Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Are the days of the full-time novelist numbered?

by Rob - June 26th, 2010.
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.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

44 Responses to Are the days of the full-time novelist numbered?

  1. Where are we headed? Well, not anywhere good, as far as I can see. Just based on a brief look at the shelves at Chapters reveals a distressing trend. Most books aren’t meant to provoke careful thought or raise important issues (look at how large the romance section of your local bookstore is for further proof of this) unless they are based on a topical issue that publishers know will sell well (and is likely written by some decently-well known expert in the field).

    An alarmingly large number of novels are being printed that are, basically, fan fiction based on pre-existing universes with pre-existing fan bases (star trek, star wars, warhammer, world of warcraft, starcraft, etc). It’s not enough for a book to be good, or even amazing. To really do well, it seems that a book needs to be based on a tv show, be the basis for a tv show, have its own board game/video game, or be written by a famous celebrity.

    Not sure what this means for the up-and-coming author. The way things work right now (as far as I understand) you need your first novel to be an enormous success, and then you need to immediately follow it up with someone in the same vein. If sales don’t go well, less copies will be printed for your next novel, and thus it will be less visible in the bookstore, and then less will be sold. Since doing your own marketing is becoming increasingly important, the internet becomes almost obscenely important because no up-and-coming author has the money to go to all the cons to get any sort of publicity (plus, without a fanbase, it’s unlikely you’d do incredibly well either).
    /end unremarkable rant.

    I guess time will tell how things go.

  2. Very prescient Rob. Not only full time writers as a vocation are in jeopardy but long works ie the novel may very well be too.

    Will serials as in the times of Charles Dickens make a comeback?

    It would not surprise me at all.

  3. Rob, I think you’re right – the days of being a full-time writer are numbered, but I have a few more thoughts:

    As much as it pains me to say, cutting out the middleman that is the publisher may be the way ahead. Unfortunately it will mean the general decline in quality of the material available because there will no longer be that filter that is the editor to separate the wheat form the chaff. Then again, with user reviews and social media, maybe it’s becoming less relevant anyway.

    Anybody will be able to put their work onto the digital marketplace, but the amount to be made will eventually settle in a really low equilibrium for most authors. Novels will no longer be standardized at the $9.99 pricepoint, but will sway with demand. As a reader, that’s an encouraging thought, as it allows easier and more wallet-friendly sampling of new content. Perhaps even the serialization of content will return as a viable distribution method.

    What this ultimately means is that most emerging authors will get enough money to buy themselves dinner once a month. Established authors, however, should still get a decent amount, provided they keep up the production rate (which again, contributes to the general decline of quality). Then again, not all (or even many) authors produce work at a sufficient volume to be self sustaining.

    The printed book may end up being more of a prestige item.

    Meanwhile, maybe I should set myself up as freelance novel editor, provided I have the stomach to wade through literary sludge.

  4. Perhaps there will be a wide split — most writers will not be able to do it full time, while a few still will have enough income from whatever the sales model will be still available. Every once in a while a hobbyist will make it big, moving to the rare “able to just write and not starve” group due to large spike of popularity, and within the group standing will depend on the Hollywood.
    While it certainly would be a bad thing, I wonder how the public would react. I think as long as there’s an ample supply of easy reading at cheap prices, overall public will be happy.

  5. A very good post. I’ve mentioned this issue in some of the panels I’ve been on, that we’d start to have to start charging for autographs at Bouchercon or have separate admission for each panel so that the participating authors could make some money — should the publishing industry go the way of the music business.

  6. This has been discussed quite a lot in various places on the Internet that I visit – e.g. the Mad Genius Club has a number of thoughts on it – latest here

    I certainly agree that the publisher is going to go (or at least get amazingly downsized) and quite possibly the salaried editor will. But I doubt it will become impossible to make a libing from editting. Its still a vital function but I anticipate that freelance editors are likely to thrive and that ones with a good reputation will get paid consierably more than ones without.

    One thing that I do think is going to have to happen is that authors are going to have to be a lot more open about how much (or rather how little) money they get. Right now the average reader probably has no idea that a newbie/midlist author will get no more than around $10,000 for a book as an advance and is actually unlikely to get significant royalties on top. Readers see the lifestyles and reported sales of the JK Rowlings of the world and kind of assume that she earns maybe 10x that of a midlist author whereas actually it is more like 1000x. In the new world authors are going to have to make it clear that when readers buy an ebook for $9.99 the author gets $2 and that the various middlemen (agent, publisher, amazon etc.) consume the other $8.

