In other writing news…

By skepticlawyer

Skeptic graphicThis announcement comes via the UK magazine The Skeptic:

Special announcement: we have a new legal column, which will be contributed by Geoff Whelan of GMSS and QEDcon, and Helen Dale of Geoff kicks off this issue with thoughts on the legal practicalities of prosecuting psychics.

The Skeptic is a magazine of the traditional dead tree sort, without a significant online presence, which means I won’t be able to post my columns here until the magazine has gone out to subscribers and been made available for a while on newsstands. However, as the law moves fairly slowly (particularly the law I’ll be writing about–libel, slander (England), defamation (Scotland), and intellectual property (everywhere), this shouldn’t generate too many difficulties. Where there are updates, I will include them.

On a more general level, while I am writing in places more ‘official’ than this blog (The Law Society Journal, Reason, The Skeptic, Thoughts on Liberty), my writing is confined to legal topics, with a side-serving of ‘how does the law relate to skepticism or classical liberalism?’). It would appear that my days of writing fiction are behind me: there are simply not enough hours in the day to both write to a decent standard and then promote what has been written while working a normal day job. Legal writing builds on what I already have to do on a daily basis; fiction does not. I’m sure there are people who manage to combine a day job with fiction, but I doubt many of them are working lawyers or doctors.

Announcements aside… a bit of a general ramble

There’s another thing, too. People pay for legal writing (the number of people who can write about the law with both clarity and accuracy is vanishingly small). With few exceptions, people will not pay for fiction, or pay so little the author earns nothing. I suspect the traditional ‘writer-publisher’ model of literature is just about broken, and we are trending back to a world based on patronage, with all its attendant complexities: saying nice things about the patron, agreeing with the patron’s politics, being sexually available to the patron, and so on. I also have no doubt one of the patrons will always be the state (in a sense, the state has always been a patron, sometimes through the Church, but often directly, as now; The Aeneid is great literature, but it is also state propaganda).

And another another thing. For years, it was a truism that most people who wanted to be writers could not write. They would send unreadable manuscripts by the pallet-load to publishing companies, driving the publishing company’s staff (not to mention the postal service) to distraction. If there were talent (of whatever sort) to be found, publishing companies would find it, even if it meant rooms wallpapered with rejection slips, etc. This was in part because most of the people who could actually write never tried to become writers; those who did stood out like diamonds in mud. What did the person who got the best marks in English and languages often do when he left school when you were a kid? He became a lawyer. (And then learned to write badly, which is another story.)

Occasionally, of course, he became an academic, and then proceeded to become an even worse writer than the future lawyer sitting in the row behind him (also another story). I can think of two exceptions to this rule: Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins. A third exception, Kerryn Goldsworthy, is no longer an academic. She is also the only one of the three who has ever written fiction: I’m sorry, but once you have the knack, non-fiction is easier. There, I said it.

Now, however, the truism no longer holds. In the past two years I have met two genre authors who, in the 1990s, I am willing to wager would have found both an agent and a traditional, dead-tree publisher (I am snooty enough to think that I am good at spotting talent; look at this blog) while acquiring maybe twenty rejection slips. One of them is battling on trying to make it through self-publishing (another one for the future, but it is not quite there yet, mainly because even good writers need editors, and there are enormous unresolved issues with intellectual property). The other represents a serious case of wasted talent, and I find myself appalled.

This is, needless to say, irritating.

I have some fixes in mind, but they will form the basis for a future post.


  1. Posted June 20, 2013 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    I agree that there’s no money in fiction, but it’s fun. I have done both fiction and non-fiction. Textbooks bring in the most $, but even though the textbook that I started in 1980 is now in its tenth edition and has been used by tens of thousands of students, you couldn’t live off its earnings.

    And you might think a little further about why it is that writers of some skill then learn to write badly for other academics and other lawyers. (And I agree with you.)

  2. John H.
    Posted June 21, 2013 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    It was once thought that the emergence of electronic publishing would allow fiction writers greater opportunity. It has but it generates less income than dead tree publishing.

    How about all those creative writing courses? Do they still exist? To put it bluntly, I thought these courses were just money spinners for the commercial organisations and a way to keep English lecturers employed.

    I don’t know if this happens to other people but as I age I increasingly lose interest in fiction. I’ve tried in recent months, gone to the library and sought out novels, but they just don’t grab me anymore. With regard to non-fiction the opposite is true. I still get my dose of fiction reading though, there is plenty of “creative writing” in various academic fields. 🙂

  3. kvd
    Posted June 21, 2013 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    In a year that was monopolized by the “Fifty Shades” erotic novels and their various knockoffs, e-book sales in fiction rose 42 percent over the year before, to $1.8 billion. Growth in nonfiction e-book sales was smaller, a 22 percent increase, to $484.2 million. E-book sales in the children’s and young-adult categories increased 117 percent, to $469.2 million.

    The survey revealed that e-books now account for 20 percent of publishers’ revenues, up from 15 percent in 2011. Publishers’ net revenues in 2012 were $15 billion, up from $14 billion in 2011, while unit sales of trade books increased 8 percent, to $2.3 billion.

    The annual survey, known as BookStats, was compiled by two trade groups, the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group. It includes data from about 1,500 publishers, including the six major trade houses.

    from here. Or:

    The PA Yearbook 2012 also recorded an increase of 4 per cent in home physical sales of children’s books (£233m), and an increase of 6 per cent in home physical sales of school books (£172m). Total physical sales of fiction books were also up, by 3 per cent, to £502m. Physical and digital sales of fiction books were up by 21 per cent to £674m, and digital sales of non-fiction/reference books were up 95 per cent, to £42m.

    from here.

    Don says “there’s no money in fiction”, but there appears to be even less generated by non-fiction.

    Unfortunately , I’m agnostic – I can’t write to save myself. But if I were so gifted, I’d possibly deduce that there were more ‘numbers’ attaching to the fiction market than ‘kudos’ attaching to non-fiction.

    So I think: it’s just whatever gives you personal satisfaction, without recourse to needless excuse, and with good luck for future endeavours.

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