An interesting discussion has sprung up, thanks to author Robert Sawyer’s piece about going to a book tech company and having to endure people who don’t really understand fiction publishing telling him that he should expect not to be paid for his fiction writing and instead make his money through other things, like speeches and merchandising, like the music industry. Sawyer quite accurately points out that no one wants to pay him for speeches and merchandising as a fiction author either, and makes the gloomy prediction that in ten years or so, authors who are making a living from fiction writing will not be able to do so, because of dropping sales per title and other issues.
Author John Scalzi comments on Sawyer as being too gloomy. He rightly points out that only a tiny percentage of fiction authors have ever made their living from their fiction writing. Instead, most of them have day jobs and don’t make much from novels, certainly not from short fiction. Scalzi doubts that top tier writers like Sawyer are going to completely lose the ability to make income or that the status quo is much going to change:
And other novelists have weighed in on this issue at their blogs and elsewhere.
I pretty much agree with Scalzi, but I do understand Sawyer being plagued by people who keep thinking that fiction publishing works just like rock music and that a fiction e-book is the same thing as a music file. Musicians and singers are performers. That is their main business — to put on a show with spectacle and/or soul. They record some of their performances and sell those recordings or sell them to be used as background material by other marketers such as for commercials or shows. They sell merchandise to those who want a momento of seeing one of their performances or who like the recordings of performances.
Fiction writers are not performers. They make words and the words are all they have to sell. They cannot spin off their words into commercials. Only a tiny, tiny percentage will ever have their work get adapted into visual mediums. The most popular authors can sell a small amount of merchandise to the most devoted fans (the rest can give some of it away free for publicity only.) In SFF, authors are lucky enough to have some very enthusiastic fans who are willing to hear them speak at conventions, and who will pay to go, but as Sawyer points out, the convention doesn’t really pay to have the authors there and book sales at conventions are small. Outside of that, no one is particularly interested in hearing an author speak, especially if they are not a very famous bestseller or phenom. A non-fiction writer is usually an expert at something, and the books they do are additional outlets for their expertise, while they may make most of their money as a journalist or seminar/speech maker and get paid a lot by the business sector or the technology industry to come and speak or consult. But these industries have little interest in fiction authors. In general, people, even fans, don’t care about fiction authors and how erudite a speaker they may be. They care only about the writer’s characters, stories and words. That’s what they are most interested in, and it’s hard enough getting them to pay anything for that, so trying to make one’s fortune selling T-shirts is not going to happen. Fiction authors have some small social status, but they are not considered cool. (Neil Gaiman is considered cool because he writes for comics, films and t.v. — day job — and because he has cool hair.) And most of them are not young, and they aren’t necessarily attractive. They don’t party with the stars. (Unless they are Neil Gaiman and work in the film industry.) They dress poorly. They don’t have tons and tons of money advanced to them to do promotion by studios/patrons. (Yeah, good luck bringing back the patronage system. That ship has sailed.) And so on and so on. And having read a story once, often no one wants to read it again, wheras once you hear a song online, then you often do want to hear it again, enough to buy it for your lovely MP3 player. Saying that fiction authors should do what the music performers are doing is like telling an otter that he should sprout wings and fly.
Fiction writing is not going to become a totally free hobby; that’s ignoring the addictions of fiction readers. It’s never going to be big, but it’s never had to be big to survive. Fiction authors are not rock stars, however much many people encourage them to try. And while they will always try to maximize other revenue streams, words are really all they have to sell. The electronics industry is still trying to wrap their heads around that. They won’t be the first industry to try and they won’t be the last.
That being said, if you are looking for free fiction, there is a ton of it on the Web. I keep getting lists of freebies thrown at me and I keep thinking I should take advantage of that, but the way I read is not going to work with a computer screen. It might work with a reader but they don’t have what I want in a reader yet. But for anyone else not so burdened, you can certainly find much good stuff from premium writers without insisting that all the writers in the world create without payment.
Anyway, you can check out the debate. What seems very clear is that hostility towards fiction authors is increasing, in part because A) Hollywood has been making a lot of films and now some t.v. shows from books in the last ten years; and B) we’ve had more and bigger phenoms in authors like Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyers, and a lot of successful authors grabbing a bit more media attention, leading many to somehow believe that the fiction market is much bigger and more rock starry than it actually is. I don’t know whether to be happy about that trend (as it is created by increased success in fiction,) or worried about it. I’m not sure any of the fiction authors know either. They’d just like to sell some books and not have lots of people lecture at them, I suspect.