On the face of it, it is paradoxical that while it’s never been easier for authors to get their books into print, there has never been a worse time to be an author. Author earnings are down and the number of writers able to make a living out of their work is at an all-time low. But perhaps that is because there have never been so many people making money off writers.
As a literary agent—a profession frequently regarded as being up there with tapeworms as contributing members of literary society—I invest, for free, huge amounts of my time in developing the careers of people who want to be writers. I never take a penny that I haven’t helped an author earn. It feels like an important line to cross. And yet there are hosts of literary types out there, people who regard themselves as being on the side of the angels, who happily and repeatedly dip their hands into authors’ pockets.
Let’s start with writing courses. The writing school at the University of East Anglia was set up 45 years ago and since then there has been an amazing proliferation of writing courses. Every second-rate university in the country has one, yet has the quality of literature increased? Have we not, in fact, seen what might be called (apologies to Jessie Burton) a Miniaturisation of literary culture: middlebrow being passed off as literary? It is impossible to point to an improvement in the literary scene. That’s because the real purpose of writing courses is to provide novelists who cannot make a living from their writing with an income. Many high-profile publishing businesses have moved into this territory too. There have been occasional successes, but the overriding feeling is that their raison d’être is to allow well-off writers to jump the queue, a kind of cash for literary access. That is not merely socially regressive, but creatively moribund.
Then there are the self-publishing advocates. It’s been noticeable how the manic drumbeat of the self-publishing zealots has died down in the past year, but so effective has their message been that most authors feel almost compelled to consider that route at the first sign of any rejection. But self-publishing is expensive. I encounter countless authors who have spent thousands of pounds they can ill afford to achieve precisely nothing. If these people were being encouraged to blow their savings on timeshares there would have been a national outcry about it. It too is socially regressive: what about the people who do not have the money to spend? It is worth noting how many of these gurus seem more successful at selling their DIY books/courses than they are at marketing their fiction. The people who really make money out of gold rushes are the ones selling the shovels . . .
And there are many shovel sellers. This century has seen hosts of companies springing up offering editorial, design, marketing and publishing services. Some good, some bad: all expensive. There are now endless digital vanity presses (sorry, DIY publishers) such as Author Solutions, about which Penguin Random House is now so silent. When did publishers think it would be a good idea to begin selling their “services” to work on books they clearly did not believe had any potential in the marketplace? At least in the past it was clear who the vanity presses were.
I wish I could say that this was the exception and that publishers generally were on the side of the angels, but that just isn’t possible. They have squeezed advances, squeezed royalties, imposed arbitrary e-book royalties and yet still struggle to behave towards authors in a way which is barely civil. They are making record profits yet moan constantly about the business which is keeping them afloat: Amazon.
Amazon, too, cannot be overlooked. The company which has best capitalised on the self-publishing opportunity and which is still, in the minds of a huge number of authors, their “friend”, is presiding over a system that is looking suspiciously rigged: Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) looks like a self- organising slushpile for their publishing programme; when will KDP authors realise they are second-class citizens?
Last, agents. I know, I started off by excluding my kind, but I look back over recent decades and think that we agents, the people who were supposed to be protecting authors’ interests, have done a pretty shabby job.
The publishing industry exists to connect the creative talents of authors to a market. The internet was supposed to streamline the business, get rid of the middle man and put more money in authors’ pockets. That was always a dangerously simplistic point of view. What we couldn’t have predicted is that it would create a world in which authors are more vulnerable to exploitation than ever. There’s a really strong case for authors to come out on strike and remind everyone in this business exactly where the value in it resides.
It won’t happen, of course. But it should.
Agent Orange is a UK-based agent. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org