eBooks, Blogs, and Redefining What It Means to Be an Author

americanauthorI’m accustomed to reading grim things about the future of books. That’s what a lot of this blog is about: how writers can just keep it all going in this day and age.

Now, I’m a hardened veteran of indulgent speculation concernign the demise of eBooks and literary novels and making a living by making art.

But this piece, “The Death of the American Author,” from Scott Turow, the president of The Authors Guild, was a bit much for me.

Turrow writes about how the sudden destruction of copyrighted art is going to make it impossible to make a living as an official American Author.

But that makes me wonder: what does being an American Author mean now?

Does Being Published Mean You’re an American Author?

In late February, I self-published a book. It got downloaded about 100 times (mostly for free) and I’ve made $12 from it.

Likewise, I’ve been blogging since 2009.

I live in America. I’ve written things. People have read them.

Does this make me an American Author?

Making a Living, With Words

My suspicion is that Turow would say I’m not an American Author. So who is?

He talks about Russia, where there are no good contemporary authors there anymore, because you can’t make a living writing:

Last October, I visited Moscow and met with a group of authors who described the sad fate of writing as a livelihood in Russia. There is only a handful of publishers left, while e-publishing is savaged by instantaneous piracy that goes almost completely unpoliced. As a result, in the country of Tolstoy and Chekhov, few Russians, let alone Westerners, can name a contemporary Russian author whose work regularly affects the national conversation.

Frankly, I make a living writing. I get to write about technology all day long. Technology is interesting. Trends are interesting.

I’m making a living by writing.

You Can’t Be Influenced by People When You’re Writing

The heart issue here is that authors can no longer be independent artists. Freelance authors and magazine writers are few and far between. Journalists are scarce, too, as I’ve mentioned when talking about the death of journalism.

But, actually, wait… we can all be independent authors now. Without having to carefully craft a book for agents, editors, and publishers, we can self-publish our work. Good, bad, it’s at least independent.

If we’re corporate, we can even use pseudonyms. There are lots of nice tools to promote our stuff, too.

American Authors Can’t Be Rich and Famous

The main thrust of Turow’s argument is that copyright laws are being eroded.

Meanwhile, Amazon called every writer’s bluff about not writing for money by giving promotional power to anyone who used the KDP Select program to promote their book for free.

But why do we write? Is it for money or is it so our ideas spread?

If it’s for the latter, then I’d say we should champion both free eBooks and the wholesale slaughter of copyright protection. They help our ideas spread, right?

The Starving Artist

I know all of this sounds wrong.

I certainly wish I could publish what I want to write and make a good living doing so, but, while you used to be able to be a “writer” as a job, the living was mediocre at best. The idea of a “starving artist” has been around for centuries, and for good reason.

What’s happening now is that:

1. The internet has introduced so much competiton that most authors can’t find a way to stick out.

2. Consumers believe all purchases should be optional at best.

3. The middle class of writers can no longer make a living, so you better be writing a blockbuster.

4. More creative people have to find other jobs, producing a creative ripple effect in the economy.

The American Author isn’t Dead, but the American Reader May Be

It’s fair to say that authors are alive, well, and able to publish like never before, with no concern for who thinks what.

It’s the American Reader who might need some resurrection.

That’s precisely why publishers don’t have the power to combat piracy and authors can’t make a living. There aren’t hordes of passionate readers anymore. They’ve gone to HBO and video games.

When Turow warns that there’s no Russian book that’s affected the “national conversation,” I’m not too sure that American literature has done that in a long time, either.

Photo Credit: mpclemens via Compfight cc

11 thoughts on “eBooks, Blogs, and Redefining What It Means to Be an Author

  1. In my research for my documentary film premiering this month, I came to the same conclusion–it is indeed the reader of “long-form” books –on any format –who is disappearing.

  2. I’m an ebook author and a realist. I make my living as a brand marketer and creative conceptualist. From my perspective, ebook authoring is a journey like everything in life. It’s discovering a number of things that may prove more challenging than first thought. Your “subject matter” for openers. Is it unique? It must be. Is your “voice” unique? It must be. Is your marketing strategy targeted to a specific audience? It must be. Are you tenacious and willing to take on the role of a savvy marketer? You must be. The ability for anyone to become a published author via ebooks is a wonderful opportunity that can fulfill a lifelong dream. However, dreams can become quickly shattered when actual sales fall short of anticipated results. It is a business. Are you looking at your masterpiece with the right perspective? You must be. Just a few comments to invite others thoughts.

    1. Hi Rob,

      Thanks for reading — and I agree with the author/realist dynamic. I think what’s hardest for writers to admit is that we’re going to have to do everything ourselves, for the most part, and we probably won’t ever be able to write full-time… at least not on exclusively on novels. But we still get to write, and now there are no barriers to getting people to read it, as long as we try hard enough to promote the work and people are receptive to it.

  3. BAH!

    This is like saying that because everyone was always allowed to write in their diaries, they were writers. They weren’t. A writer is a public intellectual (remember those?) who generally was able to support themselves (or at least, try to support themselves) through their writing. That’s dying, due to rampant copyright violations and the death of intellectual property. Of course we can’t have public intellectuals anymore if there is no intellectual property… Yet we continue to blame “readers” — but the facts don’t support that. Plenty of people read, and read long-form fiction even, certainly enough for a huge market. It’s just an easier thing to blame — what’s hard is saying that there are certain things the government/companies should do — it’s easy to blame HBO and video games because we see those every day. Political action is always hard, and it goes against the techno-bullcrap of “information should be free” neglecting the fact that a society where information is free is a society where information is worthless.

