So, a few things upfront: first, I am a privileged author who sells well and is able to support himself and his family on writing books. Second, none of this post is to be taken as fact, but rather, as opinion — it relies, quite frankly, on “artisanal data” (aka anecdotes) and also, y’know, vibes. As such, I am, like many, looking at a room through a keyhole and will certainly not be seeing everything.
All that being said —
Being an author — aka, the fancy word for “writer of books” — vibes real weird right now. There is worry on the wind. To be fair, it’s always a little weird. Being a creative person in any realm is, I assume, a chaos reigns situation on the best of days. Nothing is certain. The ground is ever weak beneath our feet. A career as a “writer-of-books” has for me always been in part the strategy of eyeballing the peaks and valleys, and making sure that you’re building the proper ramps and bridges over the gaps before you ramp the car and crash it into a fucking ravine. In this sense, worry is always part of the bargain. Shit could go sideways one of a hundred different ways we can foretell, and another hundred we can’t. Worse, we’re kind of low-hanging fruit in a lot of ways — books are (to my mind, incorrectly) viewed as a luxury, a frippery, a whiff of the ol’ fol-de-rol.
So, what’s bringing the extra worry?
The pandemic fucked a bunch of shit up. Book events are erratic in terms of attendance, and as a result, publishers don’t seem to be using them as much, which means booksellers are asking authors, “Hey, can you tell your publishers to please send authors to us?” If booksellers are hurting, we’re hurting. (I have deeper thoughts about book events and how to make them consistent and amazing, but that’s for a different post, I think.)
Hardcovers are problematic, now? Hardcovers are maybe too expensive, probably — whether that’s inflation or greedflation, I dunno, but your average wallet paid too much for eggs and rent, and that doesn’t leave money for the Fancy Big Book Purchase. Some bookstores carry fewer hardcovers now because of this (also, space issues), and some publishers are committing to fewer hardcover releases and jumping instead to paperback. But if we lose that first step entirely, it shortens the long tail of the book, putting everything on, say, the paperback. (Sidenote, I have said and will always say, I really miss the MMPB format, and wish that format was still a thing. I know I am an OLD MAN YELLING AT CLOUDS, but boy fucking howdy I’d love to see spinner racks of paperbacks again. Put them everywhere! Pharmacies! Tire shops! Pet stores!) To be clear, a lot of books have forgone the hardcover step in the past — but the number seems to be dwindling anew, which to my mind is less than ideal.
Mainstream media is closing doors, not opening them. Once upon a time, a lot of media outlets had (said with naive reverie) coverage devoted to books. Oooh! Ahh! Except, ennh, uh-oh. Some outlets have now shut down all book coverage or have narrowed the aperture so tightly that the only coverage allowed is for the Mega Big Bestsellers. BuzzFeed News, which once upon a time covered book stuff, shut down entirely. And now there’s a surge in news coverage simply being farmed out to “artificial intelligence,” which is to say, clumsy algorithmic plagiaristic aggregators (because there is nothing intelligent about it, and a whole lot that’s artificial, though more on AI later). So, where once we could count a little bit on maybe, maybe getting some breadcrumbs of media coverage… well, the Gulls of Capitalism have gobbled up those crumbs, leaving us naught but an empty plate.
Social media is more or less collapsing. The internet in general is getting less reliable overall, in part due to misinformation, disinformation, and the waves of garbage and glurge barfed forth by various bots and algorithms. Once upon a time, Googling something was a reliable way to learn about it, but now you’ll likely find yourself on a raft floating on a sea of bad information. Social media has become the staging ground for all this shit (and also how, in part, it leeches into the groundwater of the rest of the internet), and as such, social media has started to fall apart like everything else. Twitter is shit, run by a vain maniac who keeps holding up anti-Semitic and anti-trans and anti-vaxxer and other bullshit like he just opened a bigotry blind bag and wants to show you the “cool thing” he just found, lol, lmao, laughing-crying emoji. The wheels are coming off everything and now attention is fractured across social media. And publishers — long having us and themselves lean very hard on that very same social media — are left with shattered landscape on which to walk. Where do you go to talk about your books? There are places, but attention is now diffuse, and it’s hard to know who’s even going to see it given how engagement is throttled unless you’re paying $8 a month for Twitter Blue, which doesn’t seem to do shit anyway, and also marks you as a chump helping to enrich an asshole.
The writer’s strike is unabashedly, unswervingly good. But, as a writer-of-books, it does mean one avenue of opportunity has narrowed, if temporarily — nobody is going to be optioning much of anything for (hopefully only) the short term. This isn’t the fault of the WGA, to be clear, but the fault of the giant companies who need to come back to the bargaining table to ensure that writers — the bedrock of all the storytelling that goes onto any screen anywhere — are part of the conversation and paid what they are worth.