    This is, it seems to me, wrong because what we want is for the author to receive $8 and the middlemen to get $2.

    I think one model that may work is a kind of “distributed patronage” where a number of fans agree to pay $100/year each direct to the author / agent and as a result get first dibs on the output. They also probably get red-shirted and otherwise noted by the author.

    And I’m sure there could be ways to have different levels of patronage ($25, $50, $100, $500 etc.) with different levels of access/reward.

  7. I know that there are authors out there putting material up on their websites for free (with the option for donating) which might or might not work. I don’t know if it works as I’m not sure how much he (Scott Lynch for example) has earned doing so, but I doubt it’s very much. Also, I’m not sure I would even be on his website if it wasn’t for the fact that I read one of his novels.

    Really really interested to hear more of your thoughts on this subject, Rob. If anyone else has other links discussing this issue I’d love to hear about it.

    I’m also moderately concerned about TV shows that I really enjoy being cancelled from lack of funding. I mean, a show like Firefly, I would gladly have paid money to keep it going. I mean, they could even have had a bar with how much money they need to raise to keep it going. Sounds stupid, but the entertainment industry is going to have to make some changes to business practices at some point. The only channel I really enjoy nowadays is HBO.

  8. With technologies like smart phones, remote wifi, & the Kindle, all established industries have had to accept that traditional methods of distribution are not the most efficient or even work at all. Over the past couple of years, I feel these industries, most especially in the entertainment sectors, have come to the realization they can no longer put off change. It is adapt or die time.

    The older the industry, the harder it is to change their established practices. Not very many industries are older, and more rooted in their ways, than the publishing industry. Change means shaking things up, but not necessarily downsizing (that occurs due to resistance of change).

    The publishing industry will endure and survive. Writers will still be able to write. Look at Marvel, and the whirlwind pace in which they expanded into the movie industry. Then there are writers like John Scalzi, who is a consultant on Stargate: Universe.

    I disagree w/ the statement that novels will only occasionally be adapted to TV. Including Flashforward, shows like True Blood, the Vampire Diaries, Justified, & Legend of the Seeker are genre novel adaptations produced and broadcast w/n the last year. Also, A Game of Thrones airs early next year. I see this as a growing trend, especially amongst those Cable networks who are want to establish themselves as a non-premium HBO. And novels do translate a whole lot better on TV than as a movie.

    The publishing industry is not on it’s death bed, it is just evolving.

  9. Zafri M – I set up to specifically raise money for Dave Freer to defray some of the costs of moving to Australia by crowdfunding a book. We raised over $10,000 for that. And yes we had stuff showing how much money had been raised.

    We were inspired by Sharon Lee/Steve Miller’s Fledgling/Saltation efforts which raised at least double that (I believe it was comfortably more but am not certain as they did not put up anything about the amounts received).

    A reasonably well established author with a loyal enough fan base to act as a core and to get the word out can raise significant sums. Whether it is enough to live on without other income sources (previous royalties, day job etc.) is less certain.

  10. “Perhaps there will be a wide split — most writers will not be able to do it full time, while a few still will have enough income from whatever the sales model will be still available. Every once in a while a hobbyist will make it big, moving to the rare “able to just write and not starve” group due to large spike of popularity, and within the group standing will depend on the Hollywood.”

    Max, this is already the current situation today.

  11. I feel for full time writers, the next few years are going to be challenging.

    However, I do think there are lessons to be learned from the music industry, just not the lessons that were pointed out to you previously. I’m thinking more about itunes, make your product cheap and convenient and people will pay for it. Eventually the vast majority of books will be electronic books (it’s not so long ago people thought you were crazy if you even mentioned ebooks) so that model should work.

    I think talented writers will continue to prosper, I’m not so sure about the traditional publishing industry though. I suspect writers in the future will be much more independent.

    btw: I’m really enjoying the www books.

  12. There is an assumption on the part of the public that goes something like what Aaronssen is saying: that regardless of how the industry might fragment and change, “talented writers will continue to prosper.”

    Unfortunately, the fact is that talented writers do NOT CURRENTLY prosper. So why might we expect them to finally prosper in some future with an even more fragmented, even more damaged industry? Some do now, and will then, certainly. But most writers make very little money, poverty levels, regardless of their level of talent. And these writers are poised to make even less money than before — with other writers currently making comfortable levels of money in danger of losing such livelihoods.

