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We’re all doomed – or are we? Reflections on Robert McCrum’s article for The Observer on the end of writing as a way of making money

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We – OK, I – felt a bit weary, but pretty chipper this weekend, after a few days at what seemed to me to be a particularly informative Independent Publishers Guild Conference at the end of last week. We even won a few prizes.

Then I read this piece by Robert McCrum about “the end of an author’s life”, and I felt a bit glum and a bit cross. He’s not talking about a particular author who has died; he’s saying that writing as a way of making a living has died. He’s writing about literary authors, and that’s not really my area of expertise, but it’s all a bit James-Laurie-as-Private-Frazer: “We’re all doomed”. And it seemed to me to be another worrying example of media coverage of writing, reading, publishing and bookselling teetering on an edge – a “heritage” thing, that needs protection to survive.

I used to work with Robert McCrum. Well, I use the word “with” loosely, as I’d be amazed and flattered if he were be able to pick me out in a line-up. But he was Editor-in-Chief at Faber while I was a rights assistant, and, later, after someone left and my boss was incapacitated for many months with intractable amoebic dysentery (that he claimed he’d contracted from a Cornish pasty he’d bought in Taunton, but I was inclined to attribute to a recent trip to Pakistan), I got the title of rights manager. Senior members of staff (a group including Robert McCrum that was referred to by junior members of staff as “Evans Above” after Faber MD Matthew Evans, now Baron Evans of Temple Guiting) spent a lot of time at lunch, and even more at The Groucho Club, and Faber, in particular, grew fat on income from Cats, The Musical. What I am trying to say here is that the experience of publishing that Robert McCrum looks back on so fondly was not really terribly representative of the industry even as it was then (as I discovered when I moved on from Faber). And incidentally, I am pretty sure that many of the writers that Robert McCrum was publishing at Faber back then struggled to make a living from writing.

I think that there are several things to say here.

The first thing I’d like to say is that it would be stupid to deny that publishing has been hugely disrupted over the last few years. Like most industries, it’s been disrupted by financial crisis. Like many industries, it’s been disrupted by technology. Not only is the way that many of us read and write shifting from paper to screen (I’m not talking just about books, here, but about any and all kinds of reading and writing), but the way that we buy what we read has now at least partly moved online too (Amazon represented 37% of the UK’s total print and ebook market last year, and in the US it’s closer to 50%). Technology brings with it concerns about piracy – probably exaggerated where books are concerned – and the spectre of the death of copyright. The principle that makers should own what they make and should be compensated for its use one that I profoundly believe in, but it’s a bigger idea than the scope of this particular blog post. UK print book purchasing shows a long-term pattern of decline (it’s worth saying right now that purchasing of children’s print books remains cheeringly resilient). The loss of independent book shops (now down to under 1,000 in the UK) and book shop chains like Borders has reduced the number of physical spaces in which people can discover books. There are surveys, including PISA and Nielsen’s Books and Consumers surveys, that are worrying for those of us who care about literacy, as they suggest that reading standards are falling, and, for those of us who care about literacy and books, suggesting that children report less engagement with reading.

But the idea that technology and change are the enemies of reading is just plain wrong. We read more now than we’ve ever done. Even if you ignore the explosion in reading of non-books, including blogs and other online-only writing, combined sales of print and ebooks rose in the US by 14% between 2008 and 2012. More of us are creating content than ever before, and many of us are finding, through technology, new ways of reaching our audiences. Technology and change have provided us with new ways of connecting with one another to recommend and talk about books. And technology and change have provided us with ways of making entirely new kinds of reading experiences including our own highly-interactive multimedia apps, and reading experiences like Fish or Blackbar or Faber’s (do you see what I just did, there?) The Wasteland App (Faber is a brilliant publisher).

The second thing I’d like to say is that any implication that publishers are battening on writers and underpaying them feels to me to be wrong. The article focusses on advances, not royalties, and the truth is that I cannot imagine that there’s a trade publisher (as opposed to an educational, academic or professional publisher, whose business models I’m not so familiar with) out there that does not have to write off unearned advances at the end of the year: this is the money you pay in advance to authors that you know they won’t ever earn out. For some adult trade publishers that I can think of, or for a publisher who takes a massive gamble on something that doesn’t pay off, it can be as much as the amount the authors actually earn in royalties. So if, as is the case with Nosy Crow, maybe around 15% of a publisher’s sales revenue is paid to authors as royalties, for certain publishing companies – probably the ones that Robert McCrum’s anecdotes relate to – there’s an additional 10% to 15% of unearned advances to account for. This means that many publishers are paying between a quarter and a third of their total sales revenue to authors. I’ve written about how publishers like us pay authors here. And if you’re wondering what publishers do with the rest of their revenue, you might want to read this. Of course, unlike the days that Robert McCrum looks back on with such nostalgia, authors now don’t have to rely on publishers to find their audience at all. They can self-publish in a myriad of ways, and a few of them do so very lucratively. If, as publishers, we can’t articulate why it will be better for a given author or illustrator to publish with our own publishing house rather than to self-publish, we shouldn’t be publishing that author or illustrator, and if we can’t be convincing on this point regularly, maybe shouldn’t be in business.

