17 February 2010

Authorship in the Information Age

I have just ended a two-year experiment. Readers were invited to download six of my novels and send me a fee if they enjoyed any of them. You can see the original proposition here.

The experience bears out much of what I have read about online content. Of more interest, it also got me thinking about the practice of authorship in the Information Age.

Downloads and payments

At least 36,568 ebooks were downloaded from external, authorized sites, and well over 100,000 from my own. Some titles were posted on torrents. Originally the requested payment varied with the title (85p and up), but PayPal took too big a slice of that so in 2009 I increased the rate to a flat £1.50 per book.

The gross income (after PayPal) was £522.28, net £258.38 pre-tax, or about 0.19 pence per download. 144 payments were made. The smallest was 85p; the largest a remarkable £50, which followed £10 from the same donor. Some other people paid more than the requested amount, a few less. A British reader sent me a £10 Amazon gift certificate on finishing The Tide Mill, while some members of the MobileRead Book Club (which made one of the titles its monthly choice) paid even though I gave them a waiver.

By far the greatest number of payments came from the U.S. and Canada, followed by Britain and then the rest of Europe. There was a handful from Australia, and a very generous one from a reader in Singapore. Despite the fact that Chinese visitors were almost as numerous as Americans, no other payment was received from Asia.

I am most grateful to all those who paid, many of whom wrote supportive or even flattering emails, blog comments, or messages in the PayPal dialog; and all of whom gave me great heart and confirmed my belief that there are plenty of thoroughly nice people out there.


Failure to pay can be ascribed to six motives:

1. Didn’t read
2. Didn’t like (at all or enough)
3. Liked but decided not to pay
4. Liked but forgot to pay
5. Liked but had trouble with the site (it was down for a while)
6. Liked but didn’t want to deal with PayPal (I had a couple of messages about this)

Of course, you never know how many downloaded ebooks are even looked at, never mind read. Of those that are read, you don’t know how many are enjoyed. Conversely you don’t know how many are duplicated and sent to friends. It is no use trying to guess how many readers enjoyed the books but didn’t pay. However, given that some people did pay, it is safe to conclude that a number of the others chose option 3.

For an analysis of this behaviour, take a look at a 2008 blog post by Stephen Poole, who conducted a similar experiment. The comments are especially illuminating; there’s no need to rehearse them here.

Attitudes to books

A common theme seems to emerge. Internet content is widely, but not universally, regarded as free: if it isn’t, then it should be “liberated” and shared via torrents. Of more concern to authors, what is printed in books is also widely, but not universally, regarded as free, an attitude fostered by (a) the free-at-point-of-service provision of books during education or by public libraries, (b) the existence of the public domain, and (c) the nature of paper books.

This attitude is consistent with a flourishing culture. It is reinforced early, by (a); (b) provides a vast and growing body of literature out of copyright; and with (c), once you have bought a paper book you own it and can transfer ownership to someone else.

Few readers, I should imagine, are much exercised about copyright. They might know it to be a limited contract society makes with creators in order to encourage creation, and that depriving an author of a royalty should piously be deplored. Into the mix, however, despite the perennial background bleating of authors, goes also a vague notion that every writer is a millionaire.

Authors and their agents and publishers depend on copyright for their living. We hear a lot these days about digital duplication of copyright works: this I believe is one of the main impacts on authorship, since readers appear reluctant to reward the producers of freely distributed books. There are other impacts too, nearly all related to computers.

A buyers’ market

The number of people who can write is dwarfed by the number who think they can but can’t. Press stories of huge advances paid to unknowns heap the slush piles even higher. The mountain of manuscripts is so big that few mainstream publishers will even look at an unsolicited submission: everything now has to go through agents.

The attitude of publishers to authors is a product of this buyers’ market, and has probably got worse in recent years. I won’t detail the Kafkaesque tribulations of my own dealings with publishers in the twenty years to 1997, but let me say that London publishing at that period was regarded as a socially desirable occupation. Perhaps it still is. Many staff were recruited by class and connection rather than ability. If an author’s sales shot into the stratosphere he was treated with shameless sycophancy; otherwise he was never allowed to forget his place.

