The publishing industry is a scam

In the old days, when people still bought daily newspapers, there used to be a scam that claimed to be perfectly legitimate: A full-page ad would be printed in the paper, claiming to offer you ‘the secret to making millions without having to work’. It even included a statement from a lawyer confirming that everything in the ad was perfectly true: The man behind the scheme truly had made millions using his secret method. All you had to do to receive the secret by post was to send five pounds to …

Nowadays we laugh at such primitive attempts to con people. But it’s funny how many people still believe that you can win fame and fortune through writing fiction.

There is a joke in the publishing industry that the only way to make money from writing is to write a book called How to Make Money from Writing. The book need only contain one sentence: “Write a book called How to Make Money from Writing”.

Like most good jokes, it is painfully close to the truth – particularly with fiction.

Almost no one can make a living from writing fiction these days, even if your books sell well, which is why even the big-name authors are giving ‘creative writing’ classes on the net.

At this point, somebody usually mentions JK Rowling or Dan Brown. Haven’t they made a lot of money, reputedly millions, from their writings? Yes, they have. But first of all, both of these writers achieved their initial success a good few decades ago, and secondly, they both have lucrative film and TV deals. The same goes for Sally Rooney and the other new ‘publishing sensations’. Whatever money there is in storytelling is to be had on the screen, not in print.

Publishers, obviously, don’t want people to know this. So they talk up their game and tell authors not to mention money in their interviews. But the reality is that even a reasonably successful author rarely makes enough in royalties to pay the bills these days.

So much for fortune. What about fame? Well yes, a bestselling book can bring you fame, if that’s what you want. But as the main character in Sally Rooney’s new novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, says: “People who intentionally become famous – I mean people who, after a little taste of fame, want more and more of it – are, and I honestly believe this, deeply psychologically ill.” (Strictly speaking, of course, this is Rooney’s character, Alice, speaking, and not the author herself. Alice just happens to be a female Irish author writing her third novel.)

Fame is notoriously not what it’s cracked up to be, and in the notable absence of fortune, the game does not appear to be worth the candle.

But you heard book sales were going well, right? Well actually no, they’re not. Occasionally you will see headlines like ‘Books are popular like never before’. Translated, what this means is that book sales might be up, say, 5% on last year: a brief blip in a fast-falling graph.

The truth, as anyone old enough to remember the good old days knows full well, is that book sales have fallen off a cliff. Back in the seventies, when I was a teenager in school, everyone had one or two books on the go. They weren’t necessarily good books – they were usually cheap paperbacks with cowboy tales, romances, detective mysteries, space adventures, war stories – but they were on every bedside table. Kids swapped books with each other, recommended favourite authors. Libraries were busy places. Those were the days when there really were ‘rich and successful’ writers, even if their books were mostly of the pulp variety.

In the published letters of George Orwell, there is one in which he pleads with someone not to read his early books, because, he says, he only wrote them for the money. Think about that: He only wrote them for the money. In other words, in those days there was money to be made even in books of doubtful quality that didn’t sell very well. (Although personally, I think Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a perfectly respectable novel.)

Back then, you’d have to sell tens of millions to be ranked as a bestseller. How many books do you think you need to sell to gain bestseller status now? Take a guess. A million? Half a million? Nope.

About 5,000, if you can sell them reasonably quickly. Yes, seriously.

Of course, this situation opens the door to all kinds of sharp practices. The numbers are easy to manipulate, and the system can be gamed. In fact, some authors – we will mention no names – have been known to achieve bestseller status simply by buying their own books. There are also companies who, for a fee, will buy your books for you.

Note, too, that ‘bestseller’ status is not measured by the absolute number of books sold, but by the rate of sale. It is the speed at which your book sells, and that alone, that determines whether or not it is ranked as a bestseller. In 2019, in a celebrated prank, UK comedian Mike Winnet managed to get a fake book containing nothing but blank pages onto Amazon’s bestselling list by selling just 49 copies in 24 hours – it made it to the number one spot in the niche category of ‘Business, finance and law’, alongside books by Steve Jobs and Donald Trump.

