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Opinion: Now Is The Worst Time To Be An Author?

Opinion: Now Is The Worst Time To Be An Author?


  • “Authors' incomes Are ‘At Breaking Point'!” [The BBC]
  • “Publishing Is Broken, We're Drowning In Indie Books!” [Forbes]
  • And the most recent contribution: “There has never been a worse time to be an author”. [The Bookseller]

This latest is from an opinion column by the anonymous London literary agent  “Agent Orange”. As it happens, I read this piece the day I put finishing touches to a novel I've been writing about the poet WB Yeats, which is set in literary London, Dublin and Paris, 1880 to 1940.

And I'm here to tell you, Agent Orange: that was a very much worse time to be an author.

Maybe you had a slip of the finger and meant to say that there's never been a worse time to be an author's agent?

A different matter entirely.

The thing that all these downbeat reports have in common is that they emanate from trade publishing. they are based on erroneous information (a survey of writers' incomes that didn't address self-publishing authors; a misunderstanding of how readers now buy books; an erroneous-but-unshakeable opinion that self-publishing is inevitably expensive and [agent orange quote] “achieves precisely nothing”).

Today, authors are fortunate enough to benefit from:

  • Relative Affluence: When Yeats made the choice to be a writer, he knew he was choosing poverty. Not having to cut down on the chai-lattes poverty, but holes in his shoes, a flat without electric lighting or proper heating, regularly going hungry, walking in all weathers because he couldn't afford transport poverty. And he was by no means the poorest. See Virginia Nicholson's Among the Bohemians  for an in-depth exploration of the sacrifices UK writers made to write circa 1900 to 1939. In those days, very few people outside of a white, middle-class male elite had the equivalent of what Nicholson's grand-aunt Virginia Woolf called “£500 and a room of one's own”: sufficient space and time to write
  • Increased Literacy: When Yeats was born, 70% of men and 55% of women had basic literacy in the UK; now it's 99% for both sexes.  Between 1950 and 2008, worldwide literacy has steadily increased from 56% of almost 2 billion adults to 83% of about 4.5 billion adults. And growth in higher education means more people are interested in reading at a higher level than ever before.
  • Lax Censorship: Much of Yeats's work was not published until after he died, and not only due to sexual references but his interest in occultism too. Censorship has a long history with variously stringent laws applied in different places at different times. In Europe, most of the Americas and the Antipodes, and many other places, we now enjoy the freest flow of words, ever.
  • Word Processing Technology: Yeats wrote with pen and paper, I started out on a typewriter,  when cut ‘n' paste meant: Cut. And. Paste. And Cut. And. Paste. Again. Now we have Scrivener and Evernote. Oh bliss, oh joy.
  • Word Distribution Technology: When Yeats published his short story collection The Secret Rose in 1897, his publisher didn't like two of the stories (too much Celtic mysticism) and insisted he leave them out, even though doing so ruined the delicate balance and chronological effect the author had worked so hard to achieve. Yeats had no choice but to concede; without the publisher, he had no means of getting his words out there.  How different today, when authors can so easily reach readers ourselves, and all over the world – a potential we’re only just beginning to tap. This allows us to keep creative control of our work. If Yeats had had the opportunity to self-publish that book, he would have.
  • Globalisation: While he lived, Yeats's readers were in Ireland and England and, in time, the US. Today, digital platforms and online bookstores mean we can reach readers anywhere in the world. And it has never been easier to translate our work. Writers have just been handed a potential worldwide audience.

It's Still Not Easy

So we live in a world where it’s easier than ever to learn how to write well, to do research, to publish widely, to reach readers, and to earn money from writing and selling books. And the underlying trends are excellent. A recent series in McSweeney's that “aimed to take on every facet of the book world to provide as much information and data as possible” found that:

Book sales are up, way up, from twenty years ago. Young adult readership is far wider and deeper than ever before. Library membership and circulation is at all-time high.

That still doesn't make being an author easy, especially if you're writing esoteric mysticism or poetry, like Yeats. Or literary fiction, or anything else that not very many people want to read.

And writers always need to learn the craft and trade of writing and publishing. For most of us, that means a long apprenticeship. Being an author never was easy, never will be easy, never should be easy. But there's never been a better time to be one.

Don't let anybody tell you otherwise.

