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

by Paul Carr

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.