Two Paths for the Future of the Author

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Let’s pretend you’re an author. What do you most want from life? More likely than not, you want readers to read what you create, and you want enough money to keep writing what you’d like to write (in relative comfort). In the future, who is going to read your books? Who is going to give you money to keep paying your rent? The most common answer, the author’s fantasy, is that she will earn money from the people who read her work.

You dream of living comfortably because you’re able to attract readers. This is more or less a fantasy of market justice. I’m sorry to report that reality bears little relation to this fantasy. The people who read you and the people who pay your bills are probably not going to be the same. It is exceedingly rare for an author to be able to generate enough of an income to survive from book sales. In almost every case, non-readers subsidize your writing.

This is true today, and will continue to be the case. Let’s take a look at two possible futures for the author which have their foundations in already existing institutions.

Literary Investors

My novel Pop Apocalypse imagines a future world in which aspiring celebrities can float their names on a reputation stock market. After your IPO, you capitalize on your potential, build your human brand and pay dividends to shareholders. There are primitive examples of systems like this that exist today. For example, the novelist Tao Lin sold shares of the profits of his novel Richard Yates to readers. The minor-league pitcher Randy Newsom sold shares of his future earnings. Kickstarter and similar crowdfunding sites promise to generalize these phenomena.

You may think of these sites as a means of forging a direct relationship to readers. But this is a mistaken view. Such sites are only indirectly related to whether you connect to readers. On these services, enthusiastic investors may pony up cash because they like a particular project. They may indeed want to read your book. But they may also have purely financial motivations. If the author is offering to share a portion of the book’s profits, the book itself is secondary. Investors may, as Ian Bogost suggests, have an almost purely imaginative relationship to the project in question. Bogost writes:

We don’t really want the stuff. We’re paying for the sensation of a hypothetical idea, not the experience of a realized product. For the pleasure of desiring it. For the experience of watching it succeed beyond expectations or to fail dramatically. Kickstarter is just another form of entertainment. It’s QVC for the Net set. And just like QVC, the products are usually less appealing than the excitement of learning about them for the first time and getting in early on the sale.

Your investors may want to be seen as the sort of person who supports a particular kind of literary project. They may be fans of your literary brand, not your books. So literary investing would become a kind of entertainment media. Admittedly, part of the symbolic fulfillment of a particular entertainment-investment might involve the author-brand completing her proposed book. Investors might also feel happier if their favorite author is a bestseller. Who doesn’t love a winner?

But whatever the case may be, you shouldn’t nurse the fantasy that you’re earning your keep because readers love – or even read – your books. Whether or not a literary investment fulfills its promise, its success is only incidental to its material realization.

State Subsidies

Norway offers another model for your literary future. As Wendy Griswold documents in her book of literary sociology, Regionalism and the Reading Class, Norway invests in its authors in a serious way. I outlined the dramatic scope of this investment in a post on Stanford’s Arcade blog:

Norway buys 1000 copies of every book a Norwegian author publishes. It provides a $19,000 annual subsidy to every author who is a member of the Authors’ Union. The Association of Bookstores is allowed to have a monopoly on the sale of books – but is prohibited by law from engaging in price competition. It requires, by law, that bookstores keep books in stock for two years regardless of sales. And it exempts books from its very steep sales tax. Not surprisingly, Griswold finds, “Norwegians everywhere read, and they read a lot; Norway has one of the world’s highest reading rates.”

Under this system, authors receive generous support, literary culture thrives and readers presumably have a wide range of appealing books to buy on the market. Which is all for the good. As an author, I’d like to live in a country with a literary system that resembled Norway’s. Though you would be materially enriched if you lived under such a system, the relation between you and your readers is anything but pure or simple. You presumably receive your subsidy whether or not you are productive in a given year. You’re ultimately being paid by taxpayers, not readers. These taxpayers may or may not also be readers. At the top of the literary pyramid of success, you may earn substantially more than your allotted subsidy, or you may not.

The state presumably doesn’t subsidize authors because they love you as an individual author – sorry! – but rather because it reflects the priorities of the population. A people who choose to direct tax dollars toward authors presumably care about fostering a healthy and sustainable national literary culture. The goodness or badness of a particular author is beside the point. The health of the literary field as a whole is what is at stake. We may debate the desirability of such a system – the question of whether Norway’s system is optimal will require much more discussion – but the point is that your capacity to pay your rent and your readership is heavily mediated.

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What conclusions can we draw from juxtaposing these two models? First, the writer-reader relationship is never simple. You may think that you are fostering communities of loyal followers or readers, but you’re actually interacting through a much vaster set of mediating institutions. Someone educated your readers. Labor law shapes the amount of leisure time that your readers have to enjoy your books. The state may facilitate your bodily survival, either through the provision of social welfare benefits (like health care), through tax breaks and other subsidies or through other indirect means. When you put your wares on the market or make a promise to put your wares on the market, you may think you are forging a more direct connection to your readers. In fact, you are fostering the fantasies of readers, possible readers and others who may not read word you write.

Is this a depressing state of affairs? No, it’s just as it should be – and, moreover, just as it must be. The real question goes beyond the situation of the individual writer. The question is: What kind of literary system do you want to live in? What policies, institutions, and economic arrangements would foster the world you want to write in? If you believe you have some hand in determining the future of the book – if you believe that, working together, we can direct the Shape of Things to Come – then the real task ahead is to build this better, alternate world. You’ll have to become a writer of something like political science fiction.

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