This post, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, originally appeared on her site, The Business Rusch, on 8/22/12.
On July 24, 2012, Canada’s The Globe and Mail published an article titled, “There Will Be No More Professional Writers in The Future.” The article cites a number of writers, from the ubiquitous Scott Turow to Ewan Morrison who, The Globe and Mail thoughtfully tells me, is “an established British writer.”
Morrison says that the advances he’s received from traditional publishers have been slashed to the bone. He says traditional publishing has started to use “ominously feudal economics” to maintain its empire. He then goes on to denounce the digital revolution, saying it will destroy “vital institutions that have supported ‘the highest achievements in culture in the past 60 years.’”
And as if matters can’t get worse, he predicts, “There will be no more professional writers in the future.”
Here’s the thing: Viewed from a certain perspective, Morrison is absolutely right. A decade or two down the road, the model that we once called “professional” for writers will disappear.
That model depended on writers writing on spec until they sell something. Those writers need a day job to support themselves. Those writers once they sell something then hire an employee with no legal training who negotiates their contract. Then that same employee, who usually has no literary training, vets all of the writer’s future works.
For this single sale, the writers will get an interest-free loan that they do not have to pay back if their book fails to sell well. If the book does sell well, then that interest-free loan will be paid off and the writer will receive a percentage of the book’s cover price (in theory) for each copy sold. Of course, cover price might be subject to discounting (at which case the percentage paid to the writer goes down) and the definition of sold might include free copies given away in hopes of goosing remaining sales, but hey, who is counting?
Wait. The answer to that is no one. Because accounting programs at most traditional publishers are so behind the times that they can’t handle e-book royalties in any sane way. In fact, an intellectual property attorney tells me that in a recent contract negotiation with a traditional publisher, the publisher’s attorney removed a phrase the lawyer added. That phrase? That the publishing house was to provide “true and accurate” royalty statements. “True and accurate” is a legal phrase generally put in other business contracts in which one party fills out an accounting for the other party. But traditional publishers…well, apparently, they don’t want to do what other businesses do.
But I digress.
Morrison is right when he calls traditional publishing a feudal economic system. What he fails to see is that it has always been one. And that the economics are simply getting more rigid as time goes on. The writers are getting less of the pie than they did before, and seem to have no way to combat that.