By Dave Freer
RUUUUUUN! The water main has burst under the instant mashed potato factory… or something of that sort.
Oddly several people seem to think that I am about to be overwhelmed by vast gurpling seas of fake mashed potato and that Ewan Morrison is just the fellow to tell me to run to high ground or at least the tender gentle clutches of the nurturing publishing industry.
It is quite possible I will drown in fake mashed potato. Or, as a worse fate, have to learn to eat it. But I can’t say I have even begun lacing up my running trainers, let alone letting panic wipe out any semblance of common sense when I read his grim forecast for my livelihood and chosen profession. Maybe I’m just a sceptic or just a nasty blockish brutal fellow who deserves extinction. But go ahead, read the article and tell me what you think.
Here is my deconstruction:
Firstly before we panic let’s look at where this comes from. Hmm. The Edinburgh Arts Festival (a typical spot for your average unpretentious reader) as reported in the Guardian – the newspaper of the Champagne socialists of the UK. Now it takes all types to make a world, and that’s a good thing, but it is also true that this is pretty much (as in NY publishing) where the bulk of the publishing industry fit. This is their mouthpiece and they are the establishment. So: we can conclude this is pretty much their viewpoint, or at least written for them.
And then… Who is it coming from: According to Wikipedia, Ewan Morrison is an Arts graduate, who sometimes writes for the Guardian, who has written three books exploring alternatives to monogamy, and has been in line or won some some literary type prizes, and been a Unesco writer in residence. In other words – an Arts establishment man, who, to quote him, feels writers deserve to be ‘paid a living wage.’
We differ slightly on this: I feel authors ought to be able to _earn_ enough to live on. But yes, I do think authors need to be able to work full time and not write on cardboard in their own blood while starving and freezing under bridges.
He goes on at length about the demise of the paper book. I don’t think it’ll be that fast, or that complete, but yes, I agree. E-books are the future.
His first point is the Retreat of the Advance and the reaction of writers to it.
Perhaps the world was very different for the Arts establishment man publishing literature: “The economic framework that supports artists is as important as the art itself; if you remove one from the other then things fall apart.”
As someone with I suspect far more sales than the average literary writer, I can assure you the framework was pretty dead when I sold my first book in 1999, and it’s pretty close to moribund now.
Let’s just have a quick look at the entire concept of the advance. Why does it exist at all? Well, because back in the days of chipping out books on stone tablets (or about 3 years after) it of necessity took a very very very long time to produce a book and to pay for it. It was written by hand, transported by horse or mail-coach, hand typeset, printed, and then distributed by wagon. Every six months they would hand count the number of books still in the warehouse, and then manually do the tallies, and write the author a check. And the process could drag on for a long time. Needless to say, the doing away with every one of these impediments has made the time taken to render payment… longer. I’ve had the process take 3 years from signing to first royalty (which only occurs after a full 6 months reporting period – which as they are always 3-5 months late in paying, and a book can have 5 months of the previous reporting period – up 16 months after a book comes out), and it took me two months to write the book. I know several writers who can turn out a novel in a month – a good book too – deliver it electronically, and the editing and proofing and cover do not need to take as much as another month. Returns on e-books are immediate, records are immediate… in other words there is no reason why the author should not be paid immediately (even by Amazon, who settle quarterly – much better than most, but still could improve), or at leas monthly. So: the advance system is a legacy system which exists largely because the royalty system is so bad. Fixing it would go a long way to making life much better for authors. Far more than maintaining the old system. Trust me. Try paying your monthly bills when you get paid erratically in lumps. It’s not fun. Most authors would be much more productive if they could log into their account and see what they’d sold today, and what would be electronically debited into their account at month end. This is not hard, but no publisher has yet even inched towards it.
So to return Ewan Morrison’s bemoaning the shrinking advance on royalty (which as I said, shouldn’t need to exist, and not having it would free books to earn what they earn, not to prove the editor guessed sales right (getting it right is most unlikely. Statistically improbable in the extreme. Getting it wrong could get you fired. So oddly… it is so often just… Goldilocks! Why do these editors not just pick lotto numbers? They’d be able to publish exactly what they liked and we’d just have no choice… oh, wait…) “In reaction to the removal of their living wage, many writers have decided to abandon the mainstream entirely: they’ve come to believe that publishers and their distribution systems are out of date; that too many middle-men (distributors, booksellers) have been living off their work.”
Come to believe? Hang on. I’ve looked at my Bookscan figures per State. I KNOW my distribution sucks rocks. I earn on average 10% (and as little as 6%) of the cover price of books sold in the US. My books sold in Australia get me around 2% of the cover price. Do I perhaps feel that others taking 90-98% of the income generated by my work for seconds per book of often shoddy effort is providing too many middle-men with a living instead of me? What an ODD idea!!!
