There will be no professional writers in future: banner or epitaph?

“There will be no more professional writers in future” – read the headline of the arts section of one of our national newspapers last week, waking me up to my own dire predictions of the last few months, reminding me that I am not the only one having these nightmares. Change is coming, no matter how much we bury our heads in our ink and hope that it goes away.

The article went on to throw out some scary phrases—feudal economics of the 21st century (with Amazon and Huffington playing landlord to us poor hacks who are being relegated to serfs), 10 cents per 1000 reader clicks, and more than one million authors on Amazon’s online Kindle store— bringing us back to that scary headline: There will be no more professional writers….

Let’s go on the assumption that literature will still exist in our future, however retrograde that future becomes. That said, just like with any green•field business that initially attracts more supply than demand, a crash and consolidation must come in this electronic age of literature. The questions remain as to when will it come, who will go out and who will stay in, who will get fatter, and who will be marginalized when the dust settles. Here’s my pick:

Authors: We still need these guys to write content, original content (so help us, God!). So I guess they will be kept alive, even by force•feeding. Slimmer pickings at the base of the steep pyramid known as the “Hierarchy of Authors” will drive wannabes to pursue other interests like fishing. Some will eke out serf•like existences even if to merely avoid psychotherapy, while others will live like lottery winners and drink to ease their guilt about compensation that far exceeds effort—and seek out shrinks. There is no socialism here. Writing schools will decline, replaced by fishing schools, perhaps.

Publishers: These guys are in the cross hairs of the impending fall. Some parts of their business are valuable, like editing, formatting, marketing, branding, access to awards and distributors etc. Others, less so, like lengthening the publishing pipeline that was under their watch, elongating it from about six months to the current 2•3 years; slush pile management is another red card (bad job done here, guys – your response rates suck!); and manning the gate for curated content (many of their picks have been flops). Perhaps they will change their names to Content Facilitator and outsource the slush pile. Or move away from the royalty model towards fee•based, unbundled menu pricing for their various services that are still deemed valuable; the recent moves by mainstream publishers to purchase self•publishing arms is an indication of this.

Agents: They may fall on either side of the fence. Their current remuneration model will be unsustainable. On the one hand they could become Author Assistants (paid by the author – watch out, the fees may be a bit measly). They could easily add Publicist, PR and Author Manager to their job description, if not there already. Or they could go over to the other side and be talent scouts for the new Content Facilitators, paid to hunt for good content now that the slush pile has been eliminated. Or they could band together to become Content Facilitators themselves and cut out the man above.

Distributors: The monopoly that exists with Amazon and its buddies must give way to smaller independents that also have access to that universal distribution highway, the Internet. The smaller guys just have to find ways to carve out little side roads with distinct signage (branding) that flow content and revenue their way and off the Amazon•Huffington highway. Just as Amazon has become the general store for books, why not several niche stores specializing in certain genres, with wider selections within these genres?

Software Developers: Let’s not forget the guys who started the revolution by bringing the technicalities of publishing down to the user level. It could only be a matter of time before kindle and e•pub formats become add•ons to Microsoft Office and other desktop bundles.

Readers: Will have to pay for good content again (the accent being on “good”) or the serfs who are farming that content will die out. They will also be the power holders in this industry. “Going viral” will belong to them and will determine the livelihood of all the other players in this literary drama.

Endorsers: A breed of super reader. The endorser is a reader among readers who commands an audience and who cannot be bought. I will exclude newspaper reviewers and well known TV show hosts who predictably have their “picks” go on to become bestsellers; by “picking for pay,” they will have exposed their hand for serving the wrong master. The new Endorser will live on the adulation and followership of readers only. A new literary savant who survives on ego food.

And as for that newspaper headline, I have to agree that the old model of professional writer is under threat, but a new model is emerging, and as long as a civilization needs those among it to reflect, dissect, interpret, and record its evolution, writers of some shape or form must exist.

A Brave New World indeed, and I am applying for citizenship to play several of the above roles in it. What about you?

