Authors’ Dilemma: Economic Survival in the 21st Century
The 21st century is a most challenging time to be an author that tries to get his or her work published, as almost anyone who is involved in the publishing industry today can attest to (Carnoy 2010). With so many contemporary entertainment choices, including online video games, internet surfing, high definition movies, and sports on television, reading a paper-based book is losing its appeal among younger consumers and potential readers. The Digital Age “has had far reaching impact on all industries, not only publishing and this means changes to all roles, whether this be in terms of leadership, content strategy and management or marketing” (Collier 2011, p.2). In order to make a living in the publishing world nowadays, an author will has to be more resourceful and creative. New, unknown writers can use to try to earn their living in this changing environment are self-publishing, online marketing, and e-books as different means of selling their titles and getting publishing contracts.
One of the major reasons why times are getting tougher for most writers is the fact that publishing houses are focusing more on publishing new titles by established best-selling authors, rather than on taking bigger risks with new, unknown authors. This survival strategy minimizes risks for publishers, but is extremely bad news for unknown writers. For the established writers, like Tom Clancy or J.K. Rowling, the future holds some challenges, but few fears. They already enjoy reputations as being dependable best-selling authors with tons of devoted fans. Any publishing house would like to sign a writer with an established track record, since investing in such individuals are safe bets in the high-risk publishing world. During tough economic times, fewer consumers are buying books and even libraries are cutting back on their purchasing orders. In British Columbia, according to Statistics Canada (2008), revenues from book sales had already declined by 17% even before the economic crisis began. Times are so tough that even “vaunted old publishers such as Houghton Mifflin have literally put the freeze on acquisitions” (Carnoy 2010, p.1). As the current economic recession deepens, consumers consider book purchases to be luxuries they can no longer afford, therefore, it worsens the financially difficulties of publishers and authors.
In fact, self-publishing may be the only way a new, unknown writer can get his/her works published at first. Even writers with some creditability and stature have to resort to self-publishing after years of failing to interest traditional publishing houses with their written works. For instance, David Carnoy (2010), a respected New York City based executive editor and online columnist for CNET, describes how he tried for years to spark the interest of small, medium, and large publishers in his own book “Knife Music” with no success. After doing his online research on self-publishing, Carnoy used Amazon’s BookSurge print-on-demand (POD) outfit in 2009 to self-publish his work. “Four and a half months after [he] self-published Knife Music… [his] agent sold it to The Overlook Press, an independent publisher that will put out the book in hardcover in July” (Carnoy 2010, p.1). His article, Self-publishing a Book: 25 Things You Need to Know, is posted online on the CNET website and is a useful tool for those wishing to follow in his footsteps. Based on what he wrote in his article concerning what he went through just to get Knife Music published, it is clear that Carnoy has accepted the challenges of getting published in this tough environment and made good use of available alternatives. Carnoy’s experience can serve as a lesson to other hopeful writers who have similar sad stories of multiple rejections, from traditional publishers who refuse to spend scarce resources on unknown authors.
Like Carnoy, once their works have a proven record and a following, then previously unknown writers may be of greater interest to the established publishing houses. Although these tough times may make them less willing to take chances, any reputable publisher look out for the next J.K. Rowling. The problem is not necessarily the quality of writing, but simply getting the attention of a publishing house. Getting overworked and underpaid editors and other publishing decision-makers to take that second look at an unknown writer’s manuscript is a great challenge. After all, most publishers receive hundreds, even thousands of titles from independent authors and agents every year. Trying to shift through these mountains of unsolicited manuscripts to identify the few “literary gems” worth the high expense of publishing, printing, marketing, and distributing is a major task. Anything that makes an author or his/her work stand out from the crowd, such as garnering sales as a self-published or POD title can help to get the publishing house’s attention.
Of course part of gaining any success as a self-publisher or following other non-traditional paths to getting published in the 21st century is to learn how to use online resources, social networking sites (SNS), and book forums to help market their works. The website Squidoo (2011) has several links to different social networking websites for writers, including writerface.com, book-in-a-week.com, Inked-in.com, and writers-network.com. Not only can writers get in touch with other writers and compare notes, but they can also promote their titles through SNS. The Harry Potter books, for instance, have Twitter and Facebook fan pages, often with thousands of followers and “friends” around the world. On Twitter (2011) there are “TheHPAlliance”; “HarryPotterView”; and “harrypotteruk”. Similarly, there are numerous popular Harry Potter fan pages, like the “Harry Potter FAN PAGE (Official)”, on Facebook (2011), arguably the premier social networking site in the world. Certainly this book series enjoy an unprecedented amount of fame and popularity and does not really need any additional marketing help, however, other authors can benefit from these types of online publicity.
