The Full-Time SF Novelist: Probably Not as Endangered as You Think
In e-mail, I’m asked if I have any comments about Robert J. Sawyer’s recent blog post, in which he worries that within a decade, it will be impossible to make a living solely as a science fiction novelist. As what follows here is comment on what’s written there, I suggest you click over and read that first, and then come back.
(Update, 9:37am: I think I might have crushed his server. If you’re having problems accessing the link above, here’s a Google Cache of the page.)
Read it? Okay:
To begin, it’s worth noting for clarity’s sake that the vast majority of science fiction novelists already live in a world in which it’s not possible to be a full-time novelist, and have for as long as the genre has existed. It’s not just science fiction novelists who have always lived in that world, but novelists in general. Full-time novelists have always been a fortunate minority, and that minority would get even smaller if you only counted the ones who made enough from their novel writing to support themselves and their family, rather than having that income thrown into a larger pool of household income into which their spouse or spousal equivalent was also contributing.
As far as science fiction was concerned, at any time in the history of the genre the number of full-time novelists supporting themselves from their novels was a slim number — indeed smaller than the number of actual full-time novelists, since not a few of these writers, some of them now quite famous, lived all or part of their careers in a poverty that’s not as romantic to live in as it is to read about. Science fiction is genre writing, and genre writing has always paid poorly relative to other sorts of writing, and this is nothing new, either; Robert Heinlein’s famous invasion of Saturday Evening Post and Colliers back in the 40s was motivated in no small part because the man wanted and needed to be paid real money for his work.
When Rob’s worrying about the death of science fiction novel-writing as a full time endeavor, he’s discussing what is and has always been fundamentally a high-class problem, and one most science fiction novelists of any era would love to have been in a position to worry about. To recast it a different way, you could very easily say that Rob’s concerned that within a decade, the very top tier of science fiction novelists will be forced to do what every other science fiction novelist out there has already done: get a job.
This isn’t to minimize Rob’s concern — it’s actually not a trivial concern, either for him personally or anyone who hopes to write science fiction/fantasy novels full-time — but it is to give it context. When Rob worries about the possibility of anyone making a full-time living writing science fiction novels a decade from now, implicit in this is the idea that anyone can make a living writing science fiction novels now. Well, theoretically anyone can; as a practical matter very few do, or ever have.
More generally, Rob’s piece is a meditation on the fact that the business model of the industry is changing and the ways that authors get paid for their work is changing with it, and leaving aside the issue of full-time novelists, this is a matter of no little concern for anyone who wants to get paid for their writing. I’m not going to gainsay Rob’s concerns, and certainly he’s not alone in these concerns. I will say my own perspective on the matter is more optimistic than his appears to be. 2010 is not 2000, the publishing industry for all its faults is not the music industry, and its reaction to electronic media has not been what the music industry’s reaction was a decade ago, which was to shit itself in a panic and demand everything go back to the way it was before.
If nothing else (and it’s not a “if nothing else” situation), it’s worth noting that every major eBook reader on the market connects directly and seamlessly to a bookstore, and that to date the major battle in eBook sector was over how much eBooks should cost on release and who should dictate those prices, not whether eBooks should cost anything at all. There’s a secondary and pertinent question regarding whether ten years from now writers will need publishers in the same ways and for the same things as they do now; while that’s an interesting question, it’s not necessarily here or there about whether authors themselves will be able to support themselves on their fiction, or on their science fiction particularly. There are lots of challenges to this task, some specific to this particular era. Every era has its own set of specific challenges.
My personal prediction for science fiction authors a decade from now is this: There will be a few who will be able to support themselves full time on their science fiction writing, but the large majority won’t. Which is to say it’ll be pretty much like it is today. Some things will very likely change, including which science fiction writers will be able to write full-time; some pulling it off today won’t be doing so in ten years, while others we haven’t heard of will be at or near the top of the heap (said the Hugo-winning, New York Times best selling incoming President of SFWA who no one in science fiction even knew was alive in the year 2000). It’s also possible that what we consider a novel will have changed somewhat, just as today’s 100,000-word standard for a novel is different than the 60,000 word (or less) standard of a few decades ago. And so on. The details will change, as they’ve changed before, and will yet again, even after the digital switchover becomes old news.
But at the end of the day, a few science fiction writers will be lucky enough not to have to do anything else with their time, while everyone else will have to do it also, meaning they do something else too. Just like now.