The Fate of the Novelist: A Reality Check

Over the past 15 years as an independent author, I have learned a few things. Some might disagree with my conclusions, but not to worry. I am used to being pummeled, rejected and contradicted. I have been around a long time, and I am still standing.
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The war between Hachette and Amazon was inevitable. Now, authors have joined the feud. Authors who are attached to major publishers are on the publishers' side, while self-published authors, many of whom have been rejected by the traditional publishers, are siding with Amazon and other digital publishers. A recent petition signed by several traditionally published authors appeared in a double spread in The New York Times. With the exception of a very few of these authors, many others do not make a full-time living off their books. Self-published authors are even worse off, financially. It's all about money. Mostly the publishers' money. Whatever the resolution between Amazon and the big publishers, the author will be screwed.

I've been in the digital publishing game for the past 15 years, and I am happily independent. I'm a non-genre, mainstream novelist. Before I went independent, I had 27 published novels with major publishers like Warner, Macmillan, Viking, Kensington, and Putnam, to name a few. My books have been published in over 25 languages, and more than a dozen were bought or optioned for film and television, with a few currently in development. The stage adaptation of The War of the Roses, my novel about the perils of divorce, will debut on Broadway in 2016. My 40th novel will be published this year.

I'm probably an anomaly. I love what I do. I write what I please. I consider myself a creative artist. The Novel, to me, is one of the greatest art forms ever devised, and practicing it has been a total fulfillment of my lifelong ambitions. My work gets mostly good reviews, although over time, I have suffered through some pretty nasty ones as well. I used to care; not anymore. My metric for success is keeping my authorial name alive as long as possible. I truly believe my work is worth reading.

Over the past 15 years as an independent author, I have learned a few things. Some might disagree with my conclusions, but not to worry. I am used to being pummeled, rejected and contradicted. I have been around a long time, and I am still standing:

1. The print industry as we have known it, is a dead man walking. Printed books, including retail shelving space, are disappearing at an alarming rate, as are big chain bookstores. On the other hand, boutique stores offering personal service with discriminating taste will emerge in their place. Perhaps some small print publishers will also survive. We all knew this would happen. Some of us saw it years ago.

2. Advances are drying up. Fewer and fewer authors will be able to make a living from their books, even those authors published by the large traditional publishers. The book review industry has been Balkanized. Authors use thousands of online text and video reviewers to gain visibility, but with the sheer volume of titles being published, many remain undiscovered, lost in the swamp of new and reissued books.

3. Amazon, at this point, controls the book market. It might, perhaps, get competition from the alliance with the Galaxy 4 Tab Nook by Samsung and Barnes and Noble. Others might also make a run at Amazon. If and when Amazon gets serious competition, expect a price war, which will be a further financial disaster for authors. At times, I get the feeling that retail sites that sell both books and other consumer goods, act as an online bookstore to harvest consumers for their other retail products. Readers are good fodder. But then, I am a cynic.

4. The Netflix subscriber model of content for a monthly fee, like Amazon Unlimited, Oyster, and Scribd, will flame out. To read a book, a really good book, takes time, concentration and focus. It's not like movies or TV. It might work for certain genres like Romance, which readers buy by the bucketful. But even Romance fiction has taken it on the chin. Like in everything, there are too many books in that genre being published. The market is saturated.

5. The quality of content is diminishing, or so it seems. I know I sound like a book snob, but it is hard as hell to find what was once called, "a really great book." I am well aware that such a statement is deeply personal. People who read to be emotionally transported will know what I mean. For those of us who love literature, I find my tastes drifting back to the classics, especially to those writers I worshipped in my youth.

6. Even so called commercial fiction, the kind of books one found on best-seller lists in the middle to the latter part of the last century, is being replaced by genre fiction, which would not have made the cut in those bygone days. Lots of people enjoy genre fiction, and its power to offer escape into a predictable world. Good for them. My own preference for both reading and writing is for the original and the unpredictable.

7. There are simply too many books being published, especially in fiction. Among them are probably some really wonderful ones, but they are hard to find. The filters have become clogged. Book bloggers try their best to become taste filters. Some succeed in attracting a following, but one wonders if they affect sales.

8. In an effort to find an audience, many authors are forced to give away their books for free or at heavily discounted prices. Such pricing denigrates the value of their writing, and makes a book seem not worthy of being bought. These books appear like soiled goods, overstocked giveaways.