    1. I think that readers can easily be blamed, given the fact that if everyone paid for everything they read, like the old days, then writers would be in a golden age, reaping benefits. If people were willing to subscribe to my blog for $5/mo, that would be great for me. But would they? No. They’re barely willing to do that for the New York Times.

      The fact is that “information should be free” has destroyed what it means to be a “reader” as it was traditionally understood, because readers are used to reading things for free.

      I think the deluge of information available has dismantled the idea of the public intellectual, because everyone is a public intellectual about something now, and subsequently overwhelm the First Amendment by proving that to themselves.

      Then again, if you’re worried about public intellectuals, you should be rejoicing that information can be spread so far and wide. Isn’t an intellectual just supposed to champion an idea, instead of money?

  4. It’s very scary to post here, where I’m sure to be surrounded by young, hotheaded cynical intellectuals. I am an old warhorse who has made a living as a freelance writer for 25 years. Not a great living, perhaps, by some standards, but an artist’s sort of living, whereby I live in a modest house and drive an old Honda. Do I find it harder to make a living as a writer than I did before? Frankly, no, but I think that’s because, like you, I recognize that writing is a craft mainly learned through apprenticeship, which means most people get better at it by doing it. It also means that I have a skill everyone needs. I have worked for newspapers, magazines, colleges, medical schools, and celebrities. And yes, I have published novels, both on my own and with traditional publishers. Our culture, like all cultures, is one that is based on storytelling, and whether we’re writing text that will be shared through essays, books, movies, or video games doesn’t matter. People will always build communities around stories. So, you young cynical authors, American or not: take heart. There will always be a place for you. We just might not know what it looks like yet.

  5. Cogent thoughts here and a nice summary of the issues. I read your book at your mom’s recommendation (I’m her BFF from online!) and I like your analysis.
    Personally, I’m thrilled with the new writing economy; as one of the self publishing “successes” I’ve been able to leave my state job and regularly make 2-8,000 dollars a month, while never even blipping on any Top 100 lists. I work hard at my books as a BUSINESS with marketing, PR, people I hire, etc. I write hard and fast, average 3-4 novels a year, and I’m really doing great. When I tell other writers this is what it takes to succeed (which to me means replace a full time income stream) at self publishing, most of them look like a deer in the headlights and keep their day job.
    I have had two agents. My work is good. It would have been saleable in Turow’s publishing era, too…but I wouldnt have had the speed, passion and freedom I do now to build my loyal fan/reader base and write whatever the hell I want, and let the readers decide. Turow’s day is done, Howey’s sun has risen, and for those with the drive and talent to move forward in the new models that are emerging (shorter fiction, bundling, giveaways, subscription fiction, downloadable everything with pirating an accepted fact) the future is bright and dynamic.
    I do feel a little sad, like when looking at dinosaur bones. But I’m thankfully not a dinosaur, and neither it appears, are you!
    Toby Neal

  6. It appears to me that you see a certain paradox to the book world — as a writer I naturally want to sell a large number of people my book (and preferably have that be profitable). But to do that I need to be able to contact a large number of people in order to inform them about this book, or to convince them to buy it. Therefore I need to i) give my book away for free or ii) start some blog/tumblr/twitter in order to promote my book. But there is so much free crap out there that there is no reason for someone to pick up a “for free” ebook because, generally, books like that are crap (minimal return).

    So i) is out — leaving ii) But then, this seems to put the writer in a classic David Foster Wallace double-bind: in order to be a (semi)famous author I must become (semi)famous in something else first, then use that power to promote my book. This double-bind is of course, what publishing in the first place was supposed to prevent — the idea that a writer can focus on writing, and a publishing firm on publishing, and only rarely should the twain meet.

    But publishing is dying because the price of books have been pushed so low, because books are just information, so although there is functionally the same amount of readers to support the industry, the books being priced lower is gutting them — and books are priced so much lower because of amazon (willing to lose massive amounts of money selling books just to kill booksellers) and ebooks (not a huge part of the market but effectively free).

    I think most of your concern BL, is based on the notions of marketing — the fundamental tenet of marketing is to get your message out to as many people as possible.

    However, almost every book I ever buy, I buy based on two things:
    A. Having heard of the author before, either written about in a non-fiction essay, or having been told about or mentioned by someone I know.
    B. A direct recommendation of that particular book from someone I know.

    At no point have I ever, in my life, picked up a book due to “marketing” or because it looked good, because it popped up on my facebook feed, or so on. People in general are highly discriminating when it comes to books — publishers knew this, and relied on old methods of “trusted recommendations”, often from the booksellers themselves (and I remember this — people trust a bookseller in ways they will never trust an Amazon review) or by placing the books to be reviewed by Kakutani et al. This method of “trusted recommendation” is absent from the internet, and its absence is felt — it makes the internet a horrible place for book recommendations, whereas the coffee shop, bar, or bookstore is the best place for book recommendations.

    Effectively, there is only one thing to do that can exploit the power of trusted recommendations, and that’s to write a damn good book. It’ll take care of itself after that — people WANT to recommend good books to their friends, to their coworkers, to their lovers, there is a huge demand for that — the problem is not in marketing a good book, it never was. It’s in writing a good book, which has, and always will be, fundamental, exhausting, quixotic.

  7. Great subject and great comments. PLEASE at least spell Scott Turow’s name correctly! You lose credibility by such an error; yes, even in this digital age of texts and tweets.

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