Orna Ross's Secret Rose launches in special limited edition at the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, Ireland on August 3rd 2015.  Find out more on her Pubslush Page

Author: Orna Ross

Orna Ross is a bestselling and award-winning author of historical fiction and inspirational poetry, and a creativity facilitator. As founder-director of the Alliance of Independent Authors, she has been named one of The Bookseller’s Top 100 people in publishing. 


This Post Has 43 Comments
  1. Perseverance and productivity have always been essential to success in any field. Also learning your craft and continually working to connect with the right audience for your work. These things are not new. There is vastly more competition, which is tough, but the work is vastly easier in so many ways, as Orna points out. I think the age of the bestseller is coming to an end. That is, odd books may capture a broad audience for brief periods on some kind of fluke, but the ability of publishers to cultivate best-selling authors at the expense of the midlist and the innovative and the simply new is ending. Readers are no longer stuck with those 16 novels on the shelf at their local store. If they have the will, they can hook up with other adventurous readers and find the books they’ve been dreaming of.

  2. Yes, yes, yes, hooray to all this! I’ve been a traditionally published author for nearly 25 years and I reckon the darkest hour was just before self-publishing came along, when the market became a chilly environment indeed for so-called mid list authors like me.

  3. Having published my first 3 books within the last year (NB – I did NOT write all 3 in a year, but opted to publish a trilogy simultaneously!), I have some sympathy for the downbeat view as well as for Orna’s upbeat view (and I think one has to bear in mind that Orna is a leading light of ALLi, so it’s unrealistic to expect her not to take the upbeat view). I believe the truth probably lies somewhere in between. If you are a new author, and if you are not writing in one of the more trendy genres (or, indeed, if your work does not fi comfortably within any one genre), then yes, your work may well sink without trace in the tsunami of self-published work. I am also very leery of believing some of the hype surrounding the ways that social media can be used to sell books. I can say, hand on heart, I have probably bought fewer than 5 books via social media contacts /ads. I don’t believe I’m unusual in that.
    The secret of success lies in many, many areas – good writing, good editing & presentation, good marketing, perseverance & productivity – and, above all (IMHO) sheer LUCK.
    Maybe what makes it hardest is that the happy-clappy division of the very lucrative magazine publishing industry aimed at authors/wannabes continually bombards us with messages implying that anyone can be a successful author. This is every bit as bad as that sector of the “self-help” industry which would have us believe that if we’re not slim/happy//successful/healthy, then it’s somehow our own fault – we haven’t tried hard enough, we haven’t spend money on the right courses, we haven’t thrown ourselves sufficiently into the regime of the latest purveyor of snake oil.
    This is as hard a time to be a writer WHO GETS READ as ever there was. That so many of us persevere in the face of no encouragement whatsoever from publishers, agents, or the great Reading Public says a lot about the spirit of writers. Let’s give ourselves a pat on the back, even if no one else does!

  4. Yes – it is far easier to write today with ‘Word’ and online support such as dictionaries,Wikipedia & google etc.

    Our problem today – as my fiction agent put it – is that publishers are no longer looking for something new: with their backs against the wall due to internet competition etc. they are looking for the nearest thing in some genre to the last book that was a best-seller. This applies to newspapers and the media generally: ir is extremely hard to get anything published which goes against ‘the received wisdom’ of the Anglo/American media. (But is not extreme enough to get into the ‘alternative’ websites).

    This is a celebrity culture – if one of them praises a work that says something new, it’s got a chance. But people read books that are already best-sellers, and articles that are ‘top of what readers read last week’. We want to watch TV that everyone else watches, we are ready to follow what others are following. This is very harmful – because it’s what is new and important that becomes tomorrow’s ideas that publishers and others should be looking out for.

  5. Agree with everything you say. Author-publishers don’t need an agent and I know of several writers with major publishers who feel obligated to include their agents, in deals they’ve negotiated for themselves, out of loyalty.

  6. I think you’re right on the money. The traditional industry and its gatekeepers are the ones living the nightmare. Pointing at the SPA’s who are not doing it well is simply their way of trying to justify their own place in a faltering ecosystem, and make it seem like their problems are the problems of the broader culture.

    May a thousand new voices cry forth — even if that choir includes a few who sing off key!

