professional-writerIs the era of the professional writer drawing to a close? At least one contemporary British author thinks so. In a recent article, the Globe and Mail quotes UK writer Ewan Morrison’s contention that advances from traditional publishers have declined so much in recent years that he is practically working for free.

Morrison sees self-publishing, book piracy, rampant e-tailer discounting, free writing online, and the “free culture” movement as killing off traditional writing and publishing. While consumers may be happy to get a lot of stuff for free, he insists, they’re killing our culture, and “There will be no more professional writers in the future.”

Many will cheer, Morrison admits, including the more than one million new authors who have outflanked traditional gatekeepers by “publishing” their work in Amazon’s online Kindle store. “All these people I’m sure are very happy to hear they’re demolishing the publishing business by creating a multiplicity of cheap choices for the reader,” Morrison says. “I beg to differ.”

The article further goes into Authors Guild President Scott Turow’s similar feelings, and touches on various successful self-publishers signing contracts with traditional publishers as soon as they’re able. (Which seems to me to contradict Morrison’s stance on advances—if traditional publishers weren’t offering them anymore, why would any of these successful self-publishers want to sign up? Maybe it’s just that they’re not offering those advances to him. Sour grapes, anyone?)

And the article also mentions the Supreme Court decision I covered earlier today:

“Is this the Canada we want?” [Writers’ Union of Canada chair Merilyn Simonds] asked after a recent Supreme Court decision that extended the rights of educators to photocopy books without compensating writers. “A Canada that has to import its literature because it forced its own creators to work for free until eventually they gave up?”

I can’t help thinking there’s still a bit of distance from letting educators photocopy texts for classroom handouts to “forcing its own creators to work for free.”

At the end the article does note that a number of writers have found new opportunities on-line, while others have had to shift and diversify their focus to survive. And really, isn’t that the way things are in general? The world changes, and we have to change with it or get left behind. You can’t unring a bell.

I would also take issue with Morrison’s claim that “there will be no more professional writers.” Really, it depends on what you mean by “professional.” By the definition of the word on (“1. following an occupation as a means of livelihood or for gain”), a self-published writer qualifies. (After all, he’s writing for livelihood or gain, too, isn’t he?) Perhaps Morrison should have said there would be no more traditionally published writers?

All these wolf cries insisting that traditional publishing is doomed, therefore writers are doomed, seem to take for granted the fact that people won’t pay for any but traditionally-published books, therefore writers can’t get paid for writing. Which is really kind of weird, given that the fact people are paying for so many non-traditionally-published books is one of those things that is ostensibly “killing” traditional publishing in the first place!

Unless reading itself entirely dies out, people are always going to want to read good books. And at least some of them are going to want to pay for good books. If there aren’t enough good books to be had at low prices, people might be willing to pay more for them. If there are people willing to pay for good books and there aren’t any, others will step in to write the good books, or figure out new ways to get good books others write to them. People who want to get paid for doing something that other people are willing to pay to have done will find ways to make that happen. That’s how a market works.

Indeed, the idea is perhaps best exemplified by the quote the article closes with from Winnipeg writer Jake McDonald, who has shifted his focus from journalism to writing corporate histories:

“My ecological model is the raccoon – a diversified survivor,” MacDonald adds. “I’m always writing, but the survival plan continues to evolve.”

“I’m surviving as well as I ever did,” MacDonald says, “but in completely different ways.”

Perhaps other writers will be able to survive in different ways as well.


  1. I love the scare quotes around “publish”, as if what Amazon does isn’t REALLY publishing.

    1. to issue (printed or otherwise reproduced textual or graphic material, computer software, etc.) for sale or distribution to the public.
    2. to issue publicly the work of: Random House publishes Faulkner.
    3. to announce formally or officially; proclaim; promulgate.
    4. to make publicly or generally known.

  2. It is well-known fact* that human culture only began after Gutenberg after all, so these fine gentlemen are of course completely correct in supposing that the distribution of written work by means other than typeset ink on paper heralds the end of civilization as we know it.

    *for Scott Turow values of “fact” that mean “I just made it up”.

  3. Tony, re your note that “I love the scare quotes around “publish”, as if what Amazon does isn’t REALLY publishing.”

    You probably don’t know me or even my name and that’s fine, but Chris can vouch for me, and Paul Biba here too. I am a word sleuth. I noticed you used the term “scare quotes” above. Cool. But are you aware that the term itself is a mal-coined, ill-coined, totally meaingless and illogical phrase? So why are you using it? And have you any idea who coined it and when and where and why? No you don’t. Not even the OED knows who coined it or what it meant then. So we should stop using the outdated, antiqurated faux term, no? We need a better term for what scare quotes do so well, so don’t think i am knocking quotation marks around words, I love em. But I feel it’s time to retire this meaningless term we incorrectly call Scare Quotes. Yes, i know what they do. That’s cool. But the term is a misnomer. Any suggestions for better word for this term? I say “flag quotes” or “spot quotes or even caveat quotes. Your POV?

  4. Tony, re your note that “I love the scare quotes around “publish”, as if what Amazon does isn’t REALLY publishing.”

    You probably don’t know me or even my name and that’s fine, but Chris can vouch for me, and Paul Biba here too. I am a word sleuth. I noticed you used the term “scare quotes” above. Cool. But are you aware that the term itself is a mal-coined, ill-coined, totally meaingless and illogical phrase? So why are you using it?

  5. What a pitifully hysterical article by this JOHN BARBER with the input of Ewan Morrison, Scott Turow and others.

    I have to say that I am left bewildered by how clueless such apparently talented people can be. And at the end of it I am left with the conclusion that what is happening here is that we have a group of people here who have a deeply inflated view of their own talents and are now finding out that they are just not as good as they thought they were and there are a lot more people out there who are as good or better, and cost a lot less.

    Finding out that the competition has now stormed the walls of their privileged and protected publishers manor, and the cosy days of their insider arrangement with their cartel employers is nearing an end, is clearly a shock that has drawn this kind of idiotic and uninformed combination of ranting and whining.

    As they cling on to their out dated, distastefully, self serving and elitist views they become increasingly comical to witness. Their attempt to create bogymen of Amazon and piracy and those nasty Judges and Competition and the Market … is really quite hilarious.

    Their world is over. Talent is now king and there are no cartels to filter that talent to suit their own pockets. Anarchy prevails because that is what happens when the deck of cards fall and a new paradigm is forming. The cat is out of the bag .. and let’s throw all the cliches at them – they deserve it.

    The future is bright for talented writers, even more so than before. Quality will out in the future as it does now and as it always has done. Except it will not be chosen by the self appointed commercial elite, it will be chosen by the reader.

  6. Well said, Howard.

    The story is as old as humanity. Those who hold a privileged position will fight tooth and nail against any innovation that threatens their privilege. And they care nothing for how beneficial that innovation might be to society as a whole.

    The old system of publishing had powerful publishing houses choosing a handful of authors to be anointed as “best-sellers”. The reading sheep were then expected to shell out big bucks for anything churned out by these “star” authors.

    The new system of publishing will see authors forced to connect directly with readers and provide value in a highly competitive environment.

  7. There are two ways to get people to pay for your writing:

    a) Artificially restrict their access to free stuff.
    b) Write better stuff than the free stuff.

    We are finally moving, with agonising slowness, from model a) to model b). People like Morrison have the anchors out trying to drag us backwards.

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