Over the past few years I’ve been asked how the field of writing has changed since I was first published, a question I suspect comes up because I’ve managed to stay published for a long enough time that I might have some perspective on any possible changes affecting writers, in particular.
Some of the changes are obvious to any even casual reader, such as the decline in the number of big box chain bookstores and the growth of ebooks, along with a decline in the availability of a diversity of mass market paperback books. Others are less likely to be quite so apparent, and some will be apparent only to long-time F&SF readers, such as the actual length of books.
When I started writing most SF novels fell in the 80,000-90,000 word range, and for a very good reason. Almost all science fiction was published as paperback originals, and paperback books longer than that had a disconcerting tendency to fall apart rather quickly. Also, there was very little fantasy, and for whatever reason, science fiction novels, in general, tend to be shorter than fantasy novels. The binding technology has gotten better, and now most F&SF tends to be published in hardcover first – a practice pioneered largely by Tor, I might add. And whether it’s because of better bindings, more fantasy, or something else, F&SF books are definitely longer and larger than they were thirty-five years ago.
While it’s one of those things I can’t prove absolutely, what I have observed suggests that writers who are not blockbuster best-sellers and who turn out a book a year or more infrequently are earning less than they used to, largely because bookstores carry fewer titles in backlist inventory and because media buzz, even electronic media hype, tends to die out much more quickly after a book is released than it once did. That’s one of the reasons why more and more authors find they need to publish more frequently and to establish and maintain as much of a media presence as they can. The problem with this is that maintaining a full-scale media presence takes a great deal of time and effort, and that time and effort isn’t going toward actually writing books.
At the same time, publishers aren’t doing as many author tours, except for their very top authors, as they once did, and more and more authors are trying to arrange their own appearances, pretty much anywhere that they can. This was greatly frowned upon in past years, especially by the big-box book chains. One such chain wouldn’t let me appear in any of their stores for several years because I went around corporate management and worked out an appearance in one of the chain’s stores because, for some reason, the chain didn’t seem to want me appearing in any of their stores in a certain mid-sized city, even though the local stores did. Now, the local community relations people in many of the B&N stores seem much more receptive to that, but I wonder if they’re just keeping corporate headquarters in the dark, or if headquarters is just grateful for anything that might boost sales.
Because more and more authors are doing personal marketing of some sort, the author who doesn’t is often at a disadvantage, but personal marketing takes a considerable amount of time and effort, as well as a financial outlay that can range from modest to outrageous.
Another area that’s changed is that there’s much more media interest in authors who are in some way personally intriguing or young and attractive. While this has always been true to some degree, it seems as though that’s become even more so, and that there is now a greater number of authors who get read more because of their media persona than because of the content of their books.
Not surprisingly, really accurate “hard” science fiction has declined, replaced largely by “space opera,” even steampunk, perhaps because it takes more knowledge and effort to write good solid science-based fiction, because scientific discoveries have ruled out a great number of popular scenarios, because those discoveries require more knowledge on the part of readers at a time when fewer and fewer readers are science-literate, and because more and more readers prefer exciting escapism from a world they believe is already too technically demanding.
And, of course, there is self-publishing, the growth of which is well-known, but which would have astounded followers of the field if someone had predicted its impact in 1990, and probably such an accurate prediction would have earned the forecaster ridicule. That impact was made possible by electronic books, an innovation which unfortunately has also had the impact of effectively destroying significant percentage the mass market paperback sales, while boosting piracy, with the result that most authors’ per book ebook sales don’t make up for the loss in sales of recently released books, and largely only authors with either blockbuster titles or long backlists come close to the royalty levels that existed in the 1990s.
All in all, a very mixed bag in how authors have fared.