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Is Print Dead Yet?
July 28, 2012 2:28 PM   Subscribe

Are professional writers going the way of milk deliverers, shoeshiners, and chimney sweeps? “I’ve been making culture professionally for 20 years, and going back to working on spec again seems to be a very retrograde step,” Morrison says. “But it’s something a lot of established writers are having to do.” The Globe and Mail asserts that there will be no professional writers in the future.
posted by xenophile (121 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
As if to prove the point, self-publishing stars who have grown rich selling 99-cent novels online, including young-adult author Amanda Hocking and Fifty Shades creator E.L. James, all sign what Morrison calls “a proper publishing deal” as soon as they are able.

“It just goes to show you can’t have it both ways,” the British author adds. “You can’t on the one hand say, ‘This is a revolution that’s going to sweep away the hierarchies of the publishing houses,’ and at the same time say, ‘Hey, you big guys, give us a deal.’ ”

Something about this article doesn't quite add up. If amateurs can use e-publishing to become professional, full-time writers, and if this is the only way to really make money anyway, and if anyone who doesn't make money gives up, then how does one resolve this fact with Turow's accusation that amateurs are killing the industry?
posted by deathpanels at 2:47 PM on July 28, 2012 [6 favorites]


‘There will be no more professional writers in the future’

Ah, the joys of hyperbole and conservatism.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 3:15 PM on July 28, 2012 [7 favorites]


The livelihoods of serious writers will continue to depend directly on the health of traditional publishers, “the venture capitalists of the intellectual world,” according to Turow.

See, this is the problem; before the Internet moved in and provided a path around their precious gateway, publishers had stopped being venture capitalists. Since roughly 1985 in the US publishers have only been interested in proven properties with a solid niche awaiting them in the bookstore. They have turned from focusing on books to focusing on business, and that's why 10 percent of the books in Barnes & Noble are Twilight ripoffs. (I am only barely exaggerating. There are more vampire genre books than science and computing combined, and that is not an exaggeration.)

So, in comes this internet thingy and people put their little love letters up, and hey some of them catch the popular imagination. And publishers are freaking out that they're not getting any of this money! Well assholes, if you want the money you have to put the book out there. If I come to you with a book that has sold a couple of thousand copies despite being a self-published novel, and I have thousands of emails telling me not just that it's good but that many people think it's the best thing they've ever read, and yes it's edgy and daring and all but at this point it's a proven property and you still won't answer my mail, what the fuck are we supposed to do out here?

One of the first fan emails I ever received read simply, "every publisher who turned down the chance to publish this is a fool." Well that would be every American SF house. Twice. And after ten years, still with zero promotion except for fan referrals, the Amazon orders keep wandering in and the website traffic remains healthy and the new Kindle version, created by a fan who insisted there should be one, sells a copy every day or two. This level of activity has been going on for nearly ten years but the publishing industry doesn't want a piece of that action. They don't even want to read my letter, and the few agents whose emails they will deign to read don't want to read my letter either.

Fuck 'em, and good on those lucky bastards who made a pile hitting the formula a bit better than I did. Robert Heinlein once wrote into a story the explicitly stated idea that just because an industry has made good profits for a long time doesn't mean it has the right to continue to do so even if technology makes their business model obsolete. Of course, that was back when a guy like Robert Heinlein could get published. I wonder how Time Enough for Love would fare in today's publishing realm.
posted by localroger at 3:15 PM on July 28, 2012 [53 favorites]


By his own account, Morrison is also being driven out of business by the ominously feudal economics of 21st-century literature, “pushed into the position where I have to join the digital masses,” he says, the cash advances he once received from publishers slashed so deep he is virtually working for free.

Couldn't possibly be because his last novel tanked then?

Swung (2007) - Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 62,650 in Books
Distance (2008) - Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 67,523 in Books
Menage (2009) - Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 715,193 in Books
posted by xchmp at 3:26 PM on July 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


This is admittedly a half-baked idea, but I wonder if middle- and low-brow hacks like Turow who're bemoaning the rise of "the free content movement" have stopped to think that the sort of literature they're practicing isnt being eaten up not just by Amanda Hocking and other self-publishing prodigies but by a dwindling need for the narratives they're selling.

I mean, why do we have stories at all? Fiction is a values and ideas delivery mechanism. It's a culture talking to itself, using conventions that help smooth off the edges and make more digestible the truth the narrator is trying to get to. Right now, we're afloat in a sea of expressed values and ideas coming in from millions of other people who're more or less just telling us about life as they see it. Blogs and Twittter and LiveJournal and even just skimming the descriptions of a tag page on Pinboard are all a kind of literature. It doesn't always come with a beginning, you usually start reading in the middle, and sometimes the end isn't ever really expressed as one, but I think that stuff is all meeting a similar need. Fiction was born from a need we all had to relate truth, and it was formed with the tools we had at the time. Professors can still teach how to produce it competently and understand what it's up to by going back to what Aristotle had to say about it.

I guess I'm just saying I'm not convinced the means of production, or a few large monopoly players, or piracy, or declining literacy, or greed are the undoing of the professional author. I think it might just be us getting what we need a different way altogether.
posted by mph at 3:30 PM on July 28, 2012 [14 favorites]


This article is looking mighty weird from the perspective of someone writing within the highly commercially viable YA world.

And I'm writing closer to Heinlein juvenile than Twilight rip-offs.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:33 PM on July 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


The Glob is barely worth wrapping a fish in most days. Goes double for the editorials.
posted by biochemicle at 3:34 PM on July 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


Fiction is a values and ideas delivery mechanism.

Oh, shit - another thing I've been doing wrong. I thought fiction was entertainment.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:36 PM on July 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Yes, we mathematicians and physicists have witnessed ourselves being pushed more ans more into "working on spec" for decades. Julian Assange has a lovely quote about everything being fuscalised.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:38 PM on July 28, 2012


'“It looks like a lot of fun for the consumer. You get all this stuff for very, very cheap,” he says. But the result will be the destruction of vital institutions that have supported “the highest achievements in culture in the past 60 years.”'

I'm not sure why I should care. Is he claiming that these institutions filter for quality in some unique fashion? I'm not seeing it. And what about the highest achievements in culture preceding the last 60 years? Unless he's claiming that the cultural achievements of the last 60 years are of an entirely differently level than their predecessors, it would seem these institutions are not all that vital.

'Predatory price wars initiated by market behemoth Amazon directly devalue the written word, according to Turow. So does the willingness of young writers to work for nothing in the hope of future rewards. “You can’t be a professional writer unless you get paid for it,” he says.'

But again, why should anyone, beyond those who want to be professionals, care? It doesn't matter to me whether the creator is holding down a job or not. I'm not interested in whether or not they can legitimately describe themselves as a "professional". Some people write only because they want to be read. That motive is sufficient to drive an author to create literature of the highest quality, e.g. Sappho. Exclusively amateur creation of culture isn't even a first world problem, it's not a problem period.

-----

I am only barely exaggerating. There are more vampire genre books than science and computing combined, and that is not an exaggeration.

It certainly wouldn't take very many to be more than the sum of all the books in the Barnes & Noble's poetry and essay shelves.
posted by BigSky at 3:46 PM on July 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yeah, honestly I'm torn because I'm starting to do more fiction and branch out there. And I've been told my fiction editors my stuff is pretty good. And agents have looked at my work. But at the same time, that stuff moves so slow and so tediously that I just look at self-publishing and think "Why am I not doing that?" It's not like traditional publishing pays much, so I'm not forsaking money. Even as an author with a big label, I'd have to do a ton of self-promotion and marketing. And getting things out would involve taking the time to prepare the document, so a few days rather than, like, years.

Especially because I have a lot of friends working their own little niches and doing okay. Not NYT bestsellers, but they have a dedicated audience and make anywhere from beer money to livin' money.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:47 PM on July 28, 2012


The future of beer money writing is not really in doubt. And there will always be a 50 Shades of Grey of the moment. But the middle of the market seems to be in deep trouble.
posted by Artw at 3:56 PM on July 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


Nor is self-publishing profitable for the majority of authors, according to a recent British survey. It found that half of the writers – many no doubt lured by well-publicized tales of spectacular success achieved by a handful of fellow novices – made less than $500 a year for their efforts.

Well, really, so what? Self-publishing now is what an unpublished author does instead of the older method of just sending your novel around to publishers. Most of these self-published books would have previously made zero as they never got out of a slush pile. What's that "under $500" supposed to show? Are they trying to imply that these self-published writers would all have been corporation-published writers making lots more before the evil internet came around?

“It just goes to show you can’t have it both ways,” the British author adds. “You can’t on the one hand say, ‘This is a revolution that’s going to sweep away the hierarchies of the publishing houses,’ and at the same time say, ‘Hey, you big guys, give us a deal.’ ”


Sure you can have it both ways. You can say "the revolution will sweep these old publishing houses away, and is in the process of starting, but in the meantime, there's still some cash to be made." Nothing inconsistent about that.

Every time someone complains about how difficult we're making it for them to continue in the 19th/20th century model, I want to remind them that our consideration for their position is all that stops us from now, today, making every book that's ever been published and preserved available free to the entire world. We could arbitrarily dial copyrights back to a year as we have boosted them up, and turn the digitizers loose. We, as a society, are holding back from that. Not enough of a gesture of goodwill? Yes, if we did it, only amateurs, or people with patrons, would be publishing new stuff, at least for a while. A short-term price worth paying, I think.
posted by tyllwin at 3:57 PM on July 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Fiction is a values and ideas delivery mechanism.

It's a bit more complicated than that; in a lot of ways it's a values and ideas validation mechanism. Fiction is guided play, and play is practice for actual living. Fictuion is fun because it lets us safely explore situations that would be unsafe or impossible to experience in real life, but it's also the most fun if that exploration teaches us something. Yes, there is a comfortable pleasure to be had in re-reading an old favorite or reading what is obviously a comfortably obeisant ripoff, but there is nothing quite like the mind trip of having your mind blown by some combination of words that takes you to a place you never knew even existed.

