Friday, August 19th, 2011

Mr. Swift's Moronic Proposal: Ebooks Will Keep Writers From Writing!

It's a generally accepted rule that you shouldn't take too seriously anything an author says while promoting his book on the radio. Or at least I thought it was a generally accepted rule. Certainly, Christopher Buckley tells a great anecdote about the time he was asked by a radio host whether, per the author bio on his novel Little Green Men, he really had acted as policy advisor to William Howard Taft. Not only did Buckley happily confirm that he had advised President Taft, but he spent the remainder of the interview discussing the specific advice he'd imparted to the (very) late statesman. Of course Buckley said something ridiculous on the radio—he had a book to promote.

And so it was that Booker Prize-winning author Graham Swift appeared on the BBC's World At One program this past Wednesday to promote his new book, Wish You Were Here. Asked for his views on the rise of ebooks, he said this:

"I think the tendency will be that writers will get even less than they get now for their work and sadly that could mean that some potential writers will see that they can't make a living, they will give up and the world would be poorer for the books they might have written, so in that way it is quite a serious prospect."

Or put in simpler terms, Swift suggested that would-be novelists are likely to look at the low royalties paid on ebooks and think "screw this writing lark, I'm going to become a plumber."

Such a patently ludicrous statement should have led to a collective rolling of eyes. "Oh that Graham Swift," we all ought to have said, "he'll say anything to sell a book." Incredibly though—perhaps because Swift won the Booker, or maybe because the publishing industry is so frightened of technology that they'll repeat any old scare story, and perhaps at least in part because the Internet will repeat any claim at all—Swift's words made (SEO-friendly) headlines around the world. From the Telegraph and the Daily Mail to the Hindustan Times and the Huffington Post, all repeated his opinion as terrifying fact. "Digital rates could dissuade authors from writing."

Now, of course, Mr. Swift's standing in the literary world gives me pause before I call him a fucking idiot. Furthermore, his status demands that I take a deep breath before suggesting that he is a clueless old fool, babbling about technology he doesn't understand to a BBC journalist too awestruck to challenge him. And it certainly requires that I at least count to three before breaking down all of the ways that, from start to finish, Swift's interview was a towering tidal wave of horseshit.

One, two—okay.

Swift's first assertion—that low royalties mean would-be authors might choose not to write—is idiocy, pure and simple. Ask a roomful of successful authors why they decided to write and not one of them will answer "for the money," any more than a hooker would say she chose her profession "for the flowers and candy."

Even for those of us lucky enough to have won a book deal, being an author is a pretty ghastly way to earn a crust. If being paid was our primary motivation, we'd have been far better off working in advertising or PR or posing as African princes to con idiots out of their savings. The reality is, those of us who write books for a living do so because we choose to: either because we have some burning desire to tell a story, or because we've tried real jobs and found ourselves lacking. We'd write for free (and frequently have done so)—but winning a book deal means we get to sleep till noon and spend our afternoons dicking around on YouTube when we should be typing. Moreover, the notion that authors have to choose between writing and a proper job has no basis in reality. Trollope, Kafka, Faulkner, Heller, Bukowski, Eliot, Grisham, King, Fleming, Chaucer… the list of authors who
held down day jobs while working on their masterpieces is likely longer than those who didn't. You can add Graham Swift to that list too: his first novel, The Sweet-Shop Owner, was written in short 5 a.m. bursts before the author headed to his teaching job.

But still Swift drones on about the evil of ebooks, his argument growing wider—and weirder—as the interview progresses. It turns out, digital publishing is going to starve all authors, not just newbies:

When anything goes digital, let alone something as immaterial as a book, there is a tendency to see it as just in the air to be taken, and to lose the sense that somebody once made it… I think the purveyors of e-books are only too happy for this atmosphere of ‘everything belongs to everybody’ to increase because it means they don’t have to think so much about the original maker of the thing, or they can get away with paying them less.

