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The Conundrum of a 21st-Century Author

Once upon a time, an aspiring author could work hard, produce good writing, submit it (sometimes repeatedly if it was rejected, as it often was), and perhaps get it published in small publications or by small traditional presses. Over time, with continued persistence, hard work, careful market research, and attention to details, the fledgling author might begin to amass a collection of published clips from increasingly larger, more prestigious publications and by larger presses, and those successes would open doors for further publication. After considerable time paying his or her dues, the author might hope to land a book contract and, from there, go on to publish multiple books.

Although that scenario is certainly still possible, it is becoming harder and more rare. This new reality came to my attention the other day when I ran across a report by Dr. Christine Larson of the University of Colorado-Boulder.

Larson summarized the findings of a 72-question survey of 5,067 members of several different author organizations, most notably the Authors Guild. She presented numerous statistics showing “a shrinking number of [book] retailers and major publishers,” lower amounts of advances, less author-friendly terms in contracts, reduced marketing by publishers with more marketing efforts being required of authors, less time for actual writing activities, and a devaluing of the product of writing.

Larson also offered several possible explanations for the declining prospects of authors today. It’s hard to say which are the causes and which are the effects. To me, it seems to be a self-perpetuating cycle.

People today are reading less. This statement seems to contradict another fact: more books are being published than ever before. Just because the books are being published and people are buying them doesn’t mean that they’re actually reading them. Several other factors are at play here.

Brick-and-mortar bookstores are becoming rarer. Consider what happened to Borders. The same problems are squeezing Christian bookstores as well, forcing them to consolidate or even close. If it’s hard for national chains to remain afloat, think of the difficulties of small, independent booksellers.

And why is this happening? We can thank (or blame) three new realities: Amazon, e-publishing, and the new ease of self-publishing. Because of the sheer power of the economy of scale, the quantity of stock that Amazon can advertise and deliver, it can reduce prices that a brick-and-mortar bookstore simply can’t approach and still meet the obligations of overhead required. The advent of e-books allowed for book production at even lower prices. And the lower prices for books, both print and electronic, means lower royalty income for the authors of those books.

Compounding the effects of e-publishing is the rise of self-publishing, which has been facilitated by e-publishing capabilities, making it less costly for authors who choose that route. This new technology has allowed many otherwise unpublished (or unpublishable by traditional standards) writers to become authors. That has resulted in a glut of books, especially through the internet and in e-format. The down side of that reality is that not all of those self-published books are of good quality. There is a good reason why many traditional publishers were unwilling to publish such “writing!” (As an independent editor, I’ve had to deal with a good number of them.) What once was generally considered “vanity publishing,” which honorable and respectable booksellers wouldn’t even consider carrying on their shelves, has now become the fast track to fame and fortune. Or neither.

Don’t misunderstand me. There is a place for self-publishing, and some self-published works are of quite good quality. I’ve even self-published a few books myself (using Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing). But whereas traditional publishers are now doing reduced marketing for their authors, self-publishing puts ALL marketing and all risk on the shoulders of the writer, a task that most writers neither enjoy nor are gifted to do. It also means that we have less time to do what we do love and are equipped to do, and that is to write.

I’ve also noticed something else about e-publishing. Increasingly more, I’m finding products the authors of which are presenting as “books” that fall far short of what I consider a true book. For example, I fell for a pitch and bought an e-book that, when I received and opened it, turned out to be no more than about 30 pages long and in about 28-point type. That kind of thing isn’t a book; it’s a con! Such practices give legitimate e-book authors who have a worthy message to deliver a bad name because people tend to lump all such writers into a single, foul-smelling heap.

Caveat emptor!

If one examines the world of writers today, he or she will discover that it is populated by true writers who are doing their best to produce high-quality products, whether traditionally or self-published, print or electronic. But one will also find some shysters in the crowd, people who are out for a quick buck. And one will run across a lot of wannabes, people who aren’t willing to do the work, take the time, pay their dues, and thereby earn the title of “author.” They don’t really want to write; they merely want to be called writers.

And another thing before I hop down from my soap box: Have you noticed how the contents of magazines have changed in the past decade? Periodicals are featuring fewer and fewer long, substantive articles, preferring, instead, short snippets and a lot of large photos with clipped and cryptic captions. Everything has become condensed. Even Reader’s Digest, the godfather of condensed writing, has condensed its condensations. That time-honored magazine, which once had as its motivating slogan “An article a day of enduring significance,” is one of the publications of Trusted Media Brands, which also produces Birds & Blooms, Country, Country Woman, Family Handyman, Farm & Ranch Living, Reminisce, Taste of Home, and The Healthy, all of which are printing less and less pure text.

In such a world, what’s an author with something worth sharing to do? I welcome your thoughts on this issue.

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