Publishers have gotten quite good ad the comfortable pleasure thing, but seem to have completely forgotten the other thing. So reading what they put out is kind of like having sex where you have a lot of fun cuddling but never have an orgasm.
posted by localroger at 3:57 PM on July 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Chimney sweeps today do just as well as they always have.
posted by Ardiril at 4:00 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Echoes of the continued panic in the music industry... "The music industry is dying, soon it will be dead, and what will you do then?" I will continue to enjoy music, becuse the human drive to create music is deep and biological. As is the human drive to tell stories.
posted by Jimbob at 4:03 PM on July 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


You know, sorry to fixate, localroger, but the more I think about it the more this rustles my jimmies:

They have turned from focusing on books to focusing on business, and that's why 10 percent of the books in Barnes & Noble are Twilight ripoffs. (I am only barely exaggerating. There are more vampire genre books than science and computing combined, and that is not an exaggeration.)

Those Twilight ripoffs? Books. Those people writing Twilight ripoffs? Authors. Some of whom are debut authors. Many of whom are actually making a living wage at writing.

You can scoff and say that what they're doing isn't art or literature--that Stephenie Meyer is no Heinlein. But Heinlein wrote commercial novels for teenagers throughout his early career, and really, in terms of quality the works of Marissa Meyer, Beth Revis, and Veronica Roth--all debut authors whose well-publicized first works hit the New York Times bestseller lists within the past few years--are not far off.

There's always been demand for good commercial writing and there always will be, and honestly titles that have succeeded in either market (self-pub or traditional) are pretty consistently solidly commercial titles. I can't help but think that if Ewan Morrison wants to succeed, it's probably a good idea to work on balancing literary concerns with commercial and market concerns, which is something every author has to do if you're going to make a living at it.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:15 PM on July 28, 2012 [10 favorites]


This is what happens when people who think they are special and exempt from the rules of nature get dick slapped by reality. They always try to blame everything but the fact that the only constant is change and they are owed no free pass on that
posted by spicynuts at 4:20 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I live in Scotland. I am very interested in contemporary British and Scottish literature - and I have never heard of Ewan Morrison until now (I actually thought the Morrison cited would turn out to be Blake Morrison). Well, at least this gets Ewan M's name out there, I guess. Strange way to court publicity for your literary work, but big declamations about the Death of XYZ have always made for good newspaper columns.
posted by kariebookish at 4:23 PM on July 28, 2012


Well, the Globe and Mail should get some professional writers and see how it works out. (Sadly, mostly based on my dislike of Ibbotson and Wente, but whatever.)
posted by sneebler at 4:25 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is what happens when people who think they are special and exempt from the rules of nature get dick slapped by reality.

Okay, but you do realize you've just expressed contempted for anyone who does anything creative whatsoever there, right?
posted by Artw at 4:25 PM on July 28, 2012 [6 favorites]


What is truly remarkable about this article is that it is so ignorant of the past of writing and publishing. A lot of what is going on now isn't really all that new, except that it involves the internet and a larger scale and speed of delivery.

Book piracy has been a thing for a long long time, for one: Dublin was ripping off English authors and shipping those books back to England until 1801. Enormous copyright battles were fought in the 18th century against Scottish publishers over issues of copyright as well. (Booksellers were raided to make sure they weren't getting books on the cheap from up north or across the Irish sea.) Then the battles moved to the US. Cheap, easy to read versions of classic stories were churned out by chapbook publishers who had an eye on a quick profit and who had hack authors throwing stuff together quickly so they could get it out (think of all those ballads and tales of highwaymen and their last dying speeches). People were essentially self publishing realms of sermons and other material with various regional printers. Many authors were published by subscription (especially true for women and the laboring class authors of the 18th century), so that publications moved in networks rather than relying on flying off the shelves of bookshops to make a living. And before that authors relied heavily on patronage to keep body and soul together as making a living off writing was not that easy. Even Amazon, with its predatory pricing has an early antecedent in James Lackington's Temple of the Muses. That man was a shark who sold anything he could as cheaply as he could (he took cash, so he could undercut other booksellers). And so on. And in all of this, the main constant is: most authors do not make a living from writing. Those who do are a very, very small percentage of those who write.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 4:26 PM on July 28, 2012 [8 favorites]


PhoB, no need to apologize; it's a discussion and you got a point.

Books is better than no books, yes, but flat imitation books is not better than books we haven't read yet. I firmly believe that if Stephen King were submitting Carrie today that he would spend the rest of his life as a college lit professor and maybe publish a few poems and college lit short stories.

Where are our Alfred Besters? Where are our 70's-era James P. Hogans? Hogan, one of my favorite authors (at least for his pre-Endgame Enigma work) is an interesting case. I remember seeing cardboard display boxes at the entrance to B. Dalton when Giant's Star came out. And we were both subject of articles in the IEEE Spectrum about the engineering quality of our fiction; in my case especially weird since my novel was self-published. Hogan's newer stuff is meh for many reasons (he's jumped a shark or two on killing sacred cows) but his early stuff was classic, and you can't get it any more. I had to got to Borderlands in San Francisco to replace my copies of Thrice Upon a Time and The Genesis Machine that hurricane Katrina ate.
posted by localroger at 4:28 PM on July 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


What happened to shoeshiners? Those buffing machines that they have in upscale law-office bathrooms? I don't think shoeshiners ever got advances, or subscription contracts. They had regulars, maybe, based on most recent performance. Aren't there still some around, in airports and barbershops?
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:31 PM on July 28, 2012



This guy has been a writer for 20 years and he's complaining about the internet now ?

He should read up on Lars Ulrich.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 4:31 PM on July 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's another thread where creative people are advised to go fuck themselves and we pretend Google and Amazon are not gatekeepers because their gatekeeping is automated. Okeydokey!
posted by mobunited at 4:33 PM on July 28, 2012 [8 favorites]


Writing IS how I make my living and I've had many books published by the "big guys". Whining is rampant in this industry--as is true fear and despair by many writers and illustrators I know. Things ARE changing. Some of it is delivery system shakeups. A lot of it is the glut of people that call themselves writers because they finished a book length piece of writing and mistake it for a book. The forest is thick these days and what seems to dominate is the vast and by vast, I mean VAST array of stuff that is truly not ready to be read. The gatekeepers, the editors and publishers that are so vilified on newbie forums, are a necessary part of the process--and that seems to be lost these days.

Penguin should be ashamed to jump into the predatory shark tank. But so should Chronicle Books and Harlequin. These publishers used to be a reliable source of income with a traditional advance/royalty fee base rather than wanting to be paid to publish.

I teach writing and try so hard to keep students from publishing before a piece is ready. As Michael Chricton said: "Books aren't written, they're rewritten..."

In our immediate gratification culture, not a lot of people want to hear this.
posted by dutcherino at 4:35 PM on July 28, 2012 [10 favorites]


My wife used to be a fairly successful low-end magazine writer. She did on-spec stuff for industry and trade rags that paid $100 to $300 per article, and favored you if your work didn't have to be proofread; hers didn't. There were several years in the early 90's when she made more than I did.

All those magazines are gone, and with them her income from them.

There is no plan B for the writing she once did, since you can't sell what others are giving away for free.

This is reality. If the fuckup MBA's running what used to be an industry that cared about books had a fucking clue, they'd look for things that are different. Because if you want to sell Twilight ripoffs, you're competing with every fanfic writer in the observable universe. What you need is something new and different. But the publishing indusrty lost its taste for that 20 years ago.
posted by localroger at 4:41 PM on July 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Books is better than no books, yes, but flat imitation books is not better than books we haven't read yet. I firmly believe that if Stephen King were submitting Carrie today that he would spend the rest of his life as a college lit professor and maybe publish a few poems and college lit short stories.

I don't know about that. Many of the literary writers who have been most commercially successful are genre cross-over writers--Cunningham, Chabon, Karen Russell. Mark Danielewski's horror novel garnered him plenty of success (and even got him contracted for a book of experimental poetry with a mainstream publisher). I don't know why you think that about King, but I don't agree at all, frankly. He's too accessible and consumable a writer to fit in well with the poor-selling literati.

But if you're bemoaning the lack of hard sci-fi . . . well, when it comes down to it, the vast majority of readers just aren't interested in stories driven by science rather than plot or character. It's a niche market. That doesn't mean these stories aren't good, or worth writing, but it means adjusting your market expectations accordingly.

Because if you want to sell Twilight ripoffs, you're competing with every fanfic writer in the observable universe. What you need is something new and different. But the publishing indusrty lost its taste for that 20 years ago.

Urgh, please, respectfully, as someone writing young adult fiction--Twilight ripoffs are long past their expiration date, and as a subscription to publisher's marketplace would show you, plenty of publishers are picking up interesting commercial sci-fi, high fantasy, or contemporary works. I can't tell you the last time I saw a sale featuring a vampire.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:47 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I can't tell you the last time I saw a sale featuring a vampire.

Zombie?
posted by stbalbach at 4:50 PM on July 28, 2012


I will continue to enjoy music, becuse the human drive to create music is deep and biological. As is the human drive to tell stories.

Maybe, but they won't feel compelled to try very hard.

The one really beautiful thing about rage comics is how hard they nail the perceived worth of

This is what happens when people who think they are special and exempt from the rules of nature get dick slapped by reality

their internet audience.
posted by furiousthought at 4:57 PM on July 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


I don't necessarily know about the publishing industry, but I just signed up for weekly milk delivery and I'm totally stoked about it.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 4:59 PM on July 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


I'm more worried that there won't be any readers in the future.

I'm keeping this comment under 140 characters so people from the future can
posted by twoleftfeet at 5:00 PM on July 28, 2012 [8 favorites]


The stupidity on display in that article is enraging. Look, there is a pot of money (quite a substantial one, but a smaller one than the one for movies or the one for video games, just as it's always been) that is going to be given by people who want to read books to people who want to write books. What's changing is that the people who want to read books are going to refuse increasingly to give that money to intermediaries, instead insisting that it go directly to the creators; also, rather than a few bestselling authors making great stacks of money, many more authors will make a modest amount of money. Every single thing about that scenario is better for professional writers as a class, and better for literary culture. It's only a problem if you are Dan Brown or Random House.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:05 PM on July 28, 2012 [9 favorites]


Okay, but you do realize you've just expressed contempted for anyone who does anything creative whatsoever there, right?

