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Death of the Author

I’ve just got books on my mind lately. Maybe it’s because reading is hip, and librarians are hip, or hippy, or ex-hippies, or something.

Since I do like a good book, I was intrigued by an article in the Guardian: Are Books Dead, and Can Authors Survive? It’s an abbreviated form of an address at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Betteridge’s Law of Headlines usually gets confirmed with every instance of a question mark in a headline I see. The problem with this headline is that it has two questions. Are books dead? No! Can authors survive? Yes, at least depending on what you mean by an author.

Why couldn’t the Guardian just ask if authors were dead? No!

The argument seems rather solid, but the headline doesn’t reflect it well. The author doesn’t really argue that books are dead. He seems to agree that books in some form will still be around.

What is dying, so he argues, is The Writer, as in the person who makes a living just by writing books. Books themselves are more popular than ever.

With the move to ebooks and the “long tail” booksellers might be able to sell books, but that doesn’t mean writers can make enough money to live. The book becomes the main thing:

digital shopping has meant that what was originally a tail-off in sales, has now become increasingly profitable. Rather than selling, say, 13m copies of one Harry Potter book, a long tail provider can make the same profits by selling 13m different “obscure”, “failed’” and “niche” books.

However, the writers of these books won’t make much money because they’ll sell few books each.

There’s a bit on the decline of publisher midlists, which has been going on for a very long time now. Publishers don’t support writers, writers go it alone in the digital world, and general anarchy sets in.

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.

Thus, eventually the only books that will get written are by amateurs or people supported in some other way than by selling their books, as fewer books per author get sold and as the prices of those books approaches free.

Oh, and this is a bad thing, because it means that “the end of “the book” as written by professional writers, is imminent; and not to be placated with short-term projections and enthusiasms intended to reduce fear in a confused market.”

We should ask ourselves what we can do if we “truly value the work of the people formerly known as writers.” Remember, this is at a book festival, which might in itself be a thing of the past.

I expect a large contingent of readers will look at the argument and go, so what? We don’t read that hoity-toity literary stuff anyway. We don’t need Writers; we just need easy prose to consume.

Most people who do read just read to pass the time or fulfill fantasies or add some spice to their workaday lives. That’s why romance novels and thrillers are so popular.

Does anyone, including the readers of such popular books, really think quality is an issue? That work done by an amateur isn’t just as good, assuming the stuff that’s published is even any good?

If that’s the case, fan fiction wouldn’t be so enormously popular.

Even I, literary snob that I am, have moments when it doesn’t matter much what I read. After exhausting the on-board library while vacationing aboard the LJ yacht this summer, I browsed Amazon and found a Kindle mystery for $.99, which is pretty close to free.

Was it good? Eh. Somebody got killed, some other people chased people around, I dozed in and out of consciousness under a cooling sea breeze, and a couple of hours passed where I got to relax my brain. I’d say that was worth $.99.

Think of all the books written by people who are already supporting themselves some other way: academics, journalists, celebrity chefs, and other people like that. They might still keep writing just to write.

And quite a bit of the literary fiction is written by authors who teach in MFA programs, which seem to exist mainly to give authors of unpopular books somewhere to make a living and a place for aspiring authors of unpopular books to prepare themselves for their ultimate dream of teaching in an MFA program to support their writing habit.

Then there all the people willing to self-publish on fan fiction sites or Amazon just in the hopes of a few people reading their books. Will most of these books be bad? Yes. Are most books published today bad? Yes. Anyone familiar with the book trade in general knows this.

Yet some of these books will be good, just like some of the books from academics and journalists and MFA programs will sometimes be good.

Books aren’t dead, and authors aren’t dead, but The Writer might be dying. Once they’re gone, they probably won’t be missed that much by many people.

All these free books and the lack of a publishing apparatus other than Amazon is going to make it harder to justify libraries. Maybe libraries can exist exclusively to lend Kindles and provide Internet access so patrons can shop Amazon for ebooks.

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Comments

  1. Re: All these free books and the lack of a publishing apparatus other than Amazon is going to make it harder to justify libraries.

    This is so true. It’s been happening for years, which is why we see things like public libraries hosting speed dating nights and trawling bars for patrons (as discussed in the previous post).

    Public libraries (and other types of libraries soon afterward) have reached an inflection point. They can continue the strategy of survival at any cost, continually diluting their core mission/services and entering arenas where they cannot possibly be successful. This strategy will fail as more people realize the institution has strayed far from the nostalgia and mythology upon which their support has been based.

    Or, the library community can recruit leaders who are capable of connecting with the true, timeless value of the institutiion (which is substantial), its existing resources (which are also substantial)* and repositioning it for the next 30-40 years. I hope for this every day, and am continually discouraged.

