electronic publishing

electronic publishing

The Economics of Publishing

A street scene of four-storey brick and concrete buildings with a bookstore at ground level
Even in sleepy Innsbruck with its fixed book prices, all is not well in any end of publishing. The Wagner’sche in the Museumstraße, Innsbruck (they own the first two storeys of the white building, and the second storey of the brown one).

One of my jobs is as a freelance writer, and it is a hard time for us. Advances and royalties are falling, and professional writers in a rich country earn an average of 10k a year from their writing (CAD, USD, GBP, EUR … the currencies vary but the numbers are similar). Elaine Dewar has seen a study that only 7% of the revenues of the Canadian publishing industry are paid to authors; I hope she names it in the print version of ‘The Handover’ and puts it next to how much goes to the publisher and how much to retailers, printers, server farms, and other middlemen and service providers, because another source estimates 10% to the writer, 10% to the publisher, 10% to production, and 70% to various middlemen. Chart writers’ incomes from their writing and you find a hockey stick: the top 5% of authors in the UK earned 42% of the income. If you follow novelists you will hear about the death of short fiction as a paying proposition in the 1970s, the midlist death spiral in the 2000s, or changes in search rules on Amazon or Facebook which devastate creative people’s sales. The central problems are, probably, that they keep inventing other forms of entertainment, and that so many people want to be writers even if the pay is bad. These days if you are interested in history you can watch YouTube or read blogs about books and swords instead of opening a book that someone paid for. (That said, I would really like to see some data on book sales over the last 10 or 20 years … right now all I have is anecdotes).

Now, people like Kris Rusch or Dean Wesley Smith will remind you that many writers change pen names as casually as some people change their clothes, and that surveys of writers are often answered by wannabes who do not write, do not finish what they write, do not put it on the market, and do not keep it on the market until someone buys it. If a favourite writer vanishes or only publishes a book now and then, they may well have switched to a new pen name or be spending time writing a different genre. However, I don’t see any reason to think that there were more wannabe writers in 2014 than 2005 to drive down the average income, and pay rates for short fiction have not increased much since the middle of the last century, while the value of a dollar or a pound has collapsed (the Science Fiction Writers of America, for example, count works paid at least 6 cents a word as professionally published … back in 1940 a penny a word was typical, but the penny was worth 17 times more). If rates are falling, clearly writers have to publish more to earn the same.

Talking about the publishing recalls the fable of the blind man and the elephant: everyone assumes that their little corner of the industry is the model for the whole. So in this post, I would like to talk about the situation in some kinds of publishing which are not as famous as novels.
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