Writers & Respect: Where do we stand now? What of our future?

by Pari Noskin Taichert

For the past few weeks, I’ve been watching the WGA strike and thinking about its implications for all writers and other creatives. (Here’s a cool video for fans to take action and here’s even more info.)

More fodder for consideration came in the form of the Devil’s guest blog right here on Murderati last Thursday AND the release of the Kindle, Amazon’s new electronic reader. Newsweek posited that this little machine — and other technologies — will change the face of reading. Among the suppositions is that writing will become public, a community endeavor.

Does that idea send a shudder down your back? It sure makes me pause. Frankly, I don’t think creativity should be democratic. Though screenwriters and playwrights have dealt with massive input in their works for decades, I wince at how this would play out for novelists — especially if the people doing the input had no more vested interest than $9.99.

When the Devil gave his choices on Murderati, the one that was by far the most popular was: #2. Here, writers would earn massive amounts of money but would get no recognition; fame wouldn’t even get close enough to kiss their knickers.

I picked number two. My answer probably came as a surprise to some people who know how much I go out into the world and market my works. I do love the recognition and the ego-boost from fans. I like the give-and-take of personal interaction. From my video on MySpace, you might get the impression that this is what’s most important to me. But it’s not. Though I may wax romantic about my chosen profession, the bottom line IS my bottom line.

I want to make money.

Which brings me to the mish-mosh of all of those influences above — and more. Something’s in the air. Consider the National Endowment for the Arts’ study about the demise of reading, or all the WGA writers’ blogs including this poignant one from tightropegirl, and you’ll get the feeling that there’s a tilt to the world, that there’s a shift among those who write; those who review and buy our works; and those who steal or profit unjustly from our literary efforts.

I wonder . . . Has creative writing ever been accorded much respect? If the answer is "yes," it seems to me, nowadays, it’s afforded even less.

There’s a strange assumption that anyone can do it.

I think, at least in fiction, part of the reason for this shift is that ANYONE can. It used to be that vanity presses just cost too much for the average Joe. Now they don’t. There are also scads of e-publishers and small houses that will publish anything.

I’m not arguing good or bad, pro or con. I’m just saying that this has devalued people’s perception of the craft.

In addition to this change, publishing houses themselves are throwing more and more books into the market. You’d think this would be a good thing. I don’t. I think more and more books are left flailing because of the lack of attention. Consumers are too overwhelmed.

When I watched Jeff Bezos from Amazon on Charlie Rose last week, I felt a nagging discomfort.

In a few years, or a decade, how will writers be paid? If books all become $9.99, what’s the formula for reimbursement?

We’ve seen how the major studios are dealing with screenwriters. They don’t want to relinquish even pennies on the dollar. Can we expect that publishers will be more generous in the coming years? Even with the decrease in production costs, will they pass those savings onto consumers while upping the pay to the people who generate their products — the writers?

All of this makes me uneasy. On the one hand, technology will help one of my children, the one with the visual impairment. Increased font size for any book will be a glorious boon. I also like the electronic revolution for its environmental benefits — less felled trees equal more oxygen; that’s a good equation.

On the other hand, I can see a day when the creative act of writing and the execution and polishing of true craft, will be treated as if they’re popcorn — plentiful and pure fluff — with no value at all.

That’s a bleak thought.

What say you?

31 thoughts on “Writers & Respect: Where do we stand now? What of our future?

  1. Elver

    I dunno about books, but do you seriously think that a Hollywood studio is going to spend $50M or more on a script written by an unproven writer? (Well, after they’ve gotten burnt two or three times, that is.)

    As long as there’s money to be made, all sides will seek to maximize their profits through whatever means necessary (WGA strike?). If there’s little to no money to be made, it’s mostly gonna be amateurs and hacks.

    People still appreciate masterful storytelling. The sad truth is that in amateur circles, all forms of storytelling, good and bad, are pretty much equally encouraged, because — as the logic goes — if you rate someone’s work highly, he/she will rate your work highly. This has, somewhat, lowered peoples’ expectations, but I’m fairly certain that this trend will only ruin a single generation and their kids will return to the idea that poop really does smell bad.

    After all, if you grow up on fast food and someone finally cooks you a proper meal, you’ll appreciate that meal even more.

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  2. Mark Terry

    The other aspect of this that makes me feel a bit uneasy is the tendency for certain bestselling authors (living or dead) to have other people write their books and have them published under their own name. And the fact that readers and book buyers don’t seem to give a damn.

    So maybe the general reading public won’t care if the novels are written by a committee of fan-ficcers.

    Makes me a bit nauseated to think so, but I wonder.

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  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    That group-writing thing was the part of the article on the Kindle that made me most uncomfortable. Bluntly, I hope I’m dead before THAT innovation takes off.