    *Collectively, our public libraries are larger and better funded than the most successful corporations. They have nearly 17,000 outlets across the country, annual operating budgets of $10.7 billion (IMLS Public Library Survey, FY2008), hundreds of millions more dollars in grants and donations, and a globally recognized brand.

    • gatoloco says:

      Incisive comments Jean. I would add that there is quite a bit of work to be done to create fair and equatable access to e-books, and the learning environments for their use. Nevertheless, I think there is a battle looming between librarians and IT for the provision of these services. Administrators would love to eliminate library departments and save costs.

    • Thanks Gataloco. Pity about management’s lack of understanding about the complimentary nature of librarianship and IT. I’m a long-time tech person (started in the early 1980s) and currently work for a prominent STM publisher. My colleagues and I well know the value of authors, editors, librarians and other professionals involved in the knowledge creation’n'dissemination process. Our job is to create tools that enable y’all to do your jobs. We’re out of business without your requirements and these days you’re out of business without our tools. We’re partners – each with a vital role to play. Is there someone in your administration you’d like me to phone to explain (lol)?

  2. Randal Powell says:

    The tendency of the general public to want all printed work for free is definitely a problem. People who write and think for a living deserve to earn money from their labor. What do the studies say? Are authors of fiction and nonfiction, as a group, making less money today than in the past? Intuitively, I know that news journalists and editors are not doing as well, as a group, due to many people getting their news from online news portals.

    I’m a strong believer that the internet has made the world a better place. Ordinary people can communicate with others and distribute ideas more freely. A lot of information is more easily available. In the past, a few large publishers, studios, and broadcasting networks had all of the power. A lot of good, creative ideas were killed by the restrictive nature of the distribution system.

    But for all of those advantages, the current model does seem to dumb down a lot of the information people consume. Encyclopedia Britannica —> Wikipedia. New York Times —> Yahoo. Community Bookstore or Library —> Amazon. Of course, there are people who still do use the better stuff, at least some of the time. And not everyone who uses the less-good-stuff would have used the better stuff in the first place. But there is some sort of a not-good trend.

    • Andrew says:

      “What do the studies say? Are authors of fiction and nonfiction, as a group, making less money today than in the past?”

      Traditional publishing as it stands is currently dominated by “rock star” authors, the Kings and Rowlings of the world, who make the majority of the money. Midlist and new authors rarely make enough to quit their day job. Authors who fail to catch on right away are eventually dropped and not given the loving career attention they once were. Advances are shrinking as publishers have to cut costs.

      So it isn’t a great time to be a writer, not that it’s ever been particularly lucrative for any but a lucky few.

    • Hi Randal – not sure if you follow the Scholarly Kitchen blog by the Assn of Scholarly Publishers. It’s a great forum for information and dialogue about publishing. Here’s a link to a recent article that may be of interest (the referenced article by Maria Popova’s is worthwhile):
      http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2011/08/31/does-access-create-new-types-of-scarcity/

      I’ve just begun reading a wonderful book, “Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology” by Neil Postman. It addresses some of the questions in your comment and I’ve thought of libraries while reading nearly every page.

  3. The Writer Librarian says:

    I think aspiring writers and publishing houses have more to be concerned about than libraries. Libraries, as long as they’re smart about it (which they aren’t always) will find ways to meet patron needs if digital ends up trumping paper. But it’s the people who want to make a living at all this, publishers and writers both, who may be upset at not being missed.

    I’ve elaborated more here: http://thewriterlibrarian.blogspot.com/2011/09/potentially-bad-news.html

  4. The Writer Librarian says:

    Some might argue that writing, or any other form of art, shouldn’t be done because of the money. I agree with Andrew–even if digital trumps paper, “rock star” authors will walk away with most of the profit. Writers should write because they love it, not because they want to make a profit.

  5. spencer says:

    If your writing is not “good” enough to beat out someone who’s willing to do it for next to nothing, you don’t deserve to make a living at it.

    Almost anyone can type out 250-300 pages of anything. If your anything is marginally better than my anything but costs 10-15 times as much, I’m willing to bet on my anything capturing at least some of your audience.

    Maybe it wasn’t that way when the publishers were the artificial gatekeepers, but the gate has been destroyed.

  6. Barbara Fister says:

    A lot of readers of genre fiction care a great deal about quality. And no, we don’t just read to imitate vegetable life forms. And yes, we do pay for books (and use libraries).

    But I had a lot of problems with that article, and shared ideas with several hundred of my mystery-reading friends, which (what the heck) I will repeat here because I can. And you can skip it. Isn’t technology wonderful.

    Pronouncing books dead has been a longstanding practice, and everyone’s a coroner. A few rebuttals.