I think it's more contemptuous to regard as truly "creative" only those who manage to make "a living" out of it.
posted by Jimbob at 5:05 PM on July 28, 2012 [9 favorites]


People who make a living at something get to work harder at it. When they work harder at it, they tend to make better things. Additionally, the prospect of making a living at it drives people who are not yet making a living at it. Try to think things through just a little tiny bit.

I'll never understand the number of people who are vicious shitheads about "reality" but who turn into precious fucking fairy princesses when "why people make art" comes up. Well, I sort of do, they mostly seem to be overexposed to media and thus resentful of it, but you'd think it wouldn't invade basic cognitive processes at the level it does.
posted by furiousthought at 5:15 PM on July 28, 2012


I can't tell you the last time I saw a sale featuring a vampire.

Sorry for the confusion. It's probably because it's been about eight months IIRC since I've been to the bookstore.

I don't suppose you might understand there is a reason for that?
posted by localroger at 5:24 PM on July 28, 2012


I think it's more contemptuous to regard as truly "creative" only those who manage to make "a living" out of it.

Spicy nuts never mentioned making a living, he just wanted to kick people down for thinking they might be doing something special - which is anyone who has created anything and shared it with the word, pretty much without excpetion. He didn't categorise between paid or unpaid, but if he's singles out either - and it would have been facile bullshit eother way, there's nothiomg wrong with sharing for free and there's nothing wrong with wanting to get paid. The only distinction there is the kinds of work that are possible either way.
posted by Artw at 5:25 PM on July 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


When they work harder at it, they tend to make better things.

Okay then, if we make it even tougher for them to make a living from it, they'll have to work even harder and we'll get even better art out of them, yeah?

I'd argue that the elephant in the room is the innate difficulty in getting capitalism to play nicely with creativity. Sure, people who work hard being creative should get paid. Unfortunately, there is only a limited pool of money out there, from people who want to pay them. Hence the distate for people, like the author of this article, who express a feeling of entitlement - "If I can't make money like I think I'm supposed to, then the whole system is screwed, and I blame those amateurs for screwing it!"

So my solution is state funding for artists, as reward for their cultural output.
posted by Jimbob at 5:32 PM on July 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


Ah, well, good luck with that.
posted by Artw at 5:37 PM on July 28, 2012


Good luck making a living from $2.99 sales on Amazon.
posted by Jimbob at 5:45 PM on July 28, 2012


I know very little about self-published books and authors apart from what I read here on MeFi. From what I can tell, the self-published successes are books with extremely broad appeal that don't rely on intricate wordsmithing or scholarly erudition to wow readers: erotic potboilers, TV-inspired pulp sci-fi, and so on.

Since I have little interest in those things, I get concerned about the future of authors whose books I do want to read.

Can someone offer an anatomy of the self-published market? I know there's a megaton of completely unsuccessful writing and a few breakout hits like Wool. Is there a middle ground of moderately successful niche authors who self-publish? I have no interest in Wool, but I do want to read the self-published Pynchons and Rushdies. Do any exist? Is the new environment welcoming toward authors like this?
posted by Nomyte at 5:54 PM on July 28, 2012


I can't tell you the last time I saw a sale featuring a vampire.

Sorry for the confusion. It's probably because it's been about eight months IIRC since I've been to the bookstore.


I think the reconcilation between localroger and PhoBWanKenobi is that the digestive tract of the publishing industry is really long. (Longer still if, like me, you mostly use the public library.)

But I can confirm what localroger is talking about with my own recent visit to Barnes and Noble. There were two freestanding shelving-units labelled COMPUTERS. There was a whole row of shelving-units labelled TEEN SUPERNATURAL ROMANCE.

I don't think you can deny that something has happened to artificially swell this sub-field of a sub-field of Y.A. fiction to outsized prominence. It does seem well out of proportion compared to the whole field of human knowledge and creative endeavor which the publishing industry would potentially cover.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 5:55 PM on July 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Sorry for the confusion. It's probably because it's been about eight months IIRC since I've been to the bookstore.

The brand new titles in the book store eight months ago would have sold two to three years ago.

Frankly, a lot of these arguments really quickly uncover widespread ignorance about the way publishing actually works. Sure, it's trend driven, but I can't help but think about what John Scalzi said here recently about how he picked the plot and themes of Old Man's War--he went with a tried-and-tested formula (Starship Troopers) because he suspect familiarity would sell; he added older characters because he knew fresh elements would also sell. Scalzi was successful both at self-publishing and, subsequently, at mainstream publishing, and I think that says something about his approach. If you're going to be commercially successful, it helps to accommodate market needs for one thing, and that means thinking about trends, about plots that work, about genres that are selling well. But it also means that you can't just assume you'll get buy writing absolutely formulaic drivel. Both readers, and publishers, are more savvy than that. They want something fresh and new even when they want something familiar. Clockwork Orange was as much a coming of age story as it was an exercise in SFnal vernacular.

So if the only genre you want to write in (say, hard science fiction) isn't currently selling, I think it makes sense not to react defensively--damn publishers don't want my favorite toy!--but to think about why such works wouldn't sell well in our current literary and economic client. There's currently a strong pull toward cinematic works, which can be optioned off for movies and TV shows to increase publisher (and author!) profits. There's also a strong trend toward character-driven works. Young adult fiction is currently selling like hotcakes--romance always does. You're more likely to make a living as a writer selling in one of these genres, though it means trading in some literary cred, because lord knows people writing for women and children get, like, none from the ivory tower.

And also there's a matter of aggressively developing one's backlist even as you start your career. Stephen King doesn't only have mainstream success because he writes accessible prose that's both original and has a strong commercial hook. He also publishes year after year after year. Publishers can rely on him to continue churning out books and garner profits, and so he gets more money for marketing (not that he needs it now, but still).
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:07 PM on July 28, 2012 [6 favorites]


It's only a problem if you are Dan Brown or Random House.

For what it's worth, it's a problem for me. I'm a scientist and I'm contracted to write a book about my field with a traditional publisher. I got enough of an advance to make the project worthwhile. The idea of self-publishing just isn't very interesting to me, because I want people to read my book, and I think the publisher can make that happen more effectively than I can myself. Now maybe I'll come back after the whole story is over and say "it turns out that the traditional publisher also couldn't get people to read my book," in which case I'll be frustrated, but at least I'll have been paid for my work and my time.

It's totally fine not to care whether I and people like me write books! But I just thought I'd register that there are people besides Dan Brown and Scott Turow who are well served by the current system.
posted by escabeche at 6:13 PM on July 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think there are two things happening here, one obvious and important, and the other not obvious and very important.

The obvious thing is Amazon's disintermediation of the publishing world. And maybe also the general availability of great technical literature online, for free. I spent all of my money in high school and college during the '90s on technical books. By graduation, my dorm room was absolutely dominated by books, many of them already obsolete. In the last decade, I've bought hardly enough technical books to fill a small bookcase.

The not-obvious-but-very-important thing is the changing role of marketing. Marketing used to be a big business, big budget thing. Today, the tools of marketing don't require those huge budgets, but that doesn't mean marketing is easy. For those with existing marketing skills and those who have managed to pick them up, this means that they are no longer beholden to the giant corporations that can fund and dictate their activities. They can go independent and make a killing, and there are numerous examples of those who have.


The confusing thing is that it looks like some musicians, authors, reporters and other creative types have managed to make it big in the internet / self-publishing world. I think the mistake is to identify them by their skills at producing content rather than their skills at marketing. If you can market yourself effectively, then go produce whatever items of culture you are capable of making and then market the hell out of them. But if you are an excellent writer who has no clue about getting your books into paying readers' hands, don't bother.
posted by b1tr0t at 6:27 PM on July 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


The question of what will happen to literary fiction in the 21st century is actually a pretty serious one. In a lot of ways, it's going in the direction of poetry and opera. Which is sad, just as it's sad that poetry and opera occupy such small niches in the cultural landscape. It's always sad when an art form suffers.

That said, if we're talking about Scott Turow? Oh, come on. Boo hoo, the fourth rate pulpy airport novel I cranked out didn't sell that well. Somebody call a wahmbulance. Even if this is some kind of "trend", and all the pulpy airport novelists are noticing a downswing, so what? This stuff is the literary equivalent of a Law & Order marathon on cable. If anything, it's probably a demographic shift in readership or something, not The Evil Internet Ruining Everything.

Capitalism doesn't owe anyone a living.
posted by Sara C. at 6:41 PM on July 28, 2012


Okay, stop writing and get a better paying job, if it bothers you that much. If anybody misses you, they'll fund a kickstarter campaign to get you to write more books or something.
posted by empath at 6:44 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


[Insert reminder that at any point in history, the number of writers making a living writing has been small relative to the number of writers in that era

Insert reminder that other technological/economic changes in publishing have devastated certain classes of writers while enriching others

Insert reminder that publishing is an industry prone to "sky is falling" proclamations, possibly because its host features a group of people with a facility for the written word]
posted by jscalzi at 6:49 PM on July 28, 2012 [9 favorites]


The Globe and Mail asserts that there will be no professional writers in the future.

Whoa. It really doesn't. It quotes someone as saying that and it chooses that, in quotes, as its provocative headline. This is not an editorial position taken by the Globe And Mail.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 7:04 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sometimes I suspect that some of today's Internet self-publishing sensations are going to end up being tomorrow's publishing houses. I don't know what they'll look like.
posted by egypturnash at 7:28 PM on July 28, 2012


If anybody misses you, they'll fund a kickstarter campaign to get you to write more books or something.

If any of the people who are consuming the products of your time and labor for free can be bothered to, they'll throw you a bone, all the while congratulating themselves for being part of the "new business model" that we've all heard so much about.

ftfy
posted by Sing Or Swim at 7:37 PM on July 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


Nothing raises the Entitlement Warning Flag like someone describing themselves as a "creator of culture." Writers create objects, readers create cultures around those objects.

Both the way these objects are created and the way cultures form around them are in flux, so writers tomorrow will be unlike writers yesterday. To conclude from this that "professional writers will cease to exist" is as absurd as saying "professional musicians will cease to exist."
posted by belarius at 7:41 PM on July 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


I have no interest in Wool, but I do want to read the self-published Pynchons and Rushdies. Do any exist? Is the new environment welcoming toward authors like this?

