Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Don’t give up the day job

It seems that you can’t open the Guardian (or rather, the Books section of the Guardian website) these days without reading another depressing article about the future (or lack of one) for books and, as a result, authors.

A couple of weeks ago, Sam Leith wrote about how the Kindle was killing off the printed book and examined some of the implications. A week later, Ewan Morrison asked Are books dead, and can authors survive? The answers are, respectively, “not yet, but they will be soon”, and “no”. I don’t think that counts as a spoiler.

As I wrote a few months ago, this is a depressing time for someone like me who always dreamed of being a professional writer. When I was growing up, there appeared to be something approaching a career path for novelists. You write some short stories, some of which get published in magazines; you start to get a reputation, which means that when you send the manuscript of your first novel to agents, they’ve heard of you and take the trouble to read it; an agent takes you under their wing and gets you a modest advance for that debut novel; and, over the years, the advances increase in tandem with your sales.

Of course, I’m sure it was never quite that easy. I also suspect that my education didn’t help; my school, and then my university, were places where it was pretty much taken for granted that you would achieve great things in whatever field you decided to apply your talents to. Indeed, I shared a German translation class with a girl called Joanne Harris, who has had an immensely successful career as a writer, with 11 novels published to date. 

She’s one of the lucky ones; the last generation of novelists who will have the support network of a major publishing house behind them. For the rest of us, self-publishing, possibly combined with one of the new-tech ideas discussed by Sam Leith, looks like the best bet. But the prospects of finding a mass audience, let alone making enough money to write full-time, are bleak.

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