The internet and digital technology can be more than networking and marketing tools for struggling writers. They should accept the reality that e-books are here to stay and allow publishers and booksellers to market and sell electronic versions of their titles (perhaps without having any paper-based books being printed up in the future). The Digital Age can be a great opportunity for stakeholders in this industry. According to Collier (2011), “The greatest opportunity is the ability to reach a greater audience with digital content, and use it to promote and upsell to more lucrative high-value digital and non-digital products and services” (p.1). This new technology can help authors reach new readers who may never have the opportunity to see or hold a printed copy of their work. Selling digital e-book copies of their self-published titles can mean the difference between being homeless and paying rent for some writers without alternative sources of income or financial support.
E-books are also environmental-friendly, an increasingly important factor in almost any industry. Since no trees need to be cut down to be turned into pulp and paper in the production or distribution process, using an e-book reader and buying a downloadable e-book version may appeal to the market segment that places high value on being a “green” alternative. In his blog, Sam Jordison (March 20, 2010) discusses how he has changed his mind about e-book readers after reading that a Kindle (one of the more popular e-book readers) can potentially save up to “26,098 kg of CO2 when used to the fullest capacity of the Kindle.” He is now a supporter of e-book technology.
Even better news for authors and publishers than e-book readers is the growing popularity of digital tablets like the Apple iPad. Rather than carrying around a device with only one main function (being a digital book reader), a tablet is a truly multi-function electronic tool that has a secondary function as an e-book reader. Consumers who buy these types of devices may not even consider using it for this function, yet having that ability built-in is an advantage that the publishing industry and authors can benefit from. Instead of trying to convince consumers to spend money on limited-use e-book readers, they have to simply convince tablet-users to order and pay for relatively inexpensive e-book titles.
Even more promising than its “green” appeal is the fact that many students around the world are buying and using e-book readers for school. For instance, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), within two years of setting up its NetLibrary in February 2006, the system was already receiving 4000 to 7000 visits monthly (Lam, Lam, Lam and McNaught 2009). As e-books become more user-friendly, this technology will continue to increase in popularity and use. Since students represent the next generation of book buyers (whether in traditional bound form or in e-book format), any increases in numbers of users among this vital demographic can mean higher e-book sales in the future.
One common fear among copyright holders in the Digital Age is the loss of revenue and control posed by digital piracy. Many authors and publishers understandably fear their shrinking revenues will be hurt even more once their copyrighted materials are digitized and available online (Colliers 2011). Certainly online content piracy will inevitably take place, but new security measures can help to reduce this systemic problem to a manageable level. Another way to look at this situation is to realize that while some potential sales may be lost through digital piracy, staying out of the digital arena altogether means giving up entire revenue streams on a global scale. It is far better and makes far more economic sense to risk losing some potential sales as the cost of doing business as part of the global digital revolution. E-books are here to stay and so embracing this new digital reality is a matter of first priority and economic survival.
Undoubtedly the publishing industry as a whole must make drastic adjustments in how stakeholders think about and conduct their business if they hope to survive economically. Authors hope to get signed to a new contract with large advances will mostly be disappointed unless they are already famous or, even better, infamous. For the other 99 percent who are relative unknowns, trying to gain the attention of a traditional publishing house struggling to stay in business will only become more difficult. Therefore, to make a living as a writer in the Digital Age will require greater creativity, effort, and skill in how to make full use of available digital and internet technologies. These authors will be forced to consider self-publishing, online marketing and converting their works into digital format for e-book readers, tablets and smart phone users. Only then will some of them have a fighting chance to become a successful author in a world where books are too often neglected in favor of watching television, playing video games or surfing online.
Carnoy, D. (July 27, 2010). Self-Publishing a Book: 25 Things You Need to Know. CNET Reviews. Retrieved from http://reviews.cnet.com/self-publishing/
Colliers, D. (April 14, 2011). How to Reshape the Publishing Industry. Echo E-Business. Retrieved from http://www.learnebusiness.com/ebusiness_articles/how-to-reshape-the-publishing-industry.pdf
Facebook. (2011). Harry Potter FAN PAGE (Official). Retrieved from http://www.facebook.com/pages/Harry-Potter-FAN-PAGE-Official/174214182593160
Jordison, S. (March 10, 2010). The Ecological Case for e-books. The Guardian UK. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/mar/09/ecological-ebooks
Lam, P., Lam, S.L., Lam, J. and McNaught, C. (2009). Usability and Usefulness of eBooks on PPCs: How Students’ Opinions Vary Over Time. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology 2009, 25(1), 30-44.
Squidoo. (2011). Social Networking for Writers. Retrieved from http://www.squidoo.com/socialnetworkingforwriters
Statistics Canada. (2008). The Daily: Book Publishing Industry. Government of Canada. Retrieved from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/080710/dq080710a-eng.htm
Twitter. (2011). HP Fan Sites. Retrieved from http://twitter.com/#!/sugardukes/hp-fan-sites
I would like to thank my friend, Aaron Shi, for his help correcting my grammar.