Another golden age?
Perhaps it is true. Perhaps this truly is the Golden Age for writers, an age enabled by the digital revolution. This is the era that has finally broken the shackles that have fettered creativity; a time when the yoke of exploitation by the elitist commercial tyrants of publishing has been lifted off the weary shoulders of writers. Don’t take my word for it; the news is all over the place; even a recent article in Huffpost tells us it’s true. No better time to be a writer.
Of course, I’d like to think that this was also a Golden Age for readers but the two don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Still, it’s a good, heart-warming and uplifting story and shouldn’t be spoiled by little things like common sense or cynicism. It doesn’t matter that the reasons given for the claim - the Bookstats numbers for 2008-2011 – are flawed, incomplete and a little out of date; nor, that they are contradicted by the figures for 2011, such as those released by the Publisher’s Association in the UK. Everyone knows that writers have never had it so good and that those who get all the tricks right better buy a bigger piggy bank.
We’ve seen the signs before, in other golden ages, so we should know how to heed them and what they mean. Not a week goes by without some newspaper, somewhere, devoting a column to how e-publishing is booming; articles about the publishing revolution; even articles featuring a self-published author who has not only succeeded in scribbling a best-seller, but is willing to share the secret of her or his success. Self-publishing is buzzing; ebooks are the way to go. Everyone can’t be wrong.
Wiser everyones, of course, from those who were convinced that the internet boom of more than a decade ago was the next Big Thing; but this is different, naturally. But it’s strange how it feels the same way as it did back then, when teen internet entrepreneurs jostled with battle-hardened businessmen to find equity capital for every conceivable start-up; when companies with no revenue and only debt were valued like pharmaceuticals. There were the same newspaper articles on the wildest possibilities of the wildest web dreams, the same success profiles and the same helpful experts willing to take the hopeful along for the ride. The books on Startup to IPO in 30 Days now carry the title How To Make Your Book a Bestseller in 30 Days, and the daily stories of instant millionaires – at least on paper – are the tales of one bestselling author or another.
Everywhere there are countless book marketing gurus, offering up their secrets on how to make one’s book a best-seller. They all chant the same hymn, telling authors that they are not just writers now but also marketers; and that readers want to know and connect with the authors and not just the books and they fail to see the contradiction in offering to manage the social media connection for them. The inescapable advice-givers are almost as ubiquitous as the self-published authors to whom they shout their secrets. There are self-publishing services and distribution platforms. There are bloggers, reviewers and journalists, ready to give their reviews, advice and columns in the face of the unstoppable tide of e-publishing. Most important of all, the golden carrots, the million-selling authors, living proof of the Golden Age of publishing. And so the birdsong of Twitter is the hum of countless writers letting us know of the latest reader review of their book, or the chirping of a blatant plug in the hope that their’s will be the one among the thousands that catches our attention.
We can forgive the world its hubris; it is always so with us. And we can overlook those who think writing a book is child’s play and so a fast way to riches. And we can excuse even those for whom reading is nothing more than child’s play, so long as it costs no more than a 99p. Disappointment is the great leveller, not the market and the frenzy will subside in due course.
Meanwhile, the bubble continues to swell. There are now more than 7 million books on Amazon, more than half of them ebooks. Naturally, a great many are from traditional publishing houses, releasing ebooks alongside their hardbacks and paperbacks. And many are editions of public domain works; e-classics and e-trash alike are given equal airing. There’s a buyer for everything. We don’t know exactly how many are self-published books but it’s a lot. And a lot of them are deserving writers, genuinely concerned more with their book being read than the money.
We’ve all been caught up in the wonderful opportunity and possibilities of the digital publishing. There is no doubt that it presents an opportunity for writers to become published when before they might have languished unpublished. In addition, there is a great belief that it represents the opportunity for authors to take a greater share of the rewards of the publishing purse; that the tyranny of the publishing gatekeepers, who for so long have kept so many from their deserved recognition, of being published, has been overthrown; creativity will flourish alongside opportunity and the 99c ebook. I don’t share their disdain for traditional publishers but I do join in the chorus of optimism.
Supply has always exceeded demand in the book market; that’s why authors, on average, have a professional income about on a par with that of actors. Those trumpeting the golden age say the proof is in a market that grew by 5% between 2008-2010. Are we to accept that without question? Even if that wasn’t undermined by a market that shrunk in terms of value and volume in 2011, we need to look at the other part of the equation: the increase in producers and titles has far outstripped market movement. A fairly static pot is being shared by a vastly greater number of players. And, sadly, a great proportion of the new offerings on the market do the rest a disservice.
Ebooks, even in the area where it is strongest and has grown most (fiction) still only account for less than 20% of all sales. Traditional publishing, though troubled, still rules the markets. The startling growth in ebook titles, especially in 2010-2011, shows signs of slowing, though there his little doubt that it will eventually become the dominant book form, at least for fiction. Whether that means that there will be a corresponding growth in self-published titles is another matter.
The bubble will burst, as all such bubbles do. Fortunately, this one will pop without the usual losses in money or livelihhod. Many of those who self-published will find that the book they had in them was meant just for them after all, and wear their disappointment well. Some will stay convinced that all they had needed was the right exposure; some of those will be right. And as the hype dies away, fewer hopefuls will join the gold rush. Many of the marketers will drift away to sell their tonic in other fields. The damage will not be great. The glut of poor books, over-priced even when free, may leave a nasty taste in the mouths of the readers. They may end up being just as wary of self-published books in a few years hence as they were a few years past. Let’s hope not. Writing’s a tough enough way to make a living without having to do it with someone else’s sins on your back.