  7. Excellent points made — this is the worst time, perhaps, for agents and the big trade publishers who, colluding to withdraw their books from Amazon because they deemed Amazon’s pricing to cheap, then lost their case when Amazon sued them for obvious collusion.Their answer was to merge the giant conglomerates that go under the deceptively brief manes of Random House/Knopf and Viking/Penguin.

    The initiator of this solution to the collusion problem was Viking management with a stipulation that on the exact day named for the merger the company that was worth the most would dominate.They thougth that would be Viking, but, on the basis of the phenomenal sales of Fifty Shades of Gray, Random House won — and proceeded to fire everyone at Viking, close their warehouses and trash everything (currently published books) in the warehouses.

    Viking, in a last ditch move, offered the warehouse stock to public libraries free of charge if they would just cart the books away. Thousands of books were rescued to libraries but thousands more were trashed. What author should want his life’s work to depend upon such management?

  8. For me, this is the best time to be a writer. I’ve written on and off since 1978, mostly non-fiction and for periodicals. I had one academic non-fiction book published. In 2009, I wrote my first novel and published it with iUniverse. Sold 98 copies in three years. Then I published it as an eBook in 2012 and have never looked back. I am currently making a very good living with my military and military scifi, yet I could not get even a sniff from a trad publisher. I have been accepted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, something that has been a dream of mine since I was a teenager. I am not beating my chest here, but merely pointing out that at any other time in history, I would not have achieved any of this. I don’;t know what the future holds, but this is a GREAT time to be a writer.

    1. Delighted it’s going so well for you, Jonathan… I think people who’ve been writing for some years have no trouble recognising that this is a bit of a golden age for us. Write on, soldier!

  9. I’ll try again. Agent Orange has a very romantic idea of what writers once were. The notion that writers are having trouble being recognised because of the volume that pours out is absurd. As Orna points out the advantages to writing today are enormous, partly due to the advance of the self-publishing industry. What Agent Orange apparently wants is for self-publishers to stop clogging the market with inferior books. This cannot happen because inferior books have always existed and the appetite for them has expanded naturally with the growth of literacy.

    1. Thanks David! I agree that poor books don’t need to bother us too much, Readers are savvy people, able to find what they want and know a dud when they see one.

  10. Hey Orna, a few grammatical errors here:

    …set in literary London, Dublin and Paris of the 1880(s) to 1940.

    (T)hey are based on erroneous information…

    …a belief that self-publishing is inevitabl(y) expensive and…

    It(‘)s Still Not Easy

    Other than that, nice column!

  11. Well written and to the point . Thanks for setting things straight, don’t understand the mind set of more books are a bad thing… Huh? More means more choices…. Better for readers better for good writers. Not to mention people are reading.. Yeah . When I was akid reading was considered a good thing..

    1. Couldn’t agree more, Alan. I also think the boundary between writing and reading is becoming blurred, thanks to blogs and websites like Wattpad. thank you for reading!

    1. So true… I guess it was the general Jeremiad about publishing that I wanted to take issue with. That would be a better pseudonym (if s/he has to have one; can’t see why) Thanks for stopping by, Bob.

  12. Thank you Orna and others who have restored my belief that I can be a published writer – with hard work and polishing my craft.

  13. Good one, Orna. It isn’t, however, a bad thing for authors to ‘think’ that life is tough. Because a writer had better be tough. Because the writer-world is tough tough tough, as you say. And the reason there is so much mediocre writing out there may just be because too many writers don’t see how tough life is. What a blessing to be working in a tough milieu. When I became a writer, I became tough, and never happier.

    1. I like to think of it as growth. You meet a creative challenge, you overcome it, you’re better able to meet the next one. But then I’m a bit of a girl… go slay ’em, PJ!

  14. Great to have a new perspective on what being a writer was like in the past. Have to confess, I’ve always had romantic notions of what it was like to be a writer in earlier generations. Thanks for shattering some of them.

    1. Ah romantic notions… the dangerous side-effect of a good imagination! Yes, reading literary biographies of the past soon pours cold water on all that. 🙂 thanks for reading, Derbhile!

    1. Thanks Barbara… Agent Orange needs to get out more and meet a few self publishing authors have done it well. Also, I’d love to ask why the need for the pseudonym?

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