The advance spiral is real. The advance spiral is this: you write a book, a publisher pays you XYZ advance for that book, but also doesn’t support the book well enough and as such, on the next go-round, you are offered a smaller advance, which actually means even less support because drum roll please, the marketing support is often tied to size of advance. And print runs are smaller and so bookstores/libraries order less which means on the next next go-round, they want to give you even fewer chits and ducats for your storywords annnnd now you’re paid in like, Chuck E. Cheese tokens. It’s not new, this spiral. It’s been a thing for a long time. But I’m hearing a lot more about it again after feeling like it was less of a phenomenon over the last several years. (Sidenote: Hana Lee, an author, most excellently crafted a “when will I earn out?” calculator here. It also helps show you that the book becomes “successful” long before you reach that actual threshold of earning out.)
Self-publishing is a narrower path. This is, again, a limited perspective, but talking to self-pub/indie friends, the gist is this: we put so many eggs into Amazon’s basket that Amazon gets to control most of of the indie narrative. Kindle Unlimited payouts are reportedly down. (As of April 2023, it seems the payout to authors was at an all-time low.) My toes do not wiggle in this pool as often, so feel free to correct my information here — maybe that indie thing is going really well. Again, looking through a keyhole here. Both here and with the above “advance spiral” problem — note that with inflation/greedflation, writers are not paid more, but rather, less, despite everything costing more.
And now we lead into the two biggest problems currently facing us writers-of-books — artificial intelligence and the nightmare bigotry that has used book banning as a cudgel across the nation.
I had a dream two nights ago where I was asked by a Major Intellectual Property Franchise Brand That Features Space Wizards to come in as a freelancer and “punch up” a novel in that universe that had been written by Artificial Intelligence. And for some reason, my Dipshit Dream Self took the job and then ended up, of course, rewriting the entire book from ground zero, because it was awful, and everyone knew it was awful, and I got paid half as much as I would have had I just been hired to write the thing fresh.
Now, usually, my dreams are goofy and weird. They are rarely of the “too real, this anxiety” variety, but this one? Felt pretty damn real.
How so? Well, let’s look at comments from Thomas Rabe, of Bertelsmann (aka the parent company of Penguin Random House), talking about AI: “If it’s your content, for which you own the copyright, and then you use it to train the software, you can in theory generate content like never before.”
(The phrase generate content gives me the shivering shits, tbh. And again, a lot of big franchise IPs are the ones who own big content… and they’ll start to use it soon to train the algorithms… and then hire writers at a cut-rate to fix all the shitty “content” that algorithm “generated.” Endless screams ensue.)
Further, from the article:
‘Rabe revealed that he was an enthusiastic personal user of the “impressive” ChatGPT, saying that it was already enhancing his job as a chief executive. He recently used the chatbot to help him prepare for a staff event at Penguin Random House’s office in Munich. “I asked ChatGPT what the impact of ChatGPT or generative AI is on publishing. It prepared a phenomenal text. Frankly, it was pretty detailed and to the point,” he said.’
What this should tell you is that publishers are starting to go “hmm” about artificial intelligence, under the auspices of how it could somehow enrich the authorial experience when, in reality, they and we all know that the only enrichment will be in the pockets of the already-rich. (Spoiler: I don’t mean the authors.) Some executive somewhere is trying to figure out how they pay authors less (and maybe their own staff) by “augmenting” the “content” with “artificial intelligence.” This is fundamentally one of the same issues the WGA is grappling with: the higher-ups are definitely dreaming of a day they can just tap a key and have a Magical Content Machine puke up a thousand loglines that they can then have the Magical Content Machine turn into scripts that they can then have some half-starved penmonkey “edit” (meaning: rewrite entirely) the mess into something resembling a film or TV show.
Let’s be clear about a few things: first, artificial intelligence is not what it says on the label. It is not intelligent. It is a content scraper, an aggregator, a copy-pasta information thief, and all it does is stick a bunch of pre-existing shit in a can, shake it up, and pour it out. It’s basically Link wandering around Hyrule, cooking up weird fish and bokoblin guts and hoping it turns into an edible stew.
Second, it also sucks. Really bad.
It cannot create something truly new because all it knows is what’s already been done. It can only remix, and remix poorly, pre-existing material. It lives no life. It has no inspiration or ideas of its own. AI is not equivalent to an artist or a storyteller — it has no perspective, no viewpoint, no opinion but what you tell it to have. The damn thing has no soul. And anybody who makes the argument “hur hur well don’t artists also basically get inspiration from pre-existing material so basically they’re the same basically” should be forcibly kicked out of the airlock into the cold void of space.