The third thing I’d like to say is that no-one owes authors (or illustrators) a living. No-one owes publishers or booksellers a living either, for that matter. Of course I think that there is a role for state support of reading. I think that there is cultural, social and long-term economic value in keeping public libraries open. (If you’d like someone to articulate that view better than I ever could, here’s Caitlin Moran on the subject). And I for one support tax spend on school libraries and on early intervention programmes for children who otherwise wouldn’t be exposed early on to reading, to name just two other literacy-building opportunities. But, otherwise, writers, publishers and booksellers do – and I think should – stand or fall by whether they are producing things that people want to read and buy. The truth is that it’s always been the case that there are writers who make a great living out of their writing and writers who don’t. We remember Dickens and Enid Blyton and J K Rowling and EL James, and we forget most of those who made less of a commercial impact. I am not saying that there’s necessarily a link between being commercially successful and culturally interesting or impactful. I entirely accept that there’s great stuff being written out there that hasn’t, or hasn’t yet, reached its audience (I am thinking of a book like Stoner, widely read and commercially successful only 50 years after it was first published). But the market-place is the mechanism we have, and I can’t think of a better one that wouldn’t be at least as unfair or subjective.

There’s no point being Pollyanna-ish, and pretending that these aren’t times of challenge as well as opportunity in the book business. However, it seems to me that articles about the commercial demise of writing and reading (particularly if they’re illustrated with a big photo of a writer tapping away on a shiny Mac in a perfectly lovely kitchen, but that’s another point), may actually put off the audience that we need to gain, excite, engage and retain. The Robert McCrum piece risks sounding a little bit… whiny, and coverage like this makes it sound as if all of us engaged in the book industry are collectively some sad, fat, old dodo stumbling helplessly about on the forest floor waiting for extinction. Let’s, instead, focus on telling people what great stuff, new and old, we have for them to read, and make it easy for them to find it, buy it, and tell other people about it.

I really enjoyed this rebuttal of the Robert McCrum piece too.

What do you think? Is it getting harder or easier for authors to publish and to live than it was 25 years ago, or even five years ago? Is the entire book industry going to hell in a handbasket or evolving to meet the challenges and opportunities of technology? You can comment here or on Twitter and we’d be really interested to hear from you.

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No Responses to “We’re all doomed – or are we? Reflections on Robert McCrum’s article for The Observer on the end of writing as a way of making money”

  • Agree, mostly! But what is important, I think, is to identify a position between two extremes: that writers are owed a living, and that making a living by writing is a privilege. It is not a privilege – it is a mark of commercial success, and that’s all. It is no more a privilege for a writer to be paid a reasonable amount for writing books that people want to buy than it is a privilege for a surgeon to earn a living by performing operations people wish to have performed. Or perhaps they are both a privilege – to do work you enjoy and consider worthwhile and to be paid for it – but no one ever suggests surgeons and the like are ‘privileged’.

  • Thanks, Lucy and Anne. Anne, couldn’t have put it better. Hope you didn’t feel I was suggesting making a living by writing was a “privilege”. It isn’t. As you say, making a living as a writer is simply achieved through commercial success, whatever it is you write and however you choose to publish.

  • Thanks for a great post, and a refreshing corrective to Robert McCrum’s piece, which did rather get my Sunday goat when I read it earlier today.

    It bugged me not just because, like you, I’m tiring of the proclamations of doom, but also because its tone and its eminently risible examples – garrets! six-figure advances! – seemed almost designed to give fodder to those who customarily cheer the alleged demise of what they bitterly call “dinosaur” or “dead tree” publishing on internet comment threads.

    The other thing I wanted to say was about this:

    “If, as publishers, we can’t articulate why it will be better for a given author or illustrator to publish with our own publishing house rather than to self-publish, we shouldn’t be publishing that author or illustrator, and if we can’t be convincing on this point regularly, maybe shouldn’t be in business.”

    One of the things that worries me about the “new publishing discourse” is this trope about “giving authors what they want”.

    I don’t believe that digital self-publishing is an existential threat to real publishing, despite what some of its champions claim. I do worry, however, that some of its standard lines about the “needs” of authors are beginning to receive lip service from traditional publishers, agents, and the book press.

