Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Sky Is Not Falling

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August 2011, Ewan Morrison proclaimed the end of writing as a profession. In the Guardian article "Are books dead, and can authors survive?" he says:
"The digital revolution will not emancipate writers or open up a new era of creativity, it will mean that writers offer up their work for next to nothing or for free."
His article predicts that self-published authors will devalue the product and drive the "professional writer" to extinction. He makes the claim that "most notable writers in the history of books were paid a living wage" and offers the names of a dozen authors from the last half-century as evidence.

The reality is that the majority of traditionally published novelists do not pay the mortgage from their advances or royalties. Author incomes, like the incomes of musicians, actors and other creatives, are products of what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls Extremistan in The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. A small percentage of outliers account for a large percentage of the income for the group. The overwhelming majority have day jobs. In fiction, there are the one-percenters and there are the rest of us. This was true before the advent of the ebook and self-epublishing won't change that.

I suspect that Morrison's analysis of the future has less to do with a true prognosis and more to do with the performance of his traditionally published novels. I say this because of the opening statement in his next Guardian article.

Morrison spent the intervening six months touring his doomsday argument in the "End of Books" reading tour. In his equally alarmist follow-up article titled "The self-epublishing bubble" he begins by stating:
"The internet is full of ironies. I, for one, could never have guessed that writing about the end of books would generate more income for me than actually publishing the damn things."
I don't see Morrison's article as uncovering or explaining an actual trend. Instead, I see it as an example of the pressure to create controversial content to sustain a career in writing about writing, which is evidently more viable than a career in fiction.

Morrison's second article maps the self-published ebook wave to Hyman Minsky's seven stages of an economic bubble. (Disturbance, Expansion, Euphoria, Over-trading, Market Reversal, Financial Crisis, Revulsion)

The analysis in this article is no more cogent than in the first, as is pointed out very quickly in the comments. The problem is that the self-publishing wave is nothing like "the dotcom bubble, the commercial real estate bubble, the subprime mortgage bubble, the credit bubble and the derivative trading bubble" or any economic bubble.

No one is investing their life-savings or millions of venture capital dollars into self-publishing their memoir or Amish vampire novel or zombie western. They are pursuing a passion, investing plenty of time but very little money, and they won't come to financial ruin if it doesn't pay off. No too-big-to-fail financial institutions will require a government bailout when thousands or millions of self-published authors decide to throw in the towel. Assuming, that is, that great masses of indie authors do decide to throw in the towel, as predicted by Morrison.

I think the more appropriate stage theory for Morrison and his publishing experience is the K├╝bler-Ross stages of grief. (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance) Let's just hope he stops writing about the industry before he moves from Anger to Bargaining.

Brad Whittington is the author of the Fred trilogy, What Would Jesus Drink? and the soon-to-be released Muffin Man.