15 January, 2013

The Death of the Professional Writer?


It's easy to be gloomy about the state of the publishing world when you read articles such as this one from the BBC, under the headline: 'Sales of Printed Books Slump in 2012'. The article tells me that physical book buying is down nearly 5%. And although this is off-set by people buying more digital books, those digital copies are cheaper. "People are buying more books but are paying less for them". I wonder what this will mean for the writers of the future?


There's no point being anti-digital books. They aren't just coming, they have arrived. I'm convinced, however, too many people love physical books too much for paper copies to die out completely. The figures may have "slumped", but people still spent over £1.5bn on physical books last year. This is not the death of books. But will it be the start of the slow death for professional writers? When books are sold this cheaply will anybody be able to make a living from writing fiction? And does it matter if the answer is no? I'm not sure.

Most writers produce their first novel at weekends, while working a nine-to-five during the week. So maybe it doesn't matter if nobody ever has the money to turn professional. But the trouble is, there would be professionals. But those professionals would be the people who don't need an income. Maybe writing novels would become the prerogative of the rich. And producing one book while working a day job is one thing; trying to do it for several decades is another. Think of how many great books wouldn't get written because the author didn't have time.

I found some things to be cheerful about in this article - people buying more books, cheap or not, can't be a bad thing, right? But of all the statistics that made me sigh, the ones relating to the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy were the most disappointing:
  • The first novel in the trilogy is now the best-selling novel in the United Kingdom OF ALL TIME. 
  • The value of sales across the whole trilogy last year was £47.3million - beating J.K. Rowling's record sales figures from the year the last Harry Potter book was released. 
  • The Fifty Shades trilogy made up 5% of all physical book sales last year.

How embarrassing. We are a country with a great literary tradition - from William Shakespeare to Agatha Christie and Ian Rankin, Charles Dickens to Jasper Fforde and Zadie Smith. I am dreading having to tell my potential future children that the biggest publishing phenomenon in my lifetime was a series of erotic novels that were generally criticised for being of a low literary standard, badly written and poorly researched.

Whether or not we have professional writers in the future, what every generation needs is good stories. Well-written, entertaining, thought-provoking, beautiful stories.

So, cheer me up. What are the best books you've read by a British author in the last year? Who are this generation's writers who will carry the flag for beautiful writing? Who am I going to tell my future children about with pride?

15 comments:

  1. Well... you do have some time before you have to tell your future children. Something might change between now and then. Keep your fingers crossed. :)

    I will admit I probably haven't read too many British novelists. (Remember, I live in the US). And frankly, I could be reading British authors and not know it. Of course most of them have little 'about me' blurbs in their books now. So...

    The only British novelist I've read (that I know of) this year would be Kyra Lennon. She's self-published 2 novels and one novelette. And she's pretty active on the blog scene. And... I have fun trying to figure out what some of her British slang is.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's fair enough. I happen to have read a few American authors recently. Stephen King, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jodi Picoult. I read a lot of British authros too, but they tend to be from further back in time - Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. Though Jasper Fforde is ace.

      Delete
  2. I'm sad to say that I've also read very few British-written books in the last year, and certainly none that have been written recently. I've just been putting author names into google that I've enjoyed reading this year and have been discovering that they are mostly American, Irish and Australian!
    When it comes to the Brits I've enjoyed Birdsong for the first this year, by Sebastian Faulks, and have re-read some old favourites of mine including Gervase Phinn's "Dales" series, several of Jane Austen's works and the Harry Potter series, but I'm not sure these answer your questions on who carries the flag for British writing in this generation.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think my problem is that I just don't read many recently-published books at all. Though I've just thought of one - The Sense of an Ending, which won the Booker Prize for Julian Barnes. I didn't like it. But I suppose Hilary Mantel is the hot Brit writer at the moment and she's meant to be awesome. I'm just still trying to catch up on all the great books writter 50-200 years ago!

      Delete
    2. I have the same problem - when I said I'd been reading books by American, Australian and Irish authors I don't know that any were written in the last couple of years. I think the most recently written book that I have read (and loved) is "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett.

