Last week author Tony Horowitz wrote an op-ed in the New York Times detailing his tragicomic experience writing an e-book:
Last fall a new online publication called The Global Mail asked me to write about the Keystone XL pipeline, which may carry oil to the United States from the tar sands of Canada. The Global Mail promoted itself as a purveyor of independent long-form journalism, lavishly funded by a philanthropic entrepreneur in Australia. I was offered an initial fee of $15,000, plus $5,000 for expenses, to write at whatever length I felt the subject merited.
At the time I was researching a traditional print book, my seventh. But it was getting harder for me to feel optimistic about dead-tree publishing. Here was a chance to plant my flag in the online future and reach a younger and digitally savvy audience. The Global Mail would also be bankrolling the sort of long investigative journey I’d often taken as a reporter, before budgets and print space shrank.
Alas, things did not go well. If you’re eying the e-book boom Horowitz’s piece is a must-read because it comes from someone in the trenches, not someone selling you a shovel that you will eventually only use to dig your own grave. Based on the totality of his experience I don’t begrudge Horowitz his eventual retreat, but if you’re new to the writing game I think it’s important to understand what has and has not changed during the past few years of publishing upheaval.
Making money as a writer — to say nothing of making writing a career, even for a few years — has always been brutally hard. If you’re passionate and lucky and plucky and willing to do whatever it takes, and you meet the right people at the right time, and you have the chops, and you’re less trouble than you’re worth, you can, maybe, get a gig. If you do a decent job and meet your deadline you might get another gig, or even an actual job with regular hours and benefits and somebody else paying two thirds of your social security taxes. But it’s hard. Always.
While the e-book craze is in large part being driven by people who hope to profit from doing so, and it’s always nice to make a buck, the real value of e-books, and by extension, self-publishing, is the fact that you no longer have to ask someone for permission to write what you want to write. You may not make any money following your bliss, but when was that ever guaranteed? The best you could usually hope for was to write for hire, to get someone to pay you for services rendered, then use that income to cover the cost of personal projects. Even if you were a literary lion your high-dollar advance came with expectations and limits.
If you want to make money as a writer you’re looking at a hard life, but it was always thus. What’s changed — what the e-book revolution and self-publishing are really about — is that everyone now has access. So while you’re right to think about how much money you can squeeze out of the marketplace with your talent and guile, take a moment to ballpark the opportunity cost of the self-publishing and internet distribution options currently available. What would it take to replicate those opportunities if you had to pay for them yourself? A billion dollars? Ten billion? A trillion?
The e-book market will sort itself out in time, at which point it will become just another market you can sell your services to if you aspire to be a working writer. What you no longer have to do is wait for someone to say yes if you’re willing to bet on yourself, and I see that change as priceless.
— Mark Barrett
Hey Mark. I enjoy reading your blog. It’s usually pretty informative and often times you make some good points. One area where we disagree is when you make statements such as, “You no longer have to ask someone for permission to write what you want to write.” When you write “someone” you of course are referring to publishers or agents or whoever the gatekeeper for the publishing industry happens to be.
A good author doesn’t have too many limitations on what he can do. If they aren’t selling well perhaps suggestions will be made, but that should be expected. It is a business after all. For those authors who are talented and can sell books, I don’t believe they have too many limitations. Nobody is telling Stephen King or Laura Hillenbrand, J.K Rowling or Gillian Flynn what to write.
You have often written that writing is hard and no one will argue that. It is generally assumed that the author of a self-published work will not be all that good. I think this is fair. Off the top of your head, name me three really good self-published authors. No doubt some authors who don’t deserve publishing contracts get them through connections or luck or whatever, but it’s hard to believe that there are too many great-undiscovered authors that are forced to go the self-publishing route. The cream usually rises.
One problem for me with self-publishing is that any one can write a book, but only very few can write a good book. A second problem is that every one thinks they are one of those who can write a good book. A third problem is that they are wrong.
I don’t know why it’s so great that technological advances have allowed thousands of lousy books to be thrust into the market. How can that be good? My uncle used to write fourth-rate poetry. He’d self-publish his books a few copies at a time and give them to family. That is fine; that is how it should be. Today, he’d have it on Amazon with fifty phony five star reviews.
Unlike you I think we need more gatekeepers not less. I think Amazon should have a quality control board that reviews every self-published book that comes in. If it has dozens of typos or the author doesn’t know the difference between “they’re” and “there” (as I’ve seen) or if it’s just a poorly structured book, Amazon should send it back with a nice letter telling the author thanks but no thanks. That would help the consumer and it would improve the reputation of the book industry. Only the authors who don’t deserve to be published would be harmed. I have no problem with that.
