Thursday, 21 July 2011

Gregor Dallas vs the SoA vs Publishers

There's always lots of doom and gloom in the publishing world. I see myself as an optimist. In my opinion, many people are missing the opportunities a changing publishing sector can offer.

"We’re going through a major crisis in publishing and authors are suffering a great deal," claims historian Gregor Dallas. "I see marginalisation and poverty and good books which are not being published. Authors are angry. The SoA could point out to the public that there has been a precipitous decline in the quality of books in the past 10 years, be vocal about it. They could question publishers over the way they are selecting books at the moment."

Others seem to be in agreement. Author Mary Hoffman adds: "I could wish publishers had been more supportive of authors and not gone down the road of deep discounting. But that’s the past. The only way forward is for writers and publishers to work together."

Now, while I agree there are more books of lower quality, this isn't in itself a bad thing. What it suggests is that reading is now a populist pasttime as much as an elite one. Books shouldn't be the preserve of academics and the rich. More books is always a good thing, so long as there are methods to sort the wheat from the chaff (such as book bloggers, reviewers, and word-of-mouth). If we get more bad books, that can only be a problem if the number of good books drops. If it stays exactly the same, or even increases, because of bad books, then I can see no problem at all. Instead there are more opportunities being created, not fewer, and perhaps this new generation of writers can pull the oldschool into the digital present.

Former Scottish chair of the SoA, and writer in her own right, Nicola Morgan, says: "I agree that life is very difficult for many writers and there is a narrowing of choice and a cheapening of what we do. There are times to speak out robustly about this and times to work more persuasively behind the scenes. What I like about the SoA is its ability to do both at the right times."

I disagree, again. I like doing that, don't I? But put simply: while old avenues are no longer proving viable, there are ways we can explore new avenues, which can only multiply as writing goes online, goes live, trickles through by SMS and email, appears in subway stations and on billboards. You just have to be creative--which is what writers should be, right?

Agent Claire Alexander of Aitken Alexander has also weighed in: "It’s true that the big corporate publishers are narrowing their range. But they’re businesses. And it’s never been more easy for authors to find ways to readers outside of the big publishers, through independents and through e-books and print-on-demand."

Of course I would argue it's often just as difficult to get an agent too, focussed as they are at signing authors with the big publishers. But both Morgan and Alexander are missing the point: there will always be more people writing more books if literacy levels increase. There will also be more bad books if the means of production are distributed more widely, and if publishing becomes more accessible. To argue against this would be madness, in my opinion. Don't we want more people to read and write?

"Our job is to further the rights and interests of authors and you can see the work we do on our website," said current secretary general of the SoA, Nicola Solomon.

Solomon is open about her bias, her vested interests, and they are noble ones. But bad writers are writers too. Populist writers are writers too (and arguably, very successful ones). Perhaps what she needs to understand is that she's actually trying to preserve an archaic set of conditions, priviledges and opportunities which are dying out.

There's more than one criterion for success as a writer. For some it's literary accolades. For others it's entertaining people, or reaching out to as wide an audience as possible.

The problem, perhaps, isn't a decline in quality. It's an outdated publishing model, which sees huge amounts of waste, snobbery, exclusion and little financial reward for your average writer on the street. Perhaps it's the way we've traditionally thought of paying writers: per copy sold only. There's too much emphasis on the book. This seems silly when the time it takes to write a book is compared to the measly amounts writers get in return.

I prefer to see things more holistically.

If you look at music, you can see the industry is changing. People no longer put monetary value on music, because they flick on the TV or radio and hear it for free, or download their favourite tracks illegally at any one of the various torrent sites out there. As music has become more accessible, it has become less valuable as a recorded artefact.

But conversely, music-lovers are paying more and more to see their favourite artists live. The recorded, digital, online, printed experience is something everyone can have. It's no longer special. It's on-demand, at the fingertips, 24-7. But a live performance is something very different. I've noticed that at book readings, most people present will buy a copy of the book. Many will pay to see poets onstage. This reflects what I've witnessed as a journalist at music festivals and gigs. That in-person, live experience is something that isn't everyday. It is rare now. And for that reason, it's where the value lies for consumers.

Musicians used to do gigs to promote their music. Writers used to do readings to promote their books. But I think now we're seeing something different: the CDs, the books, the music videos are all marketing materials. What we're selling is the performer and the real, lived experience of a show. And for that, an audience will pay. It fits into everything we can see around us: people are interested in people. Celebrities make money from everything but artistic endeavour, it seems.

So maybe the big publishers need to pick up on what the small presses have intuitively known for years: books sell, but they're not exactly profitable for all authors; performances are popular, and people place value in real experiences over digital/solitary/recorded ones, because they're now the exception rather than the rule. If a writer can get £200, £300, £400 for a performance or workshop, that's the equivalent of selling a few hundred books and can be done in a day. Plus the audience will carry the memory of that experience with them, and hopefully buy some books at some point too.

Maybe the SoA, the agents and the publishers should just get with the programme, and recognise there are other ways for writers to make money, and look at how they can adapt to those instead? Just a thought.

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