In the comments of a recent post, a member of the writing group I’m in said this about e-books becoming more common:
“I suspect it will be easier to get an audience via the e-book revolution, and harder to make a career”
– Mark Felps
I’ve seen things get harder when the self publishing boom of the 90s hit comic books and things got crowded. And while I see a lot of good things as e-books become more accepted, I agree with Mark that it will be harder than ever to make a career strictly writing in the future.
In the comments of that recent post, Mark goes on to talk about the “long tail.” For those not familiar with the long tail, it’s a retailing concept for selling things that don’t have a large audience.
With music, most stores stock popular musicians, but obscure musicians often don’t see rack space. That doesn’t mean there’s not demand for obscure bands–it just means there’s not as much demand for obscure bands as there is for very popular bands.
The “long tail” is comprised of all those obscure brands. The concept is, if you can be the person being the one-stop place for the obscure bands, you can make money by focusing on a niche that larger retailers usually ignore.
The problem with the long tail as a creative individual is, unless you are the person selling all the obscure bands, you’re a handful of sales out of thousands of obscure bands. In other words, while you and a thousand other obscure bands may see 25 sales each, the person organized enough to bring all the obscure bands together sells 25,000 units. (The organizer makes a living–the obscure artists in a flooded market still don’t.)
You may only sell a handful of e-books without a publisher backing you, while the group compiling and handling the sales of all the obscure writers out there offering e-books sells enough to make a living.
* * *
Here’s my dream writing job: I wake up and write for several hours. I have lunch with my wife, or meet friends for lunch. I write some more, and then run errands. After dinner, maybe I edit, maybe I write, I go for a walk, or maybe I relax. I produce books on deadline and my agent sells them and gives me money. Maybe I do book signings, here and there, but in general, I write, turn it over, and let others do what they do best so I can do what I do best (write).
I’d love a flying car and world peace, too.
* * *
It’s easy enough to make a living as a decent-enough programmer, salesperson, or manager.
To make a living writing, you have to be your best, and even then, that best may not be enough to support yourself by strictly writing stories.
Sitting down to write, selling what you’ve written, and making a living with words happens to very few people who set out for the dream.
The odds are against you; the odds have always been against you.
Yet, somehow, there have always been writers who rose to the top.
I think Mark is right, it is harder than ever to make a living writing.
But each year, some writers still do it.
* * *
While there are writers who do make it each year, there are more who slip from the midlist each year and have to find other ways to pay the bills.
I think Mark is right: because of a coming flood of e-books, it will be harder for a writer to make a living in the future; in fact, we’re already seeing it.
If you write fiction, many agents hope you can also write non-fiction so they have more to sell. Agents want writers who aren’t afraid of getting up in front of people and speaking. Writers are expected to spend almost as much time selling themselves as they do writing.
It’s not all bad, though.
While it may be harder than it’s been to make a living just sitting in a room and writing fiction, there are more opportunities than ever for a writer willing to work hard writing fiction, non-fiction, speaking, and doing other things only limited by creativity and drive.
What do you think: do e-books and other changes in publishing make it harder or easier for a writer to earn a living?
Mark Felps says
That dude’s a jerk who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Did you read the stuff about MacMillan and Amazon? I get having disputes over pricing, but pulling physical works to punish a company for their opinions regarding their eBooks? Amazon took bread out of the mouths of innocent writers because they got in a pissing contest over pricing with their publisher. That spooked me.
Let’s look forward to the dual-provider future of Apple and Amazon, who combined sell 95% of all eBooks, which now comprise 80% of all book sales. It would seem a price war between the two, with writers caught in the middle — trading cash for exclusivity — would be inevitable.
Larry Tubbs says
I’m not a writer, but from my perspective here on the outside, I’d say that the demand for writing must be higher than ever, just not fiction novel writing.
New media, blogs, podcasts, web sites, video games, TV shows, magazines, etc. – all these things are competing with the novel for the attention of consumers, but they are all a machine that takes one type of food: writing!
