Changing a Changing World

Category: Writing

Last week I blogged about the writer/reader relationship from a personal point of view. We certainly live in interesting times and things are changing throughout the industry that effect writers not only individually but as a whole profession.

Never since the introduction of the Gutenberg press has there been such an upheaval in the way the publishing industry works, who has access to books and whose say counts. The demise of the Net Book Agreement made books more widely available, though it slashed prices and made it difficult for small publishers to compete with corporate concerns. Since then the advent of digital technology has potentially put small publishers back in the game and has also lead to a proliferation of new options for writers, though bookshops have new challenges on their hands.

These days many writers are choosing to self-publish online (cutting out traditional publishers) and crucially readers can curate material themselves (cutting out traditional critics). Quite apart from simply giving a book a good or bad review on sites like Lovereading or Amazon there is a growing community of bloggers who build up huge followings. In some cases these bloggers have a higher circulation and more commercial clout than national newspapers enjoying a more targeted following than any newspaper journalist. We are living in glorious days where each reader’s voice can be heard.

Effectively, the new systems have allowed the producers and the consumers of work to communicate directly. In the case of some writers they have completely cut out the middle men. Take the case of Amanda Hocking who would have found it difficult to attract a traditional publisher but has now built her own audience online. She’s delighted millions of readers who would never have found her stories by the traditional route and of course, she also became an internet millionaire in the process.

Amanda Hocking’s story doesn’t mean that traditional publishers and critics are redundant. It’s simply that the roles have adjusted and the powerbase has changed. Until e-books came along it was virtually impossible to self publish a book that had any chance of finding a mass-market audience. Now there are as many different kinds of books as there are writers and as many different responses as there are readers. We have a lot more options (some of them confusing) that have shifted at least some of the power away from traditional curators like publishers, critics and bookshop buyers.

Even for writers who decide to stay in the traditional publishing fold, it’s a whole new world. For generations writers have been isolated. There is a reason for that – to write you have to concentrate. The job may be solitary, but increasingly the needs of a busy modern career run contrary to the solitude of the study. It’s always been important for writers to be disciplined but now even more so. In addition to the traditional displacement activities like cleaning the fridge or eating cake, writers are faced with a plethora of online possibilities, some of which may be professionally worthwhile as well as interesting and fun. As a writer it’s important to learn to focus so you can do both as and when you need to.

What’s certain is that there are now new opportunities for writers and small publishing houses, neither of whom had a look-in on mass-market success unless they had the approval of large corporate concerns, from chain bookshops and supermarkets to newspaper and magazine-based critics.

The corporate world is less pleased with these developments, particularly with regard to the freedom of expression facilitated by social media. For publishers, marketing writers has become increasingly complex and difficult to control. Some publishers and bookshops have embraced the changes, others less so.

For some time there has been lobbying in the wider corporate community to dispense with Net Neutrality – the availability of all sites/services online in the same network conditions. Without it, lower traffic blog sites would not be as available or as fast to download as large corporate ones who would pay for faster delivery speeds. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the internet, is strongly opposed to the abolition of Net Neutrality as it would put paid to the free flow of information and the high level of communication it has made possible.

As a writer who values what that freedom has done for me I also object. I want to protect our blogs and our tweets! I like meeting readers, events organisers, bookshops, libraries and archives online.

For readers and for writers, contact online isn’t solely about book promotion, or at least it shouldn’t be. The context is a lot richer than that. There are a number of issues where it’s proved to be in the interests of both the writer and reader to team up. The Save the Libraries Campaign last year brought people together to fight in a common cause. This was very successful in Scotland. Likewise, the campaign started by Edinburgh writer, Susie Maguire to save BBC radio’s short story strand mobilised thousands and made Radio 4 sit up and take some notice.

We have at our fingertips the ability to share information, opinion and creative work. We can also make our voices heard about important issues that affect our quality of life, including the quality of our reading lives. As a long-time swot (and inveterate reader) that delights me, and I encourage everyone to make their voices heard and get involved, whether you save a library or  simply ask your favourite author a question. It’s a privilege to have the high level of communication that we all enjoy and I vote we make the most of it.

Sara's latest novel Brighton Belle is out this month.

Sara Sheridan

Sara mentors writers for the Scottish Book Trust, sits on the committee of the Society of Authors in Scotland and on the Board of the UK-wide writers' collective '26'. You can follow Sara on twitter and facebook or visit her website.