Is the era of the professional writer drawing to a close? At least one contemporary British author thinks so. In a recent article, the Globe and Mail quotes UK writer Ewan Morrison’s contention that advances from traditional publishers have declined so much in recent years that he is practically working for free.
Morrison sees self-publishing, book piracy, rampant e-tailer discounting, free writing online, and the “free culture” movement as killing off traditional writing and publishing. While consumers may be happy to get a lot of stuff for free, he insists, they’re killing our culture, and “There will be no more professional writers in the future.”
Many will cheer, Morrison admits, including the more than one million new authors who have outflanked traditional gatekeepers by “publishing” their work in Amazon’s online Kindle store. “All these people I’m sure are very happy to hear they’re demolishing the publishing business by creating a multiplicity of cheap choices for the reader,” Morrison says. “I beg to differ.”
The article further goes into Authors Guild President Scott Turow’s similar feelings, and touches on various successful self-publishers signing contracts with traditional publishers as soon as they’re able. (Which seems to me to contradict Morrison’s stance on advances—if traditional publishers weren’t offering them anymore, why would any of these successful self-publishers want to sign up? Maybe it’s just that they’re not offering those advances to him. Sour grapes, anyone?)
And the article also mentions the Supreme Court decision I covered earlier today:
“Is this the Canada we want?” [Writers’ Union of Canada chair Merilyn Simonds] asked after a recent Supreme Court decision that extended the rights of educators to photocopy books without compensating writers. “A Canada that has to import its literature because it forced its own creators to work for free until eventually they gave up?”
I can’t help thinking there’s still a bit of distance from letting educators photocopy texts for classroom handouts to “forcing its own creators to work for free.”
At the end the article does note that a number of writers have found new opportunities on-line, while others have had to shift and diversify their focus to survive. And really, isn’t that the way things are in general? The world changes, and we have to change with it or get left behind. You can’t unring a bell.
I would also take issue with Morrison’s claim that “there will be no more professional writers.” Really, it depends on what you mean by “professional.” By the definition of the word on Dictionary.com (“1. following an occupation as a means of livelihood or for gain”), a self-published writer qualifies. (After all, he’s writing for livelihood or gain, too, isn’t he?) Perhaps Morrison should have said there would be no more traditionally published writers?
All these wolf cries insisting that traditional publishing is doomed, therefore writers are doomed, seem to take for granted the fact that people won’t pay for any but traditionally-published books, therefore writers can’t get paid for writing. Which is really kind of weird, given that the fact people are paying for so many non-traditionally-published books is one of those things that is ostensibly “killing” traditional publishing in the first place!
Unless reading itself entirely dies out, people are always going to want to read good books. And at least some of them are going to want to pay for good books. If there aren’t enough good books to be had at low prices, people might be willing to pay more for them. If there are people willing to pay for good books and there aren’t any, others will step in to write the good books, or figure out new ways to get good books others write to them. People who want to get paid for doing something that other people are willing to pay to have done will find ways to make that happen. That’s how a market works.
Indeed, the idea is perhaps best exemplified by the quote the article closes with from Winnipeg writer Jake McDonald, who has shifted his focus from journalism to writing corporate histories:
“My ecological model is the raccoon – a diversified survivor,” MacDonald adds. “I’m always writing, but the survival plan continues to evolve.”
“I’m surviving as well as I ever did,” MacDonald says, “but in completely different ways.”
Perhaps other writers will be able to survive in different ways as well.