Redux: No More Professional Writers?

[Contributing author Yvonne Hertzberger is away either modeling lingerie or making linguini—I’m a little unclear on the details, the phone connection is a little iffy up here in the mountain enclave. Anyway, enjoy this encore performance of an article that rings ominously as true today. – Hise]

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.

23 thoughts on “Redux: No More Professional Writers?”

  1. Your 150 words were brilliant. You seem to have cut them down at the knees, or at least left them speechless. Sometimes the truth can not be denied. It is an interesting time to be a writer; I wonder what history will say about this down the pike? You are right about the wheat from the chaff; the readers will actually read the intended words not the bastardized version.

  2. I agree, only to a certain level. When an author self-publishes they become a professional to a certain degree. In that sense we are all professional writers, at what level of writing may come into question. Many great story tellers, have great talent for building pictures in reader’s minds, yet they have not proffesionally proofread their work. Still I think these writers deserve a chance to get their work out there and let the readers of the world decide. Who decides if they are less professional than the writer that gets published by a traditional New York, house that blocked many great writers in the past. Great writing will rise to the top of the rankings in the long run. 🙂

    1. True – we are all ‘professional’ to as much as we are able. I, in no way, suggest we do not get our work professionally edited before we publish. What I decry is the prejudice against Indies and the assumption that their work is sub-standard.

  3. Good stuff, Yvonne. I wonder whether the Writers Union of Canada is singing a different tune these days, given what I saw at the World Fantasy Convention in Toronto a few weeks ago. The publishing industry may be moving on, collectively, in its grief work from anger to mourning, with a side of bargaining (“ooh, you’ve sold a lot of books on your own — want a contract, so I can get a cut of that?”) on the side.

    1. Some ostriches donl\’t want to take their heads out of the sand and look at the sun. I think it will take them some time before they come around, especially with the Globe behind them. It’s an old boys network.

  4. Professional? As in: “I make a living from it?”. These are the kind of author that make me want to [insert appropriately angry action]. Only a tiny percentage of writers have ever made a living from their work and that includes folk like me with contracts with mainstream publishers who have seen their work go through the professional process. I have a dozen books in print. What I earn doesn’t pay the power bills let alone put food on the table, so all this talk about indie publishing jeopardising professional creation of culture (excuse me while I fetch the bucket) really have no idea what happens in the real world. Having been the traditional route and the indie route, I know which I prefer. Indie publishing is damned hard work if you want to produce a product that stands up and gets sold. Not least because you have to go out there and do the selling. As for my best selling title? It’s one I published myself because no mainstream publisher would touch it – ‘really well written’ they would all say, ‘but no chance of selling it’. Well, I sold it with a marketing budget of zero. I would never rule out a contract if that was the best deal for my work, but I am infinitely grateful that technology now enables me to circumvent the entrenched and highly conservative world of mainstream publishers. Sorry that’s a bit incoherent, but there is little that makes me angrier than that kind of talk from writers – spoiled, elitist, garbage spewers who seem intent on preserving a system that produces rubbish by the yard and quality by the fraction of an inch.

  5. For about eight years I’ve been saying “In the future everybody will be an author and nobody will make a living at it.”
    Even for somebody like myself, for whom it’s too late to make a living any other way, that’s not the worst possible scenario.
    A society in which everybody is an artist, everybody is an athlete, everybody is a statesman, is actually kind of similar to the Athenian ideal that kicked off democracy and a lot of the arts in the first place.

    Hard to say if the dragged out that stuffed Morrison as a horrible example, or to bolster writing elitism. Probably the latter: newspapers NEVER get new publshing right… mostly because they are even more vulnerable than books. News is FREE online.

    Turow has long been ridiculed for ego-fogeyism by people like Doctorow and Eisler.

  6. It’s really bizarre to hear the old guard of traditional publishers and authors decry the democratization of literature as though institutional publishers have a monopoly on culture. They seem to believe that art is created in top-down fashion—the elites create the good, noble art, and then the people dutifully consume it. Really, though, art is created bottom-up—people desire beautiful, thoughtful things to look at, read, or listen to, and creative people set about making them. People will always demand professional-quality writing, and where there’s demand, someone will step up to meet it.

Comments are closed.