Writing In America: I’m Worried

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There’s a lot of talk going around about the future of the publishing industry and the business of writing, specifically the financial compensation (or lack of it) a person can expect from being a “professional” writer. I, for one, am worried.

11949978091193310702xedit.svg.medI belong to several writing groups: the Authors Guild, Mystery Writers of America, the International Association of Crime Writers, and the International Thriller Writers. In recent months, all four groups have discussed and analyzed this topic in their newsletters. Next week, the Authors Guild is holding a forum on the subject here in New York City. A panel of experts will discuss the future of writing as a livelihood within the new realities of the publishing industry. My Facebook feed is suddenly being fed with newspaper stories and magazine articles which tell us–with maps and percentage pie-charts and other official-looking figures–that it is no longer possible to make a living as a professional author in America. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

Um, okay. The Internet has become the new shopping mall, Amazon rules, and everyone and his pet monkey are now uploading their literary efforts to Kindle and NOOK, slapping on covers and prices, and calling themselves “authors.” Meanwhile, the traditional American publishing industry is shrinking faster than the polar icecaps. As of last year’s Penguin-Random House merger, the “Big Six” are now the “Big Five.” Imprints within the big houses are doubling up, downsizing, or vanishing altogether, and they’re all experimenting with “e-book only” imprints (I’m currently with one of them). Medium and small presses, the so-called “Mom and Pop publishers” that were once the best bet for new, cutting-edge fiction and nonfiction, are coming and going at an alarming rate. The lists of publishers large and small have dwindled from hundreds of new titles per season to–well, just a few titles per season.

Where does this leave writers? Not in a good place, that’s for sure. The articles I mentioned above inform me that 60% of American author advances and royalties are being paid to 5% of American authors. This means that the remaining 40% of author revenue is divided among 95% of us who call ourselves “professional American writers.” The publishers are depending–almost exclusively–on a small group of superstars for their revenue. If you’re not James Patterson or Janet Evanovich or Stephen King, you’d better have a day job to supplement your writing income. That’s always been true, but now it’s truer than ever.

All this talk about the Internet changing everything–what it has changed is the sheer number of people calling themselves “published authors.” Much of the Kindle/NOOK product is self-published, which is a gamble to begin with. The plain fact is that 99% of these self-published authors will never make money at it. Ironically, this very practice has killed the “Midlist,” the platform of reasonably successful authors (myself included) who once made a fairly steady income writing books for the major publishing houses. Those houses are no longer taking chances on dozens of new authors each season, and there aren’t many small publishers to take up the slack.

The biggest irony of all: The experts are already warning us that even the big-name celebrity authors will not be able to keep the “Big Five” in business much longer. Most of those authors are now “of a certain age,” and there isn’t a new generation of big-ticket talent coming up the ranks to replace them. We occasionally have surprise hits from unknowns, but most of these writers don’t follow up with a steady stream of bestsellers, to say nothing of incorporating themselves and hiring other writers to produce books under their famous bylines. What happens when all the brand-name authors retire?

Here’s what I think: The steady erosion of the traditional publishing companies and the steady rise of self-pubbing e-books directly to Kindle/NOOK/etc. are going to come together in a terrible collision. When the smoke clears, the “Big Five” will be history and the reading public will have their pick of millions of self-published titles to read. The simple problem is this: Very, very few of those titles will be any good. No one will need agents or editors, so there won’t be any quality screening whatsoever. With the gatekeepers gone, anyone can join the party, and when the entire concept of professional editing falls by the wayside, everyone will publish everything. Call me a snob, but I see dark days ahead if this trend continues.

And where will I be? Where do you think? I’ll be here, writing new books and self-publishing them, just like everyone else. And, just like everyone else, I won’t be making any money at it. That worries me.

So, how do we stop this trend, this downward spiral of the written word in America? I have no idea. And that worries me most of all.

