As I said in a previous post, I’ve been writing on and off for (I can’t believe it) nearly thirty years. OK, so I did get a magazine article published when I was 15 but that’s still a long time! When I started, I had a manual typewriter, and then scrounged an electric one with a correction facility. At the time I was working in IT so fairly soon I had a computer with Wordperfect on it. (Whatever happened to Wordperfect?) Then of course, the computers got faster and started dialling up to connect to the Internet, before a few brave souls showed us the way with ADSL. Now, we’re always-on with wireless broadband, cloud storage and all the other benefits of the Internet.
I’m now wondering if this makes a difference to how many people are out there writing. If you think back to the late eighties, early nineties, most people did not have a computer. If they wanted to write a novel, they’d have to get a typewriter, buy some paper, make sure that the ribbon was fresh, and settle down to write. If you wanted to keep a copy you either had to photocopy everything (at 10p a page in the library or newsagent) or use carbon copies. If you don’t remember carbon paper, be very thankful because it was a horrible thing!
Now, most people use a computer, either at work or at home. People send text messages and emails all the time. Lots of people write blogs and comment on Facebook, forums, newspapers and a host of other websites. In short, more people are writing more words than ever before.
If someone today wants to write a novel, they just have to sit down, fire up Microsoft Word and start typing. You don’t even need paper or printer ink – you can go straight from screen to publication if you want to. But more important than that is the fact that it probably feels normal. Books are now springing from sources that didn’t exist when I started. Back then, there were no blogs, no online fan-fiction communities so these routes are entirely new and have spawned some best sellers.
Of course, all of this means that there is greater competition in the marketplace. And I think that it means that the quality has spread out in both directions. I’m sure that there is a lot more dross out there than ever before. Especially now you can publish directly from a word document to Kindle, or any other e-reader. You don’t even have to spell-check or proof it! But at the other end of the spectrum, there are undoubtedly writers with fresh, exciting voices who would never had the opportunity. Without the Internet their words would never have found a market.
Personally this means that I need to be more professional and organised. In a flooded market, quality is a good way to get noticed and rise to the top. Well, without becoming a celebrity and going on Big Brother (shudder!). What do you think? Are there more writers than ever before? What does this mean for the publishing industry?
The internet is wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but you can’t build an effective economic model without the ability to enforce and protect property rights, which is nigh on impossible on the internet. And it’s foolhardy to assume that people will pay for a commodity they can access for free.
That being said, people will still pay for quality, so I think the question for publishing will be how to cut through the noise. maybe it’s a little bleak, but I suspect the future of the publishing industry will be narrower, with tighter margins and a much greater focus on PR (possibly at the expense of most everything else).
The downside is that the major publishers are likely to go in the direction of Hollywood aiming at the most widely marketable products with the occasional loss-leading work for prestige: banging out sub-EL James erotica fantasies while it remains fashionable, for example, pushing established names at the expense of new voices and occasionally publishing really high quality awards-baiting material.
Plus side is that the internet democratises the written word, so there’s less need to penetrate the system (as it were).
Liked your post
The stats on publishing are hard to make sense of. One thing that is emerging is that book sales are in good health. A lot of ebook sales aren’t replacing physical sales, but adding on to them. And publishing as always had a split-personality. On the one hand, it’s copying the next big thing, whether it’s writing YA fantasy to cash in on Harry Potter, or as you put it, sub-EL James erotica. On the other hand, they are looking for the next big thing, which entails taking a big risk.
Also, all this technology means that printing itself has changed. No more loading up metal type and needing to shift thousands of copies to recoup your money. Print on demand means you can print the books that people want to buy. And, of course ebooks are even more efficient with less waste.
Yes, I think you are right. The old boy network of publishers all based in one small part of London is being challenged. One of the Booker short-list came from a small publisher in Norfolk. They had to sign a deal with one of the big publishers so they could print enough copies to cope with the interest. But it does show that the old establishment is being challenged and is changing.
Thanks for your comments
You’re right about the publishing stats (sorry that probably comes off as patronising – not intentional), and I too noted the potential for decline in overheads (print on demand etc), and yet there’s also been quite a lot of noise from the publishing industry that the industry is under threat, that they’re dying out – is this canny marketing, an attempt to drive down content creator costs or recognition of growing pressures?
That being said, would an unhealthy industry really have shelled out quite so much money for Pippa Middleton’s guide to not screwing up a party, with its esoteric secrets such as ‘don’t forget to invite people’…
There are more writers and more opportunities for those writers. Over the last 15 months, I read numerous books that would not have been published ten or fifteen years ago. They were good books, well written and well edited. I’m glad I found them and will read more by the same author.
They were professional in everyway and that’s the key in this new market. I bought an electric typewriter to write my first book back in the eighties. I remember the days of Amstrad Word Processors and miss wordperfect too! Carbon paper, not so much 🙂
I think a lot of it as about internal attitude. If you see the world as saturated with authors and feel you have nothing new to say, then your chances of success will be small. However, if you see the opportunities out there, and view the world as having more readers and more platforms than every before, then you’ll be more likely to make it! That’s what I tell myself anyway 🙂