Thursday, January 10, 2019

Entering a Post-Scarcity Age in Fiction?

Back in 1931 Astounding Science Fiction paid its writers two cents a word.

This does not sound like very much. But one has to take inflation into account. According to the United States' Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Price Index, two cents in 1931 was equivalent to thirty-two cents in 2018. To put all this even more properly into perspective one might think in terms not of official inflation figures, but the economic life of the time. Just before the onset of the Great Depression (1929), America's per capita Gross Domestic Product was around $850. Today it is $57,500--almost seventy times' higher. Consequently, from the standpoint of people's actual incomes, two cents circa 1930 is more like a dollar and forty cents per word. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Association of America has just recently raised the minimum per-word compensation for a professional magazine from five to six cents. According to the guidelines on its web site the rebranded Astounding, Analog, pays six to ten cents per word for fiction--a relatively generous rate, and yet, just a small fraction of what it once afforded its authors.

Of course, one may think that magazines publishing short-form fiction are unrepresentative, given how their place has receded in contemporary life. By and large, when they look for something to read, people today tend to reach for novels. But the rate does not seem much better with those novels. Today a novel is expected to be at least a hundred thousand words long, and the advances that the major publishers offer for them tend to be in the five to ten thousand dollar range, which works out to . . . five to ten cents per word yet again.

In short, writers may be making a tenth or even less of what they used to in per word terms according to this one yardstick, which falls far short of taking everything into account. If, for example, one argues that publishers now have a higher technical standard than they did in the days of the pulps, necessitating a lengthier, more difficult training and time-consuming craftsmanship; if one argues that writers are now expected to bear a heavier burden of such activities as publicity in addition to their actual writing in return for their pay; then just looking at pay rates understates the drop in their earnings.

The financial return on effort aside, consider how publishers behave toward those who wish to submit work to them--doing just about everything in their power to keep them at bay. The major publisher open to the unsolicited, unagented submissions that are the only recourse of all but the very privileged few with "platforms" and industry "connections" (those few favored rather than disfavored by celebrity and nepotism) is a rarity today.

Some literary agents have slush piles, of course. However, when speaking of them they discuss the slush pile not as a normal, routine procedure by which they come by an appreciable portion of the wares with which they supply the market, but something they bother with mainly on the "off chance" that one in ten thousand cold queries will somehow, in a way not reducible to rational, objective, solidly meritocratic criteria, commend itself to their business judgment as likely to be profitable for their agency. The slush pile's marginality is reflected in their tendency to hand the job of looking out for those special finds not to the practiced eyes of veteran agents, who have more "important" things to do than keep up such a lookout, but unpaid interns who will years later write articles in places like Salon and the Guardian where they take the frustrations of their time on the publishing industry's lowest rung out on those who have no rung at all, gleefully trolling the unwashed plebs who committed the crime of sending in the unasked for queries and manuscripts they were obliged to read.

This means that just as the pay has plummeted, so has it become more difficult to find anyone willing to offer even these sharply reduced rates. Meanwhile, just as publishers, and agents, make themselves ever less approachable to the aspiring writer (indeed, many an aspiring writer would say, treat any approach with extreme hostility to the point of abusiveness), the TV viewer is barraged with commercials for self-publishing services, hoping to get not the writers' work, but their money. Someone who has self-published a book might even get cold calls from such companies at home, offering them such services. (By contrast, could you imagine one of the Big Five publishers--a Random House, a HarperCollins--buying TV time to put out a call for submissions? Or phoning the author of a self-published book that sold in the dozens to ask them to send them their book?)

All this bespeaks an extraordinary collapse of the market for fiction.

One might conclude from it that the falling price of words reflects either burgeoning supply, or sharply declining demand, and indeed, a combination of the two.

It is not at all hard to come up with a list of the reasons. A major one is what one might call the "vertical integration" of publishing. Just as steel mill owners might buy up iron and coal mines to bring the sources of the material they want for their operations under their control, so have publishers substantially gone from relying on what writers happen to send them to insuring that they are supplied with the sorts of thing they desire most. Thus we get an ever-rising volume of books from a handful of already bestselling authors, through their "working with co-authors," or turning their book-writing into a family business where their close relatives churn out work under their name (think James Patterson, think Stephen Ambrose); of books "by" reality TV "stars" and the like (the Kardashians are published novelists); of tie-ins and sequels and prequels and series' that go on and on and on even when the name on the cover is actually the name of the person who wrote the thing (take your pick).

