Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Journeyman's View

Once upon a time, it was well within the realms of possibility - even probability - for a writer to make a living off their work. Back before the Second World War, when the pulps were one of the largest sources of popular entertainment there was, there was always a demand for short stories and novelettes to fill their pages - and while contributors may only have been a cent per word, that works out to $50 for a 5000-word story. May not sound like much, but that's $50 in 1939 dollars, which translates to $764.19 in 2009 dollars. A sufficiently driven writer able to burn enough typewriter ribbons could manage to live on that sort of pay.

The writer's market is a different place today. Sure, there are still markets for short stories, but unless you're selling one every other day you're going to have difficulty living off them - and the market isn't big enough to support that kind of glut anyway. Professional authors haven't lived off shorts for decades; it's all about novels now. So it's not that surprising that some people are starting to get worried about the impact of digital piracy on the livelihoods of authors.

The Globe and Mail carried an article dealing with this the other day, asking whether piracy and electronic publishing might be a one-two punch that could knock out mid-list authors. Personally, I think that's bunk. There will always be authors as long as people read for pleasure - I'm more concerned about the impact that AI writing software may have on the world of authorship in the years ahead, but fortunately for wordsmiths we're not quite at that point yet. But there are plenty of people who don't agree.

Alan Cumyn, chair of the Writers' Union of Canada, doesn't seem to. His quote in the Globe's article suggests that he's skeptical of e-publishing opening up new avenues for authors - rather, it looks like he's worried about a race to the bottom, with ebooks going for cheaper and cheaper amounts in the hope of driving up sales among those who would pay $0.99 but not $9.99. "That's worrisome," he says, "because how do you make a living?"

There's another quote from Saskatchewan writer Cliff Burns, about whom I know little because he does not have a Wikipedia article; in his blog he describes himself as "a literary writer, specializing in slipstream/alternative/surreal/science fiction." He seems to think that the "explosion of the amateur and the wannabe and the will-never-be writers" is not only making it hard to find quality writing, but that it's actually damaging to "the legacy of the printed word."

This... I can't get behind this. People, the sort of people who read at least, are not complete idiots. People can tell when what they're reading is poor, when what they're reading is crap. They'll respond by not reading it any more. Sure, in a large enough sample size you'll likely find a few people who like something, but "a few" is not enough support for an author to build a livelihood on. What's more likely, in my mind, is that the amateur explosion will result in a lot of dross from which a small number of worthwhile pieces will emerge. Everyone had to be an amateur at one time; it took twelve years from the time I started actively writing until the day I sold my first story. All we're seeing today is the largest and most transparent slush pile in history.

Amateurs are the next generation - it's understandable that they might want to figure out where they stand by seeing if people are willing to pay for their ebooks. I know how damn hard it can be to get feedback on my own works; readers plunking down their hard-earned dollars represents a kind of feedback all its own.

Nothing's getting wrecked here. It's just a change. Authors should be all about that - the more things change, the more problems there are to introduce into the narrative's conflict.

1 comment:

  1. Andrew: I wonder if your p.o.v. has changed since you wrote this--if anything, I'm seeing an even LARGER flood of self-published crap (books and e-books inundating the marketplace) and it's even HARDER for a good, literate writer to separate themselves from the garbage.

    And the quality of writing has diminished, even traditional publishers emphasizing the garbage, the knock-offs, the juvenile-vampire-soft-porn series. I've been in the biz thirty years and despair for the future of the printed word...