Strange Horizons publishes a large an interesting report on “The State of British Sf and Fantasy” which with the input of six authors does a fairly good job of reflecting many current trends. I take issue with Juliet McKenna’s opening essay The Market and Trade. Not because it is incorrect – it is well researched and has much useful information. But because it is myopic in its focus and unforgivably negative in tone.
Writers earning a living wage from their fiction and giving up the day job is an increasingly unlikely prospect. Advances for novels continue to fall and the contractual rights surrendered become ever more all-encompassing, giving publishers first call on income from foreign translation and other formats. Backlist sales once sustained writers but with bookshops no longer holding such stock, that revenue has shrunk for most but the top sellers. Short story and small press deals cannot offer enough money to make up such shortfalls. Direct sales through ebooks may bring writers a higher return in percentage terms but those authors who make significant sums remain newsworthy precisely because they are the “man bites dog” stories of publishing.
An “increasingly” unlikely prospect? There are more writers than ever earning a living in the genre. It’s a much more likely prospect. Why the intense and inaccurate negativity?
What is missing from McKenna’s purview? Digital, ebooks and most critically the indie author revolution. There’s nothing to gain from bemoaning the problems in traditional publishing without paying detailed attention to the context giving rise to those problems. WE’RE IN THE MIDST OF THE MOST RADICAL CHANGE CHANGE IN KNOWLEDGE DISTRIBUTION SINCE THE PRINTING PRESS WAS INVENTED. The publishing industry as you know it is an artefact for of the pre-digital era, there is absolutely zero chance of it continuing in its established form in the face of digital technology, and yes of course writers trying to shelter within the collapsing infrastructure of that industry are going to have an increasingly hard time.
Where are writers earning a living wage today? In self publishing. How are writers protecting their intellectual property from publishers contracts? By self publishing. How are writers profiting from their backlist? By self publishing. When are short stories making unexpected profits for writers? When being self published. How does McKenna characterise self-publishing? As the “man bites dog” outlier of success. No doubt many writers and publishing professionals continue to see it that way. They’re likely to continue on the same downward spiral McKenna describes for as long as they do so.