5 thoughts on “Writing In America: I’m Worried

  1. Tom, I was lucky enough to be given a copy of your latest novel to blurb–and when it appears in print, I will be there to buy it! Love the poem at the end.

    I appreciate this post, but I am actually not as worried as you. From what I know, the percentage of working writers–writers who can do it for a living–has always been sadly low, in this country and others. Self-publishing has, if anything, made that number rise. It used to be that 200 authors in the US made a living off their writing alone; now I believe that # to be slightly higher.

    It’s a tough business, but it’s always been a tough business. And at my own publisher, I do see new talent being nurtured, and a midlist being carried along. I call many of those writers friends. As the former Chair of the Debut Authors Program for ITW, I’ve been able to learn from writers about a range of deals, and they seem no worse, arguably a bit better, than in former years. (Advances are curtailed, yes–but since that was always borrowed money, I don’t count that as a downgrade. I may be alone in that).

    As for blockbuster authors with a stream of bestsellers coming along to replace those who age out, I think they’ll do so at about the same number as has always been true. The blockbusters are the outliers…but looking on the horizon, I can see a few coming, and I figure there are more none of us knows anything about yet.

    It will be interesting to see five, ten, twenty years from now if things are worse than I predict, or better than you fear. I bet we both hope for the latter!

  2. Thanks for this well-reasoned and well-written piece. I hope you are wrong. I can say that without being impolite because I’m sure you also hope you are wrong. There are a few things that might be good signs. The digital age has dumbed down writing in general, but e-readers have increased the reading population, and many of those kindle and nook owners want gate keepers. Thus the popularity of Goodreads, DorothyL and other groups who review and recommend. And while many indie bookstore have closed, most are still going strong, and they almost never shelve self-pubbed books. And finally, maybe the big 5 will wake up to the realization that without midlist authors like us, their future is not promising.

  3. Thank you for your honest assessment of publishing today, and where you think it will be in the future. I’m not as pessimistic as you are, but I do see big changes coming. The publishing industry exploded in part because Wall Street got involved. Always looking for new investment targets, Wall Streeters didn’t assess the business itself. I think ebooks and self-publishing trends will push established publishing houses back to what they were in earlier decades, before the 1960s. With less money to entice CEOs and investors, the publishers will go back to producing books, with better and more varied selections, smaller print runs, and greater stability. The mega thrillers will show up once in a while, as always, but I think publishing will go back to being a smaller area of commerce. This means a few big houses and lots of small ones. The block-buster hype has been bad for the business of publishing.

  4. I would like to see solid numbers to back both arguments/opinions. I think in Jenny’s case it’s a matter of hope springs eternal. But it’s a sad fact that ebook shelves are packed with drivel and hard copies are just not selling — except again by those big name authors. I agree that the midlist is dead, which is where the big names usually come from.

  5. I’m seeing a common point in all these replies, which is that we simply don’t know yet what’s going to happen. Those arguments in the articles I mentioned are probably based on current or last-quarter activity, and we all know those things can turn on a dime.

    JENNY MILCHMAN–I’m worried, but not pessimistic. I’m hoping your assessment is closer to the truth than the articles we’ve been reading in the NY Times and PW and elsewhere. (And thank you for the blurb! A PENNY FOR THE HANGMAN was published last October, so it’s available now.) J. MICHAEL ORENDUFF–I hope I’m wrong, too. And I hope you’re right about readers wanting gatekeepers. SUSAN OLEKSIW–I suspect the Wall Street angle is what inspired most of these current articles. The publishers, big and small, would do well to follow your scenario and get back to basics. If Wall Street eventually loses interest in publishing, I think they’ll have to do that. GERRIE FERRIS FINGER–Maybe the midlist isn’t dead, only sleeping? That would be nice. But the “solid numbers” in the articles I’ve seen are all temporary, I think.

    Anyway, thanks for the responses. As I mentioned above, I’m not pessimistic, exactly–I’m just worried. But I intend to keep writing and hope for a positive outcome.

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