La Vie Bohème

by wjw on April 22, 2015

This article points out that authors’ incomes have declined nearly 30% since 2005.

“The creative industries are thriving, generating £76bn per annum, yet professional writers have seen a near 30% reduction in earnings in recent years . . .  Consequently many are no longer able to sustain a career. The one truly irreplaceable link in the value chain is being stretched to breaking point.”

Let’s just say that I’m not surprised.

The article specifically deals with British authors, but I doubt it’s different in the US.  The huge benefits to writers promised by the digital revolution have largely evaded individual authors.

There are lots of reasons.  With self-publishing becoming an established route to the readers, more and more people are uploading their work.  It becomes more and more difficult to weed out the worthwhile books from millions of volumes of (largely self-published) crap, so many people don’t bother.  They only buy authors they’ve tried before and know they’ll like, which enriches established writers and makes it harder and harder for new writers to break in.

Yes, there are individual stories of wealth and success among the self-published, but there were always those sorts of stories, even before Amazon existed.  The vast majority of self-published writers sell less than 25 copies.

Another problem is that publishers are feeling the squeeze from Amazon, and so they pass the squeeze on to the artists.  Advances are smaller, and non-negotiable contracts swallow up all rights, and sub-rights that used to generate income for writers now swells publishers’ bank accounts.

There are only five mainstream publishers left.  There’s not a lot of competition between them, and a lot of competition between writers.

Writers are, basically, culture workers, and they’re being squeezed the same way other workers are being squeezed, by gigantic multinational entities focused on the bottom line, and by increased competition from desperate peers.

I’m trying to find something optimistic to say about this, and the only thing that comes do mind is that I am doing okay.  My ebooks are doing well enough, and as a result my income is probably higher (on average) than it was back in 2005.

But then I’m in a sweet spot.  I had over twenty novels out of print and ready to be scanned, and I already had readers who hadn’t seen everything I’d published.  I’m not a newbie trying to break in, I’m a respected writer with an eyeball-ready set of works.

So keep on buying my stuff, please!  I’ll try not to let you down.

TRX April 22, 2015 at 11:29 am

What I don’t understand is why so few authors get their backlists out there. I know some of them probably have rights issues, but surely not everything they wrote is tied up. And relatively few have any kind of web site. Yes, a handful have large and active sites, and a couple even have active web forums, but most of them, at least the ones I’ve thought to look for… nothing.

Even a vanity page with “I’m still alive, hey, does anyone want to buy any old author copies that have been sitting in my garage since 1983?” is a web presence of sorts…

Of course, some of those web-aware authors spend a lot of time slagging off entire demographic groups of potential buyers. “Mr. Bullet, meet Mr. Foot.”

I’m glad to hear you’re doing acceptably well, and don’t intend to dump the writing schtick and move up to a glamorous career as a fast food service associate…

mearsk April 22, 2015 at 3:42 pm

Any new work planned or just converting your backlist to ebooks for now?

SpacemanFry April 22, 2015 at 5:15 pm

Well, I’ve run out of your stuff to buy. (hint hint write more stuff!) 🙂

Seriously though, I agree with becoming to hard to wade through all the crap and mostly sticking with authors I know or other stuff that’s been recommended to me. I think recommendations based on authors you like already will be key to dealing with some of this. To be honest I would love if authors would recommend stuff as well.

wjw April 22, 2015 at 8:48 pm

I’m still working on new fiction, but I’m still laboring under the handicap of my longtime agent dying, and the next agent quitting, and having to bring Agent #3 up to speed. So we’ll see what’s going to happen.

And in the meantime, I’m working on a novella that I think y’all will really like.

TRX April 23, 2015 at 12:43 pm

Just for curiosity, what’s the problem? You can provide hard data on publications and sales going back decades, a backlist available for reprints or anthologies, an established fan base, and new works for them to sell and get their commission. It’s not like you just dropped a manuscript over the transom.

Nathan April 23, 2015 at 4:04 pm

“And relatively few have any kind of web site.”

Some, I suspect, find a website consumes more time and money than it’s worth. Even a basic website will have some costs if you don’t want it to look like a GeoCities relic. If the site is forum- or blog-based it requires presence and updates, and a rarely-updated site like that that registers to visitors as dead can be counter-productive. Given the choice between investing time and money in a functional website and investing it in writing, many probably think the writing is the better use of time.