Meanwhile the publicity machines make it ever more likely that those who have become bestsellers stay bestsellers, ever more prolific bestsellers taking bigger bites out of the market for longer periods as the lists get to look static from year to year, decade to decade. (Even death hasn't stopped Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy's names from appearing on the covers of new bestsellers every year decades after their passing, while a half century after his own passing the adventures of Ian Fleming's James Bond continue ever more creakily and pointlessly.) Naturally the premium on what any writer coming to this machinery as an outsider has to offer is far, far lower, not merely in terms of compensation, but their chances of finding any place at all for their own, original ideas in a traditional publisher's schedule.

However, even that is far from being the whole story now. What is also the case today, and may prove most important over the long run, is that there has never been so much content out there, so easily available. Never mind the favored Establishment answer that anything and everything that may be wrong with publishing today and undermining writers' earnings is due solely to the refusal of some to fully respect the claims of intellectual property-holders. The simple reality is that e-readers mean that anything without a copyright on it can be had for free, entirely legally--which includes virtually every classic, and non-classic, from the beginning of history down to the early twentieth century.

Then there is the vast quantity of fiction produced and distributed without any expectation of commercial gain. Fan fiction may be controversial from the standpoint of copyright, but nonetheless, it does conform to this pattern, and here, at least, statistics are conveniently available, with single categories of the stuff staggering. Over at FanFiction.net there are eight hundred thousand stories set within the Harry Potter universe alone, more than the most ardent fan could read in many lifetimes. And given that once it is put up very little is necessary to keep it up, this body of material is growing all the time.

There is, too, the response of aspiring, commercial authors to Big Publishing's scorn of them, and their inability to compete with its colossal publicity machinery. Many sell their novels at ninety-nine cents per copy, and give away much of their material totally for free. Few of them find the audiences for which they hope, let alone a chance to make a real living as an author (even when it is up for free, writers on sites like Wattpad are expected to send months persuading the site's readers to simply view it), but the practice is unlikely to stop anytime soon, so that this body of material, too, is growing all the time.

Altogether this means that no one merely looking for something to read will ever have to pay for it out of pocket again--and still have far, far more options without paying anything close to the prices traditional publishers demand. Meanwhile, there have never been more alternative uses of leisure time to reading than now, with those tablets and laptops and phones now making the full range of entertainment choices almost entirely portable. People who would once have had to make do with a book on the bus, the train, the plane can now enjoy a movie or a TV show or a video game or social media instead--and are perhaps more inclined to do so, as testified by the mountain of statistics testifying to less reading, and even less literacy.

Of course, for now it is still the case that if George R.R. Martin's The Winds of Winter ever actually does come out, people will rush out to pay full price for their copies. However, for all Martin's considerable virtues as a writer we should not forget that he would not be such a major mainstream success were it not for a blood-soaked, sex-and-nudity-filled, endlessly controversial nighttime soap opera adaptation of his series--many of the copies he sold creditable to the success of the TV show rather than purely literary success. It is also the case that a writer who stands today where Martin stood four decades ago, when he was just starting out, are apt to find that they cannot even give their book away.

It does not seem too much to say that we are looking at the beginnings of a post-scarcity age in fiction, and perhaps a post-scarcity era for the written word more generally; and that with each year we are entering into it more deeply. This is not the sort of post-scarcity a sane person would have preferred. (How about clean, green energy giving us electricity too cheap to meter instead?) Alas, we are living with it all the same, and if those who tell us that we are looking at an age of more general "abundance" are right, then how we deal with this surprising consequence of technological advance may well be an early indicator of how we cope with other, bigger problems as well. So far the record has not been inspiring. But then, however painful the situation has become for those who wish to be authors (and perhaps, how dangerous a situation serving them so poorly is for culture in general), this is all still new, and for the time being, scarcely recognized. But perhaps the fact that we are still only at the beginning of this strange new period is in itself grounds for hope that we will be able to combine the indisputable benefits of the new technologies with conditions that permit writers to write and yet live.

Perhaps someone should write a story about that.

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