    As to how authors will get paid, Dusty and I had this conversation with Joe Konrath at the Cape Fear Crime Festival – or rather, were mostly treated to a classic Konrath thesis on the subject. 😉 But from my experience with the WGA, I completely agree with his conclusion: the publshers’ revenue on e books and downloads will come from ads, and we’ll have to negotiate our share of that revenue with our publishers.

    No share, no book. Maybe it’s hopelessly naive of me, but I kind of like the idea of being in total control of some of my books – that some of the books I put out are only available through my own website.

    But God knows I’m glad to have a brick-and-mortar publisher NOW to build me.

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  4. Lorraine.

    Aren’t you all projecting (not a good thing) dire results from one more little technological device? Get out of writer mode for a minute & get in reader mode. I listened to Jeff Bezos on Charlie Rose too, & thought, well, that will be nice for rich folks, jetsetters, etc. But I read 200-300 books a year – at $10. a pop for each book, plus orig. cost of $400., there’s no way this is going to replace books. I spend a few hundred $ a yr. on books, not a few thous. – there’s the library, used, loans from friends,etc.Bezos said he got rights to 100+ of the current 112 books on the best seller list from the publishers.As writers, why isn’t the only thing you need to have agents, contracts, etc. do is make sure you get a royalty from each copy of your book sold either on paper or kindle?

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  5. pari

    Wow. Good morning.

    Elver,Thanks for stopping by.I wonder about the studios. It seems to me that they’d go to hacks rather than admit they’re wrong or back down re: giving up any of their $ to prof. members of WGA. That’s how it’s looking right now . . . at least to this industry outsider.

    And, I think you’re spot on about the weird “I’ll give you a good review, if you give me one,” mentality we’re seeing in certain circles.

    I’m not sure about the ultimate impact on storytelling though. Sometimes I have faith that readers are looking for well-told stories, sometimes — especially when I see what I consider to be a really bad book hitting top ten lists — I wonder.

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  6. pari

    Mark,Good to see you here this morning.

    Are you thinking of particular authors? I’ll confess to not being in the know about this at all. I have this really contrary nature . . . and as a result, I rarely read bestsellers unless people I trust tell me the books are dynamite.

    Alex,You bring up an interesting point. Wouldn’t it be slammin’ to know your sales to the number, to have a bigger royalty than the current industry standard? This feels like a nifty possibility.

    I’ll be curious to see if Joe’s hypothesis is correct about reimbursement. What a brave new world.

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  7. pari

    Lorraine,It’s great to see you here today.

    Thanks for your reader’s perspective here. I think you’re right about the current cost of the Kindle. But, like all other technology it’s going to go down and, like the IPhone, it’ll attract more and more readers.

    To me, this is the tip of a major change in how literature is going to be distributed/produced in the future AND I feel a need to understand and think this through before it becomes a norm.

    I know that some people believe that books will never go out of style. I want to believe that myself. But with the environmental implications, I think that electronic delivery of books is definitely the trend of the near future.

    However, you may be right that I’m overreacting.

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  8. JT Ellison

    Another interesting discussion.

    As a reader — I love books. Turning the pages, getting lost in the tactile sensations of paper under my fingers . . . not something I plan to give up soon.

    I think this technology will only continue to improve and it will have an effect, though I doubt it will force books out of the marketplace. It is one more delivery method. I’ve seen a healthy mix of young and old readers at my signings — my youngest so far was 15. So the kids are reading. Does it matter HOW they read as long as they are? If we’re getting paid properly for our work, do we need to be concerned about the delivery method?

    Devil’s advocate there, I would dreadfully miss actual books.

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  9. pari

    J.T.,I think you hit it on the head: “If we’re getting paid properly for our work, do we need to be concerned about the delivery method?”

    That’s the big “IF” in this equation. And it ties back to what’s happening with the WGA strike.

    On another list of novelists, I’ve read where larger publishers are actually trying to pay even less royalties on e-books because “the technology is so new and it’s so difficult to produce.”

    Frankly, I don’t buy either protestation.

    I remember when I negotiated my first contract with UNM Press — before I had my agent — and asked for the electronic rights to my work. The Executive Director asked me why I wanted them. I told him I didn’t know what the implications of signing them away would be, and, until I did, I wasn’t willing to take that chance.

    This might be a good thing, at least for me, in the future.

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  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Actually, Pari, there’s always been a flood of wannabee writers and hacks trying to get hired in Hollywood, and the studios aren’t showing any more interest now than they ever did.

