No More Professional Writers?

On July 26 the Globe and Mail, Canada’s most respected newspaper, devoted two-thirds of the front page and half of the second page of their Globe Arts section to the article. ‘There will be no more professional writers in the future’ (their punctuation) Naturally, I was most interested. It came on the heels of a similar article in the Guardian. Other rags posted on the same topic. I got the impression they all timed their diatribes together for greatest impact. The purpose, as I see it – war on self-publishing and a (futile) reactionary attempt to save the old guard.

The article cites the Guardian, and quotes author Morrison, who claims he is being “pushed into the position where I have to join the digital masses,” by the “ominously feudal economics of 21st century literature,” after “making culture professionally for 20 years.” He laments that he is not alone, that “it’s something many writers are having to do.”

The cause? Digital and self-publishing. “Floods of amateurs willing to work for nothing are chasing freelance writers out of the trade,” as “the revolutionary doctrine of ‘free culture’ obliterates old definitions of copyright.” The result, he mourns, “will be the destruction of vital institutions that have supported ‘the highest achievements in culture in the last 60 years’.”

Highest achievement? Really? When I compare the literacy of what fills the shelves of bookstores, mostly chains that all offer the same books, it aims to sell to the lowest level of reader. I am so tired of drek with no literary value, all published by traditional publishing houses. On the other hand, I have enjoyed Indie literature of the highest calibre.

One peril, says author Scott Turow, “is the generalized assault on copyright” via book pirates and free content people. Here he may have a point, though we need a solution that works with the changes, not one that tries to hold them back.

He states that digital self–publishing “doesn’t allow young writers to flourish”. The truth, in my opinion, is the opposite. Young and new writers are barred by the traditional publishing houses from breaking through. Especially in fiction, winning a contract from an existing publisher is less likely than winning a major lottery. And I believe that is precisely what has caused the Indie movement to flourish. It is the only way new writers can get their work in front of readers – readers who will then judge them on their own merit without the artificial barriers the ‘Big Six’ put up.

Much of the rest of the article bemoans the loss of income, advances and sales for established writers. And Turow declares that all successful authors, such as Amanda Hocking and E. L. James, sign what Morrisson calls “a proper publishing deal” as soon as they are able.

“Bollocks,” I say, to use a wonderful Brit term. I personally know of wonderful, literate authors who have no wish for a traditional contract. Why? Because they don’t want their work dumbed down, or their ideas and their styles adulterated to make them ‘more saleable’ in the eyes of an editor.

That bastion of Canadian guardianship, The Writers Union of Canada, says, “Younger generations are so steeped in consumerism I think sometimes they don’t understand where it’s taking them. Who benefits from all this free content? Google.“ They cite litigation they are facing to “protect those paltry incomes from further corrosion….Is this the Canada we want?” It’s all about diminishing incomes for the institutions and the established writers – not about writing.

The day after reading this article I wrote a letter to the editor. Please understand that I was restricted to 150 words.

The publishing industry is in transition. Transitions are, by their nature, chaotic and unpredictable. This article reads like a reactionary ‘push back’ by an establishment either unwilling and/or unable to adapt to changes they cannot prevent.

The argument that independent, self-published work is inferior is a prejudice that does not meet the test of validity, a myth the establishment wishes to perpetuate. Self-published does not equate to sub-standard. I have read many works by Indie authors that outrank what I see in bookstores, published and acclaimed by the “Big Six”. The Indie books I have read are literate, thoughtful and original.

At 63, I am not ‘the younger generation’, nor do I aspire to a traditional contract. I’ll remain Indie and maintain control. My work will sink or swim based on readers, not hype. They will separate the wheat from the chaff. Many Indies feel the same.

It never saw the light of day. Nor did any other letter on the topic. The Globe went silent. Why, I wonder? I suspect that they received a deluge of negative feedback from Indie writers and readers of Indie books. I also suspect that they had to save face with the Writers Union of Canada, who are vehemently against Indies. I know this because I attended a workshop of theirs a couple of years ago.

Would I refuse a publishing contract if I were offered one, you may ask? It would depend on many factors, not the least of which is how much control I would retain. One thing I can promise you, I will not allow my work to be adulterated to appeal to someone else’s idea of what sells.