    Writing has never paid well for most writers. There’s really no reason to expect it to become a well-paying profession today when it’s never been – for most writers. Yes, advances may be shrinking, but those are bets being placed that lose more often than they win; in hard times bettors become both more reckless and more cautious. Big advances are still pretty big, but the average bet – maybe caution is kicking in. It’s quite possible that writers will in time have a differently structured revenue stream than advances and royalties and will do no less well than in the past. They still should probably hang on to the day job, though. That’s been useful advice since the printing press was invented.

    More books are published (on paper as well as in electronic form) than ever in history. This is not necessarily a good thing, but it doesn’t seem a symptom of imminent death.

    Piracy is less of a problem than second hand sales have been. I’m not saying piracy is okay or that second hand sales are bad (in fact, I’d say sharing books, preferably legally, is essential to a healthy reading culture), I’m saying that piracy’s impact on the market is much, much less than the second hand market has been, and books have continued to be published even as the second hand market has flourished.

    People will pay for books. They may not pay $25.00 for every book they read, but they never have. Why should they start now?

    We don’t know what the digital impact will be, but we know it’s in Amazon’s and B&N’s interest to exaggerate the dominance of e-books. Don’t take their word for it.

    Writers may write for love, but not for sweatshops. Today, they have more alternatives than ever to working in sweatshop conditions. They may not get rich (and they never have), but they don’t have to be exploited. In fact, knowing what kind of work goes on in actual sweatshops, I get a bit cross with this particular analogy. Nobody has chained writers to their laptops – they have options that most people who work in actual sweatshops do not.

    It’s a mistake to equate book publishing with the current state of journalism. The newspaper industry had been a fairly profitable business that, when it became less profitable, trimmed staff, which had grown tremendously in the post-war years. (US newsrooms shrank by 30% since 2000.) News is expensive to gather, report, and edit, and it’s tough for those professionals to work outside a news organization and earn a living (though freelancing is a big piece of the employment picture for print journalists – it still comes out of the wallet of the news organization putting out the news.) The profit margins at newspapers dwindled to around 5% in 2010; book publishers have lived with profit margins of around 5% for generations. Writing books, with some exceptions, doesn’t take a huge overhead or credentialing, and writers are not generally employed by book publishers; they are free to make whatever arrangements they want. A publisher can dump a writer if they aren’t making money; a writer can dump a publisher if another one offers them more. There’s much more latitude than there is in putting out the news. Writers of books can hold day jobs to pay the bills; working a full-time job apart from the news business would be difficult for a news reporter to manage. One person can invent a world, but it takes a lot of shoe leather to report on the one we live in.

    It’s strangely comforting for people to say nobody (but them) reads. The data indicate otherwise. There has always been a significant percentage of the population that is simply not inclined to read books. That percentage has not changed in decades. There are as many people today interested in reading as ever – and, I would warrant, are not going to insist on free books. (Really, stop listening to Chris Anderson; he had a book to sell.)

    Saying books are dead because people share books, they are averse to paying top price for everything they read, they don’t read enough, and writers can’t make a living is exactly what doomsayers pronounced in 1970 and 1920 and today. Books are more resilient that we give them credit for. (So are writers.)

    If you’re interested – and still awake, data can be found in the annual “State of the News Media” report – http://stateofthemedia.org/ – and in a reassuring little book full of hard data called Reading Matters edited by Catherine Sheldrick Ross.

    —– thus endeth the sermon.

  7. Public Librarian says:

    If you sell ten thousand copies of an ebooks at $0.99, you will still do well. The ebook world gives writers access to readers without publishers as gate-slammers and middlemen. The support of a publishing house hasn’t improved some of the best-selling writers.

  8. Bonny Becker says:

    I do have a few counter thoughts regarding the death of The Writer and publishers. I bought a few e-books because they were $.99, but that was pretty much the end of that experiment. They were beyond awful. Unreadable, pointless to have spent even $.99 on. Once the novelty has worn off, I suspect most readers will want to spend their money on something that delivers a good experience.

    Books by the Kings and Grishams of the world may not be literature, but they are good writing. With King, I’d say excellent writing. Movies such as “Toy Story” aren’t “Citizen Kane” but they are, also, well-written. An entertaining, well-written, well-researched story that takes the reader out of their everyday world will remain hard to create and valuable.

    Literature with a capital “L” will continue, I believe, as the niche market it’s always been. I’m not sure that group ever made a living solely from writing except for a rare few.

    Publishers will continue to exist as gatekeepers. All the choices in the on-line world are staggering, daunting. I don’t begin to want to find my way through the thicket. I’ll be depending more than ever on who published a certain book, the reviews it gets, the genuine word of mouth it gets. (Yes, you can create a false “word of mouth” on the Internet but it’s getting harder and harder to fool people.) The quality control that publishers represent will be more valued than ever, I think.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean we aren’t in for a bumpy ride!

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