I cannot imagine that some of this attitude doesn’t seep down to readers. When a reader enters a bookshop or library he is reminded of just how many books are begging to be noticed. The Romans had a proverb: quae rara, cara – what is scarce is valued – and the converse surely holds true.

The effect of computers

Word processors have made the physical composition of text much easier than it was in 1971, when I started out. The slush-pile is becoming not just a mountain, but a lofty and majestic range. As ebook displays and the internet loosen the publishers’ stranglehold on the means of production and distribution, so is a lot of that slush-pile finding its way onto the Web.

The availability of professional works is increasing too, as authors and publishers convert their backlists into ebooks: and, thanks to Project Gutenberg, more and more public domain material is coming online. And then there is Google Books.

All this is bad news for aspiring writers, but both good and bad for readers. Good because they have more choice and prices will tumble; bad because it will be harder and more time-consuming to find new books of quality. Not only will these be outnumbered by rubbish, but I predict that the means whereby they arise – the craft of authorship itself – will become a niche activity.

A dying craft

In his essay, Why I Write, George Orwell says:

I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in – at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own – but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write. Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen – in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all – and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, wilful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centred than journalists, though less interested in money.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose. – Using the word “political” in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

It can be seen how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time.

Writers, then, are born with sundry traits and defects which come together in a pathological urge to tell stories. This is even true of non-fiction, but since my experiment involved fiction I will concentrate on that type of writing here.

Inventing a story is a creative act, needing talent. The storyteller’s rhythm and taste will develop as he grows, informing and refining his talent, but if he lacks the techniques to tell his stories effectively he will never fulfil his potential. The craft of fiction requires thousands of hours of preparation based in extensive reading, besides the acquisition of a large writing vocabulary and expertise in grammar, usage, and the structure and exposition of plots. A skilled editor needs only a few hundred words to tell if a writer knows his stuff.

If would-be writers are unable to acquire these tools of the trade, the standard of work must plainly fall. A writer needs time to learn and experiment, to find his voice, and he needs some sort of encouragement to sustain his efforts. For many of us time is in ever shorter supply. As for encouragement, that can be as nugatory as the hope of success. In the past, new writing had far less competition. Recognition of talent was more likely. The printed word was more precious than a fleeting collection of pixels on a screen, and in order to produce a script for submission you had to type the thing yourself – or pay plenty to have it done.

Hyperlinked reading

There could be even worse in store. I read the other day that the internet is supposed to be altering the way young people think.

Documentary presenter and social psychologist Dr Aleks Krotoski said: “It seems pretty clear that, for good or ill, the younger generation is being remoulded by the web. Facebook’s feedback loops are revolutionising how they relate. There is empirical evidence now that information overload and associative thinking may be reshaping how they think.” ...
Dr David Runciman, political scientist at Cambridge University, added: “What I notice about students from the first day they arrive at university is that they ask nervously, ‘What do we have to read?’ When they are told the first thing they have to read is a book, they all now groan, which they didn’t use to do five or ten years ago. You say, ‘Why are you groaning?’ and they say, ‘It’s a book. How long is it?’”

People brought up on hyperlinks will not be receptive to the linear experience of a novel or short story. Still less will many of them wish to tell tales in that way or have the patience to learn the craft.

The word according to Jobs

Steve Jobs was vilified for his observations on the Kindle, “which he said would go nowhere largely because Americans have stopped reading”. Unfortunately, he has been right about such things more often than he has been wrong, and anyone who thinks that iBooks will amount to anything but a minor aspect of the iPad is mistaken.

It’s all a bit glum if you love books.

As long as there are old fogeys like me around, there will be a market for them, but (if  Mr Jobs and Dr Krotoski are right) as we die off the audience will become smaller and smaller, with ever less incentive for storytellers to choose linear writing as a medium. Linear fiction will never die out, but will become a backwater served by authors who have independent means and write purely to be read.

At the age of eleven, 20% of British children are functionally illiterate. I’ll say nothing more about educational trends, both here and in the United States, except that judgment on these is probably implicit in Jobs’s remarks.

Back to the experiment

The willingness of MobileRead Book Club members to pay, even though they were not obliged to, is especially interesting. As member of that forum myself, I had engaged in the discussion and the others knew they were dealing with a real person.

