Saturday, October 3, 2009

Declining Industry

Jim Baen always used to say that we worked in a declining industry, writing fiction that is, and it is a fact that the purchasing of novels has been in steady decline for some time, at least in the English-speaking world. So what future is there for the would be novelist.

I would like to drift off subject before coming back to the point. Lily Allen, with the certainty of youth, recently created a stir in the UK by publishing a diatribe against file sharers as destroying British Music by making life harder for new artists. Her argument fell apart somewhat when it turned out that Allen had pirated clips from other artists to use in her mix tapes. Ah well.

The music industry is a modern creation that arose because of new technology. Prior to recording technology, there were musicians and audiences. Technology allowed fewer and fewer musicians to make greater and greater revenues. That is how mass media works. It also created a whole new inustry of suits who were essentially parasitic on music. Now technology is destroying the music industry because computers work by making copies, infinite copies. Music is not being destroyed. It is simply returning to musicians playing to live audiences.

The novel industry has undergone a similar, if slower, trajectory. The printing press and globalisation have allowed fewer and fewer authors to make higher and higher revenues. The same Dan Brown novel is on sale at every damn airport and beach hut in the world, and yet overall sales decline.

So the question remains, does the decline in the fiction publishing industry herald the end of fiction or are we merely entering a new way to tell stories through digital media?


The pic, incidentally, is of Royal Holloway College, London University, in the spring of this year.


Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I hate to disagree with Jim, but I don't think novel publishing is in decline so much as in radical transformation. Yes, I know about the numbers, which have declined since the sixties, but there are many reasons for that, not the least of which is distribution, at least in the US. However, given the flourishing of used book markets, etc, novel reading is still going on at voracious pace, even if the novels one wants to read are sometimes hellish to find.

I think -- as does Monkey -- that the electronic media will break that logjam between producer and consumer. What form it will take in the end, is a guess. I think possibly many forms, some of which are a meld of game/fiction we barely antecipate.

So, what does it mean for us? I don't know. But I got into SF because I was excited about the future. I still am. I'm a little scared, but I can't wait to see all the new stuff up ahead.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you Sarah. I think a lot of what we're seeing is the growing pains of an industry in transition, evolving to survive in an uncertain future.

Problem is, there's a lot of folks in the business (particularly at the top levels) who don't want to evolve, who don't want to deal with what's over that hill. They fear the goddess "Future" and her message of "E-Publishing." So, they cower in their boardrooms, chant the name of their deity "Dee-Ahrr-Emm" -- the God of Stagnation -- and pray for salvation, or at least a comfy extinction with a golden-parachute clause.

Kate said...

Ah, yes, Dee Arr Emm, the terrifying deity of wannabe tyrants.

And I agree with Robert and Sarah, here. The traditional publishing industry is dying, but the alternative industry - the one that's giving people what they actually want - is flourishing. There are more independent epublishers of romance than there are traditional publishers - and authors who are epublished are earning more than their traditionally published fellows.

Science fiction and fantasy publishing is being bizarrely stick-in-the-mud over this, with the notable exception of Baen. Dave has said more than once that he earns more from Baen Webscriptions than from hardcopy sales - there is a lesson in this for the industry as a whole, but I don't think the alleged leaders are willing to look at it. Yet.

Right now we're on the cusp of massive, paradigm-changing shifts in lifestyle and technology. We're compressing what used to be generations of change into 5-10 year cycles, and most of the people who are making the decisions, at least in the USA, are still stuck in the 19th century in terms of their business models.

There's a reason "May you live in interesting times" is a curse - but there are very good things ahead for those with the vision and courage to grasp them.

Chris McMahon said...

I think we are probably adjusting to a new sort of consumption mix. Where before people could pretty much only get the hard copy book, now that attention is split between movies, internet media and print.

Baen are doing a fantastic job of feeling their way into the new mix.

Lets not forget the rising middle classes of China and India - surely when they get in sync with the rest of the world there is huge potential there - even if its just 0.001% of the market! The new electronic models like Baen's could be a great way of breaking in a new generation of hard copy readers - all ordering over the net.

Da Curly Wolf said...