What history often calls revolutions, I prefer to label transitions. The old ways always eventually cease to work. New ways take their place. The old guard reacts, trying to hold their power. A struggle ensues. Eventually a new ‘old guard’ forms and the cycle starts again. This is true in many areas of life. Publishing is only one. We Indies are at the forefront. How will it work out? I don’t know. What I do know is that good writers are more able to have their efforts see the light of day. And that can only be good for literature and the future of writing. The rest will fall by their own lack of talent and skill. And that is also a good thing.

Author: Yvonne Hertzberger

Yvonne Hertzberger is a native of the Netherlands who immigrated to Canada in 1950. She is an alumna of The University of Waterloo, with degrees in psychology and Sociology. Her Fantasy trilogy, ‘Earth’s Pendulum’ has been well received. Learn more about Yvonne at her blog and her Amazon author page.

37 thoughts on “No More Professional Writers?”

  1. Beautiful post, Yvonne! It’s great to see a fellow Canadian author who is just as committed as me to responsible, quality independent publishing and takes an equally dim view of the inbred Canadian literary establishment. I wish the Big Six saw that we’re really all on the same side, because diminishing reader numbers, especially among the young, are a common danger to us all, and one we should combat together. But they are too obsessed with market share among those ever-fewer readers to join our common cause. It will prove tragic for them.

    1. Thanks Hermine. The diminishing reader numbers may or may niot be there, but there is certainly a diminishing number of choices in what the ‘Big Six’ offer them to read. Tragic – yes.

  2. “The old ways always eventually cease to work. New ways take their place. The old guard reacts, trying to hold their power. A struggle ensues. Eventually a new ‘old guard’ forms and the cycle starts again. ”

    Well put, Yvonne.

  3. Scott Turow cites EL James as an example that is intended to do what – encourage us to respect and revere the quality of the traditional publishing industry? Pardon me whilst I pick myself off the floor and try to stop laughing. Great post, well said, Yvonne.

  4. Great post, Yvonne! “pushed into the position where I have to join the digital masses,” ? Wow, someone sure is full of it!

  5. I read that article online and was, more or less, disgusted by it. The author came off as inane and whiny, unwilling to look past the chaos of the publishing industry as it is now and see what it could be years down the road. Too concerned with his misguided view of the ‘literary’ to realise he sounded like a spoilt brat. I agree with you, Yvonne, I have read indie books that are above par than the shelves. I fear to walk into Waterstone’s because (right now anyway) I’ll be assaulted by erotic novels (thank you, E.L. James) and the latest and greatest by whichever movie star decided he or she had enough to say about something to write a book about it. At least with the indie movement there is a variety. Yes most is crap, but so is much of what the Big Six put out. Just because they’re a publishing house doesn’t mean they are immune from crap. And, really, I think that’s what the article chooses to ignore. It also ignores the monopoly on monetary return the publishing houses have on their writers. But, you know, what ever will back up his viewpoint,I suppose. Great post, Yvonne!

  6. I’m from the same era as you, Yvonne, and of the same mind in regards to the old guard and the status quo. Well said, young Yvonne, and a nice piece of writing!

  7. Great post and so true Yvonne. Change is difficult for those who fear being deposed from their position of control and the recognition and prosperity that comes with it. Yeah to the writers who have had the courage to bypass the system and risk the sneers about “vanity” publishing. There are some terrific Indie writers out there and they will rise to the top and find their success, without giving up the rights to their work. There are other works that are less than wonderful in my opinion, but that’s only my opinion. Thanks to this digital revolution they have pushed away the “hands” that would have strangled their voice, and been able to express themselves. The reading public will decide what they want to read.

  8. To be fair to the Globe writer, I suspect he was casting about for a subject for his column, saw the Guardian piece, and said to himself, “Hey, yeah, I can write about that!” 😉

    I thought the Guardian guy was somewhat confused. When I think about freelancers, I think about non-staff writers who sell pieces to newspapers and magazines, sometimes on spec. Not sure how that equates to indie publishing, but anyway.

    I agree that these guys are worried about losing their jobs, first and foremost. Your response was great, Yvonne.

    I’m attending the World Fantasy Convention in Toronto in November. The programming committee sent an e-mail awhile back, asking for suggestions for panel topics. I suggested one on indie publishing. I don’t expect it to happen — I heard the same sort of vitriol about indies at last year’s WFC as we’ve been seeing in these articles — but I’ll keep y’all posted.

  9. More floundering around by print people to try to come to grips with and deny changes brought about by new technology and sales channels.

    Actually, for about 8 years I’ve been saying, “In the future everybody will be an author and nobody will make a living at it.”
    Tongue in cheek, but there’s a lot to it, and it points to some features of the trend.

