- “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