It used to be so simple to be a writer. Write a story, hand the manuscript to an editor, discuss what to fix and await the pub-launch. The manuscript was printed and bound, reviewed by the press; the writer did the media rounds, readers hit the stores and off flew the book. Later, a bit of money would arrive. The writer got 10 per cent or so. The publisher, booksellers and agent kept the rest. All parties were paid for their expertise in descending order, concluding with the writer. It wasn't a brilliant living for anyone - writers particularly - but it was the respectable way to reach readers. Vanity publishing, the alternative, was as disreputable as the word implies.
Then times turned carnivorous. Publishers began gobbling one another up until two or three giant publishers parked most of the littler ones in their bellies. Without cutting them open, it was hard to know who lived inside. It barely mattered any more. Their individuality had been absorbed. Bookstores did much the same. A few Big Boxes swallowed schools of minnow bookshops.
The traditional contract between writers and publishers evolved and devolved. While we writers continued to write manuscripts, our responsibilities expanded to include editing and proofreading, marketing ourselves with websites, blogging and seeking out newsworthy self-promotion. Building a platform, it was called, which somewhat resembled a scaffold. If we failed to attract sufficient traffic, we were as good as hanged. Launches, tours, bookstore signings and readings were now the writer's job, not the publisher's. Few publishers would market a writer from a dead standstill. You needed to enter the market running. But I'm not a runner, the writer says. I'm a writer. We prefer writers who run, the publisher replies. Don't blame me, the bookseller says. It's a runners' market.
What else has changed? The cost of energy and salaries, as has, therefore, the cost of printing books, shipping them and shelving them in Big Boxes. Managing all that overhead has grown so very onerous.
Gone now are most of the television and radio shows that once featured Canadian writing. Newspapers and magazines no longer devote significant print to books.
But what has not changed? Well, curiously, the writer's share of the royalties. Why should this be? While the writer writes and runs and platform-builds, the publisher and bookseller continue to take the same big cut as ever. A little more, actually. It's fashionable now to talk royalties using the net of expenses, not gross. Grim old Gutenberg world. Makes writers, especially the up-and-comers, rethink their options.
Enter the e-book. Truly, a revolution in publishing has dawned. It's midmorning already for musicians, screenwriters and filmmakers. The democratizing Web brought them into direct contact with potential users worldwide. Exit the middle persons. They've made the transition to Brave New World. They're at home (literally), being entrepreneurs for their own creations online, a song or a script or a flick at a time, and keeping the proceeds. Podcasts and MP3 files are only a few of the ways users can download culture and information onto their personal digital devices of choice. The Web is intertwining us tribally around the world by common tastes in words, music, film, hobbies, high schools, whatever.
If everyone else is so hip, why aren't writers? Why are they still so stuck on the Gutenberg model, hugging boxes of returns to their breasts like life preservers in sharky electronic waters? Why are writers - seemingly the last people in the universe to have trouble grasping change - so willfully ignorant of this empowering technology? A 16-gigabyte iPhone can store roughly 30,000 English Patients plus a few hundred The Lovely Bones. Get it? Lots of shelf room. E-rights are valuable. They turn into e-books, which turn into money for the writer. There is no earthly reason for writers to accept minuscule remuneration from paternalistic publishers for their creative contribution. Technology now connects writers directly to readers, virtually for free.
Why are writers so reluctant to step boldly to the hub of the publishing wheel, dispense with middlefolk and take command of their own creative property? Because, hey, you need us, cry the publishers. We're the quality-control filters.
Really? Publishers stopped acting like filters and hand-holders to writers quite some time ago. Who can afford to hold a writer's hand? To edit multiple drafts? To proofread? To publish risky, unknown work? Publishers are too busy snapping up e-rights, for a pittance. Publishers well know the ready money to be made through the Net. Why don't writers? Trusting souls, Gutenberg-hugging writers seem reluctant to believe that publishers are fighting to be first to the e-lifeboats.
Writers: Quit trusting. Climb aboard and grab the tillers yourselves. Take charge. The Brave New Writercentric World will, yes, make demands on writers to "get techno," which will steal time initially from writing, but what else is new? This is happening already. In return, writers will keep the lion's share of the money from their writing.
As for that quality-filtering argument ... nothing is easier to spot online than a vanity e-press. Visit one. It shouts vanity at you. Filtering will happen in writing because it's happening everywhere else. The real writers are the ones who survive the remainder bins, electronic or otherwise. Like-minded writers and editors will always find one another, but now they'll do it in a "virtual" publishing house. The e-book will encourage a thousand literary flowers to bloom, good news for visionary editors, freed from the bottom-line/bang-for-buck economics that have been squeezing the breath out of publishing for most of the last decade. And that's good news for readers of literature everywhere.
Sarah Sheard is chairwoman of the contracts committee, the Writers' Union of Canada.