Lately I’ve had a lot of discussions with writers about the shifting book market and our place within the publishing infrastructure. It’s the Wild West out there—every man for himself and plenty of dangerous pitfalls. In some ways, that’s a terrific thing for authors as we have more choices. In others, the influx of new publishers and the mentality of “everyone can publish” has brought a whole new rash of problems. Discoverability is one of them. But the biggest issue is one that will be difficult for us to recover from should it continue—the degradation of our worth as creatives.
Here are a few things I’ve learned that concern me:
Giveaways and price slashing is the most common method of generating buzz for books. Thing is, it works, to a point…But the industry has reached a whole new low when random people start emailing you asking for free copies of your book to help “promote” you and you’ve never heard of them or seen them in active book circles. Apparently authors should not only write the book, but pay for them to give away. Or there’s the other variety of leech that literally hops from one giveaway to the next and NEVER BUYS A BOOK, never writes reviews for them, and takes them straight to Ebay. True story.
Lower Advances: I can’t quote a percentage here as I don’t have the exact numbers but some astronomical percentage of authors never earn out their advances. That’s caused a bit of a backlash (along with plenty of other issues), and now publishers are less willing to take risks. They want their money back. In any event, that novel that took you three years to write just may earn you $5,000, which, after commission and taxes and book events and promotion will actually soak up every dime of that, and COST you money. Heh. Don’t quit your day job.
Fewer books to build a platform: Prove your worth right away or take a hike. Seven or eight years ago, publishers might purchase four or five books (chances) from an author so they may build their audience. These days, you get two. Two is the new five. They’re out of money and time and patience. Seems like our high-speed living has really done a disservice to writers—we, who bring entertainment, joy, and escapism to the drudgery of the every day.
Writing articles and novellas for free: We are often so desperate to be heard and to build our platforms, we’ll take any gig we can get—even one without pay. This expectation has gone a long way in degrading our worth. Writing is a skill we work hard to procure. Other jobs pay their employees for the skills they’ve developed, why not with writing-related projects? STOP WORKING FOR FREE, people. You’re hurting all of us.
***I need to make one point clear about “working for free” and blogging. A group blog is a way in which I give back, to share my experiences and ideas with my fellow writers and friends to help them in any way I can with their own publication journeys. We must look out for each other! As you see I’m a contributor here at Writer Unboxed, a community I admire and to which I am very proud to belong. I gain so much more than I give here at Writer Unboxed, from the other contributors, as well as YOU, the community, and our blog mama, Therese. If you receive intrinsic rewards that come with this sort of work-without-pay, it is writerly value you can’t measure.
Companies that allow us to upload our works, who turn around and give them away for free: This takes us back to the point about writing for free. How much of your self-worth, time, and creative energy are you willing to donate so that your work “might” garner an audience? A side note: these companies may also profit from your works down the road, though you will not directly. This is a common caveat you see in the fine print. Just ask your publishing lawyer.
Putting our personal lives on display: Social media is a great tool and one I happen to enjoy—until I see someone like Joss Whedon, a brilliant TV/film writer, get attacked and threatened for the plotting choices he has made. After being bullied, he deleted his online presence. Boundaries, people. Engage because it’s necessary to a degree, but don’t SELL YOURSELVES, your souls. And for Pete’s sake, don’t be so available. I’m a firm believer in the concept of author mystique. Filter your thoughts, and limit your public interactions when you can. Focus on what’s important.
As creatives, what is our bottom line? Yes, we want to reach readers, or become the next Neil Gaiman. Yet we can’t lose sight of what’s truly important: maintaining our dignity, our value, and the viability of this industry.
Remember that our words comfort, challenge, inspire. We disrupt the system. We shape what happens next. We will affect publishing and writerly lives because we are the idea generators. Don’t sell yourself, and don’t sell out. It matters to the rest of us. Our books shouldn’t be treated like bargain, warehouse-sized packets of Cheetohs. KNOW YOUR WORTH, AND PROTECT IT.