Having the time to write is a luxury – a luxury that may soon be extended to many more people. For those with the luxury to write, finding a publisher and printer has always been an interesting challenge, especially for controversial or untested authors. In the past, authors like Jane Austen and James Joyce have self-published. Joyce and his peers found many solutions to the issue of publishing controversial works. Print on demand and e-books have improved access to publishing in our modern day, but it is also a new method of gatekeeping. Controversial authors may need to find different solutions, and all authors may need to compete with a new type of author – and that author is not human.
What is the future of publishing/authorship and what can be learnt from the past?
In the past, the majority of authors were those with the leisure to write. This would be a wealthy person, such as Jane Austen, or one being financed by patrons, like James Joyce. In very modern times since furlough, which might be replaced by Universal Basic Income (Tarantino, 2021), even more people will have the leisure to write. UBI is where all adults receive a basic income regardless of working, and the concept is gaining momentum as a possibility due to automation replacing workers (Peters, 2021). This would suggest that the already flooded market could be deluged with budding authors. “1.7 million books were self-published in the U.S. in 2018, which is an incredible 264% increase in just five years” (Piersanti, 2020). An example of how UBI can provide an economic foundation for millions to pursue writing can be found in one of the most successful series of all time. J. K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone while claiming benefits as single mother (Shamsian, 2018). Orwell has written at length about how basic needs must be met before one can write. Orwell said in Down and Out in Paris and London, that when one is starving and desperately surviving, that is not the time one can write; it is later when the pressure is off and one is more comfortable that you can put pen to paper (Orwell, 1933). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs points out that a person’s basic needs have to be met before they can think of being creative. Several stages of needs are required to be satisfied before the person reaches the “Self-Actualisation” stage where creativity and potential can start to be addressed, “to become the most that one can be” (McLeod, 2020).
Figure 1- Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (McLeod, 2020)
Aspiring writers in receipt of UBI will also have the time to endlessly promote their work online, which the traditional publishers will seize on to reduce their business overhead. The publishing market, like all businesses, cuts costs to increase profits. With so many self-published authors willing to pay out-of-pocket for artwork, editing services and even print runs, it is not hard to envision a future where the author does nearly all the work and pays for all the services. The print on demand Amazon product is not so far removed from vanity publishing due to the high cost per unit. For example, the minimum cost of a 100,000-word novel with Amazon print on demand is £5. Anything above this is author profit, but how high can an author realistically price their books without restricting sales? The days of the traditional author advance (which would fund living expenses during the writing of the book) and of the publishers paying for an editor, cover designer and doing all the promotion may be declining (Coker, 2010). “Most book marketing today is done by authors, not by publishers” (Piersanti, 2020). Coker also mentions financial investment in authors, “fewer signings of new and unproven authors … of … books perceived to have limited commercial potential; and fewer post-publication promotional dollars to lavish on anyone except the most commercially promising author” (Coker).
Some examples from the past of authors finding alternative ways to publish are Jane Austen and James Joyce. When Jane Austen self-published, she did so because the modern-day infrastructure was simply not there, or at least the infrastructure was very small compared to today, as noted by her fifth great-niece (Knight, 2017). Austen was continually frustrated, and when Susan was purchased – but not published – she then “paid for Sense and Sensibility to be published on commission” (Knight, 2017). Which did indeed reap rewards, and she did not lose on her investment. Knight mentions that this was as close to self-publishing as one could be in Austen’s day.
James Joyce had many challenges in publishing his work (Hutchinson, 2014). Though Joyce was accepted by a publisher, the printers decided that the story Two Gallants was obscene because of use of the word “bloody” and describing male and female anatomy. Though Joyce, against his will, changed the manuscripts, the publisher rejected them anyway. After this, Joyce had great difficulty with The Dubliners and again was informed there was obscenity in the manuscript. He was forced by the publisher to make changes, but Joyce was then reluctant to acquiesce to further, potentially endless demands (Ellman, no date). The proofs went to many revisions and certain segments of the originals are now lost. During this time of attempting to get The Dubliners published, Joyce was able to publish other work in a literary magazine, The Egoist, which was overseen by such notable people as Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle and T.S. Eliot. After this, his original publisher, inspired that Joyce kept such company, decided to publish as long as Joyce paid for the first copies. Joyce failed to sell quite enough copies to see a return on his investment.
The Egoist also had a rocky path to publication as a literary journal. It carried much of Joyce’s work, notably, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”. When the printers refused to print certain paragraphs, Pound had the idea to paste the offending paragraphs in by hand after publication, although this was never actually done. In the end, copies were paid for by Harriet Shaw Weaver, the editor/owner of The Egoist (Christies, 2002) via a New York independent publisher.
Censorship is not a thing of the past. In modern times, with Amazon print on demand and e-books, Smashwords, Lulu etc., there is a new guard over what is acceptable. Dr Vernon Coleman has always been a controversial author and has published traditionally “over 100 books which have sold over two million copies in the UK alone” (Coleman, 2021) and many newspaper articles. As he mentions in the foreword to his book, Coming Apocalypse (Coleman, 2020), he has had titles removed from Amazon and Smashwords and has been made to modify other titles to pass the standard on which Amazon has decided. Coleman subsequently re-published the books removed from Amazon and Smashwords as PDFs on his website. Many other writers and journalists follow this format of publishing on their own websites, and if you have your own server, there is (currently) no restriction to your output and topics.