    In practical fact, the studios’ answer to a work stoppage by writers has not been and is not being to go out and hire non-union writers. Instead, what they do is amp up their production of reality shows. They can’t put on the dramas and comedies without real, experienced writers. And even as we speak, major motion picture shoots are being shut down because major actors like Brad Pitt are walking off because the scripts aren’t ready and the actors won’t shoot until after the strike is resolved and they can get real writers back again. Their professional reputations are at stake. Check it out here:

    http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117976498.html?categoryid=13&cs=1

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  11. guyot

    Here’s what scares me… everyone (and I mean everyone) who makes these claims that they love holding a real book, that they buy dozens a year, that they can never give up their books – all those people are over thirty. Probably most of them over forty. Yes, we all have a story about a certain niece who’s been reading since she was five, but you know what I’m saying.

    It won’t matter if our book loving generation doesn’t turn their backs on the book-book, because it’s not our generation we have to be worried about.

    It is the people who are in their twenties, and in their teens, and the kids – the folks who don’t know life without text messaging, don’t know that phones had dials once, don’t know who Bruce Springsteen is (see my 19-year-old nephew for that).

    If we don’t give our children (and all their friends) the love and passion we have for book-books, they will not know any better. Generation Y and Gen Z are full-blown technophiles. They are being raised on video games and the Internet and instant access to everything.

    They are the book-buying future, people, not us.

    So it’s great to say we all love books and they will never be replaced by machines, but if we don’t open our eyes and look at the future, and who it is that will be supporting those deals for writers, then we’re all in for a rude awakening.

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  12. pari

    Alex,This is actually wonderful news. Thank you.

    Guyot,You’re absolutely right re: book-books.

    Here’s another wrinkle . . . those technophiles, the young people, are going to be the major decision makers in a few years as well. They’re the ones who’ll be in positions of power at “publishing houses” and other media giants. I think the shift will happen in the next 10 years or before.

    When it does, they’ll bring their sensibilities and we need to be aware of them now.

    In a world where people believe that everything should be free: share ware, downloadable music, blogs . . . why would we authors/writers believe we — or our works — are going to be perceived differently?

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  13. J.D. Rhoades

    Has it occurred to anybody that the Kindle and other e-book readers are an expensive solution without a problem? By which I mean, I don’t know any reader who finds paper books so onerous that they need to shell out 400 bucks to get around the difficulties with them. So you can carry 200 books at a time…okay, that’s cool, but who really needs that on a day to day basis? Maybe a small group of techies who can carry all their manuals in one pouch, but that’s not a big enough market to really change the face of publishing like so many e-book cheerleaders keep claiming the Kindle will do.

    The iPod solved a problem: portable CD players were bulky and awkward to use and to find music on. The iPhone solved another: people are carrying too many devices (they really play this “one device solution” thing up in their advertising).

    What problem does the Kindle solve?

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  14. Naomi

    Actual conversation overheard among young video game developers:

    #1: “Yeah, they think story’s just something extra–“

    #2: “But we have to explain why you need to blow up those friggin’ zombies. I mean, what’s the point? What’s at stake?”

    Even video games need story, but the corporate bosses sometime don’t see why one is necessary.

    And regarding the Kindle, I think it’s just a novelty at this point. But as e-readers and other devices go down in price, it will make it easier, cheaper, and cleaner for certain folks to read text.

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  15. guyot

    Re: price…

    Remember, all technology is initially expensive. Think back to the price of cell phones and computers ten years ago.

    All the people saying it’s no big deal right now remind me of the people who thought there would never be a need or reason for everyone to have a portable phone in their pocket, or have Internet access in their homes.

    And we haven’t even discussed the “green” side of it – the movement to make books, etc., electronic in order the save the environment.

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  16. pari

    J.D.,I do think the Kindle and its ilk solve a problem — it has to do with mobility and green issues. I’m not on the bandwagon, but I can see a major marketing campaign targeting these benefits.

    Elaine,Do you think there’s any way to win in this particular siege?

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  17. pari

    Naomi,You really heard that? I love it. Frankly, I don’t believe that reading is in danger — it’s just the delivery that concerns me right now. And, I’m concerned because I don’t know enough about the broader implications.

    I also don’t want to write anything by committee.

    Alex/Dusty,I don’t think it’s going to stay expensive for that long. Remember how quickly the iPhone went down in price?

    Guyot,I did address this in the comments and in my post. To me, it’s the main attraction of devices like Kindle. (That, and readability for the visually impaired.) I wouldn’t mind sacrificing a few less trees . . .

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  18. Tom

    Joss Whedon makes some interesting points today about Big Media’s desire to manage public perception of writers, and so damage us both in the public mind and our own bank accounts: http://www.firedoglake.com/2007/11/25/joss-whedon-on-the-wga-strike/

    Pari, I agree strongly that Gen Y or Z will make the decisions that will lead to common use of e-books.

    My suspicion: it will come down to a matter of how and when it’s easier for the end user to use a digital storage device than to use a stack of bound paper documents. School. Low incomes. Limited opportunity to ‘go to the store.’ Urgency of the ‘content absorbtion.’

