Monday, March 12, 2007

The Pie is Falling?

I've given some additional thought to the subject of declining author wages since I posted about them on Friday.

As novelist Elizabeth Chadwick noted in the comments:'s a pretty crap situation for many and that with the threat to copyright from online abuse set to become crappier in many, many cases.

Even so, she concluded: ain't all doom and gloom!

I've decided I agree with her, and not because I think she's a terrific author (although I do) or because she's my friend (she is); I agree with her because the situation for authors is more nuanced than what is implied in the study I originally posted about. To be sure, poor pay and copyright infringements have a negative effect, but I suspect some of the perceptions of gloominess stem from a lack of understanding of the ways in which the publishing industry is changing.

For one thing, more books are being published now than at any time in the past. This appears to be particularly relevant to the UK, as this article indicates:
UK publishers issued 206,000 new books in 2005 compared with 172,000 in the United States, which saw an 18 percent drop in production, according to the New Providence, New Jersey-based firm's preliminary figures.

The volume of new books has been steadily increasing since the mid-1980s as the popularity of superstores required more titles to fill their shelves, and then later the advent of online retailers made greater choice even easier to supply.

The number of annual new titles from U.S. publishers has increased 51 percent since 1995, but the growth may have hit a peak.

Even taking into consideration the decline in the US, the number of books published each year has grown immensely since the mid-1990s -- this obviously implies more authors and ever-shrinking slices of "the pie". That argument has merit, but it fails to acknowledge some important realities, the most important of which is that the bar for publication is lower now. In fact, with the advent of outfits like iUniverse there are hardly any barriers at all. There are also more tiny companies like my own, which don't publish more than a book or two a year, and which, unfortunately, don't sell enough books to offer a decent living to anyone (although I live in hope).

As EC noted in her comments, she is doing fine, and so are some other authors she knows. This seems to fly in the face of the hand-wringers; it also highlights something so basic that it ought to be obvious, but, apparently, is not: these authors have not only built an audience, their audience continues to grow.

This is not about unfairly grabbing a larger share of the pie; it's about working to increase that share. It recognizes the fundamental truth that even authors who are eyed with envy are rarely the overnight successes others assume they are. Oh sure; it happens -- we've all seen it. But celebrities aside, authors who command the highest wages do so because of their track records.

Publishing is, after all, a business -- even small companies like mine are searching for the very best books and authors we can get. We'll always lose to the Randoms and Penguins, but that's OK; we do our best anyway. It's also worth noting that even down here at the bottom of the food-chain, it's pretty competitive; there are lots of would-be authors looking for a chance to build their own track record. Some will succeed; some won't, but unless your name is Victoria Beckham, the brass ring is equal opportunity.


Tess said...

Great points, DM!!! The sky really isn't falling *g*.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Just to say I've read your post (blushingly) and I concur. I know some areas of publishing are dire but...
The original article mentioned an author who was on her fourth novel and had seen her advances diminish drastically. Well that happened to me on my fourth novel too and I nearly lost my place on the ladder. I hung on by the skin of my teeth and my advances were lower than hers for my fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth novels. You just have to pick yourself up, dust yourself down and get on with it. Not every actor is going to become a soap opera star. Not every model is going to get hired by Calvin Klein. The jobbing ones take what they can and do other things to make ends meet. It's the nature of the entertainment and leisure industry.
I have heard that it's now almost impossible to make a wage out of writing Mills & Boons - which it used to be. One friend is cutting back on her output for them because of this, but under a different pseudonym, she is currently forging a successful secondary career out of writing sagas.