The More Things Change—Literary Futures

A guest post written by Emma Pullman:

The world of publishing is changing. The digital age is forcing publishers ‒ and readers ‒ to alter their horizons. There are new ways to publish, read and write. Just as the music industry has been changed forever by the advent of digital, so has literature. Traditionalists might not like it, but there is no escaping change. Some see digital publishing as a threat to writers, making an already low-paid profession even harder to make a living from. Others recognise that while there may be threats associated with the digital world, there are also many opportunities.

Back in the nineteenth century, literature was largely the preserve of the wealthy. Only those with money, time and connections were able to write and publish novels. Even women were often barred, hence writers like George Eliot publishing under assumed male names. Inevitably, much nineteenth century literature deals with the lives of people like their authors: the middle and upper-classes. Charles Dickens is a notable exception (though not the only one), and he was rewarded by interest in his work from the largely illiterate poor, who would pay a small sum to ‘Dickens clubs’ where his work was read to them. The twentieth century brought wider literacy, cheaper books and more extensive publishing. The advent of the paperback in the 1930s meant that anyone could sit on their cheap sofa reading the latest novel.

As the century progressed, so did interest in literature, and more and more people wanted not only to be readers, but to be writers. Publishers today are inundated with many more manuscripts than they’ll ever get around to reading. Competition for publishing deals is fierce, and many publishers are unwilling to take a risk on an upcoming author with an unusual style, who may or may not sell. This kind of competition created the self-publishing industry: not a bad way for someone who wants to publish a book for their family and friends to read on a very small print run, but often exploitative and expensive, particularly for those with bigger dreams than talent.

So, into the twenty-first century, and the publishing industry is adapting to new forms of publishing and of selling books. Fewer and fewer books are sold in bookshops, with more and more readers choosing to buy their books online (often after using the bookshop as somewhere to browse before taking advantage of cheaper online prices). Many independent bookshops have sadly been unable to survive. The launch of the Amazon Kindle in 2007 offered readers, a way to read digital books without having to squint at a computer screen. Its popularity is unquestionable: US Amazon now sells more Kindle books than it does paperbacks.

So where does all this leave the writer? As in the music industry, the big names are likely to be relatively unaffected by the digital age. For the rest, things are changing, but not necessarily for the worse. Few novelists ever make a full time wage as things stand (the average income of a novelist from their writing is just a few thousand dollars a year), and with digital books more easily shared than physical ones, their incomes are hardly likely to increase. However, digital publishing also creates a huge opportunity for writers. Some publishers are starting to run competitions on their websites for aspiring authors, giving them the chance to be read not just by the public, but by the publishers. Some authors publicise their work by putting extracts online or even publishing a free book: just as musicians have been able to showcase their work via Myspace. As in the music industry too, it may be that there is an increase in interest in live literature, as writers seek non- traditional ways to get themselves noticed. This is a return to the days of Dickens, who toured the world giving very popular readings.

We cannot roll back the digital world: it is here to stay. The truth is, there has never really been a golden age when anyone could write a novel and make a living from it. The industry has always been socially elitist or highly competitive (or both). Digital publishing gives writers who might not ever get past the ‘slush-pile’ the chance to work their own way into readers’ hearts.

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