I've self-published two of my novels on Kindle Direct Publishing. The great thing about the new environment is that I could do that in about a day, instead of going through that long (and in my case, unsuccessful) slog through literary agents. It can be hard to talk about this without sounding defensive, but some of us who publish on Kindle think that our novels are as good as at least some of the ones that got published in the "traditional" way. Eventually, I think, it will all even out: there will be as little/much crap on Kindle as there is in print in the bookstores. Of course, eventually, it will all be "e" and books on paper will be as quaint as manuscripts on vellum.
posted by anothermug at 8:06 PM on July 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


If any of the people who are consuming the products of your time and labor for free can be bothered to, they'll throw you a bone, all the while congratulating themselves for being part of the "new business model" that we've all heard so much about.

Yeah, that's the way it works right now. Like I said, if you don't like it, find another way to earn a living. I'm sure once the foretold creative apocalypse comes to pass, everyone will start throwing money at writers and artists, and they'll all make better work, since all the best work was has only ever been done to collect a royalty check.
posted by empath at 8:21 PM on July 28, 2012


rather than a few bestselling authors making great stacks of money, many more authors will make a modest amount of money.

This is not obvious to me. Well, I mean, I suppose it depends what you consider "modest". Like $100 bucks? Then sure, maybe.

But if you mean like, there will be a few people who make millions and then maybe several thousand who make a living....then I'm not so sure. Consider Shirky's writing on blogs and the power law. (Shirky has his detractors, including myself, often enough, but I think he does make good points sometimes.) I think that the dynamic that is seen there is probably true of any industry where the barriers to entry are 0.

It's like --- I mean, how many books do you read in a year, for pleasure? Maybe you're a real devotee and average two a week; you'd be rare. Many bright people who would call themselves readers and lovers of books would be lucky to average one, many more it's far less, 1.5 a month, 10 a year. The pool of possible attention is large, but it is finite. And for books especially a lot of it is occupied by the dead.

The difference between now and 50 years ago is that instead of going into a bookstore and looking around and knowing okay, here is a shelf filled with maybe 500 books in the subject I'm interested in; a publisher has bet serious money that someone will pay to read this, so I'm assured of a certain minimum level of quality, let's browse and see what of this I will like. Now you have infinity....and that makes the power of the network so much stronger. It's what you get to hear about that succeeds, and nothing succeeds like success. It's the same way a meme spreads --- there's a shape to it, where each level as it spreads the difference is exponential, not linear. Call it the Billie Holiday theory of publishing: Them that's got shall get, them that's not shall lose.
posted by Diablevert at 8:25 PM on July 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


If nobody is making money, nor do they plan to make money, then how and why are all these thousands of books being written? I mean, that's basically the complaint here, right, that writers can't get paid because too many writers are giving their books away for free? But isn't that the entire point of copyright -- to get more books created? It seems to me everything is working great. There is nothing in the constitution about guaranteeing artists a living. Copyright exists solely to encourage the progress of the useful arts.
posted by empath at 8:43 PM on July 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


To conclude from this that "professional writers will cease to exist" is as absurd as saying "professional musicians will cease to exist."

Interesting analogy, because I remember when the first synthesizers that sounded like real instruments came out (I believe they were by Kurzweill). There were similarly hysterical voices saying there would soon be no professional musicians.
posted by Wordwoman at 8:44 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


To be fair, there are much fewer performing musicians now. There are a whole hell of a lot of producers out there making music who can neither read music nor play any instruments. Oddly enough the actual output of music hasn't declined.
posted by empath at 8:48 PM on July 28, 2012


Milk delivery is totally a thing where I live.
posted by Ritchie at 8:52 PM on July 28, 2012


but at this point it's a proven property and you still won't answer my mail, what the fuck are we supposed to do out here?

My friend Lawrence has a server with plenty of storage. Maybe you could host it there?
posted by obiwanwasabi at 9:12 PM on July 28, 2012


I mean, that's basically the complaint here, right, that writers can't get paid because too many writers are giving their books away for free?

Well, I'd amend your sentence like this:

The complaint here is that good writers can't get paid because too many shitty writers are giving their books away for free.

The complaint is that no matter how good you are, you have no real shot at being able to do the thing you love for a living.

I mean, i should say: I don't think anyone's claiming that the old system was perfect in this regard, either. It's debatable whether the old system even managed mediocre; one thinks of John Kennedy Toole for example.

To use an idealized and highly simplified description: The old system worked by pushing all writing through a filter, publishing, which was supposed to let only good writing out the other side. Once you're through the filter you have passed a threshold of quality which means you have a saleable product. Some, on the other side of the filter, take off and become tremendous successes; many drop off and wither and don't make it, but there's a solid range in the middle which, though perhaps never becoming a household name, are able to survive doing what they love. What used to be known as the mid-list author.
posted by Diablevert at 9:22 PM on July 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


I mean, how many books do you read in a year, for pleasure?

40 or 50 a year, usually, depending on the percentage of fiction or non- fiction. My tastes run to literary fiction, poetry, cultural/social history, and biographies, with a sprinkle of graphic novels.

people who want to read books are going to refuse increasingly to give that money to intermediaries, instead insisting that it go directly to the creators;

Yeah, I dunno. I spend a significant fraction of my income on books but I spend a very, very small fraction of that amount on genuinely "self-published" books and the few I do own I bought purely out of curiosity, or pity. Maybe my habits will change in the future, but until self-publishers can provide the kind of selection, editing, and design I'm used to getting from a small press, at least, they won't change by choice. (Still, if every publisher and press went under tomorrow, I could probably make it through the rest of my life on used books alone.)
posted by octobersurprise at 9:25 PM on July 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


I love the way some people frame the idea that we’re not paying artists and writers anymore as "sticking it to the man". Amazon and Comcast and whoever are still going to make money, just the people who create the stuff they sell aren’t going to. It’s like when people complain about how much athletes make but they’re never mad at MLB or NBC or the owners.

We’re moving to a sharecropping economy and it’s not just artists, it’s "Interns" everywhere. It’s not an accident and most people are gladly supporting the people who are going to bring them down. The Libertarian Tea Party side of MeFi always comes out during these discussions. "You just need to work harder for free and maybe you’ll get lucky and make some money. X did it." Someone always wins the lottery too, that doesn’t make a good plan for your personal finances.
posted by bongo_x at 9:33 PM on July 28, 2012 [18 favorites]


Genre books are very popular, but I read very few genre books, and zero sequels/tie-ins/fanfic. At the moment, it's very easy for me to avoid them, because they are compartmentalized very effectively. There are also professional arbiters that I respect who can direct me to stuff I may conceivably like reading.

If all arbitrage becomes pure marketing and word of mouth and raw popularity, then effective compartmentalization will become very difficult. My selection of new things available to read will become completely dominated by genre fiction and fanfic, which (as I just mentioned) is extremely popular. More people want to read about Dean getting it on with Castiel than whatever it is I'm reading now. This will make it extremely unappealing for me to read books by living authors.

Of course, there'll be authorities, arbiters, and taste-makers. But since no one can read anything but a tiny fraction of what is written, and only a tiny fraction of everything written is actually worth reading, this just brings us back to a curated system like the one we have today. Maybe it won't be publishers per se, maybe it'll be more like contests with an entry fee, or a seal of approval of some kind. But it'll be very similar.
posted by Nomyte at 9:39 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Nomyte, that's a good point, and the main reason I haven't gotten into the self-published stuff on Amazon yet. From where I'm standing, it looks like an impenetrable mass of romance, and sf/fantasy. I know there are amazing things in there, but I don't know how to get to them.

But ultimately, the solution for that is sort of what's happened in the music industry, where you have music blogs telling you what bands are cool right now, and services like the music genome project that will tell you that if you like Ani Di Franco you should also check out Dar Williams.
posted by Sara C. at 9:56 PM on July 28, 2012


Since getting my Kindle last year, my on-line purchases of magazines and books has increased dramatically. My sister and several friends the same. Is it that the money to Amazon et al. does go to writers enough or is it that there are not enough people who buy books?
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:57 PM on July 28, 2012


Of course, there'll be authorities, arbiters, and taste-makers. But since no one can read anything but a tiny fraction of what is written, and only a tiny fraction of everything written is actually worth reading, this just brings us back to a curated system like the one we have today. Maybe it won't be publishers per se, maybe it'll be more like contests with an entry fee, or a seal of approval of some kind. But it'll be very similar.

I'm sorry if I seem to be banging the drum, but reading this thread has made me think about this more and made me firmer in my convictions.

To quote the nut from the Shirkly essay I linked above:
To see how freedom of choice could create such unequal distributions, consider a hypothetical population of a thousand people, each picking their 10 favorite blogs. One way to model such a system is simply to assume that each person has an equal chance of liking each blog...The bulk of the blogs will be of average popularity, and the highs and lows will not be too far different from this average.

But people's choices do affect one another. If we assume that any blog chosen by one user is more likely, by even a fractional amount, to be chosen by another user, the system changes dramatically. Alice, the first user, chooses her blogs unaffected by anyone else, but Bob has a slightly higher chance of liking Alice's blogs than the others. When Bob is done, any blog that both he and Alice like has a higher chance of being picked by Carmen, and so on, with a small number of blogs becoming increasingly likely to be chosen in the future because they were chosen in the past.

Think of this positive feedback as a preference premium. The system assumes that later users come into an environment shaped by earlier users; the thousand-and-first user will not be selecting blogs at random, but will rather be affected, even if unconsciously, by the preference premiums built up in the system previously.

Note that this model is absolutely mute as to why one blog might be preferred over another. Perhaps some writing is simply better than average (a preference for quality), perhaps people want the recommendations of others (a preference for marketing), perhaps there is value in reading the same blogs as your friends (a preference for "solidarity goods", things best enjoyed by a group). It could be all three, or some other effect entirely, and it could be different for different readers and different writers. What matters is that any tendency towards agreement in diverse and free systems, however small and for whatever reason, can create power law distributions...Once a power law distribution exists, it can take on a certain amount of homeostasis, the tendency of a system to retain its form even against external pressures. Is the weblog world such a system? Are there people who are as talented or deserving as the current stars, but who are not getting anything like the traffic? Doubtless. Will this problem get worse in the future? Yes.

