Is writing an art-form, and how valuable are books to you?

print.13I went to the Australian Society of Authors National Congress last week and there were so many ideas about reading books, writing books, book sales, and trends swirling around the room that I wanted to share some of them with you.

The changing role of the writer

One of the most repeated claims at the congress was that the role of the writer has changed immeasurably over the last few years, but that the income a writer receives has not. A writer is now expected to be a writer, a marketer, a publisher of content (i.e. publishing articles on their blog), a public speaker, easily accessible (via Facebook or Twitter) and, fast. The reading public wants books yesterday, not today.

But, as Anna Funder so beautifully put it, in the graphic on the right:

“W=STor, writing equals space multiplied by time, to the power of money.”

But if readers want more books from writers, yet writers have less time to do that writing because they have to spend time on marketing, content provision, public speaking etc, then the equation is broken and one part is given less weight than it should be.

The vexed question of money

In terms of the money end of the equation, Anna Funder also spoke about her many experiences of being asked to provide content, in the form of a paragraph or 300 words for various money-making publications, but not being offered any money in return for the content she provided. I was surprised by this; I had foolishly thought that when you were a writer as famous as Anna Funder, people would actually pay you for your content. Apparently not. As Funder said, the people who want you to write the words for them will tell you that it’s good “exposure”. Apparently readers will rush to buy your books as a result of you contributing your words for free. (I’m skeptical). And usually the person asking you for your words is getting paid, but you, the writer, are not. Funder also mentioned The Huffington Post, the online magazine which pays its staff writers, but not writers of articles that come from the myriad of external bloggers it uses to provide content. As Funder put it, “The Huffington Post rides on the back of 9000 unpaid writers.” Yet The Huffington Post is worth $320 million dollars.

So, this may seem a less than inspiring picture of the writing world. I think it’s accurate, and it gives you a sense of the kind of writer who is going to survive into the next decade. Funder believes the space between writers and readers is the problem, that the need for publishers to act as editors and marketers, and the need for agents to act as business partners is crucial to mend this space. I would agree with this, however, many writers don’t have agents. Most publishers are happy for writers to take on the marketing jobs as the publishers don’t have the time to do it themselves. I can’t see the problem being fixed any time soon.

Who are the “kamikaze pilots of literature?”

So I think the writer who is going to survive is not the idealistic creature of myth, the crazy creative who just wants to be left alone with their words, who probably doesn’t exist anyway. It will be a person who has probably had another career before becoming a writer, or who juggles writing with another career. A person who is super-organised and who understands business and marketing and speech-making and is good at all of those things, as well as good at writing. And, hopefully, a person who isn’t afraid to ask to be paid for their work. Because, as Steven Lewis put it, in another discussion at the congress, 56% of self-published authors (he surveyed 1,000 of them):

“would rather sell their books more cheaply or give them away to get more readers.”

This is the business model on which Amazon thrives, thousands of authors selling their books for 99 cents a pop. These authors are, as Steven Lewsi says:

“The kamikaze pilots of literature. They are teaching people that writing should be free.”

Where do you buy your books?

This is not a lesson writers want to teach anyone, I don’t think. Books, well-written books, specially chosen and curated by publishers as worthy of the time and money investment of publication, are works of art. Accessible works of art. It might cost me $2,000 to hang a painting on my wall, but it will cost me $25 to buy a book, to escape into another world while reading the book, and to keep it on my bookshelf. It’s the same cost as a few cups of coffee, a night at the movies that is then gone forever. Surely that’s a bargain?

Yet so many readers eschew buying their books at a book shop and instead choose Book Depository or Amazon because it is cheaper. Perhaps they don’t realise they are cheapening the whole industry by doing so. One major publisher at the conference said that Amazon was their biggest bookshop customer, with 25% of sales going to them. So 25% of the books that 10 years ago would have sold in a bricks and mortar bookshop for $25 are now sold on Amazon for perhaps $9.99, with Amazon reaping the profit. The writer will earn less than $1.00 for that book, and the nice bookstore down the road earns nothing. So W=STdoesn’t compute. Writing comes to equal a manic act that is done in between updating Facebook statuses, for virtually no money. This is not what I want writing to become.

