Sitting here in the comfy Virgin Lounge in SFO with a few hours to spare I thought I’d set down a few thoughts about these last two weeks on the road in the US. Coming to America is always an enjoyable, thought-provoking process, and this trip was both of those, more so than usual if I’m honest. So I’ll try set down my thoughts about what I’ve seen and heard here, and a few things I’ve learned.
Here goes: is publishing doomed?
Like most provocative questions this one isn’t as simple as it first appears. Lots of people are feeling pain at the moment. What we sometimes fail to appreciate is that they’re different kinds of pain. Publishers are watching a market that’s been comprehensible and relatively capable of control for decades fragment and fall from their grasp. Big retailers are suffering from falling sales and the dead weight of overhead that comes from running vast operations, as well as competition from lower cost operations on the web, Amazon in particular. Small, individual booksellers find themselves squeezed because they can’t compete on price and they face falling sales and rising costs too.
And authors? Well, to be honest we’re probably in the best – or rather least horrible – position of all. Forget books, I’m a story teller first and foremost and my work appears in a variety of forms, in print, in audio, on ebooks, a few more too maybe in the years to come. The real question is this: is storytelling doomed?
I think we all know the answer to that: clearly not. We have stories coming as us from all angles these days, even as downloads to our iPhones. As a Hollywood producer I talked to put it: the appetite for content is booming, what’s happening is that the 20th century models for meeting it don’t seem to match what a 21st century audience demands. Why should they? The 20th century didn’t have Kindle or Audible or Amazon. It’s different out there.
I’m not qualified to offer advice to publishers or big book companies even if I had something useful to say. So let me focus on whatI know and love: writing. Authors are, I think, on the brink of a new and exciting age. We will no longer be confined by the schedules and norms of the print industry. Those literary forms that once seemed so hard to get published – novellas and short stories – suddenly make sense because they match the instant release of digital. Backlists become resources to be revived, not lost titles that never again see the light of day. And there will, I’m sure, be new types of media and opportunities created in the years to come too.
The bad news? The days of big advances, cushy contracts and big safety nets are gone for good. Writing is back to being the scary, exciting business it always was. If you want to make it a career you’re going to have to work hard, take risks and have a very thick skin. Welcome to the real world. This is not a get-rich-quick business or one that can be judged on sales or financial terms alone. If it were then any number of great writers, from Poe to Herman Melville, would have to be reclassified as failures. Ridiculous, don’t you think? If you want to make money and be a celebrity learn to play guitar. Books aren’t like that.