In a recent Globe and Mail article, British writer Ewan Morrison makes the bold proclamation that “There will be no more professional writers in the future.” Putting aside the hyperbole of that statement, or what defines “professional,” article writer John Barber does make a few salient points about the trajectory we writers have been on for some time now:
From the heights of the literary pantheon to the lowest trenches of hackery, where contributors to digital “content farms” are paid as little as 10 cents for every 1,000 times readers click on their submissions, writers of every stature are experiencing the same pressure. Authors are losing income as sales shift to heavily discounted, royalty-poor and easily pirated ebooks. Journalists are suffering pay cuts and job losses as advertising revenue withers. Floods of amateurs willing to work for nothing are chasing freelance writers out of the trade. And all are scrambling to salvage their livelihoods as the revolutionary doctrine of “free culture” obliterates old definitions of copyright.
It all started with media consolidation that began in earnest in the 90s. I recall going to a public lecture given by Arthur Kent, once a top Canadian journalist. Expecting to hear a feel-good lecture on how to earn a living as a journalist, I was dismayed to hear Kent lament the changes in the industry. There was a time, he related, when a freelance journalist would file a print story; now that same journalist has to produce the print story, a video, and a shorter web version — and all for the same money. That’s three times the work for the same money. Moreover, he revealed, many of the articles you now read in newspapers and magazines are not paid for at all; instead, recent grads and other newbies trying to break into the profession are willing to write for free just to get the byline. Fed by the bank of mom and dad, these wannabes can afford to. And the publishers are more than happy to exploit the delusion of future paid work.
Media moguls argued then, and continue to do so now, that this is necessary: ad revenues are down so the media can no longer afford to pay their writers, or at least not as well. This “ad revenues falling” argument is referenced in the above quote, but what is missing from the conversation is that media outlets have transferred their losses onto their staff. Rather than make a lesser profit and maintain fair wages, these media companies instead focus on maintaining shareholder profits and executive salaries. And Barber, not one to bite the hand that feeds him, feels obliged to perpetuate this storyline.
More to the point, how does one reconcile this argument with the likes of the Huffington Post? It pays only a handful of Ariana Huffington’s writer friends; the rest are expected to bathe in the glow of an unremunerated byline. Huffington and her partners made a fortune in Google advertising — as did Google — then sold the company for $315 million. That’s 315 million dollars and the site still refuses to pay its writers. Why bother when it can continue to get away with it? The “lower revenues” argument is restricted if not completely bogus, and it’s been used for centuries by large corporations to screw their workers. It’s how the rich get richer. Duh!
It’s the same with book publishers. In response to the twin squeezes of higher publisher discounts and higher advertising costs demanded by the likes of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Chapters, many small press publishers went under. The bigger players gobbled up these presses and their writers, laid off staff and then, with competition for the writers’ wares now severely restricted, the publishers passed their increasing costs onto their authors through lower advances and royalties, and predatory contracts. Again, rather than accept a less profitable bottom line in order to maintain a healthy industry and continue to nurture writers, the publishers focused on their shareholders and executives. In this respect I disagree with Morrison: the big publishers stopped being the “venture capitalists of the intellectual world” a long time ago when sales executives started having editorial say.
In his article “Killing the competition: How the new monopolies are destroying open markets” for Harper’s magazine, Barry C. Lynn, author of Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction, looks at the Amazon-publisher fight in the larger context of changes in U.S. policy toward corporate monopolies and theories of how a healthy marketplace functions. The article is well argued and illuminating, but what Lynn fails to do is look at the publisher’s own behaviour: for them to complain about Amazon’s near monopoly and bully behaviour is the stove calling the kettle black. And it really doesn’t matter who lobbied the first shot; the bottom line is just that, the bottom line. It is the only thing that seems to count on either side. Not fairness or culture or authors. Money.
Indie publishing is challenging the status quo; it is breaking down the barriers to publication. This is indeed a good thing. But that is not to say that we should be quick to dismiss all the concerns expressed by Barber and his ilk as just the whiny laments of old-school boys who can’t adapt to change (as is expressed in many of the comments on the article). We mustn’t delude ourselves into thinking Amazon is our saviour or a benevolent god. The 70% royalty we now enjoy will quickly evaporate if and when Amazon controls the ebook market, or if its profits are eroded by the plethora of free or pirated content filling up those tech gadgets we pay good money for. Amazon will only pay us what it has to, not what we want or think we deserve. Consumers will only pay what they have to, whether it’s enough to sustain the industry or not.
Which brings me to my last point. As authors, we have to be very careful about offering our wares for free; we have to be selective about using this type of promotion and ensure that the cost-benefit is balanced. Why? Because a plethora of free books devalues books as a whole. Because there is a cost to the retailer to deliver said free books and if that cost continues to escalate someone will have to pay. That someone will be the authors. As always.
(The cost to deliver is why Amazon at first refused to allow authors to place free books in its catalogue, and why Amazon will only do so now if Amazon gets exclusivity and the ability to offer the ebooks as a benefit of its Prime program, which costs users $79 per year. Amazon also only allows five free days within ninety days of exclusivity. In other words, Amazon’s KDP Select is designed to offset the cost of delivering free books to consumers by providing Amazon additional revenue via Prime membership fees, sales of Kindle devices, and additional foot traffic from having a monopoly on content.)
We also have to take a firm stance against piracy. If we promote acceptance of piracy, if we ourselves accept the argument that piracy is free advertising and therefore we should embrace it, it’s akin to Stockholm Syndrome. These pirates are making millions in advertising — just like the Huffington Post — and not a single dime is being paid to the content providers. That’s bullshit and needs to be called for what it is. Right now, the only thing that really keeps piracy at bay is a cultural ethos that says piracy is stealing and stealing is wrong. Promote piracy as okay and you lose the moral firewall.
The more we nurture a healthy book industry — healthy competition, healthy remuneration for writers — the more farsighted we will prove ourselves to be. Without this healthy future, indie publishing will not be the revolution many purport it to be; it will just be another revenue mill for Amazon and others like it.