The number of downloaders who enjoyed the books and did not pay could be smaller than I suppose. The site at first allowed simultaneous download of all six books, two clicks away from the home page. Many visitors simply downloaded the files and took a glance, if that, at the rest of the site. They did not engage with me at all: they just wanted the “free books”. Those who downloaded from other sites had even less of a connection. How many copies were read all the way through, with the attention and pleasure that establish a relationship with an author?

When I first made my offer I tried to make my site as informative and engaging as possible. My subsequent disappointment at the low rate of return did not take into account the typical behaviour of people – of all primates, indeed, perhaps even all animals – in situations where they are anonymous and have no relationship with the provider. Add in our conditioning to the value of books (especially those we “borrow”); add in also the amount of reading material freely available on the net, and I think I did quite well to gross £500.

I am still offering my ebooks, but this time through Smashwords. Five are for sale; one is offered free, as a loss-leader, and you are very welcome to grab a copy. You needn’t read it, buy the others, or engage with me if you don’t want to. Keep it somewhere safe, though: fifty years from now it may turn out to be a curious antique.


Ralph Sir Edward said...

It seems appropriate to comment here. Quae Rara, Cara. The Romans weren't dummies, although we like to think so in modern times. Perhaps, Hemmingway might be more appropriate "You're either writing something new, or you're trying to beat dead men at their own games."

There are several ways to look at the current situation. I mention two.

First, technology changes form. By that I mean that how an entertainment is enjoyed is dependent upon what the technology of the times permits. For example, music. 150 years ago, you choice for enjoying music consisted of going out to hear a concert being given, or making your own, limited to what skills you had. To utilize those skills, you needed to purchase a template of the music you wanted to reproduce, called sheet music, printed with a unique nomenclature to describe how to reproduce the music. Today, the technology has totally bypassed the idea of making your own music, you merely reproduce your favorite music on demand. The idea of self-reproduction of music is so arcane that Project Gutenberg had dormanted the sheet music section, due to lack of interest. Even free, there is little interest. Time has passed it by.

I suspect that technology is doing the same for linear reading. Things like Massive Multi-Player Online Games, Internet interaction, and the sheer availability of past story-telling, is making the demand for new product drop steadily. Scarcity is being killed in the digital world, and anything based in scarcity is going to fail. I say this not to be offensive, but merely to state the new reality.

Second, it's not just limited to the digital items themselves, but consider the secondary aspect you didn't mention, the vast expansion of marketplace availability of obsolete items. I hear about a fifty year old book, which has been out-of print for forty years. Thirty years ago, the odds of my being able to find it in a used book store was fairly low, I might spend years hunting for that book. So only the most dedicated even tried, the others bought the new equivalent product. Today, you just go out to American Booksellers Exchange, and odds are that you'll find it right off, in various conditions, at various prices. You may consider them too high, but they are . And that makes them competition, as out-of-print is no longer a reduction of competition. And that is not even making digital copies, merely digital indexing and marketplace access.

Over the last two hundred years, we, as a society, have created an enormous mountain of entertainment, more than can be enjoyed in ten lifetimes. The system depended on the "forgetting" of previously created works to make room for the creation of new works. This has been shattered by the new digital technology. Like the surviving American jet fighter pilots over North Vietnam, that consumers are starting to "flip off the switches" to reduce the entertainment load. It should be no surprise that they are flipping off the most expensive sources first....

Richard Herley said...

Excellent stuff, if I may say so, Ralph. You're right, I didn't even get into the question of the internet and second-hand books.

Apparently World of Warcraft is so addictive that there's now a club for "Warcraft widows" where they share ideas about getting their husbands back.

Was there ever such a club for the spouses of Dickens's most avid readers?

Ralph Sir Edward said...

Perhaps not, but think of how many kids were told by their parents - "Get your nose out of a book and go do something..." Similar concept, I imagine...

Richard, if you are interested, (and no reason why you should be), I wrote a Precis of these ideas on MobileRead under the title "And The World Changed". Look under Edward, Ralph in the e-book section. I placed it in the Public Domain, don't worry about downloading it...

Richard Herley said...

Thanks for that, I'll nip over there now and grab a copy.

Mike Cane said...

I've tweeted this to other writers.

I'll also link to it on my blog.