Though there are more new bloggers and more new readers every day, most of the new readers are adding to the traffic of the top few blogs, while most new blogs are getting below average traffic, a gap that will grow as the weblog world does. It's not impossible to launch a good new blog and become widely read, but it's harder than it was last year, and it will be harder still next year.
The question, to my mind, is why would this not happen to publishing? It seems to me that the exact same unconscious forces are at play.

It's not that I don't think there won't be any curators. But what I wonder is if whether the power to pool attention will be sufficient to overcome the natural power-law inclination....which, in a slightly tangential way, the amount of FPP lately that I've already seen elsewhere on the internet makes me worried about. In a way the Blue functions a lot like publishing; as social media gets stronger it sometimes seems to be more influenced than influencer.
posted by Diablevert at 10:09 PM on July 28, 2012


But ultimately, the solution for that is sort of what's happened in the music industry, where you have music blogs telling you what bands are cool right now, and services like the music genome project that will tell you that if you like Ani Di Franco you should also check out Dar Williams.

The crucial difference between books and music is that it takes a lot less time to listen to five albums than to read five novels. Also see the sorry state of video game "journalism."
posted by Nomyte at 10:10 PM on July 28, 2012


We’re moving to a sharecropping economy and it’s not just artists, it’s "Interns" everywhere. It’s not an accident and most people are gladly supporting the people who are going to bring them down. The Libertarian Tea Party side of MeFi always comes out during these discussions. "You just need to work harder for free and maybe you’ll get lucky and make some money. X did it." Someone always wins the lottery too, that doesn’t make a good plan for your personal finances.

Or the us should institute a minimum income and create a real social safety net, so that everybody can do what they like to do for a living without being a slave to debt and the health industry, not just artists. There's nothing libertarian about suggesting that artist are not and should not be a specially protected class of laborer.
posted by empath at 10:10 PM on July 28, 2012 [10 favorites]


Or the us should institute a minimum income and create a real social safety net, so that everybody can do what they like to do for a living without being a slave to debt and the health industry, not just artists. There's nothing libertarian about suggesting that artist are not and should not be a specially protected class of laborer.

I completely agree.

I don’t think it’s all doom and bad things as far as the digital future goes, there’s always good and bad. But there’s a very rose colored glasses view of things on this forum sometimes. Amazon is not pushing ebooks because it’s cool and they want you to have cool stuff and information wants to be free. They sell books. Producing books employs people and costs money. They would rather sell a facsimile of a book that they get someone to produce for free. It’s Shit On A Wire vs Shit In A Can. Cans are expensive.

The good side is mid list authors will be able to sell books, if only ebooks. Not to me, not now at least, but to someone. I just looked up an author and saw his new book is out on Kindle only. I’m glad he can do that, but I’m not buying a Kindle just to read his book, so it might as well not be out. (I have very briefly considered an ereader, but I don’t really like Amazon so even when I’ve thought about it it wouldn’t be from them. Now the talk is that dedicated ereaders are not long for this world. I’m sure as hell not reading a book on a computer screen so I guess my stupidly large collection of real paper books will come in handy. I’m sure there’s enough already printed things to keep me busy.)
posted by bongo_x at 10:59 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Of course, eventually, it will all be "e" and books on paper will be as quaint as manuscripts on vellum.

because everyone everywhere will have access to devices made of petrochemicals and rare earths that run on electricity and require an internet connection and can be completely destroyed with no hope of recovery by dropping them in water or shocking them or a lot of other things
this just brings us back to a curated system like the one we have today

it's probably more ethical to call that an 'endorsement' system
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 12:31 AM on July 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


"because everyone everywhere will have access to devices"

More like because producing and shipping bulk paper and paper products carries a huge carbon footprint.
posted by Ardiril at 12:40 AM on July 29, 2012


and building the plants to make the devices and transport them and power them does not

also it's completely okay that in the process of reducing our carbon footprint we screw over people who don't have electricity or internet

and it's also a real great idea to store all our text on volatile devices that won't even boot up in sixty years
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 1:04 AM on July 29, 2012


and it's also a real great idea to store all our text on volatile devices that won't even boot up in sixty years

All my text is stored somewhere on a server on the other side of the world, and if my device gets dropped in the toilet, they just send the books through to the next device. I'm not saying this is necessarily a perfect solution - what if the company with those servers goes bust? But what if my house with my bookshelf burns to the ground?

because everyone everywhere will have access to devices made of petrochemicals and rare earths that run on electricity and require an internet connection

You can wander into remote villages in Africa and find people walking around with such devices - in fact, they are becoming integral to their way of life. As for that scary word "petrochemicals", do you have any idea how paper is made?

Your points are fair, but people overcome. All I can say is I've been spending more on, and reading more books since ebooks have become possible than I have at any time in my life.
posted by Jimbob at 1:42 AM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Jimbob: "So my solution is state funding for artists, as reward for their cultural output."
I believe that system is called "Europe".
posted by brokkr at 1:44 AM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I like how Clay Shirky can write so etching that makes you feel smart to read but totally obfuscates the marketing and other elements you might not like because, well, knowing that human venality exists beneath the math might cause you to lose faith in it, and the services that use it.

That, kids, is how the Internet works now.
posted by mobunited at 2:09 AM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


a company going bust is not the same kind of thing as a house burning down, though

i mean you can make an argument that something something market pressures and that's why a house would burn down in a few instances but really, come on
in fact, they are becoming integral to their way of life
i am asking for cites because i've developed an allergy to a certain genre of Negroponte tech-boosterism. and even if that's legit, is it really good for people to become dependent on devices that essentially cannot be serviced, can be destroyed comparatively easily, centralize text such that the loss of the device wipes out multiple volumes, and are far more tied to their manufacturer than books are?

i mean, libraries have carbon footprints too, why not disassemble the library system and just give all the kids an iPad
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 2:50 AM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


i am asking for cites

Africa, 2011: Out of every 100 people, 65 have some form of mobile connectivity. Expected to reach 73% by the end of 2012.

South America, 2011: It was with some surprise that I entered one of these houses - a place that had taken a river ferry and some hours traversing dimly-lit mosquito-plagued jungle rivers in a canoe to reach - to find a Nokia mobile phone left casually on a window ledge.
posted by Jimbob at 3:35 AM on July 29, 2012


Or the us should institute a minimum income and create a real social safety net, so that everybody can do what they like to do for a living without being a slave to debt and the health industry, not just artists. There's nothing libertarian about suggesting that artist are not and should not be a specially protected class of laborer.

If I really thought this (a real social safety net) was what people were arguing for whenever they clamber up on their soapbox to talk about how real artists don't need money or whatevs, that might be different. But since these are arguments usually framed as "society doesn't owe you a living!," I'm pretty sure that's not the real subtext here. Interesting reframing, though; you might be able to squint and miss the Ayn Rand, just barely.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:04 AM on July 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


It used to be that publishers could afford to take chances on small, literary, quirky books by publishing mega-sellers. This has become less true the more publishers have gotten bought up by media conglomerates, but it's still a little true -- if traditional publishing dies and the future is all about self-publishing, what happens to those books?

The thing about huffing that no one owes you a living is that writing good books can actually take a long time. If you're intent on writing good books, it helps a lot to not have a day job. I think it will diminish our collective literary wealth if most of the good books are coming from people who have trust funds or supportive, well-paid spouses. No, it wasn't ever easy for working-class people to become writers -- but if it's going to become harder, it's going to have consequences.
posted by Jeanne at 4:34 AM on July 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


England still has highly popular milk delivery services.
posted by srboisvert at 5:05 AM on July 29, 2012


because everyone everywhere will have access to devices made of petrochemicals and rare earths that run on electricity and require an internet connection and can be completely destroyed with no hope of recovery by dropping them in water or shocking them or a lot of other things

You must have an iPhone.

I have a Nokia that has been dropped repeatedly and run through the wash once. It still works. I haven't tried blending it mostly because I don't want to break my blender.
posted by srboisvert at 5:09 AM on July 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


All my text is stored somewhere on a server on the other side of the world, and if my device gets dropped in the toilet, they just send the books through to the next device. I'm not saying this is necessarily a perfect solution - what if the company with those servers goes bust? But what if my house with my bookshelf burns to the ground?

............ All I can say is I've been spending more on, and reading more books since ebooks have become possible than I have at any time in my life.


I just got an e-reader a couple of months. As a book lover I wasn't sure if I'd like it but I had some gift cards to spend and after looking at the pros vs cons decided to give it a shot. Best decision I've made in a long time.

My texts are stored in several places so I'm not concerned about losing them. I too have found that I have spent more on books and read more since I got it. I don't have tons of money to spend on books and am really careful about what I buy. Being able to preview books before buying is wonderful. I've found I'm more likely to spend my money to get the whole thing after seeing a bit of what I'm getting. Also being able to access books from home not only from my local library system but from others around the world is pretty amazing in my mind.

I also have access to so many more books in an easy to read format. Having access to classics for free is great as well as many old books that have been digitized that are only available through rare books dealers for mega money or from a dusty library collection in some far off local. I'm able to read books that I for one never new existed and would realistically never have access too. To me this is one of the great positives of the digital revolution. Yes those paper copies can be kept easily and barring the building getting destroyed indefinitely but are they as meaningful if only a very few can get access?

I also have ecological concerns and have to wonder whether anyone format is better in that regard. As you point out books use paper which is also has ecological impact. The structures to store physical books also have impact both in physical space, materials to build them as well as upkeep. For me I quite literally have no more room for books. My physical collection runs over 1000. I don't have enough shelf space as it is. My e-reader and computer currently hold just over 60 books. That's an entire bookshelf.

Yes it's true that you need electricity to read them. 2 week ago my power went off for a week. I ended up charging my reader during the day with one of those small solar cell conversion thingys and reading at night by candlelight so as long as I have those if the grid goes down I'm not bookless lol.

More pertinent to the OP. I do understand what the author is saying. No doubt the e-revolution is changing the business. However as a book reader I feel that I now have more access to more of human creativity then I ever have before. Whether its from authors that don't make it past the gates and self publish or just general access to the sheer number of books out there. To me this is a positive social change.