    Content delivery modes almost always develop at an industrial level (audio tape in the record and film industry, video tape for television production, compact flash chips for stable pro photo storage) first, and then trickle down to consumers. Imagine how this might work for the written word; and please let me know what you imagine.

    Steve Jobs keeps bringing it back to the same fundamental truth: it’s the user’s experience, the user’s POV, that matters.

    That’s where fortunes are won or lost.

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  19. guyot

    “Guyot,I did address this in the comments and in my post. To me, it’s the main attraction of devices like Kindle. “

    See, I know I shouldn’t play online poker while trying to comment on the Rati. 🙂

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  20. Fiona

    Any new technology brings with it the “good & the bad” and this is not any different.

    I am well past 40. Until 5 years ago, my friends called me a Luddite and I had to agree. Now, I live on my laptop. I had a PDA, cell & mp3 that have been traded in for an iPhone and I expect that someday, most of my “light reading” (magazines, current novels, NF books & other things I can’t get online) will be done with an electronic reader.

    I hope this technology will make print books more valuable–both in cost and in peoples’ lives. Peoples’ bookshelves will reveal what books are important to them–what has staying power–the ebooks will be for convenience (reading in line @ the post office & waiting @ the drs office)

    I think of it as Hardcover vs paperback used to be–I only bought hardcover books if I wanted to KEEP THEM FOREVER, but paperbacks were one step up from magazines–read & pass on.

    I look forward the saving of trees, space on my bedside table & weight in my gym bag.

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  21. Fiona

    BTW, I won’t think of getting a Kindle or any other e reader until the price is better, and the technology has gone further.

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  22. Barbara Fister

    I haven’t encountered much enthusiasm for e-books among 18-24 year olds. Their eyes hurt too much from checking Facebook every ten seconds.

    Seriously, the students I know like books that they can hold in their hands. They’re upset about the cost of textbooks, understandably, but when textbook publishers offer online versions they *really* hate them, because they find them less reliable the night before the exam and they resent the fact they can’t be put on a shelf and looked at later or shared with a friend or sold. (The only thing they hate more than the cost of textbooks is DRM.)

    Newspapers they’re less devoted to, since they don’t mind getting their news online (or from The Daily Show) and the paper waste bothers them. I poll students about this all the time. But books – I wouldn’t jump to generational assumptions about those. They’re in no hurry to go digital.

    People who go for proprietary e-book devices like the Kindle are already for the most part avid readers. And I’ll bet the average age of a Kindle purchaser is up there. So this is not going to tell us anything about the youth market.

    As for the other question about respect for writers – at least polls are indicating the majority of the public is on the writers’ side in the strike.http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/business/la-ca-strikepr18nov18,1,7968213.story

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  23. pari

    Fiona,What would be a reasonable price for you? I’m curious. So many people spend big $ on flat screen tvs, ipods and other luxury items, that I’m interested to know what the break point would be.

    Barbara,Thank you so much for this perspective. I’m glad to hear that kids are still interested in printed books, the kind you can hold in your hand.

    And, I loved the article link. As a old PR pro, it fascinates me that this made the news — this angle, I mean.

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  24. Elaine Flinn

    Writers, Pari – will never win. Only the guys who write the checks will. Not palatable, maybe – but reality.

    Alas, we can’t strike as other organizations can, so we’ve got only one choice – and that’s go with the flow…or get out of the game.

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  25. pari

    Hah! Elaine,A similar discussion has been going on at a listserv I really like. The concensus was that since novelists have no real union, we’re going to simply have to learn to adapt.

    At times, that sounds exciting.At others, it makes me slightly nauseated.

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  26. Catherine

    I did my own little survey of lovers of tech devices and reading. I asked

    ‘Does the convenience of carrying around a small library of books in one device outweigh the tucked in bed with a book experience? to a couple of 23year old devourers of books…

    Still waiting to hear back from my daughter(job promotion may be interfering a tad)This is from her best friend…

    ‘Nope, I think I’m too sentimental for the physicality of books. There was an article about this in the last issue of Vogue, and that was pretty much the author’s argument as well. e-books may be handy in some situations.. ie, you’re on a plane and you can download one to your tv screen to read on a long flight… but nothing can really replace curling up with a good book.’

    Very small sample but does work in with Barbara’s comment.

    NB I think the Vogue referred to here would of been the Australian Vogue

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  27. pari

    Catherine,Thanks for this perspective. I came away from this general discussion feeling far more optimistic than when I started.

    Even my child, who has the visual challenges and is an avid reader, prefers books over anything electronic.

    Again, I don’t begrudge the technology. I simply can’t see all its implications and worry about its impact on writers being able to make a living.

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