What do you think? Am I being unduly critical of readers who buy their books from Amazon? Am I wrong about the role of the writer? I would love to hear your thoughts.

16 comments

  1. I only buy books on book depository (or, even more rarely, Amazon) if absolutely necessary ie when I cannot for love nor money find the one I want in any local bookstore! I certainly bought your latest (as I do most books) from my local, independent shop. Sometimes I’ll go to a Dymocks store too but that’s about it. 🙂
    Hey, I wonder if there is such a career as freelance book marketer? I would be AWESOME at that! 😉

    • Hi Adele, yes, I too have succumbed to Amazon and I expect most people have at some stage. I have to use it sometimes to get hold of research books that I’m using to research something I’m covering in a novel I’m writing. Many of the books I used as research for my New York novel came from Amazon, simply because I tried local bookstores, I tried Australian online bookstores and I just couldn’t get hold of them. That’s the thing about Amazon, isn’t it? It has everything. But, like you, if I can get a book here, I certainly do that. I can’t expect the book industry to support me if I don’t support it.

      Kate Forsyth said in her talk at the congress that when she was teaching writing courses, she always asked participants who had bought a book by an Australian writer at a local bookshop in the last 3 months. Apparently, few people put up their hands. I am now going to put this question to all of my writing classes to make them think about supporting the industry that they hope will support them.

  2. Natasha, why-oh-why do you write such things … which appear to be painfully truthful. As I sit here with coffee to my left, scrivener on screen, your post came through on my I-Pad which I sort of use as a second screen research (or procrastination) tool. It has made me rethink how I buy books, as I do confess that I am an avid kindler. I read really fast (I wish I wrote as fast), and when I want to read something, I usually want to do it right now. Since I have been writing and attending writer’s festivals and author talks, I am adding to my signed book collection … hmmm … I think I have a couple of Natasha Lesters which need signing. I will in future, when I can afford to, buy from Independent bookstores.

    • Jon Pages from Pages & Pages bookstore in Sydney spoke about the Kindle amnesty they run in their store, whereby people can bring their Kindle in to the store and dump it, and one of the staff members shows the customer the other e-readers that are available, and which you can use to buy e-books from Australian e-tailers. I don’t think e-books in and of themselves are an evil thing; I wish there was less dependence on Amazon to purchase e-books though. However, would love to sign any p-books any time!

  3. marlish glorie

    Thank you for yet another excellent and fascinating post, Natasha. You’ve covered a lot of very important ground for readers and writers, so much so that I’m not sure where to begin addressing the issues you’ve raised. I’ll start with Steven Lewis’s remark – “The kamikaze pilots of literature. They are teaching people that writing should be free.” This, I feel, is somewhat hysterical and misleading. The giving away of books for marketing purposes happens in traditional publishing. So why can’t self-published authors do likewise to garner more readers?
    Also and most critically, if like me, you’ve self-published an eBook, but not a print book, then you’re not permitted by Amazon to give away free eBooks, in fact, it’s impossible. Any books I give away , I must pay for.
    Also if one was to go along with Steven Lewis’s argument that receiving free books teaches people that writing should be for free, then where does that place public libraries? Sure, we can only loan books, but it’s still for free. So have public libraries unwittingly played a part in skewing the public’s perception that writers don’t need to be paid?
    Now, that’s enough from me for now! 🙂 Again, many thanks for a great post, and for sharing your recent experiences at the ASA national congress.

  4. marlish glorie

    Thank you for yet another excellent and fascinating post, Natasha. You’ve covered a lot of very important ground for readers and writers, so much so that I’m not sure where to begin addressing the issues you’ve raised. I’ll start with Steven Lewis’s remark – “The kamikaze pilots of literature. They are teaching people that writing should be free.” This, I feel, is somewhat hysterical and misleading. The giving away of books for marketing purposes happens in traditional publishing. So why can’t self-published authors do it to garner more readers?
    Also and most critically, if like me, you’ve self-published an eBook, but not a print book, then you’re not permitted by Amazon to give away free eBooks, in fact, it’s impossible. Any books which I “gift”, I must pay for.
    Also if one was to go along with Steven Lewis’s argument that receiving free books teaches people that writing should be for free, then where does that place public libraries? Sure, we can only loan books, but it’s still for free. So have public libraries unwittingly played a part in skewing the public’s perception that writers don’t need to be paid?
    Now, that’s enough from me for now! 🙂 Again, many thanks for a great post, and for sharing the knowledge you gained while at the ASA national congress.