Nurse, the screens! If I understand Swift correctly—and, depressingly, I do—he's suggesting that the purveyors of ebooks want people to believe that books are free, so they can get away with paying smaller royalties to authors. It's unclear who Swift means by "the purveyors of ebooks." Perhaps he's talking about Amazon or Apple—companies whose ereaders contain more anti-piracy measures than a Somali oil tanker, making it near-impossible for readers to re-sell, loan or even quote text from their legally purchased ebooks.

No, you're right, he can't mean them. It must be the publishers, then, who want us to see books as "just in the air to be taken." Except that everything the publishing industry has done so far—from forcing Amazon to charge inflated prices for ebooks to trying to block Google Books from indexing their authors' text—suggests they value ebooks very highly indeed; perhaps a little too highly. (I can't speak for Swift's publisher, but my own contract with Weidenfeld & Nicolson—part of Hachette—offers perfectly agreeable terms for ebooks; and I haven't even won the Booker.)

Next up, Swift takes aim at those who suggest impoverished authors should find other ways to profit from their work: "You can't perform a book—so if writers go and give readings, or whatever, that's not as it were the equivalent of their book. It's that wonderful reading experience… that matters."

Anyone who has read Last Orders, the novel which won Swift his Booker, will know what he's talking about. It's a truly beautiful piece of writing, and one that can only really be appreciated in its original, printed form. How heartbreaking it must have been, then, for Swift to find himself forced to allow Last Orders to be adapted into a critically acclaimed movie starring Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins. And how he must have wept when he read the New York Times review of the film….

For Mr. Schepisi, who wrote and directed the film version of "Last Orders," the principal challenge must have been how to translate the specific gravity of Mr. Swift's prose, with its multiple narrators and its stripped-down cockney lyricism, into the light and shadow of cinema…. Mr. Schepisi… has succeeded beyond all expectation.

One can only hope the big fat check Swift will have received from the movie company went some way towards fucking his pain away.

And so finally Swift's horseshit tsunami reaches its greatest height with the tale of Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) who, Swift tells us, turned the publisher-author relationship on its head by convincing Macmillan to publish Alice In Wonderland ("and pay for that process"), with Dodgson keeping a literally incredible 90% of the proceeds.

"In my view, that is the correct arrangement," Swift tells the BBC, "but of course it would be sheer wonderland now to go to a publisher and say: 'I can give you a royalty.'"

Yeah! Except that's exactly not what happened. Alice In Wonderland was published by Macmillan, and the publisher did take a very small percentage of the proceeds, with Dodgson pocketing the rest. But that's because Alice, like many books in the 1800s, was published "on commission." Today we'd call it vanity publishing: Dodgson's deal with Macmillan required that the author pay all of the costs of printing and producing Alice, with the publisher acting as a distributor. If the book did well (as it did, in Dodgson's case), Macmillan only received its 10% commission—but if it failed to break even (as most books did then, and still do today) the author was in the hole for all of the costs.

Frankly, I'd rather stick with my greedy old regular publisher for my next book than risk financial ruin going it alone, but if that's really the deal that Swift wants, he's in luck: today, any budding Charles Dodgson need only upload his work to the Kindle or iBooks stores and up to 70% of the cover price will be his to keep—accessing an enormous consumer base with one-click purchasing enabled, all without a single penny due in printing costs. (This is, after all, how Ars Technica just made $15,000 in 24 hours, with their 27,300-word assessment of the new Mac operating system, and how Jon Krakauer moved 20,000 copies in a few days of his latest essay.) A wonderland indeed! You fucking idiot.

Paul Carr is the author of The Upgrade: A Cautionary Tale of a Life Without Reservations and Bringing Nothing To The Party: True Confessions Of A New Media Whore.

