I 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=ST$ or, 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 $1.00 for that book, and the nice bookstore down the road earns nothing. So W=ST$ doesn’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.