    The public would be shocked if they knew how little most writers, even well-known writers, and often excellent writers, make. Again and again, people trot out the same writers, the same examples, of how it is possible to brilliantly succeed — not realizing that these are mostly exceptions, anomalies, that prove nothing. Even Robert’s own success is an exception — Robert’s success is a function of many things, including real talent and a long string of well-conceived, well-written, and well-promoted novels, but it’s also, in many respects, an anomaly. Would he be able to reach the same level of success in the current industry if he was publishing Golden Fleece today?

    I would like to think so. But even at the time of its publication, it was Robert’s own initiative in sending out galley proofs to places his publishers did not that brought attention to the book — so even that early on, his behaviour and success was anomalous, and the result of events conspiring (a strong review breathing new life into a poor-selling book as a result of extra-ordinary marketing efforts on the part of the author). Now, if the book had been crap, then nothing could have saved it — this is no way is meant to detract from Robert’s accomplishments — but the business reality is that the poor sales of the first book could have just as easily sunk Robert’s career if the review hadn’t helped boost it (it wasn’t just this review, of course, though Sawyer has written elsewhere that it was a fairly significant boon at the time). Today, a review like that would have meant almost nothing. The influence of literary digests and reviews in general has waned substantially. Would that have meant he was a lesser talent, if history had gone otherwise and he’d eventually become another day-job holding writer-on-the-side? No, but it would have made him more representative of the common author, and he certainly wouldn’t have been able to write and publish as many books and have the same success. He might even have found himself deciding not to write FlashForward, because he only had the time to write either it or Calculating God, and chosen to focus on the latter. And one wonders if, as he states above, he would have chosen to take on a trilogy.

    I don’t necessarily agree with Robert’s views on related matters, but he’s sounding a real word of warning regarding issues that, sadly, looking to other industries (like the failed music industry) is not going to fix. The problem is in fact that publishing has continually been looking to these other industries and attempting to emulate failed or failing models, and treating books like any other product, rather than like significant cultural artifacts that require different types of investments and different expectations of return, and a different attitude towards the author-reader relationship (it’s not just another producer-consumer relationship, and acting like it is has caused many problems).

  13. As a freelance journalist and book reviewer myself, I can attest to the diminished role that reviews now play in promoting books—although I’m thankful for all the savings that review copies have afforded me (I got Wake that way, but I gladly paid for Watch). One first-time author I had a chance to chat with over beers had only two reviews for his book; the first one I had written myself for the Montreal Review of Books, the other one I assigned to another writer for a paper I edited. He confided to me that his publisher doesn’t bother with advertising, as they subsist on government grants handed out on the basis of the number of local authors published, and so advertising would likely dip into their profits.

    In a related note, I interviewed Globe and Mail reviewer T.F. Rigelhof regarding a collection of reviews he had published earlier this year entitled Hooked on Canadian Books, and this is what he had to say about making it as an author nowadays:

    “Anyone who starts out now thinking that they’re going to earn a living for the rest of their lives as a writer is in La-la-land,” he continued. “If you want to live at any kind of standard above the poverty line, you either have to be really lucky or you have to deliberately write things for the marketplace. And there are quite a lot of writers doing that now after their second or third novel.”
    Being a reviewer has also changed considerably—but not the pay scale, said Rigelhof.
    “The remuneration for a book review has altered very little in 25 years,” he lamented. “I don’t think we’ll ever again see a situation where there are free-standing book reviewers who can make a living from just reviewing books.”
    Rigelhof claimed the lack of book reviews in print media are making it harder for first-time authors to get good word of mouth.
    “When I published my first novel in 1983, I had 24 independent reviews,” he recalled. “These days, a lot of first novels are lucky if they get one review outside the Internet, and some really fine books get overlooked because of that.”

    He also noted that successful authors nowadays are likely to balance multiple careers in addition to writing. You can find the rest of that interview here:

  14. Hi Jonathan, I agree with your assessment of the publishing industry as it stands today, however, I think it would be a mistake to base future projections on the industry as it exists today.

    Publishing tomorrow is going to be a very different beast to publishing today.

    I agree not all talented writers will prosper (I never said all), but there will be talented writers who do prosper, such as is the case today. I just hope that the writers I read today will be able to make the transition across and I can continue to read them tomorrow.