For all these reasons, the appellation  ‘bestseller’ has become essentially meaningless. Anyone can become a bestselling author if they really want to. In fact, even simply lying and printing ‘The no. 1 international bestseller’ on your book’s front cover before you have sold a single copy – again, we will mention no names – is unlikely to have any consequences. (Can you imagine the headline ‘Lie found in work of fiction´? Neither can I.)

The fact that books do not sell in anything like their former quantities is not because of any moral or intellectual failing on the part of the young, despite what some people try to tell you. My generation read a lot of books because we were bored out of our minds. Where I was, in the west of Ireland, there was one TV channel, in black and white. Few of us could afford to buy many records. (I had three LPs and a couple of singles, all birthday presents.) The local dances were dismal affairs with country and western bands. Of course we read books!

So now, when everyone has instant entertainment on tap, it’s hardly surprising that sales of printed literature have taken a nose dive. For many people, books are too much like hard work. Too much like school. Literature is not going to disappear, but it is on track to ending up on the same shelf as art forms like ballet and opera: revered, but on life support.

It’s not the first time in history that this has happened. There was a time, after all, when you could make a considerable profit selling tickets for a new ballet or opera, or a concert of classical music. The slide onto the ‘cultural’ shelf at the back of the shop has been gradual – at first, it was just popular entertainment.

So, as Lenin asked, What is to be done?

For a start, we can forget about reversing the trend. That’s not going to happen. Books are going to become an increasingly narrow interest.

People will go on writing, of course, just as they went on painting when photography caused the market for portraits to collapse, and just as they go on recording music today, even though there’s no money in that anymore, either. But there will be no more professional writers of fiction. We will all be amateurs, earning our real income elsewhere.

Traditional publishers are unlikely to survive for much longer. They will be replaced by companies offering various professional services to writers for a fee: editing, cover design, layout and typography. Some of them may still call themselves publishers, but their business basis will be completely altered. For a start, they certainly won’t turn anyone down. They can’t afford to.

But then who will maintain the level of quality? Without gatekeepers, won’t there just be a flood of poorly-written books?

Well, first of all, and despite what they say, literary quality has never been a primary concern of publishers. They have always been more than happy to publish the next 50 Shades of Grey if they think they can make a profit on it.

And secondly, yes, there will be a tidal wave of dross. It’s already here. But that may not in itself be a problem.

The penny dreadfuls will enjoy a renaissance: the cowboy tales, the horror stories, the romances, the space adventures. They will just sell in much, much smaller quantities than before. Success will be numbered in hundreds of sales, not thousands and certainly not millions. The market will be fractured into a myriad of tiny pools, each with its own little bunch of croaking frogs.

The smart money, as ever, will move on. In the future, to the extent that we hear about authors at all – in interviews, for example – they will be those writing in tightly-defined categories that can be sold to investors as a safe bet. Crime, for example, or romance. Only then will the money people be prepared to put coins into them and pull the lever. In a declining market, you don’t take chances. Any experiments will be on the fringes, not in the centre.

But, as I said, all this may not necessarily be a bad thing. For far too long, creative writing has been stifled by the gatekeepers, who, themselves under economic pressure, have insisted on the same dreary old list of points to check off, if you want to be published by them: Define your audience, know what’s in fashion right now, write characters people can identify with, etc., etc. In other words, write the same book everyone has already read a thousand times before. They do this for sound financial reasons, because they want to sell as many books as possible. But the need to constantly play to the gallery has led to a dreadful sameness and lack of experimentation.

Soon, however, the game will be up. And when that happens, the only writers left in the business will be those who don’t give a damn about playing to the gallery or anyone else. Because no one will be in it for the money anymore.

Yes, there will be a lot of rubbish – in truth, there always has been – but there will also be passionate and creative authors who are prepared to write what they burn for, what they dream about, what they have to write, however weird it may be. However challenging. However provoking.

One way and another, it’s going to be an interesting time.

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