Recently, I’ve been thinking about writing, and how essential writers are to the knowledge of everything. Authors produce almost all sources of information, in one way or another. Books, textbooks, magazines, websites, and other written materials were produced by writers. Maybe a person doesn’t really read, and they get their information from lectures, news, documentaries, and other sources, but lecturers generally get their information from written sources, and TV news, documentaries, and other films are scripted by writers. Nonfiction books are the accumulation of knowledge in other books, dissertations, academic studies, reports, and other written sources. Without writing, we’re left to observation and oral history for what we know.
Writers also produce a whole lot of our pleasures. Movies, TV shows, comedy, songs, plays, computer games, and, of course, fiction, as are the work of writers. Writers are everywhere. Some of them make a lot of money, writing a TV series, a best-selling book series, or a computer game; most of them don’t. They’re largely invisible, and the Author’s Guild says the median income for the profession is slightly over $6K a year, a whole lot less than you’d make flipping burgers. Blog writers make nothing at all, unless they’re paid to write someone else’s blog, one of those options in the gig economy.
“… Our old butler… expressed his quite sincere pity for writers in the words: “That’s a head-splitting job you’ve got there.”
Since writers are key to the dissemination of knowledge and pleasure, it’s amazing that so many of them live in a state of constant financial distress. According to the Author’s Guild, authors’ median incomes have declined 42% in the last decade. Why this has happened is complicated, but it starts with the fact that fewer people read books; according the Author’s Guild, only 53% of Americans read for pleasure, and 80% of all full-time writers make less than a living wage. Almost every writer I know has a day job, or flails in the gig economy, to pay the rent.
Nothing has done more to kill the writing profession than Amazon, which started as an online site to sell books. It’s decimated traditional publishing, demanding publishers pay 60% of the cover price of books for “placement” and “recommendations.” If you refuse the sheer extortion, your “buy” button doesn’t work, or they’re “out of stock.”
The publishers, of course, pay less to the writers, who make publishers’ profitability possible at all, but the corporate executives, no doubt, suffer no loss of salary. Publishers are now reluctant to buy books that aren’t blockbusters, investing in a whole lot of pablum written by celebrities or, more likely, their ghostwriters.
…Sharing my life with me had she not acquired a sort of instinctive comprehension of literary work, more accurate than that possessed by many intelligent people, not to mention fools?
Amazon has also devastated the writing profession in a counter-intuitive way, by offering the tools for self-publishing. To get a book in print no longer requires writing skills, veracity, or professionalism, just the cash to make it happen. As a result, there were 1.68 million self-published books on the market in 2018, offering plenty of competition to the pros, who’ve spent years researching, composing, editing, and improving a work before trying—and often failing—to find a publisher. Plenty of those self-published books disappoint and convince their purchasers that reading is a waste of time; plenty more spread disinformation.
Publishers have gotten rid of a lot of their B-list authors, who write great books, but have smaller, if ardent, niche readership. One way those authors have survived is switching over to Amazon and self-publishing to remain in print. A traditional publisher pays all the expenses of making a book print-ready, and gives the writer an advance to cover expenses until the book is released. Amazon writers take on all expenses, and don’t get an advance, but get a bigger percentage of profits than they’d get from a regular publisher. In essence, the writers still make squat. Amazon gets the lion’s share of whatever profit there is.
Amazon has eviscerated a few proud industries, including publishing and bookstores, kept writers in poverty, and made its owner hideously rich. Poverty seems a rude end for writers, the people who produce and transmit so much of the world’s information, ideas, and entertainment. Amazon seems an equally rude end for those people who once dreaded communism, because you could only buy what the government was selling.
Perhaps the powers that be want writers to struggle. If they weren’t perpetually obsessed with things like paying the rent, they might be really dangerous to the status quo. However, the powers that be have demonstrated with absolute certainty that they had only had one clue, all along: making fortunes. Left in their hands, the planet circles the environmental drain, humans and creatures gag on toxins, vast fortunes and massive poverty coexist, and the ultra-rich, having despoiled this glorious ecosystem, are eyeing other planets to pollute. It’s time for the powers that be to relinquish the status quo. We are on the brink of the Aquarian Age, after all.
…if I consider that I haven’t any talent at all, that for a variety of reasons I haven’t been able to make the most of my gifts, that my style has rotted without ripening, on the other hand, I’m aware that there are many more real ideas, genuine insights in what I write than in almost all the articles that are published.—Proust’s letter to Lucien Daudet, 1907