Passive Guy saw the doom-and-gloom summary of a speech given by author Ewan Morrison at the Edinburgh International Book Festival a few days ago and dismissed it as hopelessly chicken little.
However, regular visitor and commenter Julia Rachel Barrett tweaked him about it, so here are some excerpts:
Will books, as we know them, come to an end?
Yes, absolutely, within 25 years the digital revolution will bring about the end of paper books. But more importantly, ebooks and e-publishing will mean the end of “the writer” as a profession. Ebooks, in the future, will be written by first-timers, by teams, by speciality subject enthusiasts and by those who were already established in the era of the paper book. 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.
. . . .
But let’s leave the survival of the paper book alone, and ask the more important question: Will writers be able to make a living and continue writing in the digital era? And let’s also leave alone the question: why should authors live by their work? Let’s abandon the romantic myth that writers must survive in the garret, and look at the facts. Most notable writers in the history of books were paid a living wage: they include Dostoevksy, Dickens and Shakespeare. In the last 50 years the system of publishers’ advances has supported writers such as Ian McEwan, Angela Carter, JM Coetzee, Joan Didion, Milan Kundera, Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie, Norman Mailer, Philp Roth, Anita Shreve, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark and John Fowles. Authors do not live on royalties alone. To ask whether International Man Booker prizewinner Philip Roth could have written 24 novels and the award-winning American trilogy without advances is like asking if Michelangelo could have painted the Sistine Chapel without the patronage of Pope Julius II. The economic framework that supports artists is as important as the art itself; if you remove one from the other then things fall apart.
And this is what is happening now.
. . . .
With the era of digital publishing and digital distribution, the age of author advances is coming to an end. Without advances from publishers, authors depend upon future sales; they sink themselves into debt on the chance of a future hit. But as mainstream publishers struggle to compete with digital competitors, they are moving increasingly towards maximising short-term profits, betting on the already-established, and away from nurturing talent. The Bookseller claimed in 2009 that “Publishers are cutting author advances by as much as 80% in the UK”. A popular catchphrase among agents, when discussing advances, meanwhile, is “10K is the new 50K”. And as one literary editor recently put it: “The days of publishing an author, as opposed to publishing a book, seem to be over.”
. . . .
In reaction to the removal of their living wage, many writers have decided to abandon the mainstream entirely: they’ve come to believe that publishers and their distribution systems are out of date; that too many middle-men (distributors, booksellers) have been living off their work. When authors either self e-publish or do deals through agents that to go straight to digital they embrace a philosophy of the digital market called the long tail.
. . . .
The recent enthusiasm for the long-tail market does, however, obscure a very basic economic fact: very few writers and independent publishers can survive in the long tail. Amazon can sell millions of books by obscure authors, while at the same time those authors, when they get their Amazon receipts, will see that they have sold only five books in a year. This is not an accident, but part of a trend endemic to the digital world. As Chris Anderson said in his book Free: Why $0.00 is the future of business: “Every industry that becomes Digital will eventually become free.”
The reason why a living wage for writers is essential is that every industry that has become digital has seen a dramatic, and in many cases terminal, decrease in earnings for those who create “content”. Writing has already begun its slide towards becoming something produced and consumed for free.
. . . .
Well, books might not be manufactured in China and Korea but the long tail is the sweatshop of the future, and it will contain millions of would-be-writers who will labour under the delusion that they can be successful in the way writers were before, in the age of the mainstream and the paper book.
. . . .
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.
. . . .
If the connection between publishers and writers splits completely, if they fail to support and defend each other, then both will separately be subjected to the markets’ demand for totally free content, and both shall have very short lives in the long tail. The writer will become an entrepreneur with a short shelf life, in a world without publishers or even shelves.
. . . .
The only solution ultimately is a political one. As we grow increasingly disillusioned with quick-fix consumerism, we may want to consider an option which exists in many non-digital industries: quite simply, demanding that writers get paid a living wage for their work. Do we respect the art and craft of writing enough to make such demands? If we do not, we will have returned to the garret, only this time, the writer will not be alone in his or her cold little room, and will be writing to and for a computer screen, trying to get hits on their site that will draw the attention of the new culture lords – the service providers and the advertisers.
Link to the rest at The Guardian
OK, PG can’t take this any more. Whenever someone talks about a politically-mandated “living wage” for anyone, PG looks for the exit.
Something basic in human nature sends some people into fits of apocalyptania whenever something changes. The closer the change is to a person’s preferred way of earning a living, the more extreme the reaction can be.
“Most notable writers in the history of books were paid a living wage: they include Dostoevksy, Dickens and Shakespeare.”
Who paid Shakespeare a “living wage?” My bet is that Shakespeare worked his tail off writing his plays then made most of his money from the performances of them. History says he was an actor, so he blended two professions which involve a lot of hungry days for many people.
Who paid Dickens a “living wage?” When he was twelve years old, his parents and the rest of his family were sent to the Marshalsea debtor’s prison that was an inspiration for Little Dorrit. Charles worked 10 hours a day under terrible conditions pasting labels on cans of boot polish to support himself.
John Forster, who wrote The Life of Charles Dickens, records Dickens’ description of the bootblack factory:
The blacking-warehouse was the last house on the left-hand side of the way, at old Hungerford Stairs. It was a crazy, tumble-down old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats. Its wainscoted rooms, and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place, rise up visibly before me, as if I were there again. The counting-house was on the first floor, looking over the coal-barges and the river. There was a recess in it, in which I was to sit and work. My work was to cover the pots of paste-blacking; first with a piece of oil-paper, and then with a piece of blue paper; to tie them round with a string; and then to clip the paper close and neat, all round, until it looked as smart as a pot of ointment from an apothecary’s shop. When a certain number of grosses of pots had attained this pitch of perfection, I was to paste on each a printed label, and then go on again with more pots. Two or three other boys were kept at similar duty down-stairs on similar wages. One of them came up, in a ragged apron and a paper cap, on the first Monday morning, to show me the trick of using the string and tying the knot. His name was Bob Fagin; and I took the liberty of using his name, long afterwards, in Oliver Twist.
Later, Dickens attended a horrible school that he used as a pattern for Mr. Creakle’s Establishment in David Copperfield.
Before he started writing fiction, Dickens was a political journalist. It appears he never felt completely comfortable with the income from his novels because he earned money by editing and contributing to political journals throughout his literary career. He was finally able to buy a house when he was 44. Four years later, he started to give public readings, which provided more income than his writing did.
At age 53, he was in a train accident and became generally unable to write thereafter. He supported himself and his family with his public reading tours. These were exhausting and he had his first stroke during one of his tours.
How lovely that Dickens “was paid a living wage.”
PG won’t go into as much detail about Dostoyevsky except to say that, at age 28, he was arrested, sentenced to death, subject to a mock execution, then sent to a prison camp in Siberia for four years. After he was released, he was forced to serve in an Army regiment in Kazakhstan for several more years.
Dostoyevsky described conditions in the prison camp to his brother as follows:
In summer, intolerable closeness; in winter, unendurable cold. All the floors were rotten. Filth on the floors an inch thick; one could slip and fall… We were packed like herrings in a barrel… There was no room to turn around. From dusk to dawn it was impossible not to behave like pigs… Fleas, lice, and black beetles by the bushel.
Passive Guy proposes that if Dostoevksy, Dickens and Shakespeare were to return to life in 2011, they would conclude there had never been a better time to be an author.