    • Hi Marlish and thanks for your comments. The voice of the self-published author was a voice missing from the congress and I wish it hadn’t been missing as it’s always more valuable to hear all points along the publishing spectrum. I may also not have explained Lewis’s point properly; I don’t think he was referring to giving away books for marketing purposes in his quote. I think he was mainly referring to the extremely low, 99 cent price points that perhaps undervalue literature. Because you’re absolutely right, giving away books for review and marketing purposes is fundamental and no publisher would ever do away with that strategy.

  5. Glen Hunting

    Good evening all,

    In answer to the point Marlish makes about public libraries lending reading material for free, I suppose there’s still a tacit acknowledgement of the value of the writing, insofar as the state purchases the material on behalf of the public. So at least the author gets something for it, even though it might only be a fraction of the fraction they’d get if everyone bought a copy for themselves.

    I do acknowledge peoples’ desire to have their literary works published and to receive payment for them. After all, I’m one of the many people who read this blog who also tries on a regular basis to make these things happen for myself (although ultimately I’m not fussed about the money.) I cannot forget that many of us, including myself sometimes, would like other people to see something valuable in the things we create and to connect with them. But neither readers, nor authors, nor unpublished would-be authors should fall into the trap of believing that the only worthwhile writing is the writing that sells and sells big. I want to commend all writers and artists who practice their art by following their Muses above all other temptations and pressures, and who can derive personal nourishment and validation in that process without being swayed by their level of exposure or their financial remuneration. I would advocate that artists and writers at least consider following this process of pursuing the dictates of their artistic purposes before anything else, provided they have the space, energy and resources to allow them to do so. After doing this, in an ideal world, the best of these writers and artists would receive a measure of recognition and engagement WITHOUT having to worry about whether or not their sector can support them full-time, or whether they can secure a forum for their work without first having an online social-media presence. Art and literature always have an ongoing relationship with the society and environment that surround them. But the obligations you write about here, Natasha, are skewing the priorities of Art and its practitioners. And it might be just a not-very-far-reaching personal opinion, but I don’t think that’s a good thing.

    All that aside, Natasha, I do hope that “A Beautiful Catastrophe” manages to have its day (or several) in the sun, because of what the writing of it has meant to you personally and how proud you are of your manuscript. I hope it’ll repay your faith in it, in the form of readers deriving the same kind of pleasure from it that you have already derived yourself.

    • Thanks Glen. You make many good points, as always. And yes, I certainly agree that it is not only the big selling books that are the worthwhile ones. I have found many wonderful stories within books that have only sold a few hundred copies, so sales certainly don’t always equate to value. Jon Page from Pages and Pages bookshop in Sydney made the point that bookstores like Amazon will help you find what you are looking for, whereas a good bookshop will help you find what you weren’t looking for, the serendipitous, wonderful surprise of a book that you hadn’t heard about, but which changes you nonetheless. I love that idea.

  6. Louise Allan

    Great post, although disturbing. I didn’t realise how bad it was for writers. Nor did I think that the ten bucks I was saving by buying from Book Depository was starving the author. I do use Booktopia and our local, the Bookcaffé (Hi Emily!), but I love Book Depository … I will change my habits from now on. And spruik it to everyone else, too.

    • Thanks Louise. And until I really heard all the issues laid out, I hadn’t thought too much about it either. Hence the blog post; doing my best to spread the word to make things better for all of us!

  7. marlish lgorie

    Take a Bow Glen Hunting as you’ve put it all so succinctly! Also I second, your good wishes for Natasha’s success with ” A Beautiful Catastrophe.”

  8. marlish glorie

    Really sorry to hear that you’ve been so ill, Glen. Hope you have a speedy and successful recovery.

  9. Pingback: To sell more books, you should write about cats | While the kids are sleeping

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