Barry suggested I check out a recent speech by Ursula K Le Guin as she accepted an award for lifetime achievement at the (American) National Book Awards. She has a good old crack at the book industry – “sales departments given control over editorial”, “publishers, in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an e-book six or seven times more than they charge customers” and so on.
And I see a lot of us, the producers, who write the books and make the books, accepting this – letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.
It seems to me that Ms Le Guin is conflating two things: that a writer should be able to write exactly what they want and that they should be paid for it.
That would be lovely indeed. I have written a lot, and been paid a very little: not enough to put the IRD to too much trouble. I have screenplays and novels and novellas in the bottom drawer, and sketches of plots, and phrases, that are unlikely ever to be read by anyone else, let alone anyone who would pay to read them.
The fact is that I write for myself. I write because I have to, because I am a very grumpy Ned when I don’t. The thoughts build up and swirl around and weigh me down unless I get them out and on to a screen. It is a very selfish, self-indulgent, enterprise. It takes time away from other things, the most important things like MrsDavy and the LittleDavys, and the only justification is compulsion. Which is a very narrow ledge to walk, don’t you think?
Of course I also have a not-so-secret giant ego. I would love millions of people to read my words. I would love to be paid gazillions for my brilliance. I would love to be fêted as a generational wit and thinker.
But it is not why I write.
It is why I give away for free some of my words on this blogging platform. The ego of watching my stats to see how many people are Reading My Stuff! It’s why I get a thrill when a post is shared or liked or commented upon.
But readership is very different from authorship. Readers have a choice, while I feel like I have none. Or rather, my choice is about what I write, not whether I should write.
From a writer’s perspective the digital revolution has been a flowering of the ages. More people are writing more stuff than ever before. The monetary cost of putting your words out there is exactly zero, if you are prepared to accept that the monetary rewards will be exactly the same.
From a reader’s perspective, however, the revolution has decidedly mixed blessings. It’s an avalanche, a tsunami, a meteor strike of content. Somewhere amongst the deluge are stories that could speak just to you, but the difficulty is in sifting through the mountains of gravel to find the gem.
Publishing is the intermediary between author and reader. It is an expensive and risky undertaking. Ideally it is driven by a passion for the creative instinct, but it also has to pay the bills. Ms Le Guin’s complaint seems to be directed at the digital distributors, such as Amazon, whose business models are radically disrupting the old economics of publishing.
I’ve had a long career as a writer, and a good one, in good company. Here at the end of it, I don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds; but the name of our beautiful reward isn’t profit. Its name is freedom.
My point is that “We who live by writing” is a very small subset of “writers”. Probably always has been.
I would love to have more readers. I would swoon to earn a living wage from just my writing. But it is not why I write. I write because I have to.
That is my freedom, such as it is.