Last week, Ewan Morrison, writing in The Guardian, asked, “Are books dead?” and “Can authors survive?” He was writing in the context of the Edinburgh International Book Festival and his belief that the “publishing industry is in terminal decline.” It is an interesting article, different from anything else I’ve read, and worth wide distribution for the questions it raises.
Morrison says that big sellers like Barnes & Noble and Amazon are now selling more ebooks than paper books. What are the consequences of this momentous fact? Morrison notes that the major publishers are all suffering financial straits and not giving writers their accustomed advances. Many writers already are skipping agents and publishers and publishing their ebooks on the internet. He looks down the road a generation and finds “the book” surviving but writers, oddly, not. If, today, a bookseller can sell a million copies of one book, one of the Harry Potter books for example, in the future that same bookseller may be able to make the same amount of money by selling ten books each from one hundred thousand authors, a situation we are now beginning to approach with the small sales of hundreds of thousands of authors on Amazon. This phenomenon is called the “long tail”—those hundreds of thousands of authors each selling ten books, all on the internet, their sales showing on the “long tail” of the graph. Eventually, he believes, writers will be infinitely numerous and none of them will be paid for their work, a situation which he believes has almost arrived in the music industry.
If he is right, this is as depressing as hell.
But there are some significant omissions in his argument. He says, “Most notable writers in the history of books were paid a living wage.” This is not true. In our own history, Emily Dickinson was not, Herman Meville was not, and while Morrison scorns the Romantic myth that writers must survive in a garret, I would guess that most American writers are fairly poor people. There are only a few in every generation who actually make a substantial income from their writing. Writers get by on grants, or by teaching creative writing at the local college, or by some other income-producing work. A writer whose career I have followed since 1963 has never earned a living wage from her writing, but she has been a publishing writer for all of those years. The class of people that Morrison seems to be concerned about—professional writers of literary fiction who live on the income from their writing—seems not to have existed as a class until recently, and it may be entirely the creation of the new mega-publishers.
The questions that Morrison raises—the future of the book and of publishing in the age of the ebook and of epublishing—are important because my blog, the Stonewall Triptych, exists to bring attention to my three ebooks which I have collected under the name, the Stonewall Triptych. Morrison’s essay skips over the extent to which the publishing industry of the last fifty years created the situation in which writers like me are doing what I am doing, that is, using the internet to publish their books.
More on all this in my next posting.