So, I’d postulate that it is easy to make a living these days as a writer, just maybe not doing the type of writing that you enjoy the most.
I think this is much the same situation for people in other disciplines. Take myself for example. I’m a software design architect. I work for a financial services company in the Dallas, Fort Worth area. I make my living designing software systems used to make and service car loans. Would I enjoy designing Mass Effect 3 more than our new account servicing platform? Hell yes I would!
But, strangely, my life pattern is strangely close to the ideal that you mentioned in your post. I wake up, work out, eat breakfast with my family, work a few hours in the morning designing software, have lunch with some coworkers and friends, work a few more hours in the afternoon, and spend my evenings doing whatever I wish in the company of my charming family.
I had to make some compromises along the way, but all and all, I’m very happy with the results.
I don’t want people to think that I’m poo pooing on their dreams, or that I’m implying that they should give up on your dreams. Our mutual friend Pete designs game software for a living. He is proof that some people make it.
My point is that the goal of fiction writer might not be the goal you are striving for, in fact you may be after the ideal writing job pattern. There may be other ways to get there. It’s food for thought.
Christopher Gronlund says
The creepiest thing to me is a potential structure where retailers essentially become publishers. If Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple (because I assume Apple will do well selling e-books) decided to bring in editors and techies to format e-books when they become more accepted, they could become publishers who also sell books.
While publishing houses have changed (MBAs running things higher up, a few big houses owning most small presses, etc.), it’s still a structure that lives and breathes books. As a whole, it’s an industry that cares about books all for the sake of the story. It’s an industry that–even though it’s slow–was set up originally to sell some bestsellers and nurture the midlist and below.
The thought that retailers could eventually run the whole show is very spooky!
The weekend pissing match with Amazon last week was very scary. Amazon pissed off publishers (they weren’t counting on other publishers standing by McMillan), authors, and even readers. Readers may like $9.99 ebooks (I’m one of them), but if somebody invests $250+ into one of the Kindles and then is told, “Sorry, you don’t have the option to buy this publisher’s books,” it pissed off the very people supporting e-books.
Hell, Amazon could have even tried playing the victim, not pulling books and making a stink about how the “big, mean publisher won’t let us sell books to you at $9.99,” and many Kindle readers would have probably been behind it, because to them, a 33% price hike is all they’d see. (Not that Amazon is selling e-books at a loss in order to sell Kindle readers and creating a market that can’t sustain itself.)
Writers are definitely the people caught in the middle. Competing with a glut of poorly-written, free e-books and people high up in big companies who are more into the bottom line than a love of books, I think you’re right: it’s harder than ever to make a living solely writing books, and it will only get harder.
Christopher Gronlund says
Yes, it’s definitely a time when a writer has to change. While the market for fiction comes and goes, people are reading more than ever. And while the thing that makes me the happiest–writing long fiction–has always been a long shot and become even more of a long shot, lately, I know that I can complain about how unfair it is, or change.
I think my future in writing will still have me writing novels, and having to write more non-fiction as well. Perhaps teaching something writing-related when I have more credentials. I know I’ll have to become an even better public speaker.
While I may not exclusively write stories for a living, I know that if I work hard at things, I can still tell stories for a living in some manner.
As I’ve sat around during this period of unemployment, I’ve looked at writing much differently. Novels most likely be what ever pays the bills. But as I’ve broken things down that I like and that are still writing related, I’ve seen that there’s a good possibility to do 4 or 5 things related to what I love to make a living as a writer.
Granted, that definition of “writer” has changed–it’s no longer “guy who sits alone in a room for hours each day creating stories.”
It might be more like Cory Doctorow, still writing novels, speaking, and doing other things related to the industry to make a living.
It’s not what I always dreamed of when I was younger, but it will still make me happy and beat going into a job I do simply because I have to pay the bills.