9. Because we are now a global society, books by writers from other countries and cultures have reached flood stage as well. Many authors from emerging countries emphasize struggles and conflict specific to their environment, and deal with topics that are not always relevant to people in more developed societies. Many are translated and celebrated, but do not necessarily cross cultures.

10. There is no end to people who want to write novels. There are over a thousand creative writing college courses and many MFA degrees offered in this discipline. There is undoubtedly a lot of astonishing talent around, but the chances of these people making a living at creative writing are diminishing from paltry to nil. Of course, that won't stop the dedicated. True artists live their life totally committed to their art. Many writers will choose self-publishing, and a very tiny percentage of them will find paying customers who will sustain their career. Someone always wins the lottery, despite the humongous odds.

11. There is still great personal satisfaction in self-publishing. Most of those books will actually sell fewer than fifty copies. Many will be given away for free, but the accomplishment itself is worthy of personal satisfaction, and offers some element of prestige, regardless of the quality of writing. Such a sense of personal achievement will continue to attract many to self-publishing.

12. Many are convinced that their books would make terrific movies, and spend time and money trying to bring their stories to the silver screen. A minuscule fraction make it, but if the adaptation is not a bona fide hit, the movie has little impact, except among the author's immediate family and circle of friends. Of course, that might be satisfaction enough.

13. While books are being digitally published like popcorn, I do not believe that readers are keeping apace. Brevity and speed seem to be the order of the day for our young readers, who will sustain the publishing future.

14. A cottage industry has emerged big-time to distribute, market, publicize and merchandise books, by mostly self-published authors or backlist titles of published authors. These companies offer numerous services for a fee, or a piece of the royalty. I have no doubt that they try their damnedest to deliver sales and author visibility or re-discovery. From their point of view, their financial success is based on how many authors they sign up. It's a numbers game. For example, if every author represents at least ten sales, more or less, and they sign up thousands of authors, they will come out ahead financially. By no means do I suggest they are fraudulent, but their modus operandi is based on how many books and authors they sign up.

15. Expect countless marketing ploys as publishers and authors try new gimmicks to sell their works of fiction online. Creative merchandising will proliferate. Everything from subscription models to crowdsourced publishing will be tried, along with other inventions yet to be conceived. Social networks will be stuffed with promotional efforts, subtle, blatant, hash tagged, analyzed, targeted, whatever. Vast amounts of money will be spent on advertising, PR, consultants, all hawking their magic wares.

Despite the odds, I wish all my fellow novelists, however published, good hunting. The fact is, digitized distribution has made it possible for novelists, not chosen by traditional publishers, to get their creative efforts out of the bottom drawer and into a world of infinite possibilities. As for those who are traditionally published, I hope that a formula can be worked out whereby the author is given a larger piece of the pie than they are now getting. Without them, publishers, too, would have no economic reason to exist.

I know how difficult it is to create a work of the imagination, to construct an authentic parallel world. Creating art offers both ecstasy and affliction. Indeed, I wish in my heart that all true novelists find their readers, inspire their passions, and add to their insight and wisdom. As we who write know, the act of creation itself is the real reward.

Warren Adler is best known for The War of the Roses, his masterpiece fictionalization of a macabre divorce turned into the Golden Globe and BAFTA nominated dark comedy hit starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito. Adler's international hit stage adaptation of the novel will premiere on Broadway in 2015-2016. Adler has also optioned and sold film rights for a number of his works including Random Hearts (starring Harrison Ford and Kristen Scott Thomas) and The Sunset Gang (produced by Linda Lavin for PBS' American Playhouse series starring Jerry Stiller, Uta Hagen, Harold Gould and Doris Roberts). In recent development are the Broadway Production of The War of the Roses, to be produced by Jay and Cindy Gutterman, The War of the Roses - The Children (Grey Eagle Films and Permut Presentations), a feature film adaptation of the sequel to Adler's iconic divorce story, Target Churchill (Grey Eagle Films and Solution Entertainment), Residue (Grey Eagle Films), and Capitol Crimes (Grey Eagle Films and Sennet Entertainment), a television series based on his Fiona Fitzgerald mystery series. Adler's forthcoming thriller, Treadmill, is slated to be released in September.

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