In addition to increased competition and censorship, there is a great possibility that AI written books could become the future. Compared to a human, the overheads are low, and the robot will write exactly what the publisher wants. AI is already producing works. An article by GPT-3 appeared in the Guardian in 2020, wholly written by AI (GPT-3, 2020), and there are many AI sports articles (Moses, 2017) and tweets being robotically produced. A short story, The Day A Computer Writes A Novel, made it through to the first round of a competition for the Nikkei Hoshi Shinichi Literary Award, a national literary prize in Japan: “Out of 1450 entries, 11 were written by non-humans.” (Javelosa, 2016). As AI becomes more powerful – and Google are developing it at a fantastic rate – the AI titles are becoming ever more convincing.
With AI, an added benefit for the publisher is that they do not have to deal with difficulties like obscenity, controversial issues or the author refusing to make edits in the name of creativity. AI will also have fewer basic needs, will not procrastinate and will not be attempting to negotiate a contract for fair pay.
We are in an interesting time for the authors, and it may be a new dawn of publishing. How new authors will be published has yet to be seen. UBI is potentially on the horizon due to people losing jobs to automation, and it may afford authors the time to write, however, there is a good chance that automation may steal the job of the author, too. In the past, now very popular authors like Jane Austen and James Joyce found innovative ways to get their work out to the public in the face of poor industry infrastructure and censorship. With the modern gatekeepers of digital e-books and print on demand – and the traditional market being squeezed – we may be looking at novel and unique ways for authors to get their works to readers. Authors will need to become permanent marketers to cut through the noise. However, we need to be aware that there is a new author who has lower overheads and a guaranteed platform, and that author is a machine.
Alliance of Independent Authors (2020) Facts and Figures about Self Publishing: The Impact and Influence of Indie Authors. Available online: https://selfpublishingadvice.org/facts-and-figures-about-self-publishing-the-impact-and-influence-of-indie-authors/ (Accessed on: 25/4/21)
Coleman, V. (2020) Coming Apocalypse. Blue Books. Kindle Edition.
Coleman, V. (2021) Available online: https://vernoncoleman.com/ (Accessed on: 24/4/21)
Coker, M. (2010) Do Authors Still Need Publishers? Available online: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/do-authors-still-need-pub_b_334539 (Accessed on: 24/Feb/21)
Christies, 2002. JOYCE, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. London: The Egoist Ltd., 1916. Available online: https://www.christies.com/en/lot/lot-3984060 (Accessed on: 23/4/21)
Ellman, R. (no date) Publishing History of Dubliners. Available online: https://www.csus.edu/indiv/m/maddendw/PUBLISHING%20HISTORY%20OF%20DUBLINERS.pdf (Accessed: 22/4/21)
Ellman, R. (2003) Selected Letters of James Joyce. Faber and Faber: London.
Fitch, N. R. (1985) Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties. Norton: Oxford
GPT-3 (2020) A robot wrote this entire article. Are you scared yet, human? Available online: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/sep/08/robot-wrote-this-article-gpt-3 (Accessed on: 23/Feb/21)
Hutchinson, S. (2014) The Long and Difficult Publication History of James Joyce’s Dubliners. Available online: https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/57437/long-and-difficult-publication-history-james-joyces-dubliners (Accessed on 24/Feb/21)
Javelosa, J. (2016) An AI Written Novel Has Passed Literary Prize Screening. Available online: https://futurism.com/this-ai-wrote-a-novel-and-the-work-passed-the-first-round-of-a-national-literary-award (Accessed on: 23/Feb/2021)
Knight, C. J. (2017) Why Jane Austen self-published her first novel. Available online: https://www.austenheritage.com/blog/2017/11/4/why-jane-austen-self-published-her-first-novel (Accessed on: 24/Feb/21)
McLeod, S. (2020) Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Available online: https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html (Accessed on: 24/4/21)
Milliot, J. (2019) Number of Self-Published Titles Jumped 40% in 2018. Available online: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/81473-number-of-self-published-titles-jumped-40-in-2018.html#:~:text=In%20its%20report%2C%20%E2%80%9CSelf%2D,from%201.19%20million%20in%202017 (Accessed on: 24/4/21)
Moses, L. (2017) The Washington Post’s robot reporter has published 850 articles in the past year. Available online: https://digiday.com/media/washington-posts-robot-reporter-published-500-articles-last-year/
Orwell, G. (1933) Down and Out in Paris and London. Victor Gollancz: London
Peters, K. (2021) Universal Basic Income. Available online: https://www.investopedia.com/terms/b/basic-income.asp (Accessed on: 22/4/21)
Piersanti, S. (2020) The 10 Awful Truths about Book Publishing. Available online: https://ideas.bkconnection.com/10-awful-truths-about-publishing (Accessed on: 25/4/21)
Rowling, J. K. (1997) Harry Potter. Philosopher’s Stone. Bloomsbury: London
Shamsian, J. (2018) How J.K. Rowling went from struggling single mom to the world’s most successful author. Available online: https://www.insider.com/jk-rowling-harry-potter-author-biography-2017-7 (Accessed on: 23/4/21)
Tarantino, N. (2021) UBI 3.0: Coming in 2021? Available online: https://www.dig-in.com/opinion/ubi-3-0-coming-in-2021 (Accessed on 24/Feb/21)