The End Of The Professional Author?

Scott Adams, he of Dilbert fame, posits that, because you can get most content for free already, the value of said content will eventually reach 0.  No one will pay for content anymore.  He points to music, with a figure he admits is unreliable, though suggestive of a still-alarmingly large amount.   “I heard someplace, albeit unreliably, that 90% of all music that people own for personal use is stolen. Let’s agree that the real figure is some large number, if not 90%.”

Transfer this to books, specifically ebooks.  Adams believes the Kindle, Nook, and so on are merely postponing the inevitable, that eventually no one will pay for ebooks.  They’ll read them, but they won’t pay for them.  His culprit?

The iPad, which is essentially this generation’s version of the laptop.

I predict that the profession known as “author” will be retired to history in my lifetime, like blacksmith and cowboy. In the future, everyone will be a writer, and some will be better and more prolific than others. But no one will pay to read what anyone else creates. People might someday write entire books – and good ones – for the benefit of their own publicity, such as to promote themselves as consultants, lecturers, or the like. But no one born today is the next multi-best-selling author. That job won’t exist.

That scenario has been on my mind for a long time, but I have reason to disagree with Adams’ conclusion.  Why?

  • Sales of music downloads have gone up, not down.  Yes, large record labels are losing money.  That’s because they’re still basing their models on CD’s, a model whose roots go all the way back to Edison’s wax cylinders.  Mind you, the recording industry has had a full 16 years to figure this out and still doesn’t get it.  So now bands like Radiohead and Marillion are doing quite nicely without a label.  (Although Marillion still uses EMI to distribute its CD’s in most of the world.)
  • One word:  Netflix.  They sell video content, another format Adams says you can get for free on the Internet.  This model is also used by Rhapsody for music.  It’s being looked at by several smaller publishers and even some new epresses.
  • The Cloud:  Yes, that big, nebulous thing Google, Microsoft, and (let’s not kid ourselves.  You know this to be true.) Apple want you to store all your stuff on for a monthly fee.  Personally, I want all my financial records, writing, academic work, and home-made porno personal photos and Photoshoppery kept locally.  I don’t want to be cut off from it by storing it on some anonymous network-attached storage device in a bunker thousands of miles away.  That said, I already do my email via Gmail and Yahoo.  I let Moneywell Bank, that Bank That Owns Jim Winter™ balance my checkbook.  Half my credit card statements and all my academic records are online.  If recording, television and film, and publishing want DRM, they can have it in The Cloud by tying all my stuff to me because only I am supposed to be in that particular cubbyhole on the Web.
  • Presumes print is dead.  Print is not dead, but it is undergoing a sea change that will soon see its role reduced.  That much is inevitable.  There is always going to be a fundamental human distrust of the other that will demand hard copies be kept of something somewhere.

I don’t think the professional author is dead.  I do think the days of stupidly large advances and unprofitable sales models are rapidly coming to a close.  Change is coming.  Embrace it and survive.