And now the long tail, which our Arts Establishment writer believes is just so bad for writers… Well, if you were one of the cool kids, the darlings of the publishing establishment, who got you books into every bookstore, on the every shelf, and who lavished money on promoting you in an environment they controlled… it must be pretty awful. You see the long tail is wagged by word of mouth, which, yes, they can influence. But it’s a lot harder than their command economy model. “Ve vil decide vot you vil read, Ja. Unt how many copies ve vil print Ja. Und take it or leave it!” (which, of course has resulted in many readers leaving it, to the detriment of authors, the industry, society and even the human race). For the rest of us… well, it means we get a small chance at succeeding on merit. And yes, word of mouth can still spread to a lot of people. Also, if I don’t get 2% but say 70% of the income, I don’t need to sell as many copies to earn a living without sharing it with people who add little value to my work.
But of course according to Morrison we must live in fear of the demon ‘free content’. He starts by quoting examples of various legacy industries where the primary producers have carried a vast weight of other beneficiaries, who very often added little value for their cost, and who are now in trouble – largely, in my opinion, as a result of this.
Firstly the standard pirate bogey. Quoting: “The Motion Picture Association of America lost 6.1 billion (75% higher than they expected).” Really? How _do_ they arrive at these figures? I’m only a statistician, I’m sure these geniuses would never assume that 1)they could actually predict sales without cheating. 2)that piracy represents lost sales. As we OUGHT to know piracy is a bunch of Somalis taking over your ship at gunpoint, but petty data theft is only a loss if the thief would have bought the product. And that, considering the price and often quality and nature of the product, is a lot less than likely.
Then the music bogey-man. I had to laugh at these.
“shows that for a musician to earn the minimum wage in the US, per month, he or she would have to sell either 143 self-pressed CDs, 1,161 retail album CDs or 4,053,110 plays on Spotify (with a 0.0016 percent royalty.”
So – after costs – the muso would have to sell 10% to make the same money? I’d heard they were often lucky to see 2%. Doesn’t prove his point well does it?
Martin Hodkinson states that “Hundreds of people have ‘downed their tools’ in the music business, through no choice of their own. The total income of the industry dropped by 25% between 1999 and 2008 and is expected to fall by 75% by 2013.”
So… run this one past the maths department. The industry, which at best paid the muso 10% is supposed to drop to 25% of it’s 1999 position. I suppose it would be naive to say to the middlemen well, as you were taking 90% + of the income, and without the musos you get a nice zero… and they can make a living on their own, maybe you need to face taking 15% instead of 90%? Or even 10%.
and so on.
Then we go a Google-bashing (because that’s what the cool kids do.) It’s not about quality content it’s about advertising – this has to be one of the stupidest misinterpretations yet made. Duh. If the content is good the readers will… you know, do this weird intolerable thing. Tell others they liked it. And then you know… that bit of content will attract readers and that in turn… will never get noticed by advertisers. Give me a break!
Which leads of course to the big pet zombie always fished out as the final get out of jail free card by the various middlemen in every industry.
“Piracy and competitive discounting – the race to the bottom
Back again to books. In all of the cases above, digital industries have been pushed towards zero price by two factors: (1) mass piracy and (2) the consumer demand for massive discounts. Book piracy has only just begun but it is now very simple to break through the DRM protection systems set up by publishers and to illegally download books in less than 60 seconds.”
Sigh. 1)Piracy is work. Almost no one knocks off a cheap, easy to get legally, well-supported product. See Baen webscriptions for proof. Yes, there is a bottom limit to what people are prepared to work at and hassle for. And no, no matter how discounted your prices are… when you reach those thresh-holds, it’s too much like hard work. Anyway, a vast amount of the cracking is done to ‘take the challenge’. If there is no challenge, and the book is available in good order, easily, and at a reasonable price – say under $5 for a novel, and you’ve done your homework as the publisher — made sure that the reader knows what share goes to the author, and made sure that readers know ‘no money-no writing happens’, and each reader feels like a patron. And they feel good about it too. But you can’t do this if everyone but the creator — the only person valued by by the consumer — is taking 90% of the income.
2) If DRM can be cracked in 60 seconds (and costs a fortune and stuffs up the product) why bother?
Which brings our friend Ewan to conclude that there are no simple answers…
Which not my conclusion at all. I can see a number of ways, even in his Arts Establishment world, to make the system work. Of course it would have to change (oh the horror!). Publishers would have to compete with Amazon et al. Authors could do serial books again. Publishers could start working on finding out what readers really wanted and trying the weird… actually nurturing it in partnerships that were worthwhile to stay in for authors. And those are just a few possible ideas.
And the awful future: “it will contain millions of would-be-writers who will labour under the delusion that they can be successful in the way writers were before, in the age of the mainstream and the paper book.”
Iffen Ah don’ laff, I’s sure as hail gonna cry. No. The cool kids were, Ewen. The rest of us did a thankless job, largely for the benefit of others, who treated us like replaceable widgets.