Monday, 13 July 2009

Uh-oh, my profession is dead ...

I just got back from ThrillerFest, which is a thriller writers', publishers' and fans' convention in New York and two things struck me. The first was that it felt much quieter than last year ... This could be because a bunch of very noisy writers I know weren't there, raising hell at the bar and the rest of manhattan most nights, or - more likely - because the recession means people just can't afford to go to these things. That's temporary.

The second thing was permanent: the book publishing industry is finally about to undergo the sort of revolution that the record, TV and movie industries have been grappling with for the past decade. 

Till very recently most people, myself among them, felt that books would be protected from the internet revolution precisely because they were such old-fashioned artefacts: words on paper that couldn't be digitally stolen; actual objects you had to carry around. I haven't played a CD on any of my old hi-fi systems - relics of the audiophile age that sit gathering dust under the stairs - for at least five years. I now listen exclusively on my computer or Pod and it's all digital downloads. But somehow I figured books would be different. I believed in  the notion that there was something special about them as objects.


The simplest way of telling that books are dead is that no one in New York publishing reads them any more. Submit a manuscript to an editor and they won't lug around a typescript. They'll have their assistant stick it on their Kindle or Sony Reader. And they'll do this for the same reason we all got iPods: because the utility and convenience outweigh all other considerations.

My new York gent is convinced that this is affecting the kind of books that are being bought by publishers. She reckons that all the various eBooks encourage 'reading-lite' - skimming over stories, ignoring subtlety, depth and character development. Editors I've spoken to disagree ... but then, they would, wouldn't they?

More importantly though is that once the digital genie is out the bottle, so is the whole paid-for book business. Very soon there will surely be a literary Napster, ripping off books and streaming them for free (Google Books might not have a million miles from that if copyright conditions had not been imposed on that massive book-copying project). Even now there are lots of wannabe writers offering books for free on Amazon's Kindle store. 

So how are professional authors going to get paid? Rock stars make up for lost recording revenues by hiking concert ticket prices. But I don't see too many authors hitting the road and filling enormodomes?

Too many people go on about free content as if it's the ay of the future, almost a human right. But if the guy who fixes your plumbing gets paid, and the woman who operates on your bad back gets paid, and your car, house, food and clothes all cost money, why in hell's name should creative people work for free. Because guess what? We have to buy cars, food, clothes and plumbing too!

Over the next few years, we are going to have to fight to keep our business alive. This is a story with conspiracy, tension, action and multiple fatalities. But will it have a happy ending? After waht I saw in New York, I'm damned if I know ...

Tom Cain


  1. Ooops! My 'New York gent' is actually my New York 'agent' ... and she's a lady, not a gent! Blame it on the jetlag!

  2. This doesn't only affect writers. Almost everyone working within the arts struggles - artists, musicians, writers - it's the same story everywhere. No creativity is valued in our society, except the ability to create money - which is exactly why we need fiction (in books of course!) Real life is just too depressing.

  3. Musicians are apparently now making more income from live performance than from sales of CDs but, as you rightly point out, authors aren't performers. Some of us are actually quite shy and may not relish the prospect of making a career out of after dinner speeches - 'How I wrote my novel' - if novels still exist in this dystopian world we seem to be moving towards. Nor are we a service trade like plumbers and hairdressers. So where do writers go from here? I think I'll retreat back into my fiction - while that's still an option.

  4. Part of the problem is the fanaticism of the whole ‘open source’ movement: all these people saying copyright is dead. Oddly enough, they still expect to be paid for the speeches they give pontificating on the subject! I suspect, in the end, the solution will have to come from much tougher copyright laws, coupled with creative businesses of all kinds demanding money from service providers and portals that are enabling file transfers ... If we at least got paid a royalty like the PRS songwriters collect from radio plays, that would be something. But there’s also a job of education to be done, pointing out to people that if they don’t pay something, they won’t have any movies, records, books at all to enjoy in the future.

  5. ...there will still be new films - computer generated images of beautiful people... no, let's not go there! 'The blues is my business, and business is good' as the song says.

  6. This is a worrying time for all associated with publishing - great peice