Three days ago, The New York Times published a rather doomsday on-line article written by Scott Turow (current head of the Authors Guild), titled The Slow Death of the American Author . I must admit this is a great title, guaranteed to scare the pants off the best of us. In fact, I received so many frightened e-mails from writers who wanted me to address this article, that I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer my analysis of Turow’s assertions.
Turow is Absolutely Correct
There is a slow death of the American Author…of the Old Paradigm.
What Turow doesn’t appear to grasp is that technology, particularly communication technology exacts sweeping cultural change that cannot be reversed (short of war or global apocalypse). Most modern humans aren’t going to trade in their flatscreens and XBoxes for a “good old-fashioned story told by the fire.”
“Technological change is neither additive nor subtractive. It is ecological. One significant change generates total change.” (Postman, Technopoly, 18)
To Everything There is a Season…
The bard slowly disappeared with the invention of the printing press. Those who were good storytellers had to learn to write them and publish their stories if they hoped to make a living.
Storytellers who wanted to continue standing on corners reciting epic tales (as had been done for centuries) eventually came to the hard realization they’d been replaced by a paper book that could be read by a cozy fire. No more invitations to wealthy homes to tell tales (for pay).
Rich people were too busy reading novels.
If storytellers wanted to eat and pay the bills, they needed to pick up a pen and put it to paper. They had to change the way they’d always done business if they wanted to
The Death of an Era
The American Author, as Turow understands it, writes books, relies on an agent and publisher, and trusts to earn as many royalties as possible from as many sources as possible. FREE! is anathema and social media is too plebeian…and yes, these types of authors are slowly dying.
What Turow is failing to understand is that the fundamental job expectations of the writer has transformed in the Digital Age. This is one of the largest reasons I encourage authors to engage on social media, to blog and create a platform that regularly interacts with fans (and recruits new ones), and to learn the business of their business.
When we create a community on social media, not only will fans buy books full price but they will also be some of our fiercest watchdogs for piracy. I’ve had many author friends who discovered their pirated work from a fan and, subsequently, were able to take action to have the pirated work removed.
Let Them Eat Cake
But I know authors of the old cloth who rail against technology. I’ve met too many of them. When I mention engaging on social media and talking to regular people, they curl their lips and sneer, “I don’t want to talk to anyone. I just want to write” (actual conversation).
Doesn’t that make you want to hand this person money?
We’re in a tough economy. Money and time are scarce. Yet, there exists this old literary aristocracy who cannot be bothered talking to us lowly proletariat (code for “readers”), because it might “steal time from their art.”
Here’s the thing. If we expect people to support us, give us money and time they don’t have, the very least we can do is talk to them and have a good attitude about it.
In the Digital Age, the best way to generate sales, decrease piracy, and translate FREE! into a sale is to be active on social media and engage. All this costs is some extra time and genuine friendliness. Yet, I find the authors who howl the most about the evils of FREE! and who are the most concerned about being ripped off are the same ones who grouse about “having to actually talk to people.”
And if I hadn’t encountered this priggish attitude so many times, I wouldn’t bother mentioning it. Yet, this starchy thinking is not unusual among the Old Paradigm Author. They denounce social media, criticize e-books, and wail about the evils of Amazon.
Yet, strangely these authors never seem to question why the Publishing Monarchy hasn’t parted with more of the spoils. In this new age (where e-books cost so little to produce) why are so many of the traditional authors still the ones who are paid the last and the least?
Viva le Roi Vive le Revolution!
We are in a Revolution. In the Old Paradigm, the reality of life as a writer was nasty, brutish and often unfair. A small few enjoyed the fruits of being real writers. There was the small percentage of those whom the Publishing Monarchy granted titles and access to court (literary contracts), while the regular serfs in the field accepted their lot (“aspiring” writers who gave up and returned to the day job).
A handful of the writing majority worked tirelessly in hopes they, too, might earn invitation to join the upper crust of being “published.” Once the writer gained access, he could scrabble up the
ranks list for a chance at earning his writing royalty title #1 New York Times Best Selling Author.
And these types of promotions into Publishing Aristocracy happened with enough regularity to keep the dream alive among the masses and prevent all-out revolution. Additionally, without a real invitation from court (a publishing contract), there was no other way to “make it” as a writer. Self-publishing was mocked as a false coat of arms and regarded with general disdain.
