Starving writers

March 5th, 2014 by admin Leave a reply »

Someone once told me that a novelist who began his career in the 90s gave him the following piece of advice: ‘If ever you make back your advance on a book, fire your agent’.

That it is coming more difficult to survive as a writer – as a novelist in particular – is a common complaint. We have been hearing a lot about how publishers has been getting progressively more ruthless about dropping their midlist writers, how advances are shrinking, and how a first book is now make or break.

Robert McCrum wrote an article about it this weekend in the Observer, profiling a handful of authors who have had bestselling books in the past but are now struggling to make ends meet.

Some of this he puts down to the financial crisis, but a large part of it he attributes to effect that the digital revolution – combined with the neo-liberalist agenda of the big tech companies – has had on copyright. He says that before the year 2000 people who produced a creative product could expect to receive a reasonable financial reward for their endeavours. Now digital dissemination has made this impossible.

This argument might be true for film and music, but I don’t think it holds as much water when it comes to books. Yes, people are buying less (Nielsen BookScan recorded a 6.5% fall in 2013), but is that because they are stealing pirated versions instead? Digital books are certainly better controlled than digital music, and Amazon has played a big part in this (not that I’ll be queuing up to thank them).

Which takes me back to the beginning of the article. The ridiculous advances that were being paid out up until the crisis were unsustainable. They were speculative, and they were a symptom of the culture of excess which led to credit drying out.

But that doesn’t mean it’s all doom and gloom. New fiction is doing better than ever in our shop; Go Ghana Go by Taiye Selasi and The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer are both in our top 5 bestsellers at the moment. Bring on the young blood!


Bookseller of Silicon Roundabout


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