  15. Does anyone know what percentage of music consumers legitimately pay for their music from services like iTunes, as a fraction of all music consumers including music pirating? I realize that statistics on such things might not really be available, but I wondered if anyone had ever tried to figure it out – and whether a similar fraction of book readers could be expected to continue to legitimately purchase books that are available electronically?

  16. My first thought was that someone will decide that all printed books will need to be presented as captchas to prevent OCR, in light blue print to prevent scanning, and in an encrypted matrix that requires a glossy secret decoder screen to see the text, because there really isn’t a technological solution to the issue of folks taking works for free that were meant to produce revenue for the creator. The only effective solution to this problem will require changing attitudes not methods, because DRM just hurts the legitimate customers and doesn’t deter the thieves.

    The consumers who feel entitled to take what they want without paying will likely be the first to complain about the declining quality, of course, as the talented find other ways to feed their families, and the untalented continue to put in their hour at lunch hoping for the egoboo.

    But then I had a thought. I’m sure the preponderance of your readers know the feeling of coming to the end of the first book in a series and then hungering for the next. As mentioned above, the serial model might make a comeback, but with a small modification. I wonder if it would be possible to distribute a large work in portions, and then provide a site for the readers who want more to make a pre-payment. The writer receives an advance, and when the next installment comes out, those who paid get a copy. If a certain time passes and the next installment is delayed or never released, they get the opportunity to continue their pledge or get a refund of some portion of their payment.

    There will need to be escrow provisions, contributor counts so customers can see how likely it is the minimum will be met, a way to report on authors who abuse the system, and a lot of other ways to protect the customers, of course, but it might well be possible to fund subsequent works with group auctions of some sort.

    I see a lot of defects in the plan as presented, but I’m offering the seed here in case someone else sees ways to make it useful.

  17. I’m interested in the serialization model. I think it could work with today’s busy lifestyles, getting our novels out in bits. Smarter people than me will have to implement it, but I like the idea of reading and writing some things that way.

    Me? I’m writing some erotica on the side. I can write it fairly quickly and it sells pretty well, giving me some time to focus on my more, er, (some might say) noble writing endeavors.

  18. Keith Carscadden

    This just partly relates to your main topic, but you do mention Wake, Watch and Wonder at the end of your post.

    I had not heard of them before, liked others of your books, so tried to buy ebook copies of them. has them, but won’t sell to Canadians, doesn’t sell ebooks, doesn’t sell ebooks, doesn’t have them, doesn’t have them and finally I found them on Sony’s ebook store, at which, fortunately, I am registered with an American address and use gift cards, because only Watch, the 2nd book, is available for Canadians.

    So you’ve made 2 sales because of your blog, but just because I am a least a little persistent.

  19. As Poul Anderson used to say, we’re competing for the other guy’s beer money. We write something that interests him more than a 6 pack, we’re cool. We lose out to the beer, maybe flipping burgers really is where it’s at.

    Because of the state of publishing, we’re moving into what I call the era of VIPub–Vertically Integrated Publishing. Authors have to create, edit, package, promote, sell–all possible now with POD publishing, ebooks, podcasts and the Internet. We have to become our own all-encompassing business. Not easy, not “just” writing, but it’s simple. It’s just that nobody ever claimed it would be easy.

  20. Over the last decade, I’ve seen more and more SF writers leave writing as a full-time occupation (got back to day jobs) or switch to other kinds of writing. This is a problem I’ve been thinking hard about for several years now, as I’m one of the ones who had to quit writing full time. It’s a difficult problem, and I sure haven’t come up with the answer yet.

    Aside from general publishing and market forces, one thing that kills you dead is to have a drop-off in output. (I hate to use such an industrial term, but that’s really what it is, in this discussion.) It happened to me, for a variety of reasons, and when I finally had a new book come out (Sunborn), it was pretty much swept out by the tide. (See I did all the promotion for it I could muster: free downloads of the prequel volumes, online networking, even for a while free downloads of the new book itself. Did the free downloads help or hurt? Did they make a bad situation somewhat better, or deliver the final torpedo? Hard to say. But here’s some of what I do know:

    The free ebook downloads brought a lot of new readers to the series (The Chaos Chronicles). Paypal donations netted maybe a thousand dollars a year. When I had a bunch of backlist books come out in new ebook editions, this promotion seemed to jumpstart sales on those. That’s the good part.

    The bad part is, paperback sales on the new book were dreadful, despite good reviews (though limited in number), both in the press and customer reviews. What does that bode for the next book in the series, which I’m still writing? You tell me.