    This endless privileging of “authors’ needs” which is at the heart of the self-publishing discourse is, of course, largely chimeric. But is also excluding of the needs of the only people who really matter, the READERS, often to such an extent that it smacks of latent contempt.

    If publishing should be about giving anyone “what they want/need” it should be readers, not writers.

    I am a writer myself, traditionally published in a very small way. But before that, and more importantly, I am a reader. No one should “give me what I want” as a writer, and no one should even pay lip service to my absurd aspirations therein. But my “needs” as a READER are sacrosanct, and I’ll take up the cudgel to defend them, particularly against a zombie horde of self-obsessed solipsists who care only about thrusting their own work on an unwilling world.

  • Interesting, Tim – and thank you. I DO think that the fact that authors have another route to market – self-publishing – does mean that publishers have to think hard about what they bring (investment, expertise of various kinds, time, contacts, credibility…) to the publishing party. I am pretty confident that Nosy Crow can justify its position as a traditional publisher to the authors that we publish, but the POSSIBILITY of self-publishing keeps us even more on our mettle than we would otherwise be. It’s not about pandering to anyone’s needs or wants, but justifying our place in the supply chain.

  • Thanks for posting this.
    The McCrum article actually made me laugh as I was teaching a Masterclass at the Guardian on self-publishing yesterday, to a packed room, and the tone of the speakers was positive around creative expression and making a living as an indie author. The speakers included 3 literary fiction authors, a thriller author (me) and a fantasy author, all happy indie authors thriving in the new economy. McCrum’s world is not one I live in – and I believe that authors who choose to educate themselves in the new opportunities will find a different reality with global sales potential as well as relationships with readers.
    At the FutureBook conference last year, I met many publishers who also live in the new reality – Nosy Crow :) as well as SourceBooks and Rebecca Smart’s Osprey spring to mind … It’s an exciting time to be a forward thinking author, publisher or illustrator!

  • As a debut author I’ve found this blog and its replies fascinating. I can’t deny a sense of privilege in a publishing house seeing worth in my writing, purely because I know how many people would want to be in my position (and I know that a dollop of luck was needed, unlike the surgeon). I agree with Tim Hannigan – self-publishing is not, and should not be seen as a threat to the traditional agent-publisher route. What I love about publishing is that you write a book, it goes out there (on the shelves and the Internet) it’s bought or not, you earn or you do not – the readers decide. If I have to subsidize myself with another job, so be it. No one should moan about that deal.

  • Wholeheartedly agree with all of that. What I found particularly odd was the mid-article switch into discussing the internet as the root of some of these issues. Thomson published eight of his nine novels before Kindle was even launched in the UK. McCrum surely can’t be arguing that Thomson’s sales have been hit by piracy, and thus his advances have declined? But this is certainly what he seems to be doing when he starts lamenting the fate of copyright in the digital age.

    Where I can see the internet as a factor is the narrowing of routes to market. Back in the old days if Waterstones didn’t take your book, maybe Borders would, or Hatchards, or someone. Now it’s Waterstones; the very narrow but high-pressure pipelines through the supermarkets; and the hugely diffuse Amazon channel.

  • I also think this is a complex issue because there is no one ‘type’ of author. Not only in terms of the genre they publish, but also in what they want to achieve out of publishing. Some expect to be taken seriously as a literary writer, others want to make as much money as they can (granted, often not much), most would be happy with more modest acclaim and fortune, and some simply want to have written and published something. For many aspiring authors starting out, I’m sure self-publishing is a boon, because it allows you to get your stuff out there quickly and easily. Some people are more than happy with what it does for them, others benefit from indie or even mainstream publishers.

    As many have said, it has always been difficult for creatives to earn, and I hope that emerging technologies and markets may provide new avenues of opportunity for them. So I look up to those who struggle in these fields, and fully support them in their endeavours to be paid fairly for what they do.

    As a side note, I’d not heard of Nosy Crow before that article at the Guardian, but I’m loving your range of choice of children’s books, particularly the breakdown of age groups. It is so hard to find books that fit children that are 8-11, who are too old for most children’s books, yet not ready for young adult titles. I will definitely be checking these out for the kids in my life :)

  • I’m actually in the medical field, so I can say that it is a privilege to be a surgeon! There are dozens of students competing to get in. 5 years of hard work later (many students don’t last), you’re a junior doctor in debt and jobbing your way through hospitals towards a speciality. (some don’t last). In the time it takes to train a consultant, you’ve had thousands of patients, taught hundreds of students and probably done a fair bit of research. Some fields are more lucrative, but they are also more competitive, because there are a finite number of jobs. Yes, a neurosurgeon would expect to earn impressively but, but nobody is entitled to be a neurosurgeon, only a tiny fraction of doctors end up there. Many pick something more life-friendly, or drop out altogether. So both being a writer and being a surgeon involve privilege and hard work, at different stages of the game. For every aspiring writer who doesn’t get paid, there’s an aspiring surgeon who never got there either.

