When is an author

Publishing is changing.
Danuta Kean recently wrote a piece on the trend towards not paying writers which included this sentence:

Thanks to the rapid growth in blogging and self-publishing – neither of which provide much reward for practitioners (81% of bloggers earn less than $100 a year, while half of US self-published writers earn less than $500 from their books) – the professional status of writers has been eroded, lending credence to the idea that practitioners do it for love not money and that freelancers bring easily replicated skills (they do not, see Danuta’s Guides).

Now, there are two issues here.
First we have the conflation of authors and writers. These are two discrete disciplines, and so ought, indeed, be considered independently, while acknowledging that authors often start out as writers, and continue to plough that furrow for gainful employ as a way of supporting their authorial habit. Danuta is correct in one sense, that the internet and its promiscuity when it comes to prose, the arms-wide-open welcome to all ye who abandon hope in here not only makes everyone think they can write (which they can), but tends to make everyone think they can write well (which they can’t).
Of course, she’s right that the amateur (by definition and derivation) does it for love, not money.
There is a sort of content-driven Parkinson’s Law at work here, namely that the content must expand to fit the space available. In the days of the magazine, the content was finite, and any expansion had to be accompanied by an increase in price. Now the space to fill is to all intents and purposes infinite, and yet the pricing of (most) online publications is in terms of the consumer’s time and attention, rather than their small change. The results are writ large on the internet.
The need for high volume and high turnover has meant a steady erosion of standards, while poor copyright provisions make for a lot of what would in any other circumstances be called theft. The same thing happened when the (76 minute) CD replaced the (56 minute) LP. Bands initially felt obliged to fill that extra space, even though few 56 minute LPs failed to contain a rather inferior piece of filler – now the experience was almost a quarter filler.
Bacon wrote that ‘opinion of plenty is among the greatest causes of poverty’, and the rise in connectivity also allows for portals to advertise books as ‘in stock’ when they can’t possibly be so, increasing the impression of large volumes shifted. My book of academic essays, Negotiating the Jacobean Printed Book (crap title: foisted upon me by publisher) is probably advertised as ‘in stock’ and available for purchase on more websites than physical copies of the book were printed, let alone the number of copies still in the warehouse. Several portals advertise pdfs of it. It’s everywhere. I think approaching 200 copies have actually been sold (which is pretty good for an academic book).
This rage for copy has led to the proliferation of unpaid gigs. Not only that, but writers increasingly accept these gigs as loss-leader, though the traditional ‘if it goes well you’ll get a commission or two’ editorial inducement has morphed into the understanding that a) if I don’t do it, someone else will, and b) someone will see how great I am and pay me. I refer the reader to GBS  …
Moving from writers back to authors, we have the implication that self-published authors are in some way ‘unprofessional’. Oh, of course, a lot of self-published authors publish total crap, they must do, but, I give you Dan Brown. Ah, yes, but he sells squillions of books, I hear you cry. I give you a mantra once heard regarding malt whisky and Glenfiddich: its popularity has thus far failed to make it any good.
There are plenty of books pulped every year – hardly good ecological practice – which suggests that print-to-order in the case of more niche publications is perhaps warranted. No copy of either Slender Threads or Black Box will languish unsold, because they’re only printed when bought. In fact, why not install more Espresso Book Machines in book shops … oh, because that will further equalise self-publishing and traditional publishing. Anyway, I digress.
Danuta’s argument seems with regards authors (not writers) seems to be based primarily on income but, get this: most authors make sod all. The Guardian again:

a survey reveals that 54% of traditionally-published authors and almost 80% of go-it-alone writers are making less than $1,000 (£600) a year.

Again the messy conflation of authors and writers, but it seems that it’s writing books that fails to provide much reward for its practitioners, not self-publishing.
Writing is wordjam. You take the stuff, boil it down, leave to set, and stick it in jars to sell. People who set up businesses selling jam are not derided as eroding the professional status of jam makers. They’re fêted as entrepreneurs. The Virgin empire started in a phone box. And so on. The things that matter are a) marketing, b) contacts and c) is it any bloody good.
Self-publishers follow in the footsteps of bands such as Marillion who, on being dropped by their label, got their fans to finance their next album. The fans got the album they wanted, the band owned both process and product, and everyone was happy. Oh, except for their ex-record label who must have been kicking themselves, though it’s quite possible the record company business model wouldn’t have worked in this instance anyhow.
When people congratulate me on getting a book published and I point out I self-published, the words ‘vanity publishing’ often get spat at me. I find them quite offensive. I suppose it’s like vanity plumbing, or vanity consultation, or vanity wine-selling, right?
What people mean by ‘traditionally published’ is ‘ran the agent/publisher gauntlet successfully’, they mean that someone else deemed the work publishable, the implication being that you’re simply not a real author unless the agent/publisher nexus deems you worthy. This is particularly ironic, considering the word’s evolution from the word ‘auctor’, meaning the (preferably classical) source of authority from whom the reported or rehashed story derives. Oddly, Chaucer, when writing Troilus et Crysede invented an Auctor called Lollius to ‘license’ his production of the work. A nom-de-plume for a non-existant source. I’ve seen academics do the same thing.
What’s threatened by self-publishing is the hegemony of the self-appointed guardians of our aesthetic muscles, the agents. Agents who are now running (rather expensive) courses on creative writing. Not content with making the mountains come to Mohammed, they want the mountains to pay, too. On this point, I must say wow! Stunning business model. Their hit rate is good, too … but then, they know what they want. There’s a case for their becoming vital finishing schools for anyone wishing to join the increasingly professionalised ranks of the authorial army. Whether this leads to increasingly homogenised output, stifling the rabid creativity that produced, in our Romantic imaginations at least, those truly great works, is yet to be seen. When will Starbucks start releasing coffee shorts™?
The agents, the publishers, the commissioning editors. These are the professionals. We few, we romantic few, we band of authors, we’re the fools. We take jobs for nothing. It’s effectively professional suicide. A magazine I provided with thousands of words of free copy over a period of 6 months was, a year later, asking for readers’ essays. The inducement? A case of wine.
I got a pie and a pint.
Who’s the fool?
Now, to publish … anyone got the email for the Huffington Post?

1 thought on “When is an author

  1. Pete, agree with pretty much all of this. Publishing is a different world now. Not before time. Oh and I promise never to pay you in wine.

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