The article “From bestseller to bust: is this the end of an author’s life?” by Robert McCrum over at The Observer sounds kind of scary at first: a couple of award-winning literary darlings have fallen on hard times due to the changing face of the publishing industry.
Then I considered the stories of the first two authors McCrum sites as examples. The first, Rupert Thomson, is clearly living beyond his means. The second, Hanif Kureishi, was “swindled out of his life savings.”
Are these sad stories truly the fault of the publishing industry? Either situation could easily befall anyone in any job situation. A McDonald’s employee could be swindled out of his life savings, too. Or consider the number of professional athletes who are bankrupt within just a few years of the end of their career. Consider the number of Hollywood celebs who find themselves in the gutter after their big break doesn’t pan out.
The gravy train is not a perpetual motion machine.
Yes, the publishing business can absolutely be fickle. Readers’ attention spans are short and shelf space (or prominent screen space) is finite. Editors change. Publishing houses merge or fall. Oprah’s Book Club will always have a new selection.
Writing sounds like a glamorous career, but it’s also a job. Like any other job, its situation is subject to change.
I don’t doubt these writers are intent on keeping up their word counts, but what are they doing outside of the actual writing? Get deeper into the article, and there are the usual woes of social media, self publishing, and Amazon. Are the authors leveraging these tools themselves? Or are they just waiting for an editor to come along and do it all for them?
It’s the creator’s job to stay relevant, not the industry’s job to keep him there.
The article then goes on to take a shot at the “information should be free” trend and the Google Print Initiative, and their combined threat against copyright. I get why some authors and creators aren’t fans, but again, times change. Situations change. Sure, it sucks when books show up on torrent sites. When books (and movies and music) are easier to publish, they’re easier to pirate. Does that mean give up? To pack it in? To not take advantage of Amazon’s incredible reach (while it, too, lasts)?
Pandora’s box has been opened. When the refrigerator was invented, the ice delivery guy had two choices: starve to death while cursing new technology, or find new uses for his delivery truck.
Adapt or die. This is also a time any one of these authors can take direct ownership of their work and not rely on a middle man. This is a time they can reach more fans than they ever could before, whether through direct social media interaction or a simple electronic newsletter. Writers today can be their own publisher and publicist. The job has evolved.
Finally, awards don’t mean shit, son. They may raise an eyebrow here and there, but in the big picture they’re just another blurb to put on a cover or in a cover letter. Awards translating into piles of cash is a public perception, not an insider’s reality.
Pick a successful creator in any medium. There are more than a few creators someone might point to and say, “he got lucky, he met so-and-so at the right time.” That may be true, but you know what? He was also hustling when so-and-so found him. He was working.
It’s natural to be jealous of success. It’s okay to feel sorry for great creators who have fallen on hard times. Just remember, when it comes down to it, their job is still just another job.