As has been pointed out by many others, we’d much rather have a world where artificial intelligence does basic, fundamental tasks like governing the best path a Roomba takes through our house. “Oh good, the AI in our vacuum has learned not to happily bobble its way through a pile of dogshit — no more smearing it across the entirety of our carpets.” Yes, that is the role for AI, to help our stupid appliances be better appliances. The human experience is one where we hope to be free to make art and tell stories and sing songs, so if artificial intelligence is doing that part, too, then what’s the fucking point of it all? When the robots make the music and the humans are cleaning up the dog shit — WTF?
Thus we must hold the line. Demand publishers not use AI covers. Demand they do not use AI editors. No AI in the writing, editing, production, or marketing of our books. Because somewhere that’s going to cut somebody out of a job, and that somebody is a clever person with ideas, and an artificial intelligence is not clever, it has no ideas, it has only stolen information from those who came before and then deploys it in order to make its Tech Bro Masters richer.
Now, book banning.
There exists a vibe among some authors, and I’ll note that this vibe is precariously privilege-flavored, whereupon they say, “Oh, being banned is good, actually,” as if it is a mark of honor and will lead to more sales. A few problems with this, though:
First, because book banning has focused primarily on schools and libraries, that means those places cannot purchase your book, and more importantly, means that audiences cannot access those books — which, yes, are for free, because schools and libraries provide a public service by offering free and unfettered access to entertainment and information. It is a Net Good, and any attacks on the books in these places is bad, and further, the attacks go well-beyond just the books, to the institutions themselves. School funding gets cut. Library funding, slashed, sometimes to the fucking ground, sometimes to the point the library has to close its doors. This is bad for everybody. There is no good here.
Second, it won’t stop there. It’s already moved onto bookstores. Which is the place you probably think you can still sell books.
Third, by saying book bans are Good, Actually, you’re definitely signaling that you are a person of privilege and power whose books and life really won’t be affected. But these bans focus predominantly on LGBT books, Black books, Jewish books, and books by other marginalized authors — the goal of erasing these books is the goal of erasing those people. Book bans are authoritarian anti-freedom efforts designed quite literally as the first wave of assault on the literal existence of these people. That’s the long-term. In the short-term, denying access to these types of books ensures that some folks simply do not get to see themselves, their problems, their histories, their futures, represented in fiction. It’s bad all around, and it will lead to self-censorship, suicide, and eventually, if left unchecked, genocide. I know that feels like a big leap. But book bans are where it starts.
To go back to the “publishing environment” angle, it’s chilling, too, in that booksellers, libraries, and publishers might get cagey about what they publish. Publishers already have a spotty track record on engaging with marginalized communities through the work they put out and the people they hire internally — this is not designed to make it better. It will rewind any progress that has been made, no matter how robust or meager that progress was. And be advised, it’s designed to go beyond the communities it currently targets. It’ll wash up on your beach eventually, so start caring now, not later.
AI and book bans are pretty existential in terms of the threat they represent to authors. And add in the rest, oof, it definitely feels real weird out there, if not apocalyptic. What can you do? I don’t have great answers here. If you’re an author, get a damn good agent who cares about this stuff. Push back on the invasiveness of artificial intelligence wherever you see it. Support your fellow authors, particularly those without your privilege — always try to leave a ladder out and a light on. (Plus some snacks.) Support bookstores. Support schools and libraries in buying books and standing up against oppression. And try to remember that it’s on you to keep writing your own weird, messy, Very-Much-You stories. As for readers, some of it is the same: support writers, bookstores, libraries wherever you can. Signal boost trans and Black and Jewish books — any book that isn’t by, well, a cis white guy like me. (I mean, selfishly, I want you to yell about my books, too! Obviously! Because I am a monster and I need to eat! But I’m probably going to be okay. My identity is not in the crosshairs.)
Is there any good news? Well, I guess there always is some, sure. I know some new bookstores are opening (check out The End in Allentown!). B&N has had its ups and downs but I’ve found them to be far more supportive of authors these days than they used to be. The horror genre is bouncing back in a big way, I think, and, I dunno, I’ve read some really good books lately. And we at least know the word-of-mouth phenomenon online can still do wonders, which we know because of someone named *checks notes* Bigolas Dickolas. While that’s all well and good, it’s a wad of Band-Aids patched over a sucking chest wound, so we must all remain vigilant and try to demand better for ourselves and readers.
This post is too long.
And my next writing book, about the writing life and self-care, is out next month — Gentle Writing Advice. Also available signed/personalized at Doylestown Bookshop, if you’re so inclined.
May we all find our Bigolas Dickolas.