The times they are a’fatal

If you are a reader, but especially if you are a writer (or musician), you ought to read this. It is unequivocally true.

Trash 451

This article begins thus: “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.”

A quick summary of his main points:

  • the end of books is a technical point, they will be reinvented
  • the more fundamental question is not what happens to books, but what happens to writers, will writing exist as a profession?
  • historically, authors, like other artists, have been supported, subsidized; what will happen to authors when the subsidy process of advances ends?
  • the “R&D department” for publishers is not the best seller list or the beginner, it is the midlist. The midlist writer has essentially disappeared (publishing suicide).
  • as the “long tail” gets longer, author incomes shrink to negligible.
  • few writers and publishers will survive the “long tail.”
  • books will be written in sweatshops.
  • the end of the book as written by professional writers is imminent.

This topic has appeared on these “pages” a few times over the past year or two. Some of our discussions were lively. This article is one of the more blunt on the subject.

I can say without doubt that everything in this article is an accurate accounting of the literary world as I see if from the perspective of a professional writer of more than three decades.

Except emotionally, this is irrelevant to me. I had my day. I come from the last generation of true readers and writers. I am unlikely to see the full effect of what this article forecasts. It will most difficult for the transitional generation, the one that falls between the last of the book and the full force of the digital world. They are the writers who will be forced to dodge the roof when it falls in, they will be the ones sitting on the curb in the rain, the rain falling on the last books left in the trash, the rain falling on my ashes.


10 replies »

    • I didn’t find much new in this article, I have believed this to be the situation for at least the last half-dozen years. He just put it all in one place and made the case with painful clarity.

  1. Stories will still be told, but the mediums will change. If you really want a large audience for your stories now, you have to go into film and video games. Yes, video games can tell stories. The literary novel is a niche market that’s getting smaller. Writing that crosses boundaries between the literary and genre will have a bit of a longer life, but a book only really “makes it” now when it’s developed into a movie. One doesn’t need anymore evidence than that.

    • All true, Brad. It is always difficult for a passing generation to accept that the incoming generation does not find important or interesting what we did. But I wonder, if the medium is the message, how this radical alteration of medium will change the message?

  2. There are many areas of the article that I disagree with. Writing as a profession will not die. It will for a time become more difficult for legacy writers to make a profit given the current state of the publishing world. Indie authors keep 70% of the profits when selling their books as opposed to the traditional 17-35%.

    This article struck me as “someone look to blame (twenty-somethings) for the collapse of a corporate giant bookseller”, whose overpriced merchandise will negatively affect the big six. When Borders folded they could not pay the publishing companies, whose out and out refusal to update their business model to include fairly priced e-books since the mid nineties when e-books were first becomming available.

    Young people are buying books and reading and this is somehow manipulated into a discorse on the downfall of the writing profession as we know it, because paper sells less that half as well as digital? Given that the average paperback costs $14.95 and the average digital copy ranges from $2.99 – $9.99 it’s no wonder that young (ie poor uni kids) are purchasing the less expensive version especially when we know that money goes directly to the author.

    As for the talk about how indie authors will only sell five books per year; this is pure rubbish. Indie authors are making bestsellers lists (not the NYT, but who other than publishing companies can buy their way into that), please go and check out amazon’s lists you will see indie authors there.

    As for the poor and disenfranchised “big authors” such as Rowling and King, etc? Let’s see, Rowling holds the rights to the ebooks of Harry Potter. Haven’t signed up for Pottermore yet? There’s a wait list to register, because it’s such a hit. Formerly indie author (1st to sell one-million books) John Locke just signed a print deal, but retains the right to his ebooks. King and Patterson and all the big authors are watching and they will begin to retain their rights as well.

    Seeing as I have to run and meet a friend for lunch I will leave my point as this: writing as a profession is not dead, but big publishing houses likely will be. What this will bring no one can say for sure, but this is a great time to be an indie author.

    • Your faith and optimism are heartening. You also make interesting and valid points. On the other hand, a certain type of genre entertainment is going to sell to people who want to be entertained, no matter the format or media. But the Indie authors you mention are rare, extremely rare in the overall group of writers. Authors of non-genre literary fiction will never see numbers like that, and it is traditional publishing that supported them in the mid list through the advance system, so they could keep writing and develop an audience among literary readers. For example, I decided to check my digital numbers just now, on all three platforms where my digital books reside. In the past month, I have sold in total 7 copies, three of one, and one each of the others. My royalties for the period? Less than one dollar. I think this is more what the Guardian article is getting at.

  3. I’m not ready for this either, Stephen. I’m willing to embrace the new digital world, but I still love my paper books. What happens to those books out of print that haven’t been digitized? I was thrilled a couple of years ago to find books by one of my favorite authors who had gone out of print. I even bought two additional copies for my library — egads! What will happen to our libraries if paper books really go away? — since their one copy of a book had been damaged and couldn’t be lent anymore.