I was recently reading a blog post by a friend on twitter, which closed with the words, “No one makes money from writing, fool!” which got me thinking. Tom’s right, of course, it’s clear all around us – although I think your average long-form journalist might punch the first fiction writer who complains in her presence.
I often see writers lamenting this fact, or one very similar. Usually accompanied by much hand-wringing, complaints about “kids these days,” and exasperation that the author’s generation is the last of the true readers. That today’s youth have been lobotomised, their supposed “attention span” ruined by (depending on which decade) radio / comic books / television / video games / the internet; as a group both victims of, and yet clearly inferior to, the author and her peers.
Others jump up and down and claim that somehow “piracy” is responsible. That supply and demand for the written word is perfectly healthy, and simply being subverted by those ne’er-do-wells at The Pirate Bay.
These may indeed be contributing factors to the obviously increasing difficulty involved in making a living as a writer, although I’d be very surprised. I think the underlying cause is simpler, more fundamental.
As a reader, novelty is a big part of what I’m paying for. There are some books I’ll return to in my life but as a generalistion, a book to a reader is like a cup of coffee. Once I’ve read one and drunk the other, I’ve used them up. To the market though, a book is nothing like a cup of coffee: while it need be brewed but once, it can quench the newness-thirst of a thousand readers simultaneously, and their children’s too. The supply of material to read, particularly in fiction, is growing constantly; almost everything published in the last 40 years is still around, with more old content being made easily available on Kindle / iBooks / isohunt every day.
Authors retire or simply die at the same rate as readers, comparative rates of alcoholism notwithstanding- but they leave behind their work. As well as telling no tales, dead men buy no books.
In the short term, as the supply further outstrips demand, and the advertising model currently supporting a lot of non-fiction continues to falter, there will be less money to go around. There will be fewer full-time writers, more part-time writers, and all making less money at it. In theory, the best writers will be the ones who make it through. Good for those of us who like to read – and who do something else for a living. We can hope for all our sakes that the best writers will be the ones to see it through, and the quality of new material goes up. This should also drive the comparative attractiveness of a lot of older material down.
There will also be a lot of complaining on the internet.
In the medium term, we’ll eventually reach an equilibrium where the number of people writing for a living will be in balance with the the rate at which older material becomes too out-of-date to be relevant to contemporary audiences.
You’ll find that the Stephen Kings, Dan Browns, and Tom Clancys of the world will do fine. While their writing obviously meets a certain standard of quality, what they’re really selling is a) celebrity, and b) tribal membership.
I sympathise with those who would be professional writers, their only mistake being born in the tail of the twentieth century. Hopefully in the long term, we’ll all of us one day live in the world of Keynes’s dreams, where we don’t have to work 40 hours a week to keep our families safe, fed, warm and dry. That’s a world in which those born to it can write whatever they please, and take the time to do it as well as they possibly can.
There’ll also be a lot more time for reading.
[1: http://cacotopos.wordpress.com/2013/12/13/selling-your-shorts-all-by-your-lonesome/ ] – apologies for stupid footnote link, when I try to put a link into WordPress’s stupid editing interface it just closes my post editor. I choose to blame PHP.