Over the past week the author blogosphere has been taken over with a debate on getting paid. Kristen Lamb sparked the discussion on Tuesday when she wrote a post arguing that authors who want to make a living should only promote channels that get them paid, and that sparked a long debate on The Passive Voice as well as commentary on Teleread.
I had been sitting out the debate and simply linking to the coverage because I just wasn’t interested in arguing with someone who was haranguing me on the acceptable ways to support writers (and yes, Lamb does lecture readers after first “excusing” them). And that goes double when the post comes from someone who defines this issue solely in monetary terms.
But late on Saturday I came across a post that Neil Gaiman published on Tumblr. The post actually predates this discussion but it is also quite relevant.
Gaiman reposted a quote from some time back. His post was a graphic with text, but I went and found the text of the quote for you. Needless to say, Gaiman takes a very different view from Lamb on the topic of getting paid:
Don’t ever apologize to an author for buying something in paperback, or taking it out from a library (that’s what they’re there for. Use your library). Don’t apologize to this author for buying books second hand, or getting them from bookcrossing or borrowing a friend’s copy. What’s important to me is that people read the books and enjoy them, and that, at some point in there, the book was bought by someone. And that people who like things, tell other people. The most important thing is that people read.
Where Lamb is lecturing readers about the care and feeding of authors, Gaiman values fans (both current and potential) more as readers than as customers.
His position is similar to other authors who have said that obscurity, and not revenue, is the greater threat to authors. Tim O’Reilly was one of the first to put forward this argument in 2002 when he wrote that piracy was less of a problem than obscurity.
More than 100,000 books are published each year, with several million books in print, yet fewer than 10,000 of those new books have any significant sales, and only a hundred thousand or so of all the books in print are carried in even the largest stores. Most books have a few months on the shelves of the major chains, and then wait in the darkness of warehouses from which they will move only to the recycling bin. Authors think that getting a publisher will be the realization of their dreams, but for so many, it’s just the start of a long disappointment.
Sites like Amazon that create a virtual storefront for all the books in print cast a ray of light into the gloom of those warehouses, and so books that would otherwise have no outlet at all can be discovered and bought. Authors who are fortunate enough to get the rights to their book back from the publisher often put them up freely online, in hopes of finding readers. The web has been a boon for readers, since it makes it easier to spread book recommendations and to purchase the books once you hear about them. But even then, few books survive their first year or two in print. Empty the warehouses and you couldn’t give many of them away.
Many works linger in deserved obscurity, but so many more suffer simply from the vast differential between supply and demand.
With the rise of ebooks, self-publishing, and the re-release of so many backlists, his point is even more true today than it was thirteen years ago.
And this, folks, is the fundamental oversight that many of us seen in Lamb’s original post (this includes Lamb’s comment section). She devotes a lot of energy to, and gets very angry about, getting paid, in contrast to other authors who care more worried about getting noticed.
To be clear, I am not saying Lamb is wrong so much as her focus is too narrow. In that post Lamb focuses on money as the sole way for readers to support authors, when in reality the non-financial support could be worth so much more.
The used bookstore that Lamb rails against might not be generating any revenue for Lamb, but if it has her books then it is giving readers the chance to discover her work. Similarly, a tweet about a book, or a book shared between readers might not be a sale, but they too are a chance for a new reader to discover Lamb’s books.
My point is that getting noticed is the first step towards getting paid, and any author who discounts that step does so at the risk of their own peril.