A couple weekends ago at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, author Ewan Morrison spoke about what he saw as the future of publishing, specifically the future of the paper book and of writing as a profession. The following Monday the website for The Guardian posted a shortened version of Morrison’s argument, which calls Morrison’s vision “bleak.” Although Morrison makes a persuasive case, backed up with numbers and other evidence, I felt it was one-sided –slanted too far toward a doomsday vision when many others see the future as cause for optimism and celebration. This is my attempt at a response or rebuttal to Morrison’s vision, slanted in the other direction.
Predicting the future is difficult beyond the very short term. It is often no more than a wild guess based on available clues. These might be recent changes in the area under discussion. We might study other fields that have already gone through similar changes, looking for patterns that might be an indication of what to expect in our field of concern. Morrison did both of these. In large part, my disagreement is in his interpretation of these comparisons.
Morrison came to two major conclusions. First, that the paper book is going to die and second, writing as a profession will end; that it will no longer be possible for a writer to make a living through writing. He is only talking about authors as opposed to other kinds of writing and, based on his examples, he is probably only talking about fiction authors although the same rationale, for or against, could apply to non-fiction writers that write for a populist, rather than an academic, audience. Throughout this essay, one can assume writer means “fiction author.” Also, for simplicity I will say I am quoting Morrison when I am actually quoting The Guardian’s condensed version of what Morrison said.
The Death of the Paper Book
On the issue of the death of the paper book, I’ll dispense with that prediction quickly, as Morrison did. The short answer is, he is right. While I don’t think paper books will cease to exist, I do think they’ll become specialty items, not unlike vinyl records. As long as there are people who are willing to pay a premium for paper books, there will be a company willing to fill that need. My response is, so what? A book is a string of words that make up a story. Paper is only the container. What matters is that the books exist in a usable form. A book that exists as an electronic file, readable on e-readers or other devices, is more convenient. An e-reader weighs roughly the same as a single paper book, yet can hold thousands of books. Bookshelves are dust magnets and provide an excellent habitat for spiders, paper louse, silverfish, and other bugs. E-books solve the issues of weight, storage, and many other problems with paper books common among avid readers.
How soon before the e-book delivers the blow of death to the paper book is anyone’s guess. Who would have guessed two years ago that Amazon would be selling more e-books than paper books this soon? While we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that paper books are still, by a large margin, the highest volume book format being sold, we can expect this will change, and it will probably happen faster than any of us can imagine.
The only downside I can see to the death (or close to it) of the paper book is that the malleability of e-books presents opportunities for censorship and abuse by governments and corporations. However, through computer systems and laws, these potential problems can be prevented and is something we, as readers, should be addressing now. (If you’re interested in more about this topic I recommend M. Clifford’s novel, The Book, which explores this issue.)
Writers will no longer be able to make a living
Morrison’s prediction is largely based on a statistic from a speech given by Richard Sarnoff, CEO of Bertelsmann, who pegs the future of the paper book on the baby boomer generation. Sarnoff said, “Generation Y-ers (the children of the boomers) already consume 78% of their news digitally, for free, and books will follow suit” with Morrison concluding, “interpreting Sarnoff's calculations, the paper book has a generation left.” Morrison then posits that since Generation Y-ers and, by implication, subsequent generations, will consume the majority of their books for free, that writers aren’t going to get paid. If writers don’t get paid, then writers will no longer be able to make a living from their writing. Depending on how far the percentage of books sold as paper has to fall before paper books can be declared dead, I suspect Sarnoff’s prediction (or Morrison’s interpretation of it) might be much less the twenty years implied by “a generation.”
While I don’t question the 78% statistic that Morrison uses as his jumping off point, I do disagree with his conclusions. He quotes Chris Anderson, who has written two books pertinent to the discussion: The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More and Free: The Future of a Radical Price. In the second of these Anderson says that, “every industry that becomes digital will eventually become free.” The Guardian piece links to a Youtube video where Anderson talks about the reasons for this.
Morrison’s remaining argument is made up of a cherry picking of facts and statistics from various industries that might be indicative of the direction in which publishing is headed and arguing that what is called “long tail marketing” (a concept explained in Anderson’s first book listed above) will hurt writers over the long term. He claims the only way to prevent the eventual inability for writers to make a living writing is a combination of writers supporting publishers and governmental intervention.