15 Comments / Post A Comment

KenWheaton (#401)


Miles Klee (#3,657)


johnpseudonym (#1,452)

When PVC was invented and put into commercial use eighty years ago, people were worried plumbers wouldn't be able to make a living. Things worked out okay.

bennimaddi (#314)

i am a generally a big cheerleader when it comes to the promise of e-books. i think they have the potential to change the way books are made in many good ways. there are also bad things about the way they might change things, such as won't it be sad when all the nice people who started bookstores because they like books go out of business. i'm certainly not one of these people who's sitting around reminiscing about how much i love the glue smell of books and the texture of the binding against my fingertips.

but to call the issues that swift brings up "moronic" is basically… moronic. we are already seeing the effect of the new e-book order and at least for no what it means is less money.

on amazon right now, half of the top ten e-books are being sold for under two dollars.

this is not a price that the current publishing model can support. yes, it might be something that self-publishing can support, and i surely hope the end result of the turmoil that is happening now is new and innovative ways of publishing books. that includes self publishing, co-op publishing, more small presses, etc etc etc. but the way it stands now, it means less money for most authors– most of whom, as you mention, are making barely anything in the first place.

it's true that most people don't write solely for the money. but being able to write in a professional way is contingent on making professional money. the less a person gets paid for writing, less he/she will be able to write. people have to live.

advances from publishers are sinking. it's just true. most authors i know live on their advances rather than their royalties. sure, they write because they want to write, but i have a feeling most people would rather eat and pay rent.

there will always be people who, for whatever reason, manage to bend the rules. i hope to be one of them. but citing the existence of grisham and chaucer as proof that money isn't necessary to writers is nonsense.

again, i believe that this is an exciting time for people who write books. it's not like the current publishing industry has been so great to us. but i don't see the point of snidely pissing all over people who express concern about what's going to happen next. a lot of bad things could happen next! (for instance, amazon is well on its way to becoming all-powerful, which would be terrible.)

as a side note: i would also be curious to know what the "perfectly agreeable" ebook term your contract offers are. because a lot of people are getting hosed. perhaps even you are and you don't realize it?

Honest Engine (#1,661)

@bennimaddi Is it possible that the top ten e-books being sold for under $2 are the product of flexible pricing by Amazon? That is, if an e-book begin to take off, Amazon may be able to lower the price and entice more readers, while still maintaining acceptable margins. The more books they are able to sell, the more their marginal costs would go down (especially in the already very frictionless electronic medium). Presumably Amazon could not afford (or would not want to afford) selling all their e-book at sub-$2 prices, because most books aren't selling on a scale that would support that kind of pricing. If I'm right (and I have no idea if I am), might a broader sampling of e-book prices than the top-ten on Amazon give you a little more confidence in the future of publishing?

bennimaddi (#314)

@Honest Engine it really depends on the book. several of the ninety-nine cent books appear to be self-published. i know that some publishers have tried the trick of temporarily giving away books for free or virtually free to try to inflate sales or build momentum. which isn't a terrible idea but it does have the effect of undercutting everyone else.

when lots of books cost $0.99, people don't want to pay ten bucks for other books. the problem is that it's hard for anyone to make money off of a book when it's being sold for $0.99. The reason people like Amanda Hocking can do it is because she bangs away at a keyboard for two days until there are a lot of letters in a document, gives it a romantic/ominous title, and clicks publish. plus she's one of the very very few people whose books actually took off.

For books that a lot of people put a lot of work into, not to mention books that are not going to sell a million copies, charging less than the cost of a pack of gum for a book is not practical. Amazon doesn't care because it doesn't really cost them any money to sell an e-book. They're happy to take whatever pennies they happen to get.

i want to clarify that i don't think there's anything inherently wrong with self-publishing. i think a lot more people are going to be doing it in the future and i think it could end up being a really good thing. in fact, i'm planning on self-publishing my own out-of-print books when i get around to it. i'm just saying that it sucks that i will have to charge ninety-nine cents for them. when i do it, i'm planning on hiring a cover designer to redo the covers and i highly doubt i will recoup even the low amount of money i'm spending on that.

hypnosifl (#9,470)