    One possible way to look at it would be–and speaking as a lifer pro writer–that there are worse things. What if the future didn’t allow writers (and musicians and artists) to make a living at it? Doesn’t everybody say they do it for the love of it? Is a scenario where people are just reading each others’ books for cheap or free so awful? Does the fact that there are no professional softball or field hockey players keep people from playing or watching those sports?

  10. What if, to speak more to what really terrifies these people, the future of news and magazines is a huge clutter of websites and TV shows, and people quit paying money for big stacks of paper that are 75% advertising? End of the world? For whom?

    Turow’s comment that hot indie writers sign up with publishers is ignorant. (Pretty much anything he says lately is ignorant, or have you noticed?) Perhaps you saw my post from Barry Eisler last week. Perhaps they haven’t heard of John Locke or Selena Kitt?

    The lick they seem to have missed is that the really big ebook sellers that people pay over ten bucks for are books already established by existing publishers. And it might be legitimate to think that without the capitalized pushing of product that such “full price blockbusters” will fade away. But wouldn’t they just be replaced by people like Hocking or Leather or Locke?

  11. Another scenario might be that there are people making a living, or paying their rent, by writing, but nobody becomes a millionaire. That’s a little harder to get upset about. The indie model doesn’t need millionaire writers to make it work. Old-style publishing does.

    1. Thanks Lin. Good points, but I like this last one best. To me, the ideal scenario is many writers making a living, but none becoming millionaires. Is my pink showing?

      1. What’s really interesting is contrasting that to old-school publishing. I was just thinking about that this morning. They still pay out multi-million dollar advances to people like Hocking and 50 Shades or Gay and all.
        But don’t pay $50,000 advances anymore. For all the talk of that industry nurturing writers and bringing us along–what does a $3000 advance do for us?
        And, really, is a $10 million dollar advance more helpful to a writer than one or two million?
        It’s all upside down.

        1. I wonder if there is any writer on the planet who deserves even one million. Imagine if those huge advances were divided into 30 to 50 grand each to different new, promising writers. Then we might have a viable industry.

  12. Wonderful post. The e-book technology gives more choice to the reader. Let the reader decide what they want. The sales will be spread out among many writers, that is what is feared. I’d rather buy a Mr. Pish book for my nephew than Madonna’s latest offering, anyway.

  13. Great post, Yvonne. I like your use of “transition” instead of “revolution.” It’s the more accurate word although for those who are comfortable in the old world, I’m sure it feels like a revolution. Any time an establishment player starts talking about “literary values” I get suspicious.

    Not only is everything Turow says these days ignorant, Morrison (who Lynne theorizes might have inspired this article) is also. In his case, I’d never heard of him prior to the several pieces he’s done for the Guardian, so as far as I can tell, he’s always been ignorant.

  14. Excellent post. I think it’s sad that some people are so anti the Indie movement. I think they feel threatened that we’re managing to get our stuff out there and it’s actually working quite well. I love being an indie author and feel very privileged to be able to write what I want, when I want and have readers really enjoy my work 🙂

    1. Thanks Melissa. Someone just messaged me to say that they thought any Indie writer would jump at the chance of a traditional offer. I disagree. So many of us, as you say, want to write what they want. Trad contracts take away that artistic control.

  15. If you read media history, it shows that existing media since the invention of the printing press are not completely wiped out by new media or media technology. Traditional book publishing will survive even as digital publishing and indie authors grow and prosper. I expect they will find a balance where both have equal respect. The Globe & Mail can be hysterical at times

  16. Well said Yvonne! I think publishers have to offer all authors more than just the ego boost of an imprint. Until that happens accepting a contract would be a little like voluntarily quaffing hemlock. I’ll be interested to see whether fans of Amanda Hocking will stay with her once her books start selling at establishment prices.

    1. Good popint. Fans of Steven King and Tom Clancey are used to spending $20 for a book, so a ten dollar ebook is a deal to them.. Whether ebook rans used to spending a couple of bucks will cough up for their faves remains to be seen.

      As far as one-hit wonders, the Kindle sales model tend to want writers to have more books in order to really be successful. The top-selling indy writers all have a lot of stuff to buy.

      And I have to say that big publishing tends to vet for future books: they lay out a lot of money to launch and author and want to know there’s more where that came from.
      Whereas the majority of indie authors are out there flogging their single opus.

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