Writing is a waste of time? Discuss.

Photo by Jeremy Avery on Unsplash

The networker, John Naughton, Observer, Artificial Intelligence is making literary leaps.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/02/ai-artificial-intelligence-language-openai-cpt2-release

I write stuff nobody much reads. Think of a number below ten and don’t multiply it. There’s a large hole in my idea of normality. I imagine someday, someone, somewhere will pay for my writing and I’ll be in the promised land of earning a living from writing. There’s no evidence to support this assumption. Meanwhile, I just putter along, doing no real harm and getting on with it.  Writing helps me figure out what I think and the odd time gives me joy. Endorphins kick in and I’m on a writer high, conquering the world, word by word.

Anyone that’s being paying attention to the rise and rise of artificial intelligence (AI) knows how the world is going to change. Has already morphed into an existential threat (although the case for that may be overstated).  We know that it is going to do the boring jobs. Then it’s going to do the less boring jobs. AI or pattern-recognition software will be our doctors and nurses our servants and masters a tax on humanity with profits going to the off-shored wealthy.

For us dreamers and scribblers AI seemed a jump too far. I was aware that AI was already performing simple tasks such as writing obituaries and sport columns for mainstream media. Deep Blue pattern-recognition software filtered down to games that challenge novice chess players at different levels. ‘Go’ the board game that seemed to rely on intuition rather than logic seemed a step to far, but the best players in the world were swatted aside by machine learning. I could go on, but I guess you see the pattern emerging.

Write every day, that’s the way, is the kind of crappy mantra I more, or less, adhere to.  What John Naughton is saying here is AI can mimic the way you write. Just the same way that SIRI can listen to what you say and reproduce speech. AI can be you. A different but a better you, with an authentic voice that is yours, but not you.

The myth of the writer in the attic (although I do sit in a cupboard) pondering and pouring out hard copy is hard cheese.  AI can do that quicker and better. Just the same as it can play chess better than you, all the way up to Grand Master level.

We all know how the story of writerly success is promoted. The fairy tale being written in an Edinburgh café by a writer down on her luck. Outliers brought into the mainstream by fate. A fluke of luck, a billion pound industry, resting on the back of a tortoise. Buy a lottery ticket, write that book. You might win.

Lies. Lies. Lies. I sometimes even believe them.

The economics of the creative industries (around 14% of GDP) rely on elasticity of supply.  AI has changed that algorithm.  Why do we need screenwriters when AI can do it faster and better? Why wait for the next great novel when we can just download something very similar?

The slog of writing remain much the same, but the chances of being published and making a writing from living are pretty much gubbed. Oh, well, back to the old-fashioned keyboard. Read on.

A simple contract

cherry

Anybody that knows me should by now know I’m under contract to UNITED AUTHORS PUBLISHING LIMITED trading as UNBOUND.  I’ve agreed to deliver a novel currently entitled Lily Poole and it will be around 72 000 words (ahem, 84 000, but that’s word inflation for you). The Deliver Date will be 1st October 2014 or a later date agreed between the two parties, or in more simple terms – whenever.  The production costs currently stand around £5 100 and I’m about 40% of the way to achieving that target. So far, so boring.

The agreement is made on behalf of three parties. I’ve already named two of them Unbound and myself, but I’ve also got an agent representing me, Luke Neima c/o of ABCtales.com, Burgeon Creative Ideas Ltd.  Well, Luke Neima is no longer c/o ABCtales, he works for Granta (or some other publisher) and also for Unbound. I’ve only met Luke once and he’s the kind of likeable guy that even guys like me that usually don’t like likeable guys, like. He is a secret agent.

You see in his short tenure at ABCtales he looked round for things to sell. It hasn’t really got any assets, runs at a deficit,  but that didn’t really stop some start-up companies going for millions in the  hyperinflated stock exchange bubbles in modern global economies of the late 1980 and early 1990s and as late as the banking-induced shocks of 2008.

Unbound belongs to this latter slow-growth period. But it bucked the trends of businesses going bust by recently announcing its publishing portfolio’s one-millionth pound sale of books and ebooks. Putting this into content Unbound as a publisher is the size of a field mouse. Amazon is, in comparison, a Shard-sized tyrannosaurus. It has what Joe Nye called ‘soft power’ and with each second that passes it adds more byte. Unbound and Amazon do not compete in the same markets. Unbound offers luxury goods-books that are priced accordingly.  But Amazon determines market prices, which most books can be charged.   Under monopolistic pressure it screws down prices so low that smaller publishers—and all publishers are smaller than Amazon—cannot compete and professional writers are generally being paid less and less. This is being reinforced by a greater number of writers seeking publishing deals, and self-publishing, which has never been easier or cheaper, and this is reflected in the price charged to the consumer. Often this work is offered free –which is the new consumer baseline price, or sold at discounted prices often around, or less, than the price of a box of Christmas’ crackers.  There are exceptions to the mass-quantity rule, in which an increase supply, while demand remains the same, brings down market prices. Superstars of writing such as Rushdie, Amis, and J.K. Rowling (fill the name in of your favourite writer here) get paid a premium.  There is another, what seems at first sight, a contradictory trend self-published writers epitomized by the aptly named Fifty Shades of Grey sell so many units of their self-published books that they too are paid a premium and join the pantheon of established writers working for more mainstream publishers. This is easily explained. Successful writers are only successful as long as they can consistently sell a certain number of units. Thank You for This Moment, for example, sold 200 000 copies in two months in France and the English edition is now out. The success of books, or luxury goods,  like Lily Poole are premised on pre-selling around 200 copies at around £20 for the first print run. When the figure for Valerie Trierweiler’s memoir drops, she too will be dropped. Success is all about the numbers. We inhabit different worlds, but with many of the same rules.