Thanks for posting the details.

Cliff Burns said...


Can't tell you how much I appreciated your post. A tip of the hat to Mike Cane for dropping it my way.

Your essay is candid, in-depth and well-articulated. You've perfectly summed up the reality of writing in the cyber age, the dilemma artists confront when faced with "freeconomy", file sharing, Creative Commons, etc.

Your experiment is sobering, the numbers you provide not exactly heartening. Especially for anyone who imagines there's a fortune to be made, putting pen to paper. If you're in it for fame and glamor, kids, better look for another vocation.

The income I've derived in the three years I've had my blog doesn't surpass three figures. But, at the same time, I'm approaching 60,000 "hits". Tens of thousands of people around the world have downloaded and read my short stories, verse, radio dramas and novels.

In the end, what it comes down to is this: I write to communicate to anyone out there who might be listening, anyone amenable to my message(s). Whether they're willing or able to remunerate me for the personal guided tour of my mind, is...well, not beside the point but not exactly a priority either.

Yeah, a decent stipend would be nice and it would also be lovely if the web developed a critical community to help separate the wheat from the chaff (and, hoo, boy, you're right: there's a lot of chaff out there). But we can't have everything.

Me? I've got the freedom to write what I want, with no input from marginal minds OR the necessity of catering to a certain narrow marketplace. I have complete control over my work, from conception to publication. No need to kowtow or endure humiliation at the hands of editors and agents.

To quote the great Frank Norris, author of MCTEAGUE:

"I never truckled; I never took the hat off to Fashion and held it out for pennies. By God, I told them the truth. They liked it or they didn't like it. What had that to do with me? I told them the truth; I knew it for the truth then, and I know it for the truth now..."

Amen, brother Frank.

Loved the piece, Richard; keep it up...

Anonymous said...

I love books. I always have. But it is with some sadness and nostalgia that I see the world change.

When I was a boy, I could spend hours, days, and weeks reading one book after another. Books were an obsession. We could do other things, but I chose books.

Today's children (and myself) are bombarded with so many more possibilities. I find myself having "wasted" hours on the internet, and think: "at least I know the difference. At least I know how it used to be. Today's kids don't even know the difference. This is just the way it has always been for them."

You drive down the street, and where there might have been a couple signs years ago, there are now hundreds. Some are just signs, some are digital moving billboards. Anything and everything possible to distract you and draw your attention away from what you are doing. How can you read when you have flashing moving lights competing for your attention?

Music stores are rapidly going out of business. Their primary customers are downloading music directly, completely bypassing them. We see bookstores going the same way. Anything that is media can be distributed so much more cheaply than physical CD's or physical books.

I have a Kindle, and I love it. I'm sad that I'm contributing to the demise of the bookstore, whose aisles I have enjoyed browsing. Browsing book store aisles is so much more satisfying than browsing internet pages. Although, if I want to find something fast and I know what I'm looking for, I'll use the internet every time.

I'm in the U.S., and I have enjoyed our local "Barnes and Noble" for years. They had books and music. Their music section is almost entirely gone. Even their book selection is declining. Instead of packing books on shelves spine out, they are now placing many books flat, making it seem that the shelves are full, when in fact there is much less.

Coffee sales must be keeping it open. And they are increasingly replacing books and music with boxed games and "gimmicks". If they last another ten years, I'll be surprised.

Richard, I have enjoyed two of your books (Refuge and Penal Colony), and have sent you suitable remuneration. We are a dying breed.

Richard Herley said...

Thanks for your thoughts. Sometimes the landscape looks pretty bleak; I wrote this post a year ago and since then I've begun to think it's too pessimistic. The age of paper books may be dying, but it's the content that counts. I am picking up a vibe from the younger generation that reading is becoming cool. The ereader has a lot to do with that -- the gadgetry -- but also it's the old question of rebellion against parental values. While the parents sit slumped in front of the TV, the teenager is avidly devouring ebooks!

In demonstration of my optimism, I am at work on a new book. It's nearly finished and I'm unusually pleased with it.

Thanks also for the payment. I feel you'd enjoy The Tide Mill more than either of those. If you'd like to email me within the next few days I'll send you a copy with pleasure. Just say which format you prefer.