    The publishing landscape is changing tectonically, and it might well be that the traditional publishing model won’t continue to work for writers like me.

    Or, it could all change in some other direction next year. If I could predict the future, I’d become a science fiction writer.

    Oh, wait…

  21. Robert, I think there will be more SF/F novelists making a living then, compared to today.

    1. The number of traditionally published authors able to make a _really decent_ living probably won’t go down significantly in ten years. I think the field will shrink, but the real successes won’t go down greatly.

    2. The ease of ebooks is already leading people to read more. This should continue.

    3. The major difference: Many more authors will be able to make a decent living off of independent releases. Even today, it’s 70+% royalties on ebooks.

    #3 is what will open up a whole new ballgame; it’s barely happening now, but in ten years it will probably be fairly common.

    Backlist and consistency will still be key, but writers have so many options available to them now.

  22. How do you define “making a living”? $300 a day sounds just fine to someone who has been forced to survive on minimum wage for years.

    Also, funny that you should state with such confidence that a novel like Red Mars could never have been written around a day job, since Stan Robinson was a stay-at-home dad of a small child at the time and only had time to write during his son’s naps.

    Also, I find it interesting that many of the same people who bemoan how impossible it is to make a good living writing are the same ones who scoff at “popular” fiction.

    It has never been possible — in ANY business — to make good money without pleasing a large number of other people. If you are disdainful of the average reader and what she likes to read, yeah, you should probably hold on to your day job. You can either write for a minority niche, OR you can rake in piles of money. You have the choice. Make it, be happy with it, and don’t look back.

  23. Well, I bought your book (new, paperback) because the tv show was interesting but not well written–definitely not as well written as the novel was.

  24. Most professional authors can’t make a living now, even if you sell your book to a name-brand publisher who puts a reasonable effort behind promoting it

    Having said that, the inefficiencies in the publishing industry and the low royalties authors collect do certainly exacerbate the problem.

    Taking the US Minimum wage as a starting point, we get an annual salary of $14,400 per annum.
    Assuming the new post-publisher world and author royalties of around 60%, that means you need to sell 2,400 copies of your $10 ebook to net yourself that income. Remembering that you’ll still need to pay an editor/copy editor/proofreader/superagent (or whatever the new author services model is), and that you’ll be working without an advance, plan to sell more like 3,000 before you hit minimum wage. 6,000 copies a year? Congratulations, you’ve now joined the ranks of the lower middle class.

  25. As an avid reader, and a writer ( less avid than I should be:)…

    What is the future of the industry? A Few thoughts and questions I have are around the impact the POD aspect * should* be having on the publishing aspect of the market. I remember several years ago, at a writers conference: we were having a very intense albeit distressing conversation about where the publishng industry was heading. That editors are no longer the real driving force behind what gets published. Additioanlly, publishers are taking on less and less new material. We have become a literary mono-culture. More of what is already out there, the sure-sells.. rather than building markets for talent.. it seems to be about selling more of what people already know. The old addage- people don’t know what they like, they like what they know; comes to mind.

    anyway- with the advent of Print on Demand services and the changes that brings to the print industry.. * shouldn’t* there be less risk involved in working with the new and unknown artists/ writers? it is no longer a matter of needing to run of a print order of many thousands upon thousands of books in order to make a print-run feasible. So- why is there still less and less literary diversity in the market? Or rather, on the book shelves of the corporate behemoths?

    Additionally, I would think that maybe the way the whole book market is run, financially might need to change. From what I understand now.. bookstores get books with terms that make it very much against the publisher. A publisher either gets paid 120-whenever days after the bookstore receives the order.. and the bookstore can return books at will. How many other industries operate with this range of speculative risk? it seems it should be either one of those, or the other.. but not both of those in combination.

    So, is there a future for the full time writer/ novelist? I believe there probably is.. but it is more about the writer taking on the work and role that the publisher/ editor/ publicist.. used to perform.. I think…:)

    thoughts on this welcome:)

  26. Kyle ” Writers will still be able to write.”

    Writers will always be able to write…it seems to be more of a question of how many writers will be able to make enough money to support themselves and their family through their writing.

    John Scalzi is a bit of an exception as he didn’t start out as an SF writer- he started off as a newspaper columnist, then a tech writer, translated into being very heavily involved in AOL, and then eventually having Old Man’s War being so successful that he was able to transfer into full-time SF writing (with special projects thrown in). If anything, he seems to be very realistic about the chances of anyone being able to support themselves as a full-time writer these days. 2 out of 5 of the TV series that you mentioned have already been cancelled, and while I like to think that Game of Thrones is going to make it, if HBO won’t pay for Rome or Deadwood, it’s unlikely that the production costs of GOT are going to make it worthwhile to continue past the first few seasons.

