Can authors survive in the age of ereaders and ebooks?

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival this weekend, Ewan Morrison set out his bleak vision of a publishing industry in terminal decline and the equally bleak future for writers.

In a long article in the Guardian Newspaper yesterday, (link below) Ewan Morrison’s very depressing vision of what we are heading for in the world of writing and publishing was reported in some detail, and very depressing reading it makes too for all of those who love books and certainly depressing for those who want to write books as well.

Basically his contention is that the advent of ebooks and the drive to free or almost free ebooks being available online at sites such as Smashwords, Amazon and so on has removed the financial underpinning of the publishing and writing world, and thus the profession of writing will soon become a thing of the past.

He puts it thus:

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 specialty 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.

He supports this contention with a most impressive analysis of various other digital industries that have been established for longer than ebooks, and shows that all of them have found themselves in a downwards spiral of lower and lower earnings as people move away from traditional forms of music, film and so on in favour of the much cheaper (or free) digital forms of these arts.

Amusingly, and unusually he includes the porn industry in this list, stating that the income from all manner of pornography has dropped by almost 60% since the advent of free streaming video on line, quoting two sources for this:

According to the LA Times “Industry insiders estimate that since 2007, revenue for most adult production and distribution companies has declined from 30% to 50% and the number of new films made has fallen sharply”. One top porn star, Savannah Stern, has cited that, on par with most of her colleagues, her earnings fell in 2010, from $150K a year to $50K. As Bill Asher, co-chairman of Vivid Entertainment, states: “We always said that once the internet took off, we’d be OK … It never crossed our minds that we’d be competing with people who just give it away for free.”

Curious, no?   And I had always thought that porn was an industry that had guaranteed high income.

Author’s advances:

He goes on to discus the matter of author’s advances, which is what most successful authors rely on for their income, and which is now becoming too expensive for most publishers to keep up at the levels needed to ensure an adequate income for their authors

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.”

For new authors this is a serious matter, they will have to survive on the actual sales of their work, rather than rely on being paid sensible advances by publishers who would then recoup those advances over a period of time through sales of the book.  This is now changing, with businesses such as Amazon, who can sell millions of ebooks (and paper ones too) for very low prices and make a handsome profit by doing so, but the poor old author will see that he has sold perhaps 10 copies of his book in one year, so while Amazon make oodles of money, the author hardly makes anything.

He goes on to point out what it is that organizations such as Amazon, Apple (through iTunes) Google and all of the businesses who offer free or cheap ebooks are actually making their money from is not the ebooks they sell, but  the customer data, which they can sell on to advertisers, who place links on their websites, so the ebooks (in this case) are in fact no longer anything more than a sort of “come on” to bring you in contact with other businesses who want to sell you something.

Or as he puts it:

While providers such as Yahoo and Google provide free content, at the same time, on every screen, they sell advertising space. The culture (books, films and music) that you find for free on the sites, is not the product, it has no monetary value. The real product Yahoo and Google are selling is something less tangible – it is you.

Your profile and that of millions of other consumers are being sold to advertisers. Your hits and clicks make them money.

These digital providers are not in any way concerned with or interested in content, or what used to be called “culture”. To them culture is merely generic content; it is a free service that is provided in the selling of customers to advertisers. Ideally for service providers, the customers will even provide the culture themselves, for free. And this is what we do when we write blogs, or free ebooks or upload films of ourselves, at no cost.

Makes me wonder if perhaps I should stop writing this blog, as the last thing I want is a world without authors and books, to say nothing of music and films….   And it would seem that the trend is towards people who create these important things being required to let us have their work for next to nothing…  Would you want to create a book, a film or a piece of music if you knew that you would never earn more than a pittance for it?  I wouldn’t.

He ends his depressing article with a sort of a plea to the world’s authors:

There is no simple solution. All that is clear is that for authors and publishers to abandon each other only accelerates the race towards free content.

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.

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.

So, there you have it, one man’s apocalyptic vision of the future of writing and publishing, which I have to confess has slowly but surely become mine too, as I ponder the effects that my being able to buy ebooks for as little as $0.90 from Smashwords and similar sites.

Link to article in The Guardian:

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What are your feelings on this issue?  Is it really as bad as he thinks it is?  Is there any realistic hope that good writing will still be with us in 25 years time?

9 thoughts on “Can authors survive in the age of ereaders and ebooks?

  1. Dave Riley

    Of course if you want to accept the status quo as the best of all possible worlds then you’d be pessimistic about the pending changes. But then back in the 19th century from Dickens to Balzac to Conan Doyle authors were paid as means to another end as their work was magazine published and later hard copied in novelised hardback.

    While ebookery democratizes reading and writing I can’t see that that is something to lament — esp as what we are talking about is US and UK publishing giants whose business plan is under duress. A similar process in impacting on Rupert Murdoch et al…

    The up side, not mentioned, is that people tend to read more when it is volume has to count for something especially when you look at those digital items that go viral online.

    All anyone has to do is harvest a cash flow….!

    In that regard ‘the app business’ plan that formats purchases on platforms like iPad makes a lot of financial sense: easy access, low and gradated prices with some freebie options with the great bulk of the cash going directory to the creator.

    Nothing wrong with that. No ‘other’ publisher of course. No free flow of publishing venture capital either. More cottage industry stuff. What is more likely to happen is the growth of aggregator sites like Smashwords which are ‘open emporiums’ rather than closed shops– although even big distributors are opening to indie writers..

    Does that pander to niche writing? Perhaps it does — but online chit chat can drive word of mouth sales or uptake much more when access/purchase is just one click away.

    The other element that needs to be stressed is that ebooks are slow cookers. Best sellers in hard copy don’t necessarily share the same sustainability as ebooks online as they are as fashionable as long as the front counter display features them.

    Ultimately we have no choice in the matter: the genie is out of the bottle. and digital is all. We can but ride the wave and see what happens. To get where we are going DRM tagging is an inconvenience we could possibly do without.

  2. Richard Adin

    As you know, Tony, I somewhat share Ewan Morrison’s outlook for the publishing industry; you’ve reprinted several of my articles here and I know you subscribe to my blog.

    The mistake being made in publishing is, I think, one of clashing perspectives. People in the industry simultaneously look at a book, regardless of its form, as a commodity and as something unique. The mistake is that it has to be one or the other; it cannot be both. It cannot be both because each perspective demands a different approach to the book and each approach is incompatible with the other.

    As a result of this clash, each step in the production of the book is degraded. The result is that for too many the only thing that matters is getting “published”, with the consequence of “free” being the optimal way to get noticed. With the growth of free, there has to be a decline in “not free”.

    Hmmm. I think I will stop here and use this comment as a basis for a post at my blog. Writing for you has freely inspired me to write for me; the consequent cost to you is that the balance of my thoughts are not currently available. Sounds like the publishing industry in decline, doesn’t it? :)

  3. Tony Post author

    @ Rich,
    damn! And there I was, reading your comment and hoping for the magic word to appear, the answer to all our concerns…. And then a thought strikes you and off you go to keep it for your own blog! Not fair! LOL

    I await it with interest.

  4. Pingback: Clashing Perspectives: Coming Home to Roost « An American Editor

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