It’s a Contract, Not a Panacea
In the Old Paradigm, a publishing contract had the power to get a writer’s foot in the door, but was hardly a magic bullet for success. Only a very small handful of writers earned enough to quit the day job, and most of the wealth was held by a tiny top tier percentage. There was a weak and struggling author middle class, and the rest of us were literary serfs dreaming that one day we’d live like the author on the hill.
I don’t say this with any judgement. Before the Digital Age, there was only one way to make it. The New World had yet to be discovered…
The Winds of Change
Then with the advent of social media, e-books, and other digital tools, suddenly the entrenched power structure could no longer keep tight control of the industry. We writers no longer had to rely on favor granted by the Publishing Aristocracy, because they no longer held sole keys to the kingdom (publishing and distribution).
The Digital Age has created a robust bourgeoise of writers who are a hybrid of artist and innovative, hard-working entrepreneur. This new bourgeoise embrace FREE! and harness it to power future sales. This new breed of author is as creative in business as she is in her novels, and she works the crowds like she’s our near and dear friend (not pouting like a debutante required to do community service).
As Mike Masnik from Tech Crunch states in his blog Author’s Guild’s Scott Turow: The Supreme Court, E-Books, Libraries and Amazon are All Destroying Authors:
If you’re an author earning nothing at all, then you’ve got bigger problems than technology. It probably means you’re mired in obscurity and no one knows who the hell you are.
On top of that, it means you’ve done nothing at all to connect with your fans. Because we’ve seen authors who actively encourage the piracy of their books, but who also work to connect with their fans, and have seen their sales go way up, because those fans want to support the authors.
The new Digital Age Author understands that blogging and tweeting are hard, but they also appreciate that these are the very activities that the amatuer is too lazy to do and what the old aristocracy is too good to do.
The Author of the Digital Age refuses to accept the 93% failure rate of the “good old days” and he boards the rickety boats and sets sail for the New World, knowing that while it is full of danger, blistering work, and uncertainty, there is also vast treasure to be discovered.
The Age of the Author
People are reading more now than ever in human history. They are craving and consuming information at unprecedented rates, and it is an amazing time to be a writer. But the old business model is crumbling. As mentioned in Nathan Bransford’s blog, In the Future, Will Everyone Be a Publisher?, big publishing is atomizing.
The power structure is caving. The parties are no longer as lavish, and the court doesn’t dress nearly as nicely as they did in the publishing heyday. BUT, for the first time, authors (especially fiction authors) are making a really good living doing what they love—WRITING.
While Turow wails that authors are dying, he seems to be forgetting about Barry Eisler who famously turned down a half million dollar deal with his publisher to go on his own. Turow is also apparently unaware of the many successful self-published authors who’ve translated successful e-book sales into favorable print deals with traditional houses. He looks all too unaware of the astonishing success of publishers who’ve passed up the old business model and innovated to keep pace with a new culture.
An Age of Freedom
These days authors no longer have to accept whatever deal NY offers. If the author doesn’t like the terms, she can partner with the emerging digitally savvy publishers who “act more like partners than gatekeepers” (Masnik).
The Bottom Line
It all boils down to this. The world has changed. There is a new paradigm and it’s birthing a very new type of reader who has very different expectations. This, in turn, has altered our job requirements if we hope to be successful.
Yes, it is more work, but the odds of success are far higher. The Old World had 172,000 books published in a year and 160,000 of those sold less than 1,000 copies (per Book Expo of America stats 2006—pre-e-book explosion and social media saturation).
Welcome to the New World of Publishing
The New World, however, is ripe ground for the author-entrepreneur. Fiction authors are now making enough to write full time. Many are making six and seven figures, a pay grade once relegated to only a handful of the upper crust.
BUT, there is a cost.
In this New World there are few existing structures and many of the rules have yet to be written. We are setting foot on wild shores with no blacksmith or stables. No established farms or existing housing. We are responsible for building it.
The authors of the old model can learn from the passionate and generous indie entrepreneurs. Publishing houses can innovate. IT IS A GREAT TIME TO BE IN PUBLISHING. Yes, we all have new roles and more work, but the good news is…WE ARE NOT ALONE.
To end with a little laugh, some Mel Brooks…
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of April, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.
At the end of April I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!