    Publishing will always survive, as will writers, in some form. But the number of authors who manage to ‘break out’ and find a regular, consistently buying readership seems to be shrinking yearly.

    It’s not all the fault of publishing, as they produce a product according to what consumers buy. Good luck to an author who doesn’t have the backing of at least some type of publicity engine and some support behind them, and even if they do, they may well not get anywhere through the vagaries of influences that authors have no control at all over.
    Any publishing company that wants to stay in the black would gladly publish one James Patterson ‘novel’ if they could, as opposed to 100 new or even mid-range authors (at least from the numbers that I’ve seen). There will always be some people who manage to beat those odds, but the chances seem a lot less likely now, and that is likely going to effect SF in a major way, as it seems that it was a pretty welcoming genre for ‘new’ writers for many years. The death of the short-fiction market has a part to play as well, as so many great SF authors came out of the original short-fiction zines and anthologies. I don’t think that we’re going to see many more Frank Herberts or Frederick Pohls again.

  27. I’m amazed at the amount of pessimism here. I rather think that Mishell Baker hit the nail on the head, when she said, “It has never been possible — in ANY business — to make good money without pleasing a large number of other people.” Kyle Cubbage made good points as well.

    I’m no expert, but I think what we’re seeing on many levels is a HUGE paradigm shift. In the realm of publishing, I think what’s being hit is the method of delivery. I’ve only just recently starting using an ereader (a Sony), but that came about because of necessity—at the college I’m attending ALL the textbooks are ebooks. I recently read my first piece of fiction on my Sony Reader, a story offered for free by the author (an established and full-time SF author, too). I think the publishing industry is being forced—not only through the economic hard times we’re having to endure, but also because of the market itself—to adopt a more efficient delivery model.

    Economically, a more efficient delivery system would translate into ‘profit’ for all—cheaper prices for the consumer, higher profit margins for the publisher, and higher royalty rates for the writer. Sure, that will require larger audiences, but with the industry being forced to move into the digital realm, that would mean a larger audience as it would become more *efficiently* global than it is today.

    One’s view of the future shouldn’t be tainted by the circumstances of today or yesterday. Put another way, uniformitarianism is the worst pair of glasses through which to view the future. Trends, like records, are made to be broken.

  28. It doesn’t actually work for bands, either.

  29. […] In a post on his blog last week, Canadian science fiction author Robert Sawyer asked “Are the days of the full-time novelist numbered?” […]

  30. Some people claim that piracy can’t be stopped. Nothing you do will ever work to get rid of it, so you might as well accept it, and even legalize it. Adapt or die.

    Let’s talk about other things that can’t be stopped. Bank robbery. It still goes on to this day across the country. Did you know that the security in online banking is so tight that its actually easier to physically walk into a bank to rob it? And that’s what people do. They walk right in and rob physical banks. Can’t be stopped. So we might as well legalize it.

    Another thing that can’t be stopped: rape. No matter what kind of enforcement we come up with, rape will always happen. In fact, there are some places, such as in Africa, and on Native American reservations, where rape is so common, that if you were to speak out against it, you would be the one harassed and threatened. And we can see the same thing happening to authors who wish to defend their copyright. People like Cory Doctorow have convinced the criminals that they are the ones put upon. If you dare to defend your work or even speak out against piracy, the freeloader cultists will descend upon you with a viciousness that only self-entitled fanboys can muster. So what should we do about rape? Why, legalize it, of course.

    And of course murder. No matter what laws we pass, people are still getting murdered everyday. Legalize it! Those who claim that piracy can’t be stopped only say this because they are pirates themselves, and don’t want it to be stopped. And we all know who these people are. The SFWA even elected one of them as their president. Good job! That doesn’t make you naive or gullible at all! Just bend over and take it, because there is nothing you can do about it.

    Adapt or die. Gee that’s a good slogan for BP to tell fishermen.

  31. I came to this discussion from the mention in Robert Silverberg’s blog over at Black Gate. I may have a unique perspective to offer. Instead of trying to solve the income problem from the supply side, I’ve addressed it from the demand side:

    I made about $20k last year as a full-time fiction writer (with a little editing), yet I live in comfortable houses (in some beautiful parts of the world — right now I’m in Australia) and I never have to worry about paying a phone bill or having the heat and power cut off. My secret: I gave up having a home of my own in the fall of 2007 and since then I have been a full-time housesitter.