Comments

  1. I would be curious to know exactly how many professional writers there are right now. By that I mean writers who can pay all their bills purely out of income generated from their writing. If you scrape off the top layer, the Stephen Kings and the James Pattersons, I image a great many ‘professional’ writers still hold down a day job. There will be bestsellers in the future too, those lucky buggers like E.L. James who happen to tap into the zeitgeist, but I imagine the greater number will still be doing something else to supplement their income. It will be interesting to see where James is in ten years. The demise of publishing houses is not such a bad thing. Independent authors are realising the need to subcontract the work they can’t do themselves and readers are becoming more discerning but I would like to see a standard set up, an independent organisation that, probably for a fee, will give its stamp of approval to the production values of the book (as opposed to its content) or perhaps what we need is a code of conduct where maybe editors and designers are accredited within the body of the book. It works for electricians so why not authors? Endorsers as you call them exist now in the form of reviewers and critics and have done for years. Oprah is one. I don’t see that as anything new. What I do see as becoming more important is the visual. It always has been—we do like to see our heroes in the flesh or at least on TV—and I don’t see it being any different in the future. All you need is five minutes on the equivalent of the Johnny Carson Show and you’re made.

    At the moment it’s a free for all. In many ways it is the best of times to be an author but it’s also the worst of times. I wish I’d been born even twenty years ago although forty might have been better.

  2. Waheed rabbani says:

    A wonderful article, Shane. You hit all the “hot button” issues. It would seem that eBooks are gradually winning out and the big-publishers are realizing it. Right now ther are offering eBooks in parallel with pBook. One can imagine that the ratio would soon increase in favor of eBooks, and perhaps pBooks would only be limited to “coffee table” types of books. Another major force in this equation is the increasing popularity of audio books. I was surprised to hear from many of my teenage nephew/nieces are now listening to books on their iPods etc, instead of rock music!

    Welcome to the electronics age.

    Best regards,
    Wally

  3. Jim and Wally – thanks for your responses. I find that the articles I write about the fate of writing seems to get the lowest views on my blog ( I write them, nevertheless). I am not sure why this is. Does the truth hurt? Is this perceived as a sign of negativity on my part? Since I have been at this writing gig now (the second time around) for going on 12 years, it can’t be all that negative or I would have self-destructed years ago (or taken up fishing, as I proposed in my article).
    Jim – I don’t consider Oprah or Carson as the “New Endorsers,” they don’t do it only for love and adulation although they do perform literary alchemy. And you are right about the definition of professional writer being more of a mix like: writer-writing instructor/university professor-editor-journalist-ad copy writer-ghostwriter or some combination thereof to make ends meet. In my case, you can throw in business consultant into the mix as well.
    As for standards – that will be left to be set only by the reader, unfortunately. More and more government support and regulation for the arts is being withdrawn. And corporate support comes with strings attached (that’s why I do not entertain advertizing on my website). This is a tough road. But so was the road to Gethsamane.
    Thanks for your comments!
    Shane

  4. Great post and all points well made. I have been brainwashed to believe that ePublishing is for losers and mainstream publishing is the only way to go if you seek credibility. But the cracks in the surface of this logic are beginning to show and widen.

    This kind of thing keeps me up at night. I have been blessed (no burdened) with the career of being a full time writer (book ghostwriter). On one hand it’s great because I am doing the only thing that I know for sure that I am meant to be doing. But on the other hand it is troubling. I am constantly aware that I am lucky, and I am not immune to having to look for new work either. It is disheartening to peruse freelance sites and see postings for people willing to pay ghostwriters a mere 3-5K for an entire book. There is no appreciation for original thought and creativity anymore and in many cases it has simply come down to the lowest bidder rather than the best writer.

    C’est la vie I guess. A wonderful, scary, concerning, hampering, disheartening, wondrous, and insane time to be a writer.

  5. Selina,
    Thanks for your comment.
    Yes, it is indeed a shifting time.
    Shane

  6. Interesting assessment, Shane.

    There’s an expression locally, “Moonlight in Vermont OR STARVE,” that you see on bumper stickers and other venues. Survival for many people in Vermont’s economy often depends moonlighting–holding down several jobs (snow plowing, selling firewood, doing landscape work and light construction, playing guitar gigs in the evening, shuttling people to the airport). As you suggested in your comment, maybe writers are moving in the same direction; you don’t just write, but you blog, market, network, do cover design, talk on panels, review other books, maybe even narrate your own audiobook. Ultimately, this could be a good thing, giving us more control over our own destinies.

  7. Thanks, Lee. The only difference these days is that writers are doing a lot of non-revenue producing work as well. Writers have always had to do a day job until they gained financial independence through their writing (well, only a few did anyway) But these days the non-productive jobs you mention above (blog, market, network, do cover design, talk on panels, review other books, maybe even narrate your own audiobook) quite overcrow the spirit, leaving little work for the real writing and for that revenue producing day job.
    Regards!