Half a believer

Robert J. Sawyer has written a fascinating post over on his author’s blog entitled ‘Are the days of the full-time novelist numbered?’ Cripes, thanks Rob, I’ve only just become an author and now you’re telling me I’m some kind of Jurassic relic about to be disintermediated, disintegrated, downsized, or otherwise done away with. His post has already been creating a high degree of controversy on the internet, with lots of other writers jumping on the bandwagon coming out either in support of, or against Robert’s views.

So let me nail my colours to the mask. I was an early adopter of the internet, having put my science fiction magazine onto Apple Computer’s pre-internet bulletin board system back in 1991. When a functioning internet came along in 1994, I grabbed the bull by both horns and moved the magazine onto the web just about the same time Amazon and Netscape Navigator launched. SFcrowsnest.com is still going and it’s still free – that’s the mantra isn’t it, on the web everything is free, content costs nothing?

Well, actually, its costs quite a lot. I’ve never made much of a profit, if any, out of my web site. When you factor in all the bandwidth costs, the postage costs of sending out hardcopy review copies to reviewers etc, the thin dribble of advertising money barely even allows me to break even. In most years, it loses money. Sometimes those losses can be numbered in the thousands of pounds. All paid for out of the First Bank of Stephen and his day job.

So, although my web site is successful, it does cost… it costs me, it costs the time which Geoff the editor and our reviewers spend reviewing books and magazines and TV shows. Time I don’t pay for, time which they could be presumably earning money somewhere else at the hourly rate of their day job.

Most content is only free online, because most content is produced by hobbyists who do it for love.

The ironic thing is that this is also the experience of most professional publishers who’ve emulated early adopters like myself, and stuffed their content online, trying to make it pay either by advertising or annual online access subscriptions. For them, the web is also a great big money pit. So far people like me have paid for that money pit, not to mention thousands of venture capitalists around the globe, who’s been trying to find the next new new thing.

Now here’s the real problem that Rob was addressing. Stuff that never used to be on the web in 1991, now is. That includes music, and, increasingly, TV shows and movies via various distributed file-sharing systems which I’m sure you all know of. And now possibly, that is expanding to encompass books.

The doomsday scenario which Robert is talking about in his blog, where a dinner conversation with his science fiction writing friends drifts into predictions that there won’t be a paying future for science fiction authors in 10 years time, is one I only half believe in.

For starters, I’m not sure that novels, that is to say book-length works of fiction, will become the sole preserve of e-book readers, whether that be dedicated devices such as the Amazon Kindle, all those nice sexy iPads from my old employers, Apple. Digital books might become complementary to paper copies, but among the people I know who have them – these are normally editors or agents in the publishing industry – the main reason for using them seems to be they can carry hundreds of books for their work.

When I ask them if they read novels for pleasure on these digital devices, the answer is a unanimous no. This was my experience too. I’ve tried a few, got bored with the novelty value of e-book devices, and since gone back to paper.

Secondly, most digital devices that have e-book functionality are fairly anal about making you pay for the, cough, ‘software’. The guru of open-source-free-books-for-nothing, Cory Doctorow, has himself blogged about the great problems he has had getting his e-books into people’s hands for free using his pre-specified creative commons license. That’s because people like Steve Jobs aren’t in the business of giving their shit away from free and then trying to sell speaking slots and T-shirts to make money out of it.

What I don’t deny is that giving your books away as free e-books – either in a time-limited fashion, or just a couple of novels in the series – currently works really well as a marketing taster. It is undeniable, I think, that Cory has sold a hell of a lot of paper copies of his books because he’s had such an enlightened view of the true worth of their digital counterparts. Whether such tactics will work so well when e-books devices eventually evolve into some kind of nanotechnology-paper-really-feels-like-a-book-but-better magic, is another matter.

There is also now a growing backlash against the concept of free.

The Times newspaper and all the other Murdoch titles are raising the pay-per-view walls against the hordes of free eyeballs. Movie and TV companies are now suing the frack out of as many digital uploaders as they can lay their hands on. Increasing number of countries are passing, or attempting to pass, draconian laws to throttle back or terminate the internet connections of the worst digital pirates.

I remain half a believer when it comes to the matter of free content online. I’m certainly not going to try and put up a paid password barrier around SFcrowsnest.com, that is for sure. And I would be happy for my publisher, HarperCollins, to experiment more with giving away some of my books as digital downloads, in the hope that it would increase the audience of readers willing to pay for the dead tree variety of novel.

But is the paper book finished? Are full-time authors that get paid a living wage finished? Are the days of big publishing companies, dedicated editors and all their satellite industries such as agents numbered?

That remains to be seen, but I have a sneaking suspicion, that we might be around for a while yet.

One Response to “Half a believer”

  1. Greg
    July 19, 2010 at 6:35 am #

    The publishing company Baen started a similar experiment with their “Baen Free Library” (started in 2000). There are several books on that site that I’ve gone out and purchased after finishing so that I’ll have a hard copy.

    When it comes down to basics, though, here’s something satisfying about a book that a .txt just can’t match. Plus, you never have to recharge a paperback’s batteries.

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