Oh and as far a pirating goes. Yes I do see this as an issue. Same as with music and video. People with the desire for completely free can get the things. It's not without it's pitfalls though. I admit that I did get a pirated copy of one novel because I couldn't wait for the library copy to become available. Never again. Ended up having to spend a few hours manually getting rid of a nasty virus even though it apparently came 'clean'. I'd rather pay to get them then have to worry about stuff like that. Also in perusing the 'pirate' world much of what is available isn't what I have any interest in reading.
posted by Jalliah at 5:45 AM on July 29, 2012


"making culture" is an odious phrase. (To be fair, I haven't read the article, but that phrase just clangs like a gong of self-satisfied embiggening.)
posted by OmieWise at 6:20 AM on July 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Re: cellphones in remote places:

We had signal deep in the jungles of Tikal, and pretty much everywhere else in Guatemala, including Livingston, a place that's only reachable by boat. There have been very few places where the reception cut out.
posted by empath at 6:21 AM on July 29, 2012


My friend Lawrence has a server with plenty of storage. Maybe you could host it there?

Well I heard he has a sketchy girlfriend who might delete it all in a fit of pique. Fortunately it's all backed up at MegaUpload.
posted by localroger at 7:17 AM on July 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


The thing that stops me from buying ebooks is that I don't think the convenience makes up for the extra control over my book I'm giving the publisher. Amazon has a vertical monopoly on their e-reader market. They sell you the device, they store it for you in their "cloud", and they pay the author. Like, I don't especially prefer owning the hardcover of 1000+ page meganovels, since I can't take them anywhere without announcing myself as "that guy", but it's better than allowing Jeff Bezos the digital equivalent of being able to slap the book out my hand whenever he wants or insert advertising into it.

When I hear people say "I never read but now that I have an ereader I read all the time," I get confused. Maybe an informal survey would help here. What books exactly are people reading on their Kindle that they wouldn't get into in a regular book? Is the physical size of the book somehow limiting its adoption? Do we as a culture feel wary of carrying around fiction that we don't want others to know we read?
posted by deathpanels at 7:28 AM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


One of the first fan emails I ever received read simply, "every publisher who turned down the chance to publish this is a fool." Well that would be every American SF house. Twice. And after ten years, still with zero promotion except for fan referrals, the Amazon orders keep wandering in and the website traffic remains healthy and the new Kindle version, created by a fan who insisted there should be one, sells a copy every day or two. This level of activity has been going on for nearly ten years but the publishing industry doesn't want a piece of that action. They don't even want to read my letter, and the few agents whose emails they will deign to read don't want to read my letter either.

The obvious question is, what have you done for us lately? With respect, if you haven't spent these nearly ten years in building up a portfolio of ever improving and salable work, you're not a writer, you're a dilettante, and unless you're Donna Tartt or Harper Lee, why should any publisher or agent risk their time or money on you? From their POV, if you're not producing, they can't afford you.

Get thee to the keypad! Gratify your fans. And best of luck. It's a tough trade, even for part timers. Maybe especially for part timers.

What books exactly are people reading on their Kindle that they wouldn't get into in a regular book?

I think it's the convenience factor and the ease of purchase more than anything else. Once the account is set up, it doesn't quite feel like a real purchase, and if you don't harbor distaste for Bezos, well, then, nothing to prevent it. That, and it's easier to carry on the train than a hulking hardback.

The whole snob factor question is interesting - when Harry Potter first hit it big, there were articles on how adults felt awkward being seen reading them, tried to brown paper cover them. Would Fifty Shades of Grey have sold as well had it not been an ebook? Possibly. I suppose one would have to go back in time and check the sales figures of The Story of O.)
posted by IndigoJones at 7:41 AM on July 29, 2012


What books exactly are people reading on their Kindle that they wouldn't get into in a regular book? Is the physical size of the book somehow limiting its adoption? Do we as a culture feel wary of carrying around fiction that we don't want others to know we read?

I'm in the "read more now that I have a Kindle" camp.

-It gives me the freedom to finish one book and then start reading another right away -- as a bus commuter, I don't usually have the luxury of bringing two books in my bag, especially hardcovers. On the same note, I'm not stuck with the one book I brought with me -- if it turns out to be bad, I can just switch to a different one.
-It's light enough that I bring it everywhere, whereas I don't always bring a hardcover book with me.
-It's much easier to turn the pages on the bus, standing up and holding on to the strap.
-It's faster than placing a hold at the library and waiting for it to come in but it's cheaper than buying the hardcover.
-Out-of-copyright books for free! It's silly but I always feel like it's a waste of money to pay for print books that are in the public domain.
-Weirdly, I love going to the bookstore, but the feeling of "Oh, this particular book sounds neat, I would like to get it!" doesn't always coincide with going to the bookstore. Being able to buy a book when you don't want to make a trip to the bookstore is really convenient.
posted by Jeanne at 7:47 AM on July 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


We had signal deep in the jungles of Tikal, and pretty much everywhere else in Guatemala, including Livingston, a place that's only reachable by boat.

Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, I struggle to get signal in my apartment.
posted by Nomyte at 7:53 AM on July 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


When I hear people say "I never read but now that I have an ereader I read all the time," I get confused. Maybe an informal survey would help here. What books exactly are people reading on their Kindle that they wouldn't get into in a regular book? Is the physical size of the book somehow limiting its adoption? Do we as a culture feel wary of carrying around fiction that we don't want others to know we read?

I didn't say I never read before. I read a lot. However since I got my e-reader a couple of months ago, I am reading tons more. Not counting the 11 books I read during the week long power outage I've read more in two months then I have in this past year.

For me it's been more about increased access. It's much, much easier both in convenience and monetarily to get what I would enjoy. I live in a rural area and though the library is decent it doesn't have all the things I like. It's also small so getting a specific book is a process. If the system has it then it can take time to deliver. I also tend to not read a heavy non-fiction book all in one go and can have several going at once. With the e-reader I can sign books out for 14 days and if I don't finish them it's less of deal to get it back again because it's always there, 24hrs a day. If I have to place a hold on a book as soon as I get the email that it's in I can get it, instead of having to wait or make a specific trip into town.

As far as buying books goes I have fallen in love with the ability to preview books before I pay. Most books in e-format have a free download of at least the contents, intro and many a chapter or two. It's similar to be able to browse in a bookstore, but with less time constraints. I love bookstores but the closest one to me is a 40 min drive and specializes in more local books. They can order any books in but unless I know for certain I want it it's just not something I do. My other option is buying online which I have done for years but more often then not after browsing through ones that might interest me I end up not forking over the cash because I'm just not sure. With preview that's not an issue. It's the same with the library. Can't say how many times I've brought home books that I end up not reading because they're not as good as I thought they would be. With the e-books I can sign them out and instantly send them back if I don't like it and get something else.

I've also read a whole lot of classics. Sites like Project Gutenberg are a treasure trove as far as I'm concerned. Not only are well-known classics available for free but hundreds of more obscure titles and authors that I've never even heard of. As a social history buff I've found some great gems. I've read several manuals for housewives and servants, old gardening books, obscure history books and as a lover of cook books and the history of cooking in e-books I've found my heaven.

So yeah. That's some of the reasons why I've found myself reading way more with my e-reader.
posted by Jalliah at 8:05 AM on July 29, 2012 [2 favorites]



Oh thought of another thing. Cost. Not only do e-books tend to be a bit cheaper, there are no shipping costs. Before my e-reader I would wait until I had a chunk of money to buy enough to defer the shipping or end up spending even more the price to get them. For that same amount of money I can get more books altogether in digital format as well as buy them one at a time without paying extra.
posted by Jalliah at 8:10 AM on July 29, 2012


The obvious question is, what have you done for us lately?

I have been building industrial control systems. You know, working at something that I can get paid for. I tend to find it hard to work up the motivation to do things that I have no chance of being rewarded for.

I have written a lot of stuff, particularly in the years kuro5hin was a viable outlet (even if they paid only in attaboys), but I have written exactly two things entirely for myself with no expectation that they would ever see the light of day. If I could make a living writing I would rather write than forage in the bowels of industrial facilities, but the utility bill and health insurance come first and unless it's one of those rare ideas so perfect that I can't resist, if I see it going into the drawer where MOPI lived for eight years until kuro5hin rescued it, I have other things to spend my time on.
posted by localroger at 8:12 AM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Any one else reminded of Jo Walton's response to Howard V. Hendrix's 2007 screed about how "webscabs" where causing a "... downward spiral that is converting the noble calling of Writer into the life of Pixel-stained Technopeasant Wretch"?

It was a classic flounce on Hendix's part. It basically prefigured the above screen in it's entirety.
posted by Mad_Carew at 8:34 AM on July 29, 2012


"I've been making culture professionally for 20 years..."

LOOOOOL

Oh God.

If I ever write a clause like that, I sincerely hope someone will give me a good swift kick. It's hard to feel sorry for someone who thinks of him self as "making culture." And hard to feel sorry for him now that he y'know, has to get a job...

Also:
I've often wondered why people think that everybody who's got one or two good or decent books in them has more. Maybe "writer" is a less interesting/important/significant category than "person who wrote a good book or two."
posted by Fists O'Fury at 8:47 AM on July 29, 2012


I've often wondered why people think that everybody who's got one or two good or decent books in them has more. Maybe "writer" is a less interesting/important/significant category than "person who wrote a good book or two."

I've often wondered why people think that a surgeon has more than one or two heart transplants in them. Anybody can get lucky once, right? You ain't such hot shit, mister man.

Being a writer is a real job. What stake anyone who devalues writing has in a conversation about books and their value is beyond me, because obviously that person isn't that interested in books anyhow.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:56 AM on July 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


I stopped reading when Scott Turow chimed in. I'm really supposed to feel sympathy for a man whose best-sellers were used as a WEAPON by the major chains (Borders, Barnes&Noble, et al) by being sold at BELOW COST for most of decade (late 80s-late 90s) for the SOLE PURPOSE of stamping out competition from independent bookstores (I worked at Kroch's and Brentano's in Chicago at the time when both Borders and B&N were opening up branches directly across the street or next door to every location of ours and slashing prices until we went out of business...among other sleazy tactics)? Fuck that asshole. I hope he starves to death.
posted by sexyrobot at 9:21 AM on July 29, 2012


Heart surgery is not like writing fiction. Maybe you've heard...

