From Electric Lit:
[T]he Authors Guild published its 2018 Author Income Survey.
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This was the largest survey ever conducted of writing-related earnings by American authors. It tallied the responses of 5,067 authors, including those who are traditionally, hybrid, and self-published, and found that the median income from writing has dropped 42% from 2009, landing at a paltry $6,080. The other findings are similarly bleak: revenue from books has dropped an additional 21%, to $3,100, meaning it’s impossible to make a living from writing books alone.
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The Authors Guild has a pretty clear idea of what’s behind this disturbing trend, namely the rise of Amazon, which severely cuts publishers’ margins on book sales. Authors ultimately shoulder the cost because publishers offset their losses by giving out smaller author advances and royalties. The platform’s resale market also means that, within months of publication, books are being resold as “like new” or “lightly used,” a scenario in which no new money goes to the actual author of the book. The Authors Guild acknowledges that Amazon isn’t the only place where authors are losing out, but the culprits are of a kind: electronic platforms like Google Books and Open Library claim fair use rights in order to offer classrooms products without paying authors royalties. This is problematic because those royalties, a kind of pay-to-play model of compensation, are how artists have made their money ever since it went out of fashion to have a patron who could support your entire career.
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This year’s Authors Guild Survey is right to focus on the harm Amazon does to working writers; personally, I’ve made my 2019 resolution to put my money where my mouth is and buy all my books at local, independent bookstores. But the survey results made me wonder if that would be enough—if it’s possible, in the age of the Internet, to reverse the belief that content should mostly be free. By content I do mean to encompass all ends of the artistic spectrum, that ill-defined mass of high and low entertainment and art and news that rubs up against each other on the web in a way that makes it more difficult to separate out, and perhaps less meaningful to do so. Basically, people are insatiable for this panoply of words and images; they want mass input. If you do a Google search for “apple pie recipe,” for example, the top results include both Pillsbury’s website and the personal blog of a home cook. The point isn’t that there is anything wrong with the latter, it’s that discernment has taken a backseat to access; we want all the apple pie recipes, all the videos and photographs and articles and books. We are here now. Entertain us.
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People have always felt a sort of ownership over art, and that’s actually good. It’s why you keep a book on your shelf and return to it, it’s why you hang a picture on your wall that speaks to you. But when this gets out of hand and you mistake access or a personal connection with your rights, as happens so often in our Internet age, it leads to a dangerous sense of entitlement. That’s why readers feel empowered to complain, directly to the creator, that a book or show doesn’t have absolutely everything they want: the romantic pairing they’d hoped for, the language they find most friendly, the ending they desired. And it’s also why, for instance, the last Harry Potter book leaked on the internet before it was officially published: fans saw the book as something they were owed, not the product of labor that deserved compensation. Not that J.K. Rowling needs more money—but she, and all authors, deserve to have their work recognized as work.
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Consumers hold a pernicious power, so this trend towards free content won’t reverse itself unless we want it to. This is a sad thing, and we will all be much worse off if we can only hear stories from people who can afford to write. Nicholas Weinstock, a Guild Council member, said: “Reducing the monetary incentive for potential book authors even to enter the field means that there will be less for future generations to read: fewer voices, fewer stories, less representation of the kind of human expression than runs deeper and requires and rewards more brain power than the nearest bingeable series on Netflix or Amazon or GIF on your phone.” Maybe we will all get what we think we’re entitled to — free art — but what kind of art will that be?
Link to the rest at Electric Lit
While we will never know for certain, PG suggests that the rise of Amazon has increased the number of books sold in the United States (and maybe elsewhere) by a substantial margin. Absent Amazon, fewer people would be reading books today.
Not everyone enjoyed the trips to the bookstore in pre-Amazonian days. If a reader’s interests were much out of the mainstream, there weren’t many books available. If finances were a little tight, a shopper might not be in the mood to pay.
PG just checked the Top 10 Hardcover Fiction Bestsellers at Barnes & Noble. The average suggested retail price for the Top 10 was $25.59.
For some visitors to TPV, paying almost $26.00 for a novel would seem reasonable. For others, it might not.
Let’s assume we have an avid reader of fiction who reads four books per week. Even PG can do the math in his head.
Over $100 per month for books. Almost $6,000 per year for books.
Who knows more about pricing anything to maximize sales, the CEO of a New York publisher or Amazon?
Who knows more about pricing anything to maximize profits, the CEO of a New York publisher or Amazon?
Traditional publishers try to cultivate a particular image of books as a unique product, unlike any other. (Corinthian leather!)
Like it or not, books are a mass-market product that competes for consumer dollars. Books don’t just compete with other books. Books compete with every other product a consumer might be thinking about purchasing.
If you want to price for the carriage trade, open an art gallery. The New York book business doesn’t work without lots of titles that sell in the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands. That’s a mass market.
PG suggests that “Amazon is causing the sky to fall on the book business” is erroneous. If the traditional book business is to be saved from its own management over the next ten years, Amazon will do the saving. A book business that sells an electronic version of its principal product for $3.00-7.00 has a better future than one which appears to prefer selling a physical copy of its principal product for $28.00.