      Delete
  3. I wonder if, rather than "professional writer", your post might apply more to those who exclusively write novels. I think there will always be a need for those who can craft a good story, it's just that the means of delivery might change.

    The writing landscape is changing dramatically and I think it is those writers who can and are prepared to adapt and seize new opportunities are those who'll thrive. I mean, look at the (perceived) importance of blogging - a novel and a blog are very different things, but a new novelist who can't or won't curate a blog has the odds very much stacked against them.

    I've read quite a few British writers over the last twelve months - I enjoyed William Boyd's "Ordinary Thunderstorms", China Mieville's "The City & The City" was captivating, and I'm yet to read a Jim Crace book I haven't loved. I notice they're all men - I think all the women whose work I've read recently have been short story writers; "Perfect Lives" by Polly Samson, "The Beautiful Indifference" by Sarah Hall, "What Becomes" by AL Kennedy...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good for you - reading modern British authors - you put us all to shame! I haven't read any of those.

      The point of my post wasn't that we won't need good story-tellers, just that we won't be prepared to pay them enough for any of them to make a full-time living from it. Perhaps you're right though, if people write lots of different things - novels, articles, short stories - they might be able to get a living for themselves. Novels are so slow to write, you have to sell a lot to earn an income even now. But perhaps with the plethora of self-published material out there, good quality novels and short stories will become precious? (Not that there aren't good self-published one - they're just very hard to find amongst the others).

      And of course there will always be a need for good journalists and article writers. That's far more lucrative than fiction.

      Delete
  4. To answer your question Chloe my reply would be 'The Sins of The Father' by our very own Jeffrey Archer. It is the second in the trilogy of the Clifton Chronicles. Jeffrey is a master storyteller and many recognise that 'storytelling' and 'novelist' are not always the same thing. Jeffrey Archer is both in my humble opinion.
    Remember that your children will of course have the thrill of seeing their own mother's work on the shelf of their bedroom ...
    On the subject of our own work - I'd appreciate it if you would direct even a couple of your many followers to my blog or website to check out my support for Comic Relief 2013. I'm donating any sales of my eBooks to the cause. I thought it appropriate to associate the digital publisihing issue with something worthy. www.tom-benson.co.uk Many thanks! Tom

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hopefully this comment will do just that Tom. Good plugging skills!

      But I'll tweet a link to people later...

      Delete
  5. Considering that authors only get about 75p per book, and you can get more than that from an ebook on Amazon, I don't think that professionals are going to die out just yet.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh yeah - I think digital books will probably turn out more lucrative for individual authors in the end. The post wasn't really about digital publishing per se. It was more about the fact that so many people now publish books, the market for any one author is so much smaller. When books are this cheap AND there are so many of them, I'm not sure if many (I guess there will always be some) individual authors will be able to get enough of an audience to make a living. It opens up the publishing industry, which is probably a good thing, but it will have side effects.

      I don't think professionals who have already made their names will die out. But will there be new professionals? (Actually, I think there will, but I was just asking the question in this post!) And, as Dan, has commented, I'm really talking about novelists. Versatile writers stand more of a chance.

      Delete
  6. Super interesting Chloe, as usual. In fact it made me wonder how many British authors I'd read last year- was momentarily panicked that I hadn't, but having calmed down I remembered Alexander McCAll Smith (he's so cosy)'s A Conspiracy of Friends + Full Cupboard of Life, J K Rowling's A Casual Vacancy, and then Elizabeth Goudge's The Dean's Watch (pure love, but not a modern lady). I'm going to check your lists of books now! I need to update my contemporary British literature reading! =)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're doing better than me then, dear! I've just read a book for the Good Housekeeping review panel which is by a British author, but it probably isn't one I'd have picked out myself.

      Delete
  7. I pondered the price issue for my self-published novel and decided to go for a price I would expect to see it for in a bookshop, and about half that for an ebook. Time will tell!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I thought it was very reasonably-priced! But I couldn't give you an informed opinion on the e-book version. It seems as if a lot of authors give them away for free (or close), which seems to devalue their own work!

      Delete