Re: Dan Brown? If his numbers are down it's because he writes crap. I tried to read Da Vinci Code after the movie came out. I gave up before I got halfway through it and hurled it across the room. Color me unimpressed with Brown and various other vacuous idiots in the 'bestseller fiction author" category. Frankly there are authors out there like Sarah, and a few others I've discovered recently who with the exception of Sarah have yet to see any of their work put into hardback. Granted that may be because the books are only a few hundred pages as opposed to several hundred in some cases,but...IMNSHO the content in these smaller novels is sooo much better.
Publishers? Baen Rules! 'nuff said. :)

The music industry and Ms. Allen. Allen like others is a hysterical fool who despite the evidence, fails to realize that peer to peer networks promote sales. Just for example..John Ringo mentions several bands that until he brought em up in the Kildar novels I'd never heard of them. Dragonforce, Lacuna Coil, The Cruxshadows. I downloaded some of their stuff off a p2p, listened to some of it and promptly went out and bought ALL of Dragonforce's albums that were available at that time. the other two bands are on my 'all their albums to be acquired' list when funds permit. That list is soo long, and is going to be so costly it blows *my* mind.
The other side of the coin is that the p2p's allow the continued existence and circulation of music that you flat out can't buy anywhere anymore, unless you find the old cd's, cassettes or Vinyl albums in a used store, or at a garage sale. Or on the net somewhere like Ebay. For example..I'd KILL to be able to find a copy of an album done by a couple of Stevie Ray Vaughn's former band members. The band, the Arc Angels...they only did one album but man it rocked. Can't find it anywhere. Need to replace it because it was stolen out of my vehicle along with about 30 others several years ago. So those who cry of the evil's of p2p networks can kiss my fat hairy buttocks.

Da Curly Wolf said...

P.S. I need my reader crack John, you got anything cooking in your writers oven aka your feverish brain? :)

Ori Pomerantz said...

Literature and music are both human needs, and aren't going to go away. But the industry, which relies on mass production, may.

Teenagers are probably reading more than I did at their age between texting, blogs, and facebook. However, their reading is different from normal literature (= what my generation expects) in two important respects:

1. The average unit length is short. I think this change is technologically driven, and won't swing back.

2. The process is interactive. People don't just read what is written. They respond and hold a conversation with the author.

John Lambshead said...

For what it's worth, my personal speculation is that complex things are going on that are driven by technology.

I suspect people are reading fewer novels because there is far more competition from other forms of entertainment, especially visual interactive entertainment in which I would include everything from computer games to UTube.

People's desire to hear/watch/read stories will always continue but the novel may be doomed except for specialist genres such as literary publications and game-based books.

Entertainment is splintering. When I was young, more than half of the UK watched the Morcombe & Wise Xmas special. The modern equivalent, the Dr Who Xmas special is lucky to get a quarter of the potential audience.

I suspect we will see the rise of short stories and series-stories that are sold electronically and have very short shelf lives as revenue items.

People will wish to interact with authors more. There has been a rise in interactive storytelling where authors rewrite stories in the light of readers feedback. The next stage may be votes on what the hero should do in the next chapter - actually that's not a bad idea. I might develop that one.


PS I could be completely wrong as the old crystal ball has been sparking recently.

Ori Pomerantz said...

John: I suspect people are reading fewer novels because there is far more competition from other forms of entertainment, especially visual interactive entertainment in which I would include everything from computer games to UTube.

Ori: Yes. It's important to remember that storytelling is a basic human need. Novels, on the other hand, are a specific literary form that might die out the same way Greek Drama died out.

John: People will wish to interact with authors more. There has been a rise in interactive storytelling where authors rewrite stories in the light of readers feedback. The next stage may be votes on what the hero should do in the next chapter - actually that's not a bad idea. I might develop that one.

Ori: You could also sell votes, as a way to finance the author's life. Well, maybe you could. I don't know. Perhaps you can run an experiment and see. Votes on the first few chapters are free, and then if enough people are interested they start costing.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like some of the online story writing that goes on at Baen's Bar. What do you think Dave? Is there a market for "Outlaws of the Solar System?" It was fun while it lasted. Not, perhaps the most coherent tale ever told. Fun, but making a living that way? Ask for donations of a dollar per month?

I have hesitated to dive into twittering and so forth. I may have to grit my teeth and test the waters.


Dave Freer said...

Matapam, there is a market for all sort of things -- what ther isn't is a linkage between sellers and buyers... solve that one and we're home free.

NemFX said...

The major problem with writing in general is popular culture. The vast majority of celebrities are pretty much encouraged to be drug addled idiots. Chances are you probably thought of the names Paris Hilton or Brittany Spears when you read that. Unfortunately, those 'role models' have made being an idiot-socialite-partygoer an accepted and appealing way of life. Most of the people I went to school with reacted to the thought of reading books willingly with contempt, a couple of them even reacting with the verbal equivalent of "Books? Ew gross. Lol." It's not just a decline of sci fi, it's a general decline of intelligence.