    Unlike a surgeon, who is guaranteed to have patients, the artist has to fight to get his skills recognised out there amongst a sea of other creatives. We are not guaranteed an audience, nor guaranteed that audience will like what they see, therefore the two professions are not quite analogous. It is a privilege for people to like your work, because that can depend on it being good, or it being exposed and popular enough.

  • I completely agree with Tim Hannigan’s post. As a reader, it’s obvious that not everything that is created is equally good, and not everything that’s good has decent exposure to reach its ideal audience. As an amateur artist, I’m fully aware that some may like my art, some may not, that it might not appeal to enough people for me to live off it.

    If you have created something, it may not get published, and if it doesn’t, then self-publishing will pay depending on how many people enjoy your work. Of course creatives should be paid fairly, ideally the industry should be structured in such a way that published authors get enough support that their work has the best chance of receiving commercial success.

    (sorry for the multitude of comments. I wrote far too much, but only because I felt there were many interesting things to consider in this conversation)

  • My initial complaint about the article was that it used two empirical examples, without bothering to explain why they were typical, and then extrapolated those examples to an industry of millions. There was no data, no objective analysis, just a conclusion the article was written to support.

    This article, on the other hand, contained some reasonable information. Thank you. Also, and this is completely unrelated, I enjoyed the tone with which you provided it.

  • Lovely riposte Kate! I agree with most of your points, however lets not forget that there is a difference between writers and illustrators – we’re often bracketed together as developers of speculative material – we produce our art in the arrogant belief that someone out there will like it, and we gamble on the hope it sells. However that’s only true of work we submit ourselves. In the case of commissioned art most pro illustrators are in fact more analogous to printers, in that we’re a supply industry, we produce a set amount of commissioned work to contract, we provide a required service. Illustration only becomes speculative if we are submitting/publishing our own projects.

    Publishers (and by that I mean all commissioners, including self-publishers) wouldn’t be able to lower the fees or go cut-price on their other suppliers (printers, distributors etc) because they’d end up with shoddy products, the unions would also prevent it. However, sad to say, it happens with commissioned illustration all the time. I’ve even come across instances of lllustrators working on commission, for FREE, just for the exposure.

    Like other illustrators, I’m happy to look at any commission that fits my style/genre, and am also prepared to take a degree of risk on self-generated ideas that may or may not sell. But if it’s a commission, I expect the client to cross my palm with copious amounts of silver every time.

  • Good to read that others had a similar reaction to the article in this thought-provoking series of posts.
    A current area of concern for authors in the educational publishing sector is the shift in some big publishing companies from royalties to fees. Having sat on both sides of the fence, I am familiar with the business models – and that fees are so much easier to budget!
    But for authors who like to feel they are involved, together with their publisher, in the risk-taking activity of providing something which readers/users will want, this often feels like being cut out of the active life of something they have created.
    This is complicated further by rights issues on potential adaptations and digital components relating to the original content.
    I think the more open debate and information there is, the better chance everyone (publishers and authors) have of avoiding doomsday!

  • I’m inclined to agree with you, except regarding ‘advances’, which are in fact license fees paid by publishers to writers to use the writer’s copyright. ‘Not earning out’ just raises the effective royalty rate and does not necessarily translate into a loss for the publisher. In that respect ‘advances’ are not unlike insurance underwriting losses, which rarely translate into real losses. ‘Not earning out’ may be seen as a failure by the book to sell, or by the publisher and others to sell it.

    The McCrum articles and its 400 plus comments ran the gamut from ‘Who Do They Think They Are?’ to ‘Oppression Olympics’ with few positive voices. Hardly any mentioned stories or readers, the two essentials.

  • Thank you for your comment, John. I think it’s a bit misleading to refer to advances as a “fee”, as I think there’s an implication built into that that it’s a sort of full and final payment. We pay royalties to lots of our authors and illustrators, as our advances often earn out. I am not suggesting, though, that publishers make a loss on books that don’t earn out. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t. It depends on the advance and on the sales. The point of talking about advances and unearned advances was to emphasise that publishers are paying between 15% and 30% (figures necessarily approximate) of the sales revenue to authors.

  • Thanks, Kate. I called the advance a ‘fee’ to distinguish it from a loan, which some people still think it might be, believe it or not, including one commenter on the McCrum article.

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