“There will be no more professional writers in future” – read the headline of the arts section of one of our national newspapers last week, waking me up to my own dire predictions of the last few months, reminding me that I am not the only one having these nightmares. Change is coming, no matter how much we bury our heads in our ink and hope that it goes away.
The article went on to throw out some scary phrases—feudal economics of the 21st century (with Amazon and Huffington playing landlord to us poor hacks who are being relegated to serfs), 10 cents per 1000 reader clicks, and more than one million authors on Amazon’s online Kindle store— bringing us back to that scary headline: There will be no more professional writers….
Let’s go on the assumption that literature will still exist in our future, however retrograde that future becomes. That said, just like with any green-field business that initially attracts more supply than demand, a crash and consolidation must come in this electronic age of literature. The questions remain as to when will it come, who will go out and who will stay in, who will get fatter, and who will be marginalized when the dust settles. Here’s my pick:
Authors: We still need these guys to write content, original content (so help us, God!). So I guess they will be kept alive, even by force-feeding. Slimmer pickings at the base of the steep pyramid known as the “Hierarchy of Authors” will drive wannabes to pursue other interests like fishing. Some will eke out serf-like existences even if to merely avoid psychotherapy, while others will live like lottery winners and drink to ease their guilt about compensation that far exceeds effort—and seek out shrinks. There is no socialism here. Writing schools will decline, replaced by fishing schools, perhaps.
Publishers: These guys are in the cross hairs of the impending fall. Some parts of their business are valuable, like editing, formatting, marketing, branding, access to awards and distributors etc. Others, less so, like lengthening the publishing pipeline that was under their watch, elongating it from about six months to the current 2-3 years; slush pile management is another red card (bad job done here, guys – your response rates suck!); and manning the gate for curated content (many of their picks have been flops). Perhaps they will change their names to Content Facilitator and outsource the slush pile. Or move away from the royalty model towards fee-based, unbundled menu pricing for their various services that are still deemed valuable; the recent moves by mainstream publishers to purchase self-publishing arms is an indication of this.
Agents: They may fall on either side of the fence. Their current remuneration model will be unsustainable. On the one hand they could become Author Assistants (paid by the author – watch out, the fees may be a bit measly). They could easily add Publicist, PR and Author Manager to their job description, if not there already. Or they could go over to the other side and be talent scouts for the new Content Facilitators, paid to hunt for good content now that the slush pile has been eliminated. Or they could band together to become Content Facilitators themselves and cut out the man above.
Distributors: The monopoly that exists with Amazon and its buddies must give way to smaller independents that also have access to that universal distribution highway, the Internet. The smaller guys just have to find ways to carve out little side roads with distinct signage (branding) that flow content and revenue their way and off the Amazon-Huffington highway. Just as Amazon has become the general store for books, why not several niche stores specializing in certain genres, with wider selections within these genres?
Software Developers: Let’s not forget the guys who started the revolution by bringing the technicalities of publishing down to the user level. It could only be a matter of time before kindle and e-pub formats become add-ons to Microsoft Office and other desktop bundles.
Readers: Will have to pay for good content again (the accent being on “good”) or the serfs who are farming that content will die out. They will also be the power holders in this industry. “Going viral” will belong to them and will determine the livelihood of all the other players in this literary drama.
Endorsers: A breed of super reader. The endorser is a reader among readers who commands an audience and who cannot be bought. I will exclude newspaper reviewers and well known TV show hosts who predictably have their “picks” go on to become bestsellers; by “picking for pay,” they will have exposed their hand for serving the wrong master. The new Endorser will live on the adulation and followership of readers only. A new literary savant who survives on ego food.
And as for that newspaper headline, I have to agree that the old model of professional writer is under threat, but a new model is emerging, and as long as a civilization needs those among it to reflect, dissect, interpret, and record its evolution, writers of some shape or form must exist.
A Brave New World indeed, and I am applying for citizenship to play several of the above roles in it. What about you?