    That reflects the state of play (and pay) in this business today. And, by many standards (a dozen or so books published, three more contracted to write, forty-odd stories sold to pro-paying mags), I’m an established success in sf.

    I’m hoping that the Espress Book Machine (or something like it) changes the now almost entirely dysfunctional production/distribution model.

  32. I realize I’m probably not your distributors’ target demographic, as I live in Mexico, however my problem is as follows. Networks here bring series about a year after they air in the US. So I’d actually have had to wait until after FlashForward was cancelled in order to watch it here; indeed, it having been cancelled, probably meant it wouldn’t have ever hit here in Mexico (not really; our lame networks, even cable ones, love purchasing cancelled series and airing the hell out of them in order to get more commercials). So I did have to find a way to watch it. I guess the message is not for the author, but the message is “give me a way to get the content and I will pay for it”. I don’t even mind having to watch commercials *after* I’ve paid for the cable network to deliver the content to me. What I want is *the option* to actually have the content.

    As for books, I’ve wanted to purchase the Quintaglio Ascension books for a while, on my Amazon Kindle. Guess what: for some reason, they’re “not available” in my region. What gives? it’s just an electronic file. Another case of me wanting to give you my money but having no way to do so.

    The sad part is that all these restrictions are artificial and are meant to enrich not you, the author, but the middle man – network – distributor – editor – whoever. And it’s these absurd restrictions that people sometimes prefer to avoid by taking another route to get content. Authors (like Rob) lose, and readers/watchers (like me) lose. So who’s winning? …

  33. Robert, thanks for sharing this post. I think that it will be up to the dedicated readers (and other media consumers) to save the industry. I really want the opportunity to read the next epic series (WoT, LoTR, Mars, etc) and it will be sad for new generations of readers not to have new works written for them. For this to work out, we really need to put our dollars toward the things that really matter to us, that is the only way that there will be enough money to support the genre.

  34. I’m confused. When I was a kid, we were all told that there were less than 100 people in the U.S. who were earning a living as full-time novelists. So, what’s to worry about now? How can their days be more numbered than they were 50 years ago?

  35. Too pessimistic. I’ve been in publishing over 20 years, have over 40 books out. I think it’s a great time to be an author. You just have to stay ahead of the wave.

    Serialization isn’t going to work. We tried it at Who Dares Wins Publishing and people didn’t go for it. Smashwords did a survey and found no one liked it. BTW Smashwords is not good for the author because they don’t control pricing on books they distribute so you can get downpriced, which means Amazon’s web crawler will find your lowest price and act accordingly and lower your price and your royalty.

    I’m reading The Passage right now. A good book will do well.

    Authors we have to write good books. Word of mouth sells books. The 99% of people self-publishing will die agonizing deaths of apathy.

  36. Yes, I’d have to agree with Mishell Baker on this one as well — I think what we’re seeing is a massive shift in interest as far as content, but not a loss of readers in general.

  37. I think Rob’s point re the problem with the band model is important. There may be similarities to the music business but the publishing industry is a creature with its own quirks, eccentricities and challenges.

    At the same time, I remember the editor of Rolling Stone talking about Wilco’s ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ album on the documentary ‘I Am Trying To Break Your Heart’. He felt that it’s the music that’s important, not so much the piece of technology it’s stored on, and that if it’s good enough it will eventually reach an audience. I see writing in a similar vein. I think great stories and inspiring work will be published despite the considerable hurdles. The tenacity of the writer though plays an important in this process.

  38. Actually, I’ve found some degree of success with the serialization model. In ’06, I was the first author to partner with Myspace to do a month-long official serialized fiction piece that sent out a chapter each day. I did great netting new fans and subscribers – no money, but the experiment proved it could work given the right approach.

    In 2010, I decided to try it myself and invited people to subscribe in order to get a chapter each week in their email for $7.95 for the entire year. That project will earn me roughly $4,000 this year. Not huge money, sure, but when combined with the work-for-hire novels I write for Harlequin/Gold Eagle, along with my “traditional” novel sales, and the ebooks I sell via Amazon and direct via my website, the money adds up.