@bennimaddi Well, look at this comment by self-publisher Joe Konrath, explaining that he made far more money when his self-published ebook went for 99 cents than when it had been going for 2.99. Not that this would apply to all books, but I think it's possible that lower prices on ebooks may often increase the sales by enough that the author actually makes more money, and if you think about how many fewer copies would be sold of the same book in physical form when priced at 10-25 dollars, and what a small fraction of the cover price goes back to the author in traditional publishing (the post mentions that the author typically makes only 1 dollar for each copy of a paperback trade edition), it doesn't seem so obvious that authors in general make less money selling cheap self-published ebooks. Of course, the big drawback to any form of self-publishing is that you don't have the marketing done by big publishing houses, but I'm not sure how much marketing they actually do for any but the upper echelon of books they put out…

"how Jon Krakauer moved 20,000 copies in a few days of his latest essay"

I mostly agree with your post, but this "moved" feels kind of disingenuous, I think, especially as your final nail in the coffin piece of evidence that eBooks are a profitable proposition for authors. "Moved" implies, especially when juxtaposed with the Ars Technica example in the same parenthetical, that those copies are sales. The Publisher's Weekly article you link to has the Byliner guy saying that "the story has had roughly 20,000 downloads since it was posted Tuesday morning" but, unless I'm missing something, all those downloads took place when the eBook was available for free on the Byliner site, before it went on sale for $2.99 on Amazon, "moving" no capital into Krakauer's coffers. Obviously it was still a coup in terms of publicity for Krakauer and Byliner and maybe it has indeed sold 20,000 copies (or more) by now (I would be interested to know!), but I think the reality of the situation is a little different than your conclusion implies.

nedb (#25,002)

When I got a book deal I quit my day job, and I am certain that having more time to write has made me a better writer. There are a lot of great books that were written while the authors had day jobs, but there are also a lot of great books where you can tell, on every page, that they could only have been written because the author had the opportunity to devote his or her entire existence to them for a few years.

Backslider (#819)

Writing as an art will die when authors can no longer get laid as a result of their labors, whether they get paid is nearly irrelevant. Whether their stuff is published in a magazine, a book or a computer tablet is completely irrelevant.

Having said that, the days in which a writer can get laid for being a writer are numbered–if they haven't passed already.

Ralph Haygood (#13,154)

Shouldn't you/we be hoping lots of aspiring writers are silly enough to believe Mr. Swift's proposal? Less competition, right?

Pleasant to see you here, Paul. Have you noticed The Awl has been making fun of your (former?) employer ( They do make some good points.

jfruh (#713)

Surely there's a distinction to be made between "nobody expects to get rich writing" and "nobody expects to make a middle-class living writing that would allow them to quit their day jobs," though, right? I honestly believe that there are plenty of writers who will just do it because they are compelled to but plenty of others (with great books in 'em!) who would just be like, "Enh, I can make more at this wholly tolerable day job, and I like being able to spend time with my family/friends/porn after hours, so fuck it."

I do think that in the bold new world of self-publishing that's probably coming, there will also be people who are great writers but bad business people and bad self-promoters whose work will be lost, just as there are people who are great writers and who didn't have the temperament or social capital to navigate through the publishing industry who will be found. But if the overall amount of money that authors make declines, I don't see that producing more or better or even different books.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

@jfruh That's one great thing about the rise of blogs and online journalism – there are a LOT of people out there now writing for a living (especially in sportswriting, or at least that's the realm I lived in) that might not have otherwise done so, thought they could do so, or had the opportunity to do so. I was one of them for a couple years, and I made many friends during that time who continue to do so – the world is better for it.

And writing is not the only labor-of-love career that allows someone to work hard (maybe too hard sometimes) doing something they love, not doing it for the money. Carpentry, welding, design, non-profits, auto repair even. I have friends who do all of these things, managing to live a comfortable-enough if unspectacular existence. And they do it because they enjoy it, not because it was the easiest or most lucrative path. They could be making six figures in middle management, marketing, whatever…but many, many people don't get into their chosen careers for the money. Writing is but one of many avenues for that.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

We'd write for free (and frequently have done so)—but winning a book deal means we get to sleep till noon and spend our afternoons dicking around on YouTube when we should be typing.

I was expecting a link to there.

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