Move people have one or two good books--or one or two good songs--in them than have a whole lot of good ones. "One hit wonder" seems to me to be, in a way, a kind of put-down. My suggestion is, in essence, that it shouldn't be. There's no shame in having one good book or one good song in you, and it's in no way obvious that having lots of them should be the paradigm.

Also, your inferential abilities are apparently terrible, as denigrating pompous authors...excuse me....culture creators...is not denigrating books. Though I'll admit the "get a job"-ish comment was more a reaction to the guy's pomposity than it was a genuine comment on writing...
posted by Fists O'Fury at 9:25 AM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Er, *more* people...
posted by Fists O'Fury at 9:26 AM on July 29, 2012


Also, your inferential abilities are apparently terrible, as denigrating pompous authors...excuse me....culture creators...is not denigrating books.

Pomposity aside, books aren't picked off trees. If you don't have any respect for writers, there's no reason for me to believe you have respect for books; and if you have respect for books and no respect for writers, you seem to have missed a few clues as to where books actually come from. Maybe you specifically meant to disrespect only the writer who is spoken of in the linked article, but the conversation has clearly gone beyond that and into much wider territory.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 9:36 AM on July 29, 2012


The obvious question is, what have you done for us lately? With respect, if you haven't spent these nearly ten years in building up a portfolio of ever improving and salable work, you're not a writer, you're a dilettante, and unless you're Donna Tartt or Harper Lee, why should any publisher or agent risk their time or money on you? From their POV, if you're not producing, they can't afford you.

Get thee to the keypad! Gratify your fans. And best of luck. It's a tough trade, even for part timers. Maybe especially for part timers.
Do you honestly think that the majority of writers, including "part timers" (e.g., the 99% that can't get an advance on a book deal and so must work some type of day job), actually want to be churning out two books a year? What if I have one or two good ideas, and it takes me the better part of a decade to see them through, and I'd like them to be well-received? What if it takes me three or four years to finish a book because I'm too busy providing for my family? Can't we bemoan the death of an industry that once took risks on one-time authors and promising greenhorns by giving them a chance to find an audience?

I think you're assuming that the "market analysis" step, so central to producing best-seller fiction, is important to every writer. Unless you're producing easily digestible pulp novels and earning an advance on them each time as a means of supporting yourself, writing is a low stakes game. If you write an award-winning novel, you don't have to write another one for another decade. It's not like you're touring with a band and if you don't put out a new album every year, people will forget you exist. I'll still pick up a Danielewski hardcover in ten years because I have a more patient consumer relationship to books than I do to, say, light bulbs. Unless, of course, you're trying to be that sort of Dan Brown-class best-seller author in which case, yeah, you better get back to your desk and get to work.

I'm as tired of the idea of the struggling writer as anybody else. But the idea that this market-driven pulp sensibility needs to be central to every writer's career in order for them to be taken seriously sounds more like your personal hangup than a description of reality.
posted by deathpanels at 9:38 AM on July 29, 2012


I'm as tired of the idea of the struggling writer as anybody else. But the idea that this market-driven pulp sensibility needs to be central to every writer's career in order for them to be taken seriously sounds more like your personal hangup than a description of reality.

The pure fact of the matter is that with the way publishing, as a business, goes, if any writer wants to achieve financial success (through either self-publishing or traditional publishing), he or she needs to work on aggressively work on developing a catalog. And this isn't a new thing. You cite Danielewski, but there are plenty of one-time authors out there who faded into rapid obscurity or just stopped publishing. We just don't hear or think about them because they're not in the game before.

"Write another book" is the best advice most struggling writers can get, whether or not they've sold yet. You want to spend a decade crafting a work of art? That's what the MFA model seems to be for. Get an MFA, find yourself an adjunct position, work and work to get that valued tenure track job and you won't need to write more than a book every ten years or so. You'll even have health insurance!

Can't we bemoan the death of an industry that once took risks on one-time authors and promising greenhorns by giving them a chance to find an audience?

Christ, as a promising greenhorn who the industry has taken a gamble on, this stuff gets frustrating to hear. That industry isn't dead yet. But once you're in, they'll still want you to write a book a year. That might seem mercenary; it might make me a sell-out to say it. But it's really just the market realities of the business. If your goal is to be a contracted, advance-earning author, you need to be producing constantly and you need to be reasonably commercial-minded.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:05 AM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are paper books literal millennia old, still intact and readable. I kind of doubt that consumer electronics share that longevity, for some reason.

I mean, right now this has less than zero significance to you, but that's kind of the point.

There is also the degree of control this gives the makers of the devices over what gets published, for how long, and with what changes.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 10:08 AM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Christ, as a promising greenhorn who the industry has taken a gamble on, this stuff gets frustrating to hear. That industry isn't dead yet. But once you're in, they'll still want you to write a book a year. That might seem mercenary; it might make me a sell-out to say it. But it's really just the market realities of the business. If your goal is to be a contracted, advance-earning author, you need to be producing constantly and you need to be reasonably commercial-minded.
So why do you want to be a full-time writer? We have in this article Morrison whining that "creating culture" (by which I assume he means high-brow, non-commercial writing) is done for. Do you like producing commercial fiction? Is every American professional writer's goal to write the next Twilight?

(I'm not asking this as a challenge; I'm at a point at which I am wondering why I myself bother writing stories in my free time and going to workshops and spending time and money investing in a pipe-dream that seems impossible to achieve without writing exclusively about teen vampires.)

posted by deathpanels at 10:23 AM on July 29, 2012


But once you're in, they'll still want you to write a book a year. That might seem mercenary; it might make me a sell-out to say it. But it's really just the market realities of the business.

This gets back to what is fundamentally broken in the publishing industry.

Once upon a time, back when I was a wee lad (today I'm 48 and as you can tell a bit jaded) the model was you would write a book and you would send it to a publisher. The publisher would pay someone to read it who would decide whether it was a commercially viable book, and if it passed muster with this professional gatekeeper they would send you an advance. Not, generally, a contract; they would pay you and publish your book and maybe send you royalties if you were lucky enough to pay out your contract.

Nowadays, as you hint, you aren't selling them a book; you're selling them a reliable little book factory that has perfected itself so that it can succeed without expensive nuisances like editing. Now there are writers who write that way and there's a market for that and if meeting that market is what you want to do good on ya.

Had that model been in place in the 1960's and 1970's, though, there are a lot of classics that would have never been published. And for that matter even a reliable book factory with a reliable audience like Norman Spinrad has found it almost impossible to get pubished lately, because he keeps doing different shit that freaks out the publishers instead of playing to a proven market.

The publishers used to know that that's exactly why we'd buy Spinrad's books. Who would publish Philip K. Dick or Alfred Bester today? Making yourself a reliable little book factory isn't the whole equation.
posted by localroger at 10:43 AM on July 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


So why do you want to be a full-time writer? We have in this article Morrison whining that "creating culture" (by which I assume he means high-brow, non-commercial writing) is done for. Do you like producing commercial fiction? Is every American professional writer's goal to write the next Twilight?

I write young adult science fiction, which is a genre I'm incredibly passionate about. There tends to be a knee-jerk dismissal in these arguments--in high culture arguments about literature, too (and I know; I have one an MFA in poetry, of all things)--of the experiences of teenagers and women. However, as someone who was once a teenage girl, I'm highly aware of the impact literature has on teenagers--the ability to take them out of their limited experiences, open their eyes to new things, help them navigate a world that is largely hostile to them. I haven't found that the commercial literary world is nearly as anti-art as some claim. It's taken a few (unpaid) years of working on on both craft and commercial approach for me to get off the ground, but now I have an agent and an editor who are incredibly supportive of these goals. I write books about girls navigating issues of loss and abuse through a commercial, genre framework--because I enjoy that framework (aliens! robots!) and because metaphor can make the unspeakable approachable.

The assumption that authors who write about teen vampires don't think about their work in a craft-minded way feels off to me, to say the least. Twilight, for all of its many flaws, is essentially a novel about growing up feeling like you're the Other and then finding a tribe outside the limited experiences of your hometown. That taps into something fundamental and primal in many readers--Meyer is both creating and reflecting culture just as much as Morrison is, if not more so--so it's no wonder that it sells.

That's not to say that in every YA writer there's a secret literary genius. In fact, I'd guess that many commercially successful writers are ruthless and career-minded in a fundamental way. Even I reached a moment with my literary poetry when I realized that what I was doing--writing prose poems--was never going to get me an audience, much less any money. But for me, that came with a dual realization that the thing I actually enjoyed (genre stories about teenagers) actually had more monetary potential even if I'd been running from it because it wasn't cool and didn't bring with it literary clout. Literary clout or no, I'd be happy writing books about girls and robots for the rest of my life--if I could write two of them a year, I'd be over the freaking moon. I'm better at it and find it more rewarding than working a desk job that, as far as I can tell, would pay about the same.

If you want literary clout and are passionate about literary stories that's fine; it just means that you're by and large trading in the ability to make a living wage off it simply because the audience isn't there. If you want a living wage, it's better to turn to more commercial forms of fiction. It was an eye-opener for me to realize that I could write commercial fiction and create work that did what I wanted in a literary sense. That might not be true for every writer or every story. I'm lucky in that what I like is currently selling--but that doesn't mean I don't rule out the possibility of writing certain things because I know they wouldn't work for building my career. You have to balance artistic and commercial needs. Eschewing commercial concerns is a valid route, but then you're probably also eschewing those big commercial writing bucks, too.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:47 AM on July 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


Cultures that don't have the luxury of a 400-million population of native speakers can't have those huge stables of US-style professional writers who churn out books to make a living. There's just not enough people there to buy books. Still, it does not prevent these cultures to have a thriving literary scene and it doesn't prevent people there to become writers. It's just a given that writing is not a full-time, profitable profession and that writers should have a day job (of course, that's probably easier in societies that believe in safety nets and long holidays...). We should not conflate industry and culture: the latter does not need the former to exist and flourish. It's OK to lament the decline of a cultural industry, but culture itself will be fine.
posted by elgilito at 11:04 AM on July 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have been...