    Writers need to focus on establishing and then maintaining multiple income streams for their work; it’s simply not enough to hope that a traditional publishing deal will save the day. More so given the crazy contract clauses that seem to have found their way into the contracts of several friends – in particular one clause that states the writer can’t write anything else during the duration of the contract except for the 3 contracted books (and the advance for each? $10,000) So a traditional publisher now expects a writer to live on $30,000 – if they wrote them all within a year? Gimme a break.

    As for Hollywood, don’t be so quick to think of it as only a pie-in-the-sky dream. The business model is changing out there as well. My business partner and I have raised private investment funds to turn a series of my books into a TV series. The technology now exists much cheaper than ever before to produce your own material and then sell it across a wide spectrum of potential platforms. Example: a few years back, the digital HD cameras ran about $20,000 for a RED ONE body (not including lenses or rigs, etc. etc.) Nowadays, you can get a a Canon EOS 5D mkII for a whopping $2500 and then outfit it with lenses and rigs for another few thousand.

    In short, a writer looking to survive and survive well only needs to be open to seeing the possibilities of a future that can, and (I think) will be bright. Will everyone prosper? Hell, no. When I hear writers bemoaning the use of social networking and having no clue how to set up a Facebook Page for themselves, then it’s pretty obvious there will be some serious Darwinism at work. But for those who understand the new technology and the business behind entertainment, I expect they will be fine.

    Different, yes. But still in the business of creating great content and being paid for it.

    -Jon F. Merz

  39. Hi Robert,

    Thanks for this very frank analysis.

    It really bugs me – those blogs out there, advising us as writers to plan to make our money through other things (speaking gigs, merchandise).

    First of all: the reality of the economics doesn’t seem to work out. Just how many speaking gigs are there out there, with enough budget to pay us a decent fee plus travel expenses? There are a lot of us!

    And second: designing and printing and marketing and distributing coffee mugs or T-shirts with our book cover or whatever on it – well, it seems a lot of work to earn $3 here or there, and might cut into the writing time just a bit.

    We either need to be paid to write – ultimately by the people who consume it. Or it does become a hobby. Or maybe we just stop… (I’m suddenly having visions of Atlas Shrugged… with overtones of Fahrenheit 451….)

    There’s not much we can do – but there are a few things.

    One is that we can refuse to write for free. Those anthologies that expect something for free – tell them to go stuff themselves. I know this is hard for beginning writers, who just want any publishing credit at all. But how are we to convince the public that our work has value, if we just give it away? That’s admitting that it is just a hobby. (But the product of our hobby is something that people want). If it’s a really low-budget anthology (or literary magazine) – even if they pay $5, at least to symbolically acknowledge value, that’s a start. If they can’t (or won’t) do at least that, then refuse to participate.

    When asked to submit for free, I deliberately use the word “donate” in my response, to make it clear what they are asking for. And I do donate (money, writing, photographs) to charitable foundations whose causes I support – but I don’t donate to just any organization, and certainly not to profit-seeking ventures.

    The other thing we can do is look into independent publishing. Standard contracts with author royalties at 10% of cover-cost make it near-impossible to survive. (I am a best-selling author here in Canada; that success does not equate to any sort of financial security). The publishing world has turned on its head these last 8 months or so. Independent pubishing and ebooks may create some great opportunities for some of us.

    Thanks for this discussion!


  40. From a readers perspective,

    How do you compete with the download generation, and who watches t.v these days, – try youtube.

  41. Rob
    I’ve been buying books for the last forty years, and I’ll keep buying them for forty more. Especially when they’re by my neighours. http://WWW.wake brought tears of joy to my eyes.
    You’ve rekindled my delight in SF.


  42. […] even that’s changing. Read this post by 20-yr veteran author Robert J. Sawyer. He wrote FlashForward. You might have seen the TV show, which is now […]

  43. My opinion is the same Robert but I think that in the future writers will focus on donations like patreon or just paypal.
    There are already some original novels written in the wuxia/xianxia genre and get lots of donations to survive.
    If popular bookwriters did this, I guess they wouldnt need a different job and should just post chapters each week/day however they want on their website)
    -> Donations improve the speed chapters are posted or the amount of chapterst, it varies for each author.

  44. The people who said they had a five-year plan were the initial showrunners, who worked on the pilot. Another showrunner took over starting with episode 2, and the course of the action changed; by the final episode, #22, there had been four sets of showrunners, each with their own ideas about what the future of the show might be. There was no in-detail worked-out follow-on plan from the end of the 22nd episode.

Leave a Reply