I disagree with Morrison’s predictions. I also see his proposed solutions as remedies to problems that don’t exist.
Some industries should fail
Industries have failed in the past and will fail in the future. Surely no one would argue that buggy whip manufactures should have been propped up by government intervention. Choosing an industry that has failed within my lifetime, should the companies that made typewriters that were not nimble enough to convert to making computer printers have survived or somehow been saved? I would argue that many of the industries Morrison holds up as examples are failing because something better came along (the equivalent of the car for those who made buggy whips, or a computer with word processing and a printer killing the market for typewriters). Other companies have risen to serve the new market.
If this means many publishers, those companies that have existed in the past to manufacture and distribute paper books, fail, it doesn’t mean writers don’t have a way to sell their books. We’re already seeing many writers cutting out the publishers. This system falls short in today’s world because the writer is unable to match the distribution available from publishers, but as paper becomes a smaller part of the market this will become less of an issue. Failure of publishers doesn’t mean failure of writers. By helping prop up a failing industry, writers would only be delaying the inevitable. Trying to prevent the failure of the legacy publishing system makes no more sense than it would have for them to have tried saving the failing typewriter industry, which was once critical to their profession.
A business without revenue fails
This seems obvious. So why aren’t all industries that have gone digital failing? If you listen to the video of Anderson linked above, you’ll find there are reasons for this. In this context, free is actually a shorthand for free or very inexpensive. E-books selling for $0.99 (possibly even $2.99) can be argued as being almost free when compared to buying a hardback book with the same content for something north of $20 or a paperback for around $10.
Free content can be used to generate other revenue streams to pay for it. The U.S. broadcast TV and radio industries have always been supported by advertising. Other industries, past and current, have provided free or cheap content, subsidized by advertising. The magazine industry is one example of advertising subsidizing cost. The newspaper business is as well. Morrison points to newspapers as one industry that is failing, blaming this on the demographics of their ageing readership. What he fails to mention is the newspaper industry has been on a downward slide for some time now due to a decrease in revenue from classified advertising. Failure of newspapers to adjust their business model over the last twenty years is the real culprit.
Many web-based businesses provide free content with all of their revenue coming from advertising or premium services. Amazon has experimented with subsidizing the price of a Kindle using advertising in the “Kindle with special offers.” Some authors have already experimented with advertising in their e-books. I expect we will see some e-books wholly or partially supported with advertising in the future.
Another impact on this issue we shouldn’t lose sight of is the economics of the new world. J.A. Konrath, a writer who blogs about his experiences with e-books and what he sees for the future, has demonstrated that a self-published book priced at $2.99 nets the writer as much for each sale as the writer would have received for the sale of a hardback published through a legacy publisher. Under legacy publishing this same author would have had from a few weeks to a few months for his book to get noticed and gain traction before it would be pulled from bookstore shelves. With an e-book that same writer has forever, or at least as long as they live, to sell the same number of copies.
Most writers haven’t made a living from their writing in the past
Morrison “leaves alone” the question of whether writers should be able to make a living from their work. I’ll do the same since I suspect we agree that it should be possible. He makes the claim that “most notable writers in the history of books were paid a living wage.” The key word here is “notable.” Part of this might also hinge on your definition of what constitutes a livable income.
This is already becoming overly long, so I’m not going to justify what I have to say. If you doubt it, a little research will verify.
Walk into the book department of your local supermarket or discount store. Scan the fiction section. Count the authors. There you’ll find names you recognize like Stephen King, Nora Roberts, and John Grisham. These writers receive advances in the hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars. They are the notable writers.
Now go to the nearest large chain bookstore. Count the number of books written by someone who wasn’t in the first group. Go to a few more stores to expand this list because every bookstore will have those books from the notable authors, they won’t from the others. Have you ever read any of these books? These writers receive advances in the thousands, sometimes tens of thousands. Included in these are the midlist writers that Morrison references in his discussion about the decrease in publisher advances. Most of these writers aren’t making a living wage from writing now, nor were they ever. Most of them have a day job that pays the bills. Some, but relatively few, might fall in the “notable” category to which Morrison refers, and make a living from their writing. This is where the long tail and what it really means comes into play.
