Predicting the future with any accuracy is hard. Predicting the future of the written word…I hardly want to venture a guess. Maybe that’s because it’s too close to my heart.
I attended a conference of the Canadian Authors Association this past weekend. It was richly enjoyable and inspiring, as always. You’d expect writers to attend conferences to learn how to perfect our craft, and that’s certainly true. Yet these days there are just as many presentations about how to get published, how to get an agent, and how to market our books. In other words, the business side of writing. We’re writers—business stuff isn’t our strong suit. But if our writing can’t support us financially, we have to find other employment and either give up writing entirely, or only bring out a new book every five or ten years while we earn a living some other way. Combine a full-time job plus all of the business aspects of writing these days, and we’re lucky to get a book out to an audience of readers at all.
The advent of ebooks has turned the publishing industry on its ear, and it’s also messing up the money thing. An ebook doesn’t require cutting down trees, slapping on ink and glue, and trucking the end result to the corners of the continent, so obviously an ebook shouldn’t cost anything close to the price of a printed one. Right? Well, those thousands of words take just as many months or years to cobble together whether they get to the reader in the form of symbols on a page or pixels on a screen. The same goes for any editorial work required, cover art, or marketing to let potential fans know the book exists. But the more people get used to paying $2.99 for an ebook, the less money will enter the system to pay for all of those things. At the same time, publishers are becoming less and less willing to risk their money on any but their stable of bestselling authors, a state of affairs that unavoidably takes its toll on variety and originality.
Whether you read from a page or a screen, there are some truths about the written word that seem self-evident to me:
- When writers can turn their full attention to writing they can produce better books and more of them.
- The more writing a writer does, the better they get.
- The way to get more of the books we most enjoy is to enable writers to devote more of their time to what they do best.
What can you do as a reader? Be willing to pay a reasonable price for something that brings you hours of enjoyment, and maybe even some real insight that can last you a lifetime. Rely on your taste for good writing instead of your taste for a bargain. Support the writers you like by buying their books.
I don’t know if, a hundred years from now, we’ll be reading from screens, or holographic letters in the air, or flashes of light on the insides of our eyelids. I do know that if we don’t support the best of our storytellers, the physical format of the stories won’t much matter.