I really didn't mean it as cutting as it sounded and I apologize if you took it that way. I was trying to be dispassionate. Publishers like authors who produce regularly and consistently. It helps them plan the business model. One off novelists are almost a certain dead loss. That's why they like the book a year authors (which really, should not be that much of a strain for someone with ideas and discipline - Wodehouse once suggested five hundred words a day and hey presto, at the end of the year: a book. Absent the ideas and the discipline, of course, forget it.)

If the part time writer can't do that, well, you know, mazol tov, come back when you can. Meantime, noting personal, they've got a business to run. (So you can see that they're kind of in the same Catch 22 position as authors- "we can't publish you until you're a sure thing, but once you're a sure thing we can't afford you.")

I have no solutions, only best wishes and sympathy for all concerned.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:15 AM on July 29, 2012


Allow one of my favorite writers, Robert A. Metzger, to explain what is wrong with the publishing industry -- or at least what was wrong with it in 1990...
Sold a fair number of stories then and started working on the book. After you get some stories published, then you have to work on the book. Because with those published stories in hand, you can get an agent to take a look at your book. I had Quad World written by 1990, and my agent, Richard Curtis, sold it to ROC. Everyone seemed to like it. They contracted for a sequel, which I wrote, and then started through the editing process. And then IT happened.

The sales numbers for Quad World were horrible. Hardly anyone had bought it. One must remember that this was 1991, and the only outlet for selling books were in the brick and mortar bookstores (no Amazon), and it turned out that because the publisher had increased the number of titles they produced in the month my book came out, that they had trouble getting sufficient shelf space for all their titles in the big chain bookstores. I was the new guy (i.e. cannon fodder). Quad World never appeared on the shelves of any of the big chain stores. This in turn led to poor sales numbers (big surprise). As a result they decided not to publish the sequel, and I was informed that because of my "bad numbers" in the computer, that they did not want to publish anything from me. Good-bye.

Ouch.

I stopped writing entirely for a while...
This actually represents an intermediate point between the 1960's-70's, when publishers would read anything sent to them with a competitive desire to find something new and different, and today when even the agents with access won't. Back then if you established a track record with some short stories you could get the ear of an agent. But of course, the publishers were already conducting business so poorly that you could get screwed like Metzger did.

Incidentally, I put it on the blue before but if you haven't read In the Shadow of Bones it really is one of the best short stories I've ever read.
posted by localroger at 11:47 AM on July 29, 2012


> This is what happens when people who think they are special and exempt from the rules of nature get dick slapped by reality. They always try to blame everything but the fact that the only constant is change and they are owed no free pass on that

Well, sure...but this is yet another way many talented (and, yes, not-so-talented) people used to be able to make (or supplement) a decent living, and it's probably on its way out, to be replaced by...what? More shit jobs. Artists have always had to take day jobs, but it's going to be another net pay cut on a societal level, and that's bad for almost everyone. Sure, people will always write and play music for other people to read and listen to, but now they're going to be doing it for free between shifts at Wal-Mart or an Amazon warehouse.
posted by "But who are the Chefs?" at 12:25 PM on July 29, 2012


Is the physical size of the book somehow limiting its adoption?

YES!

The best thing about my kindle is that I can read things like Infinite Jest without lugging around a ream of paper.

Other things that contribute to the amount of reading I do on my kindle vs. book:

- The ability to download something the moment I think of it/find out about it, and to have it on my device in minutes. Without having to go anywhere or do anything or remember that I wanted to read this book, or even think about money (sometimes a bad thing).

- The ability to read things I might not otherwise want to be seen reading. Which isn't to say I'm now reading trash, but sometimes a lady just wants to read Bossypants without having to think of herself as the sort of person who reads comedic celebrity memoirs, OK?
posted by Sara C. at 2:59 PM on July 29, 2012


What books exactly are people reading on their Kindle that they wouldn't get into in a regular book?

Here is my experience:
(a) I get a lot of book reccomendations at weird times. Listening to radio shows like Late Night Live or other podcasts, or talking in IRC. I can literally have the book downloaded within a minute of hearing its title. The fact that I can do this means I now pay attention when people mention books, knowing I won't forget them or be too lazy to search for them in a shop.
(b) I don't read on a Kindle, I read on an iPhone (mostly the Kindle app, I have bought a couple of books in iBooks too). This device is with me everywhere, pretty much. Waiting for the bus, I can pull it out of my pocket and read. Unable to sleep at 4 in the morning. Stirring a pot of pasta on the stove. Taking a shit. I mean books can be this portable too, obviously (if they're not too fat), but since I've just got this device on me anyway, I can turn to it instantly.
(c) Simple cost. I live in Australia where, for a variety of reasons, books are significantly more expensive than in the US or UK. But ebooks are much cheaper. The usual price differential is that a $30 physical book that I wouldn't buy (I might hope someone gets it for me for Christmas) costs about $10 for the e-book, and I'm much more likely to outlay that money.
posted by Jimbob at 3:31 PM on July 29, 2012


One thing nobody's mentioned: adjustable font size. E-readers are a total gift to accessibility. No more squinting or reaching for magnifiers, and the Kindle even does (surprisingly decent!) text-to-speech. I find myself reading a lot more now that I can set the Kindle to a larger font, just as I do in my browser -- I can read standard fonts, but as I get older they get less and less fun to deal with.
posted by vorfeed at 9:56 PM on July 29, 2012


> To be fair, there are much fewer performing musicians now. There are a whole hell of a lot of producers out there making music who can neither read music nor play any instruments. Oddly enough the actual output of music hasn't declined.

There may be fewer full-time musicians on the radio or getting record contracts, though I have no idea whether or not that's true. Fewer performing musicians, though? Even if you narrow it down to "musicians performing original material who get paid to perform," I really, really, really don't think that's the case.
posted by desuetude at 11:07 PM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Authors are losing income as sales shift to heavily discounted, royalty-poor and easily pirated ebooks.

Morrison needs to talk to his publisher about this problem instead of blaming other writers.

When I got my e-reader a few months back I was surprised at how expensive e-books were. Most publisher ebooks were only slightly less expensive than the paperback...if the paperback was on sale, it was more expensive (currently getting 1-4 of "A Song of Ice and Fire", new, is cheaper than getting it by Kindle by $10)

Considering publishers have to spend money to actually print the paperbacks, as well as take a risk the physical books won't sell (or pass the risk to the distributor), charging nearly the same amount for the ebook edition really cannot be seen as anything but trying to get a larger profit margin with less risk - to such an extent some publishers would not allow Amazon to carry the ebook if its price was not set above a certain point - a practice they don't appear to do with their other formats.

So if he's really worried about piracy, he should ask why his publisher does not allow ebooks/logical discounts on ebooks (to be fair, the one ebook I saw of his available was cheap.... but it was only one ebook. Pretty poor for a culture creator....) or, if they do, why the publisher is pocketing more profit and leaving him in the cold.... NOT railing against his fellow authors.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 11:11 PM on July 29, 2012


It's been said a gajillion times before, but the physical costs of producing a paperback are a fraction of a cost of getting a book out, so it's shouldn't come as too much of a surprise if the ebook edition isn't vastly cheaper. This is not to defend some of the crazier pricing practises out there - but it chafes a bit when people who aren't necessarily cognizant of the whole picture decide for themselves what a "logical" price should be, and put any deviance from that down to greedy publishers leaving authors out in the cold.
posted by ominous_paws at 12:48 AM on July 30, 2012


When I hear people say "I never read but now that I have an ereader I read all the time," I get confused.

For me: The Kindle with the font set for Old Person and with the cover with the built-in book light -- it's soo comfortable on my eyes, and much easier than reading on paper. And I love getting the free samples. Right now I probably have 35 samples on my Kindle. Whenever people recommend a book and it sounds like something I would like I download the sample. When I need a new book I read through my samples until I find something I like. The cost is low-ish and the convenience is amazing. When I go to a book signing I buy the hard copy, but I find that I usually don't read it -- I want it in digital form, but I resist buying it because I have already purchased the hard copy.

Since getting my Kindle I have purchased probably three times the number of books I read before. I hate to hear that Amazon is screwing the authors.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:01 AM on July 30, 2012


It's been said a gajillion times before, but the physical costs of producing a paperback are a fraction of a cost of getting a book out

Having experience with both attempting to get a physical book printed versus an ebook, I flat out disagree with these gajillion (publisher?) assertions - or at least the implication that the ebook should be worth almost as much - or more - than the paperback edition. I'm in no way saying they should be free (which is maybe what you think I'm saying?) but when it comes to getting the books printed, printing small runs is crazy and the cost of just printing is 50% the price of a typical paperback's cover price. When you print in bulk, you'll save on the per book cost, but you then have to pay money to get all those books shipped - and books are pretty heavy. Printing and shipping is not as negligible as some would have you believe - sorry, but it chafes me when people assume others aren't cognizant of the bigger picture simply because they don't have the same viewpoint.

Some authors have fully admitted they don't know how fairly the publishers have priced the ebook - publishers are not being clear on the profit margins, and some have struck deals with certain retailers that drastically cuts into the publisher's profits to begin with. Some publishers are getting offended by ebooks and digging in their heels instead of figuring out how to work with them - and working with them may require a restructuring of long-established models.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 12:34 PM on July 30, 2012


Absolutely no offence intended, LBW. Self-publishing, short runs and POD are surely different games. However, in the more regular scheme of printing in *any* sort of reasonable quantity at a publishing house, the cost of producing the physical book hovers more around 5% of the RRP than 50%. Transport, logistics, returns, and many other factors often cited but rarely quantified by critics of ebook pricing do contribute, but aren't that significant either.

I know this because it's what I do for a living. Obviously, publishing houses vary, ideologies vary, deals struck with retailers vary. But I take strong issue with the claim that publishers are "offended by ebooks" - when most in my experience are terrified of what happened to music and are generating new possible models like crazy.
posted by ominous_paws at 2:00 AM on July 31, 2012


As far as I'm concerned, one main reason that ebooks should be cheaper than paper books is that you can't resell them. And, for the majority of books, you can't even lend them to friends. I don't know how many owners or readers the average paper book used to have, but if it was significantly higher than 1.0 then publishers should factor that in when pricing ebooks.
posted by Umami Dearest at 6:09 AM on July 31, 2012


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