We used to know what it took to be a writer – you had to publish a book. But electronic publishing is piling pressure on myths of the author's life
Only 20% of the 1,600 self-published authors surveyed, and just a quarter of the almost 800 writers with a traditional book deal, judged it "extremely important" to "make money writing books". Shift the issue to publishing "a book that people will buy" and the figures leap to 56% and 60% respectively.
But of course, you say – this is literature we're talking about. These authors have loftier concerns than the grubby business of making money. Art is their province. If they must consort with the commercial world to find an audience, then so be it. But heaven forfend they should be interested in something so base as raking in the cash.
Except, in the digital age this kind of logic just doesn't wash. If all you're interested in is finding an audience for your work, then electronic distribution allows you to find it without any connection to the marketplace at all. Write your masterpiece, stick it on your website, and sound the trumpets for the victory of Pallas Athene. Or, if what you're really looking for is the grateful adulation of your adoring fans, stick it on Scribophile or WritersCafe and get ready to feel the love. These days the only reason for worrying about publishing "a book that people will buy" is to "make money writing books".
Not that making money out of writing books has ever been all that easy. With 54% of traditionally-published authors making less than £600 a year, the DBW survey is only the latest report to confirm the widening gap between publishing's haves and have-nots. Way back in 2000, the Society of Authors found that 75% of members earned less than £20,000, while in 2007 the Authors' Licence and Collecting Society cited average earnings for UK authors of about £16,000, an average which hides the true picture of a profession which is becoming steadily more unequal. Median earnings – the amount of money earned by the writer in the middle – dropped from £6,000 in 2000 to just £4,000 in 2004-05.
Over in the shiny new world of self-publishing things look bleaker still, with 80% of the DBW's go-it-alone authors dipping under the £600 mark. Bleaker, that is, unless you're Hugh Howey, who reckons the survey fails to capture "the fact that self-publishing is going through a renaissance":
I would say the results of this survey cloud how nearly impossible it is to make a single cent through traditional publishing (because only the top 1% who "make it" are tallied).
If you're trying to compare outcomes for traditional and self-published writers, Howey argues, "you have to take into account the huge percentage of books that never make it out of the slush pile … Because those are authors and books attempting to go that route".
It's an arresting way of doing the arithmetic that depends on a definition of an "author" harking back to the days of the gentleman hobbyist. For Howey, the self-publishing revolution has allowed "hundreds of thousands of voracious readers with a dream of writing a novel" to write books "out of love and passion, just like a kid goes out and dribbles a basketball for hours every day or kicks a soccer ball against a garage wall". But over the past few decades we wouldn't have called these people "writers" any more than we would call that kid in the back yard a footballer. If all it takes to be a writer is to stick your work online then we're all writers now.
In the old days things were much clearer. All you had to do to call yourself a writer was publish a book, which meant you needed someone else to publish it – and someone else to buy it. It may have been a myth that published authors were making money out of writing, but the illusion left the word "writer" meaning at least something. If the cosy settlement that existed for a while between copyright law and the printing press was "just a blip", as Neil Gaiman suggests, if the prospects for making a living out of storytelling are as bleak as the surveys report, then we can't expect to reserve the term "writer" for authors who have found commercial success.
Maybe we should just admit defeat. Maybe the digital revolution has simply revealed the tensions in a concept that exploded into meaninglessness long ago. Maybe we should abandon the idea of a class of people who are different, a class of people who are "writers", and just get on with the glorious, messy business of reading and writing.
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