For various reasons (some very clear, some not), we’re in a very apocalyptic period, and people tend to love to hear “end of everything” arguments. For some reason I’m not quite clear on (though it probably involves getting hits via the Twitter), people who write for the mass media love to cheer the apocalypse on. I don’t really disagree very much that we live in difficult times or that the literary world is getting squeezed about as much as other facets of society, but if you look at what’s going on in the industry you have to be seriously dishonest or myopic or something to think that reading is dying. People are buying millions of devices costing hundreds of dollars with no other end function than to read a book! Amazing! Publishers have an entirely new format to monetize and spin off into new products! Fantastic! The numbers of books being published and people writing them continues to climb at a remarkable rate!
And then there are the people who seem to think that being an author somehow gives them a right to a dignified life with a fat salary, as though such a life ever existed for anything but the most famous and successful writers.
So where does this sense of authors being squeezed come from? It could simply be a sign that publishing, as an industry, is becoming more commercial, more competitive, more efficient. You may not like that. You probably don’t. There is a profound queasiness which breaks out at the conjunction of art and business. But the pressure is definitely there. As Maxine Hitchcock, editorial director at my publisher Simon and Schuster puts it: “You’ve got to publish harder and more nimbly than ever before.”
There is another pressure on writer’s incomes. It seems that there are more writers to go around. Last month, membership of the Society of Authors passed 9,000 people for the first time since the Society was formed in 1884. There has been a steady increase in the number of book titles published in the UK, from almost 110,000 in 2001 to just over 150,000 in 2010. More surprising, perhaps, is the Nielsen Bookscan data on the number of new publishers each year in the UK and Ireland. What this actually records is new entities applying for ISBN records in each year. In 2001, there were 2,248 such new entities. In 2010, there were 3,151 of them. Nielsen Bookscan has this quite interesting thing to say about that increase: “The year-on-year increase between 2001 and 2010 shows that last year’s figure is the highest in this period and can be explained by the fact that many new authors continue to publish their work under their own publishing name.”
And I’ll bet that there are more titles available today from more authors than at any other time in history. So, even if people were buying as many books today as they were a decade ago, the average writer’s income would be falling. Now, that may not be good for the average writer – but it might be a good thing for society as a whole.