Can authors make a living just by writing?


First aired on Q (3/04/12)

Writing for a living has always been a tough gig, with aspiring authors dedicating countless hours to perfecting their words while trying to get published. And now it's getting even harder to make a full-time career out of being a wordsmith. In this digital age of web media, tablets, e-books and rampant self-publishing, there's simply too much competition for eyeballs out there.

Author and marketing expert Seth Godin says the old publishing industry model was "based on scarcity," a model that just doesn't work any longer.

"Scarce shelf space, scarce amount of paper, scarce number of bookstores ... There was this little keyhole that you had to push everything through for it to work, and so bestseller lists made sense and everything else like that made sense because there were only a few [books] to choose from," Godin told Q host Jian Ghomeshi during a recent interview.

"What the internet always does is it replaces scarcity with abundance. What it does is get rid of the little keyhole, and let's everything get pushed forward. So Wikipedia is now bigger than 500 editions of the encyclopedia, and YouTube, if you took all the videos on YouTube and put them on DVD, it would fill a tractor trailer and a half ... So this abundance is now hitting the book world. We don't have to worry about shelf space, we don't have to worry about bookstores, we don't have to worry about paper, anyone who wants to make a book can make a book and when you let anyone do something, anyone might."

Godin caused a bit of a stir in the literary community recently when, during an interview with Digital Book World, he questioned whether writers "have a right to cash money from writing."
On Q, Godin clarified his position. He certainly believes that writers ought to be compensated for their work, but that they shouldn't expect to make money these days.

"I think the key word here is 'expect.' I think a lot of writers will be paid for their work. They will be the writers for which there are no easy substitutes. If you want to read Stephen King, only one person can write Stephen King, and that's him, and he's going to get paid for that. But if you're someone who writes a lot like Stephen King, one of a thousand replaceable authors, why should I pay you extra? Because you don't have something that people are willing to seek out."

In an era when we're about to go from 150,000 books published each year to millions, the bulk of the money will go to those who can offer an exciting, original product and/or get their name out there the best.

"If you're expecting to make a $100,000 because you worked really hard on some novel, I think you're delusional," Godin said. "Of course artists deserve to get paid, but that doesn't mean the economy organizes around what people deserve."

Despite the challenges of making a living from writing these days, Godin doesn't believe that authors will be discouraged from trying. And at least some of them will become breakout writers. He points out that Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling was turned down by several different publishing houses, but kept working on her stories.