The entire question of writing quality is a shaky premise unto itself. What is good? We all probably know truly terrible writing when we read it, but as we stride up the slope to the good stuff what criteria are we to use in deciding what is good and bad? Is there some objective standard we can appeal to? Do we factor in outside influences, like personal associations? Alma maters? Ethnicity?
I don’t believe writing is, first and foremost, a business. Like anything else you can turn writing to that end, but for me it’s first and foremost a craft. If you want to play in the commercial end of the pool then yes, you’re going to have to abide by the market, however corrupt it might be. But I think it’s also fairly clear that the market itself has no particular need for writing quality. If you’re the worst writer in the world and have bankable celebrity the industry will find people to fix every splintered word you pen and you’ll laugh all the way to the bank. You’ll be a published author, and wealthy, but you won’t be a good writer.
Even if we rule out any appeal to sales and marketing, it’s never quite clear what the objective criteria are for determining whose work is good and not good. Until relatively recently in the United States your work was not good if you were female or a person of color. Have we reached the point at which there is no bias or discrimination in the field of letters? Is literary fiction now above petty social squabbles or cultural nepotism?
Your note about Rowling is funny given that she submitted a book without her name attached and watched it get shot down repeatedly:
If the industry’s gatekeppers — and here we are talking about elites in that capacity — were so good at detecting writing quality, how did that happen? (Because the industry, again, has no corner on discernment.)
If I had a better memory I could name a hundred good writers who’ve never even self-published. People who can tell a decent story with words. Most of them never tried the writing game because they knew the deck was stacked against literary and/or personal works in favor of whatever dreck the industry could manufacture, package and ship out by the ton.
As far as the damage being done by encouraging people to write and self-publish their work, I’m not sure I see the harm. If your complaint is that it makes it harder for good writing to find a market, I don’t see how that could possibly be true. Sheer numbers of books don’t preclude either individual or collective discovery of good work. They may make it harder to manufacture blockbusters because the audience will always have a lot of options and be splintered by those choices, but where are the complaints from readers about all the bad writing they’re being forced to read? Are readers being crushed to death by truck loads of bad writing? Are thousands of bad books falling from the skies and bludgeoning readers senseless?
Honestly, even assuming that most self-published writing is bad in some objective sense, where’s the harm? Who’s being hurt? More to the point, what is the value to the people who are pushing themselves to self-publish? Not everyone wants to make a career of writing, but that doesn’t mean personal expression can’t be meaningful in itself. I think it’s awesome that your uncle published his own poetry — that he cared, and shared his work with others. If you thought it was trash that’s fine, too, but it’s worth asking how doing that might have shaped his life, his view of the world, his relationships, his awareness. Was he a worse person for having written, or a better person?
As for your complaint, I don’t understand this:
>> I don’t know why it’s so great that technological advances have allowed thousands of lousy books to be thrust into the market. How can that be good? My uncle used to write fourth-rate poetry. He’d self-publish his books a few copies at a time and give them to family. That is fine; that is how it should be. Today, he’d have it on Amazon with fifty phony five star reviews. <<
So you're furious that all this bad writing is available, but you're okay with it being available on Amazon, which is pretty much were most of the writing you hate resides, in benign repose, waiting for readers who will never come. Again, who's being harmed here?
Should books have typos? No, of course not. The problem, however, is that of the last twenty or so industry books I've read they all contained typos — and some of these works were from big-name authors. One of the reasons why I'm firm in my belief that everyone should write if they have that calling is that every time I check up on the claims of the gatekeepers I find them to be false. There is no concern for the cultural life of our society in the publishing industry or half of the books you see in print wouldn't exist. By and large whatever is projected to make a buck will suddenly be 'good' and the stuff that doesn't promise riches will be 'bad' — or better yet 'unpublishable', which is a euphemism for unprofitable.
I'm not willing to sort out the good writers from the bad writers based on who can generate dollars. I'm also not willing to stake my own life on the fact that I can always tell who's good and who's bad in a qualitative sense. More importantly, I'm not willing to presume I have the right to tell anyone else what to do with their lives, including telling them not to write if that's something they have a passion for. If I'm going to pick a side it's going to be erring toward encouragement in the hope that doing so might keep someone who has something important to say from walking away or being shut out. Yes, that might mean there are more books in the marketplace that you don't like, but again, since you're not being compelled to purchase, read, or even pay scant attention to such works, I don't see the harm either to you personally or to the industry.