as dodo eggs. There was a time, but that time is beyond the horizon. Life chimereal. We adapt and go on.

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