Author needs to write books that sell. Laurie, or Ewan or myself from ABCtales, for example, have been parachuted into this new business model of crowd funding, we need to write the books and sell the product we have made. Unbound allow us to legitimize our unpaid work by using their logo, or imprint, to help our selling.  How we do that is really up to us. But in a standard business model sellers are in search of buyers.  Unbound outsources direct selling but reaps the benefit of us harvesting family and friends. In simple terms, it is vanity publishing with a real publisher.

Unbound only sell a limited run of each book. Printing is outsourced. Most products under the Unbound imprint have tended to be more novella- sized than novels (well under 60 000 words) which tends to keep printing cost down.  Proof reading is outsourced to Luke Neima, and his zelig like transformation from ABC to Unbound, to proof reader, is complete when he also turns up to help make the provisionary video needed for promoting the book and the author to the paying public, which is added to costs. Books do not get published until all costs are paid for in advance by pledges.

Writing a book and selling a product are two different skills.  I’ll simplify the selling process for you. Online sales nominally depend of the use social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc. Sellers directly ask people for money or what is termed ‘pledges’ for our unpublished book. Success, or failure, is hypothetically dependent on how many people you know online and also to a certain extent on your online presence.

My experience is nothing much works. The Clydebank Post, for example, ran a story about my crowd-funded book Lily Poole. It featured a photo of me standing gormless beside a gravestone. Nobody pledged. I tried selling a free editing service. It wasn’t free, so perhaps ‘free’ should be in quotation marks, as I was seeking pledges before aspiring writers submitted their work to me. Then again perhaps the use of quotation marks around ‘free’ is an unnecessary affectation as nobody pledged using this route.

Yet this is contradictory. Unbound is a successful, publishing firm and Laurie and Ewan from almost the same starting position achieved sales targets of over 100% to my 40%. I’d explain that in a number of ways. The last 10% of sales is, in a sense, a free-sales run. Success is predicated on success. After achieving sales of 90% Unbound begin to advertise their latest successful product and, this is crucial, to a ready-made reservoir of book buyers. Laurie and Ewan for example are no longer dependent on asking  people that they know directly or indirectly for money.

Laurie had another marketing strategy for selling his product. He piggy-backed on a well-known charity. That way he could legitimately suggest he was not just selling himself and a book, he was selling for a charity. This added around 10% to the total cost of the book, but as this was paid through a slight increase in pledge levels so the cost was spread.

He also acknowledged he had hundreds of friends. Crucially, I’d argue, he also had the right type of friends. Let’s call them middle class people that own houses. Ewan, I’d guess, has similar middle-class friends and he also contributes online to UKAuthors who also supported his work.

Those that have pledged to Lily Poole, so far, have been immediate family, a few friends and fellow writers on ABCtales. My friends tend not to be middle class home owners. They generally don’t have an interest in books (or me, unless I’ve done something stupid, which I’d guess nullifies the friendship scenario. Loser!).

I’m working class, but a reader, so it’s also worth mentioning the idea beloved of certain types such as hedge-fund managers that there’s a hierarchy of human capital and they tend to be rewarded at the top with an income to match their skill sets and lesser mortals at the bottom.  I’m not in this elect group. I do know Laurie and Ewan spent more time online than me, translated into dour Presbyterian terms, which means they worked harder than me and deserved success. Whether they used a particular cultural skill-set, I lack, I can only make an educational a priori guess. Asking for money is never easy. Asking friends for money they don’t have, for a product they don’t need, is more difficult for non-home owning working class folk. Perhaps the laws of diminishing returns is applicable here. I like to think so.

ABCtales has been good to me in lots of different ways. I piggy-backed on Abctalers to help sell Lily Poole.   I don’t think of myself as a writer, but I like to write. Sooz, a fellow ABCtaler, expressed it so well. The need to write is almost a physical act, a bit like masturbation, but onanism has its limits and for writing to reach any kind of climax it needs a reader. ABCtales is a community or writers, but it is also (or should be) a community of readers. When I first showed my work online Ewan kinda ran the site himself. That might not have been other users experience but it was certainly mine. He was encouraging and very good at nudging me along with things I should be paying attention to, for example, spelling, syntax, sentences, meaning and what the fuck was that about? but all in a thoroughly nice way.  He disappeared as ABCtalers do over the years only to turn up later as competing for crowd-sourced pledges for publishing.

ABCtales act as my agent. They receive 25% of net profit. That’s the money that’s left after the costs of paying Luke and other zeligs have been met for editing, publishing etc. If you look at the figures for the first print run it’s not very much. But I’m sure Unbound and ABCtales would hope for the kind of Harry Potter magic that makes small publishing houses into large conglomerates.  I’m not a fan of agents. Their parasitical and cancer-like growth have outsourced many of the rights accrued to ordinary workers offer the last seventy years. But ABCtales has been a service I’ve freely used.  It has also given me the chance to get published.  I don’t begrudge and have no great interest in the possible and what remains more a hypothetical—rather than actual—profit, especially as it would subsidize other would-be writers.

Unbound take 50% of net profit. The average long-term return on capital investments stands around 5% per annum. ABCtales has offered writers’ content which Unbound need to keep growing.  Creative industries with around 10% of GDP are one of the few growth areas in the economy. Unbound needs to keep growing, making superprofit, and needs to keep selling to stand still. It’s a symbiotic relationship with ABCtales.

My concern is simpler, finish what I started, but I’m not sure I can. I’m not moaning about it, simply highlighting a trend based on factual analysis. When I write things down, as I have here, I understand them better with a cherry on top.