Marketing to the long tail is more likely to mean that more, not less, writers will make a living from their writing
In another Youtube video Chris Anderson talks briefly about the concept of the long tail. In it, he discusses ways the distribution method has distorted the market in movie theaters and other businesses. In essence, the limited number of movie screens arbitrarily limited the percentage of films made each year that were shown in movie theaters. Netflix, with their almost unlimited "movie screens" have provided a market for these movies the were not making it to the big screen before. In the paper book market we have the same situation, with a limited amount of shelf space in book stores. Even worse is the shelf space for books in grocery and discount stores, where a large percentage of paper books are sold. Lack of shelf space leads to a scarcity in the number of books available and a distortion in how the existing distribution system promotes these books. It is a system built on creating bestsellers.
Amazon and other sellers of e-books are long tail marketers. Morrison correctly sees the long tail marketing as destructive to the bestseller system. “Rather than selling, say, 13m copies of one Harry Potter book, a long tail provider can make the same profits by selling 13m different obscure, failed, and niche books.” Morrison sees that as bad. I don’t. I’ll explain why by talking specifics.
For the sake of argument, let’s say a large portion of those 13m books are 500 to 3,000 copies a month of each of thousands of different self-published books. (From what we’re seeing in the e-book market today, this is a reasonable assumption.) Based on Amazon’s current royalty structure this is providing a monthly income of $175 on the low side to $6,279 on the high end to the writers of these books. (500 copies @0.99 at a 35% royalty and 3,000 copies @2.99 at a 70% royalty rate.) The reality is that J.K. Rowling isn’t going to be poverty stricken, however, by removing the distortion in the market created by the bestseller system, Rowling won’t sell millions of books (although I would expect she’ll be selling more than enough to live on). Many of these thousands of writers on the high side of this range will now be making a livable income. We’ve exchanged one writer making well in excess of a livable amount for thousands now doing so. If some of the writers selling on the low side of this range have multiple books available, they might also be making a living wage.
Morrison seems to imply the writers of these books aren’t worthy. I would say they are victims of the distortions in the market, but deserve to make a livable amount for their work, or at least have a chance to do so. So what are these “obscure, failed, and niche books” whose writers would be taking money from J.K. Rowling’s pocketbook in this scenario?
One might be Beth Orsoff. Her book Romantically Challenged was published by Penguin/NAL. A subsequent book, How I Learned to Love the Walrus, didn’t find a home because the Chick Lit genre had fallen out of favor with publishers. Now available as a self-published book, Walrus, is selling and receiving excellent feedback from Chick Lit readers, who are increasingly being ignored by legacy publishers.
What might Morrison mean by “failed” books? One interpretation is books that have already run the gauntlet of gatekeepers in the legacy publishing system. These books were published, didn’t find a market, or as sales volume tapered off, went out of print. With limited shelf space a book that doesn’t immediately find its audience or sells well for awhile, but doesn’t maintain a high sales volume, will eventually get pulled from the shelves and become unavailable. Many mid-listers are republishing their books that have gone out of print and finding there is still demand for these books, even if the demand isn’t enough for publishers and bookstores to profitably fill that demand. Rather than have a single book on a store shelf, these writers may have several on the virtual e-book shelves. If they sell several hundred copies a month of five or ten different books, odds are good they’ll reach the livable wage category. Examples of books in this category include Romantically Challenged, mentioned previously, Rebecca Forster’s The Witness series of legal thrillers, or Donna Fasano’s romances, such as Return of the Runaway Bride.
Last, we have niche books. These are books with some level of demand among the reading public. However, the perceived demand is not high enough to be profitable for the legacy publishing system. An example of this might be Suzanne Tyrpak’s book, Vestal Virgin. A suspense novel set in Ancient Rome, the demand for this isn’t enough for legacy publishers, yet there is demand – demand not met by the legacy publishing system.
Gutenberg caused a revolution with invention of the printing press. Although this revolution necessitated a reassignment of duties for many priests, everyone else involved came out ahead. I contend that we’re in the midst of a revolution that will prove to be the most beneficial change in this arena, for both readers and writers, since Gutenberg.
Very little of the vision I’ve outlined here is original thought, it is my version of the different theories put forth by others. To those interested in reading and following what others are saying on this subject, I would suggest the following, all of which were major contributors to my thinking on the subject.
Both books by Chris Anderson, mentioned earlier.
The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More
Free: The Future of a Radical Price
J.A. Konrath, A Newbies Guide to Publishing
Dean Wesley Smith
David Gaughran, Let’s Get Digital
The Passive Voice