When Has Writing a Book Ever Not Been an Elitist Pursuit?

From The Digital Reader

[Recently] The Guardian engaged in the book world’s favorite past time.

No, not ebook-bashing. No, not baseless Amazon fear-mongering. (Let me try this again.)

On Tuesday The Guardian engaged in the book world’s third favorite past time, wringing their hands over the supposed demise of book authoring as a profession.

Writing is in danger of becoming an elitist profession, with many authors being subsidised by their partners or a second job in order to stay afloat, according to new statistics.

The full findings from the annual Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society report into author earnings paint a more nuanced picture than the headline results from last summer, which revealed that median earnings for professional writers had fallen to less than £10,500 a year. While the average professional writer earns £10,000 a year, the mean earnings for a writer’s household were more than £81,000 a year, and median household earnings were at £50,000 per annum. “Most writers supplement their income from other sources, such as a second job or household earnings contributed by a partner”, according to the report, which analysed answers from more than 5,500 professional writers.

“There is a danger of writing becoming an elitist profession which excludes new and diverse voices,” said Society of Authors chief executive Nicola Solomon. “This report should act as a wake-up call for the industry.”

The problem with this piece, well, there are two problems.  The first is that the piece is predicated on the assumption that the only type of writing that matters is book authoring, and that things like writing for TV, movies,  or ad agencies, or reporting the news, aren’t even worth acknowledging. This is actually an elitist assumption, one that the writer of the piece overlooked.

The other problem with this piece is that it is framed with the assumption that there was a time that book authoring wasn’t an elitist pursuit.

. . . .

It doesn’t matter what period you look at, whether it’s  before the printing press was invented or after the typewriter was developed, book authoring has always been a hobby more than a profession.

That was true even after the book publishing industry came into being; it’s not just that only a minority of book authors could make a living at it but also that in any given year the majority of books were written on the author’s time in the hopes of selling the book to a publisher.

Link to the rest at The Digital Reader

PG notes that a great many things are elitist pursuits.

In the midst of another season of Major League Baseball, it is clear that not only are all professional baseball players elite athletes (you try to hit an object the size of a small orange traveling at 100 miles per hour with a stick), but that the best players are an elite within an elite.

What about physicians? In the US and elsewhere, given the academic record and test scores necessary to gain entry into medical school alone, every physician is part of a mental and academic elite.

Let’s finish up with professional concert violinists. As the father of a very good (but not professional) violinist, PG says only an extraordinarily small number of musicians have the talent, obsessive work ethic and tolerance for poverty necessary to become one of the tiny fraction of music students who start music lessons and continue to the ultimate heights of that pursuit.

However, one of the great results of the KDP revolution is that would-be authors who for any number of reasons can’t crack the New York publishing hegemony because of something having nothing to do with their writing ability (wrong educational background, don’t know the right people, the intern who was reviewing submissions that day didn’t like cowboy romances, etc.) can present their work to the general reading public to determine whether anyone enjoys reading it and/or will pay to read it.

15 thoughts on “When Has Writing a Book Ever Not Been an Elitist Pursuit?”

  1. There have been times when authors have been able to become rich through writing, including most of the past 150 years or so in the English reading world, and hopefully we’re back to that time, at least for a while.

    Of course, I guess that’s still elitist, like the sports example, because it was only true for top authors like Dickens, Doyle, Christie, etc, and you had to write stories that people wanted to read.

  2. Wow- the assumptions. Well, this elitist is going to finish his work at the office today, then go home and write on his latest novel. And in the next few days off, work on finishing said novel. How odd that some can make a living and still make time to write good books, eh?
    Anthony Trollope would write in the mornings before going to work. Put out a number of books, too. Hmm.

    • At the very least your passive aggressive phrasing and use of the word “learn” is incredibly condescending.

      We all make mistakes; this is why we need to be nice when we point out others’ errors. For example, I very gently broached the point that an Ars Technica used “retrospective” when they meant “retroactive”. And when I pointed out last weekend that someone had copied and pasted a People inside of itself, I was as nice as I could be.

      You were not.

  3. When Has Writing a Book Ever Not Been an Elitist Pursuit?

    Anytime an author clicks the Amazon KDP button?

  4. Elitist is a murky term, especially when it comers to commercial writing.

    When it comes to sports or music or most professions it’s easy: elite is someone who does what few others can.

    But writing, well…
    Taking just traditional publishing, there is the matter that not everybody who can do it well is allowed to reach market. On the other hand, not everybody who *is* allowed does it well. And on the griping hand, many who can do it well just don’t bother. 😉

    And with Indie publishing respectable again, the whole point is moot; it no doesn’t matter if anybody is good, bad, or indifferent (for any arbitrary value of “good”). The only thing that matters is whether a person chooses to write and publish.

    No filters, no sorting.
    Just a bunch of willing players trying to get noticed.

    Hard to say somebody is or isn’t elite when their signature achievement is being noticed.

  5. “things like writing for TV, movies, or ad agencies, or reporting the news, aren’t even worth acknowledging”

    Given how standards have declined in these areas (perhaps most of all in reporting the news), it indeed has come to pass that these things “aren’t even worth acknowledging” any longer, with exceptions so rare as to startle you when they appear.

    • I would have to beg to differ regarding TV writing being in decline. I’ve been watching TV for 40 years. There are more new scripted shows in the past five years than in the entire history of TV proceeding it, and a much higher percentage of these shows are watchable than at any point in history. Especially on the writing side.

      As with most crafts, we as humans have gotten better and more efficient at it with each successive generation.

  6. As far as the OP is concerned, writing is an elitist activity if it can only be done by people who don’t need to make money from it. If that’s the case, then other people, the sort who do need to make money from what they do, can’t afford to write books, and important voices are lost.

    Deconstructing the validity of this proposition is left as an exercise to the reader. I’m sorta busy today.

    • There is an odd notion that books should be written by people whose sole support is writing books. Along with that is a great concern that many who try that path find they don’t earn what they need to support themselves. (Note the regular articles in the Guardian abut how little authors make.)

      I propose a test. Pic a random selection of unread novels from the Amazon top 1,000, with all identifying information about the author removed. Submit them to a group of readers. Then identify which are written by full time writers, and which aren’t.

      I suspect our test subjects would fail in their attempts. So, is there any reason for consumers to care how a book is produced?

  7. Writing tends to be something anyone can do, while publishing was for the elite. These days, anyone can publish what they wish without going through an agent or publishing house. KDP and services like it have been the great leveler for being an author. Write it, produce it, publish it. All for zero money, if one so chooses. What’s more egalitarian than that?

    I normally ignore articles like this, as the authors tend to not understand even traditional publishing, much less self publishing.

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