Filed under: Book Summit, ebooks, Keynotes, Publishing.
I was the only author invited to give a solo talk at this year’s Canadian Book Summit, which had the theme of “Hot New Models” — the implicit assumption being that new technologies and ways of doing business, such as ebooks and print-on-demand, were going to be the salvation of traditional publishing.
My talk was widely regarded as the most controversial of the day: I started by recounting how, a few months ago, I’d had fellow science-fiction writers Robert Charles Wilson and James Alan Gardner over for pizza; at that dinner, I’d told Bob and Jim that I feared there was only a decade left in which anyone could make a comfortable living writing science-fiction novels, and urged them to plan their careers and finances accordingly.
My talk at the Canadian Book Summit was given only a week ago, but in the interim I’ve had much cause to reflect on one of the core conceits behind the notion of “hot new models,” namely that authors will find some way other than royalties from books actually sold to make their livings, and that these opportunities will abound.
(At the conference, many people cited the band model now prevalent for successful acts in the music industry: give away your music and make money off of live performances and T-shirts. I debunked that at the event by pointing out that the venue we happened to be in — Harbourfront Centre in Toronto — is home to the the International Festival of Authors, the world’s best, most-prestigious literary festival, a festival which, if you’re lucky, you get invited to every four or five years, and that this top-of-the-line opportunity to perform in front of an audience pays around $300, and might, with real luck, sell 50 hardcovers, of which the author’s share of royalties might be another $150.)
So, in this last week, what hot new opportunities have come my way? Let’s see:
- A public library patron in Atlantic Canada wrote to me, lamenting that she’d already read the few books of mine her library had, and asking me to donate copies of all the others to the library, since, you know, with budget cuts, libraries can’t afford to buy many books themselves anymore.
- A request that I give the “keynote address” — for free — at a convention consisting entirely of used-book dealers; of course, I make no money when a used book changes hands, which would have meant that I’d be the only one at the convention making nothing.
- A request that I be guest of honor at a science-fiction convention, which was offering to pay “a portion” of my travel expenses to get there. In the good old days, sf conventions paid all the travel expenses for the guest-of-honor author and his or her companion. The last couple of years, the offer to cover the companion’s airfare has often disappeared. And now, even covering all the author’s airfare seems to be an open question. (Oh, yes, a few dozen copies of my latest paperback might sell in the convention’s dealers’ room, netting me maybe $25 in royalties, but there was no way I’d even break even over the short term by accepting.)
Other offers that have crossed my desk in the last few months include me teaching writing at an austere retreat for $3,000 — for ten full days, on-site (I make more than $300 a day normally, so this would be me subsidizing the cost of the event so that students could pay less); me speaking at a conference that’s charging $900 per attendee to get into, and I’d get no fee and have to pay my own expenses to travel to New York City for the event; an anthology contract that paid nothing at all for the story, but would let one buy copies at 50% off cover price; and so on.
Maybe there will be new ways to make money as a novelist. Certainly, I do make a lot of money each year from giving keynote addresses, and, of course, I was very lucky that ABC made FlashForward, a prime-time TV series based on my novel of the same name.
But for the former, really, I’m exceptional; most novelists are not good at public speaking, and few can spin what they write into something businesses and government agencies will pay thousands to hear you speak about.
And for the latter, that’s the sort of thing that almost never happens to anyone: rounded to the nearest percent, zero percent of members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America have ever had a major-network prime-time TV series made from their work.
(And, my, but my mother raised me well: she always says, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” I just smiled each time someone told me how much they liked the FlashForward TV series, and how happy they were with themselves for finding some way to watch it that didn’t cost them anything and avoided having to see those pesky commercials. And now, of course, the series is gone.)
So, what does the future hold? It’ll be interesting to find out — but those who believe it’ll just all sort itself out in the end are, I think, being naive and self-deluding. Yes, as one person said repeatedly at the Canadian Book Summit, there have always been storytellers — but that doesn’t mean you can do it for a living.
Even David G. Hartwell — senior editor at Tor Books — recently wrote in an editorial in the New York Review of Science Fiction that we could all still be happy when the day of the full-time SF writer has passed. (I actually think the day of the full-time SF editor may pass first, but that’s another matter.)
Maybe we will all indeed still be smiling as writing sf shifts from a career to a hobby. Still, lengthy, ambitious, complex works — works that take years of full-time effort to produce such as, say, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, or, if I may be so bold, my own WWW trilogy of Wake, Watch, and Wonder — aren’t things that could have been produced in any kind of reasonable time by squeezing in an hour’s writing each day over one’s lunch break while working a nine-to-five job.