Ralf T. Dog April 23, 2015 at 6:40 pm

In the past, the publishers were the trusted gatekeepers, telling us what books we should like and what books we should ignore. Amazon reviews are too easy to game. They don’t have the same value. Perhaps we need a Rotten Tomatoes for books. I bet the Albuquerque writers community would be a cool place to get that started.

TRX April 24, 2015 at 10:41 am

There are a lot of writers out there whose work I’ve enjoyed, that can’t seem to make it past the gatekeepers any more. Not enough zombies and vampires, or maybe they expect actual money instead of a handful of McD’s gift certificates and a dozen author copies.

I’m still surprised some of them don’t form some sort of co-op to market their work. Set up a web store, negotiate placement with various online and storefront book sellers, etc. Basically, the same thing a small publishing house would do. It can’t be that hard – publishers do it, after all. Just cut the agent and publisher steps out of the loop.

For some reason there seems to be little interest among writers. “I’m a writer, not a businessman. My time is best spent writing.” True… but if you’re not able to get paid for it, why are you doing it?

wjw April 25, 2015 at 8:19 pm

TRX>> well, one problem is that I AM a known quantity. Publishers know that with me they’ll have some nice sales and make a nice profit.

But they’re really not after a =nice profit,= they all want a giant tsunami of money to flood into their offices. So part of their calculation is that, for what they’d pay for me, they could get 5-10 new writers, one of which might bring a tsunami with him.

TRX April 26, 2015 at 12:33 pm

[heavy sigh] I’ve seen the same thing in many other places, so why not writing too?

I’ve always been of the mindset that selling a hundred widgets at a dollar each was better than selling one widget for a hundred bucks, but over the years I’ve realized that most people don’t think that way.

Ralf T, Dog April 26, 2015 at 5:04 pm

TRX, it is all about ROI or Return on Investment. The cost in work or in money to make 100 widgets is (Let me do the math) slightly less than 100 times more expensive than making one. The monetary return is the same. This tells you, 1 expensive widget is about 100 times the value as an investment as 100.

Part of the problem is, just the one widget might have a higher Standard Deviation than 100. One month You might sell 3. The next 0. The high volume sales SHOULD be more predictable. I can say from personal experience, high volume sales can jump all over the place due to outside influences.

The other factor is, the publishers are not going for the one widget with a 100 dollar sale, they are looking at thousands of new widgets that might not get a sale or might get a sale for many hundreds of millions. The publishers are that little old lady sitting in front of the slot machine at the shabby, smoke filled bingo parlor, ‘just one more pull and I can pay my rent.’ (The publishers need to remember, they should put on their pretty blue dress when going to the casino because, they won the 500 that time with it. Also, play the first machine on Monday, the second on Tuesday… Everyone knows, there is a system, once they figure out how it works, they will be billionaires!)

TRX April 27, 2015 at 4:35 am

I look at it as, “lose one customer, then you’re out of business” vs. “lose one customer, you only lose 1% of your sales.”

If your only goal is to maximize profitability on each sale, you go for a single customer. If you want to *stay* in business, you spread the risk.

RonC April 27, 2015 at 5:08 am

Traditionally publishers provided multiple services: printing, distribution, advertising (or at least getting books into book stores) as well as editing, some amount of proofing and a lot of filtering of writing (for their own definition of “bad writing”). Obviously if one is self-publishing the first 3 don’t apply, but the remaining 3 are still needed. Do you think a service that sorted through the slush pile of self-published ebooks and provided editing and proofing service would be viable. I was thinking that they would then “brand” the books with their name that readers would know what to expect. Back in the day it was a safe bet that whatever DAW published I would enjoy. The service would advertise it on their web site, but let Amazon or any of the other ebook services do the actual sale. The service would take a small royalty from the author for any sales that came through their web site (plus perhaps money from Amazon through their associate program). Its obviously a bit of a chicken and egg problem in that the service may not increase a book’s sales until the service is recognized as a reliable bell-weather. Plus I’m not sure of the potential volume and thus operating income that could realistically be expected. Any thoughts?

wjw April 30, 2015 at 4:27 am

Ron, there are any number of services who claim to be able to do everything on your list, though not for a “small fee.” (Even cheap advertising costs =something=.) I suspect a number of them exist only to prey on naive authors. I don’t know how good any of them are, since I haven’t employed them and don’t know anyone who has, but the fact that they spam my inbox regularly should tell you =something.=

I can tell you that self-publishing consumes a fair amount of time and energy, which